Garbagea is artist Asher Jay's response to the plastic gyres polluting our oceans.
Asher wanted to raise awareness about the trouble with single use plastic and plastic pollution in an engaging way. Garbagea imagines those gyres as living continents and explores our culture of waste. I think this project is fascinating, and Asher was kind enough to answer some questions about the project, what inspired it, and where it's going.
GreenUPGRADER: Tell me a bit about what inspired you to launch Garbagea.
Asher Jay: When I first learned about the plastic gyres, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the trash vortexes polluting the oceans. Until then, I had not been aware of the extent to which our current consumption patterns were impacting marine ecosystems and the myriad life forms they supported. It was when I came face to face with the devastating effects of post consumer waste on oceanic flora and fauna that I truly internalized the struggles embraced by wildlife each day to overcome what man has done to their habitats.
What was intended as a vacation quickly altered course and became my first hands-on conservation campaign when a rickety propeller plane deposited me on Agatti, an incredulously small litter infested island off the coast of India. Agatti is a part of the Lakshadweep coral atolls. Praised frequently by tourist brochures for its breath taking reef systems, vast array of marine wildlife, turquoise blue lagoons, incredible dive spots, silvery white sandy beaches, mangroves and lushgreen coconut palms, Agatti is rendered to be a true tropical paradise; however this alluring description failed to translate past the page into reality.
Agatti, Kavaratti, Kadmat and Bangaram, the four most sought after island destinations in Lakshadweep are so debilitated by the ever expanding demand for seafood, and contaminated by apathetic litterbug visitors and neglected by myopic indigenous bureaucrats that contrary to promotional testimonies, this place seems to presage an anthropogenically induced sixth mass extinction. I spent my hours on Agatti, persuading hotel staff to snorkel along the shores armed with the necessary equipment to collect the extensive range of plastic waste lining the seabed. As a firm believer of the credo ‘practice what you preach’, I led each clean-up expedition. The few employees that tagged along did so merely to earn my approval, but they did not understand the brevity of the damage that had been done to this once beautiful scenery which served as a home to all the species the locals had come to depend on for their livelihoods.
The fishermen did not comprehend their interdependent relationship with their environment or the economic ramifications of harvesting without book keeping. Although the math is more common sense than computation, it was hard to convey the financial doom they would elicit from crippling the sole natural resource that kept their island economy afloat. The local government was in no rush to educate the residents as they were financially benefiting from cutting corners, bleeding profits into their avaricious pockets. The expansion of the local airstrip was in fact happening at the cost of the blue enveloping it, for all the waste from the construction of the airstrip was being released into the unsuspecting aquamarine waters. It pained me to see magnificent sea turtles swim up to the shores in search of food, appetites teased by shimmering sheaths of plastic that closely resemble their natural dietary choice, jellyfish. Sea turtles were consuming liberal portions of plastics and effluents each day. We lost two turtles over the ten days that I was there: one drowned from malnourishment and the other on account of severe injuries inflicted by a boat’s rudder. I saw large parrot fish routinely swimming on their side along the piers, staring at the stars with one desperate eye as they struggled to stay buoyant. Instead of figuring out why so many of the reef’s fish were stranding along the piers on account of ‘swim-bladder disease’ the local fisherman just circled around these incapacitated aquatic craniates with nets, in the hopes of adding it to their day’s catch.
As Sylvia Earle often states “You can’t care if you don’t know, you might not care even if you do know, but you can’t care if you don’t know!” I knew then what I had to do; I simply had to find a way to lend these green waters a green voice, and advocate the preservation of the few species that were fighting all the odds stacked in their disfavor to survive in their cerulean swelling expanse.
A few months later I was in Kenya and Tanzania addressing the waste problem there, once again the very threats deteriorating Laksadweep’s seascapes were rearing their ugly heads in the dark continent’s wilderness reserves: lax regulations, arrogant ignorant tourists, inconsistent waste disposal methods, habitat destruction, absence of trash segregation and recycling (all garbage is disposed off in make-shift landfills), the lack of viable solutions, alternatives, government incentives, rigid laws and funds that can execute feasible plan Bs. I couldn’t just sit back and allow things to be the way they were; I wasn’t ready to accept this uninviting reality and so I took it upon myself to address the context that was vexing me. I brought along a giant trash bag with me on every safari trip and I returned to camp each evening with the bag filled to bulging seams.
I used some of the rubbish I had gathered on my trips in my artworks, and I handed many bagfuls to wardens, public officials and hotel managers, but all the while I was acutely aware of the need for a larger more inclusive platform. Garbagea came to me in installments, over a trash-centric year that clocked by in cleanup efforts that I had proposed and volunteered for in various countries. Over time people began paying attention to me and what I was saying, which is when it occurred to me that in order to incite change one has to take responsibility first. Garbagea is my way of taking responsibility for all the waste in this world, rendering refuse a tangible concern. In placing a claim I have made it my problem, and in creatively contributing to or collaborating with Garbagea, yet others make it their problem too. When a problem is owned it can be solved.
gUP: The litter continent is such an interesting take on the plastic gyres - what gave you the idea of building this mythology around them?
