Julia Christensen’s Upgrade Available
The new media artist addresses the subject of technological obsolescence through the form of the book.
(Dancing Foxes Press, 2020)
In Upgrade Available, the new media artist Julia Christensen addresses the subject of technological obsolescence through the form of the book, a medium that is pointedly immune to the pitfalls suffered by a society constantly upgrading its means of digitally storing information. The book is neatly divided into four sections, labeled technology time (the time it takes for a particular piece of equipment to break or become otherwise unusable), life time, institutional time (focused particularly on museum archives), and space time (a somewhat more amorphous timescale whose length is defined by the working life of the objects we send into outer space). Over the course of four chapters, Christensen undoes our assumptions and undermines our seemingly unwavering belief that more information is always better. At the book’s close we are left wondering what to do with ourselves, how to stop a culture which rarely reflects on its impact on the environment, nor its effect on our perception of meaning and time.
Each chapter more or less corresponds with a grant or residency that Christensen received, which take her from the piles of e-waste in processing centers in India to the LACMA archives, through to the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA. The essays in each section read like journal entries, a chronicle of her reflections on information, knowledge, and meaning and how they are refracted by the time-lens through which we view each. Transcripts of conversations with others sympathetic to Christensen’s project are interspersed throughout, enlivening the text with new voices, lest we get claustrophobic accompanying the artist into the bowels of too many lonely archives. Even the most practical conversations (such as one with LACMA’s archivist Jessica Gambling) veer into poetic territory, ensuring every detour is well worth the space it takes away from the artist’s frank, philosophically rich prose.
Though ostensibly an art book, the book’s spare illustrations are not interesting in themselves. By reproducing, for example, the lone image of a jaguar Christensen discovered stored on a hard drive archived for years at LACMA, she questions whether the archive is more than a junk drawer of unsorted information. Why this image saved by the archivists at LACMA remains a mystery to the artist. “Someone will deal with this later,” Christensen imagines the then-archivist saying to herself. Sometimes we preserve information simply because we can, the jaguar image seems to say. Data, technology time fails to tell us, is only worth storing if meaning comes along with it.
Upgrade Available is fundamentally a book of technological disillusionment, as it pulls back the curtain to show us what we do not want to see: our obsession with tech has catastrophic consequences. We are stuck in the wrong timescale, consumed by upgrade culture, which ensures we are always struggling to keep up. This behavior not only produces mountains of trash, illustrated by the opening scene of piles of e-waste in New Delhi, but disrupts our perception of time and reorients our value systems to prioritize the wholly new, as opposed to the modular, the recycled, and the cobbled together. Christensen also notes that the metaphor of the immaterial “cloud” conveniently obfuscates the acres of data servers chugging away to store our information. Because of this preference for the newest technology, we are unable to reach back and understand the past, stored on inaccessible, obsolete devices.
But what if we didn’t have to keep up? What if, as Christensen ultimately concludes, “obsolescence is a choice”? By the time we arrive at the chapter on “space time,” Christensen has found her solution to this predicament by marrying timescales: her final project uses technology to prioritize longevity. Through her fellowship at LACMA’s Art + Tech Lab, Christensen began working with NASA scientists to design a spacecraft that will be sent to Proxima b, which—at 4.2 lightyears away—is the closest habitable planet to Earth. The ship needs to continuously evolve to last the 200 year trip, using pieces of itself in its future iterations. In other words, it needs to defy technological obsolescence. The artist and her scientist collaborators designed a ship that bypasses both technology time and life time all together. Instead, it sends its data communication to antennae fashioned from trees, a species whose timescale extends well beyond our own.
The section on “space time,” is almost absurd in the scope of its ambition. It never, however, feels like a gimmick, as it closely adheres to the philosophy Christensen spends the previous chapters constructing: meaning is what matters, and technology must be in service to it above all else. Christensen advocates for finding a way to allow different timescales to operate fluidly, rather than in the unilinear fashion software upgrades demand. Instead, “when you have technologies from different time periods functioning side by side, time emerges as [...] a constellation,” Christensen states.
We cannot all be like Christensen with close ties to NASA, however, so the solution to our own trouble with timescales must be found on Earth. “Art is a means of bridging the gulf between technology and knowledge,” she says, “that is, bringing meaning to information.” Art, therefore, is the antidote to technology time.