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Artists in Social Sciences & Public Policy

Maria Arceo in the Departments of Geography and Chemistry

From September 2016 to September 2017, artist Maria Arceo is working in collaboration with the Departments of Geography and Chemistry on a project about London’s river Thames, challenging our understanding of plastic debris and raising awareness of the geographical reach of the problem. 

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Thames plastic & the exploration of future Dust

Plastic pollution is fast becoming the most ubiquitous environmental and archaeological 'signature' of the current geological age, but it has yet to be recognised in the wider public realm. With a focus on London’s river Thames, the project Thames plastic & the exploration of future dust brings together King’s College London with artist Maria Arceo and a wide network of cross-disciplinary partnerships with the mission to creatively inform and scientifically challenge our understanding of the widespread dispersion of plastic debris on both fluvial and marine environments.

Plastic pollution is emerging as a pressing and widespread global environmental concern. The proliferation of microplastic fragments and dust in the environment is altering the natural geomorphological composition of the Earth’s surface, as well as its river and marine environments. Most plastics polymers do not biodegrade but photodegrade, meaning that it is imperative that they are exposed to sources of either light or heat to degrade fully. These sturdy polymers can also attract high concentrations of harmful hydrophobic contaminants. Calculations for degradation rates vary for different types, but can be anything from twenty to thousands of years. However, plastics tend to fragment and are then spread even further throughout aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Ultimately these fragments become toxic plastic dust, impossible to remove from the environment.

The residency includes a set of volunteering and participation opportunities for King's students. If you are interested, please get in touch with the Project Manager, Laura Schmieder: laura@mariaarceo.com.

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About the residency and its proposed outcomes

With public engagement at its core, Maria’s residency, supported by Culture at King's, will bring King’s students and staff together with a wide set of external organsiations to jointly develop a wide series of events, talks and research that will explore the histories, geographies and material properties of plastics and shift our attitudes towards this material.

The project begins on the Thames’ shore where Maria, King’s students and volunteers will conduct beach cleanups across accessible foreshore beaches of the Thames, from Teddington to the sea, with core support from Thames21. The cleanups will be assisted by a comprehensive research project led by the Department of Geography at King's which will collect and analyse scientific data, and create new evidence about the sheer scale and ecological implication of plastic in London’s river. Maria and her team also joined King’s Sustainability Week in February. 

There will be more events taking place simultaneously, including:

  • The Humanitarian Mappers at King's are helping to create an interactive Thames Map and potentially a mobile app, mapping the distribution of plastic sediments and water quality along the foreshore.
  • In addition, the outreach programme at King's has started conversations with the Royal Society of Chemistry about the development of a ‘plastic toolkit’ which could be introduced into school curriculums. 

Maria Arceo Plastic Lab social media (final)

Thames Plastic Lab

From 6 – 11 June 2017, interactive workshops are being held across King's and Somerset House that will explore and visualise the nature of plastics and their impact in our environment. The lab provides participants with a real sensory perception about the types of objects found along the Thames foreshore.

With the help of Thames21 and many volunteers, Maria has collected plastic that has gathered across more than 40 locations along the Thames foreshore. The plastic is displayed in separate piles and accompanied by research findings and information gathered by King’s and Thames21, also showcasing selected images and digital footage from the clean-ups. Beachcombing, handpicking, identifying, and colour-coding these found objects, Maria will transform them into a ‘building material’ that provides the viewer with a new and engaging perspective of plastic’s attributes, history, environmental impact, and value.

The opening event took place on the evening of 5 June 2017 at King's, and was accompanied by a screening of Craig Leeson's documentary, A Plastic Ocean (2016), followed by a 30-minute panel discussion with artist Maria Arceo and leading environmental experts from King's

This workshop phase provides participants with valuable first-hand knowledge and understanding of the scale, gravity and urgency that the presence of plastic debris in water environments represent.

Maria Arceo5As part of the workshops, King’s students will be in charge of a Plastic Lab that will help participants explore and analyse the plastic’s scientific, historic and geographic properties. All this will be linked to selected series of talks, panel discussions and screenings led by a selected group of King's scholars and international speakers.

Once the workshop is finished, all the plastic will then be used by Maria and volunteers between June and August 2017 to construct a large art installation that will engage London’s citizens by showcasing the overwhelming magnitude of the collected waste when observed from afar, as well as providing the opportunity to relate with these everyday objects when observed in close detail.

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Finally, the last stage will consist of a concluding educational workshop focused on recycling processes, using the plastic from the art installation once it has been taken down. It will also include a collaborative project with young designers and King's science students to design and create a permanent art object commemorating the Thames plastic project. The object will stand as both a lasting reminder of the origin and scale of the problem, and as a symbol of London’s determination to lead the way towards a more sustainable future.

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About the artist

Maria José Arceo was born in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and moved to London in 1984, where she graduated with a BA in Fine Art from Camberwell College of Arts and later with a Postgraduate in Art and Design Education from Goldsmiths.

She has participated in numerous art exhibitions, film fairs and festivals and has worked on environmental projects related to water. Among these: Biomimicry - coral reef ecoMachines _World Incubators with ecoLogicStudio and the Architects Association in Dubai, and Empooling Landscapes with the University of East London that explored the effects of salt on different construction materials regarding proposals for the design and construction of various structures within the salt marshes of Coto Doña Ana National Park, in Andalusia, Spain.

In 2014 Maria participated in Gustav Metzger’s Facing Extinction Conference at Farnham University as a guest speaker on the ‘Global Systems: Food and Water' panel and as the spokesperson for the 'Biodiversity' panel. The conference was followed by an interactive exhibition at the Herbert Reed Gallery in Canterbury with an open inaugurational speech by Maria, culminating in a two day marathon of talks at the Serpentine Gallery titled Gustav Metzger: Remember Nature

Later in 2014 she worked on a project collecting samples from the Atlantic investigating the presence of microplastic contaminants on the water’s surface. The findings were then shared to a range of international research projects such as The Marine Litter Watch (UN Environmental Agency); A Safe Planet Campaign (UNEP); Phytoplankton Secchi Disk Project (Plymouth University); Marine Environmental Research Institute MERI (Maine USA); MTM Research Centre (Örebro University, Sweden).

At present, Maria is working on various creative responses derived from these experiences, while continuing her research and artistic production in relation to the long lasting properties of these discarded polymers. She is also working on some large-scale sculptural installations involving wider interaction with the public and cross-curricular collaborations.

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