The Human Mapping Project

Can rituals transform our relationship to our home planet?

© Vic VonJohnson. Plastic People of the Universe: the first stage work of the Human Mapping Project.

© Vic VonJohnson. Plastic People of the Universe: the first stage work of the Human Mapping Project.


The Human Mapping Project uses the human body as a reflective tool and interpreter of the natural world, exploring our relationship with and impact on nature. The creator of project, Lynn Neuman, aimed to use the performing body to draw attention to areas of concern, represent “natural” and anthropogenic phenomena, involve people in concerted action, and spur lasting behavioral change.  

Your Planet was the first production of the Human Mapping Project, which began in 2010. Through it, Neuman wanted to illustrate what happens to litter, bring attention to the volume present in New York City, and encourage active participation in remediation. She was also reflecting on how native rituals and dances have historically fostered a connection to the Earth and paid homage to nature’s power.  

© Vic VonJohnson. Your Planet: walk to the water with audience members.


1. Sites

Manhattan Beach and Coney Island were chosen as focus sites. Because of the water currents, debris collects here and at other locations around New York City, or is diverted out to sea. Manhattan Beach and Coney Island are popular recreation sites in the summer, ensuring the public would have the chance to interact with the work. The Artichoke Dance Company teamed up with the American Littoral Society to host beach clean ups at these locations and also formed relationships with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and several schools for both research and participation.  

2. Rehearsals

The rehearsals attracted attention from beach goers: “Is this a new form of exercise?” was a question the artists often fielded. The movements of Your Planet illustrated interconnectedness—how one’s actions affect another’s reality. The dancers also literally sunk into the Earth because of the malleable nature of sand. Afterwards, the dancers would select the most unusual pieces of the litter they had found during the rehearsal, creating a small sculpture and taking photographs. 

Dance, drum, and craft workshops were held to engage budding and recreational artists. The dancers created actions that asked questions of or paid respect to the earth. These were combined to create a ritual-like dance that the audience could join at the end of each performance. The costumes were created using 5,000 plastic six-pack holders—a ubiquitous symbol of danger to marine mammals—that had been collected from three local pizzerias over three months. Local residents stitched these together using a basic crochet stitch they had been taught. Percussion instruments were fashioned from upcycled materials and the audience was invited to join the “drum” circle for the performances.  

3. Performances

Months of activities led up to a weekend of events at each location. Volunteers collected, catalogued, and weighed trash, producing data. From bottles to forks, buckets to buoys, 97% of the trash collected was plastic. Plastic Pollution Coalition leaders spoke about the hazards of plastics in the environment and to human health, and asked for pledges to reduce single use plastic consumption. A dance and drum performance ensued, ending with joining hands and walking to the water. 

© Barry Butterfield. Artichoke Dance Company: Liberate the Earth - a touring site - adaptive work featuring upcycled plastic bag costumes.

Outcomes and dissemination 

Your Planet was repeated with some variation in 2011 and was featured in several newspapers, including the New York Times. The work was transformed into a movement-based theatre work called Plastic People of the Universe, highlighting the impact of plastics on the human body, and has been presented across the USA, with a truncated version created for students at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who have performed it internationally. Refashioning materials typically seen as waste for productions has become an inherent part of Neuman’s practice. Focus materials have included plastic blister packs and plastic bags. Involving communities in the collections of these materials challenges the perception that they are valueless and highlights the sheer volume of such litter.  

Subsequent programs of the Human Mapping Project have continued to focus on water and plastics. The latest centers on the Gowanus Canal in New York, one of the most polluted waterways in the USA. The project is collaborating with organizations working on sustainability issues in environmental remediation, housing, energy infrastructure, green jobs creation, and participatory planning. Local schools have also been included, involving a younger generation in learning and solutions. At a public elementary school two blocks from the Gowanus Canal, PS32, students created a campaign focusing on four steps people in the community can take to combat the environmental issues in their neighborhood.  

© John Priola. Global Water Dances on the Gowanus Canal: a community project merging performance, education and ecological activism.

Lynn Neuman is artistic and executive director of the Artichoke Dance Company. Currently an Association of Performing Arts Professionals Leadership Fellow, she also received a Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts. She also works in theatre, opera, and film, and is a co-producer of Culture Club, bringing Muslim and Jewish cultures together onstage.  

Artichoke Dance's Ecologically Driven Work from Artichoke Dance on Vimeo.

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Last edited: 20 December 2017


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