Week 7 - Part 1 - message in a bottle

detail of gelatine cup edgedetail of gelatine cup edge

Last week was our last get-together for my class, Embodied Research. Each of us contributed a “conceptual prompt” to collaboratively create an artful framing of “the act of gathering and eating”. Some of these included: experimental pasta-making, beautiful mussel tongs and other crafted utensils, a tapestry made from scoby and seaweed, and sharing and discussion of class memories over meals.

As a group we did a lot of travelling over six weeks, which included: Paces Lake, Angella Parson’s studio, Kejimkujik Park, Fortress of Louisbourg, Alexander Graham Bell Museum, The Concrete House, Cheverie, Cape Chignecto and Five Islands. It was fun to get to know people during all the car trips and through exploring new places together — there are some whose work I still haven’t seen, which I think is actually nice in some ways.

There was a lot of reflecting and percolating that happened in between the trips as well, which I’ve found both enjoyable and tricky to collect into coherent logs, here. And there’s also been a lot of discarded ideas, making and prototyping that’s had some interesting bits and some fails that I’ve mentioned before, that I’d like to share with you now.

interior view of a cast gelatine forminterior view of a cast gelatine form

a bottle

During our last class I shared two projects, one that was a series of material explorations with bioplastic based around the shape of a bottle.

The bottle itself came from our first trip, where we kayaked across Paces Lake to a small island, lush with greenery that had overtaken an abandoned cottage. Beside it was a trash heap full of 7-up green glass bottles and cans from the ’80s. I didn’t take any photos of the site, but I did take a bottle back with me.

my cast gelatine-bioplastic bottle next to the original trash 7-up glass bottlemy cast gelatine-bioplastic bottle next to the original trash 7-up glass bottle

I liked the way the bottle felt like a time capsule. It’s still sealed and had some bit of moisture in it from who knows how long — reminds me of Condensation Cube by Hans Haacke — as well as some mold (an unfortunate tie-in to what I created). I also thought of messages in bottles and initially had thought about sticking a little Raspberry Pi chip inside one that could send messages wirelessly to somewhere else. This wouldn’t be a simple task for me, however!

Condensation Cube by Hans Haacke 1963-1968Condensation Cube by Hans Haacke 1963-1968

In a way, the whole abandoned cabin was left as a message in a bottle; nobody had made an effort to remove evidence of people’s life there. Trees, moss, and other living things just continued to grow over it and the bottle pile. I was wondering, “Is it better to let them lie, or to disrupt once again and remove them? …is it possible to ‘do no harm’ when there is no pathway?”

I was also thinking about its material, glass, as well as the other plastic bottles I found on the other shorelines we visited later. I had also heard of ‘biodegradable plastics’ — and wanted to try out making some at home.

lost plastic bottle on the shorelinelost plastic bottle on the shoreline

material exploration

I mostly referred to this Bioplastic Cook Book’s recipe for gelatine animal based bioplastic, for it’s transparency and flexibility. It’s not ideal in that gelatine comes from animal bones/skin — I’d like to try the agar agar recipe, which is seaweed — but it’s also quite forgiving. It’s essentially jello with way less water and sugar. I did a couple initial tests casting flat small sheets, and sprinkling beetroot powder as well as incorporating spirulina powder (another seaweed, with a strong green pigment) into it.

gelatine bordered by hot glue, with beetroot powder sprinkledgelatine bordered by hot glue, with beetroot powder sprinkled gelatine bioplastic with spirulina powder incorporated, very greengelatine bioplastic with spirulina powder incorporated, very green

This is the recipe I used to create a larger quantity:

  • 150ml water with 1Tbs sugar dissolved into it
  • 30ml water with 1tsp spirulina powder dissolved into it
  • ~ 5Tbs gelatine
  • ~ 11g glycerine
  • Mix and set aside spirulina water solution. Mix water with gelatine and glycerine over low heat — no need to boil — until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, stir in spirulina water mixture. Let cool further if thicker mixture is desired for pouring; thickens exponentially, watch closely. Pour into mold, let set for 24hrs, remove from mold and hang/drape to dry.

The result’s transparency and green colour was definitely visually similar to the original bottle’s, so I started trying to work out how I might recreate the bottle shape. I considered creating flat sheets and then cutting out a pattern that I could fold and glue into a bottle shape, but then it wouldn’t be one form.

I had this vision of a bioplastic bottle holding water yet slowly dissolving into it, releasing the water as it went. I knew from my own tests that placing a blob of hard gelatine into a jar of water would fairly quickly cause it to soften up as it absorbed water, losing shape until it completely dissolves into a solution.

sketchbook page of notes thinking through how to create the bottlesketchbook page of notes thinking through how to create the bottle

I think a two-part mold would probably be the best solution to this (like this one that you can buy for chocolate), but I was reluctant to buy or make yet another plastic thing, the materials can be quite expensive, and frankly, I was running out of time at this point.

my messy attempt to drip gelatine onto a bottlemy messy attempt to drip gelatine onto a bottle

I tried dripping the gelatine over the bottom of the bottle, letting it dry, and then cutting it out. This kind of worked, but of course it didn’t run in smooth sheets but rather turned into drips that I kind of smushed around.

I let the excess gelatine from this test dry in a yoghurt container and then removed it when it was partially dry. It was cellophane-thin at the top, but thick and wobbly at the base — gravity did its work and created this slumped form, that I quite liked:

I was hoping to make a batch of them, and then challenge classmates to use them as water glasses! However it was also at this point that we had a few days of rainy weather, which when combined with the thickness, meant that the bioplastic remained quite humid… and developed quite a variety of mould!

My last test was with a pop can. I had also noticed that the gelatine could hold quite fine detail, so I used an old label-maker to create embossed text, which the gelatine picked up subtly. The text reads, “return to the earth”.

I liked the phrase ‘Return for refund’ that turns up on beer/wine bottles, and there’s lots of themes to explore in it: cycles, trash, value, and class. (There’s an interesting article about a short documentary made about New York’s canners that argues “the state has outsourced its acts of environmental virtue, at far below minimum wage… to some of its most marginalised populations.”. There’s another about Toronto’s Chinese “bottle ladies”, and some of their reasons for collecting bottles, including pocket money to share with family, and continuing to be active as they age.)

I placed the pop can in another jar filled with liquid gelatine and then rotated it as it cooled, to create a cast of the outside of the pop can.I placed the pop can in another jar filled with liquid gelatine and then rotated it as it cooled, to create a cast of the outside of the pop can.

…And that’s where I left it! I think there’s some interesting aspects to it — the ephemeral quality of the material, how it responds to moisture, the way it could potentially deceive someone into thinking that it’s a real glass or plastic bottle. And I’m glad I finally tried out making bioplastic! I’d like to experiment more in the future, and also look into it’s conductivity, such as in this kit to create a jelly musical interface from Pinaffo - Pluvinage (their work is so cool!) which was an inspiration for the other small project I shared…

…Which you can read about here, in Part 2!

See you there, Katherine

Up next Week 6 - The life and times of rocks Week 7 - Part 2 - the unbuilding game
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