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An Interview with Benjamin Von Wong: Using Art to Fight Plastic


Conversations with Change Makers is a series of interviews with exceptional individuals: trailblazers, activists, visionaries, entrepreneurs and eternal optimists – people, who’ve dedicated their lives to create a better world and who inspire others to follow suit.


The first guest in PlanetCare’s Conversations with Changemakers was Benjamin Von Wong.

Benjamin Von Wong is a Canadian artivist. He brings to life brilliant environmental art installations that encourage us to reflect on the impact our individual and collective actions have on the planet.

Ben’s work lies at the intersection of fantasy and photography and combines everyday objects with shocking statistics. It has attracted the attention of corporations, like Starbucks, Dell, and Nike, and has generated over 100 million views for causes like ocean plastics, electronic waste, and fashion pollution.

Most recently, he was named one of Adweek's 11 content branded masterminds. He is also the host of a Top 5% podcast called Impact Everywhere, and a creative advisor for the Sustainable Ocean Alliance and the Ocean Plastic Leadership Network.

I’ve met Ben through the Sustainable Ocean Alliance network. When he found out about PlanetCare and the used cartridges that we collect to close the loop on microfiber pollution, he offered to take a look at them. He was curious to see if the used cartridges carry some artistic potential. And it turns out they do. 

As we are excited to show you how Ben made our cartridges shine, we asked for a bit more of his time so you can get to know him better. We’ve been completely inspired by his work and wanted to give you an opportunity to understand how and why his art comes to life.

We hope you’ll enjoy the interview as much as we did. Our conversation is captured in this video and you will also find a transcription below in this blog post.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTION

[Masa] Hi everyone. Thank you for being here today with us. I’m really excited to have the amazing opportunity to talk to Benjamin Von Wong. I've had the privilege to meet Ben through the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Network, and I've been completely inspired and amazed by the work he's doing. So I was really happy when he agreed to take the time to talk with us all today.

Ben, with your art you focus on amplifying positive impact and making it unforgettable. When did you set out on this path? Is it something that you’ve always wanted to do or was there a life-changing moment or an event or a realisation that made you completely change focus and pursue the impact-driven path that you're on now?

[Ben] I think, as with most things in life, it's a gradual progression. And, you know, when we look back at our lives, sometimes things seem very obvious. But while you're doing them, it's a little bit less so. I actually started off my life as a hard rock mining engineer, so I had not even an artist background.

And over the course of my artistic career, after quitting my day job, the impact piece of it just slowly seeped into the work that I was doing. I started to realise the more projects that I created, that it was the ones that were making a difference, that I was most excited about, that I felt most proud of.

And then so in 2016, after having experienced some commercial success as a photographer, doing some pretty crazy stunts like tying models underwater or hanging them off rooftops and getting paid to do these crazy projects, I just realised that doing crazy for the sake of crazy to make a living was really not as fulfilling as I thought it would be.

And so in 2016 I just decided I'm going to commit to using my art to make a difference. Now, I wasn't planning on being an environmentalist. I wasn't planning on anything in particular. I just wanted to make a difference. And through experimentation, trial and error, self-education, by watching documentaries, I just kind of slipped slowly into the environmental movement. And now today, most of the work that I do is environmentally focused and here we are.

Benjamin Von Wong Installation from Used Plastic Cups

[Masa] Anyone who comes across your installations or photos or videos that focus on be it plastic pollution or any other pollution that you've been focusing on is immediately faced with the enormity of the problem, which can otherwise be hard to perceive sometimes. You know, to a lot of people it's just one cup. It's just one straw. So I was wondering, do you always try to choose projects that help quantify the significance that single actions can have?

[Ben] Honestly, I'm a little bit torn because my style has changed over time and my understanding of the ecosystem of the problems has changed over time. Initially, I was definitely more focused on individual actions, like my theory of change was that if more people knew about the problem, then more people would take action. Very straightforward. But now… I started doing a lot of ocean plastics work in 2016 and now we’re in 2021 and plastic pollution awareness is at an all-time high. But plastic consumption is also at an all-time high.

