I MET BENJAMIN VON WONG on a beach in Bermuda. We were both there for the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit, an unlikely convocation of artists, writers, nonprofit leaders, and business executives from some of the world’s largest and most polluting corporations, intended to break down silos and trigger some creative thinking about addressing the ocean plastics crisis. I arrived a day early and put out some feelers, and learned that Von Wong, as he goes by professionally, was creating an installation of beach art as a kind of conversation piece for the summit. He asked if I wanted to volunteer on the installation. Of course I did.
When I arrived, I met a quick-talking young guy dressed in black M. C. Hammer–style pants who seemed to have wandered straight out of the near future. Von Wong had already deputized a collection of local kids and environmental educators who were hard at work gathering seaweed and beach plastic into a massive gyre that could only be appreciated from the sky with the help of Von Wong’s drone. We worked all day, and by the time the sun set, I had many new Bermuda friends and a visceral feeling of purpose for stopping any more plastic from fouling our oceans and beaches. The next day, dozens of executives from organizations such as Dow, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Clorox joined us and went through the same initiation. By the time the actual summit started, we were all galvanized, and people reached across lines in a way that had never happened before, leading to the creation of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, a forum for frank exchanges that may be our best hope for breaking the ocean plastics logjam.
Von Wong’s art played a huge role in that, which intrigued me, because in no way did it resemble what I thought of as environmental art. His images were futuristic, slick, and profoundly unnatural — one part Matrix, one part manga — even when they touched on themes like pollution, e-waste, and ocean plastic. People were tied to shipwrecks underwater, toxic monsters emerged from washing machines, and mermaids were drowning in seas of plastic bottles. They were weirdly beautiful. And corporations like Starbucks, Nike, and Dell were footing the bill.
Von Wong was also a digital native. His images received millions of views across social media, and they were always accompanied by short “making of” videos that increased the wow factor (the projects were always tough to pull off and required loads of volunteers) and subtly tucked the message into the fun. Importantly, these were always delivered in the informal, I’m-not-taking-myself-too-seriously style that millennials find relatable.
Looking over his oeuvre and the reactions he sparked online, and thinking about the way everyone at the summit had eagerly jumped into his projects, myself included, I began to wonder if Von Wong had hit upon a new and necessary model for being an impact artist in 2020. Recently, I sat down with him in a Montreal café to find out. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
RJ: Over the past few years, your art has tackled a number of classic environmental issues — plastic pollution, electronic waste, chemical toxicity — but in a style that is light-years away from traditional earnest environmental messaging. Your work draws attention to its unnaturalness, and plays off tropes from fantasy and science fiction. Considering how much the environmental movement has struggled to reach younger generations, is this a necessary shift?
VW: The reason I apply fantasy to environmentalism is partially strategic. My goal isn’t just to reach people who already care about the fight; it’s to draw new people into the conversation. There’s no shortage of sad documentary footage out there — such as a turtle with a straw up its nose or a fish belly full of plastic. The idea behind these is to shock people into caring. But when you see something too often, you tune out. Your brain doesn’t register it as interesting or novel. And if it’s sad and dark and depressing, you don’t want to look at it again, or share it.
However, there is a shortage of bold, beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that have an impact message. In the social media era, the world has become saturated with images, and the only way to get people to pause in their scrolling activities is to completely draw them out of their element. So how might you do something that stops people in their tracks?
I always try to create work that is really different than what people have seen before. People need excuses to talk about things that matter. And if you make it easy or cool for them to talk about something in a unique way, I think it’s very valuable.
I try to craft something larger than life that’s extremely complex. When people see my work for the first time, their initial reaction is often curiosity, and curiosity is a very powerful way to introduce a new topic to people. They see the work, and they want to understand what they’re looking at. Is it real? Is it fake? How is it done? They want to know more.
Tying a truckload of plastic bottles together and trying to control them in the ocean was just one part of what made this shot tremendously complicated.
RJ: Is that why you put so much emphasis on making videos about how you make your art, rather than just producing the art itself?
VW: During my previous projects — tying models to underwater shipwrecks, or having them dangle off the edge of skyscrapers, or lighting them on fire — I started documenting how I did it partly to prove that I went through the trouble of doing it. As I’m creating every project, I think about how that story is going to be told. I’d say that the act of documenting my work is the secret ingredient that makes it powerful, because the story of how it was made makes it tangible and believable. People look at my work and they like it, but they also think it’s not real. So it’s important to show them how I do it. With every project there’s high risk that it might ultimately fail, and so we are also telling the story of all the challenges we had to overcome and the time it took. That ignites their curiosity. It’s the hero’s journey, basically.
RJ: And your recent focus on large-scale installations even invites them to be a part of it. Several of your projects required volunteers to help you sort and arrange an enormous amount of material — such as the 160,000 plastic straws that had to be collected, sorted, and assembled into the ten-foot waves of a parting sea.
