Interviews from the future: WE’RE PLASTIC

In the desert, millions of tons of plastic waste repurposed for art

In Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant, I am lucky enough to share a selection of interviews from the future, which reveal the endeavors that artists, technologists and entrepreneurs are building in the years from 2044 to 2124.

The first interview is from March 2044. A conversation between Cam Morton, senior New York Times arts correspondent, and Rena Theo Storm, the curator of the desert space WE’RE PLASTIC. WE’RE PLASTIC (known colloquially as W’P) found its home in the US desert but has branched out into a network of sites around the US and the world. The interview is reproduced in its entirety.

Cover artwork: French Horn, Jan Mile, 2033

Cam Morton: WE’RE PLASTIC is a simple idea at its core — collecting as much low-value, un-recyclable plastic as possible in one place, and turning it into an ‘archive’ within permanent art. That simple idea has become a global phenomenon, attracting interest, delight and controversy. Producing work for W’P has also become a rite of passage for almost any creator working with physical form. How do you see your role as curator of the largest art space in the world?

Rena Theo Storm: It’s a privilege — a daunting one. But we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and I am ever so lucky in this regard. What we are creating at W’P is evolving continually. It’s a mixture of creation in the present, a long-term vision of how what we create might change and degrade, and now is becoming a way of training and helping people think in different ways about consumption, material and place.

CM: Your career has featured some amazing twists and turns. How did you get involved with W’P?

RTS: I’ve only been curator since early 2041, but I have been creating artworks and involved in W’P in various ways since 2036. Of course Bab [Aggy Lin] created such a strong legacy in her nine-year official tenure, so I see much of my job as evolving from Bab’s work, her principles. Probably most notably outside of the traditional modes of curation — for example her solidifying the team structures and material handling philosophies that turned W’P from a risky, some might say even troubled, project, into something solid and grounded. I joined because I’m a maker, I’m not someone who just sits in an office and browses [expletive] books.

Storm, securing artwork with long-time collaborator Jorge Baas, 2038

There is no real mystery to the conception of WE’RE PLASTIC. It came out of some very simple, very grounded conversations between a network of artists who were looking for a visitable, exciting, safe way to incorporate so-called low-value plastic material into artwork on a large scale.

The fortuitous connections that occurred were between the original stewards of the land, the plastics recovery corporations, and the artists. And Bab was pretty instrumental in this phase, although she was not curator at the time. The early history is quite well covered in the BLUER PLAN book [2038, Terrel Tucky, Phaidon]. But the philosophy of “Gather > Transform > Make” that Cosi developed is the easiest way to understand what we do with plastic.

Cosi would do hundreds of sketches of this spiral design that eventually formed the basis of the main site. The principle was that if we found the right place in the desert, each year as the project gathered momentum, we could keep spiraling outwards so that the growth of the plastic waste we collected would always fit into the shape with wider and wider rings.

Early sketch by Cosi ‘Nger of the W’P spiral, 2029

I was partly attracted to this work with a personal inspiration from the women of Greenham Common in the UK in the 80s and 90s - creating a peace camp, a physical and somewhat permanent space, in protest to nuclear warheads. W’P is a physical protest against plastic, that is also of plastic, and of time.

Now in 2044 I’m trying to build a coalition of the willing to support and grow what we have been doing internationally — I’m as much focused on our global sites as preserving and growing what we have in the desert. I started working with Bab at that inflection point when people were hungry for change — they knew it was necessary. Now everyone is receptive, and they want to hear something different. The way forward may not be obvious. We’ve got to figure out how to work that out. There is even more waste out there and we can use it for art.

I Am Sailing All The Time, Rena Theo Storm, 2037

CM: Your own piece, I Am Sailing All The Time, located in rock outcrops close to the 44th spiral, has become a mecca for new contributing artists.

RTS: The real accomplishment of Sailing was actually the work of Jorge [Baas] and Ash Bondderron in finding the way to compress, melt and seal LDPE waste into the solid containers for the piece. There is 80 kilos of plastic in there! We still use that exact same compression technology today and I love that it has even been commercialized by a new Australian company for small-scale pleasure watercraft.

