“Liquid Forest” Illuminates the Plastic Waste Problem

What does it take to create wonder from the tragedy of waste plastic pollution? Richard Wilks and the Liquid Forest community are busy crafting magical sea creatures through a custom process that melts waste plastic into awe-inspiring playa sea beings. Their story brings together so many things we love — a community of makers collaborating around a shared project to create beauty from the waste stream while sharing techniques for transforming plastic trash into objects that can be beautiful and useful.

The environmental crisis humanity has created is overwhelming. Massive plastic polluters only care about profits not people. Scientists have drilled down and are exposing the ticking time bombs of micro and nano plastics in our oceans, air, mountaintops and within our bodies. I felt compelled to act!

Around the same time, Burning Man Project announced its goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. Inspired, I decided to pivot my art practice and start creating large sculptures made almost entirely from waste plastic!

In the Beginning: “Liquid Forest: The Source”

“The Source” was created in 2019 and was the first phase of an evolving project. This highly interactive sculpture is the “source” for a much larger, mystical and surreal “liquid forest” composed of many whimsical, jellyfish-inspired creatures.

I debuted “Liquid Forest: The Source” at Black Rock City 2019; this gave me the opportunity to learn how it would perform in a highly inhospitable environment — and with spirited human participation!

This “source” jellie sculpture is made almost entirely from recycled plastic that I, along with a team of passionate volunteers, sourced, shredded, melted and re-formed into curved tentacle strands. I’ll share more about our recycling process below. 

“Liquid Forest 2023” by Richard Wilks (Rendering courtesy of Richard Wilks)

Onward to “Liquid Forest 2023”

“Liquid Forest 2023” includes three whimsical, jellyfish-inspired creatures standing between 12’-15’ by 15’ in diameter. Each one is a free-standing, hands-on spinning sculptural experience.

During the day, citizens will dance, whirl and flow through the family of jellies as lacy, sunlit shadows wash over them. They can also make use of my free app ‘ilumiscope’ to view the hidden phénakistiscope artwork. A phénakistiscope is one of the earliest animation devices; it utilizes a spinning disk to animate a series of pictures into a single moving image.

At night, the radically illuminated jellies will pulse and morph to create an artful ‘bio-luminescent’ playground! Each sculpture contains more than 10,000 LEDs concealed in the recycled plastic rods. Exposed strobe lights activate the phénakistiscope art disks when the jellies spin!

Each sculpture will have a unique light show and will sync up with the others to create a totally immersive environment.

From plastic waste to custom rods (Photo courtesy of Richard Wilks)

We Never “Waste” an Opportunity to Share Our Mission

“Liquid Forest 2023” will be made from more than a half ton of waste plastic that will be kept out of our landfills and oceans. In addition, we will rely on the sun for our power and we have invested in a solar powered system. I’m also sharing my knowledge and educating artists and school groups so they will become ambassadors for their communities and share the skills and knowledge they learned on this Burning Man project.

The Team

Our team is a mixture of a core group of passionate, skilled crafts-people and a fluid, changing crew of recycled plastic-curious volunteers. 

The Community

Our community engagement takes many different forms. 

We host a monthly meet-up of like-minded, passionate people where we discuss plastic pollution issues, get hands-on with the machines, explore community sustainability goals and have project presentations. We create workshops that inspire schools to engage in plastic recycle activism and offer mentoring to those institutions creating their own in-house recycling programs. We attend and present at various grassroots events and festivals.

We also offer in-studio machine time and guidance to artists who are exploring recycled plastic in their art.

Process: From Waste Plastic to Giant Bioluminescent Creatures

Our process began by building the two machines shown above: the Shredder and Extruder. The open source plans can be found online through a global grassroots community called Precious Plastic. I modified the machines to give me more power to produce the eight-foot solid, smooth, round rods needed for this art piece.

(Photos courtesy of Richard Wilks)

First (#1), we source the waste plastic from our community and post-industrial sources. Second (#2), we sort and shred the plastic into small “flakes.” Third (#3), we make molds from eight-foot steel tube and weld flanges onto them so that we can mount them to the extruder. The extruder is like a giant hot glue gun, melting the plastic and building pressure to force it into the long tube. Finally (#4), after a few months of experimentation with several plastic types, we are able to produce our finished rod collection! Each jellie sculpture has 60 rods, and each rod is embedded with LED lights.

My hope is once people experience “Liquid Forest 2023” and learn about its creation story, they will feel empowered to help tackle the plastic pollution problem, feel more connected to all living things, and be more conscious of how their daily choices profoundly affect their personal health and the health of our home… Planet Earth!

Please take a look at our short fundraising video to learn more about our mission and consider donating to Liquid Forest! We would be thrilled if you would also share the link with your friends and community!

Cover image of “Liquid Forest: The Source” at Venice Afterburn by Richard Wilks, 2019 (Photo by Curious Josh) 

About the author: Richard Wilks

Richard Wilks

Richard Wilks has been bringing mobile art projects and mutant vehicles to Burning Man since 2009 and has spent many burns as a greeter and wrangler at the DMV. As an artist, the uncharted terrain that captivates him is the ‘form to formless’ world of ‘Human to BEing’. His tools and techniques combine a mix of formal training, curiosity, and serendipitous accidents that invite citizen engagement and hands-on participation!

3 Comments on ““Liquid Forest” Illuminates the Plastic Waste Problem

  • LadyBee says:

    Great project! and thanks for keeping some plastic out of the ocean. Meaningful art.

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  • Hannah says:

    I can’t believe you built your own plastic recycling machines! That is far out!!!

    Seems like plastic would actually be a great material to work with… not infinitely malleable like metal but you can dye it!

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  • Robin O'Brien says:

    Can’t wait to have this experience on the playa. It is remarkable that you invented your own recycling unit. So why is our country so far behind in doing this large scale?

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