Visualization in Ethnography

This group will serve as the collective workspace for all participants and contributors to the Center for Ethnography’s 2018-2019 annual program, Visualization in Ethnography. The program will facilitate creative collection, production, and analysis of visualization in ethnography, cued by the wealth of visual practices and media in play in the worlds contemporary ethnographers study. Participation may take form of enrollment in one more of the program's three component projects: a thematic seminar series, Visualization Across Disciplines, a design project, Visualizing Toxic Subjects, and a “field works” project, Soiled Grounds, in which groups of ethnographers travel together to various sites exploring a shared theme, sharing fieldnotes as they go. The program extends the Center’s investment in new collaborative and ethnographic forms, leveraging new technical possibilities and insights on visualization from the arts, sciences, and informatics.

  • Toxic Data Infrastructures
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    Environmental Justice Nurses

    Caption

    This screenshot points to data resources that gathered on a short field research trip to St. Louis, which are both heavily impacted by industrial pollution. Granite City, just north of St. Louis, artist Chris Carl carried out gardening projects in the vicinity of his studio, including a “DIY remediation” of a lead contaminated site. The city was created for steel manufacturing and featured a lead smelting plant. The area also endures severe lead stress through paint dust emanating from deteriorating housing stock. Chris Carl gathered data resources and documentation about the site, which are not publically accessible or extensively usable. An aim of my project is to understand what kind of civic data infrastructure could help turn these data resources into more of a community resource, contributing to an environmental data commons.

    Design Statement

    This image collage is used to convey how a particular community of practice (public health nursing) has changed over time, partly through changes in supporting technologies.   It also conveys how progressive discourses can remain tethered to entrenched assumptions even when enabled by new technologies and visualization capabilities.

     

    DIY Lead Remediation

    Caption

    This screenshot points to data resources that gathered on a short field research trip to St. Louis, which are both heavily impacted by industrial pollution. Granite City, just north of St. Louis, artist Chris Carl carried out gardening projects in the vicinity of his studio, including a “DIY remediation” of a lead contaminated site. The city was created for steel manufacturing and featured a lead smelting plant. The area also endures severe lead stress through paint dust emanating from deteriorating housing stock. Chris Carl gathered data resources and documentation about the site, which are not publically accessible or extensively usable. An aim of my project is to understand what kind of civic data infrastructure could help turn these data resources into more of a community resource, contributing to an environmental data commons.

    Design Statement

    This image works on at least two levels: it literally collects and displays field data points (examples of data resources that I learned about through field research), but also points to the aim of my overall project: to understand the gap between unavailable and needed environmental data resources to address complex environmental problems and “the Anthropocene.” In turn, the process of looking for existing data and visualizations turned into a way of doing ‘data ethnography’. At the same time, conceptualizing and ‘sketching’ what a potentially useful database could look within the Disaster STS Platform is a way of re-imagining the anthropologist’s role as designer, curator and collaborator in the field (Sánchez Criado and Estallela 2018). Using the screenshot as a visualization also raises the question of how online platforms can be included meaningfully in traditional scholarly forms (such as print or PDF articles, but also exhibitions).

  • Banksy Port Talbot
    Banksy in Port Talbot, Wales
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    Banksy Port Talbot

    Banksy Port Talbot December 2018 n4

    This photo comes from Banksy's website.  His Instagram posting makes it clear that you are meant to start reading or viewing from this angle; the post is accompanied by a sweet tinkling Christmas song "Little Snowflake" (https://www.instagram.com/p/BrkqwhnlNjR/).  The Instagram video then takes the viewer around the corner of the garage to show that the "snowflakes" are coming from a burning chimney or bin (see the next image in this slideshow) ...

    Banksy Port Talbot

    Banksy Port Talbot December 2018 n5

    ...the other side of the image, around the corner.  This is also from Banksy's website.  

    Banksy Port Talbot

    Banksy Port Talbot December 2018 n6

    The full angled/cornered image, also from Banksy's website.  His Instagram video from here pulls up and out above the garage's rooftop to show the steelworks in the not-too-distant background.

    Banksy Port Talbot

    Banksy Port Talbot December 2018 n1

    "Ian Lewis, 55, a steelworker, was surprised to discover Banksy had been at work on his garage wall. “I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment, to be honest. Fans of Banksy have come along to see it,” he said.

    The Aberavon councillor, Nigel Thomas Hunt, said: “We’re buzzing down here. The placing of the work is very clever. You can look at the painting and see the furnaces in the background. We’re delighted. I’ve written to the council already and we need to secure this really quickly.”" https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/19/banksy-port-talbot-mural-south-wales

    Banksy Port Talbot

    Banksy Port Talbot December 2018 n2

    "The local council has stationed members of staff on nearby roads to help manage traffic, as the mural has attracted thousands of visitors, according to Anthony Taylor, a local councillor.

    “There are always 40 to 50 around it,” he said. “People are there at all times of day. We are delighted to have the attraction but we have asked for there to be a little bit of respect. We are trying to get to grips with it, and in the new year we will try to organise things a bit better.”"

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/23/banksy-artwork-in-port-talbot-targeted-by-suspected-attacker

    The Welsh actor Michael Sheen (a native of Port Talbot) is now paying for a security guard.

  • A part of the neighborhood
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    Steel Reserve

    The image captures several modes of toxicity. The can is trash left on the street, the traffic below is constant, and the freeway itself sits below the surface streets indicating the removal of vast amounts of soil. The clean lines and painted surface serve to overshadow the overwhelming pollution produced just feet below.

    I took this photo while walking my dog.

    Freeway woodland

    This photo is facing west on Maple Street along the northern border of the 210 freeway just before the Los Robles Avenue overpass. There are a steady stream of mostly cars and occasional UPS and Fed-Ex delivery trucks. In taking the photo, I tried to show the complete coverage of the freeway by the trees. In this photograph, the freeway is not directly seen, but it is the reason reason for the trees to be there. The vehicle traffic and air pollution produced on the other side of the trees is visually blocked out by the sense of a small woodland area. The photo points to the significant landscaping expertise that is required for freeway maintenance.

    I took this photo while walking my dog.

    No parking next to the garden, through traffic only

    The photo was taken facing south at the corner of Maple St. and Oakland Ave. It shows how the freeway can disappear from view even though it is across the street. The community garden must deal with both the terrible air quality next to the freeway and numerous rodents that live along the freeway and forage at night in the community garden. 

    I took this photo while walking my dog.

  • [Sharon Traweek] In/visible El Segundo: Mapping Erasures of Toxic Subjectivity
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    [Sharon Traweek] Created Image: Odor Diary

    The red dot points to where I was raised during the Cold War, 9 blocks south of LAX (second busiest in the US), two blocks east of a sewage treatment plant (one of the world’s largest), three blocks northeast of a power plant, and three blocks north of a refinery (processing oil from Alaska, Ecuador, and the Middle East for the LA region’s planes and cars). Factories 1.5 miles to the east became the core of the US aerospace industry. Missing from the image is the smell; locally the town is known as El Stinko. Odor can be detected, monitored, measured, sampled, and mitigated, but not eliminated.

                The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR] suggests that community members keep “odor diaries” https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/odors/air_pollution_odor_diaries.html Even now when I smell petroleum and new asphalt I suddenly feel at home.  Later in Europe I lived in a fifth floor walkup with a dirty shared toilet in the stairwell; it smelled so familiar. Burnt rubber from nearby midnight motorcycle races in Japan reminded me of LAX. Coming from El Stinko I could feel like a local many places in the world. I already knew the coping tricks and the jokes; I knew that familiarity breeds tolerance, but I also recognized the shock on newcomers’ faces when they first encountered that heady chemical concoction of gasoline, shit, ammonia, and asphalt, plus the additives designed to transform those pungent odors into another scent. Like perfumers and wine makers, those with experience can smell each of the component parts, including the mask.

                In Anthropology of Odor and Aroma: The Culture History of Smell David Howes claims that smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound. I ask how our senses of contiguity (touch, taste, and smell), reverberate with sensing at a distance (sight and sound) as we perceive and embody toxicity. When I see the Google satellite map of where I was raised, I remember the smells and hear the refinery sirens and the roaring jet engines. Images trigger my embodied memory of toxicity, the detritus of the American empire during the Cold War.

  • Capturing Toxicity: Archiving Palestinian Social Worlds
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    Found Image: “In Pictures: Gaza Water Crisis Worsens.”

    Substantive Caption: This image comes from a series of photographs by Gaza based photographer Wissam Nassar for Al Jazeera published in May of 2014. One of ten images in the photo essay, Nassar captures the Mediterranean sea from behind the silhouettes of two young appearing boys standing atop a sewage drainage structure. The boys appear to be looking off into the grey sea waters as seagulls fill the sky above them. Just beneath them, and in immediate view of photograph, the viewer’s vision of the sea is obstructed by the toxic debris, trash, plastics, and other contaminants pulled through the drainage structures out into the Mediterranean. Beneath the image reads the caption, “More than 30 percent of households in Gaza only have access to running water for six to eight hours, once every four days” (2014, Nassar). Accompanying the photo series is a short article outlining the “Gaza water crisis” and its worsening conditions.

    Design Statement: I selected this visual of toxicity captured by Gaza photographer Wissam Nassar for the following reasons:

    • The image captures the simplicities of youth and joy in the wake of visible toxicity, degeneration, and contamination.

    • Given the geographical specificity, the occupied Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, the image reveals a specific context out of which toxicity emerges.

    • Toxicity must be examined as a utility of militarization and occupation.

    • Situated as part of a journalistic photo essay, the image invites an multi-sited  ethnography where the image along with text make legible otherwise discarded social worlds.  

    • Gaza is often discussed in terms of Israeli bombings, targeted killings, and other spectacular forms of violence. This image, however, a mundane toxicity and a banal violence.

    Captured and published in 2014, Wissam Nassar’s photo essay, “In Pictures: Gaza Water Crisis Worsens” reveals Gaza’s other war: a war of human degeneration. This particular image, while not spectacular in any significant way, captures a mundane toxicity reflective of Palestinian life. Two young boys stand atop a concrete beam connecting two sides of a sewage drain. They, like many other folks, are perhaps drawn in by the calming ripples of the sea in their distance. On the left, a young hooded boy stares out into the distance, his back to the audience. Rather, his gaze is fixed on the waters of the Mediterranean sea in front of him. To his right, another boy-perhaps a friend, relative, sibling- has his right foot propped up on the beam’s edge, with his left foot is firmly planted on the lower surface of the concrete slab. His gaze is shifted closer to where they stand, to what is directly beneath them. The calming sea waters appear to be hitting against large boulders creating small waves. Whether in the distance or crashing up against the boulders, the sea offers the boys a leisurely moment, perhaps one of joy.

    While the sea appears to be commanding the full attention of the boys, the viewer’s attention is hijacked by the toxic debris, trash, plastics, and other contaminants front and center of Nassar’s photograph. The boys are situated above the toxins spilling out from the sewage drainage site, we, however, the viewers, are immediately confronted by the accumulation of contamination. The toxicity at this drainage site reflects systems of degeneration that have become central to Israel’s control over Palestinian life (and death) in the Gaza Strip. And, this toxicity is captured here by Nassar as the banal backdrop of the photograph. Various accounts have highlighted Gaza’s ongoing suffering due to cataclysmic water shortages, run down sewage facilities debilitated by a decade-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade and Israel’s repeated bombing of water and sewage infrastructures, and harmful salt, nitrate, and chloride levels in water sources. According to the short article linked to Nassar’s photo, “90 percent of Gaza’s main water supply is unfit for drinking, and unsuitable even for agricultural use” (2014, Nassar). Here, we are challenged with the banality of toxicity. Water, a source of life and sustenance, has become a utility of power. The inability to access and adequately treat water produces a condition of toxicity that emanates beyond the frame of Nassar’s image. The logics of militarization and occupation require toxicity to leak into all aspects of life. The debris and trash accumulated and visually caught by Nassar’s lens are just reminders of the systems of degeneration forced onto Palestinians in Gaza (and elsewhere). Children, like those pictured here have become at risk of water borne diseases such as gastroenteritis, kidney disease, paediatric cancer, marasmus and "blue baby syndrome" (2018, Tolan). Thus, in capturing the two children entranced by the sea, Nassar offers up an alternative to Palestinian sociality otherwise degraded by toxicity.

    Created Image: “Toxic Topographies” from images collected and published in an article by Nigel Parry for Electronic Intifada (September 2005).

