Acts — Origins
light in lattice be
leaves lichen arch
of sun & sh
adow sun & set
breathing or is this
world breathing you
The dawning age of major environmental challenges, of climate and biodiversity crisis, of the Anthropocene, has compelled new conceptualizations of human interrelationships with natural environments and the living world. Conventional ideas that polarized attitudes by either idealizing nature through Romanticism or appropriating natural resources for utilitarian purposes are now deemed outmoded.1 Instead, a progressive, yet entangled, sense of ecological pragmatism has emerged, with aims to resituate societal change within a greater appreciation of the interdependence between humans and the living world. As French philosopher Bruno Latour proposes, this requires learning new ways to inhabit the Earth, a task that poses one of the biggest challenges of politics today.2
Plastic Man arose as a creative endeavor to generate alternative narratives about the precariousness of our reliance on ecosystems and the societal resources they provide. The project’s origins stemmed from a series of predetermined site-specific artworks, conceived as acts of creative disturbance, as Acts against Nature. These acts were consciously composed to challenge conventional ideas about nature while bringing expression to the many tensions that exist between anthropogenic impacts, the resilience of ecosystems, and the long duration of the Earth. Their aim was to bring greater resonance to the ecological sphere within which the artworks are themselves situated.
For instance, Acts against Nature #1, performed in the Highlands of Scotland, involved burning a copy of Gordon & Sutherland’s Geological Conservation book The Quaternary of Scotland, published in 1993 on a loch, with the iconic Ben Nevis mountain shrouded in cloud in the background. This act brought literature and environment together, caught up in an act of anthropogenic disturbance; setting fire to a book that directly refers to the surrounding landscape’s deep geologic time, all enacted in front of an iconic mountain that is also the remains of a Devonian volcano, which met a cataclysmic end in the Carboniferous period around 350 million years ago.
Myth — character
each thing but
its own absence
writhing into flame
From these initial acts, Plastic Man evolved collaboratively into an experimental art-documentary film that follows a singular character. Drawing on the archetypal trickster, the Plastic Man figure enters the scene in ominous style (fig. 1), as an ambivalent character who seemingly performs malicious acts of ecocidal destruction. As a character, Plastic Man personifies our advance towards an increasingly diminished and toxic world, as a pragmatic figure, wearing synthetic industrial clothing, adorned with a range of purposeful devices (fig. 2). His apparent plasticity is both an emblem for societal adaptability and how this is predicated on drastic anthropogenic impacts of plastic and toxic pollution. His protective layers gesture at the claustrophobic encasing that sensorially disconnects us from the living world.
The film presents an entanglement between the human figure and the environment, industry and ecology, disturbance and resilience (fig. 3). Plastic Man’s motives are left mysterious. There is definite purpose and impact in his actions, as he is in process with the environment (fig. 4), but his intentions are left ambiguous, conjuring an increasing sense of immersive intrigue; are his actions appropriative or ritualistic, destructive, or celebratory?
Plastic Man’s presence and actions are also divisive. While seemingly destructive, they equally draw attention to the resilience of ecosystems, personifying a dilemma in our urban condition; of the conflict between the increasing appropriation and consumption of natural resources, at a time when the value of biodiversity and ecological resilience is increasingly recognized. Plastic Man is simultaneously estranged from and actively immersed in the living world, grappling with this problematic inter-reliance on the natural environment. This contradictory aspect alludes to a cerebral conflict, wherein nature is not only viewed as an externalized resource but also as an inner emotional state of mind.
Scopic — film
As a medium, film can work across scales and perspectives, allowing for interactions beyond the immediately perceptible to be brought into expression, and offering a telescopic view of environmental systems of vast scales, such as atmospheric or geological processes, or the subtle scales of microbial and microscopic activity. Within this array of environmental systems, activities taking place at a human scale may appear inconsequential in relation to the vastness or intricacy of these environmental systems. Yet human presence is always implicated (fig. 5), even in remote environments that are seemingly dominated by a strong sense of “wildness,” pointing to the concern that there are few places left on Earth where anthropogenic impacts cannot be felt.
