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synthetic collective

The Synthetic Collective is an interdisciplinary collaboration between visual artists, cultural workers, and scientists. We work together to sample, map, understand, and visualize the complex ways in which plastics and microplastics pollute the Great Lakes Region. We locate our inquiries at the intersection of plastics pollution, geologic processes, and artistic production. Our intent is to follow plastics through from manufacture and consumption to disposal and disaggregation. Interdisciplinarity is crucial to our research methodology – we are led by a driving principle that artists and scientists conduct research together from the outset of the inquiry. As such, we hope to better connect scientific knowledge with arts-based research and enrich artistic production with informed science.

exhibition as experiment

A photograph of solar panels wired to a PiJuice Hat and fixed to a window ledge. The panels protrude out from the window and rain drops have landed on them.
The solar panels that power this website, perched on the window of a Montreal studio on a rainy day.

Mobilizing practices of institutional critique, Plastic Heart proposes an alternative method of exhibition development and presentation that addresses ecology and sustainability in content and form. The guiding question of the Synthetic Collective in developing Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through was: Is it possible to curate a zero-carbon exhibition?

Putting this exhibition together involved many decisions aimed at limiting its carbon and waste impact, from restricting the travel of artworks, to re-using existing museum infrastructure and displays; from leaving holes in the wall from previous installations to hand-printing with natural inks and card offcuts as an alternative to vinyl didactics.

Read more about our process in our DIY FIELDGUIDE


A photograph of a Whale EKG made from a blue toilet plunger head with a black and red rod attached. The rubber on the plunger head is partially whitened with material stress and/or age.
This EKG electrode is in the collection of the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis. It was made by Earl Bakken from a repurposed toilet plunger. The device was a makeshift adaptation of a traditional electrocardiogram and was intended to record the electrical activity or pacing of a whale heart. Visible on the device is the declining state of the synthetic rubber: the white on the plunger’s surface shows a chemical separation within the aging plastic.

Le synthétique au cœur de l’humain

Centre Culturel Canadien / Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris
November 15 2022 – March 24, 2023

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, J. Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Patricia Corcoran, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Pierre Huyghe, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Kiki Kogelnik, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, Claes Oldenburg, Aude Pariset, Meghan Price, Alain Resnais, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Joyce Wieland, Nico Williams, Kelly Wood

Le synthétique au cœur de l’humain est le résultat d’une collaboration unique entre scientifiques et artistes, réunis pour créer ensemble un projet visant à construire des relations et provoquer le changement dans et avec la société civile, les musées et l’industrie, autour d’un enjeu fondamental de notre époque : l’impact de la pollution plastique. L’exposition examine le plastique dans toute sa complexité, et la maniè re dont les artistes s’en sont emparé et en questionnent désormais l’usage de manière critique.


Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through is what happens when scientists and artists create a project together to build relationships and impact change in society, museums, and industry on one of today’s vital issues: the impact of plastic pollution. The exhibition examines plastic in all its complexity, and the way in which artists have seized upon it and are now critically questioning its use.

Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through

Art Museum at the University of Toronto
September 08 – November 22, 2021

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Christopher Mendoza, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Terry O’Shea, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood

Plastic Heart is an experimental exhibition that examines plastic as art material, cultural object, geologic process, petrochemical product, and a synthetic substance fully entangled with the human body. The exhibition includes new commissions, historical and contemporary artworks that relate to plastic as a politically-loaded material, and investigations into the paradoxes of plastic conservation in museum collections. The exhibition acknowledges plastics as both lubricants of artistic, gallery, and museum practices and also as ‘wicked problems,’made even more complex by their use and discard in the COVID-19 pandemic. Plastic Heart mobilizes practices of institutional critique and proposes an alternative method of exhibition development and presentation that addresses ecology and sustainability in content and form. Seeking to stimulate viewers to be active subjects, the exhibition challenges received modes of art making and viewing that are deeply dependent on fossil fuels. It also features data visualizations of a study conducted by the Synthetic Collective that provides a first-ever snapshot of post-industrial microplastics pollution on the shores of the Great Lakes. This exhibition links scientific and artistic methodologies to show how arts-based approaches to thinking and working can make viable contributions to environmental science and activism.


A photograph of a few industrial plastic pellets, and a bit of sand and natural material, are collected in a sheet of aluminum foil laying on beach sand and debris.
Industrial plastic pellets collected from Baxter Beach (Sarnia) for persistent organic pollution (POP) analysis.

A Survey of Mermaid's Tears

Plastic pellets (also called nurdles) are the raw feedstock produced by petrochemical industries to sell to manufacturers making plastic goods and packaging. The lentil-sized granules can end up in water systems via leaks and spills between production, transportation, and product-manufacturing processes. Nicknamed “mermaids’ tears” because of how prevalent and potentially harmful they are, they accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the pesticide DDT (banned in Canada and the U.S. almost 50 years ago), in water systems worldwide. Floating on the water’s surface with a likeness to fish eggs, they are consumed by marine life and can cause a slew of digestive issues and transfer accumulated chemicals to animal tissues.

A photograph of mostly white and black, but also yellow, blue and green industrial plastic pellets fill most of the frame. A blue gloved outstratched hand rests on the pellets.
Industrial plastic pellets taken from one beach sample preparing to be sorted by size, colour and distinguishing markings.

