Consumer Hell

Photographer-artist Chris Jordan puts a graphic face on waste. by Greg Ryan ’08

From six or seven feet away, the image appears to be a bountiful forest, abundant with slim, striated trees. Move a few feet closer, though, and you’ll realize the trees are actually enormous stacks of the 1.14 million supermarket paper bags used every hour in the United States, as the placard next to the picture confirms. You’re looking at a scene not of natural life, but of ecological death.

The works in artist Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers collection are designed to elicit such epiphanies. Each inkjet print depicts the unfathomable amount of environmentally unfriendly products—plastic bottles, cell phones, cigarettes—Americans consume every year, day, hour, and minute. The Handwerker Gallery ran the collection this spring in conjunction with FLEFF, the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. Cheryl Kramer, assistant professor of art history and the gallery director, says the exhibit nicely complemented one of the film festival’s four “content streams”—camouflage. “It’s the opposite of camouflage, in that it takes something abstract and makes it quite tangible,” Kramer says.

Jordan’s work on the subject of American consumerism is ongoing. Running the Numbers is just the latest in his multiyear effort to illustrate, both graphically and artistically, the destructiveness of wasteful behavior. The exhibition also marked a number of firsts for the Handwerker Gallery’s collaboration with FLEFF. Rather than the weeklong installations it had previously featured during the film festival’s run, this year’s exhibit ran for five-and-a-half-weeks, the last week coinciding with FLEFF’s impressive lineup of film screenings, panel discussions, multimedia events, and musical performances.

It was also the first time the gallery featured a publicly displayed response board on which viewers could write comments about Jordan’s work. Some visitors responded negatively (“What’s aesthetically pleasing about something that looks like wallpaper?”), but most commented favorably on the power of the images. “The first time I saw these pics, I was both in shock and thrilled,” read one, “in shock by how the United States can waste so much . . . and thrilled that people can now see how wasteful they are.”

Kramer and the FLEFF organizers hope this exhibition did both shock and thrill its beholders—into adjusting their behavior as consumers.

Learn more about Running the Numbers and all of Chris Jordan’s work at