Pam Longobardi Photo: Kip Evans
with Nitzanah Griffin
Pam Longobardi, Submergent / Emergent”, 2018, Ocean plastic, driftnet, steel pins, silicone; 120 x 150 x 10 "
Pam Longobardi is a conceptual artist and art activist whose work calls attention to the environmental crisis of marine plastic pollution. Employing anthropology, environmental research, and forensic cataloging, she collects non-degradable plastic trash dumped into our waterways and littering beaches, and reinterprets the debris through abstract paintings, documentary photography, intricate assemblages, and large-scale installations. Her work explores themes of consumer culture, environmental recklessness, and socio-political global conflict. She investigates humanity’s complicated entanglement with plastic consumption, making compelling work that reveals plastic's wider implications for our physical and environmental health, the ocean and marine ecosystems.
Longobardi redefines the ways in which relational art can function as activism for social change. In 2006, she founded the Drifters Project, an ongoing intervention where she mobilizes citizens, students, scientists, filmmakers and indigenous communities in labor-intensive cleaning of sea caves, beaches and coastlines worldwide. Longobardi serves as “Artist in Nature” with the Oceanic Society and her work has made the cover of Sierra magazine. In 2013, she became a Hudgens Prize recipient, and the Drifters Project has been featured in National Geographic magazine among many others. In our interview, Longobardi thoughtfully discusses the inspiration for her art, activism and her working process.
Pam Longobardi Photo: Susan Knippenberg
Nitzanah Griffin: Discuss your practice of locating plastic object debris in relation to the “Conscious Ocean” as a living entity.
Pam Longobardi: I believe there is a general intelligence in nature itself and the ocean, as the place where life on earth began, which might embody the ultimate creative consciousness. There is much to be learned by appreciating the non-human world as a vast intelligent life-force, far more ancient than ourselves. If we view this dramatic alteration of the physical world as mere side effects of our desire to take, own, build, and use, then we have forever diminished other life in pursuit of our fulfillment. No other creature knowingly does this. I often prepare for seeking locations by looking at coastal zones on Google Earth, as well as tide and current charts, which are familiar to me from preparation for surfing. All life on this planet originated in the ocean; it contains knowledge and information that can be accessible through deep attention. Because of a near-drowning incident when I was a child of 8, I discovered that the ocean is full of wonder, and by paying attention to barnacles feeding underwater right before my eyes, instead of struggling against the jetty that trapped me, I relaxed and became ‘liquid’ in a way that allowed me to be pushed onto shore by the next wave. This was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Later as an adult, when I sought to get ocean back in my life and began traveling to Costa Rica and Hawaii to learn to surf, I found a shockingly different reality: myriad multitudinous plastics being vomited out of the ocean. Upon closer study, I realized that these objects were not just garbage, they were information; in fact, I believe the ocean to be a conscious entity that is communicating with us through this material we have made and can recognize, the plastic drifters. The idea of a ‘conscious ocean’ is alien to western thought but is very much a part of a worldview of native Hawai’ians and other indigenous cultures. The plastics tell a story of globalism, consumption, hubris, ecological disruption and waste of resources. But they also tell a story of intentionality, irony, and even a sense of humor.
Pam Longobardi,Crime Of Willful Neglect (For BP)”, 2014, Ocean plastic from Gulf of Mexico, Alaska; 138 x 84 x 6"
NG: Which comes first when you embark on a location? The installation idea or the messages conveyed from the plastic materials?
PL: I approach a beach cleaning without any preconceived ideas and just allow myself to discover what is there. I do a sort of forensic aesthetic process when I am cleaning, paying attention to the deposition, relationship to other objects and a deep study of the objects themselves to try to glean any information they might reveal. Sometimes this information comes in the form of visual symbols, metaphors, irony or even puns, but the dominant resonance is that these things are new objects, even if they are quite old, and different from the once-new objects that they were, because they are freighted with information about the physical space of the global ocean and the creatures (including us) that intermingle there. These objects are products of consumer excess transformed into ciphers, specters of larger networks of connection, life and death, past and present, and possibly, the future. As material artifacts, they document human inventiveness but also irresponsibility, and when they return from the sea changed by their interactions with other lives and natural forces, we understand the gravity of their impact on the future of our, and the planet’s, existence. I feel that this invented material, plastic, made from the energy stored in long-dead living creatures, is redolent of our ego, or more precisely, our id, where we willfully do what we want because we can, regardless of the cost. Ultimately, this is self-destructive.
