Shooting the SOUP and a Microcosm Movement In The Middle of Nowhere

If you haven’t googled “Mandy Barker, SOUP” do so.  Crewmember and photographic artist Mandy Barker from Leeds, UK has a series called SOUP–which pretty much went viral when her images hit the internet.  Her work is based on the North Pacific Gyre, and she photographs plastic ‘rubbish’ collected from beaches all over the world. As a device, Mandy photographs her rubbish on black velvet to essentially give the effect of suspending the material in space.  Beautiful, haunting, and some of the best ‘plastic art’ I’ve seen yet, as it’s abstract enough to not be didactic—an issue that has plagued plastic art and relegated it to second tier. But Mandy, like a handful of artists like Chris Jordan and Barbara Benish, are transcending the trappings of the plastic art genre and defining a new aesthetic for the movement.

On this voyage it’s Mandy’s goal to create another body of work to compliment SOUP from the ideas she conjures and the rubbish she pulls out of the sea on this voyage.  And let it be said, for an activist and communicator like me who works on this issue, I can’t express how beautiful and inspiring it is to watch the process of thinkers on this ship.  Science, though important for our understanding of the scope of plastic pollution in the world, is only one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, one of our waypoints (which we’ve since abandoned due to gnarly winds at higher latitudes) was a point where scientist Robert Day collected one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution in the North Pacific in the 80s. The New York Times didn’t publish a story on marine plastic pollution until the 21st century, and that’s because the movement didn’t have a charismatic figure like Charles Moore, Founder of Algalita Marine Research Institute, and the reason scientific institutions all over the world are working on this issue today.

Our model works and it’s why we take people like Mandy to sea. Here’s the basics of how things work aboard—first, we’re all equals—everyone cooks, cleans, maintains watches and steers the ship. Secondly, we give everyone access to the samples we collect.  Marcus ensures that protocols aren’t corrupted, but then gives materials to the crew to interpret however their respective discipline demands.  Here’s an example: one of the crew scoops up a derelict fishing buoy from the ocean, then Marcus enlists crew members to help him take samples of rafting organisms from the buoy for a scientist from Hawaii named Hank Carson—much cheaper for Hank to get samples from us, then for him to hire a boat to get out here himself. Marcus explains to crew about how plastic has become a vector for transporting invasive species, which is the area of Hank’s field of study (We also had Hank speak on this work at the science symposium we organized in Tokyo that this crew attended).

After the science is done and samples are taken, the artists are able to turn the object into a piece of art. Mandy takes the buoy down in the cockpit and places it on her signature black velvet and shoots it. Others film the process, commenting on the histories of when fishing floats went from glass to plastic, and how their perceived value has gone down accordingly, which makes them more likely to be abandoned. Mandy is also photographing each of our education samples (after Marcus removes the plastic we’re saving for toxic chemical sorption), that come from the high speed trawl—the device we use for collecting non-quantifiable plastic bits. The samples we gather here, and the images Mandy will create are for use by policymakers, teachers and activists.  All this is like watching a microcosm of the movement that we’re all apart of, with several different touch points for a global society that isn’t necessarily scientifically savvy.  Out of the middle of nowhere, we’re creating knowledge and onramps to bring our findings to an international community. Mandy is a big piece of that movement and it’s an honor to sail with her—plus she doesn’t get seasick and makes a great cuppa’…
-Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres