Pam Longobardi has the eye of an artist, the mind of a scientist, and a heart of an activist. Take these profound qualities, with a soul deeply tangled with the ocean, and you have the perfect recipe of traits for a person bound for significance. It seems Pam was born to demonstrate what’s scientifically and socially wrong with our ocean. Prolific was lucky enough to meet Pam and partake in some art collection and research, ala beach cleanup.
Interview: Keane Photos: Bierwolf, Longobardi
In 2006 during a trip to South Point, Hawaii the southern tip of Hawaii’s big island, Pam discovered, among the rugged beauty of the shoreline, the massive debris that has accumulated on the shoreline. Forever changed by this discovery, her passion for science and art collided in rage and awe in front of her.
In 2006, Pam founded the Drifters Project, an environmental intervention project that documents and exposes the natural cost of the human convenience of plastic, by looking at marine debris and its journey around the world, in all its mutating form, as it collides with the natural world. In 2008, she began working with community groups to expand the scale and scope of project to new locales and creating collaborative public art. Pam has made dozens of collecting missions to Hawaii, Costa Rica, China and Italy, and US locations, organizing cleanups and community education at each site. In her travels, she’s created community-based projects; in Beijing, China during the 2008 Olympics with residences of a ‘trash village’, Nicoya, Costa Rica with students of Universidad Nacional, and in Greenville, SC, with high school students. Additionally, in 2009, Pam founded the Atlanta Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, now grown to over 150 members, which averages 2 major cleanups and scores of education and outreach events annually.
Aside from an artist and activist, you’re also a teacher, tell us about that? What do you teach? They’re all inter-related, how did that evolve?
When I was younger, I was deeply influenced by Jacques Cousteau’s television program, I watched it every week. I wanted to be a marine biologist and work on the Calypso when I grew up. Instead, I became an artist, but also pursued education in science as well. I put myself through college and graduate school doing scientific illustrations of corals and dinosaur bones. Now, I have an environmental art project called the Drifters Project, that combines all these facets of my personality.
I teach Drawing, Painting, Installation/Collaboration and an honors course called Art and Environment. Its very interdisciplinary. It examines how artists, scientists and activists address environmental challenges.
You started Driftwebs based on a trip to The Big Island of Hawaii – where you were confronted with the amount of debris on the coastline. Were you involved with the environment before this, or was this a turning point for you?
My artwork has always dealt with trying to understand the psychological relationship between humans and nature. We are in a kind of dualistic isolation from it, at once an integral part of it of it and yet somehow outside of it. I am interested in the idea of the positioning of the ego in an attempt to locate the self amidst the incomprehensibility of the external natural world at large. Culture functions as a way to try to navigate or map this territory. In the deepest sense though, only a dismantling of ego merges the interior with the exterior into a non-dualistic whole world.
My paintings often combine vast fields of random chemical or physical process, punctuated by pictures of nature and details of human presence such as small suburban homes, or tiny faces to create an entry point, a locus of comfort in a vast realm. Scale is subverted as microscopic forms loom gigantic. A system or network of strands and webs connects elements and defines the depth of the space. The voids are filled with particles and vapors. They are not empty.
A most telling moment came a few years back with the completion of the Human Genome Project, the mapping of the human genetic sequence. According to the central dogma of DNA theory, humans, as the most complex organism on earth, were expected to have an enormous gene count, predicted to number 100,000. Instead, in the end, the human gene count numbered just around 30,000, just about as many genes as a mustard weed. I feel this is significant in revealing that humans are but a tiny part of a vastness beyond comprehension, connected to every weed, and no more, nor no less important.
So when I discovered the plastic fields in one of the most remote locations in the middle of the Pacific, it was another version of this massive collision between nature and culture.
This is a basic question, but likely a complex answer. Where does all of this debris come from? And how does it get here? Is there a certain country, location, industry to blame? It’s mostly plastic I presume?
Almost every piece of marine debris is plastic. Studies have determined that 80% of the plastic debris in the ocean originates on land. Because plastic floats, it travels the water vectors, both natural (rivers,streams) and man-made (storm sewer systems) and eventually finds its way to the ocean. On a tiny dot of land in the middle of the Pacific, I have found plastic objects with almost every language on earth: Russian, Czech, Polish, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and of course, English.
As consumers, other than reducing our plastic use, ie bags, there is so much that is produced out of plastic, it seems like the change needs to come from the manufacturers to limit the production of plastic. What are your thoughts? What can we do about that?
The problem is global and the blame is global, it’s all of us. But the plastics industry wants to blame consumers, and promotes recycling as a solution. Its NOT a solution. Every piece of plastic ever made on earth IS STILL ON EARTH. This fact alone should scare everyone. Until the economic engine that runs the world takes into account the true cost of the convenience and profitability of plastic, and takes responsibility for that, consumers could not possibly keep up by recycling. Besides, recycling is only down-cycling, usually just to a single further use, and its expensive energy-wise, and only a very small amount of recycled plastic is really ever recycled.
I presume there are other places across the planet very similar to the south point of The Big Island?
Almost every beach in the world is impacted by human debris, though each location seems to have its own character. Certain things collect specifically in certain areas. For example, Kenyan beaches have a propensity for flip flops. Hagfish traps and oyster aquaculture spacer bars are common in Hawaii. Everywhere has plastic bottles, toys and household items.
You’ve done an amazing job of taking the debris and turning it into art, has this art had an impact on it’s viewers?
