Noni Knows

First published in 2017 by Maggie Groat in ALMANAC (Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery, curated by Crystal Mowry)

Written by Kelly Jazvac, but comes about through conversations with Patricia Corcoran, Noni and Ron Sanford, Odile Madden, Heather Davis, Max Liboiron, Kirsty Robertson, Kelly Wood, Patrick Howlett and David Fierman. 

The research discussed here took place on Kamilo Beach, Hawai'i, located within the traditional territory of the Hawaiian Kingdom, illegally annexed since 1838 by the United States of America.

If an artist has something to contribute to scientific knowledge, I think it is this: that there are different ways of knowing something.  And different doesn’t mean flaky.  Different can be profound and impactful in ways science is not. Just as science can be impactful in ways that art is not.

In 2014, geologist Patricia Corcoran and oceanographer Charles Moore and myself, an artist, co-authored a scientific manuscript. It met standard scientific expectations: it contained data; it described our research methods and our research site. Yet, the text also contained a speculative element. This is unusual for a scientific manuscript. This speculative element reflected on the future consequences of our ‘findings’.  Although to an artist—or anyone who uses culture to think through ideas—this may seem like a perfectly normal thing to do. However, according to a materials scientist at the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., it was in fact a strange and curious thing.  

Our 2013 paper described “plastiglomerate” and what it might mean in the future.  Plastiglomerate is a stone made of sedimentary grains and natural debris, such as sand, wood and basalt rock, held together by molten plastic debris.  It occurs when a beach fire comes into contact with plastic garbage.  In the case of our fieldwork, this happened via campfires on Kamilo Beach on the island of Hawai'i, but it has also been documented by citizens in many other places around the globe. Kamilo is a beach that receives a remarkable amount of plastic pollution due to its proximity to the North Pacific Gyre and the direction of ocean currents. Plastiglomerate has potential to enter the future geologic rock record, given the added weight and density that occurs as the molten plastic binds to beach sediment.  Plastic strata for the future, so to speak.

As someone approaching this research from a cultural and humanities-based perspective, I am compelled to emphasize that our local contacts, Noni and Ron Sanford, knew important components of what we published as scientific knowledge, long before we published it.  We traveled to Kamilo Beach on the hypothesis that lava was melting plastic debris and creating plastiglomerate.  Ron and Noni knew this was not the case, it was people, and soon after talking with them, visiting the site and learning about its history, so did Patricia and I. Most concerning to Noni was the possible and erroneous public perception that the earth, in the form of lava, was somehow taking care of humans’ problems (extensive and choking marine plastic pollution).  Ron and Noni, along with the Hawaiian Wildlife Fund, have personally removed tonnes of plastic from Hawaiian beaches, including mounds of plastiglomerate. The suggestion that volcanoes were taking care of this enormous problem didn’t help them in their clean up efforts.  One might see the lava theory sending an easy and palatable message to consumers and industry: ‘don’t worry about this at the source of the problem because it is being taken care of on the other end.’ This is the same type of message that underlies the techno-utopianism[i]of certain ocean clean up projects,[ii]however well-meaning.[iii]  It’s a mindset that doesn’t ask us to take responsibility, change, re-think or adapt.

Hawai’i has no petro chemical industry and it was clear that most of the garbage on the beach was coming from elsewhere.  I drew this conclusion based on the plurality of languages written on the wide range of plastic items washed up on the beach.  Noni, a long-term collector and interpreter of international fishing tags and weather balloons, drew this conclusion from her own personal archive and database.[iv]

There is also science that backs up this lived observation.[v]   Ocean currents, like capitalism, colonialism and consumerism[vi], are globalized.

So, at this moment where multiple and contradictory versions of truth can easily be found, how do we make space and give authority to local, lived knowledges? How can we effectively do so in a way that works withthe authoritative voice science can provide, especially at a time when science itself is under fire, as evidenced by the proliferation of lobbyists and climate change denying think tanks (some of whom are now working for the U.S. government).  How can artists be folded into this conversation from the get go[vii], in order to zoom out of the problem and look forward, at the same time as zooming in alongside science? And crucially, how can science hear humans more acutely? Clearly we need science desperately, now, more than ever. But now we must also contend with junk science and junk truth. As feminists, how can our work be taken seriously and authoritatively, yet still remain sentient and open to re-writings and self-criticisms, as any lived knowledge is? 

Perhaps part of the answer lies in folding arts and humanities back into understandings of what knowledge can be.  I don’t mean this in an academic sense, but in the sense of “culture” and “people.” Because along with this type of knowledge comes a discussion of subjective biases, history and power; a consideration of ethics; and a value and appreciation of speculation, listening, story-telling, feeling and lived observation. Clearly, an environmental crisis is also a human crisis.  And humans are capable of learning through data, but they are more apt to learn through words, stories, emotions, images and hands-on trial and error.

I will try to end these thoughts with possibilities instead of end games, so I will direct you to an ongoing list from scientist and artist Max Liboiron’s feminist marine science lab at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR). The list is a brainstorming session of what a feminist scientific paper might look like.  I find it to be a fruitful and hopeful exercise that foregrounds both play and discussion as important components of progress.  The list exists on a large piece of newsprint paper in a communal area in the lab where it can be added to and re-written.  In keeping with this ethos, the quoted text below has since been re-written.

[i] Heather Davis, “Life & Death in Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic,” in Art and the Anthropocene. Open Humanities Press, 2015.  pp. 347-358.


[iii] Argued beautifully by Max Liboiron:

[iv] Interview with Noni Sanford, June 8th, 2013.

[v] A research study in Korea also describes a similar phenomenon: Jang, Y.C., Lee, J., Hong, S., Lee, J.S., Shim, W.J., Song, Y.K., 2014. Sources of plastic marine debris on beaches of Korea: more from the ocean than the land. Ocean Sci. J. 49 (2), 151–162.

[vi] These ‘three Cs’ are from Kirsty Robertson’s essay on plastiglomerate in e-flux jounal:

[vii] Heather Davis’ “Working in interdisciplinary modes.” Presentation at Plastics Pollution Think Tank Workshop. London, Ontario. June 28, 2016.