Plastic Scoop: Artist Film Explores the Plastic Pollution Crisis

By Andy Hughes

It’s almost thirty years ago since I walked out of the sea after surfing and noticed a brightly coloured plastic detergent bottle at rest on the seashore. The product was called Radion, made by Unilever, which is now defunct. This period was the late 1980’s. I was living in Cardiff studying Fine Art whilst three hundred miles away my mother had been diagnosed with a pituitary brain tumour and was receiving radiation treatment.


Radion Detergent Bottle, Barry Island, Wales 1989. © Andy Hughes

Radion Detergent Bottle, Barry Island, Wales 1989. © Andy Hughes

The treatment and its efficacy was measured and visualised in scanning systems which used highly colourised imagery. I noticed the visual and conceptual similarities between these two elements; radiation used on a human brain to kill / wash away tumour cells and the discarded plastic detergent bottle and its contents designed to remove dirt and stains, both seemed connected.

Fast forward thirty years, we are becoming increasingly attuned to the damage that plastic and the chemical components within that disrupt the human Endocrine system. BPA and Phthalates lurk in everything from cleaning products to fragrances and these are just some of the many pollutants let loose on the planet by human beings.

Throughout my career as an artist and photographer, I’ve always had a sense of prescience, a sense of knowing or suggesting with some certainty what might happen in the future. Looking back to my early works in the 90’s those images I made of sewage waste, plastic, and other washed-up beach detritus seem to be perfect examples of this sense. Our experiences past and present coexist, by looking at the past we can sometimes see the future more clearly. By imaging the future we can potentially change course and the trajectory of ourselves and the environment around us.

Rather than exist in stasis, I’ve always paid careful attention to developments in my chosen art form of photography. Since its invention over a century and a half ago it has played a crucial role in art, culture, science, and in all of our lives. Photographic imagery in advertising persuades us to buy and consume material products, and it is used to explore the furthest reach of our known universe. The science of photography has played a part in enabling you to read this webpage. The liquid crystal molecules on your computer screen enable you to do so. Photography, computers, and software applications have changed our lives.

Artificial intelligence and gaming is also changing our relationships to one another, to the real world and to the virtual world. In 2002 I began playing the video game Grand Theft Auto III, and since have played each new version including the latest online version to GTA V. For almost 17 years I have played the game, it always fascinated me. In GTA III I began to notice that the game designers began to add various items of litter and garbage trucks, in later versions pollution and waste became much more prominent. What interested me as I played the game was a sense or notion of symmetry, of connection, the same as that connection between the radion detergent and radiotherapy. I noticed the changes taking place in the fictitious Liberty City. Also later in Los Santos not in terms of the story, but in terms of its representation of waste and trash. In these virtual city streets or desert landscapes, I saw scenes which remind me of the very same streets I explored photographically in New York and Los Angeles.


Street Trash, New York 2006 © Andy Hughes

Street Trash, New York 2006 © Andy Hughes

For the last six years I have been making work inspired by my gamer experiences and earlier this year I received a grant from the University of Plymouth’s the Sustainable Earth Institute. Working in cooperation with Dr. Mandy Bloomfield and the English faculty students at the University of Plymouth I learned to use the Rockstar game editor and to create a Machinima. What caught my attention most are the many parodies of American pop and sub-culture, the satirical elements combined with its increasing verisimilitude all drew me to explore the game creatively and as a virtual place and space to make artwork. I thought about the game and its various vices, follies, and abuses. The shaming of corporations, governments, and society itself comes through in various aspects of the game. How might I use these elements across the film was one key area I wanted to discover.

As an artist and gamer, I began to think about the potential that this game might in some way be concealing a series of environmental messages. Could it be charting the advance of global warming and the accumulation of plastic waste on land and in our oceans? By combining in-game footage and public service information films from the past 100 years, my film explores and shares new perspectives and approaches around plastic pollution, the Anthropocene, and sustainability. It encourages the viewer to suspend the game’s known themes around gang violence, car theft, and racial stereotypes by instead bringing relationships between climate change, landscape, and environmental subjects to the fore. The result is an irreverent and often satirical look at plastic pollution, its historical roots and connectivity to petroleum and its interconnections.

“Very few directors have tackled the complex relationship between environmental issues and digital games. With ‘Plastic Scoop,’ Andy Hughes makes that connection painfully manifest. By appropriating both the aesthetics of video games and the language of vintage promotional videos and other archival material, à la Adam Curtis, Hughes reminds us that have become aliens to our own planet.”

Matteo Bittanti 

The project was made possible through the Sustainable Earth Institute’s Creative Associates programme, supported by Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF), which is designed to uncover novel and innovative ways of communicating research to a public audience.

Andy Hughes is a photographer and Plastic Pollution Coalition Supporting Artist Ally based in the UK.

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