So awareness doesn't necessarily lead to behavioural change. And so is that really the thing that we need to sell for? Ultimately, I think the ability for consumers today to divest from plastic is sort of being taken away. You can't order a product on Amazon and not have it come in plastic. You can't order clothing today and have it not come with polyester, nylon, spandex. Like it's just kind of built-into a lot of the supply chain. And so I feel like the individual consumer’s ability to make a conscious decision is becoming harder and harder. And what that means is that only people of greater privilege can make these harder decisions because it requires a certain amount of going out of your way of doing things that are not the norm in society.

Benjamin Von Wong Installation Mermaids hate plastic

I think that, yes, everyone can make a difference. We can make decisions with our dollar, but that only goes so far. And so I think it's a challenge because you want to communicate both sides of the puzzle. It's yes, you are important. Your decisions do matter. And yes, it is important for you to talk to your friends and family and share that, because at the end of the day, you know, companies and governments make decisions based on the interest of the consumers. And you need to find ways to signal that.

On the other hand, we also need to pressure governments and corporations to also do the right thing. And so when I create my art campaigns, I try to balance that fine line because at the same time, the people who are sharing my work are ordinary consumers. So they need to feel a sense of ownership of the problem. And I think that we are in a world today that is tired of just signing petitions and just putting something out there and expecting change to happen.

There needs to be some kind of ownership to it. So it's like, how do you toe that line? How do you give people a little bit of self-empowerment and how do you give them the idea that what you're working towards is bigger than you?

[Masa] Really well said. And I think definitely, change has to happen on both levels, bottom-up and top-down if you want to really create systemic and meaningful change. 

I wanted to ask about one of your installations, ‘The parting of the plastic sea’ in which you've used 168,000 used plastic straws to encourage people to turn down the single use straw.

And I don't know if you've had the chance to watch Seaspiracy yet, but they highlight that the plastic straws are such an insignificant part of the ocean pollution that they really shouldn't be getting all the attention that they were getting in the past and are getting still. They say we should rather be focussing on discarded fishing gear. So I was wondering if you've had the chance to watch the documentary and would be happy to share your thoughts on this?

[Ben] I have not watched the documentary yet, primarily because I haven't had a day where I felt like today I want to get depressed and watch a documentary. However, I have booked a date night with my family so that we can all watch it together. So I will let you know my thoughts then.

However, to your point. Yes, 50 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from fishing gear. Absolutely. I hear it. I think it's a big problem. But how does public awareness lead to solving that problem is a lot less linear of a process.

Like earlier in the last question that you just asked me how do you empower people so that they can take action? And I think one of the things about single-use plastics is that it’s something we can see, we can touch, we can feel, we can understand. Unlike, let's say, climate change or ocean and ocean acidification, which are topics that are a lot harder but equally important to saving the planet.

Benjamin Von Wong Installation Strawpocalypse from used plastic straws

And so I think it's trying to meet people where they're at. And if people start caring about the oceans through the everyday behaviours of them going out and purchasing products and it's a way that keeps them connected to the issue, then that's a good thing.

For all the waves that conspiracy is currently making I don't think the average person after seeing this knows what to do. They might stop eating seafood, which could be a good thing, tangentially related, but it doesn't actually solve the problem of ghost nets floating in the ocean. That's like a whole different level of civic engagement that is currently required.

So I don't think one is better than the other. I think it's really great that a platform like Seaspiracy in its title and in its marketing and its storytelling is drawing new people into the conversation by saying, hey, you've all heard about plastic, right. It's almost weaponizing the fact that everyone knows about the plastic issue. But did you know about this secret, dark thing over here in the corner? And it's great from a storytelling perspective. I think it's wonderful that this is the new entry point for so many to discover it.

