TED2008

Chris Jordan: Turning powerful stats into art

Filmed:

Artist Chris Jordan shows us an arresting view of what Western culture looks like. His supersized images picture some almost unimaginable statistics -- like the astonishing number of paper cups we use every single day.

- Artist
Chris Jordan runs the numbers on modern American life -- making large-format, long-zoom artwork from the most mindblowing data about our stuff. Full bio

My work is about the behaviors that we all engage in unconsciously,
00:12
on a collective level.
00:17
And what I mean by that, it's the behaviors
00:19
that we're in denial about,
00:21
and the ones that operate below the surface of our daily awareness.
00:22
And as individuals, we all do these things, all the time, everyday.
00:29
It's like when you're mean to your wife
00:32
because you're mad at somebody else.
00:35
Or when you drink a little too much at a party, just out of anxiety.
00:37
Or when you overeat because your feelings are hurt, or whatever.
00:40
And when we do these kind of things,
00:46
when 300 million people do unconscious behaviors,
00:48
then it can add up to a catastrophic consequence
00:52
that nobody wants, and no one intended.
00:55
And that's what I look at with my photographic work.
00:57
This is an image I just recently completed, that is --
01:00
when you stand back at a distance,
01:04
it looks like some kind of neo-Gothic, cartoon image
01:05
of a factory spewing out pollution.
01:08
And as you get a little bit closer,
01:11
it starts looking like lots of pipes, like maybe a chemical plant,
01:14
or a refinery, or maybe a hellish freeway interchange.
01:18
And as you get all the way up close,
01:22
you realize that it's actually made of lots and lots of plastic cups.
01:23
And in fact, this is one million plastic cups,
01:28
which is the number of plastic cups that are used on airline flights
01:30
in the United States every six hours.
01:35
We use four million cups a day on airline flights,
01:36
and virtually none of them are reused or recycled.
01:41
They just don't do that in that industry.
01:43
Now, that number is dwarfed
01:46
by the number of paper cups we use every day,
01:48
and that is 40 million cups a day for hot beverages,
01:51
most of which is coffee.
01:54
I couldn't fit 40 million cups on a canvas,
01:55
but I was able to put 410,000. That's what 410,000 cups looks like.
01:58
That's 15 minutes of our cup consumption.
02:03
And if you could actually stack up that many cups in real life,
02:04
that's the size it would be.
02:08
And there's an hour's worth of our cups.
02:09
And there's a day's worth of our cups.
02:12
You can still see the little people way down there.
02:13
That's as high as a 42-story building,
02:15
and I put the Statue of Liberty in there as a scale reference.
02:17
Speaking of justice, there's another phenomenon going on in our culture
02:23
that I find deeply troubling, and that is that America, right now,
02:26
has the largest percentage of its population in prison
02:29
of any country on Earth.
02:32
One out of four people, one out of four humans in prison
02:35
are Americans, imprisoned in our country.
02:38
And I wanted to show the number.
02:43
The number is 2.3 million Americans were incarcerated in 2005.
02:44
And that's gone up since then, but we don't have the numbers yet.
02:48
So, I wanted to show 2.3 million prison uniforms,
02:50
and in the actual print of this piece,
02:54
each uniform is the size of a nickel on its edge.
02:57
They're tiny. They're barely visible as a piece of material,
03:00
and to show 2.3 million of them required a canvas
03:03
that was larger than any printer in the world would print.
03:07
And so I had to divide it up into multiple panels
03:09
that are 10 feet tall by 25 feet wide.
03:11
This is that piece installed in a gallery in New York --
03:13
those are my parents looking at the piece.
03:18
(Laughter)
03:20
Every time I look at this piece,
03:23
I always wonder if my mom's whispering to my dad,
03:24
"He finally folded his laundry."
03:26
(Laughter)
03:28
I want to show you some pieces now that are about addiction.
03:31
And this particular one is about cigarette addiction.
03:33
I wanted to make a piece that shows the actual number of Americans
03:37
who die from cigarette smoking.
03:40
More than 400,000 people die in the United States every year
03:42
from smoking cigarettes.
03:45
And so, this piece is made up of lots and lots of boxes of cigarettes.
03:47
And, as you slowly step back,
03:51
you see that it's a painting by Van Gogh, called "Skull with Cigarette."
03:52
It's a strange thing to think about, that on 9/11,
03:56
when that tragedy happened, 3,000 Americans died.
04:00
And do you remember the response?
04:02
It reverberated around the world,
04:05
and will continue to reverberate through time.
04:07
It will be something that we talk about in 100 years.
04:10
And yet on that same day, 1,100 Americans died from smoking.
04:13
And the day after that, another 1,100 Americans died from smoking.
04:18
And every single day since then, 1,100 Americans have died.
04:21
And today, 1,100 Americans are dying from cigarette smoking.
04:25
And we aren't talking about it -- we dismiss it.
04:27
The tobacco lobby, it's too strong.
04:32
We just dismiss it out of our consciousness.
04:34
And knowing what we know about the destructive power of cigarettes,
04:38
we continue to allow our children, our sons and daughters,
04:44
to be in the presence of the influences that start them smoking.
04:48
And this is what the next piece is about.
04:51
This is just lots and lots of cigarettes: 65,000 cigarettes,
04:54
which is equal to the number of teenagers
04:57
who will start smoking this month, and every month in the U.S.
05:00
More than 700,000 children in the United States aged 18 and under
05:03
begin smoking every year.
05:07
One more strange epidemic in the United States
05:09
that I want to acquaint you with
05:15
is this phenomenon of abuse and misuse of prescription drugs.
05:17
This is an image I've made out of lots and lots of Vicodin.
05:23
Well, actually, I only had one Vicodin
