By Andy Hughes
A web search for the definition of pornography results in the following explanation; 1) the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement, 2) material (such as books or photographs) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement, 3) the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.
I have been thinking for quite some time about the proliferation of a kind of imagery that also aspires to create ‘intense emotional reactions’, specifically images which intend to ‘raise awareness’ about plastic pollution. I’m thinking about images of turtles trapped in plastic, seabird carcasses displaying ingested plastic waste, floating plastic objects in blue pristine seas, rivers of flowing waste (often observed in some of the world’s poorest regions). There seems to me, an increasing and relentless appetite for such images; millions consume these images through various visual social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. By clicking you ‘like It’ and sharing it to millions of others are you just taking part in another form of pollution? a kind of visual pollution, a pollution of your mind?
As an artist and lecturer in media and photography, one of my duties is to impart to the students who I teach a sense of criticality and questioning of visual material in various art forms. Visual grammar and the ability to apply critical thinking when you ‘see’ images is just as important as other forms of literacy. In recent times there has been a new call to arms: the global drive to rid the world of plastic pollution. There are many ways in which it is presented, and in my view requires the application of such skills. There are numerous threats facing the human species and nonhuman species, according to many scientists were are now living in a new period of mass extinction. Media organizations regularly feature news stories about pollution and climate change, the new term ‘weather bomb’ joined the lexicon as did the term ‘plastic gyre’. One such broadcaster in the UK called Sky recently launched Sky Ocean Rescue. This seems at first hand a great way to educate the wider public about ‘plastic waste littering the oceans’, for many of us who have been exploring this topic it would seem a very welcome move. Sky has followed the coattails of the BBC Blue Planet II programme, however, they are not the only ones, many of these organizations regularly feature stories related to plastic pollution. One favorite activity that’s really worth filming is a beach clean, presenting a report showing how to clean a beach from plastic waste is just one form of reporting a very visible activity. These increasingly popular community events secure the belief that ‘we are all in it together’ and that by undertaking such activities ‘we can make a difference’. The Sky Ocean Rescue project may be a worthy and well-intentioned project, the coverage has been extensive (even though I don’t subscribe to Sky TV, my social media feeds have been bombarded by Sky). Part of their campaign includes making and creating a type of public artwork, usually sculpture and this often consists of creating a scaled up versions of a giant whale or dolphin made of throwaway single-use plastic bottles. This is towed or driven around the country like the Brexit bus of 2016, branding, of course, takes center stage. Branding is all, it is everything today and everyone is at it, we are bombarded with messaging: to sell us stuff, to refuse stuff, to recycle, to believe in climate change and not to believe in climate change, to seek out facts or to seek alternative facts.
Ask yourself the following: who benefits from these types of projects? what do they aim to achieve and more importantly if they are asking you to change your behavior, it’s worth asking, have they changed theirs? Has Sky stopped advertising single-use bottled water, the water that makes you smarter, or fast food companies who encourage ‘speedy eating and a throwaway culture? Is the ‘use’ of art really the best way to change human behavior or is it just another neoliberalist propaganda tool to shift responsibility from the corporate world to you, the ‘consumer’. I have no answers but I know that in my thirty years of art practice and of thinking about it, photographing waste, supporting others in campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ and making artwork, the best tools for me have been reading and exploring what others think, have written or made about plastic and plasticity. From Barthes seminal essay in Mythologies to the academic texts by Gay Hawkins, from a great work of fiction by DeLillo, obscure films by French new wave filmmakers, scientific research papers and what to some may seem like obscure philosophical texts by various French philosophers also increasingly continue to preoccupy me, shifting my perspective and in turn creating difficult questions.
Last year I attended (gatecrashed) an event called the Innovation Forum, hosted at the headquarters of Amnesty International. Many industry experts, CEO’s and NGO’s were present, they were all talking about plastic, waste and how to solve the pressing issue of plastic waste. As the day progressed I became increasingly angry, the term ‘consumer’ was present in virtually every sentence, it seemed to me that the onus was on an action by the consumer. The use of this word referred to you and me, not them, not the producer. A few of us at the conference recognized the cognitive dissonance, I was struck by the sense that many large multinational corporations continue to make huge profits, many seem keen to pass the responsibility of dealing with waste and plastic in particular to governments, individual consumers and the earth ecosystem.
There are many hundreds of organisations and many thousands of individuals who have recently been exposed to the plague of plastic, in turn, some have taken up various activist or artivist activities. Art is just one way of engaging with these issues, and it can range from a kind of self-expression and therapy to hard-hitting didactic image making. A definition of ‘art’ would take up many volumes of texts or thousands of hours of video. Any student of art would have been exposed to many practical and theoretical tools by which to enable them to practice and make ‘art’. To those not privileged to have art training then a simplistic view might take the line that ‘art’ can be literarily anything if you say it is. Which leads me to my main point, where does the art in activism or art in arts activism exists? How should it be viewed? Is the ‘art’ element in the mind of the creator or in the mind of the audience and can the artistic or visualisation presented itself be a form of pollution?
