37,000,000 consequences.

Four people come to mind when I think about plastic bags. Andrew Richmond of the Greater London Authority, Trish Pargeter of Greener-upon-Thames, Bob Gordon of the British Retail Consortium and Vivienne Westwood, specifically her active resistance blog.

Andrew is the GLA’s Policy and Programmes Manager for waste.  On 16th February, I proposed the idea of collecting a week’s worth of London’s plastic bags in Trafalgar Sq to him. His initial response was very positive and apparently, he understands it as a work of art. The GLA’s main concern is to ensure that there is a follow up after the bags have been amassed. I agree.

My idea of the follow up arises from the level of public involvement this collection requires.

Everyone, you included, has a stash of plastic bags. This collection of 37,000,000 will be these stashes, combined. They will be brought to Trafalgar Square by those individuals responsible for their existence. I believe this will be a cathartic process with those involved acknowledging their part in a deep, meaningful way. By doing so, they will also realise that they can be part of the solution. To reinforce this, they will be requested to make a pledge, never again to require a plastic bag at the checkout. These pledges will be recorded and become a counterpart of the work. I should point out that I do not consider myself to be the overall artist in this work.  The work can only materialise grace of each individual who brings a stash, and it is these individuals who, in my opinion, will be the artists.

I anticipate I’d struggle to stick to this position on authorship, should someone offer to buy the work, which I will have disowned.  I do, however, have a solution to this paradox.

The work will be owned, and subsequently donated to the Tate, or a similar collection which has the capacity to store it, collectively by those who’ve created it. This will leave me with the recordings of people’s pledges. I will own these recordings.

We were picnicking in St Luke’s churchyard. Dalia, Poppy and their little friend, were testing the limits of how far they could stray from us adults. I went to them, they ventured further. Soon they were trying to scramble up the Entrance to the vault of Mrs Major General Forbes. I told her she oughtn’t, I told here there are dead people behind that entrance. I smiled reassuringly as she gaped at me. I told her that the whole churchyard is full of dead people lying under the ground. Wide eyed, she reassured herself: “its only their bodies,  not their voices”.

Dalia is four-and-a-half. In  her way, she understands what death is, she knows there’s something a living creature has that a dead one doesn’t. But I doubt she has the concept of a soul we do, or at least its not in her vocabulary. So when she identified the voice as that which distinguishes the living from the dead, I was blown away. It was one of those moments when Dalia imparted a profound and simple wisdom.

In this light, I’ll feel awkward possessing people’s voices. Sitting here somewhere inside my computer in digital form, they’ll undeniably be a more practical possession . I see several tangents enticing me here. The first being about spiritual and physical connections. Many cultures believe(d) a spiritual connection remains when the physical connection of hair is cut. Another is about the use of emptiness. Its the space within the empty plastic bag which is used, not the bag itself, similarly the mouth is what produces the voice. I could go off on quite a tangent, I’d better not.

Besides, I imagine these artsy fartsy considerations are somewhat inconsequential in the eyes of the GLA. They’re after a much more real-world approach to the follow up. And rightly so. Which is why I got in touch with Bob Gordon.

But before I spoke to Bob, Andrew suggested I speak to Trish. She is working on a campaign to ban the plastic bag which coincides with the olympics. Of course its a good idea to associate a campaign with something else in the public consciousness, but I don’t see the connection between the Olympics and plastic bags. Not that I’ve associated this collection with anything.

However, I’m sure the olympicocrats would like to focus on celebrations rather than an issue as unappealing as plastic bags. From our conversation, I got the impression that her efforts are stumbling. Greener-upon-Thames had commissioned a report, it didn’t say what they were hoping it would. Plastic bags are a moral minefield, as you can see from the number of replies to these articles 1 2 3. It’d be easy to go into conspiracy theory meltdown about plastic bags; I have to avoid that.

Having spoken with people about it, and thinking it through myself, I’m not convinced that a ban is right. I think this is a problem that can’t be tackled with a ban’s top-down approach. And this is precisely why I think my idea of getting people to acknowledge their responsibility is brilliant. I believe the solution is not to stop giving out plastic bags, its to stop taking them.

When I called Bob, neither Poppy nor Dalia burped down the phone at him, so the conversation got off to a good start.  He was also enamoured with the idea, but expressed concerns.

It might appear as though this points a finger at supermarkets which the BRC represent. However, as I’ve explained, the fundamental principle of this collection is that the public bring their plastic bags, and in doing so acknowledge their involvement in the problem. Bob was also keen to point out other pressing issues which deserve more attention. In a nutshell – food waste. I say these issues deserve more attention because plastic bags get more than their share of the headlines. Love food hate waste is dedicated to these issues. Bob highlighted many initiatives that have recently been implemented by supermarkets such as reducing the quantity of glass in wine bottles, and widening the range of products that can be bought with BOGOFs. He also pointed out the significant financial savings that families can make, by being wiser with their shopping. He also suggested that a levy would only and unfairly influence poorer people. As a consequence of speaking to Bob, I’m keen for this campaign to direct attention toward the wider issues associated with food waste.

Despite Bob’s points, I still maintain that plastic  bags are almost completely unnecessary. I kick myself when I’m at the checkout picking up more, imagining my bulging stash back at home. I see them as indicative of a negligent, badly organised attitude. Moreover, they pollute.

I’ve tried to find out exactly what kind of follow up the GLA want to see, but I’m none the wiser. I guess they’re after something measurable something they can turn back into a statistic, and so the cycle may begin again.

Andrew is on extended leave, so I spoke to Sumeet last week, he told me they’re going to get the ball rolling when Andrew is back. They’re on the case, I need to leave them to it them.

All in all, I don’t think I’m offering the ultimate solution to plastic bags. But I know we can improve on whatever reduction in plastic bag usage has been made so far.

What first inspired me, and what this is about artistically, is the creation of a comprehensible representation of something intangible. I sometimes wonder if statistics are deliberately intangible, for example “six billion plastic bags are used each year in the UK” what does that really mean? I could find much more heart wrenching statistics but purely as letters and numbers they’re callously devoid of meaning. This collection will make the statistics more meaningful and, most importantly of all, it will challenge the belief that individual actions are inconsequential.

I find the sentiment of individual responsibility permeates Vivienne Westwood’s active resistance blog. I started reading it last November when I was approaching fashion designers, offering to style hair for their catwalk shows. Reading her posts, I realised I must pursue things which I hold dear. This idea has been rolling around my head since 2008. Something about Vivienne’s blog and manifesto inspired me to see this idea through. I can’t pinpoint what it was, but I’m grateful to her for the motivation.

The next steps from here are to contact Andrew Richmond when he’s back on the 4th July and email the Tate asking if they’d be interested in aquiring thirteen cubic meters of plastic bags.

I’ll comment below with my message to the Tate once I’ve sent it.

3 thoughts on “37,000,000 consequences.

  1. Good work Simon, I wondered how many people would be required to get 37 m bags. if each person brings 10 then that’s 3.7 m people ( a bit of a stretch) if 100 then 370 k which feels more doable (circa < 5% of London's population) , Keep at it , James

    1. Would be great if you’d give me a count of your stash. Mine is 25>. Which makes about 1.5 million visits to Traf Sq, lots more than a usual week or two statistics here.

  2. 35 k people per day approx – if everyone brought 100 bags every day it would take 10 days . They are probably the same people every day … So require a wider catchment than an advert/ PR at Charing Cross

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