Interview: Environmental artist Chris Jordan talks sustainability
By Nick Lavars
February 18, 2014
Around the world there are hundreds of millions of discarded mobile phones lying around in drawers and boxes, displaced by the bigger screen or better camera of the latest version. But truth be told, even if we were talking about hundreds of billions it would be unlikely to elicit a much different response, because ridiculously big numbers are ridiculously big numbers, right? Seattle-based photographer and activist Chris Jordan is on a mission to make these measures of consumerism manifest through visual art and, as he explained to Gizmag, bridge the disconnect between our mass consumption and its largely invisible consequences.
We caught up with Jordan in Australia where he has been collaborating with a class of local high school students to create an installation resembling a giant cell phone at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne city. By using roughly 7,000 old phones to create the artwork, that's about a third of the devices that are discarded in Australia each day, Jordan hopes to draw attention to the wider effects of excessive consumerism.
"In Australia there are an estimated 23 million unused mobile phones, one for every man, women and child," says Jordan. "The amount of mining and thousands and thousands of tons of raw materials that this represents is huge, and this is just our cell phones ... one piece of technology."
This paints a disconcerting picture of the waste a developed society can generate and is only one example of the global mass consumption juggernaut that Jordan attempts to bring attention to through his works.
Beginning his career in the Port of Seattle, his father too a photographer, Jordan observed artistic beauty in the most unlikely of places. "My father was into black and white photography, so I rebelled and got into color," he says. "I was doing color formalism, looking for beautiful, rich and compelling palettes of color in unexpected places, and one place I found it was in giant piles of rubbish."
Seeing beauty where others might see simply a pile of trash, Jordan pursued his new favorite subject purely as a creative outlet. It was only when he first showed his work to friends that he began to view it in a different light.
"It was these activist friends of mine that I showed my work to who saw it as a kind of portrait of America," Jordan says. "That woke me up to the idea that I could follow this thread and actually do a study of mass consumption through this strange beauty of garbage."
What followed was a line of American self-portraits, taking data that represented his country's tremendous waste and consumption and translating it to large-scale visual representations. 260,000 car keys, one for each gallon of gasoline burnt in US motor vehicles every minute, became a pile-up of totaled cars. One million plastic cups, the number used on US airline flights every six hours, became an intricate and stunning labyrinth of pipes.You get the idea.
While in the early days, Jordan's work was largely centered on mass consumption, he soon saw the potential of his photography to draw attention to other, equally pressing issues.
"I started with mass consumption, it was the obvious subject right in front of my face living in Seattle," says Jordan. "After one of my exhibitions a woman came up and asked me if I ever thought about how many people are dying of starvation or the effects of climate change. It opened up whole doorway into all these other issues and became a tool for visualizing these otherwise invisible mass phenomena."
In beginning to look at his work as a form of social commentary, Jordan widened his focus to looks at issues of waste in all area of life. 200,000 packs of cigarettes, one for each American that dies from smoking every six months, were arranged to replicate Van Gogh's "Skull With Cigarette," while 125,000 one hundred dollar bills (US$12.5 million) form a portrait of Benjamin Franklin to represent the amount spent hourly on the Iraq war.
"These issues that are so important in the real world, exist only in our mind as an abstract figure," says Jordan. "If we can't comprehend the issue then we don't feel anything, therefore we don't act. I'm trying to create these images that point toward comprehension of the issues so we begin to feel something, so its not just an intellectual exercise. If we feel angry, or sad, or frightened, that is when we act decisively."
It is this approach that has seen Jordan gain recognition as an innovative thinker and a sought after voice on issues facing the environment, landing him appearances at events such as Melbourne's annual Sustainable Living Festival, where he created his giant cell phone installation. Though far from home, Jordan was less than heartened by some of the familiarities he observes in Australia's adaptation of particular habits.
"It makes me sad to say it, but the hub of global mass consumption is the US and we have been exporting this worldview to other first world countries with great success," he says."I wish I could get on a microphone and say not to buy into that worldview, and that stuff does not necessarily equal happiness."
While technological advancement undoubtedly plays a part in this consumption, many hold high hopes that the it will also drive a sustainable future, largely through cleaner, more efficient sources of energy. Jordan holds less optimism, and also emphasizes his belief that an over reliance on technology could lead to a dangerous level of complacency.
"A lot of people are stuck in this idea that technology will save the world and I think this is a form of denial," he says. "Look at the plastic in our oceans. These entrepreneurs are designing ships with huge mouths designed to go around scooping up the plastic, but its actually measures less than a millimeter and is constantly swirling around in the currents, breaking down further in size. If you talk to scientists, there is nothing that can remove the plastic from our oceans."
In Jordan's view, key to reducing waste is small behavioral changes that individuals and society can make, each forming a tiny part of a much larger solution, that is as complex and detailed as one of his works.
"We don't need to drink water out of plastic bottles. We don't need to drink out of plastic cups. The solutions to over consumption will be as varied and multidimensional as the problems are, there is no one answer. Technology certainly plays a role, but it is not the solution."
You can check out more of Jordan's works over at his website – chrisjordan.com.
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