Thursday, 24 September 2015

Provocative Plastics notes


During our Provocative Plastics conference held at the AUB last week I was tweeting during the speakers with some of the pertinent statements that were made.  

In the afternoon of the second day we ran parallel sessions and I was unable to tweet from both sessions at the same time so I have drawn together the notes from all of the sessions below.  Thank you to my colleagues, Pam and Katherine, for sitting in the sessions I couldn't be in.


Keynote 1: Kigge Hvid (INDEX: Design to Improve Life, Denmark): Plastics in design to improve life.

  • KH shows us products that can store solar energy and others that help hygiene in hospitals.
  • KH - we should think about how the world is getting better. We should get our statistics right.
  • KH - plastics is part of the solution to improve life.
  • KH shows us a film about the Ocean Cleanup project to clean the oceans of plastics waste

Session 1: Plastics’ reality: a look at the provocative nature of plastics Joanne Lee (Sheffield Hallam University), Witches knickers and carrier bag theories: thinking through plastic.
  • JL - Witches knickers is an Irish term for plastic bags caught in trees
  • JL - The bag is not wholly negative or positive.

Alan Manley (Loughborough University), Wear and affect: cosmetic obsolescence of plastics in digital products.
  • AM - we only encounter plastics as products not in their raw state.
  • AM talks about the tribology of plastics.
  • AM explores how mobile phone cases age
  • AM - people appreciate the ageing of natural materials more than synthetics

Dom Lane (Colour & Thing Marketing Agency, Bristol), Plastic Brandtastic: a potted history of brand bribery from Cracker Jack to Happy Meals.

  • DL - Brand becomes a promise from manufacturer to consumer.
  • DL - Early plastic was valued, the product was valued.
  • DL - but with cheap manufacturing, cheaper materials, plastics become giveaways.

Russell Gagg (Arts University Bournemouth), The material consciousness of plastics.
  • RG - plastics are the modern magic material.
  • RG - plastics provide different finishes. There are specific materials for specific uses.
  • RG - does the maker of plastics leave his mark like a potter? Some designers do.
  • RG - do we know the designers / makers of disposable objects?
  • RG highlights the work of Gangjiian Cui - The Plastic Smith.
  • RG- perhaps our interest in plastics is our attempt to make the banal a little less ordinary.


Keynote 2: Eric Bischof (Covestro AG, Germany): Start thinking in cycles.

  • EB - Covestro, like the plastics industry, is an enabler
  • EB - Companies need to have 3 types of sustainability - people, planet, products
  • EB - We need to consider all stages of the life cycle of products
  • EB - bio-based materials should be equal or better than oil-based
  • EB - the use of carbon dioxide as a raw material is the ultimate recycling, and would mean the use of less fossil fuel
  • EB - it is hard work to find the best way to find the best solution for a circular economy

Session 2: Plastics and the environment
Abu Saifullah, Ben Thomas and Bob Cripps (Bournemouth University), Fracture behaviour analysis of rotary moulded plastic materials used in marine leisure craft application.
  • AS - end of life disposal of composite boats have become a concern.
  • AS - recycling of these boats is possible but not ideal.
  • AS - rotational moulding allows us to make boats which are much more easily recycled.
  • AS - our research looks at the fracture behaviour of these roto-moulded boats

Susan Mossman (Science Museum, London), Plastics and social responsibility.

  • SM - Not just scientists need to be responsible - we all need to be responsible for waste.
  • SM highlights the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • SM - We are making small steps to improving waste but the UK needs to do much more.
  • SM - We should be seeing plastic waste as a valuable resource.

Q&A session:

  • We need to find many solutions to the issue with plastics waste, not just pick one and hope for the best.
  • The Ocean Cleanup project will be operational in 8-10 years, they will sell the plastics for reuse.
  • Packaging is the main problem.
  • The material is not the problem; the problem is human behaviour.
  • Micro fibres from clothing are a major problem. Some of the bits of plastics in the ocean are the same size as plankton. If we clean particles of this size we risk removing this plankton too which is a significant source of oxygen.
  • The plastics in the ocean will be mixed materials and degraded – this is not useful to recyclers but better to be burnt for energy.
  • We don’t have a relationship with plastics because it is so transient.

