Mika Rottenberg: Plastic

In the Mushroom Forest

  • 17 May 2024
  • Issue 10
  • Mika Rottenberg: Plastic (2024). Directed by Oresti Tsonopoulos

For the fifth film in our Material series, which examines artists’ transformations of raw materials, Mika Rottenberg takes us into her upstate New York studio, where she gives new meaning and shape to plastic, which she describes as “trapped ancient sunlight that cannot decompose and grow back into the system.” For a new series of works, Rottenberg uses discarded plastics from housing complexes in Harlem, gathered and repurposed by the Inner City Green Team, a community organization.

Heather Davis: Your practice as an artist has largely focused on making videos, installations and sculptures. How did you start making these recent pieces, the Rottenbar and the Lampshares? What has it been like to focus on functional objects and why did plastic seem the right material for that endeavor?

Mika Rottenberg: After finishing Remote, which is a feature movie I made during the pandemic, I really missed working on smaller, more tangible stuff. So when Iwan and Manuela Wirth asked me to make a bar for the gallery, I was immediately intrigued. My usual sculpture process is making sets for the videos, which are functional, so this is not far off in some ways. I’m never completely comfortable just making a sculpture for the sake of making a sculpture, which is weird as an artist, I guess. Flirting with functionality and absurdity, or maybe dysfunctionality, is kind of in the core. I got into DIY reclaimed plastic because, as always, my work is about this magical and often exploitative process of producing “value” through harnessing energies. Matter, especially plastic, has a lot of trapped energy in it. I also wanted to work with materials that I could “mine” and source myself, finding materials that I had a more intimate relationship with and shifting the production mode of the studio itself, rather than pointing to problematic production cycles that are mostly out of my control. Plastic is a contemporary natural resource. I think many of us feel trapped in powerful distractive systems, so I was wondering if I could create a production line that was a little more regenerative and circular rather than extractive and alienating. I teamed up with some great people and we developed this system for recycling waste plastic into sculptures/lamps. I call them lampshares. “Users” become “shareholders” in this “factory” by buying a lamp, and they become a kind of “fuel” for the production line. Or if you can’t afford a lamp, you can collect plastic for us. [Laughs.]

Plastic is the quintessential capitalist material fantasy. It assumes any shape, is endlessly malleable and here to serve us. It’s a material we produce and in return it consumes us. I love this idea that by making these lamps out of reclaimed plastic we are, in a way, releasing back some of this trapped ancient light, metaphorically. It’s something you have pointed out, and I love that idea. Maybe this is presumptuous, but it’s also a fun way of thinking about it.

Mika Rottenberg in her studio

Lampshare components, Rottenberg studio

HD: I would love to hear you say more about the actual production process. One of the things that’s fascinating about plastic is that it appears in so many forms and we have this sense of it as being very malleable. But it’s actually a very difficult, recalcitrant material, which is the reason why it’s mostly produced in large industrial factories. It’s only quite recently that organizations like Precious Plastics have emerged. But the amount of actual labor that goes into reclaiming plastic takes a real toll on the body.

MR: Large scale recycling schemes are a failure and this small scale DYI is really experimental, unpredictable and time consuming—Precious Plastics is how I got familiar with this idea. They reframed the thinking around waste plastic, and it’s brilliant. They make it very social media-friendly, so it just looks like: “Oh, no problem. Here’s the diagram. Go do it.” That’s not really the case. You need to separate it. You need to clean, then grind it. Even molding it is difficult. People often ask about the toxicity of working with it, but it’s no more toxic than any other studio production process. We work with it at low temperatures and only with HDPE [high-density polyethylene] and PP [polypropylene] that are considered safe to work with. And of course we have the proper ventilation and all that. I recently discovered that face masks are made from PP. In everyday life, we inhale and eat this stuff constantly. We are partly plastic.

To get the plastic, first I did some dumpster diving with my daughter and her friends, and then I worked with a Bard College art student, Cora Quinlan, who collected stuff from all the local dumpsters over the summer upstate here in Tivoli, New York. I really wanted to work with an organization that was already doing similar things in regard to collecting plastic, and I was referred to Brigitte Charlton-Vicenty and the Inner City Green Team by Kabira Stokes, a recycling expert. This was a perfect match since Brigitte was already looking to expand her recycling initiative. What they do is remarkable and I feel very lucky to be able to support her by sourcing the plastic from the organization. I mean, they support me by collecting, cleaning and cutting the waste plastic that otherwise will end up in the ocean.

“Plastic, as a fossil fuel byproduct, is ancient life trapped without the ability to decompose and complete a cycle. This is why it’s such a tragically attractive material.”—Mika Rottenberg

HD: The way that plastic normally gets produced is through such high mechanisms of standardization and alienation. We have no idea where our plastic or fossil fuels come from. There are all these trends to support more local systems for food production, clothing production and various other kinds of material goods. But when it comes to plastics, I think it’s only very recently that people have started thinking about the possibility of reclaiming plastics in any kind of closed-loop system that then ends up being more local.

MR: I love circular systems. My videos are all circular systems, and it feels nice to have created one in real life.

