Maybe artists think more than most people about the trace they leave on the world. For Pam Longobardi, whose work centers on the incursion of plastic waste in the ocean, her legacy as an artist and environmentalist is twinned with the functionally endless impact of non-biodegradable objects on the present and the future.
In addition to creating sculptures and material indexes of found ocean waste as well as short-format documentaries and social media videos, Longobardi has now applied some 15 years of using plastic as an art material to publish a new crowd-sourced book, Ocean Gleaning (2022). The book documents almost two decades of Longobardi’s work with ocean waste, beginning with the Drifter’s Project, which collected and contemplated beached plastic waste found at a remote point on the southern tip of Hawai’i in 2005. It concludes with a crowd-sourced section featuring contributions by other plastic collectors, some 75 individuals invited by Longobardi to create a catalogue of site images, objects found, and reflections on the experience. Other sections capture Longobardi’s sculptural work and her Cartouches series, in which she identifies objects collected alone or with her team as prophetic in nature.
Contributor Susan Hall, for example, logs a piece of shredded orange plastic she found in Australia, on the Bass Strait adjoining Tasmania, in September 2013. “This quite-thick plastic sheet has been transformed into lace by the purple sand crabs,” she writes in the book. “Were they making art out of something ugly?”
Kathleen Van Bergen, another contributor, describes a scuba face mask she found at Moorings Beach Park in Naples, Florida on June 20, 2021, bristling on every internal and external surface with barnacles: “The ocean posed a simple question which inspired much conversation and reflection: Might this help you see properly and clearly what is happening?”
Longobardi describes the project as “a compendium of small global actions” that collectively reveal people’s care and respect for “the more-than-human world.”
“It means a great deal to me to leave a record of witness, the acknowledgment that there were people paying attention as this global catastrophe unfolded,” she told Hyperallergic. “Not only paying attention but taking direct action to mitigate harm and steer the direction of the ship of state off its destructive course.”
The tension in Ocean Gleaning — and Longobardi’s work in general — is multifold. Plastic is both enemy force and subject, lionized almost by default through the artist’s careful arrangement and presentation of aesthetic objects. Longobardi’s relationship with plastic is reciprocal, not simply one of observation but of conversation.
“These plastics things are the most charged objects I have ever encountered,” the artist said. “They are both familiar and decidedly alien, zombie-like objects that are returning from the ‘dead’ of the waste stream, now full of information and conveying messages from the ocean.”
Ocean Gleaning captures plastic as it gathers a biological slime of algae and protozoans that becomes attachment sites for colonial bivalves, barnacles, and bryozoans, a “living crust” that enables it to better imitate food for the creatures that didn’t evolve with it and ingest it.
“Plastics are reformed into replications of the living world, later to haunt the world environment as imposters of food and insecure homes for many creatures,” Longobardi explained. A particularly poignant section of the book places arrangements of plastic side-by-side with the food sources in nature for which they are commonly mistaken, putting a none-too-fine point on the impact they have on wild animals.
The forensic examination of plastics in Longobardi’s work has particular resonance in the context of popular interest in true crime. Stories of horrific murders can always find a voracious audience, but an environmental threat which could ultimately be history’s greatest serial killer is somehow less sensational or interesting, even as it has much more relevance to our lives.
Any bleeding heart who continues to mindfully cut their soda can ringers to save the turtles acknowledges the tacit damage being done by plastics, even as we remain paralyzed to fully comprehend a trash island in the Pacific that has surpassed existing countries in size. But conservation is now an inside job, as the micro-traces of our collective negligence are beginning to tell in highly personal ways.
“Apart from animal empaths like me, this was not enough of a motivation for most people to worry about plastics’ impacts,” Longobardi said. “But now that it is hitting closer to home, in that plastic is literally finding its way into our bodies, people are finally concerned and raising the alarm.”