The world is heavily polarised in their visions of the near future—one of apocalypses and one of hope. We find ourselves either wandering aimlessly in the gloom, or holding onto individual efforts intended to reconcile humanity with infinite universal kindness. Deprived of organised leadership that amends our human existence with that of the world itself, Aurora Robson has been consistent in forging narratives that engage with our most immediate reality: the lieu that shelters us. Her sculptures use plastic debris, a material that she has been intimately sourcing herself from people’s trash for over a decade. In conversation, the Canadian, U.S.-based artist explains how her job as ‘glorified janitor’ fills depressing places with harmony, hope and gratitude. Aurora Robson has been panelist at several conferences such as The Role of Art in the Environmental Crisis in New York, 2019. Her work has been recently exhibited at the Myrthe Beach Art Museum in U.S., and she is currently working in Project Vortex—an art collective she has founded to devise ways to work with plastic pollution.
My practice with plastic debris began as a quiet, private meditation on subjugating negativity and exercising my creativity to bring and add more light to the world. I took some scary chances and made some sacrifices to ensure that I had the time and space to engage in serious play and reflection on what is happening in the world, so that I could use my skills to be of service. I think of art as a cultural service industry. Artists create the cultural landscape and it is up to us to see to it that our cultural landscape is in harmony with our natural landscape.
Art is a global language and plastic pollution is a global nightmare. Nightmares are dreams too. This experience we are having (being alive right now) has the potential to be dreamy or a nightmarish. I use my work to speak to people around the world about potential, gratitude, mystery, love, life and how we can create more universal access to these more uplifting aspects of life. The aspects of life that make our time as living creatures less painful and frankly more appropriate, considering the miraculous nature of life.
I continually re-situate myself in a place of hope, gratitude, resplendent energy and love so that I can continue to do this work around plastic pollution and waste management—which might otherwise be entirely too depressing and heavy to bear.
We think of plastic as disposable when it is precisely the opposite. People are so confused about it. Plastic is so accommodating as a raw material that we tend to abuse it and take it for granted and use it for too many things—just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Humans have a tendency to take things for granted and plastic has become one of those things. Value can and should be placed on items and experiences that bring us pleasure and/or heighten our understanding of being human, not on scarcity of material. Scarcity economics is an outdated model that doesn’t serve us and wreaks havoc on the planet.
Scarcity and rarity should be admired in artistry as opposed to material. I like to think we will be wise enough to develop a taste for future friendly art that not only adds beauty to our lives, but helps address other aspects of consciousness. To date, less than 10% of all the plastics created globally have actually been recycled. Recycling is not a realistic approach to managing the plastic waste stream, especially with respect to the rate at which plastics are increasingly being produced and consumed. It is a question of value—presenting a hierarchical conundrum.
This is only temporary though as it is showing up in disturbing quantities in microparticles and microfibres in our water (be it tap, ocean, bottled or river) and more recently in the air we breathe. It is time to call bullshit on so many aspects of the status quo.
Since this synthetic, commonplace material has “plasticity” built into it - it has become so prevalent. Plastic is designed to bend to our whims, so I am surprised that more artists aren’t working with it. I believe it is just a matter of time since plastic is more suitable for applications in which disposability is not desirable.
The majority of plastics are made primarily from petroleum—the petroleum in plastics can be extracted and used, but instead this material mostly ends up in landfill or our waterways. It is a much better option to transform and use it for art and design applications than to allow it to continue contaminating our most valuable natural resources on this planet. (Water and more recently air.)
I believe in the future, plastics will be increasingly replaced by similar packaging made from algae, mycelium, corn and other biodegradable materials. I believe more artists and designers will adopt approaches to working with plastic debris and hope to help facilitate that more in my lifetime.
The future of nature is inevitable. Nature is our bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife and mirror. It is the all encompassing kindness that has given us the opportunity to be alive in the first place—to experience the breeze and sunlight on our faces, to bathe in moonlight and marvel at the stars. Nature is what allows us to fall in love, to eat, sleep, experience heart break and rise to do it all over again. These are all gifts we are meant to share every day. They are gifts we all get—to be alive, to learn to honour, embrace and pass on what we can to others. It is a primal duty and a gift that moves through all of us.
The Anthropocene is our moment of reckoning. We are being tested as a species on a number of fronts. Some of us will fail and fall, while others will rise to the occasion, become emboldened and learn to be and act in harmony with nature (ourselves and each other). We are being taught a lesson about gratitude and respect (for one another, our selves, our biosphere and the universe). We've been making a big mess on earth for decades and it is time to act. Less meetings, posturing and deliberation, and more action, courage and determination are required of each of us.
I have been working as a glorified janitor for over a decade striving to tidy up and do what I can to be of service. This huge wave has been heading our way for some time! Most people have been too focused on what is right in front of them to look up to see it barreling forward. I only hope more of us wake up in time to take the necessary action to reverse some of these trajectories. This epoch is more about consciousness than matter. It is about us killing our autopilots and taking control and ownership of our lives.
My work sparks conversations about inclusivity on a number of levels. I use my skills to reduce the suffering on earth everyday by leaning into my discomfort and allowing myself to become intimate with other people’s garbage—which is often a grotesque experience. Still, I choose to work with that which we regard as without value as “garbage.” It is the same as the false hierarchy we apply to other animals or people who so many humans have historically thought of as lesser - which is frankly insane since life itself is astonishingly rare.
To assign value in this cavalier manner is shortsighted at best. I use my skills to raise what we think of as the least valuable of substances to the highest place of value (art is one of the most valuable things an individual can contribute to society) in order to reveal how arbitrary so many of our senses of hierarchy have become. To me, this is a reflection on what it is to be a human right now on earth. I work to examine all assumptions so that I can deconstruct them and reveal the power mechanisms at play that we may be ready to let go of—for the sake of life on earth.
I am happy that my work also sparks dialogue around creative stewardship in academia at the intersection of art and science. This helps mend disconnects in terms of humans trusting themselves, following their bliss, exploring their curiosity, engaging in serious play, taking personal, individual ownership over the way our shared environment is treated, acknowledging and using our power to be effective agents of positive change in the actual world—while engaging in actions that may be beyond our personal comfort levels and understanding thereby expanding our consciousness.
*Photos courtesy of Aurora Robson