Pam Longobardi, REWORLDING Installation shot, 2017. Anchor (our albatross), 2017, recovered ocean plastic and steel, dimensions 168 x 144 x 28 " Hope Floats, survival rescue blankets and life vest straps; and Flag of Lesvos (anamnesis), 2017, recovered life vests from Lesvos, Greece; thread, 110 x 175"
NG: In the monumental work Anchor (Our Albatross), 2017, a larger than life anchor overtakes a gallery space, and is supported by a series of life tubes covered in gold plastic wrap. It looks massively heavy. Discuss your technique of creating this work.
PL: This piece took me and my assistant, and a 3r d intern almost 8 months to complete, but to count the real time involved it would stretch into numerous years because it takes a great deal of time and effort to collect this much plastic. In this piece I also had donated plastic from an activist group in Kauai, the Kauai Net Patrol, a group of surfers who regularly cleans the beach and is a great supporter of mine. The scale is quite large, it’s about 12 ft tall and 14 ft wide, so there is a welded armature that supports the structure. In order to be able to attach the plastic to the armature, I needed a mesh surface and my amazingly resourceful assistant Susan found a black tennis net being thrown out that she rescued for me. It was the perfect thing, so it wraps the entire armature. Then, each piece is individually placed and wired on with steel wire. It was incredibly laborious, but meditative at the same time.
NG: Is the plastic painted?
PL: None of the ocean plastic I use is ever painted, it is always the actual color that I find it, which is often weathered and changed to be very different from the original.
Pam Longobardi, Flag of Lesvos (anamnesia), 2017 Recovered life vests from Lesvos, Greece, thread; 110 x 175″.
NG: I’d like to talk briefly about your photography. In Life Vest Landscape, 2016 you documented a scene of a wasteland of life jackets and debris. The image of a single lifejacket alone is powerful. Physically, it sustains and protects human life. Conceptually, it emblematizes “crisis” and the urgency to respond. Also, like all plastic materials, the life jacket is a form of cultural currency that is commodified out of necessity or convenience and then, at once, it is thrown away. What brought you to this site and what was your immediate emotional response?
PL: I was invited to speak and show my film Plastic Free Island at the International Small Island Study Association conference held on Lesvos. It had already been postponed twice because of the refugee crisis but was finally held in 2016. I missed much of the conference because I wanted to investigate the beaches and visit the camps. This turned out to be harder than I imagined, but on a message board on Facebook, I finally connected with a cool woman who had been volunteering. That was my first trip, and I saw the ‘cemetery of life vests’ as it is called, and I vowed to return to work. It was completely devastating to see the vastness of mountains and acreage of these vests, each representing a human life that, in desperation, made a dangerous crossing to seek refuge. It was really unfathomable to walk among the huge piles and to see a child’s pool floatie, or inflatable arm cuffs, given to children going to sea in a precarious raft. A tire inner tube. A bicycle tire inner tube. A fake tire inner tube. A fake life vest, stuffed with plastic bags instead of flotation materials, that would immediately sink. Broken boats, slashed rafts, clothing, shoes. The enormity of the disaster was heavy. And though we heard a lot about the Syrian war refugees, there were many nationalities in the camps: Somalia, Eretria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. At the base of all of this was: these were in some ways, directly or indirectly, climate migrants. The war in Syria was triggered by an extended drought that brought many people from the countryside into the cities looking for food and work, and civil unrest erupted.
Pam Longobardi, Life Vest Landscape, 2016, digital photograph, dimension variable
Pam Longobardi,Signal Flags Of Climate Change, 2018, Refugee life vests from Lesvos thread, wood;
NG: How might repurposing plastic lifejackets into your practice underscore the socio-political “state of emergency” of the refugee crisis of this moment?
