Visualizing Toxic Subjects

Ruination or Renovation?: Dislocated Efforts Towards “Improving” Los Angeles’ La Plaza District

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Created Image: Union Station / Old Chinatown

In 1931, the California Supreme Court upheld a decision which condemned the land where Los Angeles’ “Old Chinatown” stood in order to construct a public transit terminal in its place. It was in this moment that Union Station was born. Over the next several years, over three thousand residents of Old Chinatown – most of whom were Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans – were forcibly removed from their homes. The businesses and cultural landmarks that these residents called home were razed in the name of infrastructural improvement and modernity. This created image highlights the literal erasure of non-white residents from the city’s central Plaza. 

Created Image: La Plaza Cultura Village / La Plaza

Over the years, La Plaza has seen numerous government and private-sector backed projects aimed at “revitalizing” the area (the construction of Union Station, the creation of the Romanized Olvera Street, etc.). However, many of these efforts are thinly veiled money-making schemes, hidden behind the guise of urban renewal. Presently, construction is in full swing for La Plaza Cultura Village, a “mixed-use” residential and retail space occupying two city blocks just west of La Plaza.  The Cesar Chavez Foundation, a partner of the project, claims that the Village will “honor [sic] the history of Los Angeles and the diversity of those who built it in the area where that history was created.” However, it remains unclear how such “diversity” is incorporated into this trendy, ultra-modern project. Backers of the Village, including the Chavez Foundation, laud that 20% of the Village’s housing will offer affordable housing options for multi-family households. Again, the partners’ interpretation of “affordable” family housing remains problematic, as rent for the least-expensive housing option – a 429 square foot studio – starts at $1,925 per month. This created image juxtaposes the proposed layout for La Plaza Cultura Village with an aerial of La Plaza in 1924 – two years before Olvera Street was “created,” and over a decade before Union Station was built.

Created Image: Brunswig Building / Homeless Encampment

Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite these sobering facts, the city still struggles with providing low-income housing to its poor and working-class residents. Though an emergency homeless shelter was constructed in the Plaza just a few months ago, the facility can only accommodate 45 adults. Such efforts, as well meaning as they might be, neglect the larger, structural issues of housing insecurities – such as high rent, low wages, discriminatory housing practices, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, projects described as promoting urban revitalization often exacerbate the housing crisis, as the rent for the “affordable” housing options in the upcoming La Plaza Cultura Village start at almost $2,000 per month. 

Stephanie Narrow: Admitted at: Calexico, Calif.

This is an extremely evocative and powerful ethnographic image. The strength of emotion behind Juan's eye's forces the reader to consider what was he feeling at this moment in time? Did he know...Read more

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 & Molly Bloom: Interventions

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Alice Chen: Visualizing Lead Risk

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Fred Ariel Hernandez: The Asthma Files Homepage, Nov 26, 2018

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