interview with ben von wong

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

barePack has jumped in on the making of photographer Benjamin Von Wong's latest work entitled Plastikophobia.

Plastikophobia might be next in the dictionary - EEK! | Photo credit: Roxane Uzureau

At barePack we love getting involved in community projects that aim to raise awareness around the plastic situation in the world, and specifically in Asia. And what's more provoking than artwork created with thousands and thousands of previously used (washed, luckily for us!) disposables that would have found their way to the incinerators? Benjamin (aka Ben) kindly took the time, between hot glue gunning plastic cups and drilling holes, to speak to us about his newest art installation, Plastikophobia and his ambition behind it.

Listen to the audio recording (transcript below) - as we were working from an industrial building please pardon the background noise! C'est la vie of an artist!

Listen to our interview here

Find out more about Von Wong on his website.

Roxane got to sit next to a mermaid.. in a sea of plastic. Not really fantastic!

Update 1:

We saw the final installation before the public opening and partied on the roof of the Sustainable Gallery fo Singapore at the Marina Barrage this week.

It was a bit too magical to our liking! And we hate plastic cups... so imagine finding 18000 "pretty"!

Eerie, almost poetic.. but it's definitely not realistic.

Update 2: Ben will be discussing leading change with Dr Lee Hui Mien (VP for Sustainable Solutions, Mandai Park Development), Mr Xiao Zhaotan (President of RWDC Industries Ltd), Ms Stefanie Beitien (Director, Partnerships, Eco-Business), Mr Jack Sim (Founder, World Toilet Organisation) and BOP HUB The Royal Commonwealth Society - SingaporeRoyal Commonwealth Society / MDIS School of Fashion and Design at the LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore Saturday 9th March.

To RSVP for free general admission and ticket, go to Eventbrite.


Wednesday, 27th February 2019

Butik Batok, Singapore

Roxane Uzureau (Roxy):

Hi Ben. Thank you for taking the time. I know you're a self-taught photographer. When would you say you started to shift from photography and see waste as a medium


Benjamin Von Wong: Yeah. So my first project using waste as a medium was the “Mermaids Hate Plastic” campaign where we took 10,000 plastic bottles, and just I guess use them as pixels in a mosaic to represent the colors of the ocean. So, that project was created about two and a half years ago, basically the day after my sister got married - and that's why I was in Montreal. So, the reason I started, or, I had never planned really to use waste as a material, I didn't start in that direction actually, it was the reverse. My mom found a mermaid tail designer

[00:00:57] and thought it was interesting and sends it to me. And she said “Hey Ben. Maybe there's someone you wanna work with.” And in the process of that, I was at a time where I'd already decided I wanted to do more social impact work, and, just trying to draw like a correlation between mermaids and something impactful, and at the time I think the Great Pacific Garbage Patch had just started becoming like a popular topic. And so I was like oh yeah we should use plastics, that's the thing. And then I just started diving into the topic.

Roxane: Cool, that actually probably answered the question of why you think it had the most

[00:01:27] Impact. And has been the most talked about project.


Ben: No I think I met multiple factors on why Mermaids Hate Plastic campaign was successful: one it was timing it was right at the point the inflection point where people started

[00:01:38] learning more about ocean plastic. Secondly it was a time at which Facebook was really pushing video. And so, the timing also really helped - today algorithms have changed once again. It's a lot harder to get content seen yet. Third I think it was just kind of the perfect balance between something ethereally beautiful but like tragic and so like it just hit that like, really solid intersection. I think the same project today wouldn't perform as well.

[00:02:07] The same project three years prior would also probably not have done as well. So I think it's just a number of factors.


Roxane: Ok, cool, and, coming actually from an unexpected mining engineering background. Do you see an interesting connection between what you’ve ended up doing today and anything that you did in your past career?

Ben: I think the transferable skills that I learned from being an engineer to being an artist is just being able to, approach things from a problem solving

[00:02:40] perspective. So. I basically take big problems, so we have this big project that we want to build and I'm able to break it down into l “OK if we want to be if I want to get from A to. Z. I'm going to need to start with like B and C and D and I can I can see how the pieces fit together

[00:02:54] I think that's probably like the biggest thing. I was not necessarily a particularly great engineer nor did I have that many hard transferable skills, like my CAD drawing skills were mediocre and all that. I mean it does give you a little bit of an advantage in like understanding

[00:03:15] 3d spaces and so forth. So, there's a little bit of that, but by and large

[00:03:21] I can't say that my engineering degree has contributed to that much per say beyond the problem solving.