    Substantive Caption: The seven images I have organized on this single slide are photographs from the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The photographs are of graffiti art painted on to the separation barrier, jithaar al ‘aazil, Israel is constructing on Palestinian land in the West Bank. In the article accompanying the images, Nigel Parry looks at the work of Banksy as a response to self-proclaimed “design critic” Nathan Edelson. In 2003, Parry, cofounder of the Electronic Intifada, received an email from Edelson requesting images of the barrier being built by Israel on Palestinian land. In his email, Edelson explained he was writing an article on the barrier, “the premise of my article is that one can argue about the desirability of a wall, and certainly where it runs, but if it is going to be built it should not be an aesthetic monstrosity” (2005, Edelson qtd. in Parry). As a result of this potentially “aesthetic monstrosity” Parry highlights the work of Banksy as a call to action against the fundamentally illegal wall itself. Rather than making beautiful this toxic site of monstrosity, Parry explains the significance of Banksy’s artwork as a critique of the wall entirely. Parry writes, “Banksy’s the kind of guy who prefers to draw a 20 foot high arrow pointing at the ugliness to encourage us to ask why the hell it’s there in the first place” (2005, Parry). The title of Parry’s article is “Well-known UK graffiti artist Banksy hacks the wall.”

     

    Descriptive Statement: I chose to highlight the images of Banksy’s art because:

    • Erected borders and barriers are inherently sites of violence, land confiscation, and natural resource expropriation. Toxic in their existence.
    • Erected borders and barriers are also inherently toxic views.
    • Elbit Systems Ltd. is the Israeli private defense contractor responsible for building this barrier in the West Bank and in 2014 they retained a bid to build the “wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border.
    • Borders produce what Glora Anzalúa calls “borderlands.” These borderlands are discursive sites of contestation where power can be re-imagined in ways meaningful to those experiencing the realities of borders.
    • The graffiti art offers Palestinians hope and the possibilities of positive affective alterity.

     

    While Banksy may have set-off alarms earlier this year when a framed piece of his artwork auctioned off at London’s Sotheby proceeded to self-shred seconds after being purchased, his graffiti work has been giving new life to the slabs of concrete being erected on Palestinian land in the West Bank since the early 2000s. Operating under anonymity, Banksy’s graffiti paintings on the “separation barrier” offer, figuratively and literally, new ways of seeing and thus being for Palestinians.

     

    Banksy’s canvas for a series titled the “Wall Project” was a concrete structure. This “wall” is estimated to reach approximately 403 miles (605 kilometers) in length when completed and stands at 25 feet high (8 meters). According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization in the West Bank, the barrier denies approximately 150 Palestinian communities from their farmlands and pasture lands (“The Separation Barrier,” nd). As a result, Israel has effectively blocked thousands of Palestinians from freely accessing and cultivating their land, producing a condition of economic and environmental occupation predicated on Israel usurping Palestinian land. According to data presented by B’tselem and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA-oPt), Israel has installed 84 gates in the completed sections of the Apartheid wall, however only a fraction are in operation. In 2016 for example, only nine of these gates were opened daily; ten were opened a few days a week and during the olive harvest season; and 65 gates were only opened for the olive harvest (ibid). Effectively, the “wall” has produced a condition of continual degeneration. Palestinian communities, farmlands, and sources of sustenance have been fractured by the concrete cutting through their land. These damaging effects can be understood as a form of toxicity rooted in degeneration, where all aspects of life are splintered off, denied any semblance of wholeness.

     

    The wall, as a method of control and isolation, has dualistic function in Banksy art: it is both canvas and prop. In the seven examples I have highlighted here, the viewer is forced to contend with the uncomfortable realities impeding Palestinian social, cultural, and economic worlds. The wall acts as the citational index from which Banksy’s images come to life. As Parry aptly notes, “familiar images...are given a dark twist designed to wake observers up from the 9 to 5 rat race” (2005, Parry). Images of farm animals, children, beachscapes, blue skies, balloons, living rooms, scenic panoramas are all confronted with the reality of inadmissibility imposed onto them by the separation barrier. The viewer is forced to take pause and perhaps tilt their head from side to side in focused observation studying closely the images as if to make sense of them. Simply put, however, they do not make sense. The horse (image 1), whose body appears to be stretched like a rubber band, peers its head out  through the small square opening near the top of the barrier while its hooves are visible through a square window towards the bottom of the barrier- a distance that is factually impossible, yet exists, much like the wall itself. In image 2, the viewer sees two obstructions: the wall and the pile of rubble, rocks, and trash immediately in front of the barrier. Almost as if emerging out from the rubble is a child atop a sand castle, with a small yellow pale in his right hand. In a sea of grey, from the wall and rubble beneath it, the child emerges perched on a sand castle in the middle of a bright blue sky. Here Banksy does not alter the geography to make way for his work. Rather, all toxic elements become part of the art installation. The trash and rubble immediately in front of his painting are worked into the art piece. In an act of continuity, the child in image 2 is present in image 3, this time with a friend, also carrying a his sand toys. Their little bodies are situated beneath painted lines which give the effect of a break in the wall, revealing a beautiful sandy beach destination, with palm trees, and blue skies. According to Parry, “much of the art he produced on the Wall visually subverts and draws attention to its nature as a barrier by incorporating images of escape” (2005, Parry). Windows, new landscapes, ways out, are all techniques used by Banksy to reveal new worlds to those imprisoned by the barrier. Take for example Qalqilya, a city in the north of the West Bank. Qalqilya is entirely bottle capped by the separation barrier, with one main entrance in and out of the city. According to Environmental Justice Atlas, an online resource documenting and archiving environmental (in)justice issues around the world, the virtual sequestering of Qalqilya has led to a loss in biodiversity (wildlife and agro-diversity), contributed to food insecurity as a result of crop damage, aesthetic and land degradation, soil erosion, waste overflow, deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, water pollution, and decreased water supply (Gamero, 2017 for EJAtlas). The barrier thus functions to erode the natural resources and life forms in its path, producing topographies of toxicity. These topographies become the canvas sites for Banksy’s work where the sheer violence of the barrier is called into question and recast in new ways.

     

    Images 4 and 5, for example, offer exit strategies. In both paintings, Banksy uses children to signify the possibilities of new ways of being and existing. At the borderland- that material and discursive site where real borders and barriers are confronted with affect and experience- we see a little girl being carried away by balloons (image 4) and a little boy at the foot of a tall ladder (image 5) extending the length of the wall- both making their exits, beyond the obstructions of the barrier. In both instances, the children carry the possibility of breaking down the border plaguing their existence. Banksy’s installations on the wall “invoke a virtual reality that underlines the negation of the humanity that the barrier represents” (Parry, 2005).

     

    Sources:

    Parry, Nigel. 2005. “Well-known UK graffiti artist Banksy hacks the Wall.” Electronic Intifada. September 2, 2005. https://electronicintifada.net/content/well-known-uk-graffiti-artist-banksy-hacks-wall/5733.

     

    2017. “The Separation Barrier.” B’tselem. November 11, 2017. https://www.btselem.org/separation_barrier


    Gamero, Jesus Marcos. 2017. “Orchards affected by the Annexation Wall surrounding Qalqilya, West Bank.” Environmental Justice Atlas. March 31, 2017. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/impact-of-the-wall-surrounding-the-city-of-qalqilya-affecting-orchards

     

  • Toxic masculinity
    Toxic Masculinity: Interrogating Mechanisms Undercutting Gendered Possibilities
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    Toxic masculinity

    Created Image: Toxic Socialization of Masculinity

    This image illustrated how toxic masculinity and educational contexts in different temporality and locality shape one another and serve the same purpose to solidify and legitimize the masculine way of "doing" gender.  From the left, the graduating class consisiting of white male high school students in Wisconsin, US shameless gives the Sig Heil Nazi sign during their class photo to assert their intersectional power and priviliege of race and gender.  On the right, a group of middle school male students in Chengdu, China were made to sign their names on a banner, which reads "Masculine Boys (Yang-Gang-Nan-Hai)" in response to the national call for making boys like boys.

    Design Statement: I selected and combined these two images to pinpoint how the toxic ideology of masculinity is produced by and produces educational systems in both Chinese and the US societies.

    • The image relfects how educational practices across two cultures serve to solidfy and legitimize masculinity.
    • This image reflects how toxic masculinity on the one hand can be constructed and, on the other hand, shapes nad reinforces the ways in which young boys are "correctly" socialized into the so-called masculine men.

    SOURCE

    Shao, Jianmin. 2018. “Created image: Masculine socialization in education.” In Toxic Masculinity, created by Jianmin Shao. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March.

    Toxic masculinity

    Created Image: Hegemonic Heteronormativity

    This image was created by two different pictures online to demonstrate how heteronormativity signifying the masculine way of "doing" family (i.e., protecting traditional nuclear family for benefits of the next geneation) creates marginality for sexual minority individuals in Taiwan who desire family diversity and alternative ways of "doing" family. On the top, a group of men bringing their wivies and children to a gathering with the purpose of advocating traditional nuclear family values and devaluing family diveristy and gender inclusive education.  On the bottom, results showed that right-wing ideology prevailed in the nearest referendums in Taiwan, with voters rejecting same-sex marriage and gender inclusive education. 

    Design Statement: I selected and combined these two images to reveal the hegemonic heteronormativity, a concept originated from queer theory.

    • This image reflects the masculine way of "doing" family--that is, stablize traditional nuclear family through the claims of protecting children while marginalizing and delegitmazing diverse forms of family. 

    SOURCE

    Shao, Jianmin. 2018. “Created image: Hegemonic heteronormativity.” In Toxic Masculinity, created by Jianmin Shao. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March.

    Toxic masculinity

    Created Image: Cisgender Fragility

    This image shows the ways in which cisgender individuals utilize the ideology of gender essentialism and gener binary to create boundaries undercutting transgender individuals' accessiblity to bathrooms.  On the left, a group of pastors, community activists, and politicans in Houston came out fighting against the "bathroom bill," leading to the defeat of the bill.  On the right, a group of UCLA students were adovacting gender essentialism and protesting about bathroom accessiblity for transgender individuals.  Both groups used the similar kind of tactic (i.e., the use of gender essentialism and gender binary) to achieve their goals, thus again solidfying and entrenching hegemonic gendered perceptions. 

    Design Statement: I selected and combined these two image to reflect upon how transgender individuals are policed, marginalized, and even erased by cisgender ideology.

    • This image is rooted in the ideology of gender essentialism and gender binary.
    • This image pinponts the sex/gender system perpetuating a world full of violence towards transgender individuals.

    SOURCE

    Shao, Jianmin. 2018. “Created image: Cisgender fragility.” In Toxic Masculinity, created by Jianmin Shao. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March.

  • “Mercury Rising: Tracing Quicksilver and (its) Toxic Assets in a Rapidly Heating Planet”
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    Mercury Rising: Tracing Quicksilver and (Its) Toxic Assets in a Rapidly Heating Plant

    I am an anthropologist examining issues of planetary health, focusing on connections of human and environmental wellness. My fleet-footed toxic figure is mercury in its multivalent forms, carrying a “charge” of environmental racism and "slow violence." Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining (ASGM) have become the top sources for anthropogenic mercury contamination, beating out fossil fuels. The 2013 Minamata Treaty recommends eradicating ASGM, which pits brown bodies laboring in the mines against white collar corporations that offer “clean(er)” mining strategies. Mercury’s ability to move through the body, pass the blood-brain barrier, swim through amniotic fluid, and change the body chemistry of all living organisms does not immediately register as a threat for gold miners. The toxic effects take time to become visible. As such, I would like to collaborate and envision with fellow activist-artist-scholars to consider different ways to bring heightened visibility – as well as tactility – to mercury as a toxic figure in the context of both environmental degradation and economic assets that promote the sale of “natural capital” – such as precious metals – for poor countries to pay off IMF-World Bank debt.  As mercury rises on the global barometer, I will trace quicksilver’s toxic circulation through an interactive global map: with images of cinnabar, of liquid mercury, of artisanal mining's amalgams of heavy-and-precious metals, of mad hatters, of the people laboring in the mines, of those who inhale mercury vapor, of Inuit meals of contaminated fish and melting Arctic ice. 

    Found Item: “It’s Elemental: Framing Quicksilver’s Forms and Foundations”

    The Swiss company Batrec provides remediation services for mercury or quicksilver contamination, transforming quicksilver liquid into vibrantly red and “stable” cinnabar. I met the company’s representatives and picked up the “Stabilisation of Mercury: Meeting a Global Challenge” pamphlet at the Second Conference of Parties (COP2) of the Minamata Mercury Convention which met from November 19-23, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland.  

