Interviews:

> Raw Truth: Plastic

Andy Hughes / Raw Truth: Plastic

June 2017
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi

Andy Hughes’ photographic work explores the littoral zone and the politics of waste. In 2013 he travelled to Alaska, invited as part of an international team of artists and scientists to work on the project Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. This project was a world first and unique project that explored the integration of science and art to document and interpret the issue of plastic and human waste in the marine and coastal environment. He was the first Artist in Residence at Tate Gallery St. Ives and short-listed reserve residency artist for the Arts Council England Antarctic Fellowship. 

This month RAW TRUTH: PLASTIC. A Journey from Source to Solution is exhibiting Hughes’ photographic works at the Royal Geographical Society until 14 June. Below, Photomonitor recently asked Hughes more about his practice and works in this exhibition. 

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CM: First on my mind is how beautiful the colours are in your images; I’m thinking about children’s toys, playgrounds and the vast manmade visual overload of a theme park. People have had a lot of fun here. On closer inspection, the fields of plastic remnants, bottles and cups have all been used by people and discarded by someone without a care about where this waste ends up. How do we start to approach the gap between beauty/fun and refuse/waste?

AH: This sense of visual overload is certainly something I’m aware of in my photography of late, and in particular with reference to my work from Glastonbury. A few years ago I lost my vision in my left eye, of course, this was a scary experience, after a series of tests I discovered it was nothing serious. However, I also started seeing strange flashing lights and vibrant colours. The diagnosis was Aura Migraine, why is this important in relationship to the question one might ask? I think because it is about our sensitivities, all of us have particular responses to stimuli, the world some of us now live in presents to us a constant stream of visual and audio activity. In a world of visual overload combined with information overload, where there is excess for some and scarcity for others is for me an underlying key theme. Dystopia and Utopia are present as subtexts as is pleasure and pain, these elements co-exist in many of my images.

Since the invention of the first truly synthetic plastic, we have seen a huge proliferation of goods to be used and consumed. We are a nation of consumers, a society seemingly democratised by our shared ability to enjoy the conveniences and comforts of a plastic utopia. We all respond to colour emotionally, we respond to the materiality of the goods we touch, drink from and eat from, we are almost pre-programmed to be responsive, almost like children. The colours injected into plastic toys are not that dissimilar to the garish colours of a mobile phone cover, a balloon, a coffee cup, soft drinks beverage, cleaning products and so on. The advertising and marketing industry know how to attract our attention and keep us consuming, we are all in one sense infants playing with toys. If only we could emotionally attach our senses to plastic perhaps like a child losing a favourite (plastic) toy, then we might be able to break the link and resist using single-use plastic items?

CM: As a festival goer, a beach lover, when did you become conscious in your own life about plastic waste and damage to the environment? Is it something that always struck you, or when you became an adult? 

AH: One of the key moments in my life when I seriously became aware of the by-products of human society was whilst as a teenager sitting on my bedroom windowsill, watching plumes of fire release into the sky from the coking plant next to where I lived. At night it illuminated the sky with licking flames of red, yellow and orange. This scene would re-emerge in my memory when (as an art student) I saw Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner. My visual memory is not so enigmatic and poetic as the key opening scene, but it is still a powerful visual cue, and a clue, as to why I am interested in waste.

I grew up in Castleford, Yorkshire famed as the birthplace of Henry Moore. This northern coal mining town was hit hard by the 1984 miners’ strike. My first ever roll of film was shot at the age of 16 on a picket line with coal miners. A successful application to study Fine Art in Cardiff, South Wales meant leaving Yorkshire. I chose Cardiff because the city was connected to coal mining. Whilst in Cardiff I learned to surf, weekends were spent driving west towards Porthcawl and the Gower Peninsular. I remember one particular day in 1989 after surfing, walking up the beach I spotted something on the beach. At quite some a distance away I saw a very brightly coloured plastic object. Like a magpie I was attracted to it, it was a detergent bottle with a visually striking graphic emblazoned on its upturned surface ‘Radion’. I grabbed my Fuji 6×9 camera and returned to create a picture. (Radion, Barry Island, Wales, 1989, first image at right).  My neural networks made a connection between the word and the lurid, supersaturated colours. At this time my mother was receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumour. The tumour was measured and visualised in scanning systems that used highly colourised imagery. I noticed both visual, and conceptual similarities. Radiation used on a human brain to kill tumour cells and the wasted plastic bottle containing a seemingly simple product, detergent to wash away dirt, appeared connected. Of course, nothing is ever washed away, there is no away. There is no over there, away from here, everything goes somewhere. Maybe not in the same form, but everything that exists is connected. From this moment, this picture set in motion many series of works that have included surfing, surfers, waste and plastic.  

CM: What kind of project did you work on in Mauritius recently, in response to protection of the coral reef?

AH: The project is a partnership between Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff, Indeva Consulting, The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), a creative art and film-making team in the UK, and Reef Conservation in Mauritius. I am part of the creative art and film-making team, which is working on the project until October of this year. The project has worked to bring together a network of UK and Western Indian Ocean collaborators to address evidence gaps and support the development of resilience strategies to protect Coral Reefs across the Western Indian Ocean.

The visit to Mauritius was central to the project and helped to convince me that there are many people across the world dedicated to the maintenance of spaceship earth as a healthy habitat for all living beings. Hundreds of millions of people rely on coral reefs to provide essential services such as food and coastal protection. These ecosystems also contribute significantly to national economies through sectors such as tourism. Improving the resilience of communities and coral reefs to the anticipated changes, as a result of climate change, is therefore an issue of global importance.