Actually, the reason that I got into the environmental movement was because of its sister film, Cowspiracy. That's how that would lead to my first project that I created around climate change. So we need to meet people where they're at. I don't think one is objectively better or worse than the other. I think they each have a role to play.

We can always criticise the other side. I mean, some people would say that Seaspiracy is over-dramatising. It's casting a negative light on people who have dedicated their lives to saving the oceans. It's not good and bad. It's not that simple. But it is a story and stories spread. I look at most things in life as not black and white, but shades of grey. Is it overall doing more good than it is harm? Absolutely. And so I love what they're doing. I don't think one is better than the other. And I think people should continue engaging in those kinds of conversations. They are really important.

Benjamin Von Wong Installation Strawpocalypse from used plastic straws

[Masa] Absolutely. Well said. And if it's done one thing, it's created a lot of conversation, that's for sure.

With the reach you have with your campaigns I’m sure you’ve had lots of people get back to you to let you know how your work impacted or inspired them. But could you share one or two stories that really stand out where individuals reached out to you to tell you how your work inspired them to change, act, reflect?

[Ben] I have a recent story. I received a Google News alert in my inbox this February from Vice because they mentioned my name. But I didn't get an interview with them and I haven't put out a new project. So I was curious.  It turns out that it was a story about a social entrepreneur in Wuhan, China, named Huang Ningning who has a small social enterprise. She hired eight people to create upscaled shirts and bags. And I was like, OK, what does that have to do with me? And she credited me for the reason that she decided to start her company, because of my work that she had seen. She was working in a factory job prior and this was the push that she needed in order to create a new job,  to encourage her to change profession.

And it's just wild to me that someone that I have never met before and never spoke to, had seen my work and it resonated with it so deeply that they decided to go and change. She essentially changed the course of her life and dedicated her life towards protecting the oceans. I think that's kind of the thing about art. You never know what kind of ripples you're making in the world. You don't know how you're influencing people.

Maybe the best way to think about it is that we can't change the world. We can only change how we interface with the world. There's this sort of interaction that we have and we have to figure out how to make the things that we believe in more contagious. We have to make the idea of change more contagious. And we have to make it cool. We have to make it fun enough to make it interesting. And along the way, more people get wrapped into the fold.

Benjamin Von Wong collecting materials for his art installation

I think we focus too often on the transition from like water to ice, like change is binary from zero to one degrees. But the truth is, you might talk to someone and they might be at -30C. And if you brought them from -30C to -20C, you won't see any kind of state change. But you still made a big difference. 

So very often, and I think this is true of all non-profits and all social enterprises, we only measure that binary moment in time when something shifts from ice into water and we discount all the extra work that takes place in order to get people there. And I think that's a little bit of a loss.

So how do you know if you're doing the right thing? How do you know if it's resonating with people? I think it's a combination of having faith, holding faith that what you do matters, and making sure that you pay attention to acknowledge the positive feedback that comes in. Because we as human beings remember a lot better the negative things than we do the positive things, that's scientifically proven. So we have to acknowledge that.

But you also have to have faith that ultimately it is going in the right direction and that you trust that you can only do the best that you can do. And it's not about you being the hero and being the person on the stage that's talking. That doesn't mean the change is happening either. It just means making a little bit of recognition. So I struggle a little bit with the feedback loops that exist in our current society that don't tell the full picture of everything that's happening.

Benjamin Von Wong with his friend Laura

[Masa] Well, I know, but I think it is fair to say that if you wanted to talk about the impact that your work had, you can say that you changed the course of somebody's life, which is very impactful indeed.

[Ben] Yes, but it's also more than that, right? It might just be one story that you've heard, but then there is an unknowing amount of them and and it'll happen that I'll be out and I'll meet someone and I'll show them my portfolio and they'll be like, oh my gosh, I saw this project this long ago. And I shared it with my family. And then because of this, we stopped doing this, or because of this, I started a programme inside of my company. And so there are a lot of stories like this of people who have been galvanised through example, just through seeing that it was possible. Seeing others taking action is contagious because it makes everyone feel like they can be part of something greater.

