Friday, December 31, 2010


A word about recycled plastic. “no deposit no return”.

We found a two-foot section of a plastic 2x6 on the beach, a cut-off scrap, most likely  the end of a larger piece of decking. How to parse that one? This washed-up plastic board, made from trashed plastic, will never be anything other than plastic pollution once its usefulness has expired. Once the mix of all kinds of plastic is made into a board, it will never be another something—only more landfill, more toxins leaching out to the sea. And, if I have to replace my old redwood deck...? What will I do? I sure don’t want to cut more trees—oh boy livin' large in the age of trash.

Plastic is very seldom recycled it is either down-cycled or up-cycled. Confused? Up-cycling means making something more useful from trash like fleece from PET bottles. Down-cycling converts waste into something useful but less functional, like shampoo bottles into shipping pallets, into boards like this piece. Once the down-up has happened that’s the end of the line— a slight detour in a straight line toward the trash. No chasing arrows. Recycling means used over again for a similar purpose—an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can; a glass bottle becomes a glass bottle.

Feeling "green washed?" Just when you were feeling so virtuous tossing that plastic water bottle in the proper bin, you find out that the container industry has been hard at it putting the onus on the consumer—for years, instead of taking responsibility at the source, billions of bottles are spewing out. That terrible packaging for a new case for your phone, oy veh! The container industry has resisted putting a return tax, or bottle deposits and has actively moved to defeat bill after bill. Remember “no deposit no return.” The true costs of plastic are never fig'ered into the equation. But what happens next?

Cradle to Cradle

This is the most sustainable concept yet devised—make stuff in closed loops, feeding the natural cycle and the techno cycle. The natural cycle is about composting, converting "waste" to food or soil. The techno cycle is about true recycling—that a can becomes a can again idea. Creating plastic that can have several lives as the same thing. The sole of a flip-flop becomes a new sole.

And still, picking up a four pound piece of plastic and carrying it home feels like a tiny virtue. And telling about It, feels like a breath of sanity.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice Greeting

Wasn't the Buddha's last instruction -
Make of yourself a lighter?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chirstmas Bird Count

After last night's howling winds and slashing rain and despite another major storm threatening (2010 is proving to be a wet year) we head out anyway. Maybe we'll get lucky and catch the trough in the storm. It's clear at 8 AM and the radar map looks free of rain clouds for a couple of hours at least. Who'd go to the beach today? We're surprised that the parking lot at Abbotts Lagoon (the beach just before Kehoe) is loaded with cars. Pretty rough weather coming, chilly but not too much wind yet. So many cars?

We start down the trail in our companionable silence. So nice to be together and quiet in nature and let the sounds in. Let the thoughts in. Surf in the distance, a lot of chirping in the marsh. We scare up a bunch of quail; their wing beats drum in the chest. Some paw prints in a slick patch of mud, fresh - we'd like them to be something exotic- fox, maybe weasel, but more likely a small raccoon. We have seen weasels here.

At the rise of the trail just before it dips down to the beach we see a group of four loaded with spotting gear—scopes and binos. They ask, "Are you doing the CBC? It's the 111th annual Christmas Bird Count." This explains the cars. "No, we're doing the Christmas Plastic Count," we say. They've seen Oyster Catchers, Kestrels, Virginia Rails and more. Numbers are rising and falling, mostly falling. We tell them about the Peregrine nest with four chicks we saw last spring.

After the night's windstorm, the sand has blown over everything: rocks,driftwood seaweed. It looks like a tan snowstorm. It's covering the abundance of plastic we expected to see. Still, we are able to gather a couple of bags full. The distribution for unusual things is so random. We find three soft rubbery fishing lures; white ones adding to the twelve-year total of 37, along with a coveted umbrella handle and a Mexican candy squeezer.