In This Canyon, Cosi ‘Nger, 2031

CM: Tell us about the issues with the original concept and involvement with plastics companies which created such global controversy in the early 2030s.

RTS: There’s not much to tell anymore, everything’s been said. W’P should never have partnered with Dow Chemical. Cosi [W’P’s founder, Cosi ‘Nger] was hoping for a positive collaboration, a big tent where everyone is welcome and access to materials would be worth the ‘risk’, but that was ultimately unrealistic. I guess all I might say is now — I am extremely glad that Bab and Cosi were able to disentangle us from those relationships and create a peaceful and productive transition to Bab’s curatorship which fostered such an explosive growth in the scale of W’P and its international awareness.

Ultimately what Cosi created was far, far bigger than any minor squabbles from that period and his legacy forms a huge part of the culture of W’P today. While some of his foundational early work like In This Field and In this Canyon had to be dismantled and repurposed for better archival, especially after the flood that affected ITC so badly, the underlying message was so strong. So strong. I remember walking through ITF just before it was repurposed and it was probably the thing that convinced me to dive into this work headfirst — seeing hundreds of people at dawn circling this space, creating meaning out of something that would otherwise be waste. You could not help but be touched.

In This Field, Cosi ‘Nger, 2030

CM: Coming back to today. What is the message to first-time visitors of the site?

RTS: First-time visitors are confronted with an immense ecosystem of artwork created from waste — waste that they themselves have contributed to and have very limited ways of ‘fixing’ in their everyday lives. And when I started my role, and I think Bab would say the same actually, I decided that visitors to W’P aren’t there to sit back and look — they are there for a discussion. People talk — really talk. This is not small talk. It is big talk. Why does this exist?

This is not small talk.
It is big talk. Why does this exist?

And then there’s a second level of interaction - between them and the artworks and between the artworks themselves. They feel the energy that comes from different artists working together and putting artists together that aren’t normally alongside each other, generating attractions and even discord. What if we just put these two artists in conversation vis-à-vis the objects? What if we put these materials in conversation with these different parts of our space? I do believe that is the model that we’re all trying to engender now in our spaces — to think not so much about the distinctions, but to pull together as many things as possible to spark new conversations. This is how artists work.

Former W’P Curator Aggy ‘Bab’ Lin photographed onsite in 2033 by Zeena Jolo

When you visit W’P for the first time, you will be astonished by its scale. And how often are you astonished by scale? How often are you in awe?

It takes several days to walk the entire site at this point, and each step gives you a different view and a different environment. Even different sound, as the wind, echoes, even the texture of the ground can differ. There is of course some uniformity in material, but immense variety in expressions of shape, texture, space. The spaces between the sculptures are spaces for walking and transport — very functional — but also for contemplation, for meeting, for the creation of art in turn. That feeds back into that discussion. You can’t visit W’P without that expression bouncing off you and turning into something else. When you exit the main spiral and trek to the Large Works, like Worm Seven, or the installations by Hiems, you have a separate experience again.

We find that visitors are profoundly changed by the experience. We bring politicians, businesspeople, for summits and talks. But my favorite is more simple: the folks who didn’t want to be there in the first place! Maybe they were dragged along by a partner or family member, but they get infected by the space. Space and place have an effect — which ironically we talk about much more now that spacial computing has taken complete hold.

There are no screens on site, still! Which I can hardly believe we have managed to do. But people take it seriously, thank goodness.

The iconic core spiral of WE’RE PLASTIC, view from dirigible, 2037 (W’P archive)

CM: The scale is immense. I brought my cousin with me the last time I visited the main site and found exactly what you said.

Can you remind us of some of the artists who've contributed to this evolving landscape and perhaps share some statistics on the project's scale?