    This international meeting was a five-year follow-up to the treaty signed in 2013, in Minamata, Japan. So named after the town, Minamata Disease is the benchmark for any assessment of quicksilver contamination. Between 1936-1968, the Chisso Chemical Factory’s emissions of the heavy metal contaminated Minamata Bay. Cats were the first to be seen as affected, chief consumers of fish in dumpsters. Mercury poisoning, however, has a much longer history: from “mad-hatters” who used mercury nitrate to make felt hats in the 1900s throughout the United States and Europe to its application as a “miracle cure” for syphilis in the 16th century. There are different narratives as to how mercury came onto the “global radar.” A metaphorical resonance with the Roman god Mercury as the trickster messenger as well as the god of travel and trade, the reasons behind recognizing the heavy metal as a “global pollutant” differ, depending on the teller of the tale and what kinds of monetary investments are stake. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) believes that the alarmingly high levels of contamination in the Artic region, where there are no anthropogenic sources for mercury release or emissions, jettisoned action by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Artic and the Pacific Islands have some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the world, but are not the producers of a fast moving pollutant that magnifies as it moves up species food-chain, through air, soil, and water. 

    While the metaphoric aspects of Mercury as a trickster and a fleet-footed messenger -- the god of trade, speed, and communication -- it is important to recall just how toxic methylmercury is to planetary health. Planetary health refers to the interconnected earth and human systems of wellbeing. More than any other chemical contaminant, mercury contributes to global warming. The contribution of ethnographic research is twofold: 1) Seeking to understand the often conflicting how artisanal gold miners, indigenous communinities (intermingled or the same), and sex-workers (a companion industry to natural resource extraction around the globe) contributes to epidemiological toxicity and 2) the kinds of 
    "toxic" or volatile assets of neo-colonial resource extraction. The deep histories of plunder are the colonial faultlines through which IMF and World Bank policies tighten the tourniquet on the "open veins of Latin America" (Galeano 1978).

     

    In 2013, the Minamata Convention on Mercury became an international treaty in word, but not in action. Signatory countries had until August 16, 2017 to design strategic plans to reduce the emissions and release of mercury compounds. This means banning mercury from batteries, skin lightening creams, thermometers, and vaccines, it means putting air filters atop coal plants, eliminating mercury from dental amalgams and from artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

     

    As with any international meeting, consensus building comes slowly and often behind closed doors. Countries like China and India prefer to have lower requirements for mercury emissions and spend the four years between signing to build as many coal-power plants as possible. Any energy infrastructure built before the treaty took effect does not have to comply with the new global mercury regulations. The African Delegation along with the Latin American and Caribbean delegations lobbied for tough standards on mercury emissions. On both the Latin American and African continent, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (AASGM) contribute to mercury releases. The United Nations counts AASGM as the top anthropogenic source of mercury contamination, which not only pits white collar “clean(er)” corporate mining technologies against the small-scale miners, but also serves as a rhetorical move to justify fossil fuel emissions.

     

    My research currently occurs in artisanal gold mines in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. So much of the response to the mining and contamination depends on the administration in power. One of Batrec’s main clients is the Peruvian government. Their motto is: “We treat mercury waste with Swiss quality.” That does not mean with milk chocolate. Rather, their stabilization reagent contains sulfur, but that is all the company will say about its patented “solution.” Once the liquid mercury has switched chemical forms, it can be stored as a “stable” element as cinnabar. Where to store it then, becomes the next question. 

    Found Item: The “Matador” of the Mines in Peru’s Madre de Dios

    Peru’s Amazonian region of Madre de Dios is nestled between Brazil and Bolivia. Madre de Dios means “the Mother of God” or the Virgin Mary in English. It is an ironically fitting name for a region known for its “pristine” or “virgin” rainforest, where sex-work operates as the companion industry to the mercury-infused gold mining that is deforesting at an alarming rate. A South American gold rush is currently taking place in this Amazonian region once known as “The Capital of Biodiversity.” Several factors have contributed to the mining boom in Madre de Dios: 1) the building of the Interoceanic Road which corresponded with 2) the fall of the US dollar and 3) the rise in the price of gold on the world market.  The gold in Madre de Dios is in the form of dust, not nuggets as with the North American gold rush. So for an industry that functions more by hand than by machine, the use of liquid mercury is fundamental to form an amalgam with the gold. In the next installment of this photo essay, I will detail the gold mining process.

     

    Public health officials, doctors and nurses who work with miners in the jungle struggle to explain the affects of mercury poisoning. Quicksilver “poisoning” in maternal-fetal health and in that of the Pachamama, her plants and animals has more immediate visibility than it does in the hands of the mostly male miners who place the silvery liquid in their hands and shake their heads to ask me, “esto es veneno?” How could anything this lovely be venomous? Even with the visible marks on the earth and children’s development, life is the mines is often better than “home” for those who migrate there. Mercury’s effects are often secondary to those of the poverty people left behind

     

    The work in the gold mines tends to be strictly gendered, with the men in the mining pits and the women in the prostibars. There is a strong affinity for “el mercurio,” seen as a strong male element. This association of male strength connected to both the virility of the bull and to the matador’s ability to “matar” (to kill) and thus prove themselves stronger than the bull, fed men’s affinity for the lithe liquid. The harvesting of gold needs the alchemical interaction with mercury. Stories about the frivolous character of gold, personified as a beautiful woman who lures men into the mines only to leave them with nothing, abound. That quicksilver, the male element, “grabs” the gold particles, harnessing them into an amalgam, makes the human affinity for the heavy metal that much stronger. The image is a powerful and a necessary energizing one because work in the mines is grueling if not fatal. 

    It is important for this project not to demonize the miners who are caught up in a larger web of global capitalism, where they are both seen as the contaminators and the contaminated -- socially and physiologically.

    Quicksilver’s Legacy

    Peru is the 6th largest “producer” of gold in the world. This number does not account, however, for all of the gold mined in Madre de Dios. It’s hard to estimate when there are some 30-50,000 illegal miners operating in the rainforest. The guess is that Madre de Dios contributes to 25-30% of Peru’s overall export of gold. Environmental organizations report that Madre de Dios“ produces” between 16,000-18,000 kilograms of gold per year for the world market. For each kilogram of gold, artisanal gold miners utilize 2.8 kilograms of mercury.  Over the past 20 years, estimates that hover around 3,000 tons of mercury have moved from the mines in Spain, the United States, and the mountains of Peru into Amazonian streams and soil (IIAP 2017; Pinto 2016). As of a report that came out on November 8, 2018, artisanal or “small scale gold mining” has destroyed some 170,000 acres of primary rainforest. That is a size larger than San Francisco and 30% more than previously reported.

     

    On May 23, 2016, Peru issued a State of Emergency in Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination. An estimated 40% (48,000) of the population was affected; the highest rates among indigenous populations that consume a diet high in fish. Women and children experience the most marked physical effects. The estimated amount of liquid mercury dumped into the environment from illegal artisanal mining in Madre de Dios hovers around an 30-40 tons per year (Ortiz 2013). Some 400 tons of mercury entered soil and waterways during the boom years of 2001 – 2013 (Pan 2013). Peruvian journalist Guillermo Reaño, writing about the State of Emergency in Madre de Dios, which he compares with the 82 tons of mercury that leaked into Japan’s Minamata Bay asks: “Where does our country place in the rankings of catastrophes of this type, if we consider that it is understood that the Japanese case is the Chernobyl of mercury contamination?”

    If we consider that the Amazon rainforest is, as climate scientists and environmental activists allege, "the lung's of the earth," then an integrative and collaborative approach to the deep histories of social, economic, political, ecological AND physiological toxicity is necessary.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Instagram's @historycritic and Toxic Collecting
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    Toxic_Periods

    Toxic Periods

    Events like “race riots” carry an over-abundance of meaning as beginnings or endings of periods in U.S. urban history. Scholars will often begin their work by tracing the origins of 1965’s Watts from some mythic point of origin to a conclusive moment like a day the street violence supposedly stopped. Otherwise, scholars will highlight memory and legacies from day one.

    I envision Watts 1965 as an event that transpired, not over several days, but instead as a period of toxicity which built up and wound down remarkably slowly. As your eyes move back and forth between these images, try to look for points of convergence. Which ones rhyme or align? Look also for points of discontinuity. What room do these juxtapositions leave for origins/legacy?

    What more would we know about Watts if we began the story not with the Frye family (arrested 11 August) but instead with 19 April's Easter burning of the Hollywood Bowl cross or the ROTC training at the Harvard School on 20 May? How about if we ended the story not with 13 August’s arrival of the National Guard but with Gary Ballard replacing shot-out phone boxes on 22 August or Black assemblage artist Noah Purifoy’s “Sir Watts” (9 April 1966).

    Toxic_Places

    Toxic Places

    The distinction Walter Benjamin identified between the politicization of art and the aestheticization of politics remains relevant to reading artistry regarding L.A.’s environment. Since early landscape artists whose paintings of pristine nature boosted a case for conserving such spaces, the arts have performed ever since as a powerful political force against so-called toxicity.

    The following five images from L.A. history represent a few ways artists have nonetheless had an opposite effect on discourse about toxicity in L.A.’s environment. Beautifying places where toxicity became concentrated, at both great geographic distance and right at home, artists mobilized popular and public consent in making Southern California into a toxic waste dump.

    Art-washing such moments did not universally disappear toxicity. Co-opting damage done to the environment, the arts also rebranded the freeway (1962 floral headdress), addiction (1889’s W.C.T.U. housing), a burning oil field (art photography from 1924), napalm bombing (a 1942 propaganda poster), and a channelized river (1960 storm drain cats in vernacular anticipating Pop).

    Toxic_People

    Toxic People

    “Sunshine” is a central and unifying myth for the L.A. boosterism genre. Its contributors have included not just creatives but also capitalists and spiritualists, athletes and activists, developers and public servants. What these figures, a class predominantly consisting of white settlers, all share in common is an attachment to the land as space to protect and defend. 

    The fortresses guarding property in L.A. include strong foundations in the senses of both a built environment and a spotless reputation. Lies folks told about their city secured the land’s value against deleterious truths about indiscernible toxins, sometimes literally lying under the ground. But I would encourage you to think of these stories themselves as a variety of toxicity.

    These nine figures helped tell stories which have translated into toxic behavior at the popular and public levels: austerity, graft, sprawl, gouging rents, predatory lending, false prophecy, positivity bias, throwaway culture, and deregulation. Jarvis 1978, Nixon 1962, Mulholland 1913, Arechiga 1959, Ahmanson 1947, McPherson 1926, Retton 1984, Gehry 1994, Reagan 1966.

  • Containing Toxicity
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    Found Image: Imran Khan as The One with a Blue Throat

     This Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML(N)) supporters’ image of Imran Khan as Shiva visualizes a sensational anxiety around the minority figure in Pakistan. In this image, Imran Khan’s face is transposed as Shiva, a chief deity in the Hindu pantheon. Bringing together Hindu iconography and the likeness of Imran Khan, the image conveys a tension around religious minorities and electoral politics in the region. Moreover, the caption text works with the image brings to the fore a critique of personality cults. Before being elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was an internationally famed cricket player.
         At the center of the image in the foreground, spanning about a third of the frame, is Imran Khan’s slightly tilted face, but with light blue skin, thick gold earrings, a tilak, and flowing black locks with a thick top knot. Alongside are a crescent moon, drum, trident, and cobra. A snow-capped mountain range is pictured in the background; the Himalayas are Shiva's holy abode.  These signifiers come together as a visual metaphor, Imran Khan is god, is a Hindu god.
          The intent of the production and circulation of image appears to have been to stigmatize and mock Imran Khan and PTI's alleged support of and commitments to religious minorities in Pakistan. The religious minority figure in Pakistan both a source of sustenance for maintaining an idealized ethos of an egalitarian Islamic democracy, but also a reminder of the state’s incapacity to be egalitarian in practice. Here, PTI supporters’ alleged sympathies with religious minorities in Pakistan are a source of tension and even suspicion. When first posted on a Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif fan page on Facebook, the post included an instruction to "share [the image] and embarrass Imran Khan’s slaves [supporters]." But the image alone is not a clear mockery. Without the caption to contain the image’s excess, the visuals also come together to valorize Imran Khan as god, rather than simply mock his supporters’ or his party. The Urdu caption text overlayed onto the bottom of the image in a light blue font with a black outline constrains the visuals and guides the viewer’s interpretation: “PTI supporters have no faith or honesty, all they have is God Imran (Yuthio ka deen hai na imaan hai, unka sirf Imran bhagwan hain)” The text then works with the visuals to make the image toxic for religious minorities in Pakistan. A comparison of Shiva and Imran is connected with a comparison between PTI supporters and Hindus, who, in their idolatrous devotion of Shiva, among other gods, are pagan and irrational within a dominant Muslim framework. The image caches on such operative stereotypes about Hindus in Pakistan. As such, leading minority Hindu politicians and leaders in Pakistan immediately reacted to a visual substitution of a Hindu icon with the likeness of Imran Khan and worried about the unrestricted spread of an image they considered offensive to religious minorities. 
         Neelakanta, or “the one with a blue throat" is an epithet for Shiva. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is blue because he swallowed halahala, a deadly poison that emerged during an episodic churning of the ocean in a joint effort by devas and asuras toward extracting a special nectar. The poison turned Shiva’s body blue, but the feminine energy of Shakti and Shiva together were able to control the spread and absorption of the toxin. Shiva’s light blue skin, oft rolled-back eyes,  and cross-legged seat offer a contemplative calm in contrast to the deadly toxicity of halahala. The containment of toxicity is an impressive feat. As such, the image also points to how toxicity, or at least the control of toxicity, is a form of power. How is toxicity connected to containment? Perhaps the uncontainability of this image given both its visual excess as well as its circulation on social media contribute to its toxicity.
  • Toxic vision photo essay thumbnail
    Toxic vision
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    Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) Snowball in the Senate (C-SPAN)

    Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) Snowball in the Senate (C-SPAN), Feb 26, 2015

    This is a photo still from a 35-second video posted to YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E0a_60PMR8 by C-SPAN. The still features Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, holding a snowball in the Senate chambers. Behind him is a poster-sized photo of people standing next to a small snow mountain. Inhofe spends the 35 seconds railing against the scientific claim that the year 2014 was (at the time) the hottest year on record, personally incredulous of those findings because it is currently snowing outside. His poster photo and snowball are meant to "prove" that global warming is a hoax. After all, if there is snow, how could the Earth be warming?