The water bottles we usually find are mostly local but there's one from China and then one with the label "Diet Aqua." Diet Water? Really? Yep, 0 calories. Turns out, it's from India, from the southeastern tip of the sub-continent near Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Chennai used to be called Madras. How did this bottle get here? Googling it, we get a YouTube of the purification process. Bottled water is a form of consumer madness here,but makes sense in a place like India where bacteria and parasites thrive in damp tropical heat; where over a billion human digestive systems are hard at work.

The road to the beach follows Lagunitas Creek, the last really viable breedingplace in Central California for Coho Salmon. On the ride back we stop at a good place to look for them, where for years we've watched salmon thrashing in a mating frenzy. Last year, though, none. There is encouraging news this winter—after two years of calamitous drop in salmon populations, there seems to be an upswing.This spot's become a Bay Area destination so the Park Service has put in an observation area- a parking lot and interpretive signs. It's stunning to see the bright red males, big as your arm flipping themselves up the rushing waters, the females whooshing the gravel in the streambed to make nests to lay eggs. Today there's too much silt in the runoff to see any fish but the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle had a big story about the increasing numbers. You really get a sense of deep instinct seeing the fish.

What got us up this morning into the cold and wet? Some deep, very human instinct to make something in this world. To make something beautiful, even out of the trash we find at the beach. We've lately been reading The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton.

It surely is evident that the human will toward beauty and the hard, sometimes uncomfortable journey is as strong as those salmon swimming back to the bed of their making. We go the beach on a crappy day; the birders are out in numbers...people like something beautiful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Numbers of feet

We have boxes and boxes of shoe parts collected from our 1000 yard stretch of beach. Boxes. Hundreds of heals, padded inserts, flip-flops, whole shoes.

A friend was looking at this part of our collection and found a shoe, a DKNY spangled sandal she had scrimped for as a teenager. Cinderella tried it on and it fit. Was it hers? She was amazed to see her teen-angst fetish object, the thing that would lift her into a dreamworld of glamour, in a box of rubbish. Oh! how the desire for being loved is manipulated and rubbed raw.

All these shoes washed out of the Pacific remind us of numbers of human feet on the planet. Let's see...over 6.5 billion people on earth right now, that would be 13 billion. How to think about that number???

Walking back from the beach loaded down with bags and bags, dragging tied together buoys and bigger scraps, tied with rope found at the beach, Richard started playing an arithmetic game. It takes the mind off the burden of the load.

Hmm, how long is a million seconds?? That'd be twelve days. A billion seconds, that'd be thirty one years ... Shoes feet time—big numbers made real (.. er) by a little arithmetic footwork.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Party at Block Party

On Friday the folks from Larkin Street Youth Services came to Natoma Street to see the installation of Block Party. It was a thrill to show and share the windows with the participants who tirelessly helped to string the many, many strands of plastic. They were excited to see the result of their efforts displayed in such a public venue - it definitely was empowering. After we viewed the windows, we had a docent tour of the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at SFMOMA. Needless to say, it was a fun and art-full day.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Birthday Beach

Late start today and not arriving at Kehoe until just before 4 PM. The sun behind a mackerel sky is telling us, more rain is on the way. The sun lights the clouds to a papier-mâché stage set for a Kabuki drama. The mind always wanders in an upswing of salt-air and wide, unbroken space. If this were on stage, it'd be telling the story of the lovely princess held at ransom by a brutal lord demanding fealty from the head Shogun. The Lord's mind has been compressed into a knot by endless warfare. Then he falls into a madness of love with the princess, grace herself, who feigns suicide. But then her captor, in his shock and grief does the seppuku for real.

A complicated story of human dimension we contemplate as we walk home down the trail in the dark. We saw a lion here just this last summer. A mountain lion, big, swiftly crossing the road at dawn. We both saw it a few yards from the Kehoe parking area. They like hunting at dawn and dusk and that makes for a very uncomplicated story of eat or eaten. Oh, the imagination...!