One thing I’m sure about (anecdotally) as I have no evidence to prove my thesis; is that for those who have access to mainstream media and the internet there is a kind of self-determined diagnosis that to become a ‘plastic artist’ will solve the crisis of plastic pollution through ‘conscious raising’. Will collecting washed up plastic and arranging into a pretty aesthetic arrangement and calling it art lead to a utopian future – a clean or cleaner planet? Waste, plastic and dirt have no place in this new brave world. The social media app Instagram is a favorite place where these converts share their creations, and when you add some marketing savvy hey presto, there has now sprung into existence many hundreds or perhaps thousands of mini-plastic art business.
The conventional method by which the medium of photography transmits key tropes is superlative in its speed and skill in doing so. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The systems by which Instagram and Facebook work their magic means that the plastic visual virus infects us all. My own social media profile is increasingly bombed by others who have been converted to solving the plastic pollution crisis. Do other photographers and artists working with this material also become infected by the schema, do they suffer from a type of ‘visual pornographic plastic pollution’?
Chris Jordan and Edward Burtynksy have become the ‘go to’ image makers, when to comes to ‘environmental art photography’ their images circulate across the globe, rich with a sense of purposefulness, their works standup as kinds of exemplar critiques of global capitalism. One must, however, question the very methods by which these works come into existence and into view, how do these works sit within a wider visual culture, to what extent does the didactic nature of these projects operate? As global corporations continue to penetrate many aspects of ‘art culture’ by sponsoring ‘A-lister’ photography blockbuster exhibitions such as Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis, one must ask the question if the authors of such projects are able to protect their own mind from such ’viral’ intrusions. The success of Burtynsky in presenting a world under threat, at a scale and depth is in one sense to be admired, but when I recently saw his work at Photo-London, I felt cold, the scopophilic way in which the world and its discontent fueled by a sense of the sublime left me with an emergent migraine.
My polluted mind and perhaps my body started for me as a teenager, growing up in the mining town of Castleford and then as a young surfer in wales. From living in a smoggy atmosphere and playing on slag heaps to photographing washed up plastic waste my connectivity to pollution was cemented. Studying art and then photography is in retrospect a reaction to try and comprehend my own early upbringing. It is a creative reactive process that I don’t yet understand. The rhizomatic pathways that led me to photograph washed up beach trash over twenty-five years ago to exploring the surrealist forms and landscapes of Paul Nash are complex. Lately, though, I’m avoiding looking at another turtle choking on a plastic beer tie or another scene of plastic carnage chocking a river in India. I ask myself why do I not want to read another feature about a team setting off to sail in a bathtub or yacht across the ocean looking for supporting evidence about plastic and its discontents? Perhaps I’m suffering from compassion fatigue or something deeper? We should consider that we don’t need more evidence, we know about the problem, we know about Climate Change, the Anthropocene or should I call it the Capitalocence. Perhaps it is because I myself am polluted, both a polluter and in the state of being polluted. Jane Bennet seems to me to be the closet in terms of facilitating a way of thinking about this problem, in ways that are not purely technocratic. When it comes to thinking about the topic of plastic pornography, plastic art, anti-matter, vibrancy, and agency, whether in science, philosophy or art, Bennet’s description of an unblemished dead rat and white plastic bottle cap on a storm drain in Baltimore is for me the kind of poetic description I prefer. Her book Vibrant Matter was published in 2010, twenty years before it was published I photographed a dead rat, a piece of plastic, a plastic straw and plastiglomerate on a beach a few miles south of Lisbon, Portugal.
In my own mind, this coincidence proves something; pollution shifts subatomically and visually through space and time, back and forth, in the memory of your mind, in your visual cortex back in time, in the present and also in the future, a future that is plastic. Today, the all-encompassing regime of the market, the internet, and the internet of things, scientific and engineering prowess may or may not solve this problematic issue. I encourage all those invested in ‘solving’ the pandora’s box of the plastic monster to accept its sentience, learn to love plastic and to hate plastic, perhaps we need to accept these contradictory feelings? Only then if we’re lucky we can find a better way of living in the age of new materialism.
Andy Hughes © 2018 – All rights reserved
1 - Hughes and Jordan exhibited together in 2009 at National Maritime Museum, Newport News, USA. Andy Hughes’ work focuses on the accumulation of garbage washed up on the shores where he surfs.
Chris Jordan’s composite photos explore the “pervasiveness of our consumerism.”
2 - Plastiglomerate / wikipedia