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What is a Wicked Problem? Introducing the Synthetic Collective

Synthetic Collective members reflect on how they came together as an interdisciplinary team of artists, geologists, chemists, and curators, and how they understand plastics pollution to be what is known in the sciences as a “wicked problem.”

Daniella Sanader | September 21, 2021

This is part of the Art Museum’s ongoing series of Virtual Spotlights centred on the exhibition Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through, organized by Synthetic Collective and produced by the Art Museum where it is on view until November 20, 2021. Click here for details on how to visit the exhibition.

In organizing the exhibition Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through, the Synthetic Collective has brought together a range of artworks that engage with the multilayered complexities of plastic. Alongside this, they have also included artworks and interventions that relate to their recent research study, where they worked to collect and analyze over 12,000 plastic pellets found across 66 beaches in the Great Lakes region. The findings of this study were published in Science of the Total Environment and can be accessed here.

In the following video, select Synthetic Collective members reflect on how they came together as an interdisciplinary team of artists, geologists, chemists, and curators to enact this research study, and how they understand plastics pollution to be what is known in the sciences as a “wicked problem.”

The speakers in the video include Synthetic Collective members Kelly Jazvac, Kelly Wood, Dr. Sara Belontz, Tegan Moore, and Ian Arturo. The full collective also includes members Dr. Patricia Corcoran, Kirsty Robertson, Kathleen Hill, Heather Davis, and Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza. Read more about the Synthetic Collective here.

Read on for further reflections from Kelly Jazvac, Kelly Wood, Dr. Sara Belontz, Tegan Moore, and Ian Arturo.

Kelly Jazvac: I’d like to try and paint a picture of the complexity of this wicked plastics problem. For example, we have scientific papers that show us the large quantity of plastic microfibers that are falling from synthetic clothing and entering water systems, when washed in a washing machine. That number has been accounted as high as 85 quadrillion [fibres] being leaked in North America in one year—just one year! Simultaneously, we have other scientific papers that show the toxicity of those very microplastics and nanoplastics in mammalian systems. I’m thinking of a paper by Cheryl Qian Ying Yong et al.

We take scientific research such as that and we consider it within the context of a pandemic. I’m thinking of a news article published in Nature in 2010 by Natasha Gilbert, the title of which is simply “More species means less disease.” Conserving biodiversity becomes a really important part to disease prevention.

Simultaneously in North America, we know from the work of social scientists that almost 1 billion US dollars was spent on pro-plastic lobbying by the American Chemistry Council from 2008 to 2018. That’s just one group that is spending colossal amounts of money to protect their own financial interests in this petrochemical product.

Meanwhile, I just want to buy some gym shorts that don’t have synthetic fabric in them! Which requires me to spend a fair bit of time researching this online (which is possible because of plastics), ordering it and having it delivered to my home (which again is possible because of the petrochemical industry).

So, I hope that example illustrates what a quagmire—what a wicked problem—plastics truly are, and the breadth of disciplines that it would require, that it will require, to begin to make any headway forward.

Kelly Wood: [In my work,] I’ve been focused on the subject of garbage and pollutions for some decades now. I’ve made several series of works about pollutions and I came to found the Synthetic Collective because my work intersects with the plastics problem so overtly.

Through documentary photography, I wanted to bring the pollution back into the visible spectrum in art, because so much of our culture works to remove, put away, and literally bury the garbage and plastics problem. Nowadays, this is called an externalization, and by that we mean we place our waste problem somewhere we think it doesn’t matter.

People make jokes that we’re not in the Holocene era, we’re in the Plasticene era, because that strata of plastic waste will be the geologic legacy that defines our moment in deep time. It will be the future fossil we find embedded in the ground. We need a new kind of material philosophy to comprehend what we are doing with these synthetics.

Dr. Sara Belontz: I joined the Synthetic Collective in 2017 while working with Dr. Patricia Corcoran at the University of Western Ontario. I was hired to organize and write an interdisciplinary perspective paper about plastics pollution, in collaboration with both artists and scientists. This experience inspired me to pursue a PhD degree investigating microplastics in freshwater environments. The work being completed by the Collective is an issue I’m very passionate about and hope to explore further in my academic career.