It's hard to look for plastic today, and not much worth writing about— the beach at sundown is magnificent. It's a super low tide (which meant a big high as well washing the beach pretty clean). The acreage has tripled and the sky doubled by mirror wash of the sliding soft surf. The exposed stacks of granite, right at the tide line are full of mussels, barnacles, starfish and anemones. We'll come back at the month's end with a pick and pail and gather a bunch for a great winter solstice meal. But the sky.... pink and blue-grey reflected in the sheen of the low tide wash makes your heart skip a beat. The heart.

On the way to the beach, (it's my birthday today—what the hell) I decided to count my breaths all the way down the trail, keeping track using the joints of my fingers like prayer beads... I imagine the image of the melancholy Kabuki drama as I walk. It's also the anniversary of my father's death, a very full man, who died on this day so I'd remember.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ghost Net

The shape and content of these images was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s seminal painting Full Fathom Five, so named from a line in Ariel’s song from The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Line and rope from an enormous ghost net was unraveled to emulate the skeins of paint in Pollock’s work. Ghost nets are pernicious entanglements of lost commercial fishing gear. Birds, fish, and marine mammals get caught in this silent floating debris —trapped in what is called “ghost fishing.” The “catch” weighs the net down so it sinks. Scavengers consume the contents so the net floats again and continues to sink and rise forever. It is estimated that ghost nets, some up to 4,000 yards long, account for approximately 10% of all marine plastic pollution.

The ghost net used in these pieces came directly from the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre, an accumulation of plastic caught in circling currents in area northeast of Hawaii, is sometimes called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is estimated to be 300,000 square miles—making it larger than Texas. By both weight and size it is the biggest garbage dump on earth. Plastic is composed of polymers that never “biodegrade” —they are with us forever sloughing and breaking down to make a polymer soup that outweighs the plankton in this area by a factor of 30 to 1.

Project Kaisei, based in San Francisco and Hong Kong, is a scientific and commercial venture whose mission is to study and cleanup the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In the summer of 2009, when Project Kaisei returned from the gyre with a truckload of plastic debris they asked if we could store it. We are grateful to have the use of their collection.

For more than a decade we have collected and fashioned artwork from over two tons of plastic pollution gleaned exclusively from 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach along the Point Reyes National Seashore. For this project we gladly stepped outside of our usual geographical parameters.

These high resolution images were created and printed at Electric Works, a gallery and fine art print studio in San Francisco.

Our exhibition "Ghost Net" in the SFMOMA Artist Gallery Windows on Minna Street will be on display until June 2011.

Block Party

After almost a year of planning and anticipating the installation of "Block Party" in the SFMOMA Artist Gallery windows on Natoma Street the job is done. All of the plastic you see here was collected by two people from 1,000 yards of beach, Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. One piece at a time. Our collecting is limited to this one spot.
Since 1999, we have collected over two tons of plastic trash and have used it make prints, installations, and sculptures, finding this plastic pollution as a compelling art material. It was all washed onto the beach from out in the Pacific, the San Francisco Bay, and from the Russian River Watershed.
In 2005 the United Nations Environmental Programme reported that there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean. This fact seemed like a good starting point to count and exhibit this representative sample.

Special thanks to Intersection for the Arts for coordinating the workshops with Larkin Street Youth Services. Even the rote task of stringing plastic was transformed by their individual creative approaches. It was exciting to see how seriously, and with great attention to detail, each person fashioned their strand.

Fredisha H.
Raymond J.
David W.
John S.
Zaire B.
Daniel L.
Mayco R.
Jose A.
Adrienne S.
Michael W.
Gustavo M.
Christian H.
Warren R.
Don Clay V.
Lauren Forbus Peer Vocational Counselor
Tyrone Smith Day Labor Supervisor
Megan Doherty-Baker Day Labor Manager
Peter Carpou Art Program Manager
Rebeka Rodriguez
Program Director, Education and Community Engagement
Ryan Biega Intern

Train Wreck

We've been talking with each other lately more about “place” than “plastic.” Plastic pollution, the trash we pick up, one piece at a time gets us to the beach to add to our collection, but foremost among our desires is the lean we have to be in a place that is intact—unspoiled by the industrial global market place. Where the plants and animals are shaped by the forces of natural selection, where the terrain of the landscape is shaped by forces of plate tectonics - this place feels absolutely right.