Roxy: So you talk about emotion being a driver for inspiration. What is the emotion behind this installation that you’re working on currently, for Singapore.

[00:03:36] Ben Yeah. So the title of this installation is called Plastikophobia. Which is an invented word it doesn't exist in the dictionary, yet.

Roxy: Yet.

Ben: But. Hopefully it might.

Roxy: Eco anxiety does.

Ben: Eco anxiety does?

Roxy: yeah. [Editor’s note: it actually doesn’t but we really think it should be!]

Ben: Cool, well, Platikophobia doesn't yet. So. I mean the hope is almost that it does become a thing and so, I'm thinking that the phobia of plastics and, basically this fear of. Maybe fear is not exactly the right word, a little bit of an over exaggeration but the like overriding concern over the topic of single use plastics is something that is growing in intensity and I actually do think it has the potential to develop into something. And so I guess what we're hoping to do is create a feeling of unsettlement and unease. By

[00:04:21] building on an existing phobias. So, the sensation of claustrophobia, trypophobia - a phobia that is the fear of holes and the fear of tight spaces. We're going to have like some eerie soundscapes and it'll be in a dark room. And the lights will be like kind of slowly pulsing and so we're really just trying to make this sort of a. Creepy experience, just to get people to feel a little bit,

[00:04:43] uncomfortable with this big amount of plastic. And then the context hopefully sets it all into place. I think it's my first sort of, dive into something a little bit more darker because my stuff is typically, it tries to be a little more ethereal and beautiful.

Roxy: Poetic.

Ben: Yeah

[00:05:02] But I do, I do think that this is a little bit more than just photography. It's also experiential and so I'm hoping that, you know at the end of the day, just being a part of this project I think for the people who actually came and sorted through these 18000 cups and watched them and cleaned them and just, get to like marinate their hands in all of this waste - like that, that’s like the true experience that really makes a difference, and so part of this whole project is to share the tragedy

[00:05:32] with people who get the chance to experience it.

Roxy: So you're going actually showcase that -

[00:05:37] the whole process.

Ben: Yeah. So, on the outside of the room in which the installation is going to be exhibited we have a television screen so we can play a video.

Roxy: Oh so I might I see myself then [laughs].

Ben: You might see yourself, it depends if Reis decides to cut you in or out.

Roxy: What do you believe - or do you believe there is an artist's responsibility on sustainability today whether it be education or public awareness or the materials that you use or..?

Ben: I think, I think there's a human responsibility to just do what you can. And

[00:06:11] to have a positive impact on the world in whichever field you're passionate about. I don't think that artists have more responsibility than anyone else. I mean I would actually, I wish I had a more useful skill than making art. It seems to be out of, like, all the skills in the world the one that would be at least useful in a zombie apocalypse situation. But it's the one that I have and so I feel like art has sort of, plays on this duality role. It can be the most

[00:06:37] useless thing or can be the most transformational thing. And, and that well, it could be the same art piece and hit two different people in two different ways. And so that's kind of - art in itself is sort of a paradox. But behind the art that I create, personally is this very deep intention of having meaning and purpose inside of it. And while at the moment I'm focused on the environment, I don't necessarily care more about the environment than I do about social issues or refugee issues or human trafficking and so forth, it just happens to be the thing that I sort of become better at over time and so. You know, when people find something that they care about and they're willing to go to great lengths in order to tight for that and they're able to rally people and find, find their kindred spirits in that space, like that's when you see like, really wonderful things happening. And so I think for anyone who

[00:07:37] hasn't found that yet, it’s sort of sad and I just I hope that people can, you know, even if they don't care about this particular issue, to just be inspired to pursue something that they care about because at the end of the day this is a project, it's a community project. I mean, it doesn't happen without the help of a billion people. I'm just like the guy who had a stupid idea and managed convince a bunch of other people to just hop in on it and that's really what it's more about.

Roxy: So, yeah, it's beyond

[00:08:06] Us, it’s a world thing

Ben: I mean OK. Let's be realistic a little bit and take a step back.

[00:08:14] What I do is a total privilege. You know I have the privilege and I have the privilege of being able

[00:08:22] to choose to do things like this and not be just focused on survival. And. I think that anyone in that position has a responsibility to make use of that privilege to help others. In whatever way shape or form that they can.

