Past Events

Synthetic Histories: Plastics, Climate and Colonialism

Conference – Heather Davies, Alia Farid, Max Liboiron, Alice Mah, Charlotte Matter, Hoyee Tse, Amy Woodson-Boulton, Alexander Davidson, Jessica Varner, Elizabeth Darling, Compound 13, Sria Chatterjee, Nichol Keene, Sarah Rose

  • 27 January 2023
  • 9:00 – 6:30 pm
  • A Collaborative Event Convened by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and V&A Dundee

Location: V&A Dundee and Online

Bringing together thinking from V&A Dundee's latest exhibition, 'Plastic: Remaking our World' and the Paul Mellon Centre's multi-year project, Climate & Colonialism, this symposium explores the complex past, problematic present and possible futures of plastic.

Following a private viewing of the exhibition, participants will join international researchers, designers, artists and activists in a series of discussions, presentations and more to consider plastics, climate and colonialism as sets of interconnected material and extractive relations.

The symposium will ask:

  • Where did plastic come from?
  • How do we understand its colonial histories?
  • How are art, craft and design practices implicated in these extractive processes, and how do they challenge them?
  • What is the ongoing impact of climate injustice and the unequal impact of global waste streams on people and the planet?
  • Is there a future post-plastic?
  • What role do artists, designers and environmental humanities researchers play in creating such futures?

Synthetic Histories: Plastics, Climate and Colonialism is convened by Sria Chatterjee, (Paul Mellon Centre); Nichol Keene, Charlotte Hale and Laurie Bassam (V&A Dundee).

Conference Programme:

09.00am – 09.30am Refreshments on arrival in V&A Dundee's Tatha Bar and Kitchen with a private viewing of the exhibition from 9:00am – 10:00am (private view for in-person attendees).

10.00am – 10.10am Audience seated

10.20am – 10.50am Welcome by Charlotte Hale (Curator, V&A) and conference introduction by Sria Chatterjee (Head of Research and Learning, Paul Mellon Centre)

Chair: Nichol Keene (Creative Programmer, V&A)

10.50am – 11.10am Heather Davis (Assistant Professor of Culture and Media, the New School), “Inheritance, Transmission and Barricade”

11.20am – 11.40am Alia Farid (Artist), “In Lieu of What Was/In Lieu of What Is”

11.40am – 12.00 noon Q&A

12.00 noon – 12.15pm Tea and coffee break

Chair: Sria Chatterjee (Paul Mellon Centre)

12.15pm – 12.35pm Max Liboiron (Associate Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador) online and Alice Mah (Professor of Sociology and Head of Department, University of Warwick), “Pollution Is Colonialism”

12.35pm – 12.45pm Max Liboiron and Alice Mah in-conversation

12.45pm - 12.55pm Q&A

12.55pm – 2.00pm Lunch provided

Chair: Jessica Varner (University of Southern California)

2.00pm – 2.15pm Elizabeth Darling (Reader in Architectural History, Oxford Brookes University), “The Complex Life of the Bakelite Wireless Set”

2.15pm – 2.30pm Alexander Davidson (Arts writer and lecturer), “A Climatic and Colonial History of Architectural Plastics (1948–85)”

2.30pm – 2.45pm Charlotte Matter (University of Zurich, Institute of Art History), “The Personal is Political: Toxic Materials in Art”

2.45pm – 3.00pm Q&A

3.00pm – 3.30pm Tea and coffee break

Chair: Jessica Varner (Historian, architect, activist)

3.30pm – 3.45pm Hoyee Tse (Royal College of Art), “Plastic Prosperity in a Growing Hong Kong”

3.45pm – 4.00pm Amy Woodson-Boulton (Professor of History, Loyola Marymount University), “Design Plasticity Before Plastic: Victorian Substitutions”, “Truth to Materials” and the “Deceptions of Cheapness” (online)

4.00pm – 4.20pm Q&A

4.20pm – 4.30pm Comfort break

Chair: Laurie Bassam (Assistant Curator, V&A)

4.30pm – 4.50pm Nanjala Nyabola (Writer, researcher, political analyst) and Laurie Bassam (Assistant Curator, V&A) in-conversation

4.50pm – 5.00pm Heather Davis (Assistant Professor of Culture and Media, the New School) and Sarah Rose (Artist) in conversation

5.00pm – 5.20pm 'Rethinking Waste Plastic' Compound 13 Lab Professor Graham Jeffery (University of the West of Scotland), Dr Ben Parry (Bath Spa University), Dr Vidya Sagar Pancholi (Compound 13 Lab), Sharmila Samant (Compound 13 Lab).

