Julia Christensen Examines Our Obsession with Upgrading Technology

How many times in the past decade have you upgraded your phone? Where do you keep the photos that mean the most to you? After visiting a massive electronic waste site in India, Julia Christensen has been thinking about questions like these concerning our obsession with upgrade culture and the continuing obsolescence of digital media. The project has become a series of artworks—including an update on the Golden Record using trees that sing to a satellite designed to operate for 200 years—all stemming from Christensen’s Creative Capital Project, Upgrade Available. A book featuring essays by Christensen, conversations with artists, archivists, and academics, along with documentation of this work was recently published by Dancing Foxes Press, and an exhibition of Christensen’s photographs, drawings, and electronic installation premieres at Art Center in Pasadena, September 17 through December 20, 2020.

We spoke to Christensen ahead of the premiere of the work.

Alex Teplitzky—Tell me about the project.

Julia Christensen—Upgrade Available includes a series of artworks and now a book, derived from investigations I’ve made over the last several years about upgrade culture and how obsolescence impacts life on a range of timescales. These art projects look at how obsolescence and upgrades impact four measurements of time. First, how it affects our personal daily lives; our lifetimes, how we save our memories over the course of generations; institution time, thinking about artifacts that are to be saved for a very long time, over multiple generations; and finally, space time, looking at how obsolescence impacts long-term, future-reaching scientific research, especially in outer space.

Alex—What prompted you to start working on this topic?

Julia—So, the project began when I visited my first electronic waste site in India. It was 2012 and I was there working on another project—through a wild unfolding of events I ended up going to an e-waste recycling facility. When I was there, I was just blown away by the aggregate of all of these discarded electronic devices from around the globe that had been imported in the couple of weeks before my visit. I started thinking about our complex relationships with electronics. I started wondering, what is going on here? What is so important to people about these devices that the global community is enacting this decisive, critical damage to our planet?

“I found myself investigating how people store their personal memories over the course of their lifetimes: why do we do this, what are we saving, and who are we saving our ephemera for?”

I started to learn more about how people around me deal with their obsolete technology, surveying people and learning more about the e-waste processing industry. This led to one project, Burnouts, which uses discarded iPhones to display animation of “obsolete constellations”—constellations in the night sky that are still there, but have been retired from official star maps because they are no longer relevant to the study of the night sky, usually due to light pollution. The project is about how obsolescence is a choice­­—the stars are still there, despite their irrelevance to scientists now, just as the phones still work, but have been discarded due to upgrade culture.

Alex—Just to be clear, Upgrade Available is a major umbrella project and all of these other projects like Burnouts fit underneath it?

Julia—Exactly, so the book version of Upgrade Available is structured into chapters about technology time, lifetime, institution time, and space time. The artworks fall into those four categories. The upcoming exhibition includes 36 photographs from four series—Hard Copy, Technology Time, Archiving Obsolescence, and Smart Buildings—which all show dead technology in wildly different contexts. There is a fine line between an old Zip disk in an institutional archive, and one at an e-waste plant in India. The show includes 15 drawings from my series We Share Our Pictures, which looks at habits that were medium-specific to old 35mm slide collections. Burnouts will also be on view. I’ve built an electronic installation and a wall of ephemera about the Tree of Life project, which grew out of my extensive dialog about transcending obsolescence with scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. 

Alex—I’d like to hear more about the time frames that are thematic in your book. For example, what does lifetime mean versus institution time?

Julia—The project started with a deep dive into how upgrade culture impacts our daily, personal lives, via our phones, computers, USB cables, and so on. The first chapter talks about what I call “technology time,” the short time frame between each of our endless upgrades. Then I found myself investigating how people store their personal memories over the course of their lifetimes: why do we do this, what are we saving, and who are we saving our ephemera for? Has this shifted or changed as we’ve evolved from a primarily analog space to a predominantly digital space? This is where my artworks about our personal media collections were born—We Share Our Pictures, Hard Copy, for example.

In 2017, I got a fellowship at the LACMA Art + Tech Lab, which gave me an opportunity to think about how upgrade culture affects an institution the size of LACMA—in terms of art work, of course, and the institutional archives, and the buildings that house exhibitions and operations, especially considering LACMA is on the precipice of this big renovation project. The technological infrastructure in the buildings supports all of this, so how does planned obsolescence impact the institution?  This is when I began projects like Smart Buildings, in which I photographed obsolete tech embedded in the LACMA building site, and Archiving Obsolescence, which led me to attempt to upgrade some old institutional LACMA ephemera at the Media Archaeology Lab at UC Boulder, (to mixed results!).

At the LACMA Art + Tech Lab, I was introduced to Tony Freeman, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He had recently given a paper about a spacecraft concept that he had been developing with an interdisciplinary research team at JPL: a spacecraft that is conceived to fly to Proxima B. Proxima B is an exoplanet in the Alpha Centauri star system, the next star system over from us. It’s 4.2 light years from earth, and his idea for this spacecraft was that it would launch in the year 2069 by which time he speculates our technology will be able to reach one-tenth of the speed of light, which means it would take about 42 years to get to its destination. So he’s trying to conceptualize a spacecraft that won’t even launch for another 50 years, and then once it does launch, it will take another 50 years to get to its destination. It will then take years for the probe to send data back to Earth, as data travels at the speed of light.

