By Bernhard Debatin
The past 200 years have been a period of exponentially increasing interventions into our natural environment. Monocultural farming, urbanization, and blacktop streets are the most visible aspect of it. Sprawling production sites is another one, often closely related to urbanization. Large areas for waste disposal are yet another related aspect. And, of course, landscapes of extraction: open pit mines, mountaintop removal mining sites, sludge ponds, waste tailings, and overburden disposal sites, to name the most obvious ones.
Fracking, too, is changing landscapes into industrialized extraction sites. Jonah Field in Western Wyoming is a good example for this new type of industrialized landscape.
The images of developed fracking sites have one thing in common–repetition. The more, the better, until the oil or gas field is evenly covered with wells. Just as in the industrial production of goods, where automatized repetition brought about the possibility for mass-production, extraction of resources becomes particularly efficient when it is repeated according to the needs of the extractive industries.
The industrialized landscapes created by the fracking industry are an extension of and must be understood as part of what environmental photographer Edward Burtinsky calls manufactured landscapes.
Manufactured Landscapes is also the title of a magnificent and frightening movie, directed by Jennifer Baichwal (2006), documenting the work of photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky. With impressive images that go deep into viewers’ brains, it shows where all the stuff is coming from, the stuff that we find in our warehouses, department stores, supermarkets, and computer stores. Though not covered in the movie, it is easy to see that and how fracking is adding another chapter to the story of manufactured landscapes.
Starting with a seemingly endless Chinese factory, all in an unsettling Ikea yellow, the film juxtaposes the weird beauty of resource extraction places to the hectic bustle of production as China is becoming the world’s biggest manufacturer. The most depressing images are not even the whips who tell the workers that they are not fast enough, but the hypnotic repetitive motions of the women workers. One is continuously wrapping wires around identical parts and cutting them quickly, only to complete the same senseless course of movements again with the next part. Another worker is testing thousands of nozzles with a small water hose, over and over again; yet another one is mounting circuit breakers, piece by piece, 400 of them per day. That is 50 per hour, or about 4 of them in 5 minutes.
However, the products quickly turn into waste, which is yet another resource for the ever hungry production of new commodities. Scrap metal, plastic parts, and electronic waste come to China from the countries that first imported the products and now send them back as useless debris. The waste must be sorted and separated, often under terribly toxic conditions. The waste is brought to China via ship, just as much as the new products are being distributed over the world through ships. The shipyard industry that has long disappeared from the Western World is thriving in China and part of the large manufacturing machine that this country has become.
But the ships, too, turn into debris at some point. The most lasting images in the movie are those of stranded ships at the coast of Bangladesh. They are valuable resources that get quickly dismantled and turned into scrap metal, waiting to be turned into new commodities. These images give an eery premonition of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic paintings, seen through the lens of the Breugel Brothers (specifically the Tower of Babel). If you ever had the pleasure of reading Edmund Burke’s or Imanuel Kant’s thoughts on the sublime (“das Erhabene”), you will quickly make the connection [for an explanation of the sublime, please see my comment below at the end].
Manufactured Landscapes is the story of an unheard of transformation, caused by the human race and the unrestrained forces of globalized capitalism. Using the grammar of images established by classic movies Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982) and The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (Alexander Kluge, 1985), the film shows that the landscapes of modern civilization are intentional landscapes, the result of purposeful destruction.
These landscapes are a direct consequence of the unleashed instrumental reason, as exemplified with the endless sprawl of Shanghai and the gigantic Three Gorges dam project, which led to the relocation of more than one million people and the purposeful, carefully executed demolition of thirteen cities and many villages.
The movie includes beautiful and disturbing still photography by Edward Burtynsky, underscoring the sophisticated and painstaking pictorial language of this extraordinary movie.
Manufactured Landscapes should be watched by anybody interested in the changes in our environment due to the industrialization of landscapes. It can be watched online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZnZOe_tKCs&feature=player_embedded#!