Jessie French is an artist and experimental designer working with bioplastic algae. Her practice engages with the possibilities of a post-petrochemical world. Through experimenting with “other” materials, she explores the potential for closed-loop systems of (re)use and conscious consumption and interaction with objects.
Jessie is currently showcasing work in the Members Vitrine Gallery in the exhibition 'FUTURE FORM’(extended until 2 October 2021). While we are currently unable to view Jessie’s exhibition in person due to the ongoing lockdown, we took the opportunity to find out more about her practice, and the unique materials she works with.
Jessie! we have loved showing your new body of work in our Members Vitrine Gallery! While we wait for lockdown restrictions to ease and welcome audiences back into our space, we would love to find out a little more about you and your practice! Firstly, can you give us a bit of background into what drives your practice and how you became interested in algae bioplastic?
My practice is driven by the importance I place in art during these times to engage people in reflecting, having imagination and hope in these really urgent times for change. A lot of what I do and how I pushed through challenges is from studying the outrageously exhaustive processes endured in the laboratory. As well as devising the works, I’m also developing the materials and processes to achieve the material outcomes. I’m not entirely sure I would have stuck with it had I not learnt so much about what scientists stick with, for example, in protein crystallography. I am also influenced by my graduate studies in history and philosophy of science and have found that it has informed my studio practice and my general approach to working.
In 2015, I first went beekeeping with Nic Dowse of Honey Fingers and became incredibly interested in how one species can have such a huge and intertwined impact on the lives of so many others. At the same time, I began seeing some bioplastic recipes popping up - algae-based recipes were the first bioplastics I had great success with. Growing up on the coast, surrounded by seaweeds, I also realised we hardly know anything about them! Compare this to terrestrial plants…I’d be shocked if someone couldn’t list five types of plants. Algae though, there is still so much to learn.
What exactly is bioplastic algae? and how is the material developed?
Bioplastic algae is a type of plastic - or rather a material that is malleable, shapeable or pliable. We usually associate the term plastic with synthetic material, however, bioplastics are those made from organic materials, and algae-based bioplastics are those made specifically with algae as the main ingredient.
I use both macroalgae and microalgae in my work. Macroalgae is the stuff we mostly think of as seaweed - you can see it with your naked eyes. Microalgae is tiny stuff. It is usually only visible as coloured water but under a microscope, these single-celled organisms are visible as whole parts.
The macroalgae I use is processed relatively simply through a process of washing it to remove salt and sand, then boiling it and concentrating the liquid over a series of similar processes. It is then dried and ends up as an odourless cream powder and that’s what I use as a base for the polymer. There is some more information about my research on this in Morocco here.
The microalgae is used whole. I can simply use the water from the bioreactors growing it in my studio or I can pour this over a mesh to drain the liquid and give it a rinse before adding it to a mix. I use this microalgae as a pigment but because it also has some microscopic mass to it, it adds structural integrity to the material as well. The dark colours that look black in my pieces are actually very dark green microalgae called Athrospira platensis.
Where do you see this material going? How do you see it being used in the future?
The waste involved in daily life weighs heavily on me. The sheer scale of material that cannot be easily recycled and the environmental cost of its production is outrageous. It’s uncomfortable to think about. There’s certainly a lot of potential in this material. It’s overwhelming what it could be and the ways it could be integrated into everyday life to solve a huge issue we have with waste and the use of petrochemical plastics.
What are some of the most surprising things about this material?
There’s so much that is surprising. It’s a whole new material! I’m continually amazed by how things work and the energy of getting something to finally work the way I hope is absolutely addictive. I love nothing more than thinking about if something will work, then spending time running a series of exploratory experiments before cracking how to get it to do a certain thing or achieve a particular outcome.
Has the COVID-19 climate, including periods of isolation and social distancing, allowed you to make or explore your practice in a way that you might not have otherwise?
I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if the pandemic hadn’t allowed me so much deep research time to really get stuck in last year! Doing so much work last year at home gave me so much opportunity to learn closely from what I was doing. Being able to check on things at all hours and see how they change and develop throughout a process enabled me to learn. I was also studying history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne. The pandemic also allowed me the opportunity to go back to post-graduate study. This study of historical as well as contemporary laboratory practice informed my studio practice heavily and led me to continue with things that I may have given up without this kind of methodology in place.
Lastly, what's next for you and your practice? I’m sure you’ve got some exciting projects lined up!
At the moment, I’m working on my contribution for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus in 2022 which will take place on Gadigal and Gomeroi Country as well as a couple more exhibitions for 2022 and a collection of commissioned work to be completed over the next few months.
Before all that though, I’m working on setting up a more substantial home studio because this lockdown seems like it will be going on longer than first expected!
I’m also excited for some awards I’ve been shortlisted for including the Victorian Craft Awards, The Design Files Awards, the Northern Beaches Environmental Art and Design Award and the Dezeen Awards.
Once I have the home studio lockdown setup going, I’m also really excited to get stuck into some collaborations I’m working on with a couple of great people. There is ongoing collaborative work I’ve been doing with Fluff Corp (ceramicists Claire Lehmann and Jia Jia Chen), a big R&D project with Tin&Ed and some new material development for a project with Nic Dowse of Honey Fingers.
Thank you for your time Jessie! We look forward to closely following the development of your practice, including your exciting upcoming projects!
Interview by Eliza Tiernan, Curatorial and Programs Manager