Monday, April 18, 2011

On Landscape Ontology II: Production, Extraction, and Generative Capacity

[phosphate mining in Togo]

In searching for an ontology of landscape practice, it seems good to consider the concepts of production, extraction, and generative capacity.  Our contemporary interest in terms such as “ecosystem services”, “performative surfaces/substances” and “green/soft infrastructure” suggests a link and this topic was probed to some extent by Mason White a few months ago.  Even so, the general bewilderment that these terms provoke suggests that a better understanding of them might be helpful in divining a truly landscape ontology.

Productive landscapes and Performance
Production is a loaded term that rose to prominence with the widespread adoption of industrial processes based on throughput systems.  In the industrial sense its meaning is something like “the action or process of making goods from components or raw materials; the manufacture of goods for sale and consumption.”  In her book Ecological Revolutions Carolyn Merchant notes that in the 18th century the term signified the “animal and vegetable productions regarding [sic] the power of nature to bring forth animals, trees, and herbaceous plants”.  Relatedly the term was applied to the results of religious and artistic practice (a definition still in effect today, considering that a Justin Timberlake performance is both a religious and an artistic practice). 
[Justin Timberlake in concert as religious experience]

[John Tillman Lyle's diagram of the industrial throughput system]

By 1825 the industrial revolution was in full swing and the term was redefined to mean “not the production of matter… but the production of utility, and consequently of exchangeable value, by appropriating and modifying matter already in existence.”  The concept of production here is similar- working matter into something useful, be it minerals and water into fruit, or cotton into new leggings.  But there is a fundamental difference- it is no longer the biological processes that are productive, but rather the mechanistic processes.  Granted, one could argue that is no difference at all, just a misconception.  But the conception of the term is precisely what is significant.

This concept was predicated on an elemental belief of things.  That is, different things could be collected, harvested, broken down if necessary and then recombined according to a defined and repeatable process with the end result being considered the product “for sale or consumption”.  This is evident just as much in the annals of Good Housekeeping Magazine- which in 1910 touted a fully accessorized house as a factory for the “production of happiness”- as in the ramblings of Buckminster Fuller surveyed by White.  It is a loose term that may be shifting again, but all of these processes of production have something in common- landscapes of extraction.

Extraction and the Message of the Medium
Caricatures of landscapes of extraction are easy to conjure and fun to view from google earth.  They are also fundamental to the American landscape condition.  Though they far predate anything understood as America, their role in shaping the construction of industrial infrastructures and social institutions throughout the Americas was instrumental in the creation of the mestizo landscape.  Wherever they are located, landscapes of extraction are intricately tied to the industrial mode of production and as such the mines and oil fields and industrial farms are just as much an industrial urban phenomenon as the mill, the skyscraper, and the dock.
[Map of Canadian Pacific Railway lines, with Harold Innis's annotations from his doctoral research on the railway]

[Map of telegraph lines in Quebec and the Maritime provinces, Atlas of Canada, 1906]

What is critical to realize is that in a landscape of extraction its hundreds or thousands of possible realities and outcomes are reduced according to a teleology, and that teleology is intended to divine or create the raw material and energy needed for the industrial process of production.  This is not the same as a mono-functional landscape, which is an oxymoron.  However, the teleology itself- which is always incomplete when considered as a landscape- can be monofunctional.  This question of teleology is critical in defining and probing landscapes related to industrial production.  And though it inevitably spawns various other uses, appropriations, and relations, it is again the conception that is defining.

Generative Capacity
The generative capacity of a landscape is usually defined as something-like-production; after all, things are produced or created or generated from other things or aspects of things, be they collard greens, social space in a Moscow plaza or fiberglass insulation.  However, there is a difference between production and generative capacity, and that is in the conspicuous lack of a teleology.  A focus on the generative capacity of the landscape allows that efficiency is a completely mutable concept depending on mutable values of desire and time.  More important, it does not take an elemental view of things but rather an objective one, allowing that objects in relation to one another, whether a freeway overpass, a plume of industrial toxins in the soil, or a catalpa tree in a backyard garden generates new possibilities in an open and multivalent way as opposed to reducing and recombining them according to reproducible processes.  That is, a focus on the generative capacity of the landscape is a method of resistance, both from within and without modern industrial processes of commoditization such as real estate.

Of course, none of these landscape conceptions are mutually exclusive.  The generative capacity of the landscape is not conceived in a bubble as a place independent of landscapes of extraction and production but as a place of resistance, an alternative to dominant modes of appropriation.  So what does this have to do with landscape ontology?  In the comments of our first post on the topic, Nam brought up an important point that clarified the importance of tactical maneuvers in the landscape as a method of resistance and de-militarization of space.  A focus on generative capacity creating a landscape of resistance through tactical or strategic maneuvers might be considered a defining characteristic of landscape practice.  This resistance can be seen in the work of early landscape architects, paisajistas, agronomy engineers, and architects who thought of landscapes as urban entities that were an antidote to the “productive circuits”- the factory, the market, the dock- of the modern industrial city.
[the alberta tar sands in canada, a landscape of extraction; image source]

[hydrofracking after the initial pit has been drilled; image source]

Landscape practice might attain or reclaim a distinct and exceptional character through a newfound focus on the generative capacity of the landscape itself.  To a minor degree, experimentation with the medium itself has persisted through time.  In the early 1900’s in the town of Mendoza, Argentina a native tree propagation nursery was incorporated into the new municipal park as an adaptive strategy to reforest the cordillera at the edge of the city.  In the 1950’s Roberto Burle Marx spent time collecting and cataloging to create new didactic compositions of native plants in Brazil, and right now Brett Milligan up in Portland is wandering around the city instigating goat-based maintenance regimes and vegetated graffiti in the gravel. 

But largely, and especially since the European Turn, landscape practice has been focused on the creation of spaces outside, and subordinate to the disciplines of architecture and engineering.  The current landscape practice (landscape urbanism) promises an alternative, but the emphasis on abstraction and systems, reliance on digital production of form, and reliance on productive landscapes undermines the very aspect of landscape practice that is unique (though not without a certain tension and many speculative critiques, which suggests this could evolve).  We might evolve other landscape practices, ones that draw on the methodologies of the bee super and the brew master as much as the architect and the engineer, and doesn’t jump the shark on the systems metaphor but grapples with objective material reality and the abstract system.  In this landscape practice fecundity abounds, jetsam and flotsam are found, and the landscape itself is a figure to be dealt with, to smash into or be subsumed by, to fragment or to float through, and to recoil from or destroy.
[a bee super]


  1. I think the distinction between production of matter and utility is an interesting one. If only because isn't all produced utility include the production of matter? The utility seems to be defined by this matter creation? No? Unless we talk about productive as service. Which would be to me more of the idea of generative capacity you have outlined.

    As for the passage We might evolve other landscape practices, ones that draw on the methodologies of the bee super and the brew master as much as the architect and the engineer is the distinction here a technocratic one? Or maybe artisanal methods vs ....

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