HD: It’s super interesting that the process ends with these mushroom forms.

MR: Ha ha, yes. I didn’t intend for it to look like mushrooms. I was originally attracted to the extruder, a machine that extrudes plastic “chips” into a mold. You can also freestyle and let it drip. Gary Dusek built it and I came to see it in his shop in the Bronx. He’s a designer who specializes in reclaimed plastic. Small-scale recycling of plastic is more common in Europe, and of course in the U.S. there are only a handful of people that work with plastic in this way. Gary is kind of the only one on the East Coast. He showed me how it works, and we extruded plastic into a tube. We got caught up talking and didn’t turn the machine off, so it over-extruded and overflowed, and out came this shape that was a very oddly sexual and “organic-looking” blub. It looked like a sex toy or an internal organ. I fell in love with it and developed a building system from these extruded sticks and these blubs that we drill into. It’s like an imperfect kind of queer Lego. Then the idea of making lamps from them came along, and Gary built a new injector machine. But the expensive mold we fabricated was too big and the injector pressure was too low, so it did not inject the full thing, and this is how we got this handmade, imperfect look. It came out looking like a mushroom cap! So the defect was perfect. I love it that the imperfection chance element is what makes each one unique.

Brigitte Charlton-Vicenty, founder of Inner City Green Team, bagging cleaned detergent containers, East Harlem, New York

Clean detergent containers for delivery to Gary Dusek in the Bronx for extrusion

HD: There are all these connections between mushrooms and plastic. Mycelium is often used as a plastic packaging alternative; some mushrooms can break down plastics. Mycelium is also a ubiquitous material, and like many other kinds of toxins, some of it is quite beneficial to our bodies and some of it is incredibly harmful.

MR: It’s interesting that they end up looking like mushrooms that are both extremely toxic and have amazing health benefits. This attraction/repulsion spot is an interesting psychological space. It relates to an idea that you bring up in your book Plastic Matter, about how we can’t go back to a world with no plastic or enclose ourselves in an organic wooden “bubble.” When I think about “eco art,” it has the risk of feeling puritanical and detached from the real world. Working with waste plastic is a way to deal with the problem head-on rather than shipping it somewhere else. Actually turning the problem into a thing of value, which is something art is really good at. It’s cynical and funny and also true. It’s funny that, left to its own shape, plastic assumes these bodily “organic” forms. We’re so accustomed to thinking about plastic as a super artificial, non-organic material, but looked at through the lens of queer ecology, there’s no rigid distinction between “artificial” and “natural.” There is no “pure natural.” Plastic, as a fossil fuel byproduct, is ancient life trapped without the ability to decompose and complete a cycle. This is why it’s such a tragically attractive material. The way we process it in the studio reveals its core being— not as “bad” material but as sad material. Kind of beautiful and tragic.

Granulated plastic, Rottenberg studio

Plastic extruder, Bronx, New York

“The way that plastic normally gets produced is through such high mechanisms of standardization and alienation. We have no idea where our plastic or fossil fuels come from.”—Heather Davis

HD: In some of your work, such as Cosmic Generator [2017], you play a lot with scale, space and time. For example, large things can emerge from very, very tiny spaces. I was thinking about this in relation to plastic. Plastic as a material feels a bit like time and space travel—definitely time travel, in the sense of how it is composed of ancient creatures. You just talked about how you feel like plastic is kind of sad because it’s trapped in a particular form that can’t decompose. A colleague of mine, Zoe Todd, talks about fossil fuels being “un-consensually unearthed.” It’s like those fossil fuels were in their own process of decomposition, but now they’ve been fundamentally disturbed. It’s almost like a reverse-burial process that we’re all implicated in. Part of the reason why fossil fuels are wreaking such havoc in the world is because of that lack of consent. But fossil fuels are also, in some ways, trapped sunlight. I was thinking about the lamps and the relationship they have to ancient light and contemporary light—light becoming a kind of time travel.

MR: You mentioned that earlier, and I love this idea of the light that’s trapped being able to shine again. And thinking about materials and environments as sentient beings, as things we form relationships with.

HD: Do you want to talk a little bit about the vines?

MR: When I was researching materials for this, I landed on processing waste plastic and on working with invasive vines. I have a lot of these “bittersweet” vines and the artist Max Bard was helping me clear some of them around the studio. These vines are amazing looking. Each one is unique, and they twist and twirl so they can climb on other trees. They seemed like a great match for the plastic, and they helped in building larger structures.

Heather Davis is an assistant professor of culture and media at the New School. She is the co-editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments, and Epistemologies (2015) and editor of Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (2017). Her most recent book, Plastic Matter (2022), re-examines materiality in light of plastic’s saturation.

Mika Rottenberg is an artist whose work combines film, architectural installation and sculpture to explore ideas of labor and the production of value in a hyper-capitalist world. Using traditions of both cinema and sculpture, Rottenberg connects seemingly disparate places and things to create elaborate, subversive visual narratives. Weaving together fact and fiction, she highlights the inherent beauty and absurdity of our contemporary existence.

Artwork © Mika Rottenberg. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth