Working together for a better future – Synthetic Collective and A Museum for Future Fossils

Today’s Guest Post is by Kirsty Robertson, an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Museum Studies at Western University, Canada (London, Ontario). In it she considers the Synthetic Collective and the linked, but distinct project A Museum for Future Fossils. [1]

Synthetic Collective

Figure 1. The Synthetic Collective and guests tour London’s Regional Recycling Centre as part of the Plastics Pollution Think Tank, June 2016, photo by Kirsty Robertson

Synthetic Collective is an interdisciplinary collaboration among visual artists, cultural workers, and scientists.[2] We work together to understand the effects of plastics and micro-plastics pollution in the Great Lakes Region of North America through sampling, mapping, and visualization projects. Overall, we hope to use our research (aesthetic and scientific) to instigate change at individual and policy levels. Our research outcomes include scholarly articles, three-dimensional art works, photographs, think-pieces, and eventually a major exhibition.

We believe that when artists and scientists work together from the beginning of a research project in rigorous collaboration, possibilities are opened for synthesizing different modes of knowledge. Such multi-level enquiry is crucial for understanding complex questions about the pervasiveness of plastic, a material we depend on even as its ubiquitous presence threatens to overwhelm marine and land ecosystems.

Figure 2.  Learning to Sample, Lake Huron (near Sarnia, Ontario), June 2016, photo by Kirsty Robertson

In our recently published article “Embracing an Interdisciplinary Approach to Plastics Pollution and Awareness,” we set out a series of instructions geared toward building successful interdisciplinary collaborations.[3] Advice covers how to reach out across disciplines, how to sustain and encourage communication, cooperation, and involvement, and how to assign specific roles and responsibilities to team members.

Collaborations such as that of the Synthetic Collective are remarkably rewarding, but can also be difficult to start up and maintain. When we first came together, for example, we had to overcome differences in disciplinary language, and work to translate between our conceptual framings. For instance, when is a rock a rock, and when is it a stone? Is plastics pollution a more appropriate term than plastic pollution? What can art do that science cannot, and vice versa?

Talking about her frustration with hearing of further studies of polluted beaches, Patricia Corcoran, geologist and Synthetic Club member noted,

The story is ‘now what?’ And because science is all about documenting, it usually stops there. That’s why I think it’s also good to work with other disciplines, and people like artists, to pick up that work and carry it forward. [Artists] find a way to exhibit that next part, the ‘now what,’ and the ‘how we got here.” [4]

Patricia Corcoran, Geologist

Keeping these goals in mind, the Collective is working to expand its network of resources and researchers with the goal of developing a more tangible understanding of plastics pollution as a “wicked problem”:[5] one that is both a local and a global systemic issue, yet also a site for innovation and remediation.

Working individually and collectively

Figure 3. Colourful microplastic fragments on the beach at Sodus Point, Lake Ontario, New York, October 2018, photo by Kirsty Robertson

Currently, Synthetic Collective members are working individually on a number of endeavours, many of which are documented on our website www.syntheticcollective.org.

Collectively we are working on two projects. The first involves sampling for pre-consumer plastic pellets (known as nurdles) on the shorelines of the Great Lakes.

The second will use the results of our sampling in a major exhibition titled Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through, which will open at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto in September, 2021. While the exhibition centres on bringing together the Synthetic Collective’s research with the work of a number of contemporary artists, we are also trying to address the environmental impact of art exhibitions.[6]

Figure 4. Micropellets gathered near Sarnia, Lake Huron, October 2018, photo by Tegan Moore

As a professor of Museum and Curatorial Studies, I and my students are constantly trying to balance curating professional-looking exhibitions with managing the waste created by those undertakings. Vinyl lettering used for labels and didactic panels provides a key example. On the one hand, the clean lines presented by vinyl provide an immediate visual impact that is incomparable with other easily available options. On the other, the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) making up vinyl lettering may take as long as a thousand years to degrade, while the toxic molecular compounds in the added plasticizers used to make the vinyl malleable will last into futures far beyond our current ability to imagine.

As the Synthetic Collective plans Plastic Heart, a series of questions guides our curating:

  • What is the past and future of each work in the exhibition? What challenges have the storage and conservation of artworks containing plastics presented to museum and gallery collections?
  • Is a carbon-neutral exhibition an impossibility? And as a thought-experiment, what can we learn from thinking through the possibilities and limits of carbon-neutrality when it comes to curation?
  • How can the collaborative intent of the Synthetic Collective, working across the disciplinary boundaries of art and science, be presented in an exhibition setting, and how can our research inspire long-term action? How can each discipline help fill knowledge gaps in the other?

One of the major outcomes of Plastic Heart will be a manual for museums and galleries working towards more sustainable forms of curating. We would love to hear your ideas and suggestions for the manual, and can be contacted atinfo@syntheticcollective.org.

The Synthetic Collective and guests tour London’s Regional Recycling Centre as part of the Plastics Pollution Think Tank, June 2016, photo by Tegan Moore

A Museum for Future Fossils

Alongside the work of the Synthetic Collective, a second exhibition and outreach-based project that may be of interest to supporters of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice is A Museum for Future Fossils (MFFF). The “future fossils” in the title of this project references the work of paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz on the Anthropocene (the proposed name for an epoch in which human impact is recorded in the geologic record). Zalasiewicz writes:

Once buried … plastics have a good chance to be fossilized – and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future.[7]

Jan Zalasiewicz, Paleobiologist

But imagining the point at which plastics become a fossil layer depends upon speculation – indeed, this is a future that none of us currently on earth will see, and the pathways to that future are infinite. A Museum for Future Fossils is a series of events and projects that performs this speculative work between art, science, and activism. A collaboration between myself and cultural anthropologist Dr. Eugenia Kisin (NYU Gallatin), this multi-sited “museum” will bring together a key group of people working on contemporary art, the Anthropocene, and climate change.

