Plastikus Progressus
documenta 14, Athens School of Fine Arts Gallery, 8 April - 16 July 2017

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The installation, 'Plastikus Progressus’ takes the form of a futuristic museum display, featuring the history of the development of the solution to the plastics pollution of the trans-ecology of water.  This futuristic narrative goes back in time from 2054, to 2017, to 1907.

In 1907,  bakelite, the first synthetic plastic was invented and pristine natural environments were common place.

2017 is represented as a key moment when plastic pollution was recognised as a major environmental disaster. Photographs document how plastic was transported into the oceans off the streets of cities.

By 2054,  genetically engineered creatures consume the plastic rubbish polluting the trans ecology of water, cleaning up our mess.  These creatures are assembled in a diorama surrounded by photographs and works on paper accompanied by a touch screen.

This narrative is embellished with scientific information about plastics pollution, the formation of gyres of concentrated rubbish, three cities’ rivers as case studies showing how our casuallittering is carried from the streets & parks into the sea - Sydney’s Cooks River, Athen’s Kifossis, Ilissos and Eridanos Rivers and the Fulda River in Kassel, Germany (Athens and Kassel are both hosting the international event, Documenta14 in 2017).

Taxonomies of all the genetically engineered plastic eating creatures may be viewed on the touch screen and the diorama’slabels. The taxonomiesare based on the characteristics of creatures they ‘evolved’ from, bringing people’s attention to Earth's extraordinary life forms. The creatures are constructed from discarded vacuum cleaners and rubbish off the streets of Sydney. Some are funny, some poignant, some fantastic, many have a political sub-text, for example DJ Trumpussy.

The works on paper: history charts from 2000BC to 2054AD, illustrated with imagery, lists the expansion & contraction of nations’ dominance, punctuated by criticalinventions that changed Homo sapiens’ technological capacities,  cultures, economies, etc.

TOUCH SCREEN TEXT:

2054 PLASTIKUSPROGRESSUS : THE PROGRESS OF PLASTICS

Today, the 26th of September 2054, we celebrate the 2450th anniversary of the birth of Lao Tze, author of the international bestseller the Tao Te Ching.

 
How the universe is like a bellows!
Empty, yet it gives a supply that never fails;
The more it is worked, the more it brings forth
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Verse 5
 

In 2016, Lao Tzu inspired the use of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to genetically modify the “plastic-munching microbe,” Ideonella sakaiensis, improving its genetic encoding and isolating the enzymes responsible for dissolving polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

Since then, scientists have created a diversity of creatures that digest plastics to lead our attack on plastic’s toxic pollution of water’s trans-ecology. We now depend upon these creatures in 2054 to clean up our mess in the oceans, rivers, cities and our homes:

 
The Way (Tao) gave rise to the one,
The one gave rise to the two,
The two gave rise to the three,
The three gave rise to all the ten thousand things.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Verse 42
 
2054 - A citizen feeds her pet Flinger in the plastics garden on the Cooks River mangroves,  Sydney.

2054 - A citizen feeds her pet Flinger in the plastics garden on the Cooks River mangroves,  Sydney.

2017 FRACTALS, LITTER & CRISPR

Lao Tzu’s conception of the numinous unity of nature and Homo sapien’s place in it is expressed scientifically in the matrix of patterns called fractals - the underlying structure of natural forms:

 
Such is their unity
that one does not exist without the other
—  Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Verse 52
 

In the early C21st, massive amounts of plastic litter in the trans-ecology of life-giving water was an environmental disaster. Plastic’s chemical structure was antithetical to the laws of nature, having no relationship to the organic structures expressed in fractals.

Plastic killed the life forms that ingested it whole. Plastic slowly disintegrated into indestructible, toxic, micro-fibres, poisoning our food chains.

Scientists have since solved this problem. They have genetically engineered creatures whose digestive systems dissolve plastics into harmless chemicals. Classified as the genus, Plastikus progressus, we give thanks to Science and theTao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s ancient masterpiece, which inspired this brilliant solution to a seemingly impossible problem:

 
Heaven and earth coalesce and it rains sweet dew.
The people, no one ordering them, self balance to equality
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Verse 28
 

1907 MEMENTO MORI - PRISTINE NATURE

In 1907, when nature was relatively ‘pristine’, the first synthetic plastic, known as bakelite, was invented. This was the genesis of the scientific miracle that has delivered to us the species, Plastikus progressus -  an army of environmental sanitation workers, diligently cleaning up our pollution.

In 2017 an archive was established, recording nature in its pristine condition in three sites – the Hills of Athens, the Sababurg Forest near Kassel, and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney. For us in 2054 it is a momento mori of a past era’s belief in the importance of environmental heterogeneity:

 
The world is...
perfection manifest
It cannot be changed
It cannot be improved
For those who go tampering it is ruined
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Verse 29
 

THE INSTALLATION:

The walls are painted olive green to create the appearance of aheritage museum rather than a ‘white box’ gallery.

The touch screen tells the story of the plastic eating creatures,  and informs viewers about theplastics pollution of the oceans.

Detail: The Fulda River in Kassel. Strips of photographs of plastic litter on the streets of Kassel, Athens and Sydney flow through the imagery around the three walls of the installation.

Detail: The Kifissos River goes under the city (Athens).

The genetically engineered creatures’ diet is plastic rubbish, plastic microfibres, & plastic plants and flowers. The plants and flowers are an ‘off target’ effect of CRISPR, the genetic engineering method used to create the plastic devouring creatures. Note the foliage is plastic military camouflage netting.

An island loosely based on Australia allows egress into the diorama.

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Detail: History charts from 2000BC to 2054 AD end up in spiralling gyres labelled with thewords for ‘plastic’ of fifty plus languages.