Journey to Midway
Midway Atoll, as its name implies, lies about halfway between Asia and North America, smack in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth. Surrounded by water for thousands of miles on all sides, it’s about as remote as a place can get.
But even Midway’s isolation hasn’t saved it from the impacts of human consumption oceans away. Seabirds are dying by the thousands, killed by chunks of plastic they mistake for food. Five artists have traveled to Midway to witness and document the lasting impact of throw-away plastic products on an island half a world away.
Artists Chris Jordan, Bill Weaver, Jan Vozenilek, Victoria Sloan Jordan, and Manuel Maqueda are exploring the beaches, shooting photographs and video, writing poetry, and trying to respond to what they find. They are not scientists or environmental activists, but artists who say they are “embarking on an introspective journey,” trying to make sense of a tragedy.
Bearing Witness: Chris Jordan on Art, Grief, and Transformation
His first trip to Midway left Chris Jordan feeling grief and hopelessness. Now he wants more people to discover how productive those emotions can be.
Chris Jordan, a photographer known for his depictions of the vast quantities of material goods that Americans consume, said that the group’s goal is “to co-create a multi-media work of art that tenderly witnesses this middle point that humanity finds itself at right now.”
The artists found Midway to be an apt symbol of that middle point. Midway is positioned near the apex of the North Pacific Gyre, a huge circular current in which vast quantities of floating plastic trash are trapped. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area twice the size of Texas where tiny bits of plastic outweigh zooplankton seven to one.
On Midway, where three million seabirds—including most of the world’s Laysan Albatrosses—nest, the plastic pieces wash ashore daily. Seabirds collect them for food. Nearly all of the Laysan Albatrosses on Midway have plastic in their digestive systems; for one third of the chicks, the plastic blockage is deadly. Walking on fields they called “albatross graveyards,” the team of artists found thousands of bird skeletons, piles of plastic where there stomachs had been. In some cases, the skeleton had entirely biodegraded; the plastic remained, unchanged.
Other marine animals, from sea turtles on down to zooplankton, eat particles of degraded plastic that range in size from large to microscopic. Often, these plastic pieces have absorbed toxins and pollutants (such as PCBs and DDT) from the seawater, causing poisoning and endocrine disruption that works its way up the food chain.
Midway is one of the places where human impact on nature is most pronounced; thanks to its remoteness and the long life of plastic, the island has become a symbol of the reach and duration of human impact. The artists’ goal, says Jordan, is to learn from that symbolism. “In the eye of the storm—the apex of the Gyre—perhaps our collaborative efforts can create a container for healing that might have some small effect on the collective choice that is to come.”
Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.
- Follow the Midway Journey on the group's blog: www.midwayjourney.com
- Running the Numbers, by Chris Jordan
Dazzling images make the statistics that describe the huge waste streams of our consumer culture visible. This photo essay shows recent works of Chris Jordan from his Running the Numbers and Intolerable Beauty series.
Video Reports from Midway
View the latest video update from the journey here.
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