RTS: Certainly. At this stage there is no precise count of ‘artists’ as the contributors to W’P are as varied as the artworks themselves — some come as craftspeople, others provide creative direction, other teams perform transport and logistical functions. However, especially at the beginning of the project in 2031, the involvement of several well-known international artists was certainly instrumental in fostering a global fascination with the project and, of course, much needed funding!

The artists who we owe a debt of gratitude who were intensely involved at that time include Anh Lee Won, Kat del Vivkoo, Una Belhilde, Gustavo Sousa, and a group of resourceful folks who were originally involved in the estate of Taro Shinoda. In total there are now more than 9,000 individual Mentor Artists who have been involved in creative direction, and each year across our global sites there are now more than a thousand, so the pace is accelerating.

There are currently 8,134 sculptures under official designation, and we estimate around 11 million tons of plastic has been archived.

In terms of raw numbers — due to the inherent properties of materials and the dimensions we work with, on average sculptures end up being around 3-4 meters tall and around 5-10 meters wide and deep, so considering the density of the materials used, we find that each installation encapsulates roughly 500-2,000 kilograms of plastic. We estimate around 11 million tons of plastic has been archived across 8,134 sculptures under official designation. This is of course a tiny proportion of the overall global plastic waste load. But it is something, it increases every year, and the awareness we create is large.

In addition, the number of unofficial contributions outside of the main W’P demarcation probably numbers at least as many at this point! Like for one example - the Thumbs! There are an uncountable number now, maybe 7,000 or so, but probably around 10-20 more every day. It might sound really weird as the curator of the official space, but I love the Thumbs. I take people to the Thumbs first. Officially, our material recovery workshop does not create Thumbs, but yeah. Most of them are probably extruded there.

Since, 2032, hundreds of unofficial artworks called Thumbs are created daily

CM: Contributor housing, entertainment, education and healthcare even, seems to have become an industry in itself. Whenever I visit the main site, I see new housing structures, more formalized training facilities — a whole city, built up to support W’P.

RTS: We’re incredibly lucky to have global participation at this point, and the resources to support a population that now numbers in the several hundred folks at any one time.

New W’P graduates making the now-traditional Trek To Site, 2039

Our current enrollment is still relatively simple, thankfully. We have the Trek to Site where artists bring plastic from their local community, which now has a formal route, even some informal customs relating to dietary choices and a customary day of silence in the desert. Then everyone does a rolling induction for 12 weeks on maintenance, cleaning and repair tasks, a two week session for the choosing of alliances and sculptural focus, the adoption of a Mentor Artist, and then the traditional 16 week construction phase. And of course the unveiling parties which follow a 6-week recurring cadence. We’re proud to say that we’ve had over 10,000 graduates now who have gone on to exciting environmental art projects worldwide.

Scud Fish Buried, by Una Belhilde, 2032

I want to take a moment to talk about our sister sites of course. There are now W’P sites in Australia, Chile, the UK, Sweden, China, Mauritania, and the W’P archipelago projects of course across several Indonesian islands, centered around Seram, Buru and Obi. These sites have unique, powerful characters of their own.

Playthings Set in Blue Amber, Hasan Suparmanputra, 2043 (W’P Buru)

The recovery and archival of ocean plastic has meant that these new sites have grown the most quickly, amid much more difficult climatic conditions - of course only enabled by recent advances in low-rigidity plastic repurposing (partly spurred by W’P’s work!) which has allowed permanent hard shapes to be produced safely. One of the examples we pay special attention to this year of course is I AM A ROCK, sadly the last work that Christopher Lemon produced prior to his untimely airship accident.

I AM A ROCK, Christopher Lemon, 2044 (W’P Buru)

CM: From the outside, your job seems to be as much about battling the elements as it does about curating the artwork.

RTS: What I learned during my apprenticeship with Kora Loos was that grand projects are always in tension with outside forces. The experience of building the Osaka Expo sites in 2025 — I mean what a world away that was — showed me that the process of creating art at scale is always connected to its broader surroundings and the land itself. This was made clear during the quake. The fact that there would be an earthquake— I mean luckily a tiny, tiny earthquake with no casualties — actually a funny story is that I think officially my partner at the time, Arnie [Nigel], was the only injury during that earthquake in a city of millions of people, in that one of our huge fabric signs fell down and kind of enveloped him and he twisted his ankle under the weight of this massive cloth, poor idiot. Anyway this taught me that we are always creating in collaboration with the earth, we cannot create anything that has true permanence, and I think that mindset is fundamental, crucial within W’P.

