Manufactured Landscapes

I changed the location of the Dinner and a Doc event last night.  We had been meeting in a local church space, but I decided to try hosting the meal and screening at my own place.  I really enjoyed the change.  Some friends brought their young daughter with them, much to the delight of my eldest son, and the kids circulated freely through the house during the meal and the film, their parents following dutifully behind.  My mother brought a crisp of freshly picked sakatoon berries, which beautifully finished the meal after the homemade potato soup.  The atmosphere felt less constrained and more intimate.  I think that I will repeat the experiment in August.

The film this month was Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, which introduces the photography of Edward Burtynsky, famous for his images of industrial, fabricated landscapes.  The film follows Burtynsky as he visits various sites, mostly in China, and photographs the disturbing and yet somehow beautiful landscapes that are the by-product of industrial humanity.  The images are often vivid: a slow tracking shot that moves down a seemingly endless factory floor; derelict ships half-dismantled on a beach; mountains of hand-sorted recycling; people demolishing their own cities, brick by brick, to make way for ships in what will be the reservoir of a new dam.  There are no descriptions that can do these visuals justice.  They need to be seen and experienced.

The effect of the documentary footage and of Burtynsky’s own stills, especially when they are layered over each other in succession like they are in the film, is to defamiliarize industrial humanity, to make strange the economic and social systems that have become normalized for most of us.  There is an overwhelming sense of estrangement from the photographic subjects, as if they have been discovered on an alien planet or the set of some fantastic film.  The film constantly forces the viewer to confront the strange, unnatural, inhuman ways that industrial humanity transforms its own landscape.

The phrase that kept ocurring to me throughout the film is from Ivan Illich.  In several of his books, Illich talks about how social relatations and institutions have become “industrially deformed”, and though he does not explicitly use this phrase in relation to the modern manufactured landscape, I do not think he would object to my using the idea in this way, because the industrial landscape is inextricably linked to other industrial relations and institutions.  It is not that one produces the other, but that they both produce each other, reinforce each other, construct each other as normal and natural ways of being.

By forcing us to confront the strange and unnatural landscapes of industrial humanity, therefore, Baichwal’s film and Burtynsky’s images should also force us to confront the strange and unnatural relationships, institutions, and systems that produce these landscapes.  I am not simply making the obvious argument that our consumption causes us to manufacture landscapes that are unnatural.  I am making the less obvious argument that the defamilarizing function that Manufactured Landscapes plays should force us to see how our own immediate landscapes have become industrially deformed also, to see how the suburban housing development, the strip mall, the parking lot, the gated community, and much more of our own landscape is as deformed in its way as the strip mine and the interminable factory floor.

To make industrial humanity strange for us at the distance of China or even of a local mine is certainly a necessary and useful function, but it falls short  if we do not recognize the implication that our own landscapes and relations and institutions need to be made strange as well.  Burtynsky makes this connection to himself more than once, commenting on the industrial implications of his photography and supposing that he had perhaps used fuel from one of the oil tankers rusting on a beach.  There is no point, however, when the film challenges its viewers to make this connection for themselves.  In the end, it is still possible to finish the film with the sense that our office jobs and tidy homes and ordered towns somehow escape the deformation that industrial humanity has imposed upon its landscapes.  It is still possible to avoid the fact that our own landscapes, though perhaps cleaner, safer, and healthier, are often just as unnatural, abnormal, and inhuman.

This possibility need to be eliminated for us.  We need to be confronted with the strangeness of what we have created ourselves to be.  We need to have our lives made alien to us so that we can see what they have become.

  1. “It is still possible to avoid the fact that our own landscapes, though perhaps cleaner, safer, and healthier, are often just as unnatural, abnormal, and inhuman.”

    Can a natural landscape exist when populated? I sympathize with your thesis, but I am left with the impossibility of an alternative, when it is taken to the extreme. Somehow I am part of that landscape, and my presence, my footprint, my damage are part of what is natural. I am also aware that I cannot extend this idea to its logical conclusion and still believe it.

    So how to cope?

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