By Andy Hughes
In the spring of 2015, Melinda Watson at RawFoundation UK talked to me about supporting their Making Waves Plastic-Free Festival campaign at 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.
For more than 20 years, I have been making work about the “plastic problem.” In human history, much of the art has serviced religion. Perhaps now in the 21st century, art can be of service in helping humans learn how to live more sustainably.
I was a virgin Glastonbury Festival goer when I arrived one Friday afternoon in June, with wellies, toilet roll, two cameras, laptop, batteries and packs of dried noodles. I felt prepared. Over a period of three days, 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 firsthand an event where huge numbers of people gather and consume packaged food and drink, ultimately generating monstrous amounts of waste.
Glastonbury Opus 1
There was a broad range of people at the event, and it’s not my intention to directly criticize a festival that many believe is held with the best intentions. As the largest greenfield festival in the world, with over 200,000 attendees in 2015, such a festival requires extensive infrastructure in terms of security, transport, water and electricity. Many of the staff are volunteers and the festival aims to raise millions of pounds for good causes.
However, initially inspired by a counterculture and a kind of “green activism,” it was rather depressing to witness, at times, a kind of gorging. In a world where scarcity is the norm for many people, and poverty is an everyday state of being, I was disappointed to see the ease with which far too many people threw away stuff—plastic bottles, food, tents, chairs, clothes and all manner of personal and household consumer goods.
In 2016 I will return, and alongside various stakeholders, I plan to exhibit and publish a new book of work.
In Glastonbury Opus 1, my work explores the tension between the seductive depiction of object, colour and seemingly sculptural forms with an underlying narrative of environmental degradation. Gatherings like this, where tens of thousands of people congregate and generate huge quantities of waste, raise questions about irresponsible behavior and mass consumption.
However, these photographs attempt not to simply use the rhetoric of documentary photography. In much of my previous work, didacticism only plays a small part; a larger part is the staging of a visual, poetic, plastic aesthetic. The photographs Opus1 combine the rhetoric of documentary photography and this visual poetic.
The Glastonbury Festival presented information to all festival goers about reducing waste. It makes significant efforts to reduce and recycle. There are 2,500 in the cleaning team with 1,900 volunteers, 60 litter-picking teams working in 4/6-hour shifts, 24 hours around the clock. The amount of collected recycled material in each recycling bag was for the first time 100 percent.
There are many organizations and individuals all over the world, including artists, who are working to reduce the amount of synthetic plastic in the environment. They are raising awareness about the true extent of plastic pollution and its impact upon the globe.
Meanwhile, the UK media is beginning to carry news of the 2016 festival season. Perhaps for many in Europe, the current dark and wet has people starting to think about the spring and summer seasons. Please visit the Raw Foundation website to learn more about plastic pollution, and #Resolve2Refuse single-use plastic in the first place.
Andy Hughes is one of the first art photographers who explored plastic as metaphor, subject and pollutant. In 2013 he was invited to travel to Alaska with an international team, including artists Mark Dion and Pam Longobardi, to work on the project GYRE: The Plastic Ocean. He is a PPC Supporting Artist Ally and an early and active supporter of Surfers Against Sewage and other marine conservation groups.