    Taking seriously the Derridean idea that we are always embroiled in interpretation, and that there is no escaping it, this photo for me paints a representational photo for why I believe we need to continually reevaluate how and where PECE is situated in its role of using hermeneutics and interpretation in making ethnographic claims. I view Inhofe's interpretation of climate science as wading directly into the "anything goes" realm.

    Leveraging the design logics of the platform, and even the more focused individualized logics of any particular instance or group within an intance, what responsibilities do we have to each other as researchers, to our audiences (imagined and not), and our disciplines to garner critical interpretation and reduce "anything goes" as much as possible (if that is indeed a worthy goal, the elimination of toxic interpretation)? While I know the futility of the idea up-front (s you can't eliminate it all), for me it serves as a starting point for (re-)evaluating PECE's design logics, and physical logics (and for me speicifically, taking these lessons back with me to the backend of PECE in order to produce best practices on that side of things), as we look towards developing best practices in the practice of the digital humanities. In short, how can we best live with the realities of the meta-visualizations of toxic subjects? That is to say, best live with the uncertainties of others' interpretations of our data, conclusions, and experiements here on PECE?

    The Asthma Files homepage, Nov 26, 2018

    The Asthma Files Homepage, Nov 26, 2018

    This is a self-taken screenshot of the homepage of The Asthma Files, located at http://theasthmafiles.org/.

    On this homepage, we see a number of design decisions that encapsulate many years of collaborative design practices, responses to needs, and the realities of our technological choices (web content management system, browsers, servers, etc.).

    As I navigate freely between the tripartate design of PECE (Fortun et al. 2018) but predominatly occupying and making decisions in the backend, when I look at this homepage, I am struck by what toxic visualizations we have chosen to privilege and which ones we have chosen to hide. Why privilege essays over artifacts? Why privilege linear time closest to the now over any other organizational method? Why privilege groups over people? Where are the annotations? We could do the work to generate a list of all the ways we privilege certain forms of toxic visualization in PECE over others. But what I am interested in is how my knowledge of the backend--the actual code that makes of PECE as well as the physical/virtual structure of the servers I maintain upon which PECE runs--translates into what I see on screen. What we've decided as a PECE Design Team to visualize is as interesting a question to me as how do I and our developers, who may not work at the mid-level and stage-level of PECE on any routine basis, collaborate "off-stage" to make those visualizations happen. Where do I see our influence shine through to the stage-level? What comes next? I look at the search bar on the top right of the screen, and begin to think again of the code that will one day permit cross-instance searching of artifacts.

    I become excited over the possibilities these collaborations have produce and will continue to produce. I am excited to see how we can broaden what can be considered a viable visualization within PECE, even if those visualizations ultimately go unused.

    And it comes with a little bit of humor. Before settling on Drupal as our content management system. PECE used Plone. One of the primary reasons for leaving Plone was because Plone enforced a rigid organizational hierarchy, whereas Drupal allows for free-form organization through tags. But yet, the physical structure of the backend is nothing but rigid organizational hierarchies--and thus through no fault of PECE's own, I can still see the warts of decisions past. And I can see them on the hompage too.

    And it also comes with a need to be attentive to care. Because how we visualize (toxic) subjects can themselves be a visualized (toxic) subject. And so this image reminds me both of the care that we have taken to produce what is visualized and the care that we will continue to value as we further refine PECE, whether that's as a researcher working solely at the frontend or a developer working solely in the backend, or someone who can navigate the many interlocked scales of PECE.

  • Toxic Data Infrastructures: Emission and Ridesharing
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    Found Image: Toxic Over-Time

    Caption:

    This is a triptych that includes a set of three photographs of downtown Los Angeles. Each of these photos were taken by different photographers, John Malmin, Fitzgerald Whitney, and Robert Durell, in 1955, 1973, and 1990, respectively. These years correspond to important events:

    1955 Air Pollution Control Act (the first U.S. federal legislation that pertained to air pollution)

    1970 Clean Air Act

    1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (important ones)

    These photographs attest to the ways in which ‘smog’ has continuously been perceived as a social problem in Los Angeles for half a century. They all focus on the significance of smog as a risk and the visual experience that a smog hovering over a city’s center can produce.

    Design Statement:

    • Historicity

    • Infrastructure

    I organized this triptych in order to provide a sense of narrative, from left to right, without being accompanied by text. The increase in the density of buildings and the change in the color scheme of photographs enables the audience to intuitively understand the flow in time. The triptych, hence, demonstrates the historicity of air pollution as an ethnographic subject. This is different from capturing moments in time where smog was present in Los Angeles. It conveys to the audience that air pollution was a persistent social problem that perhaps had its own trajectories of development.

    These photographs are also interesting in that they show images of infrastructures that blend with the smog, creating the overall cityscape. For instance, the vehicles in the right-background of the the photograph in the far-left (1955) demonstrates how automobiles have historically been the main source of transport in Los Angeles, as opposed to public transportation, contributing to the city’s smog problem.

    Created Image: Risk in Colors

    Caption:

    This is a data visualization of the CalEnviroScreen 3.0 Data released by OEHHA (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment) in 2017. California Environment Screen is a California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool that identifies California communities by census tract that are disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, multiple sources of pollution. This data visualization utilizes longitude, latitude, CES score percentiles, and disadvantage community identification data. The height of the polygons represent the CES score percentile (the low the percentage the less there are environmental hazards) and the color of the polygons represent whether the neighborhood is predominantly identified as a disadvantaged community or not. The data visualization is a web-based application that utilized the Mapbox token as its base map. The layering was done through implementing Deck.gl.

    Design Statement:

    • Risk and Vulnerability in Scale

    I created this data visualization in order to provide a pollution visualization schema that focuses on the idea of ‘scale.’ Conventional data visualizations, especially geospatial visualizations, that deliver information about air pollution in Los Angeles tend to quantify emission data without pointing to how such hazards might affect neighborhoods quite differently. These visualizations convey correct information about air pollution (that pollution is higher in areas where major freeways pass by, etc) but without denoting the potential scale of its effects. For instance, the height of these polygons are not drastically different, which means that the CES score percentile themselves among these communities are not drastically different. While this means that environment hazard, including air pollution, is significant in all areas of Los Angeles, it does not guarantee that the effects of hazards are felt similarly across different neighborhoods as well. In order to represent this problematic, I decided to differentiate the colors of the CES score percentile according to whether the neighborhood is a disadvantaged community or not.

    Found Image: Uber's Clean Air Act

    Caption:

    This is a promotional image of Uber’s introduction of clean air fee London. Following other ride-hailing services like Lyft, who announced that they will be going Carbon Neutral in April this year, uber decided to charge extra per mile for driver’s who are driving electric cars. While this is not exactly the same as Lyft’s more direct efforts to cut emissions, including “the reduction of emissions in the automotive manufacturing process, renewable energy programs, forestry projects, and the capture of emissions from landfills,” (Zimmer) Uber is advertising themselves as an eco-friendly corporation by creating tangible promotional objects such as the car-covered-in-grass.

    Design Statement:

    • Industry

    I chose this promotional image in order to demonstrate the ride-hailing industry’s response to public accusations of the industry’s contribution to carbon emissions. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are especially popular and can create lasting infrastructural impacts in cities like Los Angeles, where public transportation is scarce. By creating pop-up installations such as this, Uber is promoting itself as an environmentally-conscious corporation. Whether these efforts actually amount up to what they allegedly claim to be should be interrogated by academics and activists.

    Created Image: Risk in Colors (Revised)

    Caption:

    This is a data visualization of the CalEnviroScreen 3.0 Data released by OEHHA (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment) in 2017. California Environment Screen is a California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool that identifies California communities by census tract that are disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, multiple sources of pollution. This data visualization utilizes longitude, latitude, CES score percentiles, and disadvantage community identification data. The height of the polygons represent the CES score percentile (the low the percentage the less there are environmental hazards) and the color of the polygons represent whether the neighborhood is predominantly identified as a disadvantaged community or not. The data visualization is a web-based application that utilized the Mapbox token as its base map. The layering was done through implementing Deck.gl.

    Design Statement:

    • Risk and Vulnerability in Scale

    I created this data visualization in order to provide a pollution visualization schema that focuses on the idea of ‘scale.’ Conventional data visualizations, especially geospatial visualizations, that deliver information about air pollution in Los Angeles tend to quantify emission data without pointing to how such hazards might affect neighborhoods quite differently. These visualizations convey correct information about air pollution (that pollution is higher in areas where major freeways pass by, etc) but without denoting the potential scale of its effects. For instance, the height of these polygons are not drastically different, which means that the CES score percentile themselves among these communities are not drastically different. While this means that environment hazard, including air pollution, is significant in all areas of Los Angeles, it does not guarantee that the effects of hazards are felt similarly across different neighborhoods as well. In order to represent this problematic, I decided to differentiate the colors of the CES score percentile according to whether the neighborhood is a disadvantaged community or not.

    SOURCE

    Yoo, Chae. 2018. “Created Image: Risk in Colors.” In Toxic Correspondence, created by Chaeyoon Yoo. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March.

  • Visualizing Eco-Futures and Toxic Normalcy in Africa: Not All that Glows is Alchemical Gold
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    Visualizing Eco-Futures and Toxic Normalcy in Africa: Not All that Glows is Alchemical Gold

    As an anthropologist of embodiment and ecological health, my current research agenda deals with speculative African futures in regards to earth as resource as well reflection of humanity. My ethnographic research explores aesthetics of the African Anthropocene in Uganda, with attention to development in rural expanses. Mining and other venoms of industry replace natural ecosystems, and open environments often hold profound contamination. The present collection explores the toxicity of progress by showcasing the landscape of rural Southeast Africa, and its perforation with plastics and agro-chemicals. I examine people’s rich sense of connection to land through labor, survival, and spirituality, as well as the role of native lands as home, medicine, and source, and I seek to display the enduring earth as a cure for the future.

    In addition to photographing markers of global capitalism in Uganda, I have created and exhibited a mixed media installation piece, which was on display at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in San Jose, CA in 2018. Within the present project, I digitally merged photos from the field with photos of the exhibit in order to question discourses on global crises, apocalyptic ontologies, and catastrophic views on vanishing natures. With nods to science fiction, the installation includes glowing materials such as vibrant fertilizers as well as colorful herbal infusions in order to consider invisible poisons, synthetic adaptations, and the ancient DNA connection that humans have to the planet. The human body, with its deep time data serves as access to the past and is posed as a geological force that has always been populated and infiltrated, now with pesticides and hormones. This work considers the beautiful toxic sludge that is humanity as well as new and emergent versions of human mutants as contamination happens simultaneously with evolution. I visually ponder de-sensitization to organic life and the eco-logics of collapse as I point to the unjust and violent ways that toxicity is weilded and how contamination accumulates in historically violated regions of the world.

