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Physical Data Visualisation

Debris is a data visualisation of the plastic waste that washed up along beaches in different countries. 

Each embroidered hoop represents 10 km of beach along a country, and each stitch of the kantha embroidery inside it represents one piece of common plastic waste found along that beach during a day of cleanup. 

The data comes from the 2019 report titled “The Beach and Beyond” by the Ocean Conservancy that organises a worldwide volunteer-driven beach cleanup day. They tabulate all the plastics they collect along lengths of beach in different countries. What I did was take that data, normalise it for 10 km of beach, and then select the top 5 most commonly found kinds of waste in India. This is what I depicted in embroidery, first for India, then the comparable numbers for two other countries: Germany and Thailand. 

The project came about from reading Susan Frienkel's book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Affair", which made me think more deeply about our current obsession with plastic pollution and wonder if it was more aesthetic than substantive. After all, plastic pollution is relatively less harmful for humans at least than air pollution, but it is a great deal more visible. Besides, plastics are produced as a byproduct of oil refining. If less oil was being refined in the first place, there would be less incentive to monetise the wastes of the refining process. I cast about for a form of visualisation that would represent this relative ambivalence I felt about plastics, which are still quite beautiful, magical products. I landed on embroidery on organza - whose folds mimic the waves of the ocean - and vaguely aquatic forms in the running kantha stitch that you see the reverse of through the fabric, calling back to Plastic Soup

The tactile form of the final visualisation and the time it took to create appear to influence how it is viewed. People touch it and count the stitches, they see the folds in the fabric and compare the hoops of different countries. It seems to make them pause and perhaps think, for a little while. It appears to appeal especially to women, which is as I hoped for, since embroidery is often seen as a feminine craft and more for decoration than visualisation, even though it can and has achieved a great deal of complexity.

I was interviewed by The Hindu about the thinking and process behind the project. A Twitter thread I did on the project grew rather popular.

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