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THE POLYMER CHAIN: plastic itineraries and plastic images

I take the direct flight from London to Mumbai Airport, seven thousand kilometres, using seventy tonnes of petroleum, transferring 1.2 cubic tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. This is the opening footprint on this journey to the Compound 13 Lab. Here is a reflection of this residency at the Lab as part of the Rethinking Waste project. It takes the form of a sequence of reflective postcards to be read through and into each other. All images are made as part of the project and seek to illuminate the stages of the project, many have been produces through 3D imaging techniques and are snapshots of digital artefacts, these are what I would like to call ‘images in the making’.





One word: Plastic


Plastic vibrates with the vitality of the social lives with which it is enmeshed. Activated in the lives it entwines, plastic is mobile and vital.’ (Caroline Knowles Flip Flop)

Somehow we have to start with this stuff. The stuff known as styrenes and ethylenes and vinyl chlorides; to acknowledge and continue a dialogue through matter. Plastic permeates pretty much everything and is found pretty much everywhere, its long polymer chain extending into the environment in both systematic and inadvertent ways as pandemic protective equipment and pacific garbage patch occupier. Its incorporated into the interface between us and information, as we touch and feel thermoplastic polyurethanes and polyethylene terephthalates hundreds of times each day when scrolling, zooming, pinching, pausing, typing and liking on a phone or tablet surface.


The project journey starts here with these plastic chains and the vibrancy of the matter, to ask what happens when objects are made and unmade, when materials are considered more than inert matter, when an end shape is unimportant. Listening to the echoes and sounds that reverberate when plastic vibrates. The human/material chains and the journey along the plastic capillaries that are taken I hope will lead us to draw into the plastic landscape, a landscape whose surfaces are woven into life as much as lives are woven into landscapes. As Tim Ingold comments, ‘to investigate the surfaces of this landscape is to investigate its fabric and its modes of fabrication.’


See you at the next stop.

The Plastic Big Top 

‘Discover the superpower of plastics’, pronounces the sign at the entrance to Plastivision 2020. The Plastic Circus has arrived in the city, this is a manufacturer’s extravaganza, as 1,500 global plastic companies congregate to network, demonstrate and perform. The 25 acres pavilion is a cross between a lab and showroom and accommodates the magic of industrial material transformations. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, things are extruded, injected, blown, stretched, vacuumed, thermoformed, and rotationally moulded. Creating new forms in bioplastic, medical grade plastics and agricultural plastics. Set within all of the hyperbole the recycling performance can be located, it permeates outwards by the acrid stench that emanates from it. Used polyethylene carrier bags are shredded, heated and extruded into plastic pipe, unlike the sterile environments of the lab production areas, the flow of material here is full of effort as the noxious emissions testify, making visible the energy and conditions at play during plastic transformations. The movement and flow of materials here is not effortless and not without friction.


On a neighbouring stage Sandeev from the Acorn foundation drums upon a plastic oil drum. This seems a fitting performance towards the material which makes all this possible. Oil doesn't just make plastic it provides the energy to transport it and the used plastic from the Plastic Big Top is set to navigate the gridlocked highway as the thousands of complimentary water bottles from the Plastic Circus travel 14km due south along the Western Express Highway to the informal settlement of Dharavi.



















The Godowns

The Godowns, these are the warehouses of Dharavi and they bulge up against the main urban arteries of Mumbai, a flyover on one side and a water pipeline on another.  The flyover is in constant use as a flow of converted rickshaws with their 2 stroke engines deposit 80% of Mumbai’s used plastic waste into them. Vehicles laden with large woven ripstop nylon sacks, stained with oil, grease, move along this capillary. These sacks are the omnipresent containers, they transfer the goods in and out and their journey continues into the arteries on top of heads as they bob down the network of small side streets. Everything comes in and out in these and we follow the trail of the nylon bags into these narrow alleys.

Inside this godown the bags are emptied upon the floor and the sorting begins, separating the different plastics into categories. This is the recirculation nexus where end of use plastics are indexed and the city’s waste objects are broken apart by hand, separated, graded and grouped. We record the Godown with multiple photographs on a mobile phone camera, taking several hundred in a quick-fire way. Standing in different locations within the warehouse a chain of photographs are taken to create long overlapping arrays of images, these photographic sequences are then compiled within 'structure from motion’ software. Pixels are mapped and connected, synthesized into a manipulable three-dimensional framework echoing the molecular material transformations inherent within plastic itself; this a plastic picture. These new digital 3d spaces are able to be rotated and viewed from the inside out and we show these plastic pictures to the ragpickers rotating and zooming into the space, exploring new topological equivalences.

The Compound 13 Lab (the plastic sideshow)

Here in the Compound13 Lab we are surrounded by fragments of the plastic trail, jars of coloured filament and shards are labelled; ABS ,PET and PLA. The Lab itself is an experiment as equipment is made and objects are repurposed, these are less things to be put to use as things that narrate stories about themselves and question function. The plastic shredder is a set of disassembled blades of laser cut steel, carefully ordered for calibration upon a spindle, in a helix, this lies on a worktop, waiting for more machined parts to arrive. These machines are sculptural objects which yield more sculptural objects. The extruder, a heated barrel with an oversized drill bit which condenses and pressurises the molten plastic as it pushes the plastic through a chamber and out the other side oozes a blobby extract that resembles tar rather than plastic filament. The shredder, the extruder and 3d printer are all part of the assemblage of the lab as they splutter and clank, grind and whirr, stopper motors and repurposed workshop equipment combine to jolt into action as machined parts and plastic objects coalesce.





Plastic Portraits

The workshops in the Compound13 Lab begin by creating portraits. We start to laser scan each other's heads. In groups we take turns to circle around a seated person whilst holding the laptop and hand held laser scanner. Unlike a contemporary photo, the process is slow and it takes many minutes to navigate around the sitter. This is an entrancing process which the computer screen narrates for us as we glimpse the real-time rendering of the sitter. The laser scanner is inconsistent and loses tracking easily which generates protuberances and provides room for dialogue as we converse about these aberrations. How do we include these failures and how do we accommodate the preposterous accidents?





















These workshops are open to experiment as we scan other actions, we scan groups when playing the drums on the found plastic oil and chemical barrels, as the air and space around us is broken down into bits of sonic information and within this environment a complex intra-action between operator, apparatus, subject and object are formed. These portrait images that are folded back into an ongoing performance create more fluid and plastic images, these are not static images but transitory images to be integrated back into the workshop.


















We would make portraits of the following people: Laxmi, Ainul, Akanksha, Ainul, Akshat, Anas Anumanthi, Anwar, Aqui, Chandan, Hanzala, Katya, Lipsa, Mamta, Monis, Nitesh, Pravin, Sandy, Saziya, Shankar, Shiva, Shivas, Sudha, Umar, and Vinesh 

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