eXXpedition Round Britain crew member Carol Devine gives us an insight into the eXXpedition Round Britain immersive art experience at ASCUS Lab, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Summerhall:
“Today was the last official day of eXXpedition Round Britain – Leg 2 Scotland. After a quick morning pack and cup of tea or coffee, we said goodbye to our sea beds and the awesome core and guest crew staying on Sea Dragon for the final leg of this scientific inquiry and sailing journey.
We left Leith Harbour for ASCUS Art & Science lab, a unique working laboratory that fosters science and art collaborations and explorations, in Summerhall where the Edinburgh Festival was in full swing.
Crewmates Jess Van Horssen and Katie Turnbull had done the earlier reconnaissance trip to ASCUS labs yesterday, preparing for our eXXpedition immersive public tours for visitors. Adventurous members of the public would come to the lab to search for marine plastics themselves – under the microscope.
The interactive lab sessions would take people 400 years into the future to help scientists in that year understand what was happening in 2017.
Jess, a historian and senior lecturer, has done this exercise before with her students – pretending that they were 400 years in the future looking back. She and Katie, a talented artist from Australia living in London, had been communicating with ASCUS about this special day of collaboration since before our Leg 2 started.
For our eXXpedition & ASCUS time-travel 1 hour tours, lab visitors would meet a few of us Leg 2 crew in the year 2417 and help us figure out what the heck was going on in 2017. In our fictitious future world, we’d come across and archeological site at Edinburgh’s Musselburgh beach with objects we believed were from a few centuries past.
We asked the visitors to tell us what were these mysterious inexplicable plastic objects we’d uncovered (real samples and objects we’d found the day prior during a beach cleanup at Musselburgh beach. We also included a few items we’d found during our trawls in the Caledonian canal, in the North Sea and past eXXpedition trawls).
What were these multicoloured short thin finger-length plastic sticks all over the beach? (earbuds). What were these wiggly thin lines we saw in the microscope? (was it human hair, or was that microfibre? Sadly, it was microfibre – a piece we’d taken from our crewmate Melina Hoffman’s hoodie). What were these fragments of plastic such as a 1/2 a Visa credit card? Why did people take the Visa card to the temple to make an offering and then throw it into the sea? No, explained one visitor, the card was not thrown into the sea on purpose. But if it was valuable and represented money, why did it end up in the ocean? We still didn’t understand.
One visitor explained that in times past people had thrown money in the form of coins into wells, holes in the ground filled with water, to make wishes, but that contemporary money was for buying objects. That people liked to buy things. Were the things necessary for survival? Not a lot of it. People had excess.
We had a chart from NOAA “How Long Until It’s Gone” that we said we’d found at the Museum of Edinburgh (the city which didn’t exist anymore in 2417, our world had a smaller population who lived mostly on water as there was less land, we didn’t have hair – okay this was pure fiction!)
Why did people in 2017 seem to worship so many different objects that carry water? Plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans, styrofoam cups seemed strange and laughable to us in 2417. People even put plastic bottles within plastic bags! We said we were not judging but were trying to sincerely understand what motivated people to use so much plastic. Another visitor said that it became laziness and convenience that had inadvertently created a plastic obsession and then mess around the world. In a short period of time people had forgotten how to live lightly on the planet, without plastic.
We learned a lot about the year 2017 and were happy that several visitors said that they felt there were diverse efforts underway to tackle the plastic mountains and to find alternatives to the consumer temples. More and more people were choosing to enjoy nature more than consuming the non-renewable offerings of fossil fuels, remnants of another time. But still in poorer parts of the world people didn’t have a lot of choices and were struggling to survive.
Participants explained to us that in 2017 people had lots of plastic that had helped make their lives easier but that the plastic started to become excessive and that quite inadvertently, we humans, especially from richer nations, had made a mess.
One visitor was a nurse who said hospitals a few decades ago used metal and organic materials, not plastic, but that now hospitals produce so much plastic waste. What is the alternative we wondered? We were not damning people in 2017 but trying to find out if change was afoot since so much of the plastic was ending up in the water that fish lived in and humans drank from. These tiny fragments of plastic was showing up under several microscopes. What we hoped was organic material was often plastic, we found. Some of it naked to the human eye.
That is the mission of eXXpedition afterall – to make the unseen seen.
Seeing fragments of plastic in all samples we took in the Caledonian Canal, North Sea and Edinburgh Harbour was saddening, but our samples and data contributes to understanding of ecosystem health, personal health and the products we consume. Our voyage around Scotland and Britain brought us multidisciplinary women together to survey marine plastics and feed data into studies on plastic and toxics pollution. We acknowledge we’re from countries where we consume excessively vs. countries that carry a burden of plastic and climate change impact even though their use of fossil fuels is lower.
It seemed to us that in 2017 people were feeling hope and responsibility, at least those living in countries where life was still pretty good.
Looking into the microscope together meant we also were looking at ourselves. Witnessing, understanding, questioning and dialogue can lead to behaviour change or encourage those already making good consumer choices to keep going.
Thanks to James, Miriam and Jiri at ASCUS labs for their wonderful help and support. Sci Art collaborations – in this case some improv kind of theatre and immersive experience plus real life scientific samples and laboratory equipment meant that we were looking at and discussing human behaviour and objects in novel ways. Perspective always is useful – and why not have some fun. We laughed a lot. Lucy tittered and said, “Should we tell the people of 2017 what we called them? Plastisaurus!”
I think we all left though thinking that humans have a lot of agency and ability to turn the tide of plastic pollution. Seeing is believing. Connecting is inspiring.”