Interview by Steve England, Editor, Carve Magazine.
This is an edited version, full article published in Carve Magazine, Issue 186 Apr 5, 2018
When did you first notice beach debris?
Probably around 1987, but it was in 1989 when I focused my attention very specifically towards plastic in the sea and washed up on the beach was whilst I was an art student in Cardiff. At that time I’d learned to surf, my nearest break was at Porthcawl, I often remember bobbing up and down in the sea, sitting astride on a blue Tris Twin fin 5’ 8”, looking out across the bay to the smoky Port-Talbot steelworks.
In 1989 I moved to London to study Photography at the Royal College of Art, often returning to go surfing at weekends. On one occasion, after surfing I spotted a very brightly colored 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’. My neural networks made a connection between the word and the lurid, supersaturated colours. At this time my mum was receiving treatment for a brain tumor, I made a connection between the typography, the subject and its colour. I noticed visual similarities. Radiation used on a human brain to kill tumor 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 was the start of a series of works that visualized surfing, surfers, and waste.
And how did your first book come about?
In the early 90’s I had a telephone call from the Tate, regarding the new gallery that was due to open in St Ives. The result of this gave me the opportunity to live and work in Cornwall. I moved to St Ives in 1993, where I took up the first artist residency. A year or so later I took a job teaching photography and stayed in Cornwall. Between 1996 and 2004 I specifically set about photographing washed up beached plastic. I made trips to the very far north of Scotland, up to Thurso and along the far northern British coastal fringes and across to Los Angeles in California. One particular standout memory includes sneaking through a fence at Palos Verdes and then running across Donald Trump’s Golf course in order to find a particular trashy spot down on a nearby beach.
In 2004 Edward-Booth Clibborn agreed to publish a book of photographs with texts from various scientists, environmental advocates, and writers. David Carson designed the book which was published in 2006 with a USA co-edition published with Abrams in New York.
How was it accepted?
That’s a great question! had I titled the book something less esoteric I believe the book might have surfaced earlier in the debate about the ocean, plastic waste, and other associated topics. Originally I’d thought about a title such as ‘Average Wave Period’ or ‘Dominant Wave Period’, my thinking was to connect the title with the mathematical systems we use to measure swell and wave heights. It is a well-referenced book, and I often receive emails asking me about it. It’s a decade since I made that book and much has now changed. Plastic has now risen to the top of the political agenda. It has resulted in many invitations to speak in public, appear in the media, create and exhibit the work in galleries and take part in many great conversations. Whether making work at the Glastonbury festival, traveling to the remote Alaskan wilderness and connecting with a Grizzly bear or talking to kids at a climate change conference, it’s because of that book. It has had a rhizomatic effect on my current work and that of others too.
What was the debate about waste, the ocean and plastic like in the 90’s
Interestingly in the late 90’s and early 2000s, there were various people and organisations discussing plastic and also other waste pollutants. In the 1980’s in Australia, there was a group called POOO which stood for People Opposed to Ocean Outfalls, this small activist group probably included surfers, they campaigned for a change in the way effluents were being discharged into the sea near Bondi beach. Recently I had a message from a well-known campaigner who called me the ‘Godfather’ of plastic rubbish imagery. It made me chuckle, if my memory serves me right, and I have a good memory, I think many just thought I was a bit eccentric all those years ago.
Was anyone doing this type of work before you?
In terms of art there is a long history of trash and the discarded being central to contemporary art. There’s Robert Rauschenberg who in the early 1950s explored the boundaries and the definition of art, following from the radical modernist precedent set by Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and displaced it, then titled it Fountain. It is one of my favorite works of art. Many artists have explored the lines between painting, sculpture, and photography through the assemblages of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life. Hans Haacke, created a work of art called Monument to Beach Pollution in 1970, this rubbish installation was sited and photographed at Carboneras in Spain.
Many artists have picked over the detritus of capitalist circulation, I see myself as one of a continuing stream that is getting fuller and faster flowing as each decade unfolds. Of course over the last few years, as the visible nature of plastic has increased along with social media and apps such as Instagram, it has become easier to point a lens to such material and comment about it. I’m not sure that it’s art, there’s a distinction to be made between art, advocacy and work which is purely didactic.
What have you been doing since then? Projects etc.