Session 3: Plastics as muse
Flora McLean (Royal College of Art, London), Inspirational characteristics of plastics: can plastic be considered a muse for future feminist innovation?
  • FM - plastic is inspirational because of the infinite possibilities it provides.
  • FM - The soft-hard , hard-soft dynamic is of interest to my work.
  • FM - some people don't see plastic as a luxury material, but I do.

Richard Hooper (Liverpool Hope University), Thomian luminosity in CNC fabricated cast acrylic sculpture.

  • RH is interested in the domain shift from the hand-made.
  • RH - Thomas Aquinas' ideals of art show integrity, proportion, and clarity.
  • RH - my work brings these notions to the digital production cast acrylic.
  • RH shows us examples of art using computer numerically controlled machining from the 1960s.
  • RH - because of this technology materials can be cut that couldn't be used before.
  • RH - cast acrylic offers the luminosity that I wanted to achieve.

Keynote 3: Sebastian Conran (Sebastian Conran Associates, London): Deplastification.

  • SB looked Deplastification - creating value with polymers by making them less plasticy.
  • SB dreams of having a 3D printer which can be fed with waste plastics to produce new objects.
  • SB - polymers should only be used to make a better product not just to save costs.
  • SB - why do people not like drinking coffee out of plastic cups?
  • SB - we added a small amount of die-cast metal to plastic kitchenware to add (perceived) value.
  • SB - there are different levels of material value.
  • SB - Value = Brand, design, quality / cost.

Session 4: Printing plastics Roderick Walden, Cathy Lockhart, Stefan Lie & Berto Pandolfo (University of Technology Sydney, Australia), Imperfect aesthetic.

  • BP - There was a shift away from the perception of plastics as an impersonator or an inferior substitute material in the 1960s towards thinking of plastics as a glamour material.
  • BP - There is now a broader cultural acceptance of plastics.
  • BP - 3D printing provides the freedom to be able to manipulate the material – which has always been an attraction.
  • BP - The advent of 3D printing enabled users to understand the material more deeply
  • BP - Until recently 3D printing was only available to the highly trained
  • BP - It is estimated that by 2020 80% of money spent on 3D printing will be for real part production.
Daniel Rourke & Morehshin Allahyari (Goldsmiths, University of London and London South Bank University), The work of art in the age of material speculation.
  • DR questioned the distinction between the physical and the digital
  • DR referenced ‘The Anarchist’s Cookbook’ ( published in 1971) which gave information freely
  • DR - Plastics will show up in the Anthropocene in the future as a conglomerate material
  • DR - Time is inherently bound to this material (plastic).
  • DR invited submissions to their ‘cookbook’ from radical 3D printers

Evan Raskob (Ravensbourne, London), Wound sounds – turning recorded sound into plastic sculpture using computational design and 3D printing.


  • ER - Sound is primarily a physical phenomenon…the direct result of our sensing the vibrations in physical objects….
  • ER - Using the recorded digital sound files of physical entities, such as insects, Evan creates 3D printed physical objects
  • ER - 3D printing brings out the rhythmic patterns
  • ER considers 3D printing sculpture as being a bit like a live performance
  • ER - Sound gives you a sense of space…he uses data to create a sense of space

Session 5: Plastics legacy
Brenda Keneghan (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), The changing fortunes of plastic objects in museums and galleries.

  • BK tells us about a survey she did of the V&A collections which was published in the V&A Conservation journal in 1996 – ‘Plastics? Not in my collection’.
  • BK - it was mainly mundane objects, toys, imitation materials, theatre costumes, furniture, cups etc.
  • BK - there wasn’t a specific plastics collection; they were everywhere.
  • BK - conservation departments are trying to stop plastics from degrading; but we are always being told that they don’t degrade!