The forces we contend with here follow several different length cycles: First, the degradation of plastic (which surprises us all sometimes in how fast it is, and how slow it is), then the climate and weather, which in a supposedly desert region is becoming increasingly erratic and subject to immense changes, the perception and activity of the public and artists which changes over decades, the whims of our sponsors, the changing attitudes of our corporate partners. I could go on. Change is constant. So I guess I would disagree that I am battling the elements — I am working with them.

CM: But plastic has this property of being essentially permanent, lasting thousands of years, but also degrading into microplastics.

RTS: Since the founding of W’P we’ve been conducting research into countermeasures against the unavoidable degradation of plastic into microplastics. It was only as recently as the 2010s and 2020s that the wider population even started to be aware of microplastics’ presence literally everywhere in our environment — I remember as a recent graduate being stunned at scientists finding microplastics in human embryos, and storing that fact away in my brain as something I might want to contend with in my work. The work of Ash [Bondderron] and the MatShaping team here at W’P and at our partner universities around the world has been integral in finding ways to filter out microplastics and harden plastics so that they do not degrade, even when in the harsh desert environment, and even over hundreds of years.

So we chose the desert environment in order to make our work easier — preserving plastics in a ‘safe’ space. Although always, from the beginning, and constantly we take advisement from local peoples. Whenever we commission a new major work, and throughout the year in a ritualized fashion, we work not only ‘with’ but our team is made up significantly of the indigenous peoples of the lands of all our W’P sites. We have the dual responsibility and shame of storing such large quantities of plastic in any lands, but we chose this land as one that could most readily bear the weight. There is no right answer.

Because of the extensive workshop / reclamation technology we now have onsite, we are also able to support temporary works like If Snow Then Melt which was hugely popular with audiences. We can recover the material and re-use it, which is incredibly exciting and has opened up new avenues. I’m excited to say that we are on track to re-create some of Cosi’s earliest work with these methods and hope to re-exhibit key pieces in 2046 across all W’P sites.

If Snow, Then Melt, Anh Lee Won, 2042-2043

And of course once we are conscious of that constant change, it becomes one of the things that is starting to be a focus of discussion by the artists. For instance Kat del Vivkoo’s playful ‘Kia Boyz’ kinetic sculpture from last year, which is a completely accurate and mobile 9:12 scale reconstruction of a 2022 Hyundai Elantra, using degraded plastic material recovered specifically from Kia and Hyundai scrapyards around the world, then reshaped into the form of the car. We give this piece its own space in the desert - it is in movement from one place to another with the wind.

Kia Boyz, Kat del Vivkoo, 2043

CM: But the purpose of W’P is the long-term archival of low-value plastic.

RTS: Yes our foundation’s purpose is the collection and preservation of low-value plastic material in the form of artwork, to be archived for the longest period of time possible. The original idea which has stayed current is that, as artists, we can use, consume and repurpose low-value materials that are not desirable for commerce but have value as structure or surface for creating art. By creating this art and storing or archiving the material within, we create cultural value while finding a purpose for that plastic waste, especially a purpose which means that it will not degrade down into microplastics. The magic of WE’RE PLASTIC is due to the fact that we are able to collect huge amounts of this material in one place, and so offer to it curatorial and archival resources that are not available to folks making artwork in isolation.

The magic of WE’RE PLASTIC is due to the fact that we are able to collect huge amounts of this material in one place, and so offer to it curatorial and archival resources that are not available to folks making artwork in isolation.

And of course, each contributor must accept that at some point in the future if it becomes technologically feasible and necessary, we will facilitate the conversion of that plastic back into usable material and the return of land back to its original state.

