Chris Jordan – Running the Numbers


Copyright Chris Jordan 2009 courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery and Prestel Verlag

In the Old Testament of the Bible, there are the numerous stories of the Prophets who have an unpopular message for their leaders and the masses, messages that most would prefer to ignore in order to not disrupt their current enjoyable life style. Likewise today, there are those who have grasped what the possible future might look like and apparently like past generations, it seems that many have hoped they were wrong and would soon fade away.

A concerned individual, whether they are a business man, scientist, artist, activist, student or professor, can now create insightful environmental messages utilizing better documentary photographic evidence. Thus shrinking glaciers, or glacier rivers where there were no rivers before, or no ice where there should be fields of ice, can directly illustrate the environment changes. As a “Doubting Thomas”, you can actually go, look and see the changes.

The ability to visual changes is a central issue for Chris Jordan when had attempted to grasp and illustrate the environmental issues of waste. He was finding there was not an effective way to actually visualize what was occurring. It is difficult to comprehend the relationship between being an individual consumer and what the potential accumulation of that consumption might actually look like. Thus he created a series of images based on using individual objects, that when compiled into a larger image in conjunction with an identifying caption, could help us understand what the Big Picture might look like. That at the core is what his recent book Running the Numbers, an American Self-Portrait is attempting to help us comprehend.

The concern for Jordan is that most of the “facts” regarding the components of environmental waste are provided as numbers, frequently in statistics that most of us have difficulty comprehending. The abstraction of statistics can impede us is to understand the relationship between the can of soda in our hand and the tons of cans which end up in a land fall. Especially on a hourly or daily basis, and for some things, it be staggering what we use in a couple of minutes. We can comprehend the individual can, perhaps our filled trash bin at the end of week, but impossible to see all of the cans that are being used in a single week throughout the nation.

Jordan states; “My hope is that images representing these statistics might have a different effect than the raw numbers we encounter daily in books, magazine, and the news. Statistics about our mass culture can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it hard to connect the profoundly important issues they represent. Finding meaning in these huge numbers is made even more difficult by the fact that there is nowhere we can go to see the actual phenomena….they are spread across our nation in an invisible collective that is impossible to experience in any way other than rows of numbers with lots of zeros, written on a page…The underlying aim is to question our roles and responsibilities as individuals in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible and overwhelming.”

The images themselves run the gamut of bland color fields, such as the orange wide stripes, to patterns or perhaps a recognizable but slightly distorted iconic image. What is striking is when you have an opportunity to move in close to study and analyze the details; what objects are used to create the larger image. The image details in conjunction with the descriptive caption as to what this image represents is a powerful, abet sometimes very subtle, message.

The book first provides Jordan’s overall image and in the following pages, starts to drill down into the details of the compositions. As an example at the macro level, we see a somewhat abstract image of a nude woman’s exposed breasts. Then as we drill down and get closer to the granular aspects of the image, it becomes evident that the image, like the pointillist of the turn of the century, has been composed using undressed Barbie dolls. That in itself could be a commentary within a commentary, eh?

The caption for this image provides the external context to the amount of elective breast augmentation surgeries each year, which at first may be difficult to place into the books context of creating industrial waste. Until you consider that this at best is usually an elective surgery, that there are many disposable instruments, sterile drapes, sterile gloves, components and sterile packaging used during the surgical procedure (I know, I have helped create the sterile barrier systems for some of these). The issue is that all of these disposable items are usually consider hazardous waste (having blood contact) without the potential of being re-cycled. They go direct to an expensive land fill for hazardous waste to spend the next thousands of years eventually decomposing.

Similar to his early book, In Katrina’s Wake, Jordan has brought together a broad group of individuals to provide informative essays about both his project and the questions that this project raises about these environmental issues. The essays are written by Chris Bruce, Lucy Lippard and Paul Hawken.

The book was developed in conjunction with Jordan’s traveling exhibition, which was originated at the Museum of Art at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.

As a personal note: with my day job, I have realized that without thinking, I could be unwittingly part of this environmental waste issue as identified by Jordan. By keeping these issues in mind, I know that it is possible to develop smaller, elegant and greener packaging systems that can leave a smaller carbon footprint. And to Jordan’s point, I do believe that each of us can individually start to make a difference, such as what we do, what we purchase and how we use it.


Oil-barrels-detail Breast-augmentations-Barbie-details




by Douglas Stockdale

6 thoughts on “Chris Jordan – Running the Numbers

Add yours

  1. Really excited to see this published in book form. I think Chris Jordan’s work is outstanding, and a stark reminder of where we are heading as a civilization.

    A great bookend to this, and one that I hope will be covered in the blog is Edward Burtynsky’s new book: Oil. The show just opened in Washington DC and it is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

    Thematically, it is completely related to Chris Jordan’s work, but more “straight” in its approach.

    Thanks for covering this on the blog – I can’t wait to see Running the Numbers.

  2. And in fact, I am working on acquiring Burtynsky’s Oil. I had an opportunity to see some of the Oil images at Photo LA earlier this year, very impressive!

  3. Nice book. I like Jordan’s work. And nice sentiment, “And to Jordan’s point, I do believe that each of us can individually start to make a difference, such as what we do, what we purchase and how we use it.” But, alas, wrong. In the time it takes you to screw in one green lightbulb, China and India alone will have brought 12 new carbon footprint generators into the world. It’s a feel good sentiment and Jordan’s is a feel good statement attached to notable work, but the real effect is less than nil.

  4. Having recently worked in China, I understand your point, but when the economy recently changed and consumer buying habits changed, it had a substantail impact on China’s industrial output, many Chinese plants were shut down.

    If we adopt a fatalistic stance and do not attempt to make improvements, then for sure things will probably only get worse. I can install a “green” light bulb at home, but I can also recognize that my particular day job is designing new medical products & drugs. I can ensure that with novel and new medical technologoies that I also select “green” materials and components which minimize the carbon footprint. Because each year, a million or more of what I design are being made somewhere in the world, including China. That is the impact that I can have, and if each person starts to understand their potentialilty, perhaps a bit Polyanna-ic, nevertheless to Jordan’s point, it is possible for each person to have a favorable impact on the environment.

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