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Pinar Yoldas Imagines Future Life Inside the Pacific Trash Vortex

In ‘An Ecosystem of Excess,’ Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas imagines organism evolved to eat plastic.

by DJ Pangburn
21 January 2014, 3:44pm

A plastosensory organ, courtesy of the artist.

Pinar Yoldas dreams of the Pacific Trash Vortex. Not in the void of sleep, but during her waking hours. She imagines what sort of organic forms might grow out of the plastic particulate that floats in the Pacific Ocean’s gyre of marine debris. With An Ecosystem of Excess, part of Transmediale’s Afterglow festival being held late January, Yoldas will bring her science fictional daydream into the waking world.

Yoldas’ careers spans a decade, ranging from videos to paintings and iPhone video games. But, at a certain point, she became interested in imaginative, gelatinous sculptures of organs and organisms. It might have started with the Urogenital Fluids. In this piece, Yoldas visualized the initial external position of male and female genitalia in human fetuses. This research sent Yoldas down a more scientific path, both in her thinking and artwork. 

In An Ecosystem of Excess, Yoldas catalogues an imaginary future—one made possible by a man-made primordial soup of consumerist detritus, but also one that would exist quite apart from humanity. And, like Jorge Luis Borges fictional bestiary, Book of Imaginary Beings, Yoldas delights in detailing the various forms of life and their organs that would digest petroleum-derived plastics. 

Pacific Balloon Turtle, courtesy of the artist.

Amongst other things, Yoldas’ exhibit features organs and a digestive system for what she calls “plastivores,” living things that thrive in the Pacific gyre. Stomaximus, for instance, is a poly-chambered “maximized stomach” that can digest a variety of plastics from polypropylene to polyurethane. Yoldas also creates a Pacific Balloon Turtle, evolved from the consumption of balloons, and eggs that take on the color of Pantone-hued plastics. 

Another organ, P-plastoceptor, is a spectrograph-like organ that allows plastivores to sense the presence of the polypropylene plastics family. Although Yoldas is satirizing petrochemical pollution, one is almost left wishing that these creatures actually existed to clean up the ocean. But, like any good science fiction (think B movies about atomic waste mutants), you wonder if they could also be humanity’s undoing. 

When I spoke to Yoldas, I found a spritely personality who’d been working long hours in Berlin to finally bring An Ecosystem of Excess together. Yoldas said it was several years in the making, and she is happy to see it live. She also told me how science fiction, especially Ursula K. Leguin’s novels, and her scientific studies at Duke University helped shape the new project. 

A plasticeptor sensory organ, courtesy of the artist.

The Creators Project: Does science fiction, particularly dystopias, influence your work?

Pinar Yoldas: What do you think? [laughs]

I think it does, for sure. 

Yeah, of course. I’m really inspired by science fiction. It’s been a big influence on me. I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, watching a lot of science fiction movies, reading a lot of graphic novels. I also educated myself in that field a lot. I use fiction in my art for speculation as an intellectual tool. So, the kind of science fiction I like is stuff that kind of does this cultural critique. By offering up a new world, you can actually see what’s going on here and now, and think about it. 

Ursula K. Leguin’s Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness were the kind of books I read a lot from 12 to 16 years old. I’m really into hard science now, so I read a lot of scientific articles. I’m at Duke University, and I’m doing a PhD in the Media Arts department, but I’m taking a lot of courses in Neuroscience because that is kind of my minor. Also, with this project I’ve been collaborating with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Fiction is important to me, but more and more I find myself dealing with real scientific information.

Eggs that acquired hues of Pantone colored plastic, courtesy of the artist.

An Ecosystem of Excess imagines the evolution of marine life in polluted oceanic environment. How did you arrive at this idea?

