the plastic gyre


 Is Plastic A Disease?   Turning to face Monstrous Plastic
Opening Remarks for GYRE symposium, Pam Longobardi

We are living in a moment of dramatic, drastic global environmental and social change between geopolitical wars over energy, water, land, and belief systems.  As climate change brings extreme weather events now almost daily in some part of the globe, and in our desperation to extract the last drops of oil from the earth, we are going to riskier and more remote places deep under the sea and further towards the poles, and yet, the plastic has made it here before us.  The melting Arctic is only accelerating a frantic resource grab and a heightened mobilization of global commerce.  This is a frightening and at the same time, exhilarating time to be alive, at the moment where we as humans have a very brief minute to change the course of our own and the collective planet’s future.  

Is plastic a disease?  In the wonderful synchronicity that accompanies all my work involved with plastic, I am honored to have my work on the cover of this month’s issue of the CDC’s esteemed journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases.”  The inherent irony in this juxtaposition of having an artwork composed of ocean plastic on the cover of a journal about disease, and in this case ‘Viral Disease’, actually points to a greater truth about plastic…it is viral, it is an infectious disease and we all have been infected.

Byron Breedlove, the journal’s editor wrote the following:
"Longobardi’s montage, representing the collision of nature and consumerism, also comprises an oval grid of horizontal and vertical lines, shapes, and forms. The intersection and contrast of the black tubes and distorted artifacts of collected rubbish disrupt the work’s balance and harmony. According to the artist, the horizontal elements symbolize the natural world, and the vertical grid represents the human element, in particular, the consumer-based cultures of the world. 'I created this work as an homage to Mondrian, an artist whom I admire. Mondrian’s work was his response to the relationship between humans and the ocean in 1914, and mine is a response to our relationship to the ocean 100 years later.'

In Ghosts of Consumption, Longobardi uses art to engage our minds and our hearts in an unavoidable conversation about the consequences of disposability to the ocean environment. Longobardi describes her installations as “being preferentially in a transitive state, such that they may be reabsorbed into culture, commerce, or industry, as the technology develops to return plastic into oil.”

Ghosts of Consumption focuses on the global consequences of disposability. The late Lewis Thomas wrote about the interdependence of life on earth and suggested the earth itself of being “most like a cell.” This perspective offers another way to view Longobardi’s installation, which resembles the contour of a cell, its myriad black tubes analogous to the microtubules within a cell’s cytoskeleton. Once pristine and healthy (more like that Mondrian painting), the cell is now infested with various rods, filaments, and spheres of plastic debris and flotsam, items that emerged from the ocean reshaped and mutated from their original forms." (Byron Breedlove, Emerging Infectious Diseases, April 2015)

When did ‘Ocean Plastic’ become a word in our common vocabulary? For me that word entered my vocabulary in 2006, when I first stumbled upon the massive plastic piles the ocean was vomiting onto remote Hawaiian shores.  It seemed as if the ocean had been force-fed our plastic material waste, and in an attempt to expel the indigestible material, the ocean spews this out on beaches worldwide.  *** The ocean is communicating with us through the material of our own making, and it is calling out to us to “Pay Attention!” 

I now see plastic as central to every one of the great environmental, social and health challenges we are facing today, and yet its one of the easiest major problems for every individual to do something about.  Each day each one of us makes hundreds of decisions either toward or away from plastic – and by the end of this conference, I hope you too will reject letting plastic touch your lips. I am calling to you now for us all to become activists, each day and in small and simple ways, for each of us to individually, actively and collaboratively to take steps away from the falsehood of plastic panacea.

Artists have a newly urgent role to play in the unfolding events of the near future.  With antennae or radar for the ‘yet-to-be’, artists often can see unfolding events before the general public catches up, and in this way, art performs a premonitional function in society, as a signal or warning of oncoming change.  The artists assembled in GYRE: The Plastic Ocean, now showing at the CDC Museum, have been responding, for periods of time ranging from several years to multiple decades, to the signal of the shifting role of plastic, from ubiquitous nearly invisible objects to change agents of the planet earth.


As an artist, I am an advocate of beach cleaning as a form of forensic aesthetics.  As a human, I am an advocate because the action of removing even a single piece of vagrant plastic is a positive thing for you (by accepting collective responsibility for plastic use) and for the natural world (by preventing that particular piece from damaging a living creature.)  But even more so, everyday, we make dozens of choices, conscious or not, either towards or away from unnecessary plastic use.  As we are beginning to learn of linkages of plastic to an enormous range of human health issues, it couldn’t be better timing to examine this material, its presence in our lives and the lives of the non-human creatures we share the planet with. 

Having a major international art/science exhibition about plastics at the CDC puts the examination of this ubiquitous modern material in the center of human health issues.  Because of the significance of this, and the urgency of the plastic problem, I have been working with the CDC museum, GSU colleagues and students, wonderful interns and fellow artist and activist Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition developing this comprehensive symposium occurring for the next two days here at GSU and the CDC Museum.  We will be hearing from a host of the top scientists, artists, writers, NGOS, non-profits, commercial businesses and grass-roots activists. We will be identifying the most pressing issues, the most current research, the most interesting creative disruption, and the best business practices all focused on generating discussion and solutions to this looming global crisis that we all have responsibility for.

Plastic pollution exists out in the world and inside of our bodies.  Plastic pollution cuts across party lines, it cuts across class, race, gender, it cuts across species lines, and it cuts across time.

Future historians will likely look back at this time as one of great folly, in much the same way that today’s historians look back and ponder, “who cut down the last standing tree on Easter Island?  Did they not see what was happening?”  This is our chance to see what is happening and take active steps to change it, to alter the course of the ship we are all on.

If not now, when?  If not us, then who?

We are the actors and now is the time for Action.