Aurora Robson's cascading transformation of the plastic waste stream
by Purva Chawla
At first glance, Aurora Robson’s work seems heartbreakingly delicate, gently hued and pristine. The ethereal, organic forms range in scale from those you could grasp in your hand, to those that cast tendrils all around a space or become an immersive experience to walk through and around.
Pristine is a strange (and successful association) for these sculptures and installations, though since every single one of Aurora’s work is created from plastic debris. The dirty, discarded, bent out of shape, “toxic-to the-waste stream” type of personal and industrial plastic debris. Ranging from two-three weeks to create, to well over six months, Aurora labors over acquiring, treating and reframing this debris entirely in her artwork.
On the one hand, the metamorphosis of plastic debris, and this artist’s intent to intercept the plastic waste stream–preventing it from entering our landfills and perpetuating in our environment or food chain–is impactful in itself. On the other hand, the most striking thing about Aurora’s work and approach is the cascading effect it has had on other artists and education in the arts.
Aurora is the founding artist of Project Vortex, an international collective of artists, designers, and architects who work with plastic debris. She is also the creator of a college course "Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream” (SIWS) that has she taught herself at universities and continues to develop continuously and open up to educators in the arts all over the world. A celebrated artist, Aurora has been the recipient of several prominent awards including the Pollock-Krasner Grant, the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Sculpture, and the TED/Lincoln Re-Imagine Prize. Her TED talk “Trash+Love” is one of the most riveting, and eye-opening TED talks we have seen, and we encourage our readers to watch it after reading this piece, almost as an opportunity to continue the dialogue with Aurora.
Here is the first of our two-part conversation with Aurora. For a continued dialogue about Project Vortex and the educative aspects of Aurora’s work, look out for a second article this week.
MD: The origins of your work lie in translating formal structures within (your) nightmares into a positive art experience, as well as appropriating from the global plastic waste stream. How did these two concepts first come together for you, and move from work on canvas to three-dimensional sculpture?
Aurora: My practice started as a solitary one. In 2002-2003, I began a serious inquiry into making paintings and works on paper. In them, I was mapping out the disturbing recurring childhood nightmares I had (due to a stressful and unorthodox childhood). Essentially, I was subjugating their negative aspects and mapping them out so as to create an inviting space for the viewer while honoring their formal structure. I was exploring the idea, hoping to determine if it could be a viable art practice for me–with enough cultural significance and long-term interest to be the basis for my practice. I wanted to do something meaningful for people other than just myself, or a select few.
While I was engaged in that process, I had a chance encounter with my old sculpture professor from college, at a thrift store in Brooklyn. I told him I had quit my full-time job to focus on working as an artist and had saved up enough money to focus uninterrupted for six months. I was excited because I had a few small group shows lined up. He then asked what I was making, and I told him about the paintings and works on paper–to which he said blankly; “But Aurora, you are a sculptor.” I remember being so unsettled after he said that, partially because I knew he was right, but also because being a sculptor seemed impossible without adequate resources.
The very next day, the idea occurred to me to try creating the nightmare landscapes in 3 dimensions, using Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles that were strewn on the streets near my studio; just lying there, glistening in the sun. The bottles struck me as compelling because they shared formal properties with the nightmares. Massive quantities, chaotic, complex compound curves, diaphanous, morphing in shape. Plus, having focused on contemporary practices in NY, I knew that the material was relatively unexplored in the art context.
When I first started experimenting with the material I had no idea of the environmental impact it had. I was responding to it formally and conceptually. I like the trust and intimacy that it embodied. There is, I think, a wildly inappropriate degree of trust and intimacy embedded in it as an art material. We allow all types of plastic, which in itself is a mysterious and discreet material for the average person (in terms of chemical composition and toxins within it), to be put it in our mouths, our bodies–as our toothpaste, our skin products. All without a clear understanding of what it is made of; In plastic we trust.
Plastic is becoming increasingly pervasive in our cultural landscape. It has come to envelope almost everything we encounter. Even as I type these words, my fingertips touch plastic keys on my keyboard. Without an adequate long-term scientific inquiry into the safety of constant contact with the chemicals found in plastics, we play dice every day. We know that many toxic chemicals used in plastic production are entering the food chain. Bisphenol and other chemicals commonly used in plastics are associated with a host of reproductive and neurological disorders. Some are considered carcinogens. This is at the heart of why I am interested in keeping Plastic out of the waste stream and food chain and using it for a purpose in which it can do no harm, only serve.
The more I learn about and explore this material, the more compelling it becomes to me as a raw material for sculpture. I have still barely scratched the surface in terms of what it can do as an art material. It has properties that no other material has– it is lightweight, versatile and economical. In using debris, the focus shifts from inherent value in the material, to the value of human ingenuity. If plastic pollution were no longer a problem, I would look for another material that is problematic to focus on. I like to engage in art as a form of creative problem solving, so to me, it isn’t really about the material, but what can be done with it. How can we serve and reach the heights of our potential as human beings?
