About New York Pelagic
What is it? I’m putting original drawings of pelagic (open ocean) birds in bottles, along with a questionnaire, and launching them into New York waterways.
Why? I had wanted to do a project about the gigantic garbage patches in the ocean, and our connection to, impact on, and ignorance of, the ocean and its wildlife. New York City, save the Bronx, is built on an archipelago in an estuary – a really dynamic and productive habitat, and people don’t often think about that fact because it can be hard to see it.
I am also interested in what we value. Plastic, art, the health of the environment, and by extension, our own health.
What’s the story with those garbage patches? This got quite a bit of press starting a few years ago. There were a lot of stories about a floating mass of plastic garbage three times the size of Texas out in the Northern Pacific. People were picturing a new manmade squishy continent of Gatorade bottles and Bic lighters, an Atlantis of consumerism. That’s not what it looks like. In fact, it doesn’t look like anything through casual observation. The plastic, for the most part, has broken into small confetti-like pieces and is distributed through the water column. I’m certainly no scientist, but no one is quite sure how this is affecting the ecosystem.
Why the birds? About the same time as the garbage patches were getting attention, there were some very powerful and disturbing photos of albatross chicks, dead with bellies full of plastic, making the rounds. It got me thinking about what was happening to other pelagic birds.
By nature of being pelagic, these birds occupy the largest surface area of the Earth. And the Earth they inhabit, it can be argued, is more representative of life on this planet, since it does cover much more of it than the land. But because they do occupy what is, for us, an almost alien planet, we know very little about them. Wilson’s Storm Petrel is considered to be the most populous bird on the planet (take that, pigeons!), but most people wouldn’t know what one looked like. Yet they do come into New York Harbor.
The signs of climate change that get the most attention are often the most visible ones: a plant or animal extending its historic range, or dying out because of an inability to adapt quickly enough. I was struck with the idea that the plastic seeds we disperse travel far and wide, sometimes within the very bodies of other animals, and have an unforeseen and tragic impact. We are drastically changing the largest ecosystems of the planet – ones that we still don’t even understand that well.
The birds are a way to show something clearly that is hard to visualize. A desiccated carcass of an albatross with a pile of recognizable plastic garbage at its center hits harder than a discussion of plastic confetti and the dramas being played out on a molecular level. One can’t underestimate the power of charismatic megafauna. The WWF has a panda on its logo for good reason, and you’ve got to get people to care about the whale before they’ll care about the krill. Who knows how many chicks are directly done in by this consumption of plastic. I don’t know what the mortality rate was prior to our plastic, or how many chicks successfully regurgitate what they can’t digest, and just fly off. But I do know that they’re a fraction of my size and I wouldn’t be doing so hot if I swallowed a few lighters, a couple printer cartridges, and a Barbie head.
I find these birds really compelling. They exist somewhat mythically, because they exist in places that are hard for us to get to. And there is something poignant about these relatively small creatures, fragile, yet tough as nails, adrift, wandering, living, over the enormity of the sea.
What DO we value? Everything that ends up in the ocean, all this plastic flotsam, at some point had value. We must value all of our plastic goods, and value the fact that they are disposable, because we dedicate a lot of energy to producing, distributing, and buying them. Yet, once we dispose of them, they are considered trash.
Additionally, I’m interested in the value of art. Art ain’t cheap – nor do I think it should be, although clearly I’m biased. But what is it really worth? And who can afford it? There are financial barriers that prevent most of us from buying original art. That’s why I wanted to give it away. Whomever, if anyone, finds these is left to chance. A miniscule leveling of the playing field.
Are you just littering here? Adding to the problem? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m interested in what I am in fact doing if I throw something that has a market value into the ocean. If I threw a 100 dollar bill on the street, is that littering? The bottles are glass, the paper is, well, paper, and then I’ve got cork and wax. All “natural” materials. But I certainly didn’t manufacture the paper or wax so I really don’t know for sure what’s in them. I have left art for people to find before. Perhaps littering is placement and intent. A landfill is just condoned littering if you want to look at it that way.
You think anyone is even going to find any of these? Jesus, I hope so.