Pam Longobardi: Coastal Trash Hero

Pam Longobardi portrait

By Senta Scarborough

Consider the magical experience of discovering a message in a bottle washed up along the shore. It’s the stuff of movies and dreams.

Replace that romantic notion with a dire warning that the planet is dying, endangered from aggressive consumer pollution through plastics. The message isn’t in the bottle, but rather the message is the bottle for eco-artist and activist Pam Longobardi. 

Endless (zombie Brancusi), 2020

Above: Endless (zombie Brancusi), 2020. vagrant polystyrene, sea turtle bites, wood, steel, magnets, dimensions variable

Plastics are the problem, the alarm, and the messenger in all of Longobardi’s conceptual art installations, paintings, photography, and sculptures. Plastics pervade our lives. Imagine your daily routine: hair combs, toothbrushes, gym equipment, sports balls, water bottles, satellite dishes, flip flops, Mardi Gras beads, and car parts. They are harmful to humans and animals from toxic pollutants. They destroy natural habitats and are often found in the stomachs of sea birds, turtles, and whales. It’s predicted that plastics are accumulating so fast that they will exceed the mass of all fish in the ocean by 2050. Plastics do not biodegrade, aren’t digestible, and can take hundreds of years to break down. Once found discarded from the ocean, they are evidence of crimes against nature, according to Longobardi. She aims to reduce the use of plastics and increase conservation. 

“I believe plastic is at the center of every one of the environmental, social, and health crises the world now faces,” Longobardi told Hyperallergic Magazine. 

 

Evidence of Crime: Phone Evolution

Above: Evidence of Crime: Phone Evolution

Longobardi, a former scientific illustrator, seeks out discarded objects— plastic toys, sand buckets, flip flops, and fishing nets— from some of the world’s most remote locations as if on an archeological dig, collecting and cataloging them, putting them into cultural context and using them to communicate their own message. Her concept of a “Conscious Ocean” is that the rising sea levels and temperatures, a decline in ocean life, and the plastic debris drifting ocean waters are its way of communicating its demise. To Longobardi, this reclaimed plastic rubbish provides more than a chance to clean up beaches and coastlands or recycle and transform trash into art but harbingers—mystical signals from the sea itself.

Pam Longobardi Art

Above: "Swerve" from the Drifters Project. Over 500 ocean plastic objects from Alaska, Greece, California, Hawaii, Gulf of Mexico and Costa Rica; steel specimen pins. 96″ x 54″ x 8″

Longobardi, who has worked as a firefighter, aerial mapmaker, and tree planter, is first and foremost an educator. She is a distinguished professor of art at Georgia State University, an artist-in-residence for the Oceanic Society, has been featured by National Geographic Magazine and the Weather Channel. She has “interventions” where she has cleaned up thousands of pounds of plastics from beaches all over the world. The plastic artifacts are from “the state of collapse” of this world and staged to create awareness about climate change and protest consumption to save the planet. 

So Sorry Belizw

Above: SoSorry Belize, 2015. Humans, plastic and sargassum, 2015, Caye Caulker, Belize. Volunteers from Oceana, Oceanic Society and National Geographic participated in this message with collected plastic over the course of 3 weeks on this small but populous island. Palapa Gardens Park, drone photograph by Mose Hyde.

“This is material that has drifted around the world in the most unknown reaches of this planet, first on shipping lanes of commerce and then as a drifter, as vagrant, haunted objects that have been changed by this interaction: marked, bitten, colonized, and otherwise transformed into a new material, an artifact, the ultimate example of commodity fetishism. Ocean plastic is a new type of commodity, one that has illuminated nature’s role in the creation of capital,” she told Hyperallergic Magazine.

 

Ouroboros sculpture

Above: Installation View, Ouroboros, 2014; Ionion Center for Art and Culture, Kefalonia, Greece.

On trips, she often brings empty suitcases to carry back what’s she found for her artwork. Once back, Longobardi will wire or assemble the trash with steel pins to create larger pieces. An example of that activist recreation is Tsnumani. It features a large blue wave of debris, a reference to the trash carried by ocean currents to Alaska after Japan’s 2011 earthquake, which caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. An oil drop made of oceanic plastics conveys its meaning in the title, “The Crime of Willful Neglect (For BP), 2014. Made from found black plastic, the most present and difficult to recycle, reveals is origin in fossil fuels. Longobardi also embraces the tragic irony of the overabundance of consumerism too. A cemetery made from reclaimed life vests (originally intended to save human lives) stretches out like a body of water—in orange, red and blue—in Longobardi’s Life Vest Landscape in Lesvos, Greece.

Her art is anything but subtle; it’s full-on fierce. Longobardi, along with a National Geographic student team sent out their own S.O.S. in Belize. They collected and assembled the island’s plastic ocean debris—ropes, toilet seats, jugs, bottles, steering wheels and with the students’ bodies spelled out these public art messages: Mass Extinction, xSOS, and SoSorryBelize. It’s part of Longobardi’s Drifters Projectwhich she started in 2006 after finding loads of “regurgitated” plastic on remote Hawaiian beaches. Since then, she gathers the debris to make awareness sculptures and art around the world.

Ouroboros Installation, 2014

Above: Plastic Looking Back, 2014. This piece contains hundreds of objects from remote locations in Panama, Alaska, Indonesia and Greece, including microplastic from Hawaii. Commission for SIERRA magazine cover, 2014.

“Plastic objects are the cultural archeology of our time. These objects I see as a portrait of global late-capitalist consumer society, mirroring our desires, wishes, hubris and ingenuity. These are objects with unintended consequences that become transformed as they leave the quotidian world and collide with nature to be transformed, transported, and regurgitated out of the shifting oceans,” Longobardi writes on her website. “The ocean is communicating with us through the materials of our own making. The plastic elements initially seem attractive and innocuous, like toys, some with an eerie familiarity and some totally alien. At first, the plastic seems innocent and fun, but it is not. It is dangerous. We are remaking the world in plastic.”

Why We Love

Like Fierce Hazel, Longobardi is a passionate lover of nature and the outdoors and protecting and preserving it. She learned her love of the world’s ocean from her parents—one an ocean lifeguard and the other a state diving champ. From a young age, she became aware of the use and misuse of natural resources. As a girl, she watched a neighborhood pond drained to make the high school she would later attend, making a lasting impression. Reducing excessive consumption and waste is a motivating factor in both Fierce Hazel’s sustainable bags and Longobardi’s eco-art. Fierce Hazel rescues material from the factory floor while Longobardi salvages plastic debris from the coastal and marine shores. 

Our Echelon Pouches and Tour de Fierce Wallet are made from factory deadstock and our Evolution Convertible Backpack is made from fabric scraps that otherwise would have been trashed and sent to the landfill.

About the writer: Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated producer, and the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in AdweekIntoUSA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine, and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, Katie, and their dog, Sadie. Find her on social media @sentascar. 

Portrait photo by: Kip Evans. Images courtesy Drifters Project