Plastic pollution is a global problem that has been reported to be ubiquitous in all environmental matrices and has been documented by a vast number of scientists. However, without the help of visual artists, Indigenous peoples, industry leaders, and policymakers, remediation will be challenging.

Consequently, plastic pollution will continue to be a wicked problem without progressive communication, collaboration, and innovation.

Ian Arturo: For my practice, as both a researcher and someone who’s interested in the intersection of science communication with the general public, the work of the Synthetic Collective is very important.

Understanding plastic pollution, not only from a scientific point of view, but also from the arts, the humanities, and the human element of plastic pollution, those intersections can help bring people together in really unexpected ways. As a side note, I think interdisciplinary research is more and more critical in the twenty-first century, in a globalized world, and in a world with so much wealth, but also so much poverty and inequality.

So, interdisciplinary research—whether it be what we do as the Synthetic Collective, or really any other kind of interdisciplinary research—it’s really critical to bridge the gap between different groups of people.

Tegan Moore: Working across disciplines to tackle a problem like plastic pollution might help us ask questions that only come up through looking at plastics from various angles of inquiry. For example, I wonder about the trend of new plastic design objects made out of ocean plastics, a form of design environmentalism. Plastics salvaged from the environment may not have the same chemical composition as they did when they entered the water system.

Through working alongside scientists, we are aware that plastics have been known to take up chemical contaminants from surrounding waters and have shown to concentrate them. So, chemicals which are persistent in the environment can accumulate on the inner and outer surfaces of plastics in water. Known toxic chemicals like pesticides, like DDT, or PCBs used as coolant fluids, these chemicals have been phased out of use for many, many years but they don’t break down in the environment.

The intersection here between science and design may be for designers to consider asking the question: does this material need to be analyzed for these persistent organic pollutants, before making them into products that are designed for consumption and daily use?

About the Speakers

Kelly Jazvac is a Canadian artist based in Montréal, Canada and a member of the Synthetic Collective. She currently has a solo exhibition at the MacLaren Art Centre (Barrie) and has recently exhibited at The Musée D’Art Contemporain (Montréal), The Museum of Modern Art (New York), Eli and Edyth Broad Museum (East Lansing), Ujazdowski Castle CCA (Warsaw) and FIERMAN Gallery (New York). Her work has been written about in National Geographic, e-flux Journal, Hyperallergic, Art Forum, The New Yorker, Canadian Art Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail.

Kelly Wood is a senior Canadian artist and scholar specializing in photography. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University. Her research focuses on subjects that relate to the environmental impact of waste accumulation, waste economies, and all forms of visible and invisible pollution.

Dr. Sara Belontz received her PhD in Geology from the University of Western Ontario investigating the sources, transport, and fate of microplastics in freshwater compartments. Her dissertation reported the spatial and temporal distribution of microplastics in benthic sediment of Lake Huron, North America. Sara is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at California State University, San Marcos, developing a novel technique using NanoIR instrumentation to identify and classify nano- and microplastics in aqueous solutions.

Tegan Moore is an artist based in Montréal, Canada. Her current work considers molecular entanglements in the built environment and the materials that support it. Recent exhibitions include Foam Fatigue at YYZ Artists Outlet, Immersion Grade, at Vivo Media Arts, and Variations at Zalucky Contemporary. She is a co-organizer of the project space Support, in London, Ontario.

Ian Arturo graduated from Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA with a BS in environmental science in 2014. He received his MSc in Geology (Environment and Sustainability Collaborative) from the University of Western Ontario, in London, ON in 2021. During his time at Western, Ian was a member of Dr. Patricia Corcoran’s lab group and the Synthetic Collective. Ian sampled Lake Michigan for the pan-Great Lakes pellet study, which involved collecting plastic pellets from the strandlines of 66 beaches across the five Laurentian Great Lakes. Ian’s thesis, “Plastic debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes System, North America: Analysis of types, abundances, and sources”, contained work on debris across the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. Ian is currently working for WSP USA in the NYC area, working on contaminated site investigations.


Image Credit: Synthetic Collective sorting and characterizing plastic fragments from Great Lakes beaches, 2019. Image courtesy of Synthetic Collective.

Cinematography, editing, and production by Vuk Dragojevic.

Virtual Spotlight developed by Daniella Sanader, Content Curator, Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through.