Culture Crossover: Sea Things by Sam Jacob Studio


In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.

To read more instalments of Culture Crossover click here.

By 2050, the amount of plastic in our oceans will outweigh the fish. Plastic production will take a 20 percent share of the world's oil consumption and 15 percent of the carbon budget.

Currently, the world is collectively dropping the equivalent of one full rubbish truck of plastic into the oceans every minute, which equates to at least 8 million tonnes of plastics being dumped each year. If we don't do anything to change this, the figure will rise to two rubbish trucks a minute by 2030 and four a minute by 2050.

Already, the amount of plastics in our oceans weighs 25 times more than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

After watching Blue Planet II with his children, SAP's Head of Sustainable Business Innovation, Stephen Jamieson, said they turned to him and asked what he was doing to help fix the world's oceans. Realising he had the ability to bring about real change, Jamieson got 15 major companies and SAP customers to take part in a design sprint where they were encouraged to think of innovative but realistic ways single-use plastics could be eliminated from the supply chain.

In September 2018, SAP UKI's 'Plastics Cloud' was born, collecting existing and live data from across the plastics supply chain to spark new ideas around waste reduction. This September, the company has announced it is partnering with Ariba Network to create a new global marketplace that connects businesses with suppliers of recycled plastics and plastic alternatives.

On an unusually warm Friday in early September, a gaggle of journalists are all assembled in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to mark the start of London Design Festival. The V&A has 11 installations on its premises this year and, suspended in the Grand Entrance on Cromwell Road, is a piece that has been commissioned by SAP to raise awareness of the company's Plastic Cloud initiative and the damage single-use plastics is doing to our oceans.

The installation is called Sea Things and was created by Sam Jacob Studio.

"Clearly [sustainability] is an issue which is urgent and part of the climate ecology crisis we're facing at the moment," Sam Jacob, the architect and designer who is responsible for Sea Things, tells Techworld. "And doing [this installation] as part as part of LDF and in the V&A gives this conversation a specific kind of context."

Officially, the V&A is classified as an applied arts museum, but Jacob says it's seen by many of the thousands of visitors who walk through the door every year as a museum of objects.

"Some of them are useful objects, some of them are symbolic and ritualistic objects," he explains. "Some of them are important, some of them are expensive, some of them are cheap. They also span the whole of human culture, time and geography, too. So, as a place to think about the importance of stuff, how we make things and ultimately, what do they mean, it's perfect."

Data-driven design

Sea Things is a four-metre-wide cube with two-way mirrored walls and is suspended in the main entrance to the museum. A three-minute animation is projected on loop from within the cube to its inner surface that charts the growth of plastics in our oceans from the early 1900s - around the time the first plastic, Bakelite, was invented - through to 2050, when there will be more plastic than fish calling the ocean bed home.

This stark picture of 2050 was first suggested in a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British charity that seeks to help build a restorative future, and struck a chord with Jacob when he was researching his brief.

"You come across statistics like that and they're on the one hand terrifying and on the other, mind blowing. Then on another hand, they're really abstract," says Jacob. "It's like: how are we supposed to respond to that?

"With the animation, we're compressing that time period into three minutes. It starts with marine life and then, by the end, it's like 50 percent plastic waste.

"It's trying to turn that data into something which you could get a much more emotional response to. It's like a graph or an infographic, but one that, when you're looking at it, you have a very different relationship with than if you were just looking at the statistics in black and white."

Both the pattern displayed in the animation and the title of the work were inspired by a hand-drawn textile pattern by Charles and Ray Eames and Jacob was touched by the stark contrasts between the time and place in which the original designers were working and contemporary attitudes to the world in which we live in.

"You couldn't find a more carefree moment than California in the 1960's but, for all of us living now, we have a much more complex relationship to stuff," adds Jacob. "We're kind of aware that there's consequences now, whether that's as consumers when we're in the supermarket thinking about which thing we choose: 'which is the least bad thing to choose?' As designers and how we design or the materials we specify, and as manufacturers, thinking about how to source their products, or check the provenance of things and the ethics of the raw materials they're using."

Putting these questions in the context of his own work, Jacob explains how, for him, things no longer exist in a vacuum, and that he's always aware of the potential consequences that come with working in a certain medium.

He adds: "You're constantly thinking, 'how was it made? Where is this material sourced from? What happens to it after it's been useful?' It's important to recognise that all those thoughts are now part of the design process and the final project."

While reusable water bottles and coffee cups might help consumers feel that they are making an environmental difference, unless corporations are willing to take - or are made to take - serious action surrounding single-use plastics, the overall impact of individuals remembering to recycle is never going to be enough.

In fact, a report published at the start of 2019 by the British scientific journal Nature outlined how the lifestyles of the richest 42 million people are emitting more greenhouse gas than the poorest 3.8 billion people.

"One of the fascinating things for me, in this project, was working with and talking to SAP and the way in which their platforms and data allows them to see the world differently," Jacob says. "It was actually quite inspiring the way that they're talking about the possibility of creating new markets for waste materials, to create value in things which are currently worthless and which end up in the sea because no one thinks they have any value. That definitely helped me think about the ways in which we could frame some of the questions we have around these issues, but also how we could begin to respond."

What's the solution?

Alongside the imposing, animated box, Sea Things has a second, more modest twin element that can be viewed in the museum's ceramics gallery, directly above the main installation.

Having looked at the hundreds of ceramic objects on display in the museum, Jacob decided to recreate seven water vessels from the V&A's collection plus a modern-day plastic bottle out of materials that could potentially hold the answer to eliminating single-use plastics. There's a 4,000-year-old Scottish beaker made from a crustacean-based bioplastic and a Ming Dynasty duck-shaped water pot which has been reproduced out of recycled plastics. The soft drinks bottle has been modelled in clay.

"It's a little bit about value and thinking of this idea that, simply by looking at waste differently, you can turn it from something which has no value into something which has value," Jacob explains. "It's like a transformation of the material, which is really a facet of what design does a lot.

"The thing about transformation is it's almost like alchemy. You're creating value where there is no value at the moment. It's about our perceptions and our relationships with materials and it's about the problems associated with each of these different things."

Jacob explains that he wasn't aiming to provide the answer to the world's problem with plastic through these re-creations, it was more about asking questions. If humanity was to decide to start using clay to mass-produce water bottles, that too would eventually start to have a negative impact on the environment. Using the shells from crustaceans might make objects more biodegradable but what are the ethical implications that come with this?

He adds: "We're beginning to ask questions: yes, clearly there's lots of really great things about using these alternative materials but also, is that simply, postponing the problem? It might not be waste now, but maybe it could be waste, and it will be waste at some point in the future, so although it clearly makes the world a bit better in the short-term, it's not the solution to our problems."

Sea Things is on display in the Cromwell Entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum until Sunday 22 September.

This story, "Culture Crossover: Sea Things by Sam Jacob Studio" was originally published by

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