2015 May 13 / 17:30
Round Table
Heather Davis

Queer Ecologies, Unintentional Aesthetics and other Conundrums of the Plastic Age

Plastic is one material that scientists are currently considering as a ‘golden spike’ for the Anthropocene. Plastic is a useful indicator, as all the plastic that has ever been created since its first appearance in 1907 (the date the first synthetic polymer, Bakelite, was invented) is still somewhere, in some form, on the planet. For plastic easily disperses, breaks apart, and we spend a huge amount of energy to contain plastic ‘elsewhere’, but plastic does not go away. It does not biodegrade. That is, it does not turn into something else. So all the plastic that has ever been made, from take-out containers to nylons to IV bags, is rapidly composing a new kind of geologic layer on the earth, a geontology as it literally becomes rock.

By recoating the surface of the earth, plastic creates an aesthetic experience that at once mirrors contemporary art practices, but also highlights the relation to aesthesis. That is, plastic is re-shaping our sensations and perceptions, creating a new order of experience within the world.

However, it is not just the human world that plastic affects. By existing outside of the time frame of biological life, plastic brings with it an undead quality that exists in opposition to the biological binary of life and death, and spreads this reign throughout all the ecosystems it interacts with. Most of the plastic produced ends up in the ocean, offering itself as a food source to everything from plankton to whales, slowly sealing off the exchange of nutrients, starving animals though its abundance. While plastic forecloses certain kinds of life, it is birthing others. Plastic is the anthropogenic substrate of a whole new ecology of viruses and bacteria, termed the plastisphere. Instead of running from these toxic and infertile futures, as Mel Chen, Claire Colebrook and others suggest, what might we learn if we began to embrace the nonfilial progeny that plastic, and the plastisphere, produce?

This lecture will consider these three layers of plastic: its geology, aesthetics and biological futurity.

Video 1:28:10

Heather Davis is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. Her work traces the ethology of plastic and its links to petrocapitalism. She completed her Ph.D. in the joint program in Communication at Concordia University in 2011 on the intersection of community-based art, relational subjectivity, and ecology. She has been a postdoctoral fellow in Women’s Studies at Duke University, a visiting scholar in UCLA’s Experimental Critical Theory Program, the Aesthetics and Politics Program at the California Institute of the Arts, the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She is the editor of “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environment and Epistemology” (Open Humanities Press, forthcoming 2015) and “Desire/Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada” (McGill-Queen’s UP, forthcoming 2016). Her writing can be found at heathermdavis.com.