I have published other books and zines and been invited to many great events such as the San Sebastian Surf Film festival as well as co-curating a series of photo exhibitions in Cornwall as also participating in many other exhibitions international. I continue to support Surfers Against Sewage and have over the last ten years supplied a great many images for various campaigns such as the Marine Litter Report and various campaigns about helping to reduce plastic usage. I’m also an affiliated artist with the Plastic Pollution Coalition alongside other noted artists such as Chris Jordan who also works with Plastic within the context of mass consumption.
In 2013 I was invited with two other artists Mark Dion and Pam Longobardi and a group of scientists on an expedition to the remote Alaskan coast. A book, film, and exhibition took place and toured the USA. It was an amazing adventure and started me exploring new ideas about the subject.
I’d also say over the last few years I’ve taken to reading much more, this in turn has fostered a deeper kind of thinking about the subject. I’m very interested in looking at how philosophers and political thinkers might change my own perception of the subject and in turn the work I produce. In particular, I’m drawn to the ideas of Timothy Morton’s ecological theories such as Dark Ecology as well as texts by Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, and Félix Guattari, the French psychiatrist, and political activist.
Where is the worst place you have been?
Another good question, in terms of waste and plastic I’d say going to a supermarket such as Tesco’s and attempting to choose products without plastic is pretty top on my list. I realize you’re thinking somewhere more exotic? maybe not. Last year I was in Mauritius with fishers on a boat floating above a coral reef, amazing people and a great privilege to be there, but when I saw the state of the reef it almost brought me to tears. In Alaska in 2013, I wandered in the bright sunshine along a remote beach, I found large plastic 5-gallon containers that had been chewed by Bears. On the same day, I sat only a few meters next to a female Grizzly and her three cubs. For over 40 minutes I was both transfixed and terrified, beauty and terror together, a sublime moment. So in one sense it was the worst but also one of the best experiences of my life to date!
How do you feel now the Attenborough effect has pushed the issue worldwide mainstream? and given the widespread nature of the pollution, and that it is in the food chain, do you think we can still save ourselves and the planet, or is it too late?
In 2004 I wrote to Attenborough asking him to write for my book, I had nice letter returned but with a polite refusal. I thought it was a good gesture to reply and explain his reasons. Fifteen years later I was pleased to see the focus shift and the way in which the subject of human waste including plastic is center stage. A few months ago I sent him a copy of my book, great letter back. I think the Blue Planet has made a terrific difference and that’s great.
I’m curious about the changes we can make, given ‘deeptime’ we have no choice but to change. We often see in the media and on social media calls to ‘save the ocean’ and ‘save the planet’. It’s the human race that we need to save without destroying our one home and the home of all other life upon it. Perhaps the ocean and the planet will be fine after the human race has left the stage? Does this seem too depressing, it’s not meant to be – the world is very, very beautiful and as many surfers will know there’s nothing better than riding a wave in the ocean.
What are the most innovative solutions you have seen over the years?
In 2004 Greg Garrard wrote a book titled ‘Ecocriticism’ it explored the ways in which we imagine and portray the relationship between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. In it, he describes four positions with which people often align too. One is the Cornucopian, a type of thinking that ascribes that capitalism can mobilize us to solve pressing problems through problem-solving, the market, technological advances etc. Nature is valued in the sense that it is valuable to us, to us as human beings. So the question proposes that there is a solution, from a huge floating platform at sea to bottle deposit schemes. I think the simplest solution is the best, a bit like smoking, let’s stop using it wherever possible. It’s worth noting that technology can help us or hinder us. If one watches some of the early films made in the 40’s and 50’s promoting plastic as a wonder material it will make you laugh or perhaps cry. My favorite solution is what the Plastic Pollution Coalition proposes: that is ‘refuse’ plastic. I think moves forward in behavior can generate the best results the quickest rather than retro or reverse engineering the planet.
What is next? anything else interesting you want to chat about?
For myself and for others I think that taking the time to explore the subject and read and consider how others are talking and making progress is key. Each new day brings new discoveries and ways of approaching plastic and waste. These questions have made me think some more about personal histories, experiences, and futurology. In botany, a rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots, from shoots and complex entanglements one can find meaning. Twenty-five years ago I sat floating in a brown turgid sea full of poo and plastic, seems a bit crazy, not so now, it’s shaped and formed my artistic and creative life. In Britain today we have less poo in the sea, we can have less plastic too, and not just at sea but everywhere for all life and all over the globe.