Early on, this was one of the hardest things for our contributors to accept, in that they are creating artwork that needs to last for a very long time, not degrade under the elements, and also know that at some point in the distant future their artwork may be destroyed to retrieve the material. We still, and will always, devote one twentieth of our incoming contributors’ time to research into extraction of microplastics and land recovery. Antin Che has been one of the artists that has embodied retrieval as a design solution into their work itself - the pulleys and cables supporting his Hammock series are designed to allow a single person to retrieve each artwork “in under 4 minutes”. We hope this is never tested!

Hammock 12, Antin Che, 2035

CM: How far away are we from that point where material might be retrieved — you often refer to it as the Recovery Date?

RTS: We’re still a way off from RD, and we still hold that indefinite preservation of the site — and of course our sister sites — is the most likely outcome. The 2030s saw the introduction of commercial-scale LDPE and PP chemical recycling, and of course, thankfully, we do see massive operation of these facilities around the world. Of course, given we are located strategically right next to one of the South West’s largest plastic recovery plants, we have a fly-on-the-wall view of this technology in operation and were involved in the development process. But still, the high energy requirements and low eventual value of the processed plastic still implies that W’P stays relevant. We call it ‘escape velocity’ whereby the scale of W’P and its cultural value exceeds the material value — and I think we continue to achieve that. I don’t think RD will happen within our lifetimes. But we must be open to it.

CM: I feel like something that has really picked up pace in just the past 3-4 years is the use of sound, wind and movement. The first major instance of wind-produced audio being used that I know about was by the Hiems Shooter Collective.

Long Tone One, Hiems Shooter Collective, 2040

RTS: Oh gosh yes these are some of my favorite works. Of course, as a curator, [laughs] these have been simply ridiculous to schedule, commission, enable. But so, so worth it! The roar of Long Tone One on a slightly windy day is one of the most centering, grounding pieces of noise I have ever heard. To stand in the opening of the tunnel, you can feel the wind rushing past you and you can hear the howl and it all comes together in this fascinating way that is literally only possible in this place with these materials. Long Tone Two is special, scary, immense in an entirely different way. I am so excited that artists have started to play with these multi-sensory forms at W’P and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Long Tone Two, Hiems Shooter Collective, 2041

CM: Will W’P respond to the recent Canberra accusations regarding the Hiems Collective?

RTS: I can’t discuss ongoing litigation. I can say broadly, the foundation supports freedom of expression in all its forms.

CM: What do you say to critics of W’P who assert that the energy used to transport material, the materials used to fix and solidify material to reduce erosion, and the emissions created by the ecosystem around each W’P site create more environmental burden than the archival of that plastic material actually relieves?

RTS: Our planet is still burning, oceans are still choking on plastic, and species are vanishing. If now is not the time for confrontation, when is? The climate crisis demands boldness, not politeness — and plastic pollution is a second-cousin to climate change that gains far less attention, but has equivalent impact. WE’RE PLASTIC is a wake-up call, an invitation to witness the beauty we can create from our neglect and to inspire action. I welcome criticism if it sparks dialogue and change.

National Guardsmen dismantle Nothing is Blue by Lura Becki Gert, 2033, AP Photo

CM: Speaking of books - this year sees the publication of BLUE WHALE, a compelling photographic retrospective of the past 15 years of WE’RE PLASTIC — featuring your work “Untitled (KSR)” on the cover. You have been through so much - ‘Nger’s passing, the National Guard incursion in 2033, the planning, design and opening of the XL facilities in 2035-2037, the Gallagher disaster. What was your motivation for the book?

The cover of BLUE WHALE shows Untitled (KSR) by Rena Theo Storm

RTS: Any act of creation is about telling a story. We’ve been through so many ‘moments’ visible from the outside, but the real story is of the people and place. That’s why this book is more about what it’s been like living, creating, maintaining, working on site, than any specific media event or piece of news. The cover we chose for Christopher. He lives on.

BLUE WHALE is available from April 2044 at all good bookstores.


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