Seattle-based visual artist and activist Chris Jordan returns to Duke to participate in a panel and Q&A for this year’s Duke Arts Festival on Oct. 30 from 7 to 9 p.m. His work addresses issues of mass consumerism and environmentalism. Recess staff writer Derek Saffe spoke with Jordan about his journey, environmental activism as art and the experience of creating his new film, “Midway: Message from the Gyre."
Recess: What was the point in your life when you turned to activism?
Chris Jordan: I had been photographing for a number of years before I began to focus on the issue of mass consumption. I was doing work that the art world would consider formalism. I always sensed that there was something missing. I wanted my art to engage with the contemporary world, and it came to me by happenstance. I didn’t choose mass consumption. It kind of chose me because I started finding giant piles of garbage while exploring Seattle. I photographed them because I thought they were so cool-looking, especially their colors. I have this color theory that I’ve been working on for years and the whole theory is about finding unexpectedly beautiful and complex palettes of color in subjects that were otherwise totally mundane. So giant piles of garbage were the ultimate find. I took a bunch of photos, and then some of my friends that are photographers and activists saw these photos and said, 'Well, the colors are cool but these are really a macabre portrait of America.' This is a subject to follow that is cutting-edge relevant. I was sort of the last one to realize that.
R: What initiated your fervor for artistic activism in this realm?
CJ: I think I’ve seen the failing of what I think of as the old paradigm version of activism, which I’ve been guilty of myself. People talk about these issues in the framework of ‘here’s the problem and here’s the solution and all of you need to go do the solution.’ This kind of preachy, finger-waggy approach to problem-solving in environmental activism [is prevalent], and I think it really misses the mark in a whole bunch of different ways. It’s hypocritical, and it doesn’t work. A lot of environmental activism is disempowering. They tell us the enormity of the problem and the five things we can do: bring cans back, recycle your plastic bottles, etc. These gestures are not legitimatize solutions to the problem. We all sense that, and we don’t talk about it, but we don’t make a dent in these massive frightening issues.
R: So your latest documentary, "Midway," what was the impetus for that?
CJ: Well, I got interested in the pacific garbage patch, and when I researched it I found out that it doesn’t even really exist. There are millions of tons of plastic garbage floating in the ocean and they are mostly invisible. [The pacific garbage patch] is not a floating island we can take a satellite photo of. It’s one of those images like climate change; it’s invisible, and there’s nowhere you can go and see it. I was working on some pieces and I was at a meeting with scientists and I said, ‘I don’t want to create an abstract artwork of the garbage patch. I want to take an actual photograph of the garbage patch.’ One of the scientists then turned toward me and said, ‘Then go to Midway Island and go look in the stomachs of dead baby albatross’. And that just hit me like a thunderbolt.
Midway is this strange, coincidentally symbolic thing. This particular bird has a long history in our poetry and literature as a carrier of messages—the albatross. Of all possible birds, it's this one that already has this mythic nature. And of all the possible names that this island could have, it's called 'Midway,' this incredibly evocative term where humanity finds itself. It presented itself like a parable, and it just drew me to it like a magnet.
R: Why is photography your most prevalent medium? And in that vein, why would you want to take a motion picture documentary approach for "Midway?"
CJ: I love photography for its ability to depict something that’s happening in the real world. There's always been a lot of controversy about whether photography really does depict something in the real world. But more than any other medium, there's something about taking a photo of a bird, lying on the ground with its body filled with plastic versus making a painting or a drawing. There is still something that feels real with photography and with documentary photography. When I first went to Midway, I thought about just photographing these dead birds filled with plastic. But it wasn’t until I actually met the albatross, these wonderful creatures that are big and beautiful and powerful and graceful as eagles. There are a million of them and they have no fear of humans. They’ve been living there for 4 million years and they’ve never had a predator.
R: What direction do you see your work heading from Midway onwards?
CJ: I know I want to do more Running the Numbers pieces, and I would love to make another film. I really think film is the medium of our time. You can say so much in 90 minutes. You can reach a global audience so easily.
R: What did you get out of being at Duke while you were a visiting professor last year and what did it contribute to your art?
CJ: Being part of the Across the Threshold conference while I was there was an amazing experience and it was the first time that I was in a conference with such a body connection and so much body movement. I loved how it was centered around the arts and not technology... It was extremely centered around the arts and it was super inspiring and I feel like the upcoming festival will do the same.
R: What are you showing at the festival?
CJ: I think I’m going to try to concentrate on my series, Running the Numbers. Those are large-scale digital artworks that attempt to illustrate statistics about our mass consumption—the mass issues of our time. When I do my talks I'll be showing clips from ["Midway"].