An interactive intervention with place-mats and people at the 54th Venice Biennale, 2011.

Mapping exhibition: ARTLIFEfortheworld


The first thing one experiences entering Venice, is water. From the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, the main train station, it’s a 20 step walk to the Grand Canal, which runs like a snake through the island. My artist’s intervention, “Map and Sip”, which put nearly 1000 placemats with an image of the ocean’s gyres in dozens of cafes and restaurants around Venezia, would call attention to those very waters now dying from pollution.

As I’ve learned over this past year working on the Safe Planet Campaign with the U.N., and specifically with our partners at the 5Gyres Institute who have been monitoring plastic pollution in the seas, the oceans are now filled with the world’s refuse. And it’s not just jelling in the big Pacific Gyre island as has been promoted by the media, but worse, yet, it’s like a soup: and everywhere. So we put some information on the problem on these placemats with one of my new paintings inspired by the satellite maps of the scientists Maxemenko and Hefner from the University of Hawai’i. And I took them to the 54th Venice Biennale.

So why is an artist based in a land-locked country in Central Europe worried about the sea? Well, for one I’m from there. I grew up on the Pacific and my heart never left. But also because, as Captian Charles Moore at Algalita Marine Research Foundation says, “Everything goes downhill to the ocean” eventually. So any of us who throw away plastic, and don’t refuse using it, are putting something into our oceans that is destroying them, and ultimately us.

My first successful “intervention” was at GianCarlo’s restaurant near the Rialto bridge, and not far from the gallery where I was showing the original painting of the “Plastic Gyres” series. He took heart to the idea and enthusiastically starting showing his other customers the map and explaining the idea. Italians of course love art, and if it has to do with water, they get it. From there on, it was easy.

During the course of the day I covered dozens of cafes and restaurants around Venice, placing the maps out, for customers to enjoy, while sipping and reading. Waiters and waitresses all over town became my friends and passed them out for each new customer. I left a particularly large bunch of placemats for McDonald’s. I left them at fast food pizzerias for weekend tourists and fancy eats at the Giardinni, where the monied art crowd gathers. Piazza San Marco was not left untouched from Safe Planet’s propaganda and I couldn’t resist leaving a few at Julian Shnabel’s “Permanently Becoming and the Architecture of Seeing” show at Museo Correr. Seemed appropriate. Because learning how to see the world around us is really what this is about.

I can schlep alright. Years on California’s Venice Beach Boardwalk as a grad student selling t-shirts gave me experience in the old-fashioned art of persuasion, an invaluable tool for every artist. At least a couple of thousand people saw the placemats that day, as I talked up the cafes. Venezia is also filled with sidewalk hawkers, mainly from Africa, selling their wares. It’s been a city of trade for millennia, connecting continents and cultures via the sea- the link to the world. 

And now, even with the waters rising due to climate change and Venice itself threatened, the connection of plastic pollution to destruction of that sea still hasn’t been made in the public’s mind.  The commerce of information was brought back to the human level in this project, a one-on-one confrontation with the public.

Hopefully at least a few hundred thoughts will change after Sipping and Mapping  with me at the Biennale this year.