A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things
More and more, consumer products are accessing the creative means necessary to undercut current ecological uncertainties. Ocean plastic trash is the latest gimmick to have found its way back into production lines and it shows us precisely how a core message like what is good for nature is ultimately good for consumerism too re-aggregates to promote plastic ergonomics.1 Recall the TED talk in 2012 ‘How the oceans can clean themselves’ by Boyan Slat, a mere teenager at the time. He designed a floating ocean-trash-net prototype. In this up-scaled upside-down bottom-feeder tonnes of surface level trash can be slurped up around the gyres.2 Last year ocean trash went viral — again. Adidas added fuel to the trend with a shoe collaboration made entirely from ocean trash. The key motif of the shoe design is an aqua-mesh stitch that up-cycles nets confiscated from illegal fishing vessels. They were proudly handed over by the infamous Sea Shepherds, an environmental activist group who identify themselves with the antics of pirates at sea. The company’s concept puns on real phenomena. In the mobile advertising space of a shoe it has found a way to promote corporate consumer ethics. It displays a very real tenacity of staying with subjects rapidly expanding online. We spend most of our lives ignoring contact with trash but it is always present in absentia, foregrounded in mere gestures or half sentences. That is, until companies like Ecoalf decide to complete a cycle. Their production methods feed off current misfits like plastic bottles and fishing nets to generate a whole new season range. One Ecoalf sleeping-bag-with-a-conscience walks the talk here:
80 plastic bottles
and you look
Don’t turn your
back on the world.
are not endless.
Through the secondary function of the jacket to carry statements, an urgent attempt to translate the product from matter to language is dictated to us. The pragmatic purpose may well be to simplify a concept, so not to condescend the consumer but the affect is one of tautological reverb between forms of communication. What is legible is an overdosing on information at every stage of a product’s development. There is an uncanny sense of the inanimate object talking us through the steps of the product’s invention. Percentage profiles affirm that ‘you are wearing 80 plastic bottles’ and that ‘235 grams of fishing nets equals one meter of Ecoalf fabric’. These mechanics not only test an idea of the quantifiable self — if you can solve a few months of bottled water consumption — they disrupt the borders of private self-hood with information we weren’t necessarily conscious of using. Need we stake out what this entails: farming of private information, selling it on to public-relations engineers, and eventually selling it back to us, all from key word algorithms and data extracted from users’ private online accounts and social media devices. In this climate, we see as part of this narration overdose, Ecoalf has opted to play the fashion-and-accessories game open handed and lead the argument for eco-friendly poly-fabric technologies on the surface of its garments.
In Ecology Without Nature Timothy Morton argues that statements that foreground a medium do not necessarily require speech. I am consequently tempted to read Ecoalf’s statement ‘where other people see trash we see high quality materials’ as a thickening of the medium of plastic. It disrupts the presence of newness but without compromising its core attributes. We get a gross elaboration of the pun, a transitional site that intermedia objects are simultaneously occupying and creating. Morton invites us to consider the phatic lines, ‘Testing, testing’ and ‘you’re on the air’, which point out the atmosphere in which the message is transmitted, making present the space between the ‘electromagnetic field that makes it possible to listen to recorded music, or see a movie’. And statements do not need to be brought to our attention by phatic means. They also exist as what Morton refers to as the medial’s interrupting effects, observing that it is not until the ‘medium of communication becomes impeded or thickened [that] we become aware of it’.3 We are encouraged by Ecoalf not to ‘turn our back on the world’ because ‘natural resources are not endless’. But we are not exactly encouraged to turn to the deck of the vessel where masses of fish hopelessly fishtail about amongst plastic ocean trash. That would undermine the work of Ecoalf and Adidas who are looking for tasteful solutions to bring this uncanny object back into our homes. The challenge seems to be to hold the material’s endless possibilities where one plastic production becomes raw material for another as an ordinary fact of its existence. Our role as consumers is not to be surprised by plastics’ rebirths because nothing can be more astonishing than the fact that it exists at all. More on plastic another time, it’s enough to catch a glimpse of the versatile material and how it continues to im-mediate environmental politics and our opinions about its use value today.4 In fact, all we’ve really touched is the fishing net. Let’s meet the victims.
The territory of a staple commodity like the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) includes pharmacy shelves across the globe. Cod has become a site of relentless commodification where a seemingly endless variety of roles are being extracted. Each day the cod’s migratory pattern subtly shifts in accord with a global community’s daily vitamin supplement routines. Retrocession is also common: a container of capsules travelled with me from Glasgow to Berlin and on to my family home in Orakei, Auckland, only to return to Glasgow at the end of the trip. Wherever the consumer relation is foregrounded, the ecology of the North Sea appears a distant mirage. And yet the fillet knife autopsy could open the cod up to other possibilities — to create lighter consumerables such as the cod-liver oil capsule. Until its preservation qualities manifested in the earliest of steeping techniques there was a latent capital pausing in saltwater. Soon we might see the leading role the fish must play for the organic brand No Catch, where we will encounter a cod mouth, so to speak, on the hook of a brand.5
The idea of the cod-liver oil capsule developed in nineteenth-century Europe when fishermen started collecting a rare yellowish film of ‘medicinal oil’ from barrels full of fermenting livers. Medicinal oil developed earlier in the fermenting process and was rarely collected due to the small quantities. It either merged or was mixed in with what Frantz Möller, in his book Cod-Liver Oil and Chemistry, notes was misleadingly labelled ‘pale oil’, a darker more visceral brown substance with a greenish glow that was commonly consumed.6 You can imagine that the name, pale oil, was perhaps a local effort to soften aspects of the oil’s production and appearance, in the same way that a coat of pharmaceutical nomenclature prepares the industrially processed oil for everyday consumption. Indeed, standardised industrial practice involves alkali refining, bleaching, winterisation and deodorisation. These processes remove enough of the precious fat-soluble vitamins that now it is common practice to introduce synthetic vitamins back into the mix.7 The reconstituted, nutrient rich omega-3 cod-liver oil capsule reminds us that humans are hinged to these technological shifts that re-package cod as chemical derivate.
