Andy Hughes | Alaska 2014

Andy Hughes was born in Yorkshire, he studied  in Fine art at Cardiff University before receiving a scholarship to study photography at the Royal College of Art, London. His work explores the littoral zone and the politics of plastic waste. A book called Dominant Wave Theory that includes essays by world leading scientists, published by Booth- Clibborn Editions & Abrams, New York, marks this exploration. He has exhibited both in the UK and abroad, particularly in USA. His works are in public and private collections including Arts Council Wales and the United States National Maritime Museum.

Hughes was the first Artist in Residence at Tate Gallery St. Ives and reserve residency artist for the Arts Council England Antarctic Survey 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.

His methodology utilises traditional photographic materials and digital technologies, encouraging viewers to question the nature of materiality in relationship to waste. Challenging the agency of waste by various visual means and juxtaposition, he attempts to reveal ‘thing-power’, a topic explored by Jane Bennet in her book Vibrant Matter. In his photographs of plastic, coffee cups, rubbish bins and unknown thrown away items, the objects come alive; they seem to speak to each other and to us. He is interested in radical conceptions of materialism and the implications this has for politics, ecology and the everyday way we think of ourselves, others, and the world. His recent studio works apply recording and lens-based activities, which combine both traditional analogue photo materials, alongside scanners, iPhones, video games consoles and other materials such as wax, plastic, inorganic and organic materials.

In 2013/14 he was invited to Alaska as one of three international artists and seven scientists to work on the project ‘Gyre: The Plastic Ocean’. ‘Gyre’ was a world first and unique project that explored the integration of science and art to document and interpret the issue of plastic pollution in the marine and coastal environment. Andy Hughes, Mark Dion and Pam Longobardi worked in conjunction with scientists from NOAA, including author and ecologist Carl Safina. A National Geographic film, exhibition and book was supported by the NOAA, Smithsonian Institution, Rasmusson Foundation and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and others. Hughes believes artists can leverage change through their practice by exploring the effects of climate change, human activity and other processes of change.

It is 1984. The streets of mining towns in Yorkshire are thrumming with the anger and frustration of thousands of miners on the picket lines protesting bad pay and bad working conditions. The combination of aggression and solidarity give the grim streets a war-zone mentality. Weaving his way among them is a young man with a camera, capturing this moment in history, a teenager who grew up embedded in this mining community, whose family members have worked in the mines for generations. As a Southerner, I only have dim memories of this time – seen through the lens of TV cameras, newspapers and documentaries, then updated in technicolor in the films of Billy Eliot or The Full Monty. To have lived through it, though, must have etched something very visceral on the psyche. No artist could have grown out of this crucible without it fundamentally influencing their creativity.

So it is with Andy Hughes. The photographer’s Yorkshire accent is still evident as we sit in Porthtowan beach café, cupping cappuccinos while a gale batters huge waves onto the shore and throws rain like stones against the window. At first, it seems as though the northern mining towns are as remote as you can get from this stretch of the Cornish coast that has been Hughes’ home for nearly 20 years. But there’s a lineage that connects it all. His ‘Billy Eliot moment’ as he calls it, came when he decided not to leave school at 16, but to go to college and study art. He would get on the bus in Castleford, he says, enduring the looks and comments as he lugged his portfolio case around with him. Later, when he left Yorkshire to study fine art at Cardiff, he was led away from his roots in some ways, but in other ways he remained connected. ‘South Wales,’ he explains, ‘Is another mining community.’ He saw the same social and environmental problems, and spent his spare time photographing the gritty lives of mining towns and villages that had been decimated after the pit closures. ‘It was all about waste, even then, the stuff that people pull out of the ground and leave lying around.’ It was this passion for photography and reportage that began to draw him away from the strictures of a Fine Art degree – by the time he graduated, he had set his mind on studying Photography at London’s Royal College of Art, and impressed the board of interviewers enough to win a bursary. ‘I think they noticed me at first because I was so skint that I couldn’t afford one of those leather-bound portfolios, so I made my own out of cardboard and sticky tape,’ laughs Andy. ‘They told me that they looked at it first, because it stood out so much.’

Fast-forward 25 years. Andy Hughes is still passionate about documenting the results of human consumption. His journey has taken him from the slag heaps and discontent of closed coal mines to the impoverished clay- and tin-mining communities of Cornwall. But his artistic destination lies beyond heartlands of these places: he was drawn by his passion for surfing to the coast and the ocean. Here, he began to document the fallout of a wasteful society. Inspired by the work of Surfers Against Sewage, with which he worked from its inception in 1993, he takes exquisite images of the plastic that litters the world’s coastlines. He explains that he was powerfully influenced by conceptual artist Keith Arnatt – who took remarkable, almost abstract photographs of rubbish such as tin cans and rotting bread. Andy’s work, however, is something all of its own. Focussing sharply on plastic items that have been discarded, usually set in an aesthetic context of blue lapping waves, a glowering sky or a grainy beach, he brings the juxtaposition of beauty and the moral dilemma of our times onto the canvas. The result is exceptional. A piece of abstract art that carries a deep message about the crisis of our throw-away culture and the damage it is doing to the life in our oceans. In 2010, he produced a book, ‘Dominant Wave Theory’, which showcased images of flotsam and detritus from the beaches around the world, and featured essays by leading environmental activists and advocates including Chris Hines of Surfers Against Sewage, Marine Biologist Dr Richard Thompson and environmental author Lena Lencek. Designed by renowned graphic designer David Carson, the book is an artwork in itself and received critical acclaim around the world.