The mood at the beach depends on the light and weather but it always feels authentic which in turn gets us talking about existentialism. Before the psychedelic roller coaster in the later 60's when reality gained mutability, it was the simple fact of pure being that moved us. Artists like Alberto Giacometti and Jackson Pollock were the heroes trying to show in paint and bronze what it feels like to accept existence as it is and to live a life navigating by your own lights.

On the trail to the beach where the ground has been continually disturbed, you do walk through a slough of invasive species: European Mustard and Hemlock and Italian Thistle, but once at the beach it feels intact, like out of a book on natural history.

In spring the marsh thick with native Cattail and Tule is whirring with the calls of Redwing Blackbirds. Last summer we saw a pair of Tundra Swans flying back and forth over the marsh. Long necks like arrows. As you approach the beach, European Beach Grass was planted to stop the motion of the dunes. That has done more harm than good. Now a pilot program has started to remove the invasive grass.... it’s a great experiment to see if a place can be put back right. Despite the flaws, all in all, this National Seashore is the most "right" one can feel. It'd be pretty close to perfect place were it not for the plastic.

On the beach we meet a pair of women who volunteer for Beach Watch a project of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. They've got clipboards and sheets of numbers–they are counting live birds and dead ones as well as mammals. We tell them that the Peregrine nesting site high on the cliff last spring had four chicks. Today it had a pair of young adult Peregrines calling chirrup-chirrup not the insistent baby hungry squawk they made when we last saw them. This sounded like love.

Kehoe Beach wasn't always here-some of the geology matches the granite rocks of the Tehachapi slip fault 300 miles south. Some from the Monterey Formation is from sediments deposited underwater, the earlier ones are bedded like pages in a book and the soft sandstone of the Laird Formation was laid down probably in riverbeds. Bands of pebbles from fossilized riverbeds are visible. It’s all been tumbled together as illustrated in this animation from UC Santa Barbara. There are lots of enlightening animations, this one used with gracious permission of Tanya Atwater, director of The Educational Multimedia Visualization Center.

What we think of as a fixed place in our visual world is always in motion. Where is here? Today the most spectacular sight is the cliff where the Laird Formation smacked into the granite. It looks like a train wreck with the cars piled up onto an immovable object—the light sandstone heaved up onto the granite.

Those cliffs lit by slanting light accompanied by the sound of booming surf – we are witness to big drama when the imperceptible motions of the Earth are made visible.
And to the plastic. Judith was supreme. A pink Dolphin—pretty easy to spot, but that tiny alien? How'd she ever pick him out of the strew?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Season Opener. 12th Year Anniversary.

There were no bands or speeches, no fireworks or singing of The Star Spangled Banner. But the sea wrack was a festive-looking bunting of green kelp cables confettied with bits of plastic shrapnel. Festive? Such a strange mix of feelings to be back on the job, both thrilled and at once, thoroughly disgusted. It's a sullen day of lowering clouds portending rain.

All of this stuff tossed away and now come back, sea worn, some of it from the 1940's when synthetics rose to replace vital materials for the war effort. We've found items we can date from that era, intact and completely identifiable. Time and forever. The long forever. And geologic time is part of the scene at Kehoe. The line of cliffs here make a horizontal time-line ranging from the Miocene (10 MYA) back to 100 million years to the Cretaceous.Soon after we bent to the task (Judith found the first lighter of the season and right away Richard found the first cheese spreader stick) a group of forty came through the defile of the trail and down to the beach. Each with a printout of the 1000-yard silhouette of the cliff wall. The line drawing looks like some Levantine script. Geology class. We've seen dozens of these groups. Two TA’s carry square headed pick hammers.

They've come to see the bones of the earth exposed and laid out like some monumental "Fig. A" in the book of slow changes. Toward the end of the beach is a dramatic texture and color change as grey granite sits contiguously in contact with pale yellow sandstone.

