Inside an ocean catastrophe, the local art project that rocks the senses and why it could provoke change
There’s a howling wind outside but I have to take out the garbage. I grab three bags, two overflowing with recyclables, and the third full of trash. The icy, sharp rain stings as I trudge through puddles to the garbage and recycling bins at the end of my long driveway. By the time I get there, I’m already soaked, the result of one of those winter storms. I’m so eager to get back to my cozy fire indoors and shed the wet layers of clothing that I do the unthinkable. I fling open the trash can lid and throw everything inside. The lid slams shut and I rush back to the house. Then a twinge of guilt sets in. But what difference does it make if I don’t take a minute to separate the recyclables into their respective bins? I’m only one person. I can’t possibly make a difference, right? Well …
A week later, I venture over to the Tannery Arts Center on River Street in Santa Cruz. Once a thriving cowhide/leather portal, it’s now being transformed into an artists’ colony that the community rooted for—a place where, in a year from now, low-income housing will be available. Roughly 400 artists are expected to move onto the premises. Right now, it’s construction mayhem.
The Tannery’s former office sits on the massive property. These days it serves as home to a small handful of working artists in town, including Kirby Scudder, director of the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts (SCICA). Most recognize his name—he was at the helm of the successful Night Light project, the Giant Cow installation, and many other larger-than-life art projects around town. Scudder is one of the area’s go-to guys when artists need to get connected with galleries or other artists.
Scudder greets me at the Dead Cow Gallery, the new gallery at the Tannery, which he oversees. It has housed some of the most vibrant art shows in town in its modest but functional space. Scudder gestures toward an unkempt lawn that serves as the front yard for the house where he lives. It happens to be the spot that will house one of the biggest art projects he’s ever taken on—a 25-foot art installation of a globe, which he’ll dub “X-PLOCEAN, Our Plastic Ocean.” Over the span of the next month, the project will be constructed entirely of recycled materials and illuminated at night with lights from within. X-PLOCEAN will be made of wood. Recycled plastics will be used for the land and sea portions of the globe. There will be two distinct, highlighted elements, each the size of Texas (to scale, of course). They will represent the patches of garbage swirling around in the ocean.
As some green-savvy Santa Cruzans may already know by now, the Earth has two Texas-sized masses of garbage floating around in the sea. It has been given a name—the North West Pacific Gyre, or the “Garbage Patch.” But those who haven’t heard of it yet may not be alone. And that’s where Scudder comes in, and why erecting the art globe will not only become a visual interpretation of a horrific reality, but, hopefully, raise the level of awareness about a monumental problem. If anything, he may prove how vital art is for shifting the collective consciousness.
Garbage Art 101
“When I first heard of this [ocean issue] I had the same reaction that a lot of people have: This can’t possibly be true,” Scudder says. “I heard about it seven or eight months ago and … saw pictures of animals dying, all sorts of marine life filled with cigarette lighters and plastic bottles. It was so disgusting to me. I started looking into it and I wanted to know what the facts are. It’s been dwarfed by other environmental concerns taking center stage.”
Scudder’s discoveries shocked him, and rightly so. The Texas-sized bodies of garbage are found in two locations. One site is about 1,000 miles west of California and 1,000 miles north of Hawaii. The other site is 1,000 miles off the coast of Japan. In these two locations, the ocean has turned into two giant trashcans.
The waste arrived there by way of gyres—ocean currents that carry the garbage from its entry point into the ocean, and eventually toward these two sites. Some of the garbage comes from vessel spills, or, say, people throwing plastic into rivers, where it is then taken by the ocean currents to one of the garbage patches. It happens repeatedly. It can even be as innocuous as throwing a bunch of recyclables into the garbage can—as I did. Perhaps the lid is left open, a bottle rolls out, falls into the sewer system, heads to the ocean, and away it goes.
According to an Oct. 11 Christian Science Monitor article, “3 million tons of trash floating in the garbage patch is plastic.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in October that, “The patch has been growing, along with ocean debris worldwide, tenfold every decade since the 1950s … and 80 percent of the ocean’s litter originated on land.” (Read more in depth about this very issue—and how it relates to Santa Cruz, specifically—in a future GT environmental story.)
