Litter that’s larger than life makes an appearance and a point at COAST

By Lisa Beebe

“Natural Plasticity” made an appearance on Venice Beach. Next stop: Santa Monica.

When disposable plastic trash is tossed on Southern California’s streets and beaches, it’s relatively easy to overlook. But artists Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta are working to change that.

To draw people’s attention to the problem of plastic pollution, they designed a plastic bottle nearly 30 feet tall — a piece of litter so big, it’s literally impossible to ignore. The giant inflatable is part of Cruder and LaPenta’s “Natural Plasticity” project, and will be on display along with an equally-oversized straw and Starbucks-style disposable cup on Sunday as part of COAST, Santa Monica’s open streets festival.

Now in its third year, COAST celebrates Santa Monica’s commitment to art, sustainability and green mobility initiatives. During the free event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the city closes two miles of streets — including parts of Ocean Avenue and Main Street — to car traffic. Visitors are encouraged to walk, ride, bike, skate or take public transit. Live bands will perform on stage at Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard; City Hall’s front yard will host an “Urban Dance Jam”; and the two-mile route will feature strolling musicians and dancers, along with art installations like the massive plastic bottle.

Cruder and LaPenta, both based in Los Angeles, have been installing pieces from the “Natural Plasticity” collection (the bottle, the straw and the cup) in public locations for the past few years. Cruder says reactions run the gamut, but that most people approach the art with curiosity. She recalls a woman at their first installation in L.A.’s Pershing Square who approached her saying, “I feel so guilty!” and pulled out a plastic bottle from her backpack.

While she appreciated the woman’s honesty, Cruder says the project isn’t about making people feel bad for using single-use plastic. She says, “We want to inspire people to stop, look at their behavior and ask questions. ‘Why am I doing this? How can I change it? Do I see a need for change?’”

Some of the conversations around “Natural Plasticity” address the artists’ own use of plastic to create art with an anti-plastic message. Cruder sees the plastic material in their work as symbolic, explaining, “What we used in the creation of the disposable beverage cup represents one average American consumer’s disposable cold-beverage Starbucks purchases in one year.”

The artists also have an end-of-life plan for their work, so they don’t add to the problem, although they are hoping the pieces will end up in a museum or permanent collection one day.

The name “Natural Plasticity” may seem self-explanatory — since the project is about both nature and plastic — but it also makes sense on a deeper level. Cruder says, “I’m a little bit of a science geek, and plasticity actually means the ability for an environment to ebb and flow, to flex and to repair. It can be the plasticity of a material or an actual ecosystem. It’s the ability to stretch and to come back. We are noticing in our natural environment an inability for nature to repair.

“There are dead zones happening. Deforestation and plastic pollution are creating dead water, undrinkable water, altering weather patterns and whole ecosystems. These systems are losing their plasticity. We wanted to bring the conversation to, ‘Is nature this forever ongoing thing, or will it lose its natural plasticity?”

Cruder and LaPenta’s work also sparks questions about recycling, and Cruder has a simple answer to those.

“Recycling doesn’t work,” she says. “Not consuming works. The only way to change what is being made globally — because we’re in a consumer-based global culture — is by not consuming it.”

She urges consumers to avoid buying products in disposable plastic packaging so that corporations are forced to find better solutions. She knows that for many people avoiding plastic is a serious challenge, and she recommends starting small.

“I tell people to take it slow, to be aware and be kind to themselves, because the more guilt we carry, the more fear it creates.”

Instead she suggests, “Start with your water bottle. Start with your coffee consumption. Start with your refrigerator. See how it changes as you start to get plastic out of your life.”

So where will the towering plastic bottle turn up next? Cruder and La Penta are working on raising funds to bring “Natural Plasticity” and its powerful message to Art Basel in Miami this December.

The COAST open streets festival also features aerial artist John Q, who will gather up to 1,000 people to participate in a live human art installation at the event, and artist Peter Tigler, who will encourage the public to join him in creating a thumbprint mural with a message of mobility and sustainability.

COAST happens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7. For more information and a map of the route, visit smgov.net/coast. Learn more about the “Natural Plasticity” project at naturalplasticity.com.

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