    Created Image: Weaving the Past Forward

    This piece considers the cultural terrain of ancestral earth as resource and provision as well as reflection of the human condition. Through ethnographic frameworks of medical systems in rural Uganda, my work explores the relationship between earth and humanity, and the condition of each. Set in theories of eco-feminism, environmental humanism, and critical anthropology, my larger project considers the ecological past as the cure for the future. As we simultaneously make earth our sacred home and subject it to destruction, this work looks at how the continuation of life on earth is always a crisis. Amongst conversations of the Anthropocene, this project explores ecological mutuality as an emollient. Calibrating, attuning, and adapting to surroundings defines organic survival. What does natural or biological come to represent in the future? The “bush,” or wild environments, are symbols of senses of self, history, and connectivity that people visit in pilgrimage to ground, gather, and recall their bodily home base. My work points to the industrialization of medicine and the colonization of health in the name of development. I look at historical and personal connections that community members have to wild natural environments and theorize on the earth as resource and as something that people tend, meaning to manage and care for. In this image of a woman weaving natural reeds into mats for flooring, I ask how the environment is a teacher of how to be. The open expanses in the background pose the question of future and incoming development and pollution, and the transposed image at the woman's feet shows glowing (alomst nuclear) rods from my installation, suggesting that contamination is infused in (or woven into) seemingly natural materials.

    Edited Created Image: Weaving the Past Forward

    This digital collage considers the cultural terrain of ancestral earth as resource and provision as well as reflection of the human condition. Through ethnographic frameworks of medical systems in rural Uganda, my work explores the relationship between earth and humanity, and the condition of each. Set in theories of eco-feminism, environmental humanism, and critical anthropology, my larger project considers the ecological past as the cure for the future. As we simultaneously make earth our sacred home and subject it to destruction, this work looks at how the continuation of life on earth is always a crisis. Amongst conversations of the Anthropocene, this project explores ecological mutuality as an emollient. Calibrating, attuning, and adapting to surroundings defines organic survival. What does natural or biological come to represent in the future? The “bush,” or wild environments, are symbols of senses of self, history, and connectivity that people visit in pilgrimage to ground, gather, and recall their bodily home base. My work points to the industrialization of medicine and the colonization of health in the name of development. I look at historical and personal connections that community members have to wild natural environments and theorize on the earth as resource and as something that people tend, meaning to manage and care for. In this image of a woman weaving natural reeds into mats for flooring, I ask how the environment is a teacher of how to be. The open expanses in the background pose the question of future and incoming development and pollution, and the transposed images at the woman's feet as well as in the trees show glowing, alomst nuclear, rods, (which are images of an art exhibit I made), suggesting that contamination is infused in, or woven into, seemingly natural materials or landscapes.

    Created Image: Chemicals in Camouflage

    This piece considers the slow and slippery relinquishing of the earth to development and contamination. It showcases the ever-presence of toxicity and the everyday and mundane harm that pollution, plastics, and chemicals have become. As a sort of covert violence, neo-colonialism forces toxicity upon peoples who have been historical set in discourses of need, and often what appears as a Western-powered resource or a sign of progress are in fact harmful and inhumane. Of particular importance are the vibrant colors of the toxins, shown in the transposed image of jars of pesticides, cleaners, and fertilizers. This bright and glowing affect even mimics some of the healing medicines and wild elixers from local medical systems. There is allure in contamination. And their effects are subtle and long-term, solving our immediate crises in exchange for other, deeper impacts, which take us further from our "natural state" as humans who live in connection with the earth and exist as an extension of the landscape. 

    Edited Created Image: Chemicals in Camouflage

    This piece considers the slow and slippery relinquishing of the earth to development and contamination. It showcases the ever-presence of toxicity as well as the everyday and mundane harm that pollution, plastics, and chemicals have become. As a kind of covert violence, neo-colonialism forces toxicity upon peoples who have been historical set in discourses of need, and often what appears as a Western-powered resource or a sign of progress are in fact harmful and inhumane. Of particular importance are the vibrant colors of the toxins, shown in the transposed image of jars of pesticides, cleaners, and fertilizers, which are photos of an installation that I created. The bright, glowing affects mimic some of the healing medicines and wild elixers from local medical systems in Uganda, where the base image photo was taken. There is allure in contamination. Toxic effects can be subtle and long-term, solving our immediate crises in exchange for other, deeper impacts, which take us further from our "natural state" as humans who live in connection with the earth and exist as an extension of the landscape. This piece questions how de-valued bodies become saturated with industrial toxicity.

    Created Image: Razors in the Milk of Development

    This image shows a typical outdoor kitchen in Uganda, complete with the ubiquitous plastic bins, used for everything from fishing to baby bathing to dishwashing to collecting herbs, to holding placentas. In the image transposed over, you see another plastic bin full of milk, a product with heavy symbolism in this region of Ankole people, cattle-keepers of Southwestern Uganda who take great pride in their milk production as cultural capital. The razor in the milk is also a common material icon in this part of the world. The Eagle-brand razors are, like the plastic bins, made in China and are used widely for everything from shaving heads to cutting umbilical chords to scarification practices to sharpening pencils. Both of these manufactured items undoubtedly makes life a bit easier, but I question at the expense of what. The combination of these pieces suggests that intervention, development, and aid are dangers in their unsustainable or destructive approaches. Particularly in regards to development projects that utilize important cultural resources in order to reach people only to leave harmful residues and trails of dependency, pollution, or violence.

  • Toxic Homelessness
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    Created Image - Anti-Homeless Bench

    Benches, designed similar to this one, are found all over Southern California to try to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. Several people who are homeless still manage to find a way to sleep on the benches whether that means sleeping sitting up or piling old dirty blankets or clothing up till it works; others opt for folded up cardboard on the ground. There is only one shelter bed available per four of the estimated 55,000 homeless people in LA; the rest of the homeless population takes to sleeping in cars, campers, tents, doorways, or benches on a nightly basis. Would you want to compete for a bed to sleep in every night? This bench proudly boasts, "City of Hermosa Beach." Labeling this divided bench seems to relay, “as a city, we do not want homeless people to feel comfortable sleeping here.”

    I chose this photo because this bench design seems to beg ethical questions. Who should have access to these benches and for what purposes? What message is being sent by the city/cities which incorporate these? I think it is important to start a conversation on whether these practices by cities are appropriate. The middle divider on the benches to prevent sleeping further portrays the NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement. We know homeless people need somewhere to sleep, but we do not want that to happen where we eat, shop, or visit regularly. This simple addition to a bench shows the lack of care and support for our homeless population and relays the toxic reality that LA's homeless people deal with on a daily basis.

    Created Image American Dream

    Does hard work actually result in the fruition of the American Dream? Or might your hard work equally result in homelessness? Los Angeles has a growing homeless population that is easily accepted by onlookers with excuses such as, “this is what happens if you become addicted to drugs or alcohol.” The truth is that the top reasons for homelessness are not the fault of the individuals, but instead caused by outside factors such as lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, and lack of resources. The inaccurate stigmas surrounding homelessness further justify the NIMBY movement, allowing people to justify and make excuses for not helping out their fellow humans.

    I used the juxtaposition of the Wikipedia definition for the American Dream next to the top three reasons for homelessness to relay that homelessness can just as equally result from hard work because the reasons for homelessness are not addiction or laziness, instead they are outside factors. Many Californians are living paycheck to paycheck and are at risk of ending up homeless despite their best efforts. This image was created to inspire us to look at and reevaluate the structural and political issues that are putting Americans, even those who are considered hard workers, in this inhumane situation.

  • Toxic Softscapes: On Entries, Bodies, and Plants
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    Created Image: "Admitted at: Calexico, Calif."

    Substantive caption: This image is of Juan Zárate’s Alien Laborer’s Identification Card. The card was issued to Zárate in Calexico, California on 8-28-1961. With it, Zárate was able to enter the United States as a guest worker for the Bracero Program, which contracted five million Mexican nationals to work in U.S. agriculture work from 1942-1964.  

    In the photo, a shirtless Juan Zárate rests his chin on a white block. Moments earlier, he had performed a series of nude exercises while Immigration officials inspected his body. Following the photo, Zárate, like all braceros before and after him, was instructed to hold his folded clothes in front of him in preparation for a full-bodied and naked delousing with the insectidicide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroetha (commonly known as DDT). DDT is a chemical now known to be disastrous to humans and the ecology. Its use was banned in the United States in 1972 and globally in 2004.

    Juan Zárate is my father. I choose to focus on his bracero ID because I am interested in how visual and toxic regimes operated in tandem during the Bracero Program. The image leads viewers to consider how toxics were not just used on the fields but on the bodies of Mexican guest workers. Viewers are pushed to consider how their bodily subjection to DDT madethem braceros; how the visual and toxic regimes created their anonymity by reducing them to arms/brazos and an identification number. The DDT delousing marked them not as subjects to be protected under contract but as potential threats from which to protect U.S. society. The visualization of Juan Zárate as a toxic subject exposes the processes by which industrialized food production and the accumulation of agro-capital was maximized.

    Design Statement: The image conveys how toxicity can be visually marked, even when the scene of toxic subjection is absent (or yet to come). This image helps illuminate how toxic materials have been used on racialized bodies at the behest of national and private interests. In addition, the image helps shed light on the way toxicity is at the core of U.S. agro-capital.  

    Created Image: Landscape Maintenance

    Substantive caption: This is a reworked image of a business card for Juan Zárate’s gardening maintenance company, J&J Landscaping. J&J Landscaping operated out of his Santa Ana home for over twenty-five years. It was one of the hundreds of formal and informal gardening companies throughout Orange County. I worked for the company as a youth and managed it throughout my undergraduate and graduate work. 

     

    The card consists of the company name, business details, and services offered. I have replaced an image of a chainsaw, which originally complemented the ficus tree on the left of the card, with the chemical compound for glyphosate– the active ingredient in Roundup weed killer. Throughout his decades-long work as a residential gardener, Zárate used Roundup to provide the services his employers demanded and to make his business more efficient. From carrying it on his back over his work clothes, to operating it without protective gloves or mask, Roundup was a common tool– a kind of finishing touch for the gardens he cared for.

     

    Recent legal cases against the Monsanto Corporation have found them liable for defendants’ development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma caused by prolonged use of Roundup. Though several class-action and individual lawsuits are still pending, decisions have so far highlighted Monsanto’s failure to adequately explain and advertise the dangers of glyphosate. Those at highest risk of developing cancer from Roundup have been found to be farm workers, gardeners, and groundskeepers, as they have regular contact with the compound. Visualizing toxicity through a business card from Juan Zárate’s gardening company helps reveal how toxics are not only close to the bodies and worlds of gardeners but also those of their employers and employees. 

     

    Design Statement: This image conveys how toxicity is present in gardening maintenance economies in Southern California. It reveals how gardens and plant-life, meant to invoke introspection, beauty, and solace, are imbricated with uneven exposure to forms of toxicity for racialized workers.  

  • TOXIC NEWS: VISUALIZING AIR POLLUTION IN PUBLIC MEDIA
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    Created Image: Freeway Pollution – How Close is Too Close?

    This is a screenshot of an interactive map, showing a part of the city of Long Beach in Southern California. The map, created by the journalists Jon Schleuss and Tony Barboza at the LA Times, indicates how far a certain part of the city is from a neighboring freeway. The image reveals that the pinned place, ‘Country Club Drive’ is within the “500-foot zone", which is presented as a threshold for unhealthy exposure to traffic pollution. The information is accompanied by the claim that no houses should be built in this area.

    The interactive map is part of a larger journalistic project called "Freeway Pollution", that combines housing and pollution data. The latter was collected by the journalists themselves using monitoring equipment and reviewed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the University of Southern California. The encouragement to enter one's current ZIP code is a renewed take on older databases such as Scorecard (see Fortun 2012 on the "informating of environmentalism). The visualization is interesting for bringing two different datasets (location and pollution) together and making claims to stop future housing developments.

     

    Found Image: Beijing Before And After The Smog

    This found image is a collage of two photographs. Both have been taken on the China Central Radio and Television Tower in Beijing. The left picture was taken as the city was enveloped in smog, while the one on the right was taken at a clean day. The image is part of a series of similar  juxtaposing pictures, which was used in a Guardian news piece to comment on air pollution in Beijing. The concern at time was the first announcement of a “red alert” due to hazardous levels of air pollution.

    The toxicity in the image is presented quite bluntly by juxtaposing visuals of “dirty” and “clean” air next to each other. I also find the person using the telescope metaphorical for the attempt to deal with the palpable presence of toxicity which at the same time presents heavily obscured vision.

    Found Image: 10 Days of Danger

    This is a found image, created by environmental scientist Peter Gleick, which he posted to his Twitter feed on November 19. The image was retweeted about 200 times and was used by the online news website Vox. It depicts a series of maps that visualize the air quality in San Francisco from November 1-18, which have been added to a calendar-grid. The tweet was accompanied by the following statement:  “San Francisco Bay Area has had 10 continuous days of dangerously unhealthy air quality from the devastating November wildfires. This is an uncalculated cost of #climatechange.”

