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Project Vortex: Intercepting and transforming the plastic waste stream collectively

Project Vortex: Intercepting and transforming the plastic waste stream collectively

Project Vortex is a continually expanding network of artists, designers and architects around the world who are actively intercepting the plastic waste stream as a part of their practices. Via projects done by this collective, they support non-profit organizations who are conducting cleanups of waterways. 

The not-for-profit organization, therefore, is raising awareness about plastic pollution while raising money to restrict the flow of plastic to our oceans itself. At the helm of this collective, is founding artist Aurora Robson, who has not only united several creative professionals towards a common goal but has also created ‘Project Vortex University'–a virtual library for people seeking resources and information so that they can start to intercept the plastic waste stream creatively themselves. 

Among the resources under the umbrella of Project Vortex University, is the college course developed by Aurora, ‘Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream,' which she has taught at several colleges in the United States, and continues to develop and open up to artists and educators around the world.

Learn more about Project Vortex and the educational dimensions of Aurora Robson's work in our continued conversation with her below. For a glimpse of her personal, artistic journey and material innovation with plastic debris, read the first part of this conversation here in "Aurora Robson's cascading transformation of the plastic waste stream".

Cover Image: A part of Japanese Artist Sayaka Ganz's 'Running' series of works. Sayaka is a member of Project Vortex

MD: How did the process of bringing together these artists, designers, and architects under a common manifesto begin for you? What qualities unite them?

Aurora: Art and garbage are the two things humans leave behind, and I believe that there must be a way to diminish the latter and increase the former. There are so many talented artists, designers, and architects working in different ways with plastic debris. I wanted to shed light on this and share some of the attention I have received for my work. I wanted to help people see this as a viable option for professional art practice, educational endeavors, community engagement, etc. 

 Sculpture created from plastic debris  by Project Vortex's founding artist  Aurora Robson

Sculpture created from plastic debris  by Project Vortex's founding artist  Aurora Robson

Today, I also try to connect Project Vortex’s artists with emerging opportunities. It is important to try to support one another in this work, as it can become quite depleting after any length of time, working with what seems like an ever-increasing supply of toxic debris; especially when most people don’t see cultural value or significance in this activity. 

Or they do for a second but are unable to change their habits or exercise their purchasing power with other concerns to weigh in. Art of this nature deserves more public support, for it is serving the public. 

Because plastic pollution is a growing global problem, and art is a growing global language, I knew I couldn’t be alone in wishing to make my work serve double duty, and address this issue in a more tangible way. The desire to create art is the opposite of the impulse to throw something “away,” so artists are well suited for creative stewardship and related activities. 

 The spectrum of work, all created and focussed on plastic debris, generated by the collective of artists and designers in Project Vortex.

The spectrum of work, all created and focussed on plastic debris, generated by the collective of artists and designers in Project Vortex.

Also, I like giving artists a platform to be of service outside of the marginalized art market/gallery system that few people (of the whole) are engaged in. I am interested in broadening the art/environmental discourse. Art can do more than merely activate spaces, sustain its makers, or engage people in dialogues. It has the potential to be of real value and service to all living creatures on earth–even creatures like plankton which will never see the art we make, but are silently ingesting micro-plastics. Our atmosphere, oxygen, and water are all at risk from our careless handling of plastic.

 Art by Xandi Kreuzeder, one of  the three creators of   'Skeleton Sea'-   A project that generates art with a distinctive style, using flotsam and jetsam: beach trash, weathered materials. Xandi Kreuzeder is a member of Project Vortex.

Art by Xandi Kreuzeder, one of  the three creators of 'Skeleton Sea'- A project that generates art with a distinctive style, using flotsam and jetsam: beach trash, weathered materials. Xandi Kreuzeder is a member of Project Vortex.