Roxy: Totally

[00:08:39] aligned with that. So. Is there an organisation, or company that you dream of working for. That would mean something personally maybe to you.

Ben: I don't have a good answer to that.

Roxy: Or maybe

[00:08:59] a community you'd like to work with.

Ben: Ummm… So I think I'm really good at doing grassroots stuff. Like a lot of my work is grassroots based. And I have

[00:09:18] corporate support to do grassroots based campaigns. I think, I think there are two steps moving forward in terms of like how I create my art in order to maximize its impact. The first is to get deeper corporate support. I would love – so, you know people have varying perspectives on whether or not it's a good thing to take corporate money because there is a lot of greenwashing that happens and my perspective on it is that if more people, if more companies start saying that they're becoming more responsible it adds more accountability and that has an impact on leadership in this space and if the big guys are doing it then the little guys sort of follow and I think it has the

[00:10:08] potential to snowball. And so even though you would say like, it would be horrible to do something like for Nestlé or Coca-Cola or one of these like big brands, like they have, in many ways, they have the opportunity to – a tiny shift in their needle, in their spectrum can, really move on. So I think it's less about like a company and more about initiative. So if a big company is on the cusp of launching a new initiative, I would love to be a part of that

[00:10:31] and help them get their message out there. And then the secondary kind of grouping that I would really love to start playing more in are like, the 1 percent, the ones that do have the resources and really care and the influence, and to figure out how to make their voices also heard, so that they can attract, they can create pieces that attract the kind of talent that they could then support. And so a lot of grassroots organizations may not know who to take money from, they might not know who to reach out to. And I think there's an opportunity there, for the 1 percent, to create projects that scream loudly what they actually want to support, so that others can find them. Kind of like to be a beacon of light

Roxy: Yeah, get visibility basically

Ben: Yeah, and so it’s less of a person and more of a group thing.

Roxy: Nice. And lastly, do you have a memorable experience where -

[00:11:33] I'll change this question from what it originally was, but - do you have a memorable experience that you felt you had a connection with nature and with your environment and has it influenced anything that you do in your art

Ben: No. Actually like I'm really not a very good environmentalist. Like I never liked, loved the ocean or loved nature. I

[00:11:55] actually just like being in the comfort of my own home with a computer and some coffee and you know, I'm like very much a city kid. For me it's really, it’s mostly these projects that I do like - I put myself in situations that just basically increase awareness. So like I did this project in Greece with Greenpeace where I wanted to.

(Editor’s note Volunteer steps in saying: ) We’re done!

Ben: (Editor’s note: talking to a volunteer for the installation in progress) Amazing! Okay give me five minutes I'm finishing an interview and then I'll come I'll come set you guys up for the next phase. Thank you. Take a break.

Roxy: (Editor’s note: to a volunteer) Have lunch!

Ben: I did this project in Greece where we, we had to create a, a…

[00:12:41] where my idea was to throw a truckload of plastics into the ocean. I wasn't entirely sure how to do it and so we just set up a space and, and asked the community to give us trash. And then just every day, day after day that people just came with bags and bags of bottles like because we were on an island I didn't have drinkable water

Roxy: Wow

[00:12:59] So everyone drank out of bottles yeah and so and we just it was this mountain that just kept growing and growing and then we were taking these, tying them together and then actually like tossing them out. And then having to like retrieve them, control them, to just do that and it was just like this really like, visceral experience, in that you just imagine that this is what's being produced,

[00:13:18] this is where it's going and this is how hard it is to control it.

Roxy: So if anything it’s created more awareness to you, for your own experience -

Ben: - Yeah, for me -

Roxy: - for your own experience

Ben: Yeah, for me, I like getting myself in trouble on my, on my own. So. that process and then after that going to a supermarket and trying to buy something and avoid plastics and being like “Oh. I can't.

Roxy: It’s hard, yeah


Ben: It’s almost impossible. So. I don't know.

Roxy: So it's a transformative experience not just for people experiencing your work but actually you as a person


Ben: I think. I think if you want to see it, you'll see it.


Roxy: Yes.

Ben: And most people don't, because it's inconvenient, and I totally understand.

Roxy: Yes.

Ben: I ignore other things that, other people are super passionate about so. You know we each fight our battles and I don't think there's a right or wrong. It just, is.

Roxy: Very nice. Thank you so much for your time, Ben

Ben: Cool. Awesome

Roxy: And, [Editor’s note: we high five!] yeah – back to work!

Ben: Back to work!

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