MD: Your work has an elegant and organic quality to it. What is the typical process you follow–from sourcing to cleaning, to reshaping/forming–that allows discarded plastic to become beautiful and sought-after again?
Aurora: I try to make garbage into its antithesis so that the negative trajectories associated with it can shift in a different direction.
Above left: Trashed PET Plastic Bottles and their transformation into Aurora Robson's installation Root System Access, Right.
I source plastic debris in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I work with homeless people who are already collecting bottles in urban environments. I pay them double of what they would receive at redemption centers, to bring the bottles to me. This way of sourcing creates a platform for economic sustainability, community engagement, and stewardship simultaneously. Other times, I source by working with conservation groups who are conducting river or shore cleanups. When I create work from that material, I try to use the artwork to economically serve these conservation groups so that they can expand stewardship efforts. I also sometimes work with organizations or corporations to create artwork for them, using materials from their own waste streams so that they hopefully start minimizing their own waste streams, and become more conscious of their own plastic footprint.
After the initial sourcing, the material is cleaned and dried (using environmentally friendly cleaners), then it is sorted, organized by size, type, or style, depending on the piece. Finally, it is ready to be cut into different components, which then get assembled, either by fastening or welding them together. I use as much of the material as possible: If a cut-off part isn’t usable for one piece, I save it until it works for another one. Everything is cut by hand or using standard tools, depending on the thickness of the material. Most of the work I’ve done with PET is also airbrushed to give it coloration, and sometimes iridescence. I airbrush it with a non-toxic polyacrylic/tint solution I’ve developed that adheres well to plastics and has UV protection.
MD: Within the realm of discarded plastic that you currently work with, which subset challenges you most and which do you most enjoy working with, and find to be most pliable to transformation?
Aurora: Plastics, in general, are one of my favorite materials to work with, and I don’t discriminate too much. Aside from inherent plasticity (lending themselves to being manipulated), they are not expensive in the short term, and they are incredibly problematic for the environment. Many types of plastic have “archival integrity” which is great for art, but terrible for the planet.
My current work is primarily centered around larger scale (suitable for outdoor) work made from welded industrial plastic debris, LLDPE, HDPE, etc.; As opposed to the work I have been doing for interior spaces with PET, most of the past decade. I love both processes and materials for different reasons. I love the transparency of PET, as well as the intimacy and accessibility of it.
Above: Aphro, by Aurora Robson employs welded industrial plastic debris, LLDPE, HDPE etc.
I am exploring this current subset of plastics partially because of the large quantities of industrial plastic debris that ends up going straight into our landfills. Imagine old playground equipment, old highway safety barrels, car parts, high chairs, plastic furniture, trash bins, big buckets–things that are not typically recycled on our continent–and have great potential for sculpture. Many of these plastics will last for decades, if not centuries, often they are made with UV inhibitors to extend their already problematic long life.
It is an exciting challenge to work with this material and marks a change in my studio practice. While PET bottles can more often be recycled, down-cycled–or even provide a source of income, industrial plastics do not usually fit into that system. So, this industrial plastic debris is the worst of the worst. If I can create uplifting and engaging work from this material, perhaps more artists will consider using this material, so that they create work that doesn’t mine the planet for raw materials, rather serves the world while serving their artistic activities. I am developing methods to integrate this learning into SIWS* so that academic sculpture and interior design programs could potentially replace or augment their metal welding facilities.
Woodworking tools lend themselves well to both plastic and wood, so it could be complementary to any sculpture program that has an environmentally conscious stance. I hope to illustrate that similar effects can be achieved with less economic and environmental burdens, and at the same time make work that subjugates the negative properties of my childhood nightmares.
MD: What are you currently working on?
Aurora: I am working on a two-person exhibit with artist Sayaka Ganz, at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, NE. For this, I am creating a site-specific installation that stems from a pre-existing Koi pond, in a massive skylighted space. It is a unique opportunity to illustrate the volume and severity of plastic pollution and its relationship to marine life. The piece will be made from both industrial and personal plastic debris, welded and fastened, and embedded with many solar-powered illuminated pieces as well. It will feature a community engagement component, in which I invite visitors to help contribute to a stream of bottle caps (cleaned and sorted by color) that will appear to flow from the Koi pond, to ultimately lift off into a tornado/vortex of larger glowing transformed plastic debris components. The piece, named Arise is approximately 60’ tall, and the exhibit opens in January 2018.
I am also working on a solo exhibit called “Gravity Schmavity.” It is a new body of outdoor sculptures, to be displayed at Penn State University, at their Arboretum. These new outdoor sculptures are being made from industrial plastic debris taken from Penn State’s own waste stream and will be on view in different areas of their exceptional Arboretum. Using solar power, they will be illuminated from within after sunset. The exhibit opens in June of 2018.
In addition to these exhibits, I am working on a large outdoor sculpture for a park in North Carolina, and am ready to install a piece in a new glass lobby for a public school (PS50) in Queens. Both are made from welded industrial plastic debris.