In 2006, Pam Longobardi traveled to Ka Lae, the southernmost tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, for a residency. Cradled by a rugged coastline and high cliffs towering over the Pacific Ocean, the point marks a confluence of currents where marine life and debris gather on shore, making it a popular fishing spot and unintentional waste collection site. “There I saw an immense multitude of colors and forms of plastic that was being vomited out of the ocean, piled so deep it was beyond my arm’s reach to the bottom,” Longobardi tells Colossal. “The shock was so profound that it completely reoriented my art practice and my life.”
While determined to address the issue, Longobardi quickly understood she couldn’t work by herself. “As an artist, still going on my research missions to Hawai’i as frequently as I could but still often alone, it began to be overwhelming, exhausting, depressing to the point of self-doubt,” she says. Instead, she wanted to create something collaborative and community-based, linking activists, environmentalists, and artists with people living in the region and directly witnessing the impacts. These experiences spurred a now two-decade endeavor known as the Drifters Project, a practice of creating installations and sculptures that help visualize the catastrophic amount of plastic ruining the world’s ecosystems.
“Ocean Archaeology of Our Time” (2023), global ocean plastics from Maldives, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Alaska, California, and Georgia coasts, mounted on painted marine plywood, 9 x 5 feet
Most works begin with Longobardi and a team cleaning specific areas and preventing plastic from embarking “on the wild journey that ends at sea and negatively impacts many, many life forms along the way.” Once the area is scoured and cleared, the artist arranges the findings by color or material into works that convey the immensity and breadth of over-consumption and the inadequacy of our waste systems.
Recent installations include “Endless (zombie Brancusi),” a series of nine totem-like sculptures made of nets and styrofoam, and an algae-shaped work titled “Ocean Archaeology of Our Time.” Although created in the Maldives, an island nation at the forefront of sea level rise and currently grappling with the effects of luxury tourism, the latter piece exhibits more than 1,000 components gathered both locally and in locations like Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Alaska. “It’s important in my works that I remix, as the ocean does, plastics from all over because it is not one place’s issue,” Longobardi says. “It’s (an) all-places problem.” This global vision grounds the Drifters Project, which calls attention to the way cigarette butts, bottle caps, and packaging from one part of the world can wash up on shores thousands of miles away.
One of Longobardi’s largest endeavors is “Plastic Free Island,” an ongoing initiative to keep waste from the beaches of Kefalonia, Greece. Launched in 2011, the project initially paired an international team of students with hundreds of the island’s citizens. Together, they harvested refuse from the shores and created a 44-foot installation and performance. “Plastic Free Island” can provide a sustainable template for reimagining island communities directly facing the impacts of the climate crisis, she says, noting, “Last summer when I went back, we found that all the cafes had switched to paper straws. It was a most rewarding moment to see the results of direct art/science/activism take shape.”
That the Drifters Project can foster community and spark real-world change is also evident in Longobardi’s 2022 book Ocean Gleaning, which documents her works and collaborations over the years along with contributions from about 75 people with similar interests. This crowd-sourced section records evidence of plastics gathered around the world with commentary on the findings. The book also documents waste materials animals often mistake for food, further implicating humanity in causing environmental harm. As Sarah Rose Sharp writes in a review, “The forensic examination of plastics in Longobardi’s work has particular resonance in the context of popular interest in true crime. Stories of horrific murders can always find a voracious audience, but an environmental threat which could ultimately be history’s greatest serial killer is somehow less sensational or interesting.”
“The Crime of Willful Neglect”
Ultimately, though, Longobardi is hopeful. She describes visiting a waterway and beginning to clean even when she hadn’t planned to. “Typically, if there are other people about, someone will ask me what I am doing and then begin to help me,” she shares. “These kinds of spontaneous actions with strangers are the basis of Drifters Project:that anyone, anywhere, can train their eyes to (search for plastic), and you will see it everywhere.”
With an estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic leaching into the oceans every year, tackling pollution needs to be a truly collaborative and global effort, and initiatives like the Drifters Project are one way to make such a staggering problem accessible to people wanting to get involved. Part of Longobardi’s goal is to direct our attention to the magnitude of the problem, instigate movements to refuse single-use and disposable items, and use art to tangibly mitigate some of the consequences already in effect. She explains:
I believe the ocean to be the consciousness of the planet. It is where all life on Earth began. By paying attention to the greater interconnected network outside of our immediate lives, we witness the effects of our actions on all other life forms in this world…It’s really powerful, and the best part of my project, to broadcast the emergence of a collective transformation in understanding our presence on Earth.