My role on the project is to direct and produce a short film titled ‘Coral Communities’ that is based on a visual method for NGO’s and communities to try out. The film will be shared with other groups working with resilience and coral reef protection across the West Indian Ocean. Through this visual method, created by another visual artist, the project aims to gain a more complete understanding of the environment, and help suggest innovative ways to build resilience that aren’t just based on written words. Some material produced from the project will contribute to a ‘How to Make a Photograph’ pocket book. I am developing this element along with the film. To aid this development, I delivered a photo-based workshop for invited delegates, and supported community members to create their own stills and video work. This project is giving me a real insight into initiatives being developed to manage coral reefs and build community and ecological resilience.

CM: Finally, could you tell me about your visual strategies for communicating concepts about nature, the environment and the sea to the largely urban audience this month in London?

AH: In the spring of 2015, Melinda Watson at the Raw foundation talked to me about supporting their Making Waves Plastic-Free Festival campaign at the Glastonbury Festival. As well as providing a series of images for their activities at the event, it was my desire to make new, discreet photographic work—a type of personal witness statement. I was a virgin Glastonbury festival goer when I arrived, initially I wandered across the site with a sense of purpose, on the one hand to generate photographs for Raw, on the other to continue with my work about plastic and waste. I wanted to observe an event where huge numbers of people gather and consume packaged food and drink, ultimately generating monstrous amounts of waste. In the recent past there has been much attention paid to the huge volumes of plastic that has been entering the sea, in fact this has been happening for many years. There’s a long tail to this issue that is part of a wider debate, plastic is just one marker, a sort of red-light indicator which is flashing across the earth system as altered by humans.

Many who live in urban city spaces (perhaps to a greater extent than those in more rural environments) are constantly bombarded with advertising aimed to promote the throwaway spirit. One of many reference points that influence my thinking and visual strategies comes from a text by the great American journalist, social critic, and author Vance Packard. In 1960 he wrote about steaks and other meats that were sold in disposable aluminum frying pans. After the steak was cooked you just threw away the pan along with the nasty old grease. He talked about muffins that come in throwaway baking tins and Hungarian goulash offered in throwaway plastic boil-in bags. Clearly not much has changed, in fact in the forty years since he made his observations the type and kinds of packing and rampant consumerist activity has increased massively. Any city, a city such as London generates huge amounts of waste. We are fools if we think that the systems we have developed over many centuries to remove this matter from view, to recycle some of it means that is does not resurface somewhere else. The French philosopher Michel Serres describes waste matter and pollution in a unified theory. His idea that is that animals, including humans, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it. Over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial and toxic waste matter, and finally to “soft pollution,” such as advertising.

We are of course part of nature, nature is not a separate concept and waste is also part of this web of life. Weather in the city or town, at a festival or at home we live amongst our waste, waste for me is alive. Jane Bennett (political theorist) insists that objects have ‘thing-power:’ “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle”.

Bennett describes in her book Vibrant Matter a scene set on a beach where a glove, some pollen, a dead rat, a bottle cap and a stick provoked affects in her. “I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects get them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics”. Vibrant Matter was published in 2010, when I first read this book it took me back to 1989, to my own first similar experience with the washed up Radion bottle.

Twenty-seven years later plastic bottles and waste still resonate with me. This image (Untitled, Glastonbury, 2016, second image at right)  presents a crystalline form which pulsates with life, it is precariously sited on a disposable tray speaking to me. I cannot describe its language, it seems a jumble of sounds and which reverberate and fade back and forth echoing the purple blue light which is coming from the John Peel stage.

In this image (Untitled, Glastonbury, 2016, third image at right) a column of polystyrene fast food containers is precariously balanced. They tower almost wormlike from the packed litter bin whilst in the distance the festival’s famous pyramid light projects a vertical column of light into the night sky. It seemed to me that this scene came to life as I observed the amalgamation of detritus. When I made this photograph I thought about the well-known philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” – my own thoughts were a kind of inversion of this concept as there were many tens of thousands of people around but I seemed the only person interested in this balletic construct.

Some years ago I had a conversation with a librarian who commented about my previous work and book which focused on beach plastic, she remarked ”your photographs have disrupted my visit to the beach, each time I walk the beach I keep seeing and noticing all the trash”. Jane Bennett thinks that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn’t be so careless with all our stuff. Perhaps some visitors to the show at the Royal Geographic Society in London might leave and think the same.

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Biography

Andy Hughes’ photographic work explores the littoral zone and the politics of waste. In 2013 he travelled to Alaska, invited as part of an international team of artists and scientists to work on the project Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. This project was a world first and unique project that explored the integration of science and art to document and interpret the issue of plastic and human waste in the marine and coastal environment. Supported by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Geographic, Smithsonian Institution, National Endowment for the Arts Ocean Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Rasmusson Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Wells Fargo and The William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

His book Dominant Wave Theory (2007) includes essays by world leading commentators and scientists, designed by David Carson, published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, London and Abrams Books, New York. He was the first Artist in Residence at Tate Gallery St. Ives and short-listed reserve residency artist for the Arts Council England Antarctic Fellowship. He supports various non-profits such as Surfers Against Sewage and The RAWfoundation and is an affiliate artist with the Plastic Pollution Coalition (Los Angeles). His work has been featured in various broadcast and print media including the BBC, National Geographic and the Guardian Environment. www.andyhughes.net

RAW TRUTH: PLASTIC. A Journey from Source to Solution is exhibiting at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London until 14 June. Open 10am–5pm, Monday to Friday. Entrance is free.