This spacecraft has to upgrade itself—really physically change its properties—in order to survive this 42-year interstellar journey, but also to remain relevant to our technologies here on Earth. We will continue to change and upgrade down here, so what kind of data file is it even going to send to us once it reaches its destination? Dr. Freeman and I started having a series of conversations about this, and how it was related to my larger project about upgrade culture. Eventually, he invited me to design an art project that could be embedded on a future interstellar spacecraft that speaks to the transformational quality of this technology, an art project that tells a story about life on Earth, sent out into the cosmos on a spaceship.

Thumbdrives, Mustafabad Market (Delhi, India) by Julia Christensen, 2015, from the series Technology Time, 2011–ongoing. Courtesy the artist

Alex—Amazing, so he asked you to conceptualize a kind of update to the famous Golden Record made by Carl Sagan for the Voyager spacecraft? What did that look like?

Julia—Yes, the intention is similar to the Golden Record project. When I started working on this, I realized there are inherent problems with representation in any project of this grandiosity—who am I to determine this narrative of who we are on Earth? At some point, I started thinking about how humans will die over the course of this mission, scientists will die, artists will come and go. I thought about longer-lived species, and proposed that we build a system to harness stories from a species other than humans.

Eventually, we landed on this idea of trees being a cornerstone of our ecosystem—they’re potentially much longer-lived than we are, and can tell a story about the conditions on Earth over the course of decades or centuries. We developed a project called the Tree of Life, where we are augmenting a set of trees around the globe with sensors designed to collect a 200-year dataset about how they’re faring, their response to light, water, weather, and so on. Then we’re sonifying that data to make a song, translating the data points into sonic frequencies via a custom software.

Meanwhile, we designed a theoretical CubeSat, a small, toaster-sized satellite, which is designed with longevity as a primary parameter—it can last, we think, for 200 years. The CubeSat will orbit the earth and every time it passes over the earth, it will send a ping to the tree, which will change the song of the trees. So ultimately, we are creating a duet between a CubeSat and a set of trees that will last for 200 years. The aggregate of this song can be inscribed on the surface of our future interstellar spacecraft, or any spacecraft really, as a song about life on Earth told through our the voices of our trees and the technology humans build.

And perhaps the most unique part of the system we are building is that it actually uses the trees as antennae that transmit and receive the duet. We found a Vietnam War-era patent that uses the dielectric properties of a living tree to turn it into a living antenna. Our telecoms engineer did some research into the patent and realized that it was true, that we could design these copper rings—loop antennae—that hang around the limbs of the tree; the rings are connected to the ground station, turning the tree into a large, living, breathing antenna system. By making the tree a part of the communications system, we are asking our descendants to commit to the livelihood of the trees, as well as the technology.

In the exhibit at ArtCenter, there will be live, “singing” trees in the gallery, along with ephemera related to the project, including one of the copper rings we’ve fabricated .

Alex—You received the Creative Capital Award in 2013, and as I’ve followed the project over the years, I’ve always been really amazed about how you keep jumping from institution to institution, like LACMA and NASA. It was hard for me to believe at the time, but now that you’re telling me about it, it makes sense. Part of it has to do with the fact that any institution, from Creative Capital to NASA, is interested in archives and digital objects and to have a history through those kinds of objects. What have you learned as an artist working within all these types of institutions?

Julia—Well, my collaborations with these institutions and organizations have unfolded in a couple of ways. On the one hand, I have this ongoing premise that I’m thinking about—upgrade culture and how it impacts the world—and I’m always looking for new frames to contextualize my questions. These institutions, in a way, present those frames.

On the other hand, I’m also not very prescriptive about what’s going to come next in my projects. I’m open to something emerging in my path that suddenly changes the way that I think about that premise. When I started this project, I never thought, “I need to look at how upgrade culture impacts spaceships.” But I started having conversations with these rocket scientists and engineers and realized that they’re thinking about all of the same questions in this totally different context, and then all of a sudden I’m spending years of my life working on space mission concepts. So it’s kind of about staying true to the premise that I develop for myself and my project, but also being totally open to new frames for that investigation as they come into view.

Alex—How has Creative Capital been helpful for these various frames of the project?

Julia—The spirit of Creative Capital has been embedded in this work since the beginning. When I got the award it was more specifically for the beginning part of the project, when I was thinking of e-waste and how it was related to upgrade culture. But the ethos of Creative Capital is all about making space for a long-term investigation into a project, allowing it to expand and grow and shift and change. Since that time, my project has grown into a much larger body of work. It’s grown into several projects, several exhibitions, and now a book.

So I think that the Creative Capital energy is infused in the way that I have worked throughout this project. It’s the way I work anyway, so Creative Capital has been a great home base for the project.

Read more about the project, including how to see the exhibition, and buy the book on Christensen’s website.