People tell me they never think about plastic in the same way after seeing my artwork or hearing me talk about it. It changes their relationship to this ubiquitous material that is largely invisible – its so commonplace and pervasive, we no longer see it. My point is to show it back to ourselves, to allow us to see ourselves in the mirror of plastic that we have created.
What art are you working on right now?
I am working on a project with the Alaska Sealife Center and the Anchorage Museum to send an expedition of artists and scientists to the remote stretch of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska that form the northern rim of the North Pacific Gyre. I leave Sunday for our first planning meeting of all the partners. We will be filming a promotional video that will involve a beach landing in Resurrection Bay, with Carl Safina and myself surveying what we find there. This project is very large scale and over a year away, but I have already been working on it for a year and it is growing and taking shape. It’s very exciting.
You are involved with many organizations, you just returned from Oahu for a conference with the American Chemistry Council, tell us about that?
The United Nations Environmental Program and NOAA co-sponsored the 5thInternational Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu. The last one occurred over 10 years ago, so this was momentous. The truly unique thing about this conference was the enormous presence that art had at what was basically a scientific conference. UNEP and NOAA invited me to put together the art program. I worked with Wayne Sentman, a naturalist-biologist, and we raised enough funds to hold a serious fine art exhibition within the conference. I also put together a digital stream of nearly 40 other artists from around the world working with this issue. The ACC and CocaCola were major sponsors, so the conference brought together the plastics industry, scientists, artists and activists like Surfrider and Plastics Pollution Coalition – people from all over the world, (440 people from 36 countries,) people that are on opposite sides of the issue, and got everyone to the table. What resulted was the Honolulu Commitment, which I see as the ‘Kyoto Protocol of plastic’. The artist/activist contingent worked very hard to get specific language about micro-plastics, endocrine disruptors, heavy metal contamination into the document that all parties agreed to. It felt momentous.
You also just returned from a trip to Monaco where you installed a piece in the Nouveau Museé de Monaco?
I just finished a big web that was commissioned by the Nouveau Museé National de Monaco, for a project created by Mark Dion called Oceanomania. It has 20 artists, both contemporary and historical, from all over the world, like Alan Sekula’s amazingly poignant work about the shipping industry, Jean Panlevé’s first underwater films, Ashley Bickerton’s survival raft sculptures, Xaviera Simmon’s photographs of boats full of refugees, Alexis Rockman’s terrifyingly beautiful paintings of future oceans. It is an amazing show and incredible to be a part of it. Mark Dion did his part of the project in the Oceanographic Museum, founded by Prince Albert I with Jacques Cousteau as its director. He designed a fantastic and enormous ‘cabinet of curiosities’ to permanently display some of the amazing things in the museum’s collection that have never been publically shown before.
You have a connection with the ocean. What does the ocean mean to you?
I feel the most profound mysterious place on earth is the sea. It is the circulatory system of the whole planet. It is a living entity, and I believe it is communicating with us. It is in serious trouble. I believe the ocean is trying to tell us something, send us messages. The ocean has been force-fed our material waste and now it is regurgitating it, spitting it back out for us to look at. It is re-configuring and intermingling the material production of our contemporary culture in order to communicate with us. The weird serendipity of juxtapositions of the objects I find in close proximity tell a story: for example, how can it be that I find an army man and a toy camel right next to each other on a tiny spot of land in the middle of the Pacific? Or a piece of broken crate that looks just like a star of David near another piece of a different crate that looks like a Christian cross? These things are the symbols of the senseless wars humans are raging on each other right now. Or sometimes, a group of the same object, but of obviously different ages, will all collect together. Or one little pocket of the micro plastic “sand”, the ocean is organizing all of this for us to see. I feel every time I go on a collecting mission, I am receiving messages from the ocean. It is saying, ”PAY ATTENTION!”
You inspire us, who inspires you?
I am inspired by so many people that are activists on many different scales. I am inspired by my students; by volunteers for Surfrider – the local chapter I founded here in Atlanta and has now grown to almost 200 members – and by the incredible work of Plastic Pollution Coalition in LA. I am inspired by the daily soldiers of the environment, the caretakers of the special places of the earth. I am inspired by people who are actively working to envision a different outcome for the earth, a positive and sustainable planet where nature is verdant and powerful and people are not viewed as consumers but as creative cohabitants. In the face of urgent social problems and alarming change in the natural world we call home, I am inspired by the idea of a coalition of partners from artists to scientists to activists that can visualize and create alternative and more positive outcomes for our relationship with nature. I am inspired by visualizing a new mindset where Nature is alive and well, and infinitely powerful and mysterious.
Tell us a defining moment in your life.
A most defining moment was the first time I came face to face with enormous piles of plastic debris on South Point in 2006. As I first approached it, I was amazed at the beautiful colors against the black lava beach, because that’s what plastic does, it charms and seduces us. Then I got closer and I could see what it all was, it was all our JUNK, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt. There was even a toilet seat among the piles, and it was such a sick sad metaphor for how we treat the earth. It changed me right then and there, and I began gathering it up and cleaning beaches, to drag it back and show it to people, put it in front of people so we can see what the material legacy of the human race has become.
What’s in the future for Pam?
Later this summer, I will work in Greece for 2 weeks with local fisherman and people on Kefalonia and I will create work for an exhibition there. I also will be filming and recording the local people. I also am returning to Hawaii for a longer stay for the first time in a couple years and will be able to do more research and connect with the people there I work with.
Pam has recently published a book titled DRIFTERS – Plastic, Pollution and Personhood. The colorful, thought provoking and inspiring book is 96 pages, and includes 68 illustrations of Pams work and her discoveries during her quest to enlighten us.
See the Drifters Project trailer below.