    The image speaks to my topic on air pollution visualisation in the news for highlighting the circulation of scientific images in various media. It also emphasises the attempt of a researcher to visualize the progression and accumulation of environmental toxicity in a short period of time, partly by relating individual scientific images to the familiar temporal scale of the monthly calendar.

  • transparent visualizations and toxic fashions
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    transparent visualizations and toxic fashions

    As an anthropologist interested in sustainable fashion, my research is broadly focused on the study of objects and materiality through the intersection of design, economics, and law. For this project, I focus on the ways in which the toxicity of the contemporary fashion industry is called out, or queried, through practices of visualization. As an industry that relies on transnational production processes, visualization is a key strategy used by advocates to document the social and environmental impacts of (fast) fashion. However, it is also an increasingly important tool by which self-declared “conscious” companies distinguish their work. To this end, I am drawn to the paradoxical role of visualization as a key means by which the challenges (and progress) in establishing a more sustainable fashion industry are made transparent. In this essay I include images from advertisements and branding campaigns of fashion companies that comment on the sustainability of their work in juxtaposition with the imagery found in journalism. In addition, I include original photographs of garments that challenge how we think about the permeation of toxicity in fashion. Through these images my goal is to query why visualization is privileged as the medium by which sustainability is made transparent.

    Found Image: “Your Clothing is Toxic”: Mass Media and the Interpellation of the Fashion Consumer

    Substantive Caption: I chose this cover art from Adam Matthews’ (2015) Newsweek reporting on the environmental degradation caused by garment dyeing in India because of the role it played in igniting a conversation about the environmental footprint of our clothing. Designed by Oliver Munday, the neon color palette of this image visualizes the chemical and toxic implications of garment dyeing processes. Moreover, the juxtaposition of pink and green speaks to the particular vulnerabilities of women and the environment in the fashion industry. The ‘melting’ of a green t-shirt suspended from a hanger signifies the chemical composition of the majority of contemporary (and presumably the reader’s) clothing. The black and yellow emblem on the front of the shirt is a recognized symbol of hazard (though it represents ionized radiation in particular).

    Design Statement: 

    Drawing on the work of Althusser, I am interested in the way in which images address and interpellate viewers as a particular kind of subject within a system of power. Here, how does a combination of image and text (in addition to visual enhancements such as a neon color palette) work to interpellate the viewer to recognize their complicity in the environmental implications of toxic fashion?

    SOURCE

    Matthews, Adam. 2015. “Toxic Fashion: The Environmental Crisis in Your Closet.” Cover art by Oliver Munday. Newsweek Magazine, November 10, 2018. https://www.newsweek.com/2015/08/21/environmental-crisis-your-closet-362409.html

    Found Image: The Ref Scale: A Consumer’s Guide to Measuring Environmental “Savings” in Fashion

    Substantive Caption: This is an image from the LA-based fashion brand, Reformation. Reformation is a self-defined fast-fashion company that prides itself for focusing on sustainability in the fashion industry. In their signature slogan they claim that “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” I chose this images because it is representative of the ways in which Reformation markets its vision and version of sustainable fashion to its consumer base. This image reveals the company’s well-know “Ref Scale” - a quantitative representation of each garment’s environmental impact. The Ref Scale focuses on three major concerns in the garment industry: water, carbon dioxide, and waste. For each Reformation garment, the company provides an ‘environmental savings’ analysis through this scale by indicating the amount of water, CO2, and waste that was “saved” by purchasing a Ref garment (compared to industry standards). This information exists as a personalized dashboard for customers to track their environmental savings for each garment they purchase.

    Design Statement: 

    I chose this image because I am interested in how toxicity, or perhaps toxic savings, is quantified within the fashion industry. In particular, what are the ways in which (positive) impact is measured and distilled among fashion producers and consumers? How does sustainability constitute or engender particular forms of value in fashion? This advertisement is especially interesting to me because of the ways in which numbers - which here signify sustainability - are embedded within a photograph that highlights and draws upon a particular ideology of a healthy environment (such as clear, blue skies) and human/environment relations (bare feet as a signifier of being close to nature, white as a sign of purity).

    SOURCE

    Abrams, Margaret. 2016. “Reformation’s Eco-Friendly Perks Program Is Even Better Than Earth Day T-Shirts.” Photo Courtesy Reformation. Observer, November 14, 2018. https://observer.com/2016/04/reformations-eco-friendly-perks-program-is-even-better-than-earth-day-t-shirts/.  

    The Toxic Waste on Your Back

    Caption Statement: This image is meant to bring to the fore the layering of toxicity in our contemporary moment. In particular, it speaks to our dependence on petrolium and the lifecycle(s) of plastic. Here, the viewer is presented with a photograph of a black women's puffer jacket from the online retailer Everlane in the plastic bag from which it was shipped. The viewer is immediately confronted with text printed on the polybag that reads "This ia a poly bag. Almost every manufactured good that ships from a factory comes in one. This one is made from reycled plastic. Please recycle it again." Within the poly bag, though, the Everlane jacket itself is claimed to have been produced from 15 "renewed" (recycled) plastic bottles. Taken together, this image at once comments on the potentialities of using industrial or post-comsumer waste (espeically waste that is not biodegradable) into objects of beauty or utiliy, as well as subverting the inverse of this materiality: the continual use and implications of virgin plastic (in fashion and other domains). 

    Design Statement: I think because this is an image of apparel (among other things) it invites the reader to try an idea/concept/worldview on for size. Clothing largely serves as a boundary object between human - nature/environment. On the one hand, it could potentially protect one's body from toxicity in a multitile of ways: from physical/materual toxic substances (here I'm thinking of hazmat suits, bee-keeper apparel), to toxic environments (NASA space-suits could fit into this category), but also from socially toxic encounters by choosing to dress in a particular way. In this light, clothing can be seeing as a shield to toxicity. On the other hand, apparel repurposed from once (and potentially currrently) toxic substances engenders space to think about what it means to wear toxicity. Wearing toxicity could be read as an index: here, the Everlane jacket coud index the toxicity of plastic waste as a global probem. But here I'm thnking more about the embodied aspects of wearing potentially toxic material: how does this image, then, invite the viewer to think about what it means to have these repurposed materials enter the apparel market? What does it feel like to wear recycled polyster? What are the implications of this? 

    Melissa Begey: Cite As

    Cite as:

    Begey, Melissa. 2019. Transparent Visualizations and Toxic Fashions. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. 

    More on Visualizing Toxic Subjects

    More on Visualizing Toxic Subjects

  • Imaging Risk: Lead Poisoning and Information Distribution in Southern California
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    Visualizing Lead Risk

    Caption: Lead risk map from Vox (working with the Washington State Department of Health). The researchers used the age of houses (lead paint) and poverty to estimate risk. Lead risk hotspots tend to be concentrated in urban areas (see LA and San Diego), particularly old industrial areas. States with large swaths of rural areas are also more vulnerable to exposure. Maps like this are very rarely created because cities and states are not required to report data on lead poisoning. As a result, there is a gap in knowledge and data. This map attempts to solve this issue by making visible places that are potentially at risk for lead and thus, in need of intervention.

    Design Statement: Maps like this are very rarely created because cities and states are not required to report data on lead poisoning. As a result, there is a gap in knowledge and data. This map attempts to solve this issue by making visible places that are potentially at risk for lead and thus, in need of intervention. California, in 2017, passed landmark legislation requiring all health care providers and labaratories to report all results of lead poisoning tests to the California Department of Public Health. Rectifying this gap in data is crucial to raising awareness on lead poisoning as more resources can be distributed to places with more instances in lead poisoning. However, at the current moment, there is no nationwide mandate to report and as a result, healthcare providers and the public are not aware of the amount of instances of lead poisoning and even the risk for being exposed to lead in their own communities.

    Who is a toxic victim?

    Caption: The left three images are taken from the World Health Organization (WHO) website on lead poisoning. The photo on the bottom is the main photo on the website. The one on the top left is the cover for a booklet on lead poisoning published by WHO and the photo in top middle is from a photoseries on environmental health from WHO. All three point to a particular population, mainly brown and black and in a third world country, as being the most susceptible to lead poisoning even though a study done by scientists at Simon Fraser University estimates that lead exposure contributes to 400,000 deaths per year in the US. Result of study is on the right.

    Design Statement: I juxtaposed these 4 images (the three from WHO and one from a study done by Simon Fraser) because the three from WHO point to a particular population, mainly brown and black and in a third world country, as being the most susceptible to lead poisoning even though the study from Simon Fraser, as well as recent events such as Flint, Michigan, point to unsafe drinking water and poor infrastructures in the US as well. Representations of potential victims of lead poisoning or other enviromental health hazards influence perceptions of risk and who is most likely to be at risk. As a result, little attention is paid to the risks and hazards experienced daily by many Americans.

    Exposure ... to information

    Caption: Two infographics on lead exposure and common sources of lead exposure, the left is from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the right is from WHO. The information in these two infographics points to lack of knowledge in the public on lead risk and lead poisoning.  How much lead exposure is safe? Where are the sources of lead?

    Design Statement: I am interested in infographics because they index potential knowledge gaps between the public and scientists or government officials. These two infographics on lead poisoning are indicative of what the employees and volunteers non-profit organizations and governing bodies deem to be missing information among the public.

    Infographics are also an important form of communication between different social and cultural groups as their purpose is for experts to distill large amounts of often complicated information into easily digestible information for a broader public. Thus, it is crucial to understand the avenues through which expert knowledge travels, what type of information is picked to be disseminated, and how that knowledge is formed and transformed through various mediums, platforms, and people.

  • Semiotic Bridges and Toxic Transductions
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    Semiotic Bridges and Toxic Transductions

    I am an anthropologist and historian of (some of) the sciences, which for me includes the science of signs, semiotics.  My essay here makes occasional reference, including in its title, to the productive overlaps and cross-talk that have taken place in both the life sciences and in the study of language, sometimes condensed as biosemiotics. If there is one effect I hope my writing produces it would be to increase interest in and care for the sciences. Considering how much criticism (some of) the sciences also merit, this can be a challenge sometimes, but I consider it an essential part of an ethnographic responsibility.

    Design statement: This set of images traces some developments in scientific visualizations centered on PM2.5, at different scales of analysis from the molecular to the global.

     

    TLR

    Molecular imaging of a toll-like receptor (TLR). Every lung cell is studded with tens of thousands of receptors that form what biosemioticians call "semiotic bridges" -- molecular assemblages that transduce signals from an exterior environment (top) across the cell membrane (the thick and mostly colorless middle) to a semi-fluid cytoplasmic interior (bottom) crowded with diverse complex molecules that get mobilized into "signalling pathways." (These are not pictured here but some show up in the next image in the photo essay.) One common end result of such complex signal transduction is inflammation, or the constriction of lung passageways that are a symptom of respiratory conditions such as asthma. 

    At this scale of analysis toxicity acts via molecular mechanism such as these.  Painting with a broad brush: an inhaled molecule binds, beacause of its particular pattern or shape, to the upper portion of the receptor with a complementary patterned shape.  The shape of the receptor thus changes, and this changed shape is sensed at the other end, inside the cell membrane, and triggers a complex cascade of cellular reactions that result in some kind of harm. 

    The Toll-like Receptor or TLR is one of my favorite "matters of concern." These particular "pattern recognition molecules" (PRMs) are a relatively recent biomedical discovery, becoming visualizable and knowable only since the 1980s, a basic part of what we now call the innate immune system. On an evolutionary time scale, this is a very old set of molecular structures that we humans share with numerous organisms: fruitflies and fugu, mice and many other mammals.  TLRs have differentiated and multiplied over this evolutionary history; scientists are also interested in how they also differ slightly within species. Enormous investments of time, money, resources, energy, and affect are mobilized -- largely in the Euro-American and East Asian societies that can afford such investments -- to understand these receptors and their complex signalling pathways in the more detailed way they demand.

    Some scholars find such "molecularization" of life, health, and toxicity to be reductive, inappropriately mechanistic, or otherwise deserving only critique or dismissal; I am looking to activate a different set of semiotic pathways in my viewers and readers.  I would like this image to transduce the intricate beauty of molecular structures and how that can capture the attention and interests of scientists; the commitments (vocations, for you Weberians) that those scientists embody in working out how variations in the molecule here may be associated with variations in different people's responses to inhaled pollutants; the importance of public investment in such "basic science" that will take years or maybe decades to "pay off," if it ever does; the collective effort to understand toxicity in its most minute enactments, and to stockpile and share data in public repositories like the Protein Database from which this image is taken; and the drives of curiousity, wonder, and for old-fashioned enlightenment that infrastructures a microscopic entity like this Toll-like receptor.