5.20pm – 5.30pm Closing remarks by Charlotte Hale (V&A) and Sria Chatterjee (Paul Mellon Centre)

5.30pm – 6.30pm Drinks reception

Bursaries

Ten bursaries are available to support individuals who may not otherwise be able to attend. Bursaries can cover the ticket price, travel and some expenses (including childcare). If you would like to be considered for a bursary, please email [email protected] with 'Synthetic Histories Bursary' in the subject field, outlining your request for a supported place by 31 December 2022. Please detail what specific support is needed and the expected cost, no further details are required.

Tickets

To attend in-person at V&A Dundee please purchase tickets here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/event/460/synthetic-histories-plastics-climate-and-colonialism

To attend the conference online book your place here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/synthetic-histories-plastics-climate-and-colonialism-tickets-464892414727

Image caption: Map of Synthetica, a continent of plastics, published in ‘Fortune’ Magazine, 22 October 1940; Vitra Design Museum archive.

About the speakers

  • Heather Davis is Assistant Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in New York whose work draws on feminist and queer theory to examine ecology, materiality and contemporary art in the context of settler colonialism. Her most recent book, Plastic Matter (Duke University Press, 2022) explores the transformation of geology, media and bodies in light of plastic’s saturation. She is the editor of the award-winning Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (MAWA and McGill Queen’s UP, 2017) and co-editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2015). Davis is a member of the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, humanities scholars and artists, who investigate and make visible plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

  • Alia Farid

    Alia Farid lives and works in Kuwait and Puerto Rico. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel, Basel (2022); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL), St. Louis (2022); Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam (2022); and Portikus, Frankfurt (2019). Recent group shows include participation in the Whitney Biennial (2022), Lahore Biennale (2020), Yokohama Triennale (2020), Gwangju Biennale (2019), Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2001 at MoMA PS1 (2019), Sharjah Biennial (2019) and the Bienal de São Paulo(2016). She has forthcoming solo exhibitions at Chisenhale Gallery in London and CAC Passerelle in Brest, both in 2023. She is a candidate for the 2023 Artes Mundi Award and will be exhibiting at the National Museum Cardiff in September 2023. 

  • Dr Max Liboiron (Michif, they/them) develops and promotes anticolonial research methods in a wide array of disciplines and spaces. Their lab, CLEAR, is an interdisciplinary plastic pollution laboratory whose methods foreground humility and good land relations. Liboiron has influenced national policy on plastics and Indigenous research, invented technologies and protocols for community monitoring of plastics and is the author of Pollution Is Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-author of Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power (MIT Press, 2022). Dr Liboiron is an associate professor in geography and served as the inaugural Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Research) at Memorial University from 2018–2020. 

  • Alice Mah is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on environmental justice, toxic colonialism, corporate power and just transformations, which are the subjects of her two most recent books: Petrochemical Planet: Multiscalar Battles of Industrial Transformation (Duke University Press, forthcoming) and Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Polity, 2022). She is the author of Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place, winner of the 2013 British Sociological Association Phillip Abrams Memorial Prize, Port Cities and Global Legacies and (with Thom Davies) Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and Citizen Science in a Post-truth Age.

