How ethical is a ball of string?

Annette Nykiel


WARNING: this paper is unethical as it may allude to illegal activities.

Reflecting on the balls of string made and shown in my artwork Yarning Circles (2016) in the recent field working slow making exhibition, I pondered the ethics of dyeing with natural materials. The balls of string were made from recycled rags that had been solar dyed with windfall plants and earth pigments in reused glass jars.

As a condition of my PhD ethics approval, I have obtained the relevant government permits to allow me to harvest plants and pick up rocks subject to their licencing conditions. After a recent storm – foliage, flowers and seedpods were strewn around the local park, roads and verges; rocks had washed into the gutters, flotsam had blown up on the beach. What a bounty!

But wait…. Am I breaking the law by foraging for them? Are they protected? Whose land – where the plant stood or the foliage fell? Did I need permission from the private landowner? Traditional owner? Crown? Main Roads? Local Shire? Is beachcombing legal?

Instead, I could drive 130km to uni, in my 4WD, buying cloth from a multinational discount store enroute. After twice washing the cotton, I mix toxic naphthol dyes in mask and gloves, then boil. Rinse multiple times in freshwater. Store spent dye for disposal by hazardous waste contractors.

No ethics approval necessary!

This is a scenario to start a conversation about ethical practice-led research including environmental ethics.