On June 6 through 13, a team of scientists, artists, and filmmakers explored remote beaches of Alaska, to assess the impact of debris washing out of the great gyres, or currents, in the Pacific Ocean. Called the Gyre Expedition, the project was launched by the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum.
The multidisciplinary team is producing a series of multimedia reportage and mixed-media art that will be showcased in Anchorage and in a touring exhibit, starting in February 2014.
On the expedition was J.J. Kelley, an adventure filmmaker, producer, and director who has made several projects for National Geographic. Kelley’s work has also appeared on NOVA, PBS, and Outside TV.
We asked Kelley about the Gyre Expedition and his process. (View updates from the voyage.)
How did you get involved in the Gyre Expedition?
I have done various adventure films, and for one we built kayaks and kayaked from Alaska to Seattle, along all these pristine shorelines. But we started to see little bits of garbage along the way, so that raised our awareness. It drove us to do films that are entertaining but challenge our role as stewards of the planet. Let’s be adventurous, but be real about the fact that some of these places are polluted.
I have worked off and on for National Geographic over the past seven years. I did Battle for the Elephants and a film about the Ganges, and then a year and a half ago this group [Gyre Expedition] contacted me. They were going to have a cast of characters, scientists would look at marine debris and artists would translate what they found into an art exhibition that would travel the world.
So with the support of the Alaska SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum, I got some grant money and made a film.
What is the story behind the expedition?
The Gyre Expedition was four years in the making. It took time to get an all-star team together and to raise money.
It was a throwback, Jacques Cousteau kind of expedition, because they had a 110-foot ship, a helicopter, guys who could jump in the water and film, scientists, artists, and even educators.
How long is the film and how will it be shown?
It’s a short film, 20 minutes. The trailer is in the September iPad edition of National Geographic, and there is a page about it in the September print magazine. The film will premiere August 20th on National Geographic’s website, and then we’ll take it to various film festivals.
I like the idea of making content for the web. It’s something everyone can access from around the world, not just people with paid cable plans. Marine debris is really a global problem. In fact, most of the stuff we found was from Asia, because of the way the gyres work.
There was a lot of fishing debris from Alaska, but nothing we could identify as coming from the lower 48.
So what did the team find along the Alaska shoreline during the expedition?
Really weird, obscure things. We saw signposts from Japan, [pushed out to sea by] the  tsunami, fishing floats from Japan, and a lot of stuff you see at Wal-mart, like shotgun shells and cigarette lighters. We saw airplane wings.
It’s really weird to find stuff there because it seems so out of place in this pristine wilderness environment.
We saw a lot of light stuff from the 2011 tsunami in Japan because the wind pushed it there first. A lot of pieces are still on their way, you can see from a satellite this wave of garbage coming toward the Aleutians.
Could you see direct impacts of debris on wildlife?
We didn’t see any cases of animals entangled [in debris] on our short trip, but it’s definitely happening there, and we are using footage in our film from the area of sea lions that choked to death on plastic.
We talked to Chris Pallister, who goes a beach called Gore Point every year. He removed 40 tons, and in one year it came right back. That beach is somewhat easy to get to; there a lot of places that are so remote that you just have to leave [the trash] there, like bodies on Everest.
What about other impacts?
People pay so much money to go to these remote places only to see all of our garbage. We’re hearing from the Katmai National Park Service that visits to their park are down, and people are citing garbage as a reason not to go up there.
That’s big in Alaska, because people there rely on tourism, as well as fishing, and garbage impacts both of those.
So what kind of art was made on the trip?
The artists were experimenting when they were out there, but we got glimpses of what they are going to do for the exhibit. Everybody came at it with a different perspective.
Andy Hughes is doing photomanipulation that makes pieces of plastic look other-worldly. Pam Longobardi takes the mass of it all, the weirdness, and piles it together, from little rubber duckies to army men.
Mark Dion, a professor at Columbia, has a very spatial mind and is making [the debris] into an archive. He says he wants the garbage to represent a time in history. There has never been a society that has created as much and cared so little about it after, he says. We get a bottle we might use for two minutes and it’s designed to last for 70 years. Millions of pieces are used every day and a lot of it makes its way out to the ocean.
So the artists are challenging the way we look at the cultural archaeology of our time.
How did you get the tone right for the film?
With the films I make I don’t want to bum people out, because you won’t reach anyone. This was an expedition, things are moving, and things were light hearted at times. But we were also talking about some serious issues.
We throw so much stuff away, and a lot of it ends up getting sucked into these enormous ocean currents called gyres. Eventually the ocean spits it out, and it ends up on pristine beaches. But there is hope: there is a chance that if we do get a handle on things, then the ocean will work itself clean.
This collaboration of scientists and artists reminds us of the Cape Farewell project, in which artist and sailor David Buckland led trips to the Arctic and elsewhere in the mid-late 2000s to document the impacts of climate change. Would you say the Gyre Expedition is part of a movement to unite science and art around environmental issues?
[Expedition chief scientist] Carl Safina has a nice line in the film: science tells us how the world really is and how things really work, and the one thing that we don’t have the time and space for in science is to express how that feels to you.
This even goes back to Charles Darwin, when there were artists and scientists on board an expedition.
Science can be really inaccessible for most people, but if you have a way to interpret that visually you reach so many more people.
This interview has been edited.