Many reports warn that the garbage has been extremely dangerous to marine life. “This perhaps wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the plastic had no ill effects,” notes Greenpeace.org. “The larger items, however, are consumed by seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey. It has been estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement.”
When Scudder discovered these alarming statistics, he immediately wanted to see how he could make a difference—just one man, an artist, trying to communicate a message, and to maybe get people to pick up their trash.
“One of the things I’m really a believer in is that art in the 21st century has to serve a greater purpose than just satisfying artists,” Scudder says. “The best art that I see going on around the world is art that has a social relevance. Artists are more society based. They reflect and respond to social changes in the environment. If you look at the history of art, you’ll see a correlation of what was going on at the time reflected in art.
“The project I’m launching has been in the back of my mind for seven or eight months,” he adds. “Historically, my projects are community-based. This will involve a lot of people. It’s not just me.”
Creating an art piece that represents the Garbage Patch will allow people to visualize what this problem actually looks like, and the enormous impact it has on our environment, oceans and the world.
“If you can’t see it, then it’s out of sight out of mind,” Scudder says. “That’s the original reason people dump stuff in the ocean to begin with. They don’t have to worry about it—it’s gone, which is not true at all. I wanted to do something to visually reflect the scale of this problem.”
First, he had to get permission from Art Space, the nation’s leading nonprofit developer for the arts.
Cathryn Vandenbrink, regional director for Art Space, notes that the nonprofit is leasing the Tannery space for the next 80 years. “Our mission is to create, foster and preserve space for artists, and we do that by primarily developing and owning buildings,” she says, “and also by advocacy, by consulting with communities and helping them look at what’s needed and what might happen for them in their communities.
“Kirby came to us and said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’” she adds. “We were like, ‘Cool, this sounds great for a multitude of reasons.’ The Tannery is about the arts. And artists, I think, do the finest job of bringing people’s attention to issues we’re dealing with in our culture. One of those huge issues is the health of our environment. I think this concept is very exciting and brings the attention of the community to the Tannery where these kinds of things happen. … I think the impact that Kirby’s globe project will have is calling attention to the issue of waste and what we’re doing, and the impact it’s having.”
If He Builds It, Will They Change?
X-PLOCEAN, slated to begin this month, will be built in four sections, like quarters of an orange—the frame constructed of wood, with green, ochre and blue plastics molded on top to create the respective land, garbage and water. Materials are coming by way of donations, including scrap pieces of wood from the local construction site at the Tannery. The public is welcome to stop by at any time during the next month to observe the process, as well as drop off recyclables in bins, which may be used in the project. A small team of people with engineering, construction and artistic backgrounds are assisting Scudder in the conception and execution of this project.
In addition to the project, the Dead Cow Gallery will feature ongoing exhibits that artistically reflect the sceanarios of trash, the Garbage Patch, recycling and the like. In essence, the two artistic entities, operating side by side, will offer an educational tour into this environmental catastrophe.
“This particular problem happened in our lifetime,” Scudder says. “We created it. We own it and we can solve it. It’ll be really difficult to figure out what to do with what’s in the ocean right now. You can’t helicopter it out of there. The problem is so large. We don’t have anything on land that could handle that singular mess.”
So what can one person do? Look at Scudder’s globe, for starters.
“What everyone can do is change their behavior today: Do some research, and look at what you’re buying,” Scudder says. “Be concerned about recycling and don’t throw a coffee cup out the window. There are so many things we have control over in our lives.” He’s setting a community-wide example. The 25-foot globe will either be recycled when its three-month display is over (it goes down in July), or it will be relocated to another site.
As for me, my garbage gets collected in a few days. It’s my turn to dump the recycling. Will I put things in the correct bins? You bet. But what about next week? What if rain dumps on my head again? Will I neglect my responsibility to recycle? And if I do, what will be the cost of my negligence? n
X-PLOCEAN, Our Plastic Ocean, will be on display through July. It is currently under construction at the Tannery, 1040 River St., Santa Cruz. For more information, visit scica.org .