Landscapes in the Age of Environmental Crises

Thursday, June 3

11:00–12:00 (Helsinki, EEST, UTC +3) Session 2, Panel 2

Congress Room 2

Galina Kallio, Connell Vaughan, and Rudi van Etteger

Chair: Rudi van Etteger

What are the landscapes of environmental crises? How are we to understand their aesthetic appreciation? And what is the role of human activity in the reproduction of landscapes?

Galina Kallio (University of Helsinki, Finland):

Aesthetics of (re)production: Tracing human-soil relations in Northern landscapes of regenerative agriculture

Agricultural land has been normalized as a production site. Discussions revolve, then, predominantly around the type and nature of food production that occupies the land – around whether or not farming practices are sustainable, fair, and apt to local conditions. But what can we learn about the (un)sustainability of farming by examining the aesthetics of agricultural landscapes?

In this study, I explore aesthetics of (re)production through tracing human and non-human labour in landscapes of regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is commonly defined as a set of practices and principles by which farmers aim at enriching the soils, increasing biodiversity and resilience, sequestering carbon and improving the overall conditions of local ecosystems. However, whereas regenerative agriculture holds a promise for mitigating the ecological crisis on the one hand and adapting to it on the other hand, the subordination of “regeneration” to the requirements of the growth economy has remained hidden both in the political and the scientific spheres. One example is carbon farming, where the aim to turn agricultural land into a carbon sink and open up business possibilities for new kinds of markets often manifests in aesthetics emphasizing large scales, modernity and efficiency.

By drawing on an ongoing ethnographic study of diverse regenerative farming practices, I examine how agricultural landscapes are formed through entanglements of human and non-human labour, how these landscapes reveal aesthetics of (re)production and what consequences might there be in normalizing aesthetics of production over aesthetics of reproduction. Based on my analysis, I describe how farm work unfolds through control, care, and rhythms and how, whose and what kind of work can and can’t be identified in the landscapes. Through this study, I want to raise questions on the relationships and entanglements of human and non-human labour, and the nature of regenerative farming practices, and entertain an argument that facing the ecological crisis requires (re-)learning to endorse the kind of aesthetics that allows agricultural land to be understood as a multi-species landscape of reproduction.

Connell Vaughan (TUDublin, Ireland):

Lessons from the Picturesque, from Gilpin to Instagram

This talk will focus on the aesthetic concept of the Picturesque. Defined by Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804), as “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture” the picturesque quickly developed into a popular discourse as the ideal frame for appreciating landscapes through painting. It was understood as the aesthetic pleasure of a moderated irregularity and roughness. This was a pleasure between the beautiful and the sublime that inspired 19th century elite rustic travel in the so-called “Picturesque Tour”. The picturesque ideal is loaded with gendered, religious, political, leisure, economic, anthropocentric and class assumptions. Its tendencies toward national exceptionalism, commodified nostalgia and obsessive pedantry saw it quickly become a subject of satire and fall from philosophical discourse. Today these criticisms can be equally extended to the “tourist gaze”, “post-industrial picturesque” clichés and “ruin porn” so popular on platforms such as Instagram exemplified in the lustful obsession for photographing the urban and industrial decay of sites like Detroit and Chernobyl.

Nonetheless there remains at the core of the picturesque something of value insofar as it allows a critique of how we approach natural beauty and popular environmental appreciation. The tendency of modern photographers, such as Cyprien Gaillard, Camilo José Vergara and to evoke the non-descript picturesque often described as “photoresque” recognise this critique. Gloriously unencumbered with the pressure of attaining (memetic) perfection, the potency of Gilpin’s theory lies in its simple rules and easy implementation as a leisure activity. Gilpin offers us a proto-cinematic vision of the visual experience of landscape. This is the image, for good or ill, which the tourist still seeks to actively and ritualistically capture. While today we may scoff at the idea of a so-called “Instagram butler” who shows travellers the most picturesque spots, we can recognise that it does not constitute a new inauthenticity. Its roots and critical potency are in the picturesque theory conceived by Gilpin 250 years ago.

Rudi van Etteger (Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands)

Ruination Rather than Erasure as a Model for the East Coast of the US

The east coast of the US will be flooded for large parts in the coming 100 years. Large parts of Florida, Georgia, the Carolina’s and Virginia will disappear under the waves, but even larger areas will turn into a coastal wetland which regularly floods. Though this would have been preventable, the impossibility for Americans to politically respond to rising sea levels, by their aversion of federal action and their inability to organise themselves to a point beyond self-interest, will cause widespread destruction. The Wright brothers monument, will remain for a while as testament to previous American ingenuity; but in the end the dune, on which it rests, will be washed away in one of the great Hurricanes, caused by the loss of collective faith in science and the politics of division and self-interest. Sad as this is, and terrible as the consequences will be in human costs, I argue that this is inevitable.

The question is what to do with the remains of cities like Miami, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington and Norfolk, once they have become unliveable. I argue that we leave them for ruination rather than dismantle. In my argument I draw a parallel with different Dutch and German approaches to handling the remains of the coalmining and iron smelting. While the Dutch dismantled and cleaned the landscape of the remains of coalmining, the Germans, with more space to spare and more remains to deal with, chose a different strategy. The erasure of the Dutch coalmining history led to a collective amnesia and identity crisis both for the landscape and the people living in that landscape. The landscape seems disorganised without some of the core features like mine pits and shafts, the people are without visible cues about their collective past. In Germany the abandoned mines shafts and accompanying smelting industries have been upcycled into parks and fancy restaurants.

Along the American Coast we should maintain these drowned cities as tourist attractions testament to 19th and 20th century folly. The ruins will remain a part of the narrative where humanity wrought havoc on its only home in a cold, dark universe. The return of swamp nature will be a testament to the resilience of nature. Pre-investments in tourist access roads and harbours might also be useful as evacuation routes and safe havens, in the coming years.