For artist Julia Christensen, one man’s junk—or more accurately e-waste—is not necessarily another’s treasure. Indeed, as her upcoming retrospective “Julia Christensen: Upgrade Available” proves, the legacy of discarded goods is one of humanity’s most unwelcome gifts.
Julia Christensen likes to talk about trash. More specifically, the exponentially mounting technological waste (digital and analog) that is a byproduct of the consumer electronics epoch. For more than a decade, the artist—who is also the chair of the Studio Art department at Oberlin College—has explored through her creative practice what she defines as “upgrade culture,” the unceasing pressure and push for our material media needs to be relevant. And, just as importantly for Christensen, is her exploration of what happens to obsolete items when they are no longer of use. Foregrounding questions of legacy and duration on a human, terrestrial, and cosmic timescale, Christensen’s upcoming retrospective “Upgrade Available” held at the ArtCenter College of Design and in conjunction with LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab, aims to understand how, in her own words, “our daily interactions with ubiquitous technology slowly builds into the longer legacy of humanity.”
Here, she speaks with Atmos to discuss her exhibition, her concepts of “upgrade culture” and “technology time,” as well as how a stolen computer led her to reconsider our relationships to the ubiquitous devices in our lives.
In your own words, define “upgrade culture.” What does that mean to you?
Well, usually, I define upgrade culture as the pervasive, perceived, perpetual need to upgrade our electronics and electronic media, in order to remain relevant—or in order for our media to remain relevant.
And then, in tandem with the notion of “upgrade culture,” there exists what you refer to as “technology time.” Can you describe what you mean by the latter?
I started thinking about technology and how our contemporary use of technology starts to frame different scales of time. I also started to think about the short cycles of time that impact our daily lives—from the 24-hour news cycle to the never-ending upgrading of a USB cable, and so on. And I came up with this definition of “technology time”— the short cycles, in-between the upgrades, in-between the next thing. It’s the technology time that keeps us constrained in these short horizons of public imagination.
In 2012, you made your first visit to India. And, it was during that trip that you, in your own words, “learned how flexible the word ‘recycling’ is.” This interest in e-waste would seem, in many ways, to be a point of genesis for your trajectory as an artist.
I was actually there working on a different project, called “Surplus Rising.” And, during the course of that project, I was tracking what was happening to large factory machines when factories closed around where I live in Northeast Ohio. I found that some of the machines were being bought and sold, through a depot nearby, and got some addresses of some of the factories that Ohio’s discarded factory machines were being sent to—some of them were in Delhi, India.
I got a grant, and thought that I would go to India to find Ohio’s lost machines in their new homes. But, I ran into obstacle after obstacle; I couldn’t find my machines. However, through the course of that wild goose chase, I landed upon this new information about how trash is imported and exported around the world and how electronics—used and discarded—fit into that global industry. And so, among other things, a trash activist [Ravi Agarwal] that I had met in Delhi, on that trip, pointed me to an e-waste processing center to inquire about this machine—my lost machines.
What I found there was the aggregate of a couple weeks of that company’s haul of discarded waste, mostly from the United States and Europe; the aggregate of all of our daily ubiquitous, technological lives, was there before me. And just the vast material of it changed my thinking drastically. And then the project changed, and I was no longer looking for my machines—I was on to the next set of questions.
I encounter time and again this quoted statistic from a report the United Nations University released in 2017 which noted that, in 2016, 44.7 million tons of e-waste was generated and by 2021, the prediction is that the amount will increase by 17%—totaling 52.2 million metric tons. Just as staggering, the same report notes that, in 2016, “only 20% of e-waste was documented to have been collected and recycled” following the standardized practices for disposing of such waste.
As your work points out, this e-waste—computers, phones, cameras, and much more—is “encoded with our legacies.” What do you mean by that?
I think that technology companies are in this market of ubiquitous technology design—these electronics are designed to act as prosthetics, in a way. They’re prosthetics in terms of our memory, and they’re extensions of ourselves, or are designed to act in that way. And, it seems like a lot of people are ready to accept them as such, too. As a result, what has happened is that we have developed this reliance on these prosthetic electronics.
As a byproduct of that, we increasingly offload our memory and, eventually, our identity onto these machines. When we finish with them, they become very complicated pieces of trash. When they are thrown away, they are in many ways encoded with this history, this time, that we used this prosthetic device to help us through our days. And so, the trash, psychologically, becomes this complicated thing for people to really think critically about, what to do with it, when they’re done with it…
That same report noted that e-waste that isn’t recycled, that doesn’t end up in a landfill is, among other things, “stored in our households.”
Yes, so I unpack this subject in terms of memory, identity, and legacy, as these three forces that we wind up embedding into our electronics. Memory—in terms of our daily lives (the snapshots, the texts, identity, etc.)—in terms of what the stretch of memory that they might hold. After a couple of years, there’s a couple of years of snapshots…and that becomes a part of our identity somehow. Not to mention all the personal information, etc. And legacy—which is buried on these things.
Ultimately, with your work, there is this notion of “the footprint”—what is left behind and what is lost. To that extent, I’m curious why that notion of preserving what is lost, or securing the information so that it’s not, interests you. What about that notion, at its very base, is so compelling?
That’s a really good question. I mean, on that trip to India—the first trip in 2012—two things happened that I found some kind of irony in. I visited my first e-waste processing plant and was blown away by the material that I faced there. And then, when I returned home from India, my computer was stolen and I had not yet backed up all of my documentation from the trip.
So, all I had—the only documentation that I had from that trip—was what was left on my iPhone. And I was blown away over the coming months about how my own memory of the trip was so impacted both by the loss of my documentation and the documentation that I had on my iPhone. It was like somehow my memories of the trip were all in this 9×16 iPhone ratio. I became so hyper-aware of how my memory was being impacted by my prosthetic—these devices were almost acting as my secondary memory bank.
I began to see clearly how the loss of those images was changing the way I thought about my trip. It just led me down this road to some important questions: Why do we do this? Who are we saving things for? Why are we saving things?—and looking backward, How did we do this before the internet and what did it mean?—and, of course, looking forward, too.
How has this journey of your practice affected your relationship to technology—if it has at all?
I mean, you’ve asked the question that I’m asking. And the question is: How is my life, and my memory, and identity, and legacy—and not just mine, but institutions and thinking about future-reaching scientific research—how is all of this being framed by technology? And, also: How can we zoom out to think critically about how our daily interactions with ubiquitous technology slowly builds into the longer legacy of humanity?