The students seem curious and open-faced, bright and on task unlike some groups we see who, filling a science requirement, present a sullen overweight and disinterested manner. Today these Geology majors from UC Berkeley seem genuinely interested. We show a girl the bag of plastic we've collected, explain that the future geologists will describe our findings as fragments from the Plasticene Era. We ask the teacher, "How did 10 million year old rock get butted smack against 100 million year old rock?" He tells how the Monterey Formation was on a magma conveyor that collided with the granite. The granite is the same pluton bubble that made the Sierras. “Pluton?” Richard queries. The teacher responds, “The huge up thrust of deep granite. The borderline of the collision is called an unconformity or discontinuity. It's a violent event though in slow motion. Fossils are usually broken up. You rarely see fossils at the juncture but go look just past that dune and you can see a line of barnacles and mollusks." We do and there they are, the secret inner life of stone long in the dark, now exposed for us to see.The Prof says he's never seen this anywhere else in the inexorable motion of geology. He is talking about time, big time. Yet, even in our short twelve years here, we've seen changes. This year the plastic arrived earlier than we've ever seen and last spring it stayed later.

Today we collect two bags of random chunks and the usual oyster tubes, sabots, tiparello tips. No soldiers though. We love finding soldiers.On the trail back we stop to watch a three-foot garter snake moving sluggishly in the grass. Usually they vanish like water poured down a drain. This snake has a small rat inside made visible in the expanded girth about three inches below the head. We know it’s a rat cause some folks coming along behind us say they had seen the snake trying to swallow the rat. They couldn't believe it got the thing swallowed. I tell Judith I once saw a snake with a frog head in its mouth. Nothing but the head, the body already down the hatch.At the trailhead next to the road there are two garbage cans – one for sorting recyclables, one for trash. Because of our strict parameters of “found on 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach” we usually don’t do this but Judith took a look–see. In the can sitting up on a broken plastic Igloo cooler lid was a soldier. Right there, our first soldier of the season. Yea! It seems like some strange victory for the season opener.  Pyrrhic victory at best.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Often, like any collector we sort and resort our treasures and in the latest sifting—a dollhouse phone popped out of the blizzard of bits and pieces of plastic debris. We didn’t notice it at first. We almost missed it. But, in our cleaning and sorting process we found it as one of the hundreds of miniature furnishings made by the Renwal Company. It was last manufactured in 1956. It looks pretty good as iPhone wallpaper.

B-rrrrrrrr-iiing. Sounds like a long distance call.

A phone within a phone within a phone becomes an infinite regress as it does in optics where an infinite series of receding images are created in two parallel facing mirrors.

B-rrrrrrrr-iiing. Sounds like a way long distance call.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Keep America Beautiful

We are all grateful for the Keep America Beautiful campaign to curb littering. 
“Don’t be a litterbug”
“People start pollution, people can stop it”
“Every litterbit hurts”

Highway signs warning of $1000 fines for littering brought responsibility to the public. It was an effective campaign and good to bring consciousness to the problem of litter. Litter really was a problem. Still is. In the TV series Mad Men we were jolted by an early 60's picnic scene of historical realism where the mom casually shakes out the blanket on the grass and papers and cans go flying. Something we would never do today-dutifully and virtuously we throw trash into waste bins and even separate things into compost, recycling, and garbage. We've been trained by all those public service ads (paid for by the public)—Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear for the lost innocence of a wild America.

But under the recast convention of keeping America beautiful the real action came when "bottle bills" found their way into public legislation. Manufacturers were scheduled to become responsible for the "no deposit-no return" containers. Fees were to be added to beer and soft-drink containers. The Keep America Beautiful campaign pointed the arrow of responsibility away from manufacturers and 180° back to the consumer. A very good move for profits and a very bad move for our world. Bottle bills were defeated over and over again, even recently in California where producer responsibility was cast as a culprit in "job loss."

We created Beauty Bar for an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Center. All of these beauty product bottles and tubes and applicators came to us washed up on Kehoe Beach on our 1000-yard stretch of beach. To really Keep America Beautiful, become aware of green washing and point the finger back at producers. Demand real bottle bills from your legislators.