05:27
that I scanned lots and lots of times.
05:29
(Laughter)
05:31
And so, as you stand back, you see 213,000 Vicodin pills,
05:32
which is the number of hospital emergency room visits
05:35
yearly in the United States,
05:39
attributable to abuse and misuse of prescription painkillers
05:40
and anti-anxiety medications.
05:45
One-third of all drug overdoses in the U.S. --
05:46
and that includes cocaine, heroin, alcohol, everything --
05:50
one-third of drug overdoses are prescription medications.
05:53
A strange phenomenon.
05:58
This is a piece that I just recently completed
05:59
about another tragic phenomenon. And that is the phenomenon,
06:03
this growing obsession we have with breast augmentation surgery.
06:06
384,000 women, American women, last year
06:12
went in for elective breast augmentation surgery.
06:16
It's rapidly becoming the most popular high school graduation gift,
06:21
given to young girls who are about to go off to college.
06:25
So, I made this image out of Barbie dolls,
06:31
and so, as you stand back you see this kind of floral pattern,
06:34
and as you get all the way back, you see 32,000 Barbie dolls,
06:39
which represents the number of breast augmentation surgeries
06:43
that are performed in the U.S. each month.
06:46
The vast majority of those are on women under the age of 21.
06:48
And strangely enough, the only plastic surgery
06:54
that is more popular than breast augmentation is liposuction,
06:56
and most of that is being done by men.
07:00
Now, I want to emphasize that these are just examples.
07:02
I'm not holding these out as being the biggest issues.
07:06
They're just examples.
07:09
And the reason that I do this, it's because I have this fear
07:12
that we aren't feeling enough as a culture right now.
07:16
There's this kind of anesthesia in America at the moment.
07:20
We've lost our sense of outrage, our anger and our grief
07:23
about what's going on in our culture right now,
07:31
what's going on in our country,
07:33
the atrocities that are being committed in our names around the world.
07:34
They've gone missing; these feelings have gone missing.
07:36
Our cultural joy, our national joy is nowhere to be seen.
07:40
And one of the causes of this, I think,
07:43
is that as each of us attempts to build this new kind of worldview,
07:47
this holoptical worldview, this holographic image
07:51
that we're all trying to create in our mind
07:55
of the interconnection of things: the environmental footprints
07:57
1,000 miles away of the things that we buy;
08:00
the social consequences 10,000 miles away
08:03
of the daily decisions that we make as consumers.
08:06
As we try to build this view,
08:09
and try to educate ourselves about the enormity of our culture,
08:11
the information that we have to work with is these gigantic numbers:
08:14
numbers in the millions, in the hundreds of millions,
08:20
in the billions and now in the trillions.
08:23
Bush's new budget is in the trillions, and these are numbers
08:26
that our brain just doesn't have the ability to comprehend.
08:28
We can't make meaning out of these enormous statistics.
08:32
And so that's what I'm trying to do with my work,
08:36
is to take these numbers, these statistics
08:40
from the raw language of data, and to translate them
08:41
into a more universal visual language, that can be felt.
08:46
Because my belief is, if we can feel these issues,
08:49
if we can feel these things more deeply,
08:53
then they'll matter to us more than they do now.
08:55
And if we can find that,
09:00
then we'll be able to find, within each one of us,
09:01
what it is that we need to find to face the big question,
09:06
which is: how do we change?
09:09
That, to me, is the big question that we face as a people right now:
09:12
how do we change? How do we change as a culture,
09:17
and how do we each individually take responsibility
09:21
for the one piece of the solution that we are in charge of,
09:25
and that is our own behavior?
09:29
My belief is that you don't have to make yourself bad
09:30
to look at these issues.
09:40
I'm not pointing the finger at America in a blaming way.
09:42
I'm simply saying, this is who we are right now.
09:46
And if there are things that we see
09:48
that we don't like about our culture,
09:50
then we have a choice.
09:51
The degree of integrity that each of us can bring to the surface,
10:02
to bring to this question, the depth of character that we can summon,
10:07
as we show up for the question of how do we change --
10:14
it's already defining us as individuals and as a nation,
10:17
and it will continue to do that, on into the future.
10:25
And it will profoundly affect the well-being, the quality of life
10:28
of the billions of people
10:35
who are going to inherit the results of our decisions.
10:36
I'm not speaking abstractly about this,
10:45
I'm speaking -- this is who we are in this room,
10:46
right now, in this moment.
10:56
Thank you and good afternoon.
10:58
(Applause)
11:03

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About the Speaker:

Chris Jordan - Artist
Chris Jordan runs the numbers on modern American life -- making large-format, long-zoom artwork from the most mindblowing data about our stuff.

Why you should listen

Photographer Chris Jordan trains his eye on American consumption. His 2003-05 series "Intolerable Beauty" examines the hypnotic allure of the sheer amount of stuff we make and consume every day: cliffs of baled scrap, small cities of shipping containers, endless grids of mass-produced goods.

His 2005 book In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster is a chilling, unflinching look at the toll of the storm. And his latest series of photographs, "Running the Numbers," gives dramatic life to statistics of US consumption. Often-heard factoids like "We use 2 million plastic bottles every 5 minutes" become a chilling sea of plastic that stretches beyond our horizon.

In April 2008, Jordan traveled around the world with National Geographic as an international eco-ambassador for Earth Day 2008.

More profile about the speaker
Chris Jordan | Speaker | TED.com