Running the Numbers

Where does your mind go when someone starts spewing statistics? When was the last time a cold, hard number moved people to tears or inspired action? If the nightly news reports a 0.5 percent increase in unemployment or that a portion of the population has gone bankrupt, does anyone really stop to consider how many people that represents? How many lives have been radically altered?

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 2007), recent research done at the University of Oregon suggests that we are unable to ‘care’ about massive numbers, especially in the case of chronic human atrocities. As death tolls increase or hospitals fill up, our sensitivity to additional stimuli decreases, just as a single voice noticeably changes the volume of a small group but makes no difference in a crowd. The effect is what Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at Oregon, calls ‘psychological numbing.’ The reflex that kicks information toward the feeling part of our brain simply shuts down.

Photographic artist Chris Jordan offers one solution to statistics-induced apathy in his precise new series, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. Jordan takes the mind-boggling data that define U.S. culture–the billions spent in Iraq, the number of Americans behind bars–and creates emblematic images to use as an organizing principle: a note of currency, a folded prison uniform. Then, by shrinking, arranging, and digitally knitting these icons to create vast photographic prints that tell their own stories, he’s able to humanize the overwhelming.

In ‘Cans Seurat,’ Jordan reproduces 106,000 aluminum beverage cans (the number discarded in the United States every 30 seconds) to fill up a 60- by 92-inch version of Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,’ which functions as a commentary on portion packaging. ‘Paper Bags’ features 1.14 million brown sacks, the number used in the United States every hour, stacked 5 feet tall in columns reminiscent of tree trunks. The images are obviously manipulated, but they evoke hyperrealism. ‘Even if the most conscientious person wanted to go and look at all the barrels of oil that we consume in the United States in a single day, there’s nowhere to go and see that,’ Jordan says. ‘It’s spread out in society–this incredibly complex, invisible process–and there’s nowhere to go see the cumulative effect.’

In a previous series, Intolerable Beauty, Jordan sought out piles of detritus (seas of discarded cell phones, crushed automobiles) in an effort to document the impact of our collective consumption. The images were breathtaking, but when he showed them, Jordan ended up having to rely on raw statistics to give context to the work. Running the Numbers is his attempt to go deeper, each print making visible the very real sums and totals that we’d otherwise never see.

Stretching your mind around boggling quantities of waste is only part of the intellectual exercise that Jordan’s work requires, however. In ‘Building Blocks,’ 9 million assorted toy blocks cheerfully pile up, one for each American child without health insurance in 2007. Imagine craning forward to inspect the tiny squares, each no wider than your pinkie finger, and then pulling back to take in the 16- by 32-foot panel installment required to display all 9 million. This play between the micro and the macro, the urge to inspect close up, and the opportunity to recognize each unit as a fundamental part of the whole forces us to consider the roles we play not just as individuals, but as citizens.

In the United States, despite our cell phones and web browsers, we remain largely isolated, functioning locally and seeing the same handful of people every day. ‘The collective has gotten so enormous that it’s incomprehensible,’ Jordan says. ‘We’re like trees in the forest, and all we can see is ourselves and the few trees in our grove, and so we look at what we’re doing and it doesn’t seem that terrible. Each of us thinks: It must not be me who’s destroying the world.

‘It’s something I really feel [empathy] for, because the other option is trying to open our minds so wide that we can actually wrap our arms around a community of 350 million people who are all consuming at an insane rate and see ourselves as part of this incomprehensibly complex system. That’s a very difficult mental task.’

Difficult, yes, but not wholly impossible: Remaining isolated, after all, is just another way of going solo, of staying individual, which is to say, totally American. Putting society’s needs first is counterintuitive, somehow even a little unpatriotic–‘like the worst sort of communism,’ as Jordan puts it. But by extending our lines of sight just a little bit–by making seemingly faceless percentages personal–we can begin to understand that no action or decision exists in a vacuum.

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