In October 2018, the Synthetic Collective conducted a study that provides a first-ever snapshot of post-industrial microplastics pollution on the shores of all the Great Lakes. The group collaboratively surveyed for industrial plastic pellets deposited on 67 beaches around the Great Lakes. By sifting and hand picking through the top 5 cm of sand in 1 m x 10 m quadrats, the group collected a total of 12,597 pellets. The majority were found at two beaches: Baxter Beach in Sarnia (Lake Huron), and Bronte Beach in Oakville (Lake Ontario), areas densely populated with polymerization plants and plastic manufacturers. By further sorting, measuring, and forensically categorizing the samples by distinguishing traits, the Collective has compiled a dataset that can be used by industry as a resource in taking steps to prevent further mismanagement of this material. Read more about this in our recently published study:

“A Comprehensive Investigation of Industrial Plastic Pellets on Beaches Across the Laurentian Great Lakes and the Factors Governing Their Distribution”

Conservation Conundrum

Museums and galleries create climate conditions for the preservation of art works and material culture through carefully monitoring and adjusting humidity levels and temperatures. Such controls are energy intensive, but without them objects are placed at risk. When museums try to be greener, goals of preservation are often at odds with environmental protections. Plastics enter this conversation at an oblique angle. Their very cheapness makes some environmental protections appear ridiculous: Is a plastic gadget worthy of the same protections as an irreplaceable manuscript? But by the same token, many items made from plastics, such as artworks or spacesuits, have become the centre of conservation discussions precisely because they are so difficult to preserve. Steady and controlled climates are not enough. As seen in the case of Eva Hesse’s and Naum Gabo’s work in Plastic Heart, plastics break down anyway, though their detritus remains. Plastics expose a flaw at the core of attempts to regulate environments and preserve material culture, a microcosm of the long-term impact of a disposable culture in a time of climate chaos.

Exhibitions and Energy

What does ‘powering down’ look like for an art exhibition? How does this compare to on-the-grid, versus off-the-grid power sources? And are some grids ‘cleaner’ than others? Video works in Plastic Heart are powered by portable solar panels custom outfitted as signboards. The signboards are taken outside each day by museum staff to charge batteries which then plug into the tablets on display throughout the gallery. Originally planned to be interactive with exhibition viewers, COVID-19 regulations now require that no viewers touch these objects, which also includes solar-charging sunbrellas and backpacks. Post-pandemic, these charging stations will be made available through the Synthetic Collective’s lending library: artists, researchers and galleries may loan them out to power devices such as phones and tablets. The SC will track the life-span and energy production of these objects as best we can, and weigh the quantity of power they generate against their embodied energy, ie. the resources required to make them. There are many forces at play, including the mining for minerals involved in production, fossil fuel heavy energy used in manufacturing, and potential for recyclability.

In this exhibition, viewers are experimentally offered a view of what a low-power art experience might look like. Charging stations were designed and assembled by Artist and Research Assistant Nicolas Lapointe, and all sewing done by Artist and Research Assistant Shelley Ouellet.

press + media

“Comment les artistes s’emparent du plastique pour parler d’écologie”

“Industrial plastic is spilling into the Great Lakes and no one’s regulating it, experts warn”

“The Green Cube”

“What does it take to make art green?”

“SHORING: The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”


A photograph of artist Eva Hesse in her studio. She is facing the camera and holding up a large crumpled transparent plastic sheet above her head which fills most of the frame.
Eva Hesse in her Bowery Studio. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Herman Landshoff


Kelly Jazvac is an established Canadian artist and scholar. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montreal. Her academic interests center on visualizing the nature and accumulation of plastic waste in the environment.

Kirsty Robertson is an Associate Professor and Director of Museum and Curatorial Studies at Western University. Her work asks how curating might respond to ecological crisis. She directs the Centre for Sustainable Curating and is project co-lead on A Museum for Future Fossils.

Kelly Wood is a senior Canadian artist and scholar specializing in photography. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University. Her research focuses on subjects that relate to the environmental impact of waste accumulation, waste economies, and all forms of visible and invisible pollution.

Heather Davis is a researcher, writer, and editor from Montréal. She is an assistant professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College, The New School, in New York. Her current book project traces the ethology of plastic and its links to petrocapitalism.

Tegan Moore is informed by structures and systems that work invisibly within synthetic environments. Her work with the collective is developing alongside laboratory work in manually characterizing plastics pollution samples.

Dr. Patricia Corcoran is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University. She is also the Chair of the Centre for Environment and Sustainability. Her research focuses on natural and anthropogenic sedimentary deposits, including distribution, accumulation, and degradation of plastic debris in marine and freshwater shoreline and lake bottom sediments.

Sara Belontz is a post-doctoral researcher at California State University, San Marcos, developing a novel technique using NanoIR instrumentation to identify and classify nano- and microplastics in aqueous solutions. She received a PhD from Western University investigating the spatial and temporal distribution of microplastics in benthic sediments of Lake Huron.

Ian Arturo is an earth scientist working for WSP USA in the NYC area, who investigate contaminated superfund sites. He graduated from Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA with a BS in environmental science and completed his MSc in Geology (Environment and Sustainability Collaborative) from the University of Western Ontario.

Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza is an Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Her expertise is in environmental chemistry pollution focusing on toxic compounds adsorbed onto microplastic.

Kathleen Hill is a geneticist with a research focus on DNA mutations. She is primarily interested in the forensics of mutagenesis i.e., finding evidence to solve unknown origins and mechanisms of mutations. Her research team studies mutations in the context of cancer, neurodegeneration, synthetic biology and environmental agents.

More on the Synthetic Collective:

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