Drowning in Plastic

An Artist’s Four-Year Journey Through Scotland’s Marine Plastic To Holyrood’s MSPs.

Before becoming a sculptor and installation artist, Julia Barton studied geography but it was her search for seaweed to study which took her to the remote Coigach peninsula. It was here in Wester Ross that she found herself on a local beach knee deep in plastic; this experience became a turning point that changed the focus of her art work and led her into environmental activism. She was deeply affected by what she saw that day, for months she had nightmares in which she was literally drowning in plastic. Although she tried to continue drawing seaweed, her pictures always turned into some of kind of marine plastic like the kind she had found that day on the beach.

Following and feeling the topography of the landscape she began a journey that would alter the direction of her life as well as the focus of her work. For the next four years she traveled around the beaches of the west coast of Scotland and the Shetland Isles, learning more about plastics and marine pollution, surveying the beaches and raising awareness of the issue. Her work has just been accepted to be displayed at Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament, it is hoped that the exhibition will draw MSP’s attention to the issue of marine plastic and encourage them to take action.

At first it was the volume of plastic on the beaches that caught her attention but as time went by Julia developed an interest in identifying the individual pieces of plastic and understanding the ‘unseen’ impacts of the plastic pollution as it breaks down into smaller pieces.

Wherever Julia went she encouraged people to adopt a beach through The Marine Conservation Society, she believes that beach cleans are an important way to engage people and deal with the initial impact but she also encourages us to look more deeply into where the plastic has come from, to do surveys and to lobby manufacturers and politicians.

It has become evident to Julia that the small plastic particles are now found everywhere, from the arctic ice to inside the food chain. In response, she took samples from 60 beaches from Durness to Gairloch. By looking at these samples under the microscope it is possible for people to see for themselves the small particles of plastics collected from west coast beaches. The intention is to show that plastic pollution is not a far away problem, we are all entangled in it.

“It’s about feeling the issue, feeling the weight of it.” “People like to say its someone else’s problem, it’s not from here, it’s easy to say that so that we don’t have to change anything or be responsible’’

When Julia runs educational projects, she finds that children often don’t know how long plastic will last or understand that some of it may never entirely break down. She connects the longevity of plastic to the geological concept of ‘deep time’; the multimillion year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed, this helps both children and adults can get a wider understanding of the impact of plastic on the ecosystem and can help us all take care of the whole environment and see that everything is interlinked.

She believes that it is up to everyone, manufacturers and users to take responsibility for the issue. “Some people just chuck things down the loo like it has nothing to do with them but it has.”

‘We, our generation, has created this mess for young people and this is a lot to hand on, you need to be careful not to overwhelm people and then feel like you can’t do anything and  be unable to act. You always have to leave people with a way to have an effect. We can all do something, then eventually we will have an effect.”

In other projects such as ‘Return to Sender’, she encourages young people not only to pick up the plastic on beaches but take other action such as getting a company name, contacting the manufacturer and asking them to either change the product, put money into research or give better recycling information. Children and young people can have a powerful impact once they engaged in the issues. Julia is pragmatic in the way she works and tries to connect people with the issue and encourage them to take action.

“I am an activist but primarily I am an artist so my job is to try to visualise the issue and to draw people in to the issue so we can discuss it and think about what can be done.”

In her exhibition NEO Terra visitors will be able see the thousands of ‘Plastiglomerates’  (melted plastic rubbish ) that Julia has used to represent geographical land forms creating an imaginary archipelago of plastic islands. This can be seen at An Talla Solais gallery in Ullapool May 13th – June 18th.

As part of the iLAND Festival, May 19th – 20th: Julia will guide a walk along Isle Martin beach exploring Deep Time.

For more information see Littoral Art Project www.littoralartproject.com

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