    Design statementHyperrealistic visualizations of nanomolecular structures like cell surface receptors are a sign of both collective technical accomplishment, and invitation to sublime wonders. Mobilizing data from multiple expert communities accrued over years in expansive public databases, scientists work (perhaps to obsessive and excessive degrees) to understand the implications of difference at the molecular scale. Viewers are also interpellated into a scientific imaging tradition dating back to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia of 1665: asked to wonder, in amazement and curiosity, at the world contained within the world, the vital beautiful fragile structures of flesh.

    TLRs and cars

    Air pollution, TLRs, diabetes

    This image from a recent article in the journal Diabetes represents what the authors call a "hypothetical framework" by which TLRs (my favorite semiotic bridge and pattern-recognizer) transduce air pollution into chronic disease conditions like diabetes and heart disease. 

    The scientific persona of the "modest witness" that requires the authors to designate such an image as "hypothesized" is somehwat at odds with the genre of the scientific illustration and the air of definitiveness and literalness in its iconic mechanicity.  The figure in Figure 2 is clearly male, illustrating an ongoing problem in both journal illustrations and biomedical research itself, both of which normalize and naturalize maleness. Our dude here is seen eating a hot dog, sub, or cheese steak sandwich--these may not be differences that make a difference-- and the accompanying text highlights the synergistic role that "overnutrition" plays (hypothetically, I remind you) in exacerbating the connections between the air-pollution-pattern of an "environment" and the inflamed-diseased-organ-pattern inside our bodies.

    I can't say for sure (I'm a modest witness, too) but I'll go out on a limb and say you would not have found an image like this, bringing cars and factories together with cytokines and livers within a single frame, in a major biomedical journal even just five years ago.  The isolated TLR in the previous slide is now almost lost in a complex translational shuffle. I chose this image -- not a useful visualization in the laboratory, but more a mechanism of visual communication -- because it depicts these new patterns of complexity, on multiple scales.  They are the collective result of new inter- and trans-disciplinary research efforts among immunologists, cardiologists, diabetes researchers, geneticists, biochemists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and others.

    A relevant part of the text reads:

    Fig. 2 provides a hypothetical framework for these interactions and illustrates how inhalational stimuli may interact with overnutrition to entrain a state of chronic oxidative stress and inflammation...Teleologically, it is thought that pattern recognition receptors were meant to represent a crude but critical early-warning system to rapidly sense changes in lung microenvironment but also, equally importantly, to dissipate early to prevent unfettered inflammation. Thus, the notion that continual activation of these receptors may occur in a feed-forward manner and in concert with other stimuli without dissipation may be somewhat simplistic. However, it is also true that as humans, we did not evolve to be continually exposed to dietary and inhalational stimuli over the years, and such chronic exposure in vivo may have very different effects that we insufficiently understand. 

    Design statement: This image conveys how the community of practice I study (environmental health scientists) themselves understand and visualize (“illustrate” might be better) their “object of concern” -- here, how “cardiometabloic diseases” is a multi-scale, emergent product of complex ecologies and systems.  It also directs attention to changing patterns in how objects like toxicity and their associated disease states are understood: toxic causes (factories, cars, eating habits) multiply into new patterns, imbricated with new patterns of in-body objects (organs, tissues, receptors, molecules).  Those interconnected patterns point in turn to another: scientists representing an increasing number of disciplines (pulmonologists, immunologists, geneticists, epidemiologists), each with their own technologies, styles, interests, and research traditions, coming into new patterns of collaboration, shaped by changing patterns of (largely) public research support.

     

    Graphing PM2.5

    This is an early diagram of "smog," produced from the air over Los Angeles in September 1969, the start of the contemporary era of air quality research, a time of increased data collection and new data visualizations. I want to emphasize the collective work and scientific attention required to turn imprecise, hazy "smog" -- a recognizable and rapidly worsening civic problem in places like Los Angeles in 1969 -- into something with measurable properties  that can be known in fine-grained detail (literally), and thus acted on -- as in, say, the 1970 Clean Air Act.

    This graph comes from one of many scientific articles produced by a collaborative group of white men in white shirts and skinny black ties, some of whom worked mostly in Minnesota where they had developed the Minnesota Aerosol Analyzing System, developed for use in occupational health contexts such as granaries and bakeries.   At the center of this group is Kenneth Whitby, a guy you probably never heard of unless you've been awarded, or know someone who's been awarded, the Kenneth T. Whitby Award from the American Association for Aerosol Research. Whitby for me is an icon of all the undistinguished scientists and engineers who, in the last 50 years, have worked in the largely unrecognized labor of improving and inventing new scientific instrumentation for collecting air quality data, analyzing air's components in the specificities of time and place, and visualizing the data in new ways to more precisely characterize the slew of particles and toxins smogged there.

    Design statement: This exemplifies what Hans-Joerg Rheinberger calls (in terms taken up from Derrida) the “graphematic space” that scientists work in, making (writing) “epistemic objects” such as PM2.5. An indistinct toxic “smog” is graphed/written as an epistemic object --something that is knowable and “graspable” as it comes to have fairly precisely specifiable characteristics (size, surface area, etc.), that get defined in response to the technical parameters and capacities of an experimental systems (instrumentation). definable properties.

    Death rates from PM2.5 v exposure

    This visualization of air pollution data is more recent, and shifts us to a different scale and kind of analysis.  Where the previous image focused on a particular air sample gathered at a particular place (Los Angeles) and a particular time (September 3, 1969), analyzing its components according to particle size and surface area, here the underlying data sets are more global, charting national death rates from PM2.5 (the y-axis) against mean annual PM2.5 exposure (the x-axis). The nations are also color coded by continent, and coded again according to GDP (the size of the circle).  The interactive visualization allows you to foreground different patterns in the data.

    This particular data visualization signifies the potentials held by large public health data sets -- so dependent on data limitations, modeling parameters and assumptions, and other factors that simultaneously power and limit analysis -- less for finding answers, and more for their ability to generate new questions and prompt imagination and insight.  Clicking around on different parts of the graph and key shows some of these potentials: why are all the South American countries (in green) so tightly grouped? Why are Asian countries so splayed all over the graph? Is there a better explanation than "Money for cleanup!" for all those nations clustered down toward the graph's zero points?

    And we can also see - or at least, see that there is a question to be posed - that high PM2.5 exposures do not necessarily correlate directly to increased death rates.  The many Gulf states that appear as large (wealthy) reddish circles out toward the right end of graph, representing the highest PM2.5 exposures, also have comparatively low death rates -- no worse than Iran, really, with its infamous air pollution, and much, much better than Iraq. (And Afghanistan is, literally, almost off the chart.)  Is it because PM2.5 in Saudi Arbaia, Kuwait, or Qatar is mostly cleaner fine sand particles rather than hydrocarbon-laden particles from cars and industrial facilities?  Or because they are wealthy enough to be managing the situation somehow, through better health care or otherwise?

    Design statement: Data visualizations like this are used to produce and explore patterns in “Big Data.” They can (and should) be critiqued as limited, reductive, and otherwise subject to the vicissitudes of measurement, but this can also prevent anthropologists from reading for their productive potentials--not least as generators of new questions. Working with Gregory Bateson’s understanding that information is about “difference that makes a difference,” we can see how operationalizing the carefully characterized and organized differences that constitute large data sets--here, annual exposures to PM2.5 in different nations, their differential death rates, and their differential wealth -- can be used to produce new comparisons, hypotheses, and questions.

    Death rates from PM2.5 2016 v 1990

    Another interactive graph from the "Our World In Data" site. This one uses data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in a fairly simple plot: PM2.5-attributed death rates per 100,000 individuals in 2009 (the x-axis) versus those same death in 2016 (the y-axis), with nation-states again color coded by continent and sized according to GDP.  The bisecting line going up through the middle represents no change -- indeed, no progress: the same number of people dying from air pollution in 2016 as seven years previously.  It's thus easy to see, by virtue of being below that line, that the vast majority of nations have indeed made at least some progress. The further down from that mid-line a nation is, the more deaths have decreased there, and the more progress that has been made -- relative to this one metric, anyway.

    In significant swaths of (medical) anthropology, the hegemonic attitude towards "data" and especially "Big Data" largely coheres around indifference, skepticism, or flat-out oppositional critique.  The very idea of "metrics," like those produced and analyzed by organizations like the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (more or less equivalent, for some, to saying "the Gates Foundation"), seems to elicit strong reactive statements about the superior qualities of qualitative data and interpretive analysis.  Constructions of death rates like the ones depicted here, or of "DALYs" (Disability Adjusted Life-Years) are troped as (I will now exaggerate and italicize) wonky instruments of colonial control that eclipse or erase the subtleties and nuances so crucial to the quotidian lives that anthropologists alone can access and authorize.

    This kind of critique -- and it's not unjustified -- turns on a cluster of notions, however, having to do with data, analysis, and science as tied almost exclusively (I will exaggerate again) to truthful representation -- a logocentrism, if you will, that is hegemonic in the sciences but shared as well, even if unacknowledged or cut somewhat by the apparent alterity of a "humanism," in anthropology.

    But data and quantitative, computational analysis have other uses and modes, and the visualization here points to some of them -- indeed, pointing itself is one such valuable function.  Data visualizations like this one don't offer solid universal truths so much as re-direct the attention of scientists (including us), offer patterns to explore and ponder, and spark creative questioning.  Here, for example, this simple graph asks us to ask: how can we understand the differences between China and India? Two nations with similar (enough) GDPs, similar (enough) states of industrialization, similar (enough) headline-making "airpocalypses" in recent years, and similar (enough) death rates in 2009, as easily evidenced by their positions near the "150" marker on the x-axis -- yet something happened in China that made its data-blob move much further down the y-axis, below that midline?  China pushed -- somehow, on something -- and over the course of seven years lowered pretty dramatically -- more dramatically than India, at any rate -- the number of its citizens dying from lung-choking, heart-stopping, brain-eating air pollution.  The data and its visualizations may not tell us a truth, but they do tell us that something real is happening that makes a difference and one way to name that real difference falls under the rubric of governance...

    Design statement: Data visualizations like this are used to produce and explore patterns in “Big Data.” They can (and should) be critiqued as limited, reductive, and otherwise subject to the vicissitudes of measurement, but this can also prevent anthropologists from reading for their productive potentials--not least as generators of new questions. Working with Gregory Bateson’s understanding that information is about “difference that makes a difference,” we can see how operationalizing the carefully characterized and organized differences that constitute large data sets--here, changes in death rates due to PM2.5 exposure in different nations, with their differential wealth, at two different points in time -- can be used to produce new comparisons, hypotheses, and questions. It also conveys the difference that programmatic social action -- in this case, air quality regulation and remediation, informed by data and irs knowledges -- has made (or not) in different national governance systems.

  • A polaroid photo with the words "toxic capture" written over top
    Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible
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    Toxic Capture

    Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible

    This essay seeks to expand theorization on toxicity by tracing the ways in which "toxic injury" and "toxic stress" have emerged as categories for clinical and juridicial claims making. I am particularly interested in the ways in which toxic injury as is both enrolled and undermined as a useful explanatory model for conditions which resist diagnosis. Given the ways in which toxic subjects are rendered invisible by dominant understandings of transmission, injury, and time, new forms of visualization and reading are called for. The images I include seek to illustrate the various tools patients and clinicians use in order to render toxic conditions visible in both clinical and legal domains.  Through these images I hope to demonstrate the promise and difficulty of “toxic capture.”

    Jasper Johns' Flag Moratorium (1969)

    Found Image: Jasper Johns' Flag (Moratorium) (1969)

    Look briefly at John Jasper’s Flag (Moratorium) and one will see what appears to be the United States flag, painted in Army greens and orange, with a small pin—or dare I say bullet?—hole at center. Yet glance away after gazing at the painting, and one will “see” the United States flag projected in its familiar red, white, and blue, as if materializing out of nowhere. The intensity of the specter directly correlates with how long the viewer has been staring at the original painting.
    What the painting is remains unclear: is the primary image the orange and green painting or is it the illusion? Which did the artist intend for us to see? Which do we remember? Without guidance, the viewer likely does not know that the illusion even lies beneath (beside?) the painting. Yet, once the illusion is known to the viewer, it becomes difficult to un-see, simultaneously seeing multiple things at once. A variation of the famous duck-rabbit illusion, in which both, and neither a duck and/nor a rabbit are pictured in the same illustration, the flag is multiple things at once, though not simultaneously sustained visually by the viewer. Wittgenstein’s (1953) famous rumination on the duck-rabbit conundrum helps to further this point, explaining how viewers will first see either a duck or a rabbit, but cannot report seeing something that they are unfamiliar with (193-196). Like toxics, the image lingers after exposure.

