(EN) A Matter of Life and Death - Pinar Yoldas

Plastic is the building block of mass consumption. It is very rare to find a consumer product that does not involve plastics in its production or distribution. Even the most pure or in other words least processed items such as fresh produce or water rely on plastic for transportation, packaging, distribution and so on. Plastic is highly evasive, around us, on us, in us, within us. A synthetic polymer, plastic finds its final form through the use of plasticizers such as phthalates. As plastics age, esters of phthalic acid are released to the environment. Recent human bio-monitoring data shows that the intake of phthalates have reached a sizable degree, on the rise to alarming levels. Not surprisingly, research studies of the past decade all point to a long list of negative health effects. Plasticizers very successfully disturb our biological systems such as the reproductive, digestive, endocrine and nervous systems causing a large spectrum of health problems from obesity to infertility. The city dwelling, industrialized human body, becomes a domain of plastic . Another site occupied by plastic is the oceans. All five gyres of our oceans show high concentrations of plastics, the Pacific Trash Vortex being the most notorious one. Discovered in 1985 by captain Charles Moore , this site is a floating nexus of plastic waste covering roughly 5000 square km area of the Pacific. Pacific Trash Vortex is a very dynamic monument of plastic waste at a global scale . Referring to Kantian aesthetics , it is a truly 'sublime' kinetic sculpture built by all the nations around the Pacific Ocean over many years of mindless, unsustainable consumption. In the vortex there is six kilograms of plastics per every kilo of natural plankton. Plastics is more available than plankton, displacing plankton’s elemental role in the food chain. Pacific Trash Vortex is where plastic bottle caps meet the Laysan albatross' digestive tract . In his recent documentary Midway, American photographer Chris Jordan beautifully captures how this new addition to avian diet formulates perhaps the most tragic death of the century, starving to death due to a stomach filled with lighters, toothbrush, six pack rings, plastic bags : the benign objects of our everyday transactions in a world of excessive consumption (figure 1). Aves is not the only linnean order suffering this newly configured pelagic death.  Cetacea  despite their large body size are also effected by the contamination of the oceans with plastics. Just this past year, a sperm whale washed off to Spain’s south coast, still alive, condemned to a slow and lingering death after having swallowed 17 kg of plastic waste.  A considerable number of dead cetacean bodies have been found with digestive tracts clogged with plastics. Out there in the ocean, there is a site of interchange between the organic and the synthetic , a site of fusion between nature and culture. The very moment of the secretion of digestive enzymes to decompose the undying plastic is nature’s very effort to unite itself with culture. The number of life forms effected by the introduction of plastic to the pelagic ecosystems is countless, from plankton to whales plastic penetrates the bodies of marine life as smoothly as the seawater. The only difference being that plastic stays where water leaves.

This is a distant death, a pelagic death, a nano-death, a colloidal death, an invisible death. Yet there is also life in plastics.  In July 2013 a scientific paper published by Linda Amarall Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory revealed the very first detailed analysis of bacteria that feed off of plastics (figure 2). Zettler and her group declares “We unveiled a diverse microbial community of heterotrophs, autotrophs, predators, and symbionts, a community we refer to as the Plastisphere ”  Their study shows that the Plastisphere is brimming with new microbic life whose inner workings aren’t yet fully understood.

According to the primordial soup theory , about 4 billion years ago life starts in the oceans when inorganic matter turns into organic molecules . Today, the oceans have turned into a plastic soup (figure 3) . In the light of the very recent scientific studies one simple question emerges: “If life started today in the oceans of plastic, what kind of lifeforms would emerge out of this contemporary primordial ooze?.” An Ecosystem of Excess is a potential answer to this question : a new linnean taxonomy of species of excess, that can thrive in man-made extreme environments such as the Pacific Trash Vortex. Starting with the microbial communities discovered by Zettler’s group, an Ecosystem of Excess suggests a series of interconnected species burgeoning in pelagic plastic, chemical sludge and other debris . The design of plastisphere follows Jacob von Uexkull’s concept of Umwelt : the perceptual world in which an organism acts as a subject . Hence extra emphasis is given to the sensory modalities of each organism, their “worldview” is constructed starting with their sensoria designed to identify plastic.

According to Uexkull there are two parts that form the environment: “... for everything a subject perceives belongs to its perception world [Merkwelt], and everything it produces, to its effect world [Wirkwelt]. These two worlds, of perception and production of effects, form one closed unit, the environment [Umwelt].”  In an Ecosystem of Excess an organism’s perception world is primarily constructed by the plastic sense, a collection of sensory cells or a sense organ that can successfully detect plastic. Detecting plastic is detecting industrial polymerization. A petrochemical advocated by oil companies for decades now, plastic is a synthetic polymer chain made up of monomers. Plastic’s molecular logic is based on repetition. In fact the chemical genesis of plastic resembles the very symbol of mass production, the assembly line. A monomer is attached to a monomer, again and again erecting a monotonous geometry, on par with the soul-destroying flatness of the assembly line (figure 4). As the mass-produced consumer goods occupy the shelves of warehouses; their skeleton, connective tissue and skin plastic polymers, occupy the molecular space in an endless growth. Plastic sense then not only perceives this molecular architecture of industrial capitalism but also activates a Merkwelt , a post-human effect world where in a Darwinian leap an Ecosystem of Excess inhabitants build the next chapter in the preternatural immortality of plastic.

An Ecosystem of Excess Research Questions
  1. What new life forms would emerge out of a contemporary primordial soup if life were to start today?
  2. When biology is the new media for art, what kind of organs, tissues, organisms would come to being, reflecting the current cultural, ecological and political status quo of the planet
  3. What would art be like, in the not-so-far future when mankind has evolved beyond man? After the planet has transformed beyond control?

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