Tag Archives: environment

Manufactured Landscapes

The European tradition of landscape painting imagescreated idealized representations of an arcadian world populated by shepherds and nymphs. The evenly distributed planes of sloping land in paintings by artists such as Poussin (one of whose works is featured to the right) created a balanced sense of landscape that reflected an idealized social order. These ordered representations of the land were given form in the ornate geometrical images-1symmetries of Renaissance Italian and French gardens such as those of Versailles, and, later, in the carefully constructed simulacrum of nature found in the gardens of English country houses.

Ironically, Poussin and other landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain created their works shortly before the onset of capitalism broke apart the stable feudal order that tied workers to the land, setting off a series of enclosures that radically dispossessed peasant communities across Europe. Similarly, the apparent self-enclosed order of the English garden was often a product of the brutal landscapes of exploitation that characterized slavery-driven sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Each age, it seems, creates images of the landscape that just as often obscure the underlying social relations that produce nature as they idealize those social relations and the configuration of land produced by them.oil1

What representations of landscape is our epoch creating?

It should not be much of a surprise that some of the most interesting depictions of contemporary landscapes depict a land blasted by industrialization and extreme extraction of various sorts. Edward Burtynsky’s series on Oil is typical in this regard. Burtynsky traces the various stages in the life of oil, from extraction (featured at the right) to the auto plants, flyovers, and fast food joints of Detroit and Los Angeles, to the toxic shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh.

His work is important since oil is such a contradictory substance. It is the lifeblood of US late capitalist culture, and yet is remains thoroughly invisible to most Americans. They see neither its oil2sites of extraction or refinement, and seldom think about the ways in which oil fuels virtually every aspect of life in the US, often at a serious toll of resources and blood for people in other parts of the world.

Other artist-activists have produced work which seeks to make this environmental toll visible. The Nigerian photographer George Osodi, for example, documents the massive environmental and social destruction caused in the Niger delta region of his country in a series of photographs reproduced in a montage here:

Nor are established forms of extraction such as petroleum the only form of manufacturing toxic industrial landscapes. The short photomontage Oil on Lubicon Land by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace, describes the impact of oil and gas developments and the recent oil spill in the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta:

There are many other artists working today on Manufactured Landscapes. Indeed, this geographical awareness, and the critical, investigative spirit that animates such depictions, could be said to be one of the most important trends in contemporary artwork. A key institution in supporting such work is the Center of Land Use Interpretation, whose website features photomontages every bit as devastating as those I’ve featured in this post.

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Forgotten Spaces, Invisible Lives

Yesterday I saw Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s powerful film The Forgotten Space.  The idea behind the film is that the sea is a space which we have come to see as nothing other than a blank surface across which vast quantities of goods can be transported in nondescript shipping containers. If we once revered the sea as a consumer of souls, today we are killing it through acidifying carbon emissions from the thousands of gigantic container ships that ply the waters of the world.

Sekula and Burch’s film offers a potent series of perspectives on the toll taken by neoliberal globalization by looking at a series of port cities: Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Bilbao. Through interviews and haunting vignettes in each of these maritime sites and their hinterlands, Sekula and Burch show how containerization has facilitated the globalization of production while also dismantling unionized labor forces in the developed world.  The result is been sweeping generation of what Zygmunt Bauman calls wasted humanity: people and places for whom the neoliberal economy no longer has any practical use.

At the same time, the “flag of convenience” rule on the high seas has meant that shipping companies can charter their boats out of highly impoverished countries, and then staff them with an ill paid and eminently disposable labor force from underdeveloped nations such as the Philippines.

The Forgotten Space offers a powerful instance of what Fredric Jameson, in his well-known essay on Postmodernism, calls cognitive mapping.  By literally traversing the maritime networks that link together the contemporary consumer economy, Sekula and Burch help viewers understand the toll taken on communities and individuals by today’s global economy.

The film can at times feel crushing.  We are repeatedly exposed to images of gigantism and heedless development that dwarf individual experience and even cognition, not to mention political organizing.  On the other hand, Sekula and Burch are careful to include instances of resilience.  So we see workers around the world finding ways to retain a sense of individual dignity and collective identity despite the often grueling conditions under which they work.

I found the filmmakers’ interview with Chinese economist Minqi Li particularly powerful.  Li, the author of The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, argues that the integration of China’s vast peasantry into the world proletariat may have given capital the upper hand for the moment by disorganizing global labor, but in the long term this strategy will spell the death of capitalism since the Chinese working class will inevitably grow more organized and more assertive.  The rub, of course, is that in the not-so-long term we are likely to all be dead given the quickening onset of climate change.  Nonetheless, the filmmakers supplement this anodyne theoretical point with heart-rending examples of human resiliency and fragility in the face of the neoliberal global economy.

During the question and answer session that followed the screening, Sekula commented that his film has been refused by a whole series of international film festivals, including the Tribeca film festival here in NYC and the Sundance festival.  This strikes me as a real crime, although one that is not so surprising given the radical message it embodies.

Here’s a trailer for The Forgotten Space:

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