‘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 we have
become aliens to our own planet’.
Matteo Barretti / Gamescenes.org
Screen Grab from Plastic Scoop. Dir. Andy Hughes 2019 | From the game Grand Theft Auto V
Plastic Scoop continues and extends the trajectory of Andy Hughes’s work over the past three decades. Hughes is a gleaner. His work wanders the wrack zones of contemporary consumer society, recovering and reframing waste objects that have - until very recently - accumlated off the radar of cultural attention. In a current moment in which we are finally waking up to the pressing urgencies of plastic, chemical and carbon pollution, his lifelong project to reorient our attention to trash becomes newly significant. Hughes’s photography series of the ninetees manipulates scale and perspective to put the discarded remnants of throwaway society in the spotlight. In so doing, this work also treads the strandlines of abjection and aesthetic beauty, consumption and waste, instantaneity and posterity.
Hughes’s new work in Plastic Scoop takes this endeavour into the space of the virtual. He was first attracted to the game of Grand Theft Auto, he says, because of its visual qualities: its vibrant landscapes and attention to detail. But he became even more interested in the possibilities of the game as artistic medium when he observed the increasing presence of trash, other forms of visible pollution and traces of climate change discourse (and its denial) with the release of each new version of GTA. Most players of the game would be oblivious of these details as they follow the narratives of violence and acquisitive theft that the game dictates. While developing the film, Hughes collaborated with a small focus group of University of Plymouth students and staff, to find out how acts of noticing vary across different players. Informed partly by this process, and partly by Hughes’s longer trajectory of working, Plastic Scoop plays the game against the grain.
Shifting the usual frenetic temporalities of gaming, the film meanders through its virtual landscapes, hovering contemplatively over a roiling sea or dwelling upon a sunset in a beautifully-composed industrial landscape or street scene. These visual scenarios are accompanied by a soundtrack composed of archival material which intersects – sometimes jarringly, sometimes felicitously – with the visuals. One voice celebrates the innovations of plastics with increasing levels of absurdity as the film drifts among ocean and industrial scenes, lit up by a lurid but compelling virtual sunset. Elsewhere, the voice of T.S. Eliot intones a section from his poem The Dry Salvages against footage of a storm-tossed sea, upon which floats unidentified wreckage and a diver. The sea in this poem has often been read as metaphorical for universal human travails, but its redeployment here suggests a different perspective on the poem, which now offers prescient visions of the ocean as a non-human multispecies habitat, but one that also ‘tosses up our losses’ in the form of a variety of human waste.
As with collage work more generally, then, the juxtaposed materials transform one another through strange forms of connection and disjunction. Through such transformations, Plastic Scoop forges links between industrial and post-consumer pollution, production and waste, and, perhaps most importantly, acts of violence and the logics of capitalist production and consumption. In strange and uncanny ways, the film reveals violence in all its multifarious forms as endemic to a capitalist system reliant upon unequal relations of power, the ruthless exploitation of the natural world and human labour, and the transformation of physical and mental spaces into arenas of domination and individualist competition.
A bizarre set of characters roam this virtual world; an aeronaut emerges from the sea, a diver roams a highway shooting at signs promoting climate change denial, and a clown writhes in mid air, accompanied by whale song. These are alienated figures, struggling to function meaningfully in the environments in which theyfind themselves. The film often takes their perspective, sometimes situating itself literally inside their cranial cavities. Through these characters, the strange but frighteningly familiar landscapes they move through, and the competing discourses that surround them, the film raises a host of questions, such as: How have we come to normalise the environmental mess that we now find ourselves in? How
might we perceive our world differently than we currently do? How can we thread a meaningful path through the tangle of environmental discourses of our times, without succumbing to either apocalyptic fatalism, escapism or unrealistic optimism? It is not the task of art, of course, to offer solutions to such dilemmas. But if Plastic Scoop leaves its viewers with an disorientating image, an unsettling question, or even just a needling sense of disquiet, so much the better.
© Mandy Bloomfield 2019
Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most popular video games of all time, played by millions across the globe, it has generated many controversies related to the game’s known themes around gang violence, car theft and racial stereotypes. The film Plastic Scoop draws on contemporary narratives to express the ways in which our anxiety and fears about ocean pollution are presented. As seen in much of Hughes’s work: plastic pollution and associated mater often takes centre stage, this film explores the complex relationships between plastic, nature, the ‘natural’ and the virtual. The film features gleaned archival material and cinema footage from early exploration, nasa and with his own recorded and directed in-game machinima.
With the release of each new version of GTA Hughes noticed how changes in the rendering of the game of both the seascape and landscape seemed to mirror wider societal awareness of pollution issues such as plastic waste and global heating. Could the increasing presence of trash, other visible pollution and traces of climate change discourse (and its denial) within the game be potentially concealing a series of environmental messages?
Elizabeth Perrotte, Program Director, Christies Education, London
‘Time and space dilate; a mysterious avatar free-falls, slowly, hypnotically, out of a clear sky,’ haloed as he gently spirals away from the dazzling sun. For an occult moment the boundless air becomes a deep ocean for his fall; a whale’s soundscape of low groaning vibrates through the visuals. Thoughts of Icarus accelerate the vertigo. Fragments of his mythic flight and plight; fragrant wax wings melting in the sun’s heat, fast flicker into view. This Icarus plunges from the blinding sun into rich technicolour dressed as Pierrot, the androgynous, melancholic clown from Commedia dell’arte. Suspended here in limbo between states: powerless yet vagrant, symbol of free will, escape, jouissance, hubris, collapse, catastrophic failure, so much waste matter. No ground in sight, impact deferred, there is always the hope of ‘clinamen’ the chance atomic swerve and generative energy celebrated by Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius in De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things).
If atoms never swerve and make beginning
Of motions that can break the bonds of fate,
And foil the infinite chain of cause and effect,
What is the origin of this free will
Possessed by living creatures throughout the earth?
Whence comes, I say, this will-power wrested from the fates Whereby we each proceed where pleasure leads,
Swerving our course at no fixed time or place
But where the bidding of our hearts directs?
For beyond doubt the power of will
Originates these things and gives them birth...
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Bk ll:253-62, trans. Ronald Melville. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Screen Grab from Plastic Scoop - from the game Grand Theft Auto V. Directed by Andy Hughes 2019
Dr Mandy Bloomfield and the Sustainable Earth Institute (University of Plymouth) deserve deep thanks for their generous support of this project, as does Lizzie Perrotte, whose viewing of the film was both helpful and inspiring. Thank you to University of Plymouth English students who responded with perceptive observations about the film and through interactive game sessions changed my course of thinking about the film and its narrative/non narrative potential. Thank you to Dominica Williamson (ecogeographer) who reminded throughout the production to think about audience and co-production elements. Thanks also to those people online who commented during production and also to Alison Wallace at Truro-Penwith College who offered technical advice.
Film Project Funded by Sustainable Earth Institute at University o Plymouth.
The Sustainable Earth Institute’s Creative Associate Awards are designed to uncover novel and innovative ways of communicating research to a public audience.The awards have been made possible through funding from the University of Plymouth Research Impact and Innovation Fund, which is financed by the University’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) allocation
For further information about the Sustainable Earth Institute & University of Plymouth