VW: Yes, I really like to incorporate community into my work. One of the things I’ve always tried to do is to show that anything is possible if you’re willing to put time, energy, and effort into it. Gathering a group of motivated people around a topic or an issue proves that it’s possible. Also, if you create an experiential installation that people can walk through and photograph, you opensource the creativity. From that point forward, the work might generate interest in other people who are going to be creating things that they care about. There’s a cascade effect.
RJ: But those types of installations are still expensive to pull off.
VW: Yes, ultimately, for most of the work that I do, somebody has to step in and fund it. That’s where the struggle comes in, because oftentimes the only organizations that can justify campaigns like these are commercial companies. I know there are a lot of grants out there, but I’ve never fit the mold for most of them. My work is too eccentric, too weird. Besides, I feel like applying for a grant is kind of the polar opposite of creativity.
RJ: What do you mean by that?
VW: For me, and for many artists, the process of making art inspires the results, and yet grants often look to you to describe what you want to create before you’ve even begun the journey.
For creatives to push the boundaries of their creativity, they need to venture into the unknown, not just keep doing the same thing slightly differently. I like foundations that consider whether a person is creating value in the world, and try to elevate that one step further, empowering people to do their best work. So rather than, How sexy does this project proposal look?, they ask, What does the growth trajectory of this person look like? And what might they accomplish? Would a little bit of financial freedom help them try something they’ve never done before? Will they risk failure, but maybe grow and become better creatives as a result of it?
RJ: Do you think technology is changing what it means to be a creative?
VW: You know, everyone talks about the creative economy. It’s supposed to be the next big thing, but no one’s really doing it. What you see a lot is the illusion of creativity, in things like selfie museums or Instagram. You’re giving people a playpen to play in with very defined rules, and so it’s no wonder that most people just replicate each other.
Also, the digital realm has become very saturated. To be noticed, you can’t just create projects once a month. You need to create projects once a day. And you’re basically getting people to subscribe to your life, so you become the product that you’re selling. And that ends up putting a lot of pressure on who you’re expected to be. It doesn’t allow room for evolution. So that’s a world that now kills creativity and innovation.
We live in a digital age where creativity should be unbounded, but most people are just doing the same thing. So it’s really important to find people who are doing things differently. What are the new avenues? We need artists who have novel approaches, whether they’re creating unique microsites, or new comic book characters, or maybe inserting their stories into popular cinema or fiction. We need more “Trojan horse” kinds of initiatives where you find ways to insert impact into things that people inherently find cool or interesting.
RJ: What would be an example of a Trojan horse initiative?
VW: So, a few years ago Nike came to me and said, “Hey, we’d like to do a campaign to promote our shoes. We want to take these Instagram influencers and do something that’s exciting, that shows them defying conventions, pushing the limits and so forth.” And I said, “Okay, why don’t we use social entrepreneurs instead of Instagram influencers? Why not use the opportunity to talk about values, as opposed to creating a campaign to sell a shoe?” By Trojan horse initiatives, I mean opportunities that do more than just sell a product. Don’t just talk about what you do, but why you do it. Those opportunities are all around. You just have to find them.
RJ: What inspired you to focus on the ocean plastics crisis, and how did you settle on your approach?
VW: The topic had just started making a lot of headway in the news, so this idea of a Great Pacific Garbage Patch was on my mind. But I’m an extrinsically motivated person; something needs to prompt my creativity. Around the same time, my mom found this mermaid-tail designer online and said, “Hey Ben, look at this artist, she’s doing some great stuff.”
When I saw the mermaid tail, the first thing that crossed my mind was, How can I add a layer of impact to this? I thought, well, mermaids relate to the ocean, and there’s a lot of plastic flowing into the oceans, maybe I can use plastic to represent the ocean. What happens if I use lots and lots of plastic bottles? And that became the mermaid trapped in an ocean of ten thousand plastic bottles.
In every one of my projects there needs to be some catalyst. A conversation that happens with a creative person, with a place, with a thing, with a statistic, with a company. And it’s through that conversation that the collision of worlds happens. I’m constantly looking for metaphors that live between worlds, finding ways to tie them together, because, ultimately, for most people, there needs to be a translation process. You can’t bring a complete outsider into the environmental fight; you have to slowly introduce them to it. And one segue into that are these common cultural narratives that bind us together, that evoke something familiar. So, a mermaid, or Moses parting the sea.
In my recycling campaign with Dell, I was inspired to draw from all sorts of geometries used in popular science fiction. I had in mind a portal, like in Stargate, and a spiral of solar panels, as in the opening scene of Blade Runner, which I referenced in one of my installations with all the laptops. The keyboard image was inspired by a particle accelerator at CERN. When people look at these classic sci-fi shapes and forms, they have a kind of visual association or memory. And that’s how you go from something that’s just weird to something that has this element of connection.