Our overarching question is: what does it mean to think curatorially about human impact on the environment, including, especially, its “future fossils”? Other questions include:

  • With regards to art, climate change, and environmental destruction, what best practices, curatorial strategies, research, and projects have worked in the past and might work in the future?
  • What does it mean to foreground humans in a geologic epoch (that is, the Anthropocene), and who is excluded from this category of humanness?
  • And how are experiences of Indigeneity and difference articulated in these future imaginaries?

As a collaborative project, MFFF also asks: How can participants learn from each other and work together to question and unsettle accepted patterns of learning, thinking, and action when it comes to previous and future ecological disasters?

To this end, we are assembling a cross-cultural and cross-generational group aimed at imagining speculative futures and implementing practical solutions. Importantly, all participants are drawn from, or have strong links to, an area we are terming the “northeast border region.” This region stretches from London, ON to New York City, and is held together by the waterways and trade routes of the Great Lakes system, the Saint Lawrence, and the Hudson River.

Imagining speculative futures and implementing practical solutions

Project activities this summer (2019) will take place in a series of different environments, ranging from intimate working groups, to classroom settings, outdoor spaces, and museums. The sites range from rural settings (Lake Huron), small cities (London, Ontario), larger cities (Toronto), and mega-urban locales (New York City). The events will all take place within a relatively contained area, thus limiting some of the environmental impact of extensive travel, both for the events comprising MFFF and later collaborations. This kind of expanded locality will also allow us to think through transnational implications of ecological crises (and art worlds) that cross borders and Indigenous lands and waters.

A Museum for Future Fossils comprises two undergraduate classes/exhibitions (one at Western and one at NYU), a workshop, a summer school for graduate students from across North America, and an exhibition featuring international artists. Some of these events are in the planning stage, and some are already underway.

  • Undergraduate students at Western University are currently working on an exhibition of objects that could belong in a Museum for Future Fossils.[8] Ranging from plastic wrap, to purple dye, to pvc pipe, each student has traced the life history of an object, from its advent in the fossil layer to its almost untraceable future. By the time the exhibition opens in London, Ontario in April, 2019, students will have a clear understanding of the impact and extended timeline of disposable objects.
  • Likewise, students in Kisin’s Art of the Anthropocene seminar are involved in research toward an exhibition of contemporary art, titled Overflow, curated by Robertson, Kisin, and Keith Miller, the curator of Gallatin Galleries. Overflow brings together artists who emphasize water’s transitory qualities and the suspended state between hope and despair in the Anthropocene.
  • The work of the undergraduates will be picked up by graduate students enrolled in the summer school, who will work with the participants in the scholar/activist workshop.  Together, this May/June, we will tour behind the scenes at museums in Toronto and New York, learning about fossil records, biodiversity, and the ways that artists and curators have confronted and drawn attention to environmental crisis. We will visit a multi-species oyster rehabilitation design project, a recycling facility, and a dump, and we will learn from an NGO dedicated to building carbon-neutral earthships / homes.

Through these playful and serious undertakings–all of which have a strong public presence and engagement with local organizations– the speculative possibilities of the Museum for Future Fossils will grow and develop. It is our goal to build a strong and lasting network that can speculate about the distant future even as it proposes action for the present moment.

Please visit our website www.museumforfuturefossils.com for updates.


[1] I would like the thank Members of the Synthetic Collective and Eugenia Kisin for their contributions to this blog entry.

[2] Members of the Synthetic Collective include Sara Belontz, PhD Candidate in Earth Sciences (Western University); Dr. Patricia Corcoran, Geologist (Western University); Dr. Heather Davis, writer/curator (New School); Dr. Kathleen Hill, geneticist (Western University); Kelly Jazvac, artist (Concordia University); Tegan Moore, artist; Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, chemist (University of Wisconsin, Superior); Dr. Kirsty Robertson, writer/curator (Western University); Kelly Wood, photographer (Western University)

[3] Sara L. Belontz et. al. “Embracing an Interdisciplinary Approach to Plastics Pollution Awareness and Action.” Ambio (November 2018), currently online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30448996.

[4] Patricia Corcoran in Plastiglomerates. Toronto: Durable Good, 2017. 

[5] A wicked problem is a problem with many independent factors and no clear or immediate solution. Wicked is used to refer to the difficulty of resolving the problem rather than to an inherent evil.    

[6] For more, see Chris Hampton. “The Green Cube.” Canadian Art (24 September 2018): https://canadianart.ca/features/the-green-cube/.

[7] Zalasiewicz, Jan, et.al. “The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene 13 (March 2016): 4-17.

[8] This assignment builds on Future Remains, a book project led by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert Emmett that  assembled a “cabinet of curiosities” made up of objects chosen to represent the Anthropocene.


Kirsty Robertson is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Museum Studies at Western University, Canada (London, Ontario). Her pedagogy involves curating large-scale speculative and experimental exhibitions with students, work that she has extended into a number of independent curatorial projects. She has published widely on activism, visual culture and museums, and her book Tear Gas Epiphanies: Protest, Museums, Culture is forthcoming in May, 2019. Her work on critical museum studies has expanded into a new project focused on small and micro- collections that work against traditional museum formats. Robertson is also a founding member of the Synthetic Collective, a group of artists, scientists and cultural researchers working on plastics pollution in the Great Lakes Region. For further information, please see www.kirstymairirobertson.com.

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