Benjamin Von Wong’s latest art-as-activism installation looks like something Photoshopped onto reality. A large brass-looking faucet, suspended in the air, pours a river of plastic out of its spout.
The symbolism of the #TurnOffThePlasticTap installation is somehow both over-the-top and just right. It’s a screaming warning about the plastic crisis — just imagine if that faucet were active and real — and a neat distillation of what’s going on around the world as plastic pollution overwhelms marine and land ecosystems and pervades our food system, water sources, and each breath of air.
Even though awareness of plastic pollution has never been greater, the problem continues to worsen. During the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic consumption in the US increased by up to 300% compared to the previous period. Many types of pandemic-era plastic, including various types of medical gear such as single-use personal protective equipment, are hard to recycle and have gone on to pollute marine environments.
Over the next decade, plastic production is expected to increase by 40% and, as Von Wong told Global Citizen, that’s more than our planet can handle.
“We’re kind of at the breaking point where we’re incapable of processing all the plastic that we produce,” he said. “And so, we need to go back to the source and stop producing so much in the first place.
“It’s sort of like if the bath or the sink was overflowing with water and instead of trying to shut the water off, you’re just cleaning up the mess and hoping that it’s gonna be enough,” he said. “That is the symbolism of #TurnOffThePlasticTap.”
Few countries are able to effectively sort through and recycle plastic waste. As a result, it gets sent to landfills and shipped around the world in a sort of hot-potato game of pollution.
Dozens of countries have restricted the use of certain kinds of plastic, such as shopping bags, and have vowed to improve recycling efforts. Governments, industry stakeholders, and environmental groups are currently working to enact a plastic pollution treaty through the United Nations that would coordinate efforts to slow production and improve waste management.
“The scope and ambition of the actual content of a UN treaty will have to match the overall objective of keeping plastics in the economy and stopping their leakage into the environment,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation wrote in a report on the subject. “Of necessity, these measures relate to the full lifecycle of plastic products in various sectors, which requires a multi-layered governance approach and, mutually reinforcing simultaneous actions from various stakeholders on sub-national, national, and regional level.”
For #TurnOffThePlasticTap, Von Wong gained access to a building that was going to be demolished and managed to scavenge ventilation ducts to develop the faucet. Teams of volunteers then helped to sort and arrange plastic waste to create the flow pouring out of the faucet. They then lifted everything with a forklift that was obscured with boat covers and lit everything with mirrors for the photoshoot.
Von Wong has used art to bring attention to plastic pollution in the ocean for many years. He’s built a roiling wave with plastic straws and used plastic bottles to create a mermaid installation.
“What draws me to the subject of overconsumption is the sheer volume of it,” he said. “It’s something we see and touch and interface with every day and it’s become almost invisible to us. And I guess what I try to do is take these ordinary things that we kind of forget about and make them extraordinary so you can shift your perspective."
The installation’s website features various actions that people can support, including Oceanic Global’s challenge to nominate businesses to go plastic free, and Greenpeace’s petition calling on US President Joe Biden to join the UN’s plastic treaty.
In the future, Von Wong wants to move away from illustrating plastic pollution in dramatic ways and instead showcase solutions that are being made to build a better, cleaner future.
“Art is non-prescriptive,” he said. “It’s not telling you what to do or what to think. It’s merely pointing out something and hopefully highlighting it in a way that you didn’t see before, so I think it has its place next to science, next to policy, next to campaigning and activism and innovation.
“I guess I see my role as an artist to help develop that entire ecosystem,” he said.