PL: When I saw the massive terrain of life vests, I had the idea of using them to create a flag, a flag for a new nation of refugees. The flag could be a portable monument to displacement, to migration, something to connect the various nationalities of the migrant populations and draw attention to their plight. The camp I worked in had already begun a social enterprise project, Lesvos Solidarity, where refugees and Greek citizens together created beautiful bags, purses, backpacks. I thought that the Flag of Lesvos could be used as a tool to help sell some of their bags, and so Lesvos Solidarity collaborated with Drifters Project for a “special edition” bag. My gallerist, Laura Hathaway, agreed to support the transport and shipping of several hundred bags that were sold through the gallery with all proceeds going back to the camp. Then, Agnes Scott College decided to purchase the Flag for their permanent collection. This sale enabled Laura and I to further donate thousands of dollars to the refugee effort in Lesvos. I could not have imagined a better outcome.
Pam Longobardi, Anthropocene I (supernature), 2013, Oil, enamel, acrylic, varnish, plastic and patinas on copper over wood, 48 x 60″
Collection: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
NG: I’d like to conclude with the Anthropocene series. What inspired these paintings? Discuss your technique of creating them.
PL: My painting has always had a specific role in my practice to provide a kind of antidote to the physical and emotional difficulty of the Drifters work. Though my paintings involve physicality in the materials (copper) and the way I paint, they serve a different function. My paintings begin with a raw expanse of virgin copper, which I then treat by painting, pouring, splashing and dripping a bombardment of substances: cold-application patinas, oil paint, enamels, inks, acrylic, shellac, broken glass, minerals, pigment and more. The copper and the patinas are a stand-in for the natural world, and the other materials are of the industrial world, and they come into conflict with each other. I used to work to keep these substances very separate, but in the past five years or so, I combine them at will as I think these collisions are chaotic and more representative of the disruption happening in the physical world. The first stage of the paintings is very raw, distressed and messy. Then I look into them to find the rhythm, to find the space contained within, and paint further to bring out that space. The imagery comes from an abstracted memory of moments; sunlight on water, flickering shadows, fire, smoke, dawn or dusky light, erosion, cracks, shimmering, dissolution, geologic arrays. Humans are present only as very small figures, if at all, diminished by the massive scale of the non-human universe. But I can control the outcome in these works, so the forces of nature prevail: the sun always comes out, rainbows or stars appear, the sun sets, and a new day can begin.
Pam Longobardi’s parents, an ocean lifeguard and the Delaware state diving champion, connected her from an early age to water life. After discovering mountains of plastic on remote Hawaiian shores in 2006, she founded the Drifters Project, centralizing the artist as culture worker/activist/researcher. Now a global collaborative entity, Drifters Project has removed tens of thousands of pounds of material from the natural environment and re-situated it as communicative social sculpture. Her multidisciplinary studio-based and social practice ranges from paintings and collage to photography, large-scale sculpture, installation, public actions and performance. Winner of the prestigious Hudgens Prize, Longobardi has been featured in National Geographic, SIERRA magazine, the Weather Channel, multiple films and in exhibitions around the world. As Oceanic Society’s Artist-In-Nature, she co-leads expeditions to remote and beautiful places, working with participants and communities in addressing plastic and its environmental impact. Currently living in Atlanta, GA, she is Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Professor teaching at Georgia State University. https://driftersproject.net
Nitzanah Griffin is an Atlanta-based independent curator and writer. She is a graduate of Georgia State University where she received her BA in Art with a concentration in Art History. Her research interests include contemporary art of the African Diaspora, and American art where transnationalism, identity politics, and visual culture and power converge. She has worked as a gallery assistant at Georgia State University’s Welch School galleries, as assistant to the curator of museum collections at Spelman College Museum, volunteered at the Atlanta-based, nonprofit art organization, Art Papers, and has served a multi-year appointment at the High Museum of Art as an Andrew Mellon Curatorial Fellow. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.