Julia Christensen is currently at work on a book about the Upgrade Available project. The structure of the book is built around the five art pieces that make up this body of work, with documentation and writing about each. The pieces (Burnouts, Hard Copy, The Chuck Close Tapes, We Share Our Pictures, and The Big Feed) each reveal different aspects of our complicated relationships with obsolete electronics and recordable media, and act as touchstones to open discussion about identity, memory, legacy, obsolescence, and history. All of these concepts are crucial in understanding the e-waste crisis of the 21st century, the larger issue that frames and contextualizes the artwork featured in the book.
Upgrade Available began when Christensen visited a corporate e-waste processing center in southern India. She was shocked by the mountains of computers, DVD players, and hard drives she saw there, most of it imported from the United States in the two weeks before her visit. Since that first encounter with the underbelly of the international trash trade, Christensen has made two subsequent trips to India to visit informal e-waste markets as well. Accordingly, the book opens with these experiences. In the introduction of the book, Christensen describes first-hand her visits to these sites, informing an understanding of the global impact of upgrade culture. The photographs she took in India will be featured here; this documentation is not included in any of the five artworks. She questions how our personal relationships with smartphones, VHS tapes, and hard drives relate to the enormity of e-waste on an international scale. These are the experiences and questions that drive the five art pieces in Upgrade Available.
This is not a book by a journalist, however, nor is it by a scientist or a policy analyst. The lens of the artist-writer allows the book to connect the smaller, personal, and even poetic narratives explored by these art pieces to the larger, global aggregate. For instance, the writing about Burnouts illuminates the issues of obsolescence––as reflected in our smartphones and our star maps––and how the desire to upgrade impacts how we consume electronics. Hard Copy and The Chuck Close Tapes illustrate how our personal memories are reborn as trash, the cultural and economic value of our recordings, and how these phenomena relate to upgrade culture. We Share Our Pictures elucidates the role of “sharing” images in our digital image culture, and asks if this impulse relates to how we shared our pictures the age of photo albums and slide collections. This chapter also looks at the material infrastructure used to store digital memories, physicalizing the data we see as so ephemeral. The book concludes with The Big Feed, the final piece in the series, which illustrates economies of electronics, trash, labor, and land, and how these values shift geographically in a global market.
Upgrade Available will be a compelling follow-up to Christensen’s first book, Big Box Reuse, which was about the community reuse of abandoned Walmart and Kmart stores in the United States. Big Box Reuse surveyed how communities deal with another artifact of consumer culture: the empty big box building. Big Box Reuse was published by MIT Press is 2008, and met with wide critical acclaim. It garnered reviews and features in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Washington Post, New York Review of Books, Bookforum, Afterall, USA Today, and dozens of other publications. Big Box Reuse was awarded the Association of American University Presses’ “Best of Category (Trade Non-Fiction)” and “Best Design” awards in 2009; it won the New England Book Show’s “Best of Category (Trade Non-Fiction)” and “Best Design” awards in 2009; Amazon.com named it a “Book of the Month” in November 2008 and it made Amazon’s list of the “Top 10 Art Books of the Year” in 2008.
Big Box Reuse also used the lens of the art project to unpack a large environmental, political, economic, and social issue. The book was similarly launched alongside the artwork associated with the project, which was exhibited widely at venues around the world, including The Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN), The Austrian Cultural Forum (New York, NY), Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA), the Pori Art Museum (Pori, Finland), and the Center for Contemporary Art (Thessaloniki, Greece), among many other venues. The book is still available worldwide, and has been cited in hundreds of books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs since its publication.
The Upgrade Available book will follow a similar trajectory, launching alongside the artwork. The book and art pieces are standalone works, but they will clearly inform each other. The artwork will show in museums and galleries around the world, allowing for wide distribution of the book. (The book could potentially be framed as a catalog, which could launch with a specific show of this work.) Meanwhile, the book will stand on its own as a work of non-fiction, bringing an audience into contact with the artwork who might not find it otherwise.
Discussion regarding the book’s publisher and publication date are ongoing; confirmation on these details are forthcoming.
The research in India was made possible through additional funding from the H.H. Powers Travel Grant and Oberlin College Faculty Grants. Thanks go to many people in India who have helped with this research, including Atul Bhalla, Abhay Bhalla, Ravi Agarwal, and the dedicated people at Toxics Links..