What we depend on so heavily and dispose of so quickly

Pile of plastic and dancers
What does a collection of plastic shopping bags have to do with choreographing a dance? For me there was a powerful connection—and in this post I want to explain how a material we associate with waste richly fueled a creative process.

In the fall of 2018, as I began working with six other dancers on a new project, I felt pulled towards incorporating physical materials other than our bodies. My curiosities and questions arising outside of my time in the dance studio often end up dictating the process through which I make performance works. And at this time I had a growing fascination with plastic waste and reducing my plastic consumption.

I think in part this was sparked by a plastic recycling program at my Food Coop, which hosts a soft-plastic recycling drop-off two times a month in partnership with Terracycle. For several months I had saved up all my soft-plastic, from both my grocery shopping at the Coop and from my day-to-day life. When I was finally able to schedule in time to go to the drop off, I was saddened to learn they would only accept the plastic waste that was from the Coop. I was left with a huge bag of plastic waste that could not be recycled and, in turn, I had to dispose of elsewhere. (I ended up dropping it off at a CVS plastic recycling drop-off).

This event prompted my fascination with my growing collection of soft-plastics, and more specifically, the items that can not be recycled, reused, repurposed in the traditional (and failing) recycling system. This was when I began saving articles of plastic waste that were at the end of the consumer use phase of their “life cycles” and were headed for the garbage can.

Pile of plasticNot knowing what to do with my burgeoning inventory of non-recyclable soft-plastic items, I brought them into the studio space and asked my collaborators to bring in items they had collected as well. Pretty soon we had a GIANT trash bag filled with our precious props of plastic waste, each item appreciating in sentimental value. Most of our non-recyclable plastic waste was soft, see-through, and malleable, which allowed for a lot of creative potential.

Initially the plastic served as a means to deepen our explorations of ourselves and each other. It then became a bridge, allowing us to enter into other states of being or modes of experiencing. At times the material served as a lens through which to look at each other and the world around us. The plastic allowed for simultaneous isolation and connection, depending on which surfaced at the current moment.

The plastic puts a lot of energy into the room that enables instantaneous creativity, provides inspiration, and aids in a level of playfulness. The presence of abundant plastic provides a solid and continual “jumping off” point. It enables constant creativity without a dull moment; there is so much to play with, to take in, to feel on our skin, to sit with, etc. – dancer Chris Cahoon
Anna guides a group of dancers into a massive heap of soft plastic and witnesses our germination inside of this ecosystem. One of the most spacious and expansive processes I have ever been a part of, we spend hours cocooned in the plastic that it is at once a dumpster and a womb. Mundane and otherworldly. We shift through relationships with each other, with specific pieces of plastic, with the space as a whole, with our skin, breath, sweat. – dancer Maddie Leonard-Rose

Dancer looking at plastic

A realization, and some questions, emerged as we immersed ourselves in the heap of plastic we had assembled. An unstated assumption beneath my experience became clear: plastic is a waste item, something overused, dis-valued, ultimately to be discarded. But, I began to wonder, can it also be sacred, special, necessary, crucial? Can the same object – a ubiquitous, wasteful, discarded item, be transformed into a crucial, unique, item of inextricable value?

Trio of dancersSomething of that transformation began to happen in the dance studio, as a kind of response to my reflections on waste. In our society we depend on objects so heavily, and we dispose of them so quickly; we produce massive amounts of waste living our lives. Here materializes a bizarre sentiment of abundance – an inversion of the abundance of goods that surrounds us. But as my dancers’ movement research progressed in the studio, we cultivated a very rich sense of abundance in ourselves, in relationship to each other, and to the discarded plastic that surrounded us in the space.

Which led me to wonder further: is there a hierarchy of abundance? Is abundance produced without leaving a footprint superior to one that creates waste? Can we do more to evoke abundance – that does not involve products, and therefore does not produce waste? Could our sense of shared abundance, as a dance unit, be shared with our spectators? And if so, what would that experience be like?

The answers that began to emerge from our movement were informed by some insights offered by Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian-born philosopher and psychoanalyst. In the film “Examined Life” (2008) Žižek talks about the human relationship to our current ecological condition. Only once we are able to see it clearly, he argues, will we be able to enact any sort of change – personally or societally. Thus he encourages us to cut ties to spontaneous nature (the idyllic image we are obsessed with) and to “become more artificial.” Instead of engaging in a false sense of nature, he suggests we embrace the notion that our true nature is an artificial landscape of trash and waste. Can we find poetry and spirituality within this new dimension? Can we unearth beauty in trash? Can we encounter a true and pure sense of love? We all know that loving means accepting what a person or thing is; for Žižek, to love is to find perfection in imperfection. Can we find perfection and acceptance within the landscape of waste we have produced?

Group of dancers with plasticIn the dance studio my collaborators and I had an inkling of how these possibilities might be realized. Through our juxtapositions – with other dancers, and the waste objects around us – associations arose between our fleeting tender relations with each other and with the material. Suddenly, being deeply tender towards the plastic began to depict alternatives to how we can treat and be in relation to each other. A playful moment with a piece of discarded bubble wrap engulfed me, and allowed me to drop down into a state of childlike play, which in turn spread to my collaborators. Soon we were all jumping up and down like children, laughing and tossing pieces of waste in the air and at each other. I found myself rubbing a discarded bag across my face and body, enjoying the sensation of the material on my skin, indulging in pleasure with this piece of waste, allowing myself to surrender to this totally odd and deeply tender moment. Later, I noticed how this moment resonated with me as I encountered trash on the street, noticing a tender feeling towards the chip bags, cigarette wrappers, and even gum splatter on the New York City streets.