Deborah Cane & Rachel Cockett (Birmingham Museums Trust), Art or a cart? ARTicle 14, Débrouille-toi, toi-même!


  • DC highlights how our preconceptions of plastics can influence the care and collection of artworks.
  • DC - this artwork is difficult to manage because people see the pieces included as second-hand and everyday. The public don’t value it in the same way as other artworks.
  • DC – by studying the plastics included in this piece we hope to be able to increase the understanding and conservation of plastics in artworks in the future.

Amelia Knowlson (Newcastle University), Plastic networks: the ability of 3D printing to facilitate relationships between museums, committees, and companies.


  • AK - 3D printing can increase access to collections to new community groups.
  • AK - this method can digitally transport objects to multiple locations at the same time.
  • AK - context needs to be applied so that visitors know that these objects are reproductions, not the real thing, and also not just toys.

Session 6: Plastics and value

Günter Lattermann (University of Bayreuth, Germany), Glass and plastics – a provocative comparison of two polymer classes.


  • GL - The material history behind art is often lacking.
  • GL - Glass has experienced the same issues as plastics within its long history. Eg. imitation, similar manufacturing technology, mass production, littering, design, art.
  • GL - Plastics suffer from the disgrace of a too late birth. It is not plastics that are provocative but the public opinion of it.

Gerson Lessa (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Materiality and perception: plastics as precious materials.


  • GL - it may be provocative to most to classify plastic as precious.
  • GL - The lesser fringes of the market manage to keep alive the image of shoddiness in plastics.
  • GL - Plastics began by mimicking natural materials which has helped to create their negative perception.
  • GL - High density, depth of colour and affects such as mottling help give cast phenolics value characteristics.
  • GL - Cast phenolics tend to oxidise over time and in so doing change colour. Eg. white becomes a beautiful burnt orange over time.
  • GL - There has been a recent emergence of counterfeits produced in India of objects cast in polyester to emulate cast phenolics – fakelite.

Kirsten Hardie (Arts University Bournemouth), Plastic designs that can disgust and delight: the polemic polarizing of plastics.


  • KH - Let’s celebrate the kitsch.
  • KH - It (kitsch) has such a stigma, but why has it not been considered in any depth and why is its history apparently so elusive?
  • KH - Do we ridicule or celebrate? Do we abhor or do we cherish?
  • KH - Despite our perceptions of these items as ‘kitsch’ or bad taste, there is a history out there that needs to be documented.

Tone Rasch (Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology), National attitudes around the introduction and reception of cellulose fibres in Norway.


  • TR - Although cellulose acetate was an international material, the production of it in Norway was very important.
  • TR - Norwegians were encouraged to buy Norwegian goods.
  • TR - in 1933 a third of the population was unemployed.
  • TR- The building of a cellulose acetate factory was encouraged as it generated work as well as products.

Maria Georgaki (University of the Arts London), The canonisation of plastics: plastics and aspects of ‘value’ in the ILEA / Camberwell collection.

  • MG explored the various notions of value – economic, emotional etc.
  • MG - the ILEA collection was part of the post-war good taste agenda
  • MG - it was established to educate the consumer of tomorrow, an experiment in design appreciation.
  • MG uses the Ekco Nova ware designed by David Harman Powell as an example.

Mark Suggitt (Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, Derbyshire), Plastic fantastic lovers: plastics and popular culture 1945-2015.

  • MS - The title is a take on Jefferson Airplane song.
  • MS - Plastics is a negative term used in counter culture.
  • MS - The Kinks and The Who used plastic as a metaphor for the cheap, nasty, and inauthentic.
  • MS - we now know they are useful and have accepted plastics, even if it is reluctantly.

Reflections, highlights, and opportunities for the future  
Our final conference session brings us all back together for reflections, highlights, and opportunities for the future. 

Discussion

  • We should be distinguishing between plastics ‘materials’ and plastics ‘products’.
  • Plastics aren't cheap materials; much investment has been made in creating plastic products cheaply.
  • Plastics have done more than any other material group to democratise.

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

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