    Annotated map of burn pit in Balad

    CREATED IMAGE: MAPPING BURN PITS

    REVISION

    This Google Maps screen capture shows Balad Air Base an Iraqi Air Force base occupied by US troops from 2003-2011, at which time it was named Joint Base Balad. The site of the largest burn pit (10 acres), several tons of waste was burned each day until 2008. Annotated by a US Army veteran stationed at Balad from 2005-2006, the red circle outlines the pit and the blue, the housing quarters located downwind from the pit. The proximity of sleeping and living quarters to the burn pits is an often cited metric in claims of exposure by both veterans and environmental scientists.

    Waiting room four chairs

    Created Image: Waiting as Method

    "You wouldn’t think I was retired the amount of time I spend at the VA. Part of it is the turnover they have. No one wants to treat us, especially the older guys. We spend forever waiting for an appointment, and then a follow-up and then the moment you mention something involving Agent Orange it’s like they lose your file." --J, Vietnam Veteran

    “I probably  had a relatively normal relationship with my children compared to most of the guys here.  I knew about the connections between AO and birth defects but we thought we were in the clear because none of my children seemed to have any effects. But my granddaughter was born without any legs, and we’re now thinking that two of my daughters' thyroid and  fertility issues might be related.” --G, Vietnam Veteran

    Patients, particularly those with chronic disease conditions, spend extensive periods of time waiting. Waiting for appointments, waiting for test results, waiting for insurance approvals, waiting for symptoms, the waiting room is a physical instantiation of these waiting practices, where a diagnostic liminality is quite literally embodied. For toxic subjects who have known or presumed exposure, waiting also takes on complicated political and social dimmensions in the wait for science and the wait for recognition. 

    In my research, I spend a significant time in waiting rooms, from conducting formal interviews with families in between appointments and treatment, to accompanying my interlocutors to their appointments, to my formal roles as a victim advocate. While medical anthropology devotes significant time and space to the study of the clinical interaction, I am particularly interested in how meaning is made in those interstitial times and places patients occupy when moving between the houses of formally recognized expertise.

  • Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era
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    Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era

    In light of a radical spike in its use, the English Oxford Dictionary (EOD) declared “post-truth” the 2016 Oxford word of the year. Two years later, the EOD decided on an equally troubling descriptor, “toxic”, as best representing “the ethos, mood, [and] preoccupations” of 2018. In this collection of images, I attempt to rethink post-truth and toxicity together, exploring visualization as a tactic for developing and representing a conception of epistemological “static” as a particularly toxic form of contemporary knowledge politics. Building off of Kockelman’s analysis of “enemies, parasites, and noise” (2010), toxicity is here conceived as a particular type of third (a relation to a relation), one that is obstructive, corruptive, and/or corrosive to a previously established and effective channel of communication. Static, then, is a token of this type; it functions by flooding the channel with enough “alternative signals” that messages become unclear or distorted and the channel less effective, if not completely inoperative. In Crowds on Demand, the interference of professional actors taking up as local stakeholders muddled the message received by the New Orleans City Council, therein undermining public trust in the utility of traditional symbolic forms of democratic politics. In Search for California, the equal intensities of contradicting representations of California—as a state of paradise and/or perdition—mimics the unintelligibility of “white noise,” creating a simulation of the paralysis induced when the blurring of fact, fiction, and fantasy impedes our ability to trust even our own impressions and desires.

    References:

    Kockelman, Paul. 2010. “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise:How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 406–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01077.x.

    “Word of the Year 2016 Is... | Oxford Dictionaries.” n.d. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016.

    “Word of the Year 2018 Is... | Oxford Dictionaries.” n.d. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018.

    Created Image: Crowds on Demand: Toxicity and Symbolic Form

    Substantive Caption:

    This image points to an instance of “astroturfing” as a practice of converting economic capital into political power through the purchase and/or production of an illusion of grassroots support. The image is composed of a juxtaposition of a photograph of a New Orleans City Council meeting with a screenshot taken from the company website of Crowds on Demand, a freelance publicity firm that specializes in contracting crowds of actors to influence legislation and sway public opinion. In this particular instance, Crowds on Demand was contracted to influence the New Orleans City Council to approve the construction of a new natural-gas power plant in New Orleans East, a predominantly immigrant and minority community that has a long history of struggling against similar instances of environmental racism. The fallout from this astroturfing campaign, as well as the failure of the City Council to respond adequately, has called the very possibility of a meaningful democratic politics into question. The image thus attempts to make use of this particular breach of trust to exemplify and discuss astroturfing as a toxic force that deteriorates the meaning of symbolic forms and therein leaches the potential for meaningful political action.

    In 2018, Crowds on Demand was indirectly contracted by Entergy (a New Orleans based energy company) to hire dozens of professional actors to create the impression of strong grassroots support for a new, $211 million natural-gas plant in east New Orleans. Despite attempts to obscure their involvement through subcontractors, the combined evidence garnered through the investigations of The Lens (a local non-profit newsroom) and a city-commissioned law firm suggests that the company intentionally financed the hiring of false advocates to overcome the otherwise formidable grassroots opposition taking hold in the communities living in close proximity to proposed construction site. On two occasions, these trained actors flooded New Orleans’ City Council meetings, providing fraudulent testimony as false constituents while simultaneously preempting actual constituents from entering the meeting and participating in the discussion. The photograph of one such meeting—located the bottom of the combined image—shows the numerous bright-orange shirts and bold printed signs, held by a diverse group of inconspicuous looking actors, that provided a convincing representation of popular support for the new plant. What cannot be captured here, however, are the lists of talking points developed and given to the actors by Crowds on Demand, along with non-disclosure agreements and strict instructions to avoid the media and deny any accusations of monetary compensation for their appearance.

    The disciplining of deception in this way enabled Crowds on Demand’s involvement to remain concealed until after the City Council had already approved the controversial power plant in March of 2018. However, with numerous convergences of evidence of Entergy’s willing financial connection to this bout of political theater, crowds of disaffected citizens—this time authentic—soon gathered in protest, calling for the City Council to respond by holding a vote to repeal the plant’s approval. The Council initially appeared to be receptive to this idea but later refused a second vote on the issue, choosing instead to impose a $5 million fine on Entergy for their deceptions. This disappointment prompted further skepticism of the City Council’s allegiances, a mistrust not unwarranted, given that the majority of current council members had either received substantial campaign contributions from Entergy or had previously worked for the energy company. Thus, in addition to the safely-assumed public health impacts of the off-gassed chemicals of the future power plant, this coming to light of evidence of corruption and professionally organized deceit has fomented a sense of fatalist cynicism amongst residents of New Orleans East. Take, for example, the words of one local activist, Ming Nguyen: “We’ve done this community-based process, but I don’t know if it ever mattered, because this decision was made before there was ever a hearing.” Thus, perhaps this instance of astroturfing was a double deception, a falsification of grassroots support that enabled the City Council to act as if they had been persuaded, when in reality, in order to protect the City's vested interests, they were always already going to approve the plant. I am neither able nor particularly interested in endorsing or denouncing this view. Aside from whether or not the New Orleans municipal government is actually plagued with this degree of corruption, the fact that it is being posited cuts to the core of what I mean by post-trust.

    One way of understanding toxicity is as a reactive force, a force of deterioration, with the effect of rendering the active passive; toxicity as a leaching of vitality. As such, toxicity is not an essential but a relational property of that which inhabits channels of communication and impedes or alters the signals between senders and receivers, broadly conceived. Like the parasite (Kockelman 2010, Serres 2007), its effect is not simply upon an object or a "host" as a single unit. Instead it takes effect within a system of relations as an impedance, or a corrosive agent. For instance, neurotoxins work by either reducing the production of neurotransmitters or by blocking the reception sites between neurons. Hemotoxins interrupt cardiovascular system by disrupting blood coagulation processes, therein precluding its normal flow. Analogously, the campaigns of Crowds on Demand—and the practice of astroturfing more generally—are toxic because they inhabit the gaps, the interstices of symbolic channels of democratic political participation so as to filter, jumble, or overload these channels in ways that circumvent the democratic process.

    If we take democracy to be a uniquely symbolic and performative mode of politics (Matynia 2009), then we must also appreciate the fundamental role of our capacity to trust in the sincerity of these symbolic performances. Like a well-camouflaged parasite, Crowds on Demand hides within the established symbolic forms of grassroots-based political expression (protests, rallies, testimony, letters to congress, etc.), all the while diminishing their value. It sustains itself on the very same trust in the democratic process that it undermines. Accordingly, Ming Nguyen’s quote perfectly encapsulates the potentially toxic effect of Post-trust politics. It denotes an acquiescence, a sense of loss and resentment, of isolation and futility that is symptomatic of losing faith in one’s capacity to act.

     

    Design Statement:


    This image is an illustration of a mode of political toxicity that takes effect through the manipulation of symbolic forms. It serves as an example, a case in point, of how the inherently symbolic grounds of democratic political action leaves its modes and forms of representation vulnerable to distortion. The ethnographic utility of this image is rooted in its ability to provide a “thicker” conception of what astroturfing is as a concept and practice by providing the viewer with visual access to a single, exemplary manifestation. It manages to do so by taking advantage of the ethnographic technique of juxtaposition. The screenshot of website shows a number of grassroots political tactics that Crowds on Demand lists as potential symbolic forms available to mimicry. The image of the city council meeting then provides a snap shot of this practice, capturing the likeness of this imitation in the moment. Illustrations like these are useful in ethnography to add precision and substance to the concept, situation, or process being described. That is, much like an ethnographic vignette, they enable the ethnographer to reduce the ambiguity of theory by detailing a particular situation, event, or episode of interest.

    References:

    “Crowds on Demand.” n.d. Crowds On Demand. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://crowdsondemand.com/.

    Kockelman, Paul. 2010. “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise:How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 406–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01077.x.

    Matynia, Elżbieta. 2009. Performative Democracy. The Yale Cultural Sociology Series. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

    Serres, Michel. 1982. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Stein, Michael Isacc. 2018. “Actors Were Paid to Support Entergy’s Power Plant at New Orleans City Council Meetings.” Newsroom. The Lens. May 4, 2018. https://thelensnola.org/2018/05/04/actors-were-paid-to-support-entergys-....

    Created Image: Search for "California"

    Substantive Caption:

    Inspired by the diverse and contradictory results of a Google Image search of “California," this photomontage represents toxicity by simulating the paralysis of over-saturation. Leaving the search term sufficiently broad, Google’s algorithm turned up a siren-song representation of Californian nature and society as simultaneously idyllic and dangerous. Accordingly, the montage includes a glut of images of both devastation and opulence, of alarm and allure. The image also provokes reflection on the enigmatic and protean problem of human desire. In stark contrast to neoliberal musings, this montage highlights the human ability to uphold and perpetuate contradictions and, at times, to act against what individuals think is best for themselves and others. It thus prompts further consideration not only of the toxicity of our desires, but of a more insidious and unconscious desire for toxicity.
    The style of photography ranges from documentary, landscape, and photojournalism to the promotional and the memetic, with the content ranging from utter ruination to luxury living. Data visualizations were intentionally mined from more or less questionable sources and extracted and layered in such a way as to inhibit, rather than produce a clear argument. By flooding the viewer with juxtapositions of the utopic with the dystopic, while also blurring any clear distinction between genres of fact, fiction, and fantasy, this image forces us to consider the near Sisyphean challenge of making a new, clear, and compelling visual statement within such an already saturated discourse. Hence the image’s title, Search for “California", is both descriptive and imperative, simultaneously indexing the method of production and also compelling the viewer to grapple with the paradoxical tropes of the strange-yet-familiar places in which we live and die together.


    Design Statement:

    This image simulates the disorientation engendered by the veritable saturation of the contemporary with ambiguous and contradictory visual discourses. Rather than privilege data visualizations as an endpoint or a stable conclusion, the image layers them in with other variations of visuals. The effect is relativization: scientific visualizations of data aggregates are not above, but lateral to advertisements, memes, and other modes of visual rhetoric and representation. They are all in the mix, the visual milieu of the quotidian Anthropocene. The act of juxtaposing these results aligns with James Clifford's conception of ethnographic surrealism, a common tactic of which was to create an “odd museum [that] merely documents, juxtaposes, relativizes—a perverse collection" (1981, 552). It thus utilizes paradox and antithesis, not to achieve further synthesis, to establish a new, even “truer” truth about the world, but to create an open space for thought and action that is "subversive of surface realities” (Clifford 1981, 548).

    James Adams: Cite As

    Cite As:

    James Adams. 2019. Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. June.