I hope that some of what I felt was available to the audience when we presented the initial version of our work in Spring 2019, under the title “I already am, all the time” (click for a five-minute set of excerpts) Let me make clear, though, while my dance reuses plastic waste, I am not holding it up as a sustainable process for solving the plastic waste problem. I do, however, think the way in which my collaborators and I reused our plastic waste, creating a step between use and trash/recycling, allowed us to offer our audience an experience of plastic in an interesting limbo state. They saw bags no longer used as bags, packaging no longer protecting goods; they saw plastic in a state in which it served no “useful purpose.” But these pieces of waste were charged with the memories of the roles they played in daily life. In just the way Marit Hammond discussed on this blog, I’d like to think that my creative process pushed the spectators of this performances’ understanding of waste, and perhaps created a conscious pause and moment of reflection in the seconds before dropping a piece of plastic into a garbage can.

I am now working on a new rendition of this piece and process. We are calling the work “Embrace(d)” and it will be performed in part of a larger climate justice event I am producing called W A S T E in S P A C E. Please click on the poster below for more information.

Waste in Space poster


Anna Vomacka is a Brooklyn, NY based choreographer; her website is annavomacka.com. All the photographs and the dance video are hers.

Nature’s Arts: Of People and Bogs

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

This past June, I gave a talk at the Art in the Anthropocene conference at Trinity College Dublin and used the always-happy occasion of being in Ireland to visit a few places there that I had not previously visited. Among them were Continue reading

Earth Plasticity and Plasticity of Perception

One of my earliest memories as a freshman at UCLA took place in the front row of a cavernous, wood-paneled lecture hall equipped with a black-topped resin demonstration table. The class was Introductory Geology, and the professor a bearded, pony-tailed free spirit giddy with the anticipation of Continue reading

Material of Our Time

I actually prefer plastic as a material because it is a material for our times. It represents the now. Ironically it is also ‘archival’, meaning in terms of its longevity it lasts over 100 years. This means that for art, it is a great material.

Claudia Hart (artist/sculptor), “Resolution, Reification,
and Resistance,”  3d Additivist Cookbook.

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a respected curator and gallery director about my research on Continue reading

Petro Pete, Plastic Mascot for Plausible Denial

Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream

In 2016, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) published the fourth volume of its “Petro Pete” series of illustrated children’s books. To promote Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream, K-2 classes throughout the state were invited Continue reading

The Plastic Arts in the Anthropocene

Joseph Beuys, “7000 Oaks” adapted under CC A-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

This coming June, I will give a talk at the “Art in the Anthropocene” conference at Trinity College, Dublin about the sculptural theory of the German artist Joseph Beuys. I will discuss the theory’s implications for the politics and ethics of human action in the Anthropocene, implications imbricated with accusations that Beuys, a pilot in the Luftwaffe during World War II, harbored fascist tendencies in his working methods, which often involve the marshaling of large numbers of people in projects that Beuys grouped under the rubric “social sculpture.” Key for this talk, and for this post, will be a remark Beuys made in 1975 about plastic, so I wanted to use the occasion of this post to further some of my thinking about Beuys, particularly where it most intersects with our present focus on plastic.

Continue reading

Plastics and Animal Communication in the Anthropocene

Satin Bowerbird at his bower JCB.jpg

Ubiquitous plastic in the environment is a hallmark of the Anthropocene (Waters et al. 2016). Wildlife routinely ingest, becoming entangled in, and are impaired by plastic pollution, creating a pressing global problem (e.g., Vegter et al. 2014). While undoubtedly an environmental crisis, these acute impacts are not my focus. I am interested in a more subtle phenomenon: Continue reading

Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene

In the spirit of shameless self-promotion I’m delighted to announce the release by Routledge of a new collection of essays, edited by Manuel Arias-Maldonado and myself, entitled Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene: Political Theory and Socionatural Relations in the New Geological Epoch. The book grew out of a workshop of environmental political theorists held in 2016. It brings together work by both established and emerging scholars–some of whom contributed initial versions of their ideas to this blog.

Click to download a flyer with the table of contents, and some endorsements. The flyer has a code you can use to purchase Rethinking the Environment Continue reading

“Elysium”

CITATION:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1997.  Part IV, Letter XI (pp. 386-401) of Julie, or the New Heloise. Tr. Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché. In Collected Writings of Rousseau (Volume 6). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Julie is an epistolary novel set in mid-eighteenth century Switzerland. The plot involves the relationship between St. Preux, a young man who is hired as a tutor to the title character. They become lovers, but he is Continue reading

Pondering a diorama to perceive the Anthropocene

“This sprawling epic is as lively as a natural history museum diorama.” (Stephanie Zacharek, review of “10,000 BC”)

Perceiving means to become conscious of, to realize, to understand, to grasp. Natural history museums strive to enable the public to perceive, commonly in re-creations of past worlds. Who hasn’t gazed over a diorama of the Carboniferous Period, for example, Continue reading