The evocative potential of film can also bring textural, atmospheric, and ambient qualities into expression, evoking the subtle intricacies of the biosphere’s many cumulative ecosystems and species interactions (fig. 6). Using varied vantage points from non-human-centered perspectives, such as views from inside waterbodies, through the undergrowth, or at a distance, gesture towards more-than-human values, of animalistic instincts and ecological sentience, as if the environment is bearing witness to Plastic Man’s actions.
In part, this non-human perspective encourages a sense of empathy with the living world, serving as an ethical invitation to recognize the many species we cohabit with, both in our immediate environments and the earth beyond. Adopting this alternative perspective also marks a conscious effort to avoid the anthropocentric view of nature as “scenic,” while also challenging the culturally evolved association of “good” ecological quality with good scenic quality. To dispel this assumption is to journey into the messy, atmospheric realities of many ecosystems, expressing the true diversity and non-scenic quality of ecological dynamism.
Mesh — urban
wasp wing moth
drip drip drip
of water dewdropslopped
slicked color mossgreen
evergreen need les (beetles)
in the wind in the forest’s
of fractured refracted light what
have you made your self
The urban condition is by no means limited to cities. Urbanization extends well beyond the city limits, as a form of extensive and intensive socio-technical mesh that seeks to harness, convert and mobilize resources, such as energy, food, and water, among other vital elements that sustain the conditions of urban life. Extended urbanization has led to the densification of networks, including large scale vehicular, goods, and energy infrastructures, as well as information and hydrological networks, which urban theorists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid describe as ”stretching across regions and interconnecting continents, while covering terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric environments.”3 In turn, this implies that non-city environments are highly significant to urban systems, where cities are reliant on ecological resource flows, which are then mobilized through socio-technical processes of exploitation and conversion. Plastic Man embodies this operational mesh, personifying a utilitarian figure moving and working relentlessly, as the consumer of the environments he moves through (fig. 7). In this sense, the singular character’s actions gesture towards the systemic appropriation of the living world; of disturbance, extraction, conversion, and distribution.
Through these acts of appropriation, the slow processes of the Earth are placed in tension with anthropogenic processes, causing significant disruption to the organic temporalities of sedimentation, absorption, hydrological action, and micro-aggregate systems (fig. 8). These gestures respond to sociologist Barbara Adam’s concern that the vast scales of societal demand results in accelerated pressure on environmental resources, as the fast cycles of political, industrial, and capitalist systems are disembedded from environmental timescales, placing immense pressure on the living world’s ability to replenish itself.4
Matrix — ecology
w h a t
o n e s
Plastic Man takes us on a transient journey through a series of distinctive ecosystems, including geologically complex coastlines, hydrologically-charged estuaries and peat bogs, dense riparian woodlands, and biodiverse forest interiors (fig. 10). These locations involved a selective process that aimed to bring attention to environments where ecological restoration is presently being implemented, or other places that have informed the historical development of scientific understanding about the natural environment.
For instance, one location is Siccar Point, a rocky promontory where the Scottish geologist James Hutton first evidenced his theory of “unconformity” in Theory of the Earth (1788), which contributed to a radical step in defining geological deep time. Notably, this and other types of environments chosen—including peat bogs and salt marsh estuaries—do not belong to a traditionally “picturesque” aesthetic. However, through advances in scientific understanding, they have found increasing prominence in current environmental aesthetics, where their wild, messy and rambunctious condition is increasingly recognized as a vital part of ecosystem function.
Through atmospheric, hydrological, and geological processes, these ecosystems are interlinked at a mass scale, forming an ecological matrix that is the Earth’s biosphere. This extensive matrix provides socio-ecological resources that sustain urban systems, while also acting as a significant counterpoint to many environmental impacts stemming from urban processes, including carbon cycles, hydrological catchments, air quality, waste management, food, and energy production, recreation, and tourism, among others.
Anthropogenic impacts are already evident in the biosphere. For instance, the high-altitude nacreous cloud formations which feature in Plastic Man exhibit spectacular iridescent pastel colors, which are the result of chemical reactions introduced into the atmosphere through domestic products, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) emitted from aerosols and fridge mechanisms. While this highlights that even clouds are part of the urban condition, it is but one example of the burgeoning evidence of dramatic environmental effects, including global warming, environmental degradation, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, and ecological collapse, that can be directly or indirectly linked to anthropogenic impacts.