So, I began researching and reaching out to other artists whose work I found to be compelling, sophisticated, innovative, groundbreaking or fun–work that is relevant and either made out of plastic debris or really focused on it. Today, I have an extensive list of amazing people, groups, and organizations who are doing great work that I need to contact and (hopefully) add to the growing roster at Project Vortex, but it is something I can continue to do when I have an abundance of resources. I welcome all support and interest in the Project Vortex initiative.

MD: There is a mechanism that has been established here, where the work that Project Vortex’s artists do helps fund cleanup and awareness and supports other non-profit organizations. How are both artists and commissioning clients responding to this incredible model?

Aurora: I am fortunate to see a constant stream of positive responses to Project Vortex. I regularly receive email inquiries from artists all over the world wanting to be involved, messages from conservation groups, questions from collectors and curators who are interested in collaborating or working with us in different ways, the array is vast and very encouraging. Project Vortex has also become a resource for educators, which is very exciting for me. 

Many artists have sold work through the site, so it supports both practicing artists and conservation efforts directly. I see it start to function more and more the way I imagined, even though it is still a relatively small cross section of what is out there in terms of active engagement.

 Art created from plastic beach debris, by Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, of   One Plastic Beach.   The duo are members of Project Vortex.

Art created from plastic beach debris, by Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, of One Plastic Beach. The duo are members of Project Vortex.

MD: Through your artwork, and courses such as 'Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream (SIWS),' you are propagating an entirely new way of responding to discarded materials and interpreting resources. It is an open-source approach, with the curriculum of your course available to other educators, artists, and universities, to implement and share. What then, is the future you imagine, and hope for?

Aurora: SIWS has great potential for impact. Imagine if a few thousand artists/designers/architects join Project Vortex to participate in this form of creative stewardship, that would be great. However, if I could convince a thousand or two reputable academic institutions to implement SIWS regularly, that would begin to restrict the flow of plastic debris to our oceans both directly and indirectly. There is little sense in cleaning up the oceans and shores if we aren’t going to turn off or restrict the constant and ever increasing flow of debris that is getting it there in the first place. 

   Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream has resulted in exhibitions such as these, where college students taking the course have exhibited their finessed work, made from plastic debris collected from local rivers and creeks.

Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream has resulted in exhibitions such as these, where college students taking the course have exhibited their finessed work, made from plastic debris collected from local rivers and creeks.

The first high school implementation of the course (that I am aware of, as it is open source and can be implemented by anyone) is being conducted at Pawling High School in NY right now. I have been consulting them occasionally, but I prefer to let teachers customize the course so that it works for them. I am excited to see and hear of more schools around the country implementing the course, and I get frequent updates and inquiries about from people asking where they can take the course.

I have a lot of work to do ahead–to make the system more organized, cohesive and easier for educators to share resources and tips for implementation with one another, as well as track opportunities for people to take the course. If people know where the course might be happening in their vicinity, I think it could gain a lot of momentum, owed to increasing public interest and awareness.

 The  ' Head in the Clouds'  pavilion, by Project Vortex members Studio KCA  is the main gathering space for FIGMENT’s 2013 summer-long exhibition on New York’s Governors Island. The pavilion was created from 53,780 recycled bottles.

The ' Head in the Clouds' pavilion, by Project Vortex members Studio KCA  is the main gathering space for FIGMENT’s 2013 summer-long exhibition on New York’s Governors Island. The pavilion was created from 53,780 recycled bottles.

SIWS gives students an opportunity to do something that has a direct, tangible, and positive impact on their environment,  increase their awareness about a daunting environmental issue, and empower them through community engagement, all the while developing their creative problem-solving muscles while working in a cross-disciplinary environment. All of this serves them well as they move through academia and beyond. Giving students an opportunity to experience the satisfaction of seeing their efforts transformed into value, and in a way that serves a meaningful purpose, is I think, the future of education. 

MD: Thank you so much Aurora, for helping us understand how Project Vortex was created, and how it is evolving, as well as giving us an insight into the immense possibilities that 'Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream (SIWS)' can unleash. Readers, to learn more about Project Vortex, click here. To learn about Aurora's personal work, read our previous article here, or visit her website.


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