About the project

Photo: Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, Microplastics Citizen Science Field Trip (Oct 2019) with University of Wollongong students + Sydney Biennale staff, led by scientists Dr Hugh Forehead and Nuwanthi Kristhombuge

[See a brief intro to our project at the Biennale of Sydney website.]

Plastic-free Biennale is a strange beast! We (Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein) have been commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney to facilitate its desire “to go plastic-free”. As anyone living in the real world in 2020 would recognise, this is nigh-on-impossible to achieve. 

So, how can we as artists work in this space where good intentions butt up against our inevitable failure? 

First, we acknowledge that we ourselves don’t have any special insights about how to go plastic-free. In our everyday lives plastic is all around us! It’s so useful that we cannot really imagine living without it. And yet every day, overwhelming waves of media wash up tales of gigantic plastic gyres in the ocean, plastic microparticles in our food, plastic in our soil, and plastic choking seabirds to death. 

And where would the Artworld be without plastic? Without bubble-wrap how can we safely transport precious artworks? Without vinyl decals how can we create professional-looking signage? Without acrylic paint how can we make our white cubes look clean and of museum standard? 

Plastic is so useful, and so dangerous. 

What would a genuinely plastic-free Biennale look like? 

Quite different, we suspect!

Our approach involves tugging at the edges of the problem from a range of different angles. We’ve been meeting with the staff of the Biennale, listening to their plastic-free dreams, and allowing them a little space in their incredibly busy workflow to share ideas for how to tackle it. 

Things are happening from the bottom up, involving behaviour-change by individuals. But the staff is also realising that their small changes need to be accompanied by top-down, policy level transformation. Curatorial decisions about the aesthetics of art gallery presentation, and the procurement of corporate partnerships and contracts – these need to become part of a new artworld code of conduct. And the Biennale’s Board of Directors needs to back it up! It’s a work-in-progress…. 

In the meantime we are working with Societé Overboard, one of the main food and beverage caterers at Cockatoo Island. Cockatoo, being an island, is perhaps a metaphor for the entire planet. What would happen to the place if there was no means of exporting all the plastic crap that we (the artworld community) are complicit in producing? How can we cut down on the gazillion single-use packaging items generated during the Biennale? 

Here’s one way: by reintroducing the good old-fashioned act of Washing Up! Visitors to the Biennale – that’s you! – are invited to clean up after yourselves rather than chuck your trash in a bin and walk away. Changing the systems of a cafe involves curly logistics like compliance with food safety, composting, increased water usage (during a drought!) and how to move all of those bodies in and out of the space without the whole conga-line of washer-upperers getting stuck in a sudsy traffic jam. 

We’re also trying to learn from scientists about the myriad different types of plastics in the world and what they’re good for. What possible substitutes might be emerging? While all this is going on, we’re working with some Wollongong kids, and with our local Wadi Wadi Elder Aunty Barbara Nicholson, to create a catchy song about plastics. And we’re going to take you along for the ride as we unravel our Plastic-free Biennale story on our project blog. Wish us luck!