Seeing others taking action is contagious because it makes everyone feel like they can be part of something greater.

- Benjamin Von Wong

[Masa] I wanted to touch on the work that you did for us at Planet Care as well. As I’ve mentioned, we had the privilege to meet you through the Sustainable Ocean Alliance network and you've seen our microfiber filters and the used cartridges that we collect for refurbishment to close the loop. And you've asked us to actually share a few of the used cartridges with caught microfibres to see whether they carry some artistic potential. So I was wondering if you can share with us how that went and how did you find the whole creative process?

[Ben] Yes, you’ve sent these filters over. And my thought process, the reason I asked for them was, OK, how do we make filters look exciting? There has to be a way for people to brag about what they do. Originally my idea was... Well, I didn't know what it looked like, but I thought it'd be something fuzzy, almost like a teddy bear, I suppose. And I thought maybe if there's a way to backlit this, it could glow and you could see the little particles. So you could actually, I don't know, start off, take a picture of it clean, take a picture of it dirty, take a picture of it clean, take a picture of dirty.

And maybe because you're actually closing the loop on this and you're constantly shipping this back and forth, then is there a way to create like a display box so that when people had their dirty thing, they can brag about it. And that every single time that they've completed a cycle of wash, they would be able to start a conversation about it.

But by the time I received the one from you guys, it was super hard and super crusted and super hard and rigid. And I thought, oh my gosh, this is really hard. It doesn't look really good. I don't know what to do with it. And so I honestly just kept next to my desk for weeks, stared at it and wasn't sure what to do.

I tried taking some photos. I tested out different lighting and none of it was working until eventually I thought, maybe I can just ignore the filter piece of it and figure out if there’s a way to make this look prettier?

And I realised that you had never put some lights inside of the filter itself; I just thought, oh, maybe there's a way to make this kind of interesting. So it looks like a power cell, like a futuristic power cell of energy. Like, it's glowing and so and that's where I landed. 

Benjamin Von Wong makes PlanetCare cartrdiges shine

It's a super cheap thing to do. You can put little fairy lights that cost a dollar that are battery powered inside of this thing. And suddenly you've now found a way to make something that is theoretically boring into something a little bit more interesting.

I think it unfortunately took away from the bragging piece of the puzzle, which is like, oh, I want to talk about how this thing is capturing microfibres. I don't think it does that. But, yeah, that was  my journey with the microfibers.

[Masa] But this actually wasn’t your experience with microfibers as you’ve also previously done a project about microfiber pollution and toxic laundry. Can you share some insights on how the microfiber project compared with the straws or single-use plastic cups projects that you’ve also done? Is there a difference in awareness and the feedback/reach you were able to get?

[Ben] Yeah, I think it was definitely harder to attract attention to the issues of microfiber, as I also did the microfiber project where we created a basically a monster out of cardboard and clothing crawling out of the laundry machines.

The series was created, I think in 2017, where microfiber pollution awareness itself was at a lot lower than it currently is today. I think we still have quite a way to go. I don't think that microfiber pollution is mainstream knowledge yet. It's just getting kind of accepted, I think, in environmental circles and starting to get a little bit of traction. 

This kind of points back to my initial conversation around how we only look at the transition from zero to one degrees, but the images in and of themselves can continue to fight the fight and be used for different issues. So if you guys use those pictures to promote this interview, then that's that's a work that is continuously giving and continuously telling the story and continuously raising awareness.

Toxic Laundry by Benjamin Von Wong

Like the series itself. When I created it my call to action was a little code where people could call out a company. So they just picked a washing machine company and they could say, hey, did you know that your laundry is toxic? Are you addressing this? And I did get a couple of responses from, I think LG and Bosch. And they also said we're looking into it. And that was the only response that I got.