Entanglement — reflection
not a body
so much as
point of con
I call I br
on the sky
Rather than ecology being relegated to something that lies outside or is partially networked through an urban system, recent movements, such as ecological urbanism and the rise of urban metabolism studies, call attention to what geographer James Evans describes as a fundamental shift away from understanding ecology in cities, towards more fully conceptualizing the ecology of cities.5 These movements deploy metaphors of ecological dynamism, such as emergence, adaptation, succession, self-organization, and feedback loops, among other ecologically-driven concepts, to better illuminate dynamic life processes in cities and their urban regions.
Alongside these developments, there is an array of emerging theories that engage urban dynamism, including assemblage theory, dark ecology, actor-network theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, among others. While there are many connections and distinctions between these fields of thought, they share a collective concern for understanding life processes as dynamic, relational, and territorial. In turn, these movements and theories lead to considerable challenges in how to articulate complex and often elusive phenomena and processes.
The means to negotiate these challenges can draw from philosopher Isabelle Stengers’ suggestion that “ecology proposes that we do not think in terms of determination but in terms of entangling speculative questions.”6 The theory of entanglement has emerged across a number of disciplinary fields, applied to complex situations where only partial knowledge is gathered, and the complexity of interactions defies determination. Rather than determining particular outcomes, articulations based on speculative questions can open up rather than delimit our collective sense of entanglement with the living world, inviting audiences to formulate their own questions and ideas.
As a speculative articulation, Plastic Man conjures a vision of the entangled associations between the temporalities of industrial, technological, ecological, and environmental processes (fig. 9) that is both relational on the one hand focusing on a series of purposeful acts that imply human interactions with the environment—and territorial on the other—journeying through the extensive reach of these interactions. Acts against nature remain an underlying motif, as a protagonist’s call to challenge the conventional assumption that humans dominate urban and ecological systems. Instead, we invert this perspective, bringing expression to an imagined environment where human presence and interactions are grounded on inter-reliance with ecosystems, conjuring a sense of humans being actively immersed and absorbed within ecological spheres.
Plastic Man emotionally enters the artistic acts of its central character, delving into the perplexing contradictions of creative destruction, as a way to destabilize the more traditional linear narrative of the film structure. Rather than offering a complete understanding of the character, the film acts as a glimpse into the process of his development from the outside in—from disruption, puzzlement, intrigue, and unease, towards a more open interpretation of the meaning and emotional engagement with the acts themselves. The character’s thoughts, which are expressed through a voiceover, allow the audience an entryway into his motivations, offering just enough information to invite viewers in, while still provoking questions rather than proposing answers. His acts may seem strange and perplexing, but then so are those we engage in collectively as human beings, which are destructive not only to the environment but, essentially, to the self.
Plastic Man frames the character’s actions through an introduction into the ordinary life of the character and his family and finishes with him taking off his mask, creating an arc from humanity through thoughtform and back to humanity. The film reflects an attempt to disrupt the numbness we might experience when overwhelmed with the seemingly oppressive state of ecological collapse, and the many losses felt in the face of individual powerlessness. As a speculative entanglement, the film’s ambition is to provoke thought and stir debate, at a time when collective alongside individual responsibilities regarding how we inhabit the Earth is of paramount concern.
Ross Mclean is an environmental artist, landscape architect, and educator. He is author of Transformative Ground: A field guide to the post-industrial landscape (Routledge 2019) which explores shifting aesthetic values in landscape planning and design. His artwork was the subject of Plastic Man, a BAFTA Scotland-nominated documentary short film, and he is involved in numerous ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations. He is co-director of the Surface Agency, an exploratory arts platform and Programme Director of the MA (Hons) Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh College of Art.
Yulia Kovanova is a Siberian-born, Scotland-based artist, filmmaker, and academic. She employs research-based approaches through sculpture and experimental and creative documentary film. Her work has been presented at Setouchi International Triennale, Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh Science Festival, Aichi Triennale, Fruitmarket Gallery, and film festivals worldwide. Her experimental documentary film Plastic Man received BAFTA Scotland and UK Best Short Film (Open City Docs) nominations. She teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh.
Patrick James Errington is an award-winning poet, translator, editor, and academic. His most recent poetry collection is Field Studies (2019). Originally from Alberta, Canada, Patrick now lives in Scotland where he is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.