In 2013, Andy Hughes was invited to join a small number of artists, scientists and educators in an expedition to the wilderness of Alaska. What he found in Anchorage surprised him. ‘It’s a very young population, and there is a real enterprising spirit. People are coming up with all sorts of surprising businesses – like a guy who makes glasses frames out of wood.’ In Alaska, they’re marketing the incredible growth in small businesses as ‘the modern-day gold rush’. But outside of the vibrant, eco-friendly city, the story is not so positive. In the remote seas, the team were shocked to discover the amount of plastic waste and marine debris that littered the vast, seemingly untouched landscape. They carried out a huge cleanup of Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park – where debris from the Japanese tsunami in 2011 has washed ashore, damaging eco systems and killing wildlife. Andy’s images from this expedition are currently part of a major exhibition in LA (‘Gyre – The Plastic Ocean’ is at USC Fisher Museum until 14th November 2015). It was while he was in Alaska that he also had a close encounter with a grizzly bear and her three cubs. It was to affect him deeply. ‘I sometimes suffer from anxiety,’ he says, ‘but when I think of the moment when a grizzly was a few metres away from me, and we had no way of defending ourselves… nothing else can ever terrify me like that.’ The moment was so intense that Andy and some of the other crew members burst into tears after the bear and her cubs walked away. ‘It’s about respect. We’re guests in their home,’ Andy says. And it is our trash, the shadow of our physical presence, that is encroaching on that home. 

In 2013 Andy Hughes and a team of leading international scientists travelled along the Alaskan coast to explore the issue of marine plastic and the state of the worlds oceans. Now, in one of the most breathtaking places on the planet, a unique scientific expedition and art exhibition brings the problem into perspective. With symposia, films and books the topic will be shared with a global audience. Of course, the burning question is, ‘what can be done?’ Highlighting the problem is, of course, vital – and using art is a powerful way of communicating the urgency of need to change. Andy’s reportage-style zine, shot this year at Glastonbury shows a sickening amount of plastic waste carpeting the festival grounds. It’s clear that the younger generation has no more understanding of waste than the ‘use-it-and-chuck-it’ generation that embraced the plastic revolution of the 80s, 90s and Noughties. ‘The main problem is single-use plastics,’ says Andy. ‘The way that people drink from a bottle and throw it away. There need to be incentives to take bottles back – perhaps reverse vending machines that give you money back when you return your bottles. The Somersault festival [in Somerset] had a great idea. The organisers gave money back on every used plastic cup that was returned. There were whole families collecting huge towers of cups – and there was hardly any waste after the festival.’ He points to a culture that insists on plastic water bottles in corporate meetings. ‘What’s wrong with a jug and glasses of water?’ he asks. Andy is certainly not going to sit quietly – from teaching photography to students at Truro college to working on an advertising campaign for a major eco corporations and getting involved with grassroots campagins around the world, he uses his artistic lens to push for society to change its attitude to waste. Andy’s work is currently part of the ‘Gyre – The Plastic Ocean’ exhibition at USC Fisher Museum of Art in Los Angeles. His photographs also form part of a grassroots campaign to educate people in Peru about plastic waste called ‘Life out of Plastic’...

Interview by Fiona McGowan

Wasteland is a Surfers Against Sewage campaign that brings to life our concerns about the amount of plastic in the marine environment.

Surfers Against Sewage asked Andy to explain to us his number one plastic enemy and where is his favorite beach.

" Hayle to Godrevy in Cornwall is my favourite stretch of the UK’s coastline, I find it truly inspirational. I have also visited far away beaches where very few humans have trodden. To my dismay they were covered in plastic waste of one form or another. I’ve touched plastic material toothed by grizzly bears and viewed floating plastic shoes on vast kelp beds whilst as sea. Plastic for the most part a very visible and destructive material. It has increased in manufacture and use beyond what we could ever have imagined over the last fifty years, this should be of concern to everyone. My top number one criminal is single use plastic water bottles. Many wealthy governments have spent hundreds of millions of pounds providing safe water to drink. This is something to be proud of and to make full use of. Helping others across the world to provide safe clean water is key to helping solve one part of this plastic problem. The marketisation of water and its packaging in plastic is therefore number one on my plastic hate list. Refillable water carrying items is one object that I see in use more and more. It is no new thing but many charities and NGO’s are now promoting its use and I like how it’s developing. It is a simple and practical way to say no to plastic production. Carry and use one as a badge of honour and resistance. Every single turn of the earth, every wave, every breath you take and every-time you choose not to buy plastic is in some way connected to everything else. When you choose to reduce or tackle your plastic footprint your choice is part of this continuing shift in forces which shape the earth and its future." 

© AndyHughes/Surfers Against Sewage

TRT World Broadcast

Plastic - it's designed to last - yet we treat it as disposable and somehow, millions of tonnes of it are ending up in the ocean. What can we do to stop it? The UN is calling it a planetary crisis and predicts there'll be as much plastic in the sea as fish in 25 years. Plastic is almost impossible to avoid. Are alternative materials the answer - or even possible on a global scale? At the Roundtable was Emily Penn, a sailor and environmentalist; Risa Morimoto, a specialist in Economics at SOAS, University of London; photographer Andy Hughes; and Paul De Zylva, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Roundtable is a discussion programme with an edge. Broadcast out of London and presented by David Foster, it's about bringing people to the table, listening to every opinion, and analysing every point of view. From fierce debate to reflective thinking.

Watch Full Video Here 

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