  • Charlotte Matter is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History, where she coordinates the specialised Masters programme in Art History in a Global Context. Her doctoral thesis, titled “The Politics of Plastics: Feminist Approaches to New Materials in Art” explored the ways that women challenged sexist discourses in art and claimed plastics as feminist substances in the 1960s and 1970s. It examined the works of artists such as Lea Lublin, Carla Accardi, Niki de Saint Phalle and Alina Szapocznikow. Matter’s research interests include: feminist art and theory; materiality, art and architecture in Latin America; postcolonial and transcultural approaches; and collectivity in art. She is the co-editor of Into the Wild: Art and Architecture in a Global Context (Munich: Edition Metzel, 2018) and has recently published essays on feminist withdrawals from art (Texte zur Kunst, 2022) and Hélio Oiticica’s notion of Crelazer and the politics of leisure (Orto, Rome: Nero, 2020). She has been a research fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome and at the Istituto Svizzero di Roma. She is the co-initiator of the research project “Rethinking Art History Through Disability” and a founding member of CARAH – Collective for Anti-Racist Art History.

  • Trained as a social art historian at UCL and University of Amsterdam, Hoyee Tse is interested in the social role that the cultural institutions play in producing the meanings of art and cultural objects. She earned a postgraduate degree (with distinction) at UCL Institute of Education with her dissertation focusing on contemporary museum collecting practices in relation to art, history and design collections. Through her professional experiences, she also expands her interest in the relationship between art and society to the digital representation of visual culture and heritage. She received the 2022 Design Trust Curatorial Fellowship at the Royal College of Art, London, to continue her research in the field. Her project probed into the potential use of digital platforms as a community-engaged space for co-curating and collecting contemporary design objects in London and Hong Kong. She also takes various roles in projects that digitally reproduce cultural artefacts and historical sites.

  • Amy Woodson-Boulton is Professor of British and Irish history and past Chair of the Department of History at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Published works include an edited volume, articles and book chapters as well as Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain (Stanford, 2012). She is currently working on a book-length study of nineteenth-century anthropology and the social role of "primitive" art, tentatively titled Explaining Art: Nature, Authentic Culture, and the Search for Origins in the Age of Empire. She recently published “Totems, Cannibals, and Other Blood Relations” at the Victorian Review and “Teaching Modern Environmental World History” at World History Connected

  • Alexander Davidson is a PhD researcher (University of Liverpool) and academic teacher (University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics, Berlin). Specialising in architectural plastics and environmentalism, his publications have appeared in the Routledge Handbook on Archaeology and Plastics and Bauhaus Magazine. Supervised by Barnabas Calder and Iain Jackson, his PhD contrasts the immense promises of plastics with the practical, climatic catastrophic, and, in three cases, disastrous realities of promoting plastics for building, ranging from the House of the Future (1956) by Alison and Peter Smithson through to the Grenfell Tower fire (refurbished in 2015).

  • Jessica Varner headshot

    Dr Jessica Varner is an historian, architect and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California Society of Fellows in the Humanities (2021–2023). Her research focuses on architecture’s environmental, material and legal histories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Her current book project, Chemical Desires, uncovers the ties between corporate chemical firms and architecture from 1870–1970 in the United States and Germany. Her work exposes how chemical corporations promoted desires for “new” engineered qualities – in dyes, plastics, additives and more – that aligned with growing modernist expectations while simultaneously unknowingly causing harm, revealing the troublesome chemical modernism’s inextricable relationship with modern architecture’s development.

    Her work has received generous support from the Fulbright Foundation, National Science Foundation, Science History Institute, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Martin Family Society of Fellows and the Graham Foundation (Carter Manny Award Citation). Her recent research includes articles, book chapters and projects on chromium, drywall, toxicity, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) public history, mitigation and chemical modernity. In addition, she works collaboratively with the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative’s (EDGI) advisory committee, is a “Coming Clean” affiliate and is co-curator of EDGI’s “A People’s EPA (APE)” project. She received her BS from the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), MArch and MED from Yale University, and PhD in the History of Art and Architecture (HTC) from MIT.

