Pop!Tech: Chris Jordan and Imaging Consumerism

It’s my fourth year at the Pop!Tech conference, the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine. I got email from a dear friend today asking me why I made time for this particular conference. My response – it’s one of the events where I encounter the highest-density of interesting ideas in a brief time. I usually find three to five ideas that shift my thinking on a big topic over the course of three days – that density makes the investment of time well worthwhile.

Andrew Zolli, our host and curator, frames the theme of the conference – The Human Impact – with a video that shows the shrinkage of North Pole ice. While some of the shrinkage is seasonal, he tells us that much of the impact is human and was shocking to scientists. (He offers an image of Al Gore with a flamethrower, melting glaciers, with the observation, “He really wanted that Nobel…” Human impact will link together conversations about oceans, sustainability, consumerism and other topics.


Discarded cellphones. Photo by Chris Jordan.

Photographer and artist Chris Jordan is invited to lead off with a set of uncomfortable images about consumerism. He leads off with images from his 2003-20005 series, Intolerable Beauty. The photos are of the “detritus of mass consumption”, the dark side of the shiny, beautiful and new things we consume. The images, he tells us, are intenteded to be claustrophobic, “squeezing almost all nature out of the images.” We see piles of garbage, stacks of cars heading to a shredder in Tacoma, Washington. “The shred goes off to China, where they make new ships, fill them with plastic stuff and send it back to us.” The best known of these images, he tells us, is the image shown above, a set of discarded mobile phones that he organized into a shape inspired by photos of the Andromeda galaxy.

In building this image, Jordan discovered a problem with numbers and statistics. In showing people this image of discarded phones, he told people, “We discard 130 million mobile phones in the US every year.” But those numbers aren’t really comprehensible, even to Jordan. So he’s now trying a radically different approach. Committing to a new process of building digital composite images, he sold his large format cameras at a garage sale and began building images that actually counted the use of some of these products.

An early image was of 426,000 mobile phones, the number discarded in the US per day. He bought a few hundred discarded mobile phones, stirred them up and took photos of the arrangements. With a few hundred different photos, he sewed them together into a tableau representing an accurate count of 426,000 phones. (A detail from that image appears above.)

These images can be hard to understand – they often need other objects to put them into scale. Jordan photographed 8 reams of paper, restacked them several times, and turned them into an image of 30,000 reams – 15 million sheets – the amount of office paper used every five minutes in the US – that mass dwarfs a pair of human figures. Scaled up to a day’s use, the human figures are reduced to mere pixels, which means that he has to show the mass of paper against a sillouhette of Seattle’s Space Needle, which is much smaller than a day’s paper usage.

He shows a set of related images called “Running the Numbers” – 60,000 paper bags, five minute’s worth of use. An overlay of jet contrails in the sky, representing 34,000 airplane flights a day. Two million plastic boggles – five minutes use – which gives him an opportunity to rail against the phenomenon of bottled water. He’s made a portrait of Ansel Adams’s photo of Mt. McKinley made from Yukon Denali logos, photoshopped to become “Denial” logos. Seurat’s famous “Saturday in the Park” is rebuilt from aluminum cans, one can per pixel. Scaled to show a day’s aluminum can use, the image massively dwarfs the US skyline.

The idea behind these images, Jordan tells is, is “the need to feel something, to fall in love with these issues.” He wants us to feel angry, feel ashamed. He posits that this culture of waste is why America is so hated globally, why Al Qaeda attacked the US, instead of Brazil or Russia. Ultimately, though, he wants these images to inspire hope – the possibility that individuals can make a change in their behavior and impact these issues personally.


One of the better questions put to Jordan from the audience asks whether he’s considered visualizing the positive as well as the negative – organic carrots purchased, letters sent by kindergarteners to troops in Iraq. Jordan concedes the importance of inspiring, not just scaring, with a quote from Van Jones, who will be speaking to close the conference: “Martin Luther King didn’t inspire people by saying, ‘I have a complaint’.”

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8 Responses to Pop!Tech: Chris Jordan and Imaging Consumerism

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow. Those discarded-cellphone images are incredibly powerful. The phones spiraling like a galaxy remind me of some of Goldsworthy’s photos of artfully arranged leaves, though I think of Goldsworthy as anti-consumerist in a different way…

    “Martin Luther King didn’t inspire people by saying, ‘I have a complaint’.”

    That’s a great line.

  2. katrin says:

    Great post, Ethan. For recycling phones (de-manufacturing, primarily) and benefiting a nonprofit, see http://www.collectivegood.com/. Steve Heine there partners with Chris to popularize recycling of m-waste.

    Katrin

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  8. (a different) ethan says:

    MLK, Jr. also didn’t attempt to inspire people by focusing on all the instances where racism wasn’t a factor. There’s only so much we can focus on — while we need to acknowledge the good that exists, focusing on it at the expense of what’s screwed up is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand and perpetuating the bad.

    What’s that Napoleon quote? “If it’s good news, it can wait until morning. However, if it is bad news, wake me immediately.”

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