Winner: Best Environmental Film - June 2021 Edition
WRITER, DIRECTOR & EDITOR
Jess Irish is an award-winning artist, designer and writer who makes lyrical nonfiction films and cross-genre media. Her recent films include "This Mortal Plastik", "For While", and "The Phantasmagoria of Offense: the male version". Her collaborative design practice focuses on environmental justice and empowering forms of new media. She is the principal designer for "Visualizing Pipeline Impacts", which creates media and analyses on shale gas infrastructure.
Her films have received honors such as “Best Director of Documentary Short”, “Best Environmental Film”, “Best Hybrid Film”, “Best Experimental Documentary”, “Best Video Art” and “Best Editing.” They have screened in festivals both nationally and internationally. A recipient of a "Creative Capital Award", her art works have been featured in media such as Art Forum, METROPOLIS, RES, and Artweek magazines. Former collaborative design includes open source software projects DataMyne, Urban Research Toolkit. She was the founding co-director of "OnRamp Arts", an award-winning non-profit in central LA.
Irish is an Associate Professor of Design and Technology in the School of Art, Media & Technology at Parsons, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in design research, hybrid works and new media. She received her studio MFA from UC Irvine and her creative writing MFA from The New School. She lives in the Hudson River Valley, NY with her family of humans and dogs.
Hello Jess Irish, thank you for your film! How did you become a Filmmaker?
I come to making films as a visual artist; I've worked in many media over the years. Several years ago I returned to grad school to study creative writing. In a poetry workshop, I was assigned to write a lyric essay, which ended up being the script for my first film. I love how poetry opens up possible approaches to nonfiction. This way of making feels more fitting to how my brain works than traditional plot or narrative structures.
"This Mortal Plastik" gives a lot of information in a comparatively pretty short span of
viewing time. Would you care to tell us about your writing process?
Thank you - that is a huge compliment. I came to the subject of plastics after working on several design projects about the environmental impact of so-called "natural gas" - one of which is the boom in needless plastics. I came across a quote in Susan Freinkle's excellent book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story , about the polymer molecule looking like "a cathedral that goes on and on for miles." What an image! As I kept researching, I kept finding more impossible images, contradictions. When I decided to make a film on it, I knew I wanted to approach it not as an advocacy or traditional documentary - which has been done so well by others. The absurdity of time was a theme I kept returning to, and the opening quote of the poem by Transtromer helped me find a form to work against - time as a labyrinth, a wandering journey.
A key challenge in the writing was how to take a relatively boring topic and make it interesting. Why do you care about this? someone asked me, and I told them about my daughter's passion for whales and the ocean, which became the heart of the film - a personal story, a sense of wonder and also grief. I was nervous to stop the research phase, as I still don't fully understand how plastics work (I'm not a chemical engineer!), but that isn't the point. I tell the story from the point of view as a mother, a daughter, a consumer of plastics.
Thinking of the script as a long poem helped me be ruthless in cutting down unnecessary text and verbiage. I could write an entire essay now from any given line - but for the film I wanted to relay a comprehensive view of the condition we are in, not a singular focus on one aspect.
The film goes deep into the problem, without pretending it can bring solutions.
Would you say you're trying to tap into each and everyone's consciousness and if so, would you care to expand a little on this approach?
I love that you use the word "consciousness" in your question. Yes, I suppose my aim as an artist is to offer a momentary perspective shift in the viewer - can I shift someone's view on an ordinary thing, even if just for a moment? I believe that an image or emotion can resonate more deeply than facts on the matter.
This was one of the questions I asked my test viewers -"what image or idea stayed with you?" Walking whales, micro plastics, a pandemic inside the pandemic - these were a few. I resisted the urge to offer a solution because I fundamentally don't believe it is the role of the individual to solve this problem. This is the false solution of plastic recycling - it just doesn't happen. Sure, we can try to avoid using plastics where we can (as I do), but its an impossible task for a modern mother, wherever you are. Better we advocate for policy that taxes the industries that have built their profits on pollution on such a massive scale.
That would simply be "the cost of doing business." The natural world can't speak for itself,
but we can, and must, on its behalf. It's a toxic, unsustainable system, but it can be changed.
We need to focus again and again on why - "Remember the future" as your festival celebrates.
The end credits for photography and video are quite the list. How did you go about
choosing the images that would complete your own creative graphic work? Did any of those contributors create images specifically for your film as well?
Thanks for asking about that. I spent over a month just on the storyboard. I wanted to use a lot of historical images, and needed to make sure I could secure the rights to everything I was using.
I was at home during 2020-21, so was eager to take a field trip whenever I could - to the wonderful Bedford Whaling Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art to shoot or find an
image I needed. All of the rotoscoped drawings or animated images were done for the project - either by my research assistants or myself. It is always a challenge to combine this much footage and give it a cohesive look.
I decided to use drawn imagery for my hands, for example, to contrast with the plastic both to have it disorient the view as something different, but also underscore the idea that it is much more lasting than we humans are. I also needed to employ drawing to visualize things that don't exist now - like the walking whales.
What came to mind while watching was something along the lines of "Film as Poetry
as Pamphlet": Do you feel that this is the kind of impression you would like your audiences to get from your piece? What do you hope to convey to the viewer?
If the viewer can come away with one or two ideas or images that expand how they might see a casual plastics package they come into contact with, then I've done my job. I'm not directing a solution, but rather, asking questions. I hope to enact many conversations from this work that delve more into the idea of what is to be done.
But honestly, there is no easy fix; it demands many approaches from many perspectives. In this way, plastic pollution is a microcosm of the climate crisis we are in - it's made by the same stuff (fossil fuels), affects all the same places-everywhere-and disadvantages the poor the most.
Have you engaged in "field work" to fight against plastic pollution, or do you think
that your art is your contribution? What is the role of the Artist in a world that has created so many problems for itself?
I also work in (and teach) design, and for the last few years have started a collaborative project called "Visualizing Pipeline Impacts" (@pipelineimpacts), which has worked locally with communities in the NY-PA area to fight the expansion of natural gas infrastructures.
It was really this work that made me realize how toxic and harmful the extraction process is, and how it disadvantages certain communities. All of these problems can seem very overwhelming at times, and it helps to just consider a "Yes/and" approach: we need everyone involved in whatever small way they think is fitting for them to contribute - as a consumer, a mother, a scientist, a designer, a neighbor - it all counts. Pretty much any walk on the beach or forest now involves me picking up plastics.
The latest reports on the environment and the condition of the planet in general are
now beyond alarming. Is there still hope, in your view, that we catch ourselves before it all goes down in flames, so to say?
One of my test viewers told me he thought I had a more optimistic view of the future than he did. I told him that since I dedicated this film to my daughter, I couldn't not end that way. But really, we are in a very terrible place.
Fossil fuels have been a wonderful blessing to humanity-to say otherwise is foolish and hypocritical-but now we can and must stop extracting and burning them. This is the only way to mitigate the increased carbon we've already put out into our atmosphere. What would you do if you were a closed space with a running motor spewing exhaust? Turn off the engine!
The greenhouse gas effect sustains life on earth, but it is also trapping our excess carbon, like the closed garage. We have to move away from burning fuels wherever we can.