  • Elizabeth Darling is Reader in Architectural History at Oxford Brookes University, UK. Her work focuses on revisionist histories of modernist cultures in 1920s and 1930s England (Re-forming Britain, Routledge, 2006; Wells Coates, RIBA Publishing, 2012; “‘The Core’: The Centre as a Concept in Twentieth-Century British Planning and Architecture” two-part article, Planning Perspectives, 2022) and on discourses of gender, space and reform between the 1890s and the 1940s (Women and the Making of Built Space, Ashgate, 2006; Women in Architecture 1917–2017, AA Publications, 2017; Suffragette City, Women, Politics, and the Built Environment, Routledge, 2020). Her current research and writing focuses on women urban and social reformers in Edwardian Edinburgh, and on the material and spatial cultures of broadcasting in inter-war England through the lens of the design and form of BBC Broadcasting House and the wireless sets manufactured by EKCO.

  • Compound 13 Lab is an experimental maker space situated adjacent to the “godowns” of Dharavi’s 13 Compounds, established by the project team in collaboration with ACORN India. 13 Compounds is a key node in Mumbai’s informal waste management industry, within which up to 80% of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region’s plastic waste is reclaimed and recycled, operating via intricate networks of reclamation, brokerage and aggregation, in a form of home-grown circular economy. In this presentation we will take a ‘virtual walk’ through the godowns of the 13th Compound, where discarded plastic objects collected from roadsides, homes and businesses are sorted, disassembled and traded. We will consider how the work involved in revaluing waste plastic, although hazardous and highly stigmatised, involves specialised knowledge of materials and objects. Waste work, associated with marginalised communities and marginalised spaces, nonetheless generates forms of autonomy and livelihood. Examining the afterlives of plastic wastes, and the journeys which they take, offers an alternative archive of the city’s material histories, making visible the consequences and costs of the consumer society’s dependency on hydrocarbons. Members include: Professor Graham Jeffery (University of the West of Scotland), Dr Ben Parry (Bath Spa University), Dr Vidya Sagar Pancholi (Compound 13 Lab), Sharmila Samant (Compound 13 Lab). 

  • Sria Chatterjee standing in front of olive and blue background

    Sria Chatterjee is Head of Research and Learning at the Paul Mellon Centre. Sria’s research interests lie at the intersection of art, science, and environment and publishes extensively on these topics. Sria leads the multi-year Climate & Colonialism research project at the Paul Mellon Centre. In 2020, she founded and led the award-winning digital project, Visualizing the Virus.

    Before coming to the Paul Mellon Centre, Sria was a fellow at the Max-Planck Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz and an Advanced Researcher at the at the FHNW Academy of Art & Design in Basel, Switzerland, where she held a Swiss National Science Foundation fellowship. She served as Contributing Editor at British Art Studies from 2020–2022 and remains involved in the journal as Editorial Advisor. In 2024, Sria is on research leave from the Paul Mellon Centre and on a fellowship at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University. In 2023, Sria served as a judge for the Pen Hessell-Tiltman Prize for historical non-fiction. Sria received her PhD from the Art & Archaeology department at Princeton University in 2019.

  • Nichol Keene bW

    Nichol Keene is an interdisciplinary writer, curator, and creative producer working internationally to explore where art, design and society meet by researching and developing public programmes, live performance, commissions, podcasts and more. She is currently Creative Programmer for V&A Dundee, where she curates public programmes for major exhibitions, produces special projects and more. Most recently Nichol led the Plastic Lab programme, developing this as part of Plastic: Remaking our World. Other recent public programmes for V&A Dundee include: Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer (2022); Night Fever: Club Culture 1960 to Now (2021–22); Mary Quant (2020). 

  • Sarah Rose is artist from Aotearoa New Zealand and is based in Glasgow. In her practice she is rethinking materiality, and its embedded infrastructures and ecologies from a feminist, queer, and environmental perspective. Exhibitions include Brent Biennial, London; Kamias Triennial, Manila; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; Scottish Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh; Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow; Hospitalfield, Arbroath; Darling Foundry, Montreal. Sarah was recently artist in residence at Gasworks, London and Edinburgh College of Art. Her work is included in the exhibition Plastic: Remaking Our World at V&A Dundee.