AJ: It is obviously very important how we relay information, the manner in which content is presented and communicated is as significant as the content itself. We live in a digital world with rapid data sharing, and in order to effectively disseminate truth one has to direct the flow of knowledge through the popular conduits. The audiences of the 21st century are over stimulated and possess the attention spans of fruit flies; they are constantly seeking out novelty and spectacles to be amused by, and Garbagea exploits all these contemporary patterns of assimilation and expurgation to underscore its main message "Waste not, want less, take stock, then express."
Garbagea furnishes people with a fun and engaging framework from which they can convey their personal standpoint on the ecological realities of our time. Most often people find it difficult to channel their message, or they stop believing that they can make a difference but every single person contours the collective context irrespective of their consciousness of the whole they are a part of. Garbagea is designed to cultivate empathy for the environment incidentally, not intentionally; it allows people to find their own stance on the topics deliberated, instead of spoon-feeding conclusions at a pace out of sync with their interest or learning curve.
gUP: Why was it important to you to launch during the Hudson Terrace's Art Splatters?
AJ: I wanted to reach out to a new demographic. Terrace Art Splatters afforded me a truly unique venue to raise awareness at, as it was an art party hosted by a trendy lounge-club; this brought an eclectic mix of people together from various walks of life, from art critics and journalists to tourists and New Yorker socialites. The majority of the gathering did not know anything about the gyres until they chanced upon my original display. Everything I exhibited innovatively incorporated the litter I had been accumulating in my East Village apartment over the past several months. The show also furnished me with the opportunity to hawk some of my litter assets as Garbagean Real Estate. I pre-packaged a significant amount of “found objects” in embellished shoe boxes, so as to make our property investments available by the cubic feet. Everyone was infinitely entertained by Garbagea’s realty. People invest more time to learn about topics that would not customarily rouse their curiosity when said topics are plugged into an unconventional framework. Garbagea is an educational spectacle. Using exaggerated indifference as a vehicle for humor the platform manipulates the default wiring of the jaded and cynical and reveals the hard truths presently confronting our planet to them in an atypical way.
By the end of the day, it is moot to preach to the choir. I need to mobilize people who wouldn’t ordinarily give a moment of their day to conserve anything beside cash, to care about something bigger than their individual microcosms. Garbagea’s mission is to unite people by sensitizing them to environmental issues that orbit waste and pollution, in the hopes that an informed collective will want to institute a new paradigm of sustainable subsistence to pave the way to a holistic future.
gUP: What draws you to found objects as a medium?
AJ: Garbage is a contemporary plague, and it is growing with the same veracity of a highly contagious viral epidemic. Waste needs to be addressed as both a global health hazard and a pandemic threat to food & water security, as it contaminates resources without discrimination. Every commodity we consume to sustain ourselves in the world today is toxic; it is now merely an FDA question of “to what degree.” We give rise to garbage, we empower its choke hold on ecosystems worldwide by continuing our current paradigm of consumption, ergo we are each responsible for all the flotsam on the undulating azure and for all the trash mounds on fallow lands.
Art from any period reflects the cultural, socio-political, ecological and economical realities of that sliver of time, and since consumerism and waste are the most pressing realities of our time, I use found objects as a medium in all my works. Trash helps me channel lessons on social responsibility in an aesthetically pleasing yet perturbing visual dialogue.
gUP: It sounds like reducing plastic waste is an important issue to you! Tell me a little bit about how you reduce the single use plastic in your life.
AJ: I plan my shopping sprees; when you plan ahead, it dramatically reduces the quantity of plastic bags you acquire daily. When I do obtain a plastic bag I repurpose/reuse it and then recycle it. I make it a point to choose cloth over paper and paper over plastic. I invariably carry one of those printed MoMA totes, which fold up into a small pouch, with me in the off chance that an impulse craving leads to an impulse purchase. I don’t buy tampons with plastic applicators, or panty-liners that are individually wrapped. Seventh Generation comes out with organic pads and tampons, so I opt for those over companies like Tampax or Kotex. I don’t buy disposables i.e. single use floss sticks, cups, spoons, plates etc... I usually carry my handy Brita bottle with me wherever I go, and when I forget that at home I always opt for tap or glass bottle brands like Saratoga, Voss or Aqua Panna. It is more expensive, and heavier to shoulder, which burns the following lesson into my brain: Always, always carry your handy filter water bottle with you!
On a side note: It is important to recycle but people often forget to wash out the entire organic residue from the container before tossing it in the recycle bin, which makes it harder to recycle them. Always clean out the food containers before placing them in the recycling bin.
Also Terracycle has a mail in program, and runs collections, hand in your plastic waste to them or organize a collection run in your neighborhood. You are making a difference today, it is just a matter of how; subtract from the problem and add to the solution!
All photos via Garbagea, used with permission