Outmoded Tech Is Making Mountains of Waste. Is There Any Stopping ‘Upgrade Culture’?

Artist Julia Christensen takes a closer look at our e-waste and what drives us to keep producing more and more

Nearly a decade ago, artist Julia Christensen was in India working on a project when she visited an e-waste processing center and was shocked by the sheer amount of trash she saw.

“I immediately was struck by the question of what is it with our relationship with this stuff that is perpetuating this crazy environmental disaster,” she says over a Zoom call from her studio in Oberlin, Ohio. “I started thinking about our human relationships with electronics and recordable media and thinking about those complexities in order to more broadly understand the e-waste crisis.”

upgrade culture
Patch cables, Mustafabad Market (Delhi, India), 2015, from the series Technology Time

Courtesy the artist

Christensen’s solo exhibition, Upgrade Available, is open now at the Peter and Merle Mullin Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design. The show, which runs through December 20 and will be presented as a virtual exhibition until the gallery reopens, presents a portion of the work that Christensen has made as a result of that trip to the e-waste site. In June, her book of the same name was released through Dancing Foxes Press.

Since 2011, Christensen has been exploring what she calls “upgrade culture,” the collective desire to continually invest in new gear that’s led to a monumental haul of electronic garbage. And, in that time, new generations of cell phones, tablets, and computers have hit the market in relatively rapid succession as the old ones are tossed aside. “Question marks remain,” she says of recycling processes where, maybe, a small portion of the old devices is recycled. “Very often, a lot of the item are trashed.”

She adds, “I just think that the public, in general, hasn’t gotten to the point where we’re thinking critically about this on a mass global scale.”

Christensen considers how the quick pace of technological advancements impact our personal lives. What does this need to obtain the latest gadgets and the latest media formats say about us and our memories? She also looks at how this phenomenon impacts cultural institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she was awarded an Art + Tech Lab Fellowship in 2017. For a museum like LACMA, the archives have been stored using decades of the latest technology. “In the institutional archives, there is every kind of media technology that you can imagine, lots of which is now obsolete,” says Christensen. In the new exhibition, she included a few photos of what she found in those archives.

CyberGuard Robot Sensor (Ahmanson Gallery, LACMA), 2020, from the series Smart Buildings (2017–ongoing).

Courtesy the artist

Through photography, Christensen captures both the physical media used to hold on to memories and archival footage, as well as e-waste. “I think that it’s interesting to look at these photographs juxtaposed next to each other because it’s the same stuff,” she says, “but, depending on the context, the material has totally different financial and cultural value.”

Through LACMA, Christensen was able to connect with scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. They’re now collaborating on technology with a long enough lifespan to possibly support lengthy space missions. One concept presented in her exhibition is an antenna system that uses living trees.

Upgrade Available will also include an installation called “Burnouts,” that’s built with now-obsolete models of iPhones and iPads that display animations of constellations that have been retired. “It turns out that every now and then, astronomers determine that certain constellations are no longer relevant to the study of the night sky. They retire them from star maps,” says Christensen. “I thought it was so interesting that the stars are still there. They are still shining perfectly well, but because we can’t see them as well, because of changes on our own planet, usually light pollution, they’re no longer relevant to us.”

So, why should people be thinking critically about upgrade culture? “Clearly, the environmental disaster that is being wreaked upon our planet is critical,” says Christensen. On the micro-level, though, Christen says that it’s important to think and talk about how much control we have over our relationship with electronics. “So much of this upgrade culture, it feels like it’s forced upon us,” she says. “As a consumer public, I hope that, increasingly, we have more agency over what that looks like.”

In the course of her work regarding upgrade culture, Christensen has learned how complicated the relationship is between consumers, electronic equipment, and related media.

“I think that it is important for us to think about that in our personal lives,” she says. “Why do I need this stuff? How can I fulfill those needs without upgrading all the time?”

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