Visualizing Toxic Subjects

Shannon Bae: Weaving the Past Forward

Due to the scope of the image, my eye first went to the broader expanse in the background. It wasn't until reading the explanation that I looked closely enough to see the transposed rods from the...Read more

Chae Yoo: Mapping Burn Pits

This image is ethnographically intriguing because it demonstrates what sort of visual tools the informants utilize to delineate their own experiences of risk and vulnerability. I appreciated this...Read more

Stephanie Narrow: Found Image: Beijing Before and After the Smog

This image immediately brings to mind news stories I read in the months leading up to 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Many athletes chose to not particpate because of the poor air quality, for fear...Read more

Stephanie Narrow: Found Image: 10 Days of Danger

This image shows a bird's eye view of toxicity. However, I wonder how we can better incorporate the human element into these scales. Could we collage it with data on hospital visits, pharmacy...Read more

Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

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Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

People with illnesses caused by toxic exposure are often referred to as canaries: like canaries in coal mines, they warn others of the mounting harm of everyday exposure to the toxic products of capitalism, from personal care products to industrial effluent. As part of the Chemical Entanglements initiative at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW), we are exploring how visual representations of canary narratives can serve as activist tools and challenge gendered conceptions of chronic illness as imagined or hysterical.

 In collaboration with artist and poet Peggy Munson, CSW has produced a series of cartoon-like provocations designed to confront viewers with the violence and harm caused by toxic personal care products, particularly to women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other already-vulnerable persons. Building on this work, we aim to produce imagery to accompany a forthcoming series of oral histories. These oral histories will document the lives of activists who work to expose the accumulating damage caused by toxicants, and in so doing, advocate for change at both individual and institutional levels. How, we ask, can visualizing their narratives underscore how toxic exposure is a gender equity issue? How might these visualizations work in concert with data visualizations to persuade policymakers to take action to protect the public health? In addition to creating new visualizations, we will collect and invite crowdsourced commentary on existing artistic representations of the symptoms of toxic exposure (from graphic novels, zines, films, etc.) created by chronically ill individuals. In so doing, we will ask what a feminist approach—one that is intersectional, which advocates without objectifying, which centers marginal perspectives--to visualizing canary narratives might look like.


Hyland, Tara. 1999.  “Creative Meaning-Making: Reading the Bookworks of Lise Melhorn-Boe.”  Journal of Artists' Books 11: 11-15.

International Programme on Chemical Safety. 2002. Global Assessment of the State-of-the-Science of Endocrine Disruptors. Geneva:World Health Organization. 2002. Accessed November 20, 2018:

Johnston, Jill E., and Andrea Hricko.2017. “Industrial Lead Poisoning in Los Angeles: Anatomy of a Public Health Failure.” Environmental Justice 10 (5): 162-167.

Miller, Claudia S.1997. “Toxicant-induced loss of tolerance--an emerging theory of disease?” Environmental Health Perspectives,105 (Suppl 2), 445–453.

Porter, Catherine A., et al. 2009. Overexposed and Underinformed: Dismantling Barriers to Health and Safety in California Nail Salons. Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Accessed November 20, 2018:

Zwillinger, Rhonda. 1998. The dispossessed: living with multiple chemical sensitivities. Paulden, AZ: Dispossessed Project.

Found Image: Textures and Textiles in Teaching Toxicity

Substantive Caption:

The early works of Canadian artist Lise Melhorn-Boe inquired into the thwarted, deferred, and transferred artistic desires of women.  In Color Me Dutiful (1986), Melhorn-Boe collected stories elicited from women as to why they wear make-up, printing those desires and recollections on oval paper leaflets (i.e., faces) collected in a receptacle whose cover is a plaster cast of her own mienne.  After becoming ill with breast cancer and, then, felled by exposure to mold, Melhorn-Boe returned to the oval leaflets with a new awareness of environmental toxins that had likely contributed to her own health. Toxic Face Book (2008) returns to the landscape of the face and lists the chemical ingredients of the many emollients and hues that women use regularly.  The artist’s life history of exposures to heavy metals are also rendered via a pop-up book, No Safe Levels (2006), figuring a topography of rolling hills and peaks, the overall shape based on her body’s profile while lying sideways and inscribed with the heavy metals that turned up in her laboratory panel.  In What’s for Dinner (2011), a textual homage and spin on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party,  she prompts the picnic goer to unfold a series of meals that list the contaminants in food that contribute to total body burden. The large (40 inch) fold-out work, Body Map (2009), features a photograph of the artist’s post-mastectomy figure, with a personal and public environmental history inscribed across various body parts.

Design Statement:

We selected this visualization because:

  • Melhorn-Boe’s “thick description” art,  detailing encounters with toxicity, has been less quick to sell than earlier work. Though her table-top treasure boxes, origami-ed landscapes, and pop-up book/ quilt mashups cry out to be touched, they also record how we are contaminated and in constant contact with EDCs. The art provides an ethnographic encounter, making tactile the invisible chemicals that surround us. However, the lay public wishes to keep the knowledge about the risks of living in (post)industrial ecologies at a distance.

  • The visual art represents something soft that might offer solace against the ominous lists of chemicals/EDCs. Melhorn-Boe sews and folds stories of living in non-purity, in contaminated and disabled canary being into missives of tactile communion.

Created Image: Incorporating POC into Canary Activism

Substantive Caption:

Allergist/immunologist Claudia Miller has proposed that, once individuals reach a threshold of total “body burden,” they are susceptible to TILT (Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance) thereby reacting to small amounts of previously tolerated chemicals.  Diagnosis of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) for TILT-ed individuals is more common among white populations, suggesting a disparity in treatment among minorities. The educational and activist aims of these postcards, commissioned by the Chemical Entanglements Project at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, includes acknowledging people of color who have been at the forefront of environmental justice efforts. All three images created by disability artist Peggy Munson (who herself has MCS) feature individuals with masks over the faces. One card features an Asian woman resting at an abandoned gas station repurposed as a beauty salon, to draw the connection between toxic ingredients in many salon products and their petroleum rootstocks.  Another image shows an African American woman and her dog as they debark from a camper with a label “SAFE” scrawled on its rear. This card acknowledges the difficulty for those with MCS to find safe housing because of off-gassing chemicals in building materials. The third postcard presents a woman wearing a respirator, her arms around an African American gender non-binary individual--an image of mutual alliance and support. Each postcard has a set of check-boxes that evoke the medical questionnaires given to patients. Here, the sender of the postcard would put an “x” in a box linked to phrases such as “My symptoms grow urgent around scented detergent,”  and “Modern people have the vapors from chemical capers” that serve as messages warning that access for those with MCS runs inversely to the distribution of accessory fragrances by chemical manufacturers.

Design Statement:

We present this visualization because:

  • By commissioning art from someone in the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/ Environmental Illness community, we hoped to make insider knowledge available to a wider public.

  • It represents our naiveté around what constituted the “low hanging fruit” in explaining the under-regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to a wider public.  The sources of EDCs are myriad. We thought it surprising, and little known, that EDCs comprise common cosmetics, toiletries and household cleaners whose scents are advertised to odor-fearing consumers. We mistakenly assumed that the general population would only need to be made aware of the potential hazards in “fragranced” products. However, these images struck many as more offensive than informative.

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

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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.


“Crowds on Demand.” n.d. Crowds On Demand. Accessed May 10, 2019.

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.

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.

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.

Rachel Lee & Mehar Maju: No Parking Next to Garden

The image’s subject is the community garden which serves as a proxy for the community itself. The spatial location of the garden near the freeway will inevitably impact the health and...Read more

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