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Toxic Reef

Crochet "jelly-fish" form made from plastic-bag yarn, by Margaret Wertheim.

As a response to the horror of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch the IFF has taken up crocheting plastic. In addition to the beautiful yarn-based Reefs, the Crochet Reef Project includes a large sub-reef made from yarn and plastic trash. Known fondly as "The Toxic Reef" - aka Bikini Atoll - this is the only one of the IFF sub-Reefs that will be allowed to grow indefinitely, because plastic trash in the ocean is itself growing exponentially. The Toxic Reef functions as a kind-of evil twin to the yarn-based reefs; a malevolent, synthetic analog to the delicate fiber-forms. This dichotomy in the Crochet Reef Project mirrors the dichotomy of the oceanic realm, for here too, while the natural wonders of living reefs are disappearing, the great island of plastic trash continues to acrete. Giving the project an historical slant, we might also say that where the yarn reefs reference the past and the glory of organic evolution, the plastic reef represents the future and what we humans are creating with our profligate waste and consumerist addictions.

The Toxic Reef was conceived by Christine Wertheim, who remains its curatorial driving force and champion.

The Toxic Reef installed at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles (2009). Featuring hanging plastic trash kelp forest by Christine Wertheim and Evelyn Hardin. In front is the Rubbish Vortex, crocheted entirely from used plastic shopping bags by Helle Jorgensen. (Photo from the IFF Archives by Francine McDougall).

All manner of plastic stuff lends itself to crochet and once you start looking it's amazing how many plastic-yarn-type products are out there: gift-tie ribbon, for instance, and that stuff for making lanyards. But the point of the Toxic Reef is to focus attention on our daily consumption of plastic and how much of it we discard. To that end the key ingredient of this reef is "yarn" made from cutting up used plastic shopping bags, those convenient throw-away sacks that have become such a central and sinister aspect of contemporary life.

One Reef Contributor who has assiduously explored plastic-bag crochet is Sydney resident Helle Jorgensen. In early 2007 the IFF commissioned Helle to make the Rubbish Vortex, pictured above. Helle collected bags from all over the world and crocheted this marvelous atom-bomb-like assemblage, a nuclear ghost that hangs over the Toxic Reef in a poignant plastic cloud.

"A Week's Shopping" - crochet coral form made from plastic bags acquired on a trip to the supermarket by Margaret and Christine during a single week in March 2008.

We call the model above "A Week's Shopping." It is crocheted from the plastic shopping bags we collected on a single trip to the supermarket when we forgot to take our eco-bags. The "Warning" letters on the tendril are an inadvertently pertinent message that happened to be left on the tail-end of the yarn, an eery reminder that in our ever-growing zeal for convenience we are endangering the very systems that sustain us.

  • Each year Americans use 380 billion plastic shopping bags.
  • That's three and a half plastic bags per person per day.
  • It is estimated that only 5% of these are recycled.
  • Many of these bags end up in the sea where turtles, albatross and other marine creatures mistake them for jelly fish.
  • Marine life is literally being chocked by our plastic trash.

See here for a tutorial on making Plastic Bag Yarn by IFF Reef Contributor Helle Jorgensen.

Crochet coral form made from plastic-coated electrical wire by Christine Wertheim.

Another object ripe for reconsideration is the plastic water bottle.

  • Every five minutes Americans discard 2 million of plastic water bottles.
  • That's 220 billion a year.
  • Remember when water came out of a tap?

And there are still two billion people on planet earth for whom that remains a distant dream. Safety is often cited as a reason to buy bottled water, but US city water is far better monitored than the vast commercial water industry. Water is the most basic substance of life - there are organisms that can live without oxygen, but none that can live without water - and no product so represents the triumph of marketing over need than a bottle of this primordial liquid. When next you reach for a plastic bottle think about this: plastic is a petroleum-based product that never biodegrades. The trace of that bottle will remain in the geological record of our planet for millions of years.

Hyperbolic psuedospheres crocheted from plastic lanyard tie decorated with used pill packages (LEFT), and (RIGHT) plastic gift-tie decorated with discarded vitamin-C sachets. Both models by Christine Wertheim.

At the IFF we have taken up the challenge of cutting down our personal plastic quotient. Since the start of 2007 we have been keeping all our domestic plastic trash. After the first two days we were appalled. After a week we were horrified. After a month we were devastated and began to think hard about how we consumed. Where does it all come from? How does it build up? How can we do better?

There is nothing like living with a heap of your own plastic crap to make you think twice about what you bring home from the supermarket. Here are some suggestions:

  • Do you really need to buy fruit in plastic boxes? How about buying loose fruit and vegetables that you load directly into your eco-bag.
  • How about buying juices in those small concentrated cardboard tubes; not only saves on packaging, but on shipping (and hence gas) as well.
  • Take notice of plastic packaging and select products with minimal packaging. 30% of landfills is made up of packaging.

By highlighting plastic waste and recycling it into an "art work" we hope that with The Toxic Reef to help focus attention on the tsunami of plastic that is engulfing our oceans and strangling marine life. What we hope to create here is not just an aesthetic experience but a transformation in behavior. Beginning with our own.

We encourage you all to try your own experiment. Keep your plastic for a week. Or a month if you can. It's staggering how hard it is to avoid the stuff - and a sobering revelation to see how much you use.

Video-tape kelp by Christine. Detail from the Plastic Exploding Inevitable Reef photographed at ATA in San Francisco (2009)

One source of plastic trash is video tape. Christine has pioneered the use of old discarded videos to construct a forest of kelp-like forms. Pictured here is a particularly delicate specimen nestled amid a grove of plastic anemone forms made from shopping bags and plastic fruit nets.

Hot-pink Jelly-Yarn Sand by Kathleen Greco. Detail from the Plastic Exploding Inevitable Reef photographed at ATA in San Francisco (2009)

As a smaller, more intimate sibling to the Toxic Reef, the IFF has also been developing the Plastic Exploding Inevitable Reef. This delicate pop-art installation features works by several of our most ingenious plastic contributors, notably Kathleen Greco, creator of Jelly-Yarn. The defining feature of this Reef is a bed of amazing hot-pink sand crocheted by Kathleen from her patented vinyl thread. Kathleen, a former industrial designer, created Jelly-Yarn specifically as a thread for knitting and crochet. More information about this unique product can be seen here:

Jelly Yarn Website:

Below is a Snow-Globe created by Kathleen, containing within its perspex bubble universe a crocheted Jelly-Yarn anemone.

Crocheted Jelly-Yarn anemone SnowGlobe, by Kathleen Greco. Photo from the IFF Archive by Francine McDougall 2009.

Kurt Vonnegut once opined that the power of the art as a weapon against the tyranny of the state was roughly equivalent to a custard pie being dropped from the top of a six foot high ladder. We at the IFF concur, and would similarly estimate the power of art as a weapon against the commercial-industrial complex. For Vonnegut, however, none of this was an excuse for political inaction. He seemed to think that on a global scale if enough pies were dropped there would eventually be enough custard on the floor that anyone who tried to pick up a gun and shoot would fall down and break a leg. Art is indeed a custard pie, yet its power lies in the potential to engage us all in personal activities that collectively add up, one pie at a time, to a transformative sea of change. We encourage YOU ALL to become aware of your own plastic use. If enough of us reject plastic bottles and takeout boxes then, one piece of trash at a time, we can collectively make a difference.

For Kurt's views on art we are indebted to the article "Vonnegut's Pies" by Dwayne Booth in the LA Weekly.