So I did manage to get a couple of responses from washing machine companies, but I think there just wasn't enough traction behind it. And, equally, there was no clear solution. Like you're asking a company to completely rehaul their research and development. I think the work you guys are doing is pretty exciting because you could actually licence out your technology.

So you're offering a solution, you're offering a technology. So it could have been a lot more exciting to partner up with someone like you guys instead of partnering up with a bunch of students. But that was just a completely different moment in time. So it is what it is. I mean, I don't I don't regret doing the project. I think it was a really good experience. It was a learning experience for me even, to learn more about the issues and to try to do my best, to put my skills to use.

And I think that's really what ultimately it's all about, is doing the best you can with what you have.

I don't think that microfiber pollution is mainstream knowledge yet.

- Benjamin Von Wong

[Masa] Absolutely. Can you share what you have been focusing on lately and are there any exciting projects we can look forward to in the near future?

[Ben] Yeah, I mean, I think the most exciting project that I'm working on right now from a project perspective is I'm building a giant levitating faucet that is going to be about 30 feet tall with plastic trash flowing out of it.

And I'm going to rebuild this in a couple of different locations. Well, I haven't found the locations yet, but ideally it would be a beach, a landfill, a container park, a recycling centre and a city fountain. Going to different places to tell different stories. And it's going to be huge so it's a perfect conversation starter. We'll see how it goes.

The shoot is supposed to take place in June, and then the project would launch in September with the Canadian government in a gallery in Paris.

The campaign that I'm most excited about that's happening in the environmental ecosystem right now is happening in February next year. The United Nations is going to vote on whether or not they want to start pursuing a global treaty around plastics. So think Paris climate accords for plastics. And I think building momentum for that would be really, really good, because that's kind of what we need. We need standardisation models across both production and recuperation of plastics, since companies are global and waste is global. But these policies are all put together at the municipal level.

We need standardisation models across both production and recuperation of plastics, since companies are global and waste is global.

- Benjamin Von Wong

The problem is the Canadian government isn't one of the supporting countries on this treaty yet. And so I can't necessarily use this project to highlight that initiative unless they come on board officially. So it's I'm trying to see if I can use this project to create some pressure internally. But putting pressure on your client is not usually what you want to do. So it's a little bit delicate at that point. 

The engineering half of me really wants to control and design a binary solution, like I want to say as a result of this campaign, this has changed. But the artist side of me is realising that maybe what would be even more popular than that, what would be even more powerful than that, is to create something that's symbolic.

We often talk about how we need to close the plastic tap. It's a very popular sentence. And the reason we need to close the plastic tap is because 85% of plastic goes into landfill. Only 15% is recycled. But what if you can create the images that go with the statistics? What if you could see these visuals and understand exactly what it represented side by side with something that was more artistic. 

Plastic Ocean by Benjamin Von Wong

So I think for this specific series, I'm gunning for something symbolic and iconic that can be used across any industry. Because even someone like you could use this image to talk about how plastics is polluting our water streams. It's a universal story that can be adapted.

And I think when we think of art as opposed to design, art is more like a dance. It's an exchange of energy. I create something. You interpret it in a different way. Design is a little bit more prescriptive. You want everyone to swipe up or double tap. You're trying to guide people to do these movements. And it's very, very specific. So I don't know. I'm  playing around with something different this time around and we'll see where it goes.

[Masa] It sounds really, really interesting. And I can't wait to see what you end up coming with and see it being shared far and wide globally.

Follow Ben and his work

Masa Sprajcar-Rancic
Masa Sprajcar-Rancic
Masa spends a significant chunk of time on empowering people to live more sustainably by merging her knowledge of environmental sciences with behaviour change insights. When not at work she loves spending time outdoors, so you’ll most likely find her on her bike or at her allotment.

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