Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang


Photo of Judith Selby Lang & Richard Lang courtesy of conversations.org


From a conversation between Judith Selby Lang, Richard Lang and Janeil Engelstad in August 2011


Janeil Engelstad (JE): What are some of things that you have discovered or learned from making this work?


Judith Selby Lang (JL): Going back to the etymology of the word ecology - that everything truly is interconnected and it is a system. We have experienced that interconnectedness on Kehoe Beach. Yes, plastic is our focus, but as the project has unfolded over the years we have explored and seen the relationships between the geology, the botany, the biology, the topography of the place. All of these disciplines are connected and impacted by the plastic that washes upon the beach. One of the important things for people to understand about our project is that we have taken one tiny point on the planet, just 1,000 yards of one beach, and from that point the world has really opened itself to us. And we believe that anybody can take any point on the planet and from there connect up to everything else.


Richard Lang (RL): There is a wonderful quote from Goethe, “If everyone would sweep their front porch, the world would be clean.”


JE: The idea of everyone sweeping their own front porch is a thread that runs through the workshops that you do with youth, in that you are teaching them about the impact of their own actions regarding plastic and litter. My sense from reading your blog is that many of the participants had little or no awareness about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment before participating in the project.


RL: They not only had no awareness of how plastic impacts the environment, but many of them also did not know that the world is beautiful. When they came out to the beach, many of the kids remarked that they had no idea that the world is so beautiful.


JL: At the beach, they were able to make the connection between the plastic thrown into the gutters in San Francisco and the plastic debris that they actually saw on the beach, such as juice lids. They were able to connect the dots and then to speak quite clearly about it. They realized from this experience that what they thought they were throwing away was not necessarily away. There is really no away as in throw away.


JE: The only possible solution is to eliminate the use of single-use plastic.


RL: Personally, I think that it should be criminalized. There should be a tax that goes back to the producer. When Lady Bird Johnson started the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign in the 1960s, there was a movement to charge significant fees on containers and packaging that were to be thrown out. The campaign was taken over by the American Can Council and the American Plastics Council and they put out advertisements such as “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” and “People start pollution, people can stop pollution”. They put the onus on individuals and removed all the responsibility from the manufacturers. That doesn’t solve the problem of plastic pollution. We as a society have to go back to the cradle-to-cradle idea; if you make it, you own it.


JE: Do you consider the education components of your work to be a part of your creative practice?


JL: Absolutely. Many hands make light work. The way that our large sculptural installations get made is with the participation of community members. Our overall vision includes engaging a lot of folks from different communities in the work. They take pride in the finished piece, knowing that they helped to make it happen and they also learn something about plastics and pollution in the process. Most of our large-scale pieces are made from plastic bottles and plastic bags, which could easily be absent from our lives with no discomfort or inconvenience.


JE: There is a big push in many cities across the country to get rid of plastic bags. Many people who use plastic bags recycle them in bins that are inside or in front of supermarkets and other stores. The bins are a convenient way to think that you are doing something responsible for the planet, but many people have no idea what happens to those bags once they leave the bins.


RL: A lot of them go to China and are burned as fuel.


JL: We have examples of bags that melted together but did not burn up in the incineration process. These fused remnants of bags enter the ocean and eventually wash up onto Kehoe Beach. They leak toxins throughout the entire time that they are in the ocean. The plastic industry has been vehement about shooting down movements towards ridding ourselves of plastic bags. They go into communities with wads of money trying to stop this movement. A friend of ours, Andy Keller had a vision of making reusable bags. Through his company Chico Bags, he has done such great work raising public awareness, so the plastics industry is coming down really hard on him. They are suing him for product disparagement.


RL: It is a spurious lawsuit to drive him and his company out of business. We are providing him with images and information, such as what happens to marine mammals when they ingest plastic bags, to help him defend against this lawsuit. We rarely find plastic bags on the beach because they degrade with the sun and then they become microscopic little pieces floating on the ocean. One of the most damaging things that happens in this process is this leaking of toxic chemicals out of the degrading plastic. There are approximately 55 different types of phthalates in plastic that are not bounded to the polymers so they just go right into the environment.


JE: How do you pass that information on to people who are looking at your work?


RL: Well one of the main objectives of our work is to start a conversation and from that point we can pass along information. To do that, we make work that is beautiful to look at - from there we can start a conversation.


JE: And change behavior? Do you hope to change people’s behavior getting them to switch from plastic to reusable bags for instance?


JL:  We hope that our work raises a deeper concern with the problems of plastic pollution, which in turn can help to change behavior.


RL: We recently summed up our work in a piece of writing:


As we began to set our story in book form we fretted that we might dispute the impact of trying to talk about everything all at once. But everything at once is the cultural pond that we swim in. It is what we have come to call post-modernism and as artists embedded in our time we realized that we want to talk about our project with this multiple hub approach. We unpack information about the ecology of Kehoe Beach through ecology and biology. We describe the history of the first people, the settlers, the ranchers, the rangers, all who have had an interaction with this one spot. We use mythologies from cultural studies to ground the tales of the plastic objects that we find. We take a close look at the sparks that set fire to the imagination- how creativity is the heat cooking the feast of what we do.  We use the metaphor of the garden to understand just what happens inside the walls of the studio and finally we come back to the smallest point, how just two people have actualized this project in dynamic loving companionship.