Why do we insist profits are more important than posterity?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mystery Revealed

Many things we find are strange to us but when we find several of a type we know an opening to a revelation is at hand. This pile belongs to a category of candy delivery systems called Pelón Pelo Rico - plastic pushup squeeze tubes that squish out, through little holes, wormy squiggles of sometimes sweet sometimes very spicy candy gel. We had no idea what these things were until we saw one on the sidewalk in San Jose, California – it was intact with a tiny bit of candy still ready to be pushed through the holes. The treat originated in Guadalajara. These plastic remains were found on Kehoe Beach.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Environmental Grantmakers Association

Richard and I are back from an amazing week at Asilomar for the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference where we presented a series of new works and spoke about the importance of adding love and beauty to the environmental conversation. After days of charts and statistics about the demise of species and our troubled planet, our talk offered a breath of hope and highlighted the important role that art can play as an activating force. Our latest series "What's for supper?" was in the good company of Chris Jordan's powerful images Midway: Message from the Gyre.

His stunning photographs of albatross chicks filled with plastic were displayed with our soup bowls filled with beach plastic, nurdles and baby binkys- the toxic meal being served to human babies. The show made for a one-two punch and was a real conversation starter for the some 300 conference attendees. We are grateful to Harriet Barlow for the invitation.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

THE day…Coastal Clean Up Day.

This is our Ramadan, our Easter, our Diwali, our Yom Kippur. And this is a day of days for us, we being the poster kids for the 2010 CCD.

Today is warm and windless. No fog. Glassy four-foot swells roll in… and in. . . For the novice the beach looks pretty clean, but for us, the slightest glimpse of shape and color gets us stooping and scrabbling in the sand. We have become virtuosi at finding interesting things, almost invisible things, lost in the sweep of sand. We're always on the hunt for things that open up the big story of plastic — the synthetic background of our world. In the fall when the plastic is minimal it takes a well-practiced eye to pickthings out of the organic debris.
A speck of blue pulled from the sand reveals bitty sunglasses from a Bratz® doll. The Bratz® family is burgeoning with over 500 members carrying names like Roxxy Spice and Sugar Shoes Dana. Bratz® superseded Barbie® as the #1 seller and she's blatantly sexualized even compared to Barbie®. She's a very liberated young woman all right, but seems liberated to dance around a brass pole. Her outfits come right out of a stripper catalogue. Fishnet stockings, platform shoes and leather miniskirts caused the American Psychological Association to raise an alarm in their report—APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.

The Bratz® girls, it turns out, are also no strangers to the courtroom. She's endured many and ongoing copyright lawsuits, accusations of racketeering, and the National Labor Committee reports that workers who make the Bratz® line, labor 94.5 hours a week earning $48.20. After a year's hiatus, on 10/10/10, a new line of Bratz® will be released, keeping the flow of desire gushing. Oh, the world of manufactured desire, plasticizing the hierarchy of our profligacy, equalized by a glut of disposable goods.

We are always in a kind of Ayn Randian competition to be the supreme master of finding. Our animus for being the best began with "disposable" lighters but once we had found hundreds, our hierarchy inclined toward the most unusual, the hardest to spot, the piece that tells the best story. Today was a good day for all categories. The Bratz® glasses tell an international story of toy intrigue.

The beige bull, well camouflaged in the sand, emerging as if out of a prehistoric cave has all the look of a victor for it's concealed placement in the shadow of a log.

The toy tank with a crust of Bryozoan houses speaks of age and the allure of detail.

But, the diminutive pink spoon with a heart speaks of the part of this journey that is a love story.
The little pink heart...
When we arrived at the cliff that marks the end of "our part" of the beach—after all that stoop labor—we lay in the sand and slept for a bit curled like seals. As we walked back with our load for the day we were unintentionally silent. It's a fine thing to be with another in a silent reverie — continuing our vocation at Kehoe Beach.