Messages from the Ocean: An Interview with Pam Longobardi

Karen Tauches talks to artist Pam Longobardi about her work cleaning refuse off the world’s coasts.

Artist Pam Longobardi on the island of Lesvos, Greece, where thousands of life jackets have been discarded by refugees. Courtesy the artist.

Editor's Note

Artist Pam Longobardi began the Drifters Project in 2006 after encountering mountainous piles of plastic on remote Hawaiian beaches. Longobardi discovered that a giant swirling patch of plastic garbage exists in the Pacific ocean between the coasts of California and Hawaii. Caught in a vortex of wind and currents, the North Pacific Gyre is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Since that time, her artistic practice has focused on helping reduce such plastic gyres. The Drifters Project works directly through local sponsorship, small-grant support, and personal expenditure to clean beaches, make art with the collected plastic to raise awareness, and work with communities in the United States, China, Greece, Monaco, Panama, and Costa Rica. In December, I spoke with Longobardi about her work and what we as a society can learn from the ocean.

—Karen Tauches

Karen Tauches: You’re currently in Lesvos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey. What brought you to this particular place?

Pam Longobardi: I came here for the first time in May 2016 to speak at the ISISA [International Small Islands Studies Association] Islands of the World conference. It was a unique gathering of people from all over the world studying the challenges of small island nation-states. I was invited to speak and screen a film my team and I did in Kefalonia, an island on the opposite coast of Greece, close to Italy. Plastic Free Island (2015) documents our work cleaning beaches over a six-year period of time. It was fascinating to go from room to room with speakers discussing management issues on Malta; changing models of tourism and education on Kangaroo Island, Australia; and “island identity” on various Greek islands. Ours was the only panel that dealt with art—or with plastic for that matter.

KT: When you clean beaches, what exactly are you doing?

PL: I am engaging with the site in a particular frame of mind and I am seeking information. I ask to be shown something. I am scanning. After doing it for so many years, my tuning is at a high frequency. Often, I am almost guided as to where to look. The charged objects I collect, which I consider messages, then become incorporated into my Drifters archive. This is the first stage of my process.

The second stage is simply to expend great physical energy removing as much material as possible. If I can’t remove all of the plastic from the location, even moving it back from the edge of the wave action is of service.

The third stage is when other people join me. This happens spontaneously sometimes, and other times more organized. But this is critical. Because cleaning a beach changes you. It puts you in a position of care and to accept some responsibility for the collective damage we have caused.

Pam Longobardi, The Crime of Willful Neglect (for BP), 2014. 429 pieces of vagrant oceanic plastic from Greece, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and the Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy the artist.

KT: Your work with water connects with some core principles of feminism, then.

PL: Yes, this is a practice of empathy, repair, and small acts of rescue. Cleaning sea caves is archaeological and intimately chthonian. Both water and feminine energy are yin. For me, water is about flow, flux, and change and is the most visible image of life force— something mutable, powerful, enriching, dangerous, life-giving.

KT: Do you think the ocean has consciousness?

PL: The ancientness of the ocean as a collective intelligence is proven by the infinitely creative act of evolving life. When I engage with the ocean in this frame of mind, it provides an openness that allows things to happen. I receive messages from the ocean that are spelled out in plastic. I think that it is because plastic is something we have made, and we understand it. So if you were an alien species attempting to communicate something of grave importance to another who did not understand your language, you would use the most expedient means to do so. Do I believe the ocean pushes around these objects and lays them out in front of me? I like believing that. It makes the tragedy of this more bearable. But the strange thing is, when I train others in my methodology, they get their own messages. It’s quite fantastic. I can give you countless examples of juxtapositions of objects in particular locations that are subtle, sad, ironic, satiric, and sometimes absolutely hilarious. It makes my work very interesting to engage with such a charismatic and brilliant other.

KT: Your work exemplifies great respect and relationship with the ocean. Your actions go beyond artmaking and into activism and advocacy. What do you hope to accomplish?

PL: My work couldn’t have been made two decades ago. The stakes of the climate-change political game are very high; I have an opportunity to carry out what I believe is art’s greater purpose: to have a transformational effect. I know with certainty that people are changed by it. I see it in their eyes, in their behaviors, and they tell me. Robert Smithson made Spiral Jetty in 1970 for a time some 30 years into the future when it would re-emerge as a salt-encrusted spiral in a pinkish field of water. I like that idea. My work is for now, but also for the future. It will either exist as emblems of a moment when collective society made a conscious shift, or as monuments to a great folly.

KT: In a blog post on your website, you’ve noted, “It is critical to understand the refugee crisis as first and foremost a climate crisis.” You also said Lesvos was the “ground zero for the first large climate refugee event.” What do you mean?

PL: To me, one of the most important, and largely underreported, aspects of the refugee crisis unfolding here now is that it began with climate change. The origin for the Syrian refugee migration was a prolonged drought which caused food shortages and loss of income that displaced two million people from outlying areas into cities, creating a social pressure cooker that sparked the civil war. But it is necessary to understand that the refugee tsunami pouring into Europe right now—collectively referred to as the “Syrian refugee crisis”—is hugely multinational. In some camps on Lesvos, Syrians are even the minority. There are refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and more. So at the bottom of this, we are talking about water. And water is life.