The Littoral Project
by Alastair Hamilton -
Plastic has been part of our lives for decades. It turns up in myriad forms, from food or drink containers to household equipment or major components of cars or boats. Unfortunately, too, it appears in many places where it does harm, for a large proportion of what we use is simply thrown away. Marine litter, most of which is plastic, has created huge, floating garbage patches; one of these, reportedly twice the size of Texas, lies off the Californian coast. There is increasing concern about the less obvious ways in which plastic is finding its way into the food chain. Micro-plastics, formed either through the erosion of larger pieces or the use of tiny plastic beads in products such as facial scrubs, are ingested by fish and ultimately by humans.
Over the years, people in Shetland have been instrumental in tackling the problem, both at a local level through the annual Voar Redd-Up (spring clean) and through supporting initiatives such as Fishing for Litter.
Now, Neo Terra, an installation at the Shetland Museum and Archives, explores these issues. It’s part of the Littoral Art Project and the artist responsible, Julia Barton, says:
“Plastic in all its forms is weaving itself into the fabric of the earth’s ecosystems and earth itself, silently burying within because little is being done to prevent or manage it. The stark prediction is that it will provide a future legacy and record of our human interaction with the earth – an environmental catastrophe in waiting.”
Julia has been working on the project for three years. She began in Ross-shire and is now working her way around the Shetland coastline. She has been collecting many examples of the different forms of plastic pollution and has brought one particular aspect of the problem – that of “plastiglomerates” into sharp focus. Plastiglomerates are typically formed when plastic is burned on, say, a pebble and sand beach. As Julia explained to me, this happens all over the world, wherever people decide that the best way to get rid of that growing mound of plastic is to set light to it. The plastic melts into the sand and rock and the result is now acknowledged by scientists as a marker of human pollution on the geological record.
The project has a strong educational emphasis. In Spring 2016, Julia worked with Da Voar Redd-Up, the award-winning project which has been running since 1986 and is the largest community clean-up in Britain, involving more than 20% of Shetland’s population. She led workshops to raise awareness of the problem and explore ways of tackling it. Fifteen schools throughout the islands were involved and 227 pupils between primary 1 and secondary 4 took part. They examined sources of litter, the harm it can cause, degradation rates and those micro-plastics.
The installation is in two parts. On entering the gallery, the floor is covered by examples of plastiglomerates chosen from among the thousands of examples that Julia has collected. The pieces are arranged as though they were islands in an ocean and Julia has been giving them appropriate names.
It’s a sobering sight; but behind a screen, visitors can examine many more, equally arresting, examples of plastic pollution, ranging from tiny fragments to the larger examples of common plastic pollution, for example the plastic baling strip often used to hold goods together on pallets and which is so dangerous to marine wildlife. There’s also an excellent animation by Shetland videographer J.J. Jamieson in which a (plastic) geologist is seen exploring the new plastiglomerate geology; it doesn’t end well. Panels of photographs record the work that was done in the school workshops and a timeline indicates the extraordinarily long time – in some cases, tens of thousands of years – that plastics persist in the environment.
Sita Goudie, Environmental Improvement Officer at Shetland Amenity Trust, said that Julia’s creative approach “really makes you think about this serious environmental issue and how we can all influence the amount of litter entering the marine environment. The workshops she undertook throughout Shetland in the Spring really inspired the children”.
Certainly, the installation has made an impact on those who’ve seen it. Many visitors have said that they found it “thought-provoking” or “worrying”, but – at the same time – “inspired and inspiring”; “amazing”, “fascinating” and “important, wonderful work”. It certainly represents a call to action and will undoubtedly influence many people to do what they can to minimise the plastic problem in their own daily lives.
The exhibition runs in Shetland until 12 November. Later, it will travel to An Talla Solais Caledonian Gallery in Ullapool and then to Edinburgh.
Posted in: Creative Scene