Photograph of the Prospector – ARTnews.com
When it comes to Anthropocene art, we are often shown the injury and not the aggressor. Discourse on ecological crises – and artistic interventions designed to draw attention to them – has focused primarily on how to define their enormous scale. As such, philosopher Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects” – phenomena that challenge our understanding as they exist over such vast expanses of time and space – is useful in grasping the communication failures surrounding the climate change. Instead, the accountability framework might be a more pressing issue. Audiences have been absorbing images of destruction for years, but what they haven’t seen is who is responsible for all of these crises.
Identifying the wrongdoers is hard work. The men in the company are not holding the smoking gun. They do not light a fire with their own hands because they benefit from the combustion. Yet like the Latin expression qui facit per alium facit per se does he have, he who does one thing through another does it himself. This diffusion of the agency makes the visual representation of responsibility difficult. What is not seen is not easily perceived otherwise. Photographer Richard Mosse, in his series Sad Tropics, and — separately — Latin American academics Kevin Coleman and Daniel James, in their book Capitalism and the camera, offer a sparkling alternative. By probing the imaging technologies used by companies, we could better understand the perspective of prospectors who profit from ecological and political damage.
The destructive function of the human gaze seems to go without saying. The desire for experiences and things drives consumption, spinning the wheel of unsustainable extraction at an exponential rate. “Capitalist consumption is a key factor in global warming,” point out Kevin Coleman and Daniel James in the introductory essay to Capitalism and the camera, which attempts to explain how the generation of traffic to certain images, products and activities is the result of a hidden profit motive. “The circulation of images, in turn, drives consumption. The desire to have a certain way of life is curiously first an image and only then a reality. As easy as it is to shudder at the collective consumer power of the masses, Coleman and James instead ask us to consider the main destructive gaze of powerful corporations.
Coleman and James point out that the massive photographic archives of multinational corporations are a valuable resource that reveals how photography has been an essential tool in penetrating the boundaries of capital accumulation. Referring to the United Fruit Company’s collection of 10,400 images held at Harvard University, the authors write: “Here we find that the company has used photography to present its work to shareholders and the public, to control nature from afar, to scientifically analyze banana ripening and the spread of disease, to convert biodiverse tropical forests to monoculture plantations, and to monitor the health and productivity of its workers.
The photographs document every building on the United Fruit Company’s Honduran plantation, aerial views of the land, workers, banana trees and the social life of the American expatriates who lived there. At first glance, the photos seem too opaque to glean the kind of information Coleman and James describe. What does a photo of the jungle reveal? But between the social ice photos and the blurry leaves, clarity emerges in the thicket of the enormous archive. A photo, Number XVII from 1953, shows a few neat rows of banana trees, a man standing to the right in the shade of a few lush fronds. The photo is captioned: “The typical leveled area about seven months after the application of 550 pounds of nitrogen per acre, sixteen months after planting, shows vigorous growth unlike that shown in Figure XVII.” Another photo documents the progression of pestilential red rust thrips on the skin of bananas.
The archive shows us that the local environment and the workers were seen as exploitable materials, each photograph a data point to respond to and model. Meanwhile, the dazzling smiles of expats at another barbecue or their sweaty bodies dressed for a day of tennis show how much they have been treated as subjects worthy of respect, consideration and loving attention. The lives of Hondurans and the complexity of their ecology were not meant to be portrayed as separate subjects because they were never meant to be treated that way.
Richard Mosse’s work advances our understanding of the gaze of the powerful by appropriating the imaging technology used by businesses and government entities in their quest for capital gains and border control. In a recent exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and now at Fondazione Mast in Bologna, Italy, the images from Mosse’s “Tristes Tropiques” series appropriate the data-rich photographs used by companies and scientists to describe the various ecological crimes unfolding across Brazil, including the fires that grabbed the attention of 2020. Mosse used geographic data imaging system (GIS) technologies, drones, and multispectral imagery to capture large topographic images of destruction colored in rich hues. Depictions of mining, intensive feedlots, illegal timber production, and the path of intentionally lit fires are seen as complex scientific images, showing us something unhealthy. Cutting-edge technology, which Mosse says is used by both scientists and “bad guys,” allows us to see things that we usually couldn’t, especially not from afar: the health of plant life, thermal signatures, chemical analysis, pH measurements. .
Mosse has always been interested in photographic innovations, especially those developed by the military. When he documents the Congo in his 2011 series “Infra, ” he used Kodak’s now discontinued Aerochrome film. Developed by the US military during WWII, the Aerochrome could be used to detect military movements camouflaged by reconnaissance planes, as the infrared-sensitive film would highlight plant material that emitted infrared light but not the inorganic greens of camo. Mosse will look to military-grade technology again for his film installation incoming, which documented the migration taking place in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa between 2014 and 2016. This time it would use surveillance camera which can detect body heat at great distances, hence its main use in border control. The images are ghostly, gruesome, and not meant for public messaging, although they may be unwitting fodder for conservative news platforms. Yet it is through such extreme, almost monstrous representations that soldiers learn to see migrants. Likewise, it’s thanks to the more abstract, neon-colored GIS maps of forests that prospectors decide where to loot oil and minerals regardless of the lives they contain.
But this is where other artistic interventions intercept this obliterating gaze. For example, in the graphic memory of Pablo Fajardo, Gross, the influential Ecuadorian lawyer who fought against the Chevron oil spill in the Amazon, illustrator Damien Roudeau helped shed light on a hidden story. Fajardo describes the first times the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon came into contact with Chevron, when a huge metallic bird was spotted in the territory of the Cofán people. Roudeau represents the reconnaissance helicopter, which was likely equipped with the type of imaging technology used by Mosse, piercing the canopy.
When the Chevron oil operation ended, two indigenous tribes, the Tetete and the Taegiri, were said to be on the verge of extinction, and countless more died of cancer and other health problems caused by alcohol consumption. , bathing and cooking with water contaminated with 16 million gallons of petroleum and 18.5 million gallons of chemicals. Not to mention the ruin of a primary forest that has yet to receive the billions of dollars in remediation funds Chevron owes them. Roudeau’s sketch-like illustrations, overlaid with watercolors, often blur the line between the vibrancy of the forest and the oil that brushes its surfaces, showing the insidious mixture of poison and life. While Roudeau’s illustrations attempt to shed light on the hidden externalities of resource extraction, Mosse’s photographs remind us that all death that follows the devastating hand of capital is ultimately reduced to abstraction for those among them. us who profit, even remotely and reluctantly, from the exploitation of resources. , product and profit.