Chris Jordan’s Unimaginable Magnitude

November 28th, 2010

Gyre, 2009

Out in the Pacific Ocean there swirls a massive amount of plastic trash floating on the waves and under the surface. It has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Trash Vortex or more simply the Gyre.  It is estimated by Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to spread out over a space twice the size of the continental United States. Though it is not so dense as to be a largely visible pile of trash, it is a soup of plastic ranging from miniature pellets to floating navigation hazards. Birds collect the trash and feed it to their young, which are found dead along the inlands and atolls with guts full of plastic. The amount of plastic in this gyre defies imagination in a very literal sense. Human beings do a very poor job of quantifying magnitudes, especially in a world where billions of participants in international trade contribute to the global waste stream at a rate our homo sapien minds have not yet evolved to grasp. That’s where artist Chris Jordan comes in.

I have been seeing Chris’ images pop up here in there on the internet and have kept the Seattle artist on my radar as one with an exceptionally relevant commentary. His work causes everyone to do a double take without requiring esoteric or academic interpretation. It was a nice surprise to encounter an exhibition of his work on a trip this weekend to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UC Santa Cruz where I had heard my 3 year old might have a chance to see some dolphins. Upon the walls were large format prints of Jordan’s work from his project “Running the Numbers,” which really come alive when one has the ability to look at it standing back as well as up close. In essence, his work deals with depicting numerical quantities in a visual format that brings a greater appreciation of magnitude than digits with zeroes and commas. Using digital imaging software, he is able to graphically represent these quantities in a pointalist composition that reveals the individual objects in detail of close examination.

Plastic Cups, 2008

While the overall composition seen in its entirety is a pattern chosen for aesthetic appeal or a somewhat ironic interpretation of a familiar image, closer examination reveals a sophisticated process of duplication and replication performed by the software using everyday objects: plastic cups, paper bags, lightbulbs, soda cans, Barbie dolls. These component images are then matched for hue and value and mapped to pixel values in the larger composition to the point where they almost become pixels, or points, themselves. The titles of the work and their brief explanations really enforce the recognition of what one is actually looking at, for example:

“Light Bulbs, 2008. Depicts 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage (inefficient wiring, computers in sleep mode, etc.).”

Light Bulbs, 2008

Light Bulbs, 2008 (Detail)

Chris Jordan’s work packs a wallop, a near vertigo inducing recognition of scale that our primate minds are either unable to process or which is intentionally ignored. This may be because such representations of magnitude may make any individual actions feel insignificant, devastating to our egos as if we were to contemplate our place in the universe while looking at the night sky. However, the ideas that tend to crop up after considering these images for a while tend to be broader indictments of certain behaviors which we engage in without questioning, such as buying water in plastic bottles or flying in jets. What Jordan does is make this consideration instantly imperative. Because his images are so accessible, every viewer can make the journey from micro to macro, from individual to global, just by taking a few steps back and forth.

His current website also does an exceptional job of bringing this traversal of scale to the web browser. By clicking on the images, one can zoom in from different level of detail with a smooth animation that is not unlike an exploration of fractal geometry.

His 2009 work “Gyre” hangs on the wall next to a collection of plastic trash assembled by the research center as an educational aid. As with his other work, this piece is married to the evolving commercial and scientific discipline of data visualization which allows one to make the jump from a representation of entirety to view a single candy bar wrapper. This sort of experience can only be helpful in understanding new realities of scale we face in the modern world. Our survival as a species may just depend on adapting mentally to grasp concepts of nearly unimaginable scale and cumulative impacts, whether we’re trying to quantify collateralized debt obligations, habitat destruction or carbon emissions.

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