Though this installation of plastic waste is beautiful and engaging,
it is also tragic to imagine a world in which a child plays in waves of disposable straws.
RJ: Do you think there’s a risk that if the image is too appealing, the message gets lost? That if they fall in love with a fantastical image of laptops, for example, they will forget about the downsides of all this e-waste?
VW: I do think that’s a challenge with the work I do, because it’s so fantastical, but I don’t think somebody who hates plastic would look at my work and fall in love with plastic again. It’s certainly not meant to do that, and I don’t think it does.
I think my approach to storytelling is simply a reflection of my style. I’ve always done things that are fantastical, surreal, grandiose, and I’ve used that as a lens to be impactful. I’m not only interested in addressing the natural environment; I’m interested in the entire system. The biggest enemy of the environment is poverty. You can’t worry about caring for Earth or living differently if you’re worrying about feeding your family. It’s all interconnected, and I just want to be the most useful I can be. I’d say there’s generally a ratio in my work of 80 percent adventure to 20 percent preaching — or marketing, if you will — for the cause. It’s a bit of a juggling act. As a storyteller and an artist, I’m always trying to balance what I’m good at with what the world needs.
RJ: How do you measure success with these projects?
VW: It’s not just views. I got 10 million views — and then what? I raised $1 million — and then what? What came out of it? What’s the after-story going to be? What are you going to say six months down the line?
I think we need to find a better way to measure the value of art. It doesn’t have to be the perfect way, but if you can find a way to measure depth of impact as opposed to breadth of impact, you can create a new metric that artists can use to support themselves. If you can find an alternative metric to dollars or views or comments that measures the impact of art, you can help more artists to do more meaningful work.
I’ve recently become very interested in the idea of community as a way to measure art. What if your art can convene people who then form tight bonds that last over the course of time? What if you create a spark that empowers a community and allows it to grow? Or you create a conversation piece that people can focus around? That might be worth a lot.
But then there are things that you just can’t measure. I did my #strawpocalypse project for Zero Waste Saigon. It got a lot of attention, but where it really made a difference might be in secondary or tertiary ways that are harder to measure. One example of this is that they were offered bigger office space from someone who just wanted to help them advance their mission. These were obscure connections, but someone would have seen or heard of the art project and would be a lot more receptive to supporting their efforts. All this added up to community impact, which allowed their project to grow and gain more support.
RJ: What’s your dream project? What do you hope to be able to say about your art in ten years?
VW: I’m focused on projects that have measurable impact. Too often, the projects I’m asked to do focus on output — a photo shoot, a series of videos, an image, or an installation and experience. Something wild, extreme, weird, quirky. But the outcome is what I really care about. I want to prove that art has the power to change lives. And I want to be able to replicate that example over and over again. I think good art should be measured by its positive outcome toward the rest of the world. I’d love to be able to maintain the creativity, the fantasy, the shock and awe, but at the same time change people’s perceptions of what art can be — that it isn’t just superfluous, but something that can truly effect real change. And so my dream project, I think, would be to find a way to do more art that includes cross-sector collaborations, something that helps build and empower communities. Because I think that kind of shift has the potential to inspire a completely new generation and completely new approach.
Every project requires lots of volunteers, patience, and
endless experimentation to come together.
RJ: What advice would you give to artists who have an environmental conscience and want to make an impact?
VW: First of all, it’s important. Artists can make transformational pieces that move a society forward. I think those of us who want to make an impact need to think practically. If you really and truly care about making a difference, you need to think more about the different components of your work. It’s not just about creating a series that tells a story. It’s how that series might be used. What kinds of people might be able to use this? What kind of change will it effect? How will it actually spread? And how are you planning on getting it out there? If you don’t think about the distribution of the art you’re creating, the chances that it may just spontaneously catch on like wildfire are actually quite slim. If more artists paid attention to the outcome, rather than just the output, I think projects would be designed a lot more effectively, with a far greater chance of affecting the world in a positive way.
I don’t think that’s easy. Impact work adds new constraints and greater challenges to the already challenging experience of trying to survive as a creative individual. And sometimes it’s hard. I mean, sometimes I feel very much like a solution looking for a problem. But maybe that’s precisely the place I need to be in. It’s about the life, the meaning, the purpose, and how that all flows together. O
This article is fourth in a series examining how artists work and what life is like in communities that include working artists. It is published with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. To promote a holistic dialogue about the value of artists, the Tremaine Foundation supports a collective online space called Artists Thrive. Artists Thrive offers resources and tools that help artists, arts organizations, and other groups that work with artists to collaborate and craft meaningful stories about why art-making matters. Artists Thrive aims to identify ways to help artists pursue their visions and to enable communities to benefit from the arts in all aspects of life. More information can be found at www.artiststhrive.org.