Today, as the cod’s various roles are intensified and cast into familiar scenes of over-fishing, it should not surprise us that the commodity cod is currently being commercially re-orientated to exploit diminishing supplies. This was the case with the twenty-five-year-old company Johnson’s Seafarm. Located in the Shetlands, off the coast of Scotland, the large fish farm successfully bred in captivity salmon, mussel and trout. Then it gambled on the North Sea’s cod numbers falling. Its new organic cod specimen was launched with a catchy multi-prize winning brand. No Catch would cater for 10% of Britain’s annual cod consumption.8 Its packaging shouted:
TASTY, TOTALLY NATURAL
FISH FROM SHETLAND, THE
WORLD’S FIRST ORGANIC,
SUSTAINABLE COD. GOOD
FOR YOU, GREAT FOR FISH!
In 2008 the company was just beginning to deliver the No Catch product to Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s supermarket shelves, exploiting a new consumer niche inside the increasingly contaminated, overfished environment of the cod. No Catch cost roughly twenty pounds per kilo: one prime organic fillet for the price of two or three wild cod fillets. The price reflected organic production techniques that ‘ban routine use of chemicals and medicines, or artificial feeds, and the heavy costs of opening a new hatchery and processing plant’.9 No Catch cod were fed on choice offcuts of mackerel and herring. The reality is that organic cod have expensive taste too and this would become more apparent when the company sank into administration with 40 million pounds of debt. The price of manufacturing a fish to be more organic than its wild rival, or the extent to which the company took the slogan too literally, proved too much to chew for the British consumer. But a similar attitude prevailed after the company liquidated when the patented brand became available for relicensing, packaged up to be sold off for a lucrative figure. In other words, eliminating the core commodity of cod simply revealed a lighter and more flexible product, one anxious to travel on and test its adaptability with other commodities.
Shell Petroleum knows these flexibilities all too well. They’ve accumulated a vernacular of loss and devastation within their ecological surroundings and they have responded with a chain of environmental proxies that do not conflict with onsite interests. Perhaps the most predictable metaphor is the green screen: initiating a web of environmentally friendly projects in alternative geographies — the oil company effectively keystones out geopolitical realities where threats of catastrophe lurk. Take a look at their environmental portfolio. One of their new combatants, Greenstream — a fully LNG-powered (liquefied natural gas) river barge — promises to ‘help its customers meet strict emissions standards such as those that are due to apply on the Rhine’.10 In this example a clearly benevolent engine has been superimposed onto a key European river to promote a clean green image in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Norway.
Rarely does Shell perform the virtuous act of breaking, pausing and after reflection, changing the course of its representation. Shell has raced ahead, taking the opportunity to radically increase the transmission of images and representation offered online. Their Facebook wall is a prime site for the contestation and cultivation of social symbolic capital. It is here that, in another briny example of public relations, Shell espoused the oyster’s ability to filter up to 22 litres of salt water an hour, further proclaiming:
See how Shell works with environmental organisations like TNC (The Nature Conservancy) to use these natural filters and find other ways of helping conserve the natural world.11
Not just a saltwater filter, you can hear them saying, an oyster reef erects alkaline curtains that, to an oblique degree, offset the company’s contribution to the rising acidity of the ocean. Acidity that, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, has increased by 30%, largely due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.12 One quarter of global CO2 is absorbed into the oceans in such a way that it can stay sequestered for up to five hundred years.13 This gigantic pulsing sink of carbonate chains, where alkaline curtains can emerge, is one of the keys to mitigating climate change. CO2 is absorbed into the ocean where its ions exchange in a series of mineral and metabolic processes. And yet adverse effects are emerging from the growing presence of CO2. Not least of all, lowering the pH level of seawater decreases the saturation zone where calcium carbonate bonds. The zone narrows and rises closer to the ocean’s surface. Consequently, the delicate balance for calcification (becoming solid) is upset. Dissolution writes over the precipitation process for existing marine organisms with calcite structures such as coral skeletons and shells. How do we then position the oyster’s blind occupation? Do we believe the oyster filters Shell Petroleum’s acidic ambitions? Believe it we must! Living and symbolic oysters join in the life support of the brand! Shell Petroleum observed that this flux of nonhuman agency could be co-opted into the composite shell of its corporate identity.
Richard Frater (NZ) is an artist and writer based Berlin.
article&id=183&catid=37&Itemid=128 (accessed 1 February 2015).