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Experimental artist Jessie French on how algae could be the secret to a post plastic world

Photography By Ben Thomson @benjamin_thomson

What would a world without single-use plastic look like? Or a future free from petrochemicals, where fossilised organic materials were kept in the ground?

If an alternate universe free from polluting plastics should ever exist, then the work of artist, experimental designer and enthusiastic beekeeper, Jessie French, belongs in it. From her Melbourne studio Other Matter, she speculates on the possibilities of a post-petrochemical world through a humble, aquatic organism: algae, bringing it into a home setting with her agar-based tableware vessels.  

Microalgae pigments create deep aquatic tones and have a resin-like texture, giving each piece a terrestrial, almost sublunary feel. This is perhaps to be expected of someone who has the future of the natural world front of mind at all times. “The ‘speculative futures’ part of my work is largely addressing the pervasive use of oil and petrochemicals, particularly petrochemical plastic,” French says. “These materials are far too cheap for the destruction they cause and the lasting impacts they have on the planet and on other species”.

Jessie French - Image by Ben Thomson

French’s interest in algae-based solutions to petrochemical plastic has taken her from inner-city Melbourne to the tip of North Africa. In early 2020, she embarked on a research residency in Morocco as a member of the quaintly named Seaweed Appreciation Society International, developing algae-based recipes and researching seaweed supply chains. This time abroad inspired her unique range of agar-based bioplastic tablewares.

Though an artist at heart, French’s work goes beyond scratching a creative itch: she wants to test the viability of this material and its capacity to replace polluting non-biodegradable plastics. By creating agar recipes, and melting and moulding vessels and furnishings, she is able to identify limitations; testing the material’s commercial viability and end-of-life opportunities. Her bioplastic designs aren’t made to last forever, but they can certainly live more than one life.  

“Prolonged contact with water or high heat will make [the tablewares] degrade but the beauty is that they are able to be shaped and remoulded,” French explains. “So theoretically, they can be used for as long as people like.” They are also designed to find an ecologically kinder final resting place, able to be composted or recycled from home. If every container, bowl, plate or piece of packaging was as multifarious as these, the bins of the future could be empty.  

Ben Thomson @benjamin_thomson

Ben Thomson @benjamin_thomson

While her exhibitions have taken precedence, French also fields a number of custom designs, which recently included “big sheets” of bioplastic. Resembling something from a H.G. Wells novel, she says the practical application for these designs spans many industries: “They’re in development with a number of clients but basically they could be used as internal interior design fit-outs, hanging curtains or exhibition stand components. These sheets make great portable exhibition displays because these spaces are often temporary – so clients can use them, then return them to me and I can melt them down and use them as something else.” 

After focusing on algae for five years, French returned to study in 2020, immersing herself in history and the philosophy of science, subjects that inspire her current studio practice and drive her to continue exploring the interplay between biology and technology to shape a petrochemical-free future. “The fight against plastic can get quite overwhelming, particularly when you’re thinking about the environmental impact and government inaction,” French says. 

“But being able to imagine a solution and bring it into a physical space that other people can have access to provides hope that things could change.” While French admits she is tempted from time to time to experiment with other biomaterials, for now, she is content with being an authority on algae and developing a range of applications for algal bioplastic: “There’s value for me to explore the longterm benefits and be a source of knowledge and expertise on algae.”  

Want to learn how to make your own algae-based bioplastic pieces? Stay up to date with Other Matter’s talks, events and workshops here.

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