I was really intrigued by the Pacific Trash Vortex. When I first heard about it, I thought of this trash rotating in a vortex, and I was very moved by it. But, then I started doing more research. There is this Captain, Charles Moore, and he’s kind of a crazy person. He’s almost like a performance artist because he always wears these crazy hats and vests that are full of plastics he gathered from the ocean. Twenty years ago, on his way back from Hawaii, instead of taking the usual route back, he decides to go another way and discovers that the ocean has these bits of plastic in it. 

The thing is, they’re not like big chunks of plastic floating like an island, but little particles that have been breaking down since the ‘60s. Some say the vortex is as big as Texas, others say it’s as big as the United States, and others say it’s smaller. There is no single measurement of it, but it’s huge and it just keeps growing. They realized that 80% of it was coming from land, and it’s multi-national. It’s like a kinetic sculpture and a global product. 

So, this Captain Moore’s performance artist persona inspired you?

Yes, I watched a video of Captain Moore talking about the vortex, and in one instance he was holding water in a jar. The sample was full of little particles, and he says, “the ocean has turned into this soup.” So, in that moment I had this spark like, “Oh, yeah, it’s kind of like a primordial soup.” I thought, what if life started today in this contemporary primordial soup of plastics?

The plastic-eating digestive organ Stomaximus, courtesy of the artist.

How did you go from that initial germ of an idea to imagining plastic-digesting organisms?

I worked with scientists at Woods Hole, and they found this plastic-eating bacteria that has evolved. I have videos of this bacteria as proof of concept. If this creature could evolve, why not others? Insects can now lay eggs in open ocean because of the plastics. I’ve found scientific papers that talk about this. 

Sea turtles can now change shape because they eat a lot of plastic balloons. There is a study that says that if a sea turtle is given two options, a clear plastic or colored latex, they go for colored latex and eat the stuff. So, I have this new species that I call Pacific Balloon Turtle, which has a shell with elastic qualities. It can inflate or deflate, and if the turtle gets super tired, it just floats. The shell also becomes a fitness indicator, a sexual selection thing. If it can inflate its shell, it’s more likely to have sex. 

Incertae sedis (unidentified), meaning exotic taxa, courtesy of the artist.

So, a big challenge for the project was the actual designing of these organisms’ digestive systems, which had to theoretically eat plastic. 

Yes. If you’re going to design an ecosystem, one problem you’re going to have to solve is, “Okay, what is the food source, and then how do you metabolize it and make energy out of it?” While bacteria is successful at digesting plastic, we still don’t know if the byproducts are toxic, beneficial, or edible. So, I started thinking about a series of digestive organs for the project with all of these chambers and bacteria to digest all sorts of plastics. I really wanted to create a natural history museum of the future. 

What else can people expect to see at the Transmediale exhibition?

Marine birds, of course, because they basically eat the plastic, then fly back to their island and die. What remains is the plastic in their tummy. So, I have these new birds that can basically metabolize plastics, and acquire Pantone colors because the plastics industry refers to Pantone in handling and organizing color. Then I have bacteria, insects, and reptiles. 

A plasosensory organ, courtesy of the artist.

Your natural history museum of the future sounds a bit like a Jorges Luis Borges concept. Are you familiar with his short stories? 

Yes! I love Borges, of course. I read him in Turkish when I was young. 

He was obsessed with cataloguing imaginary worlds and civilizations. But, yours is kind of the reverse: you’re cataloguing imaginary biological worlds. 

I was also intrigued about designing this ecosystem that doesn’t really care about us human beings. We are creating their food right now, but once they’re there, there is no need for humans and they can take over. It’s not an anthropocentric project in that sense. I would call it de-anthropocentrism or something, where I’m taking the focus off of the human and bringing it back to other life forms. 

‘An Ecosystem of Excess’ opens January 23 at the Berlin Transmediale Afterglow festival.The opening will be held at the Ernst Schering Foundation project space.

An Ecosystem of Excess
Dystopian Utopias
Pacific Trash Vortex
Pinar Yoldas
Transmediale’s Afterglow festival
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute