On the passage of a few people through a relatively vast space called the Midwest
The Social Metabolism of the Compass Group
by Brian Holmes
It’s hilarious that such a tightly exclusive, intensely ideological and relentlessly Parisian vanguard as the Situationists should have had such a lasting influence on generations of equality-oriented and ecology-minded American artists – but that’s the way it is. An example of that influence is the Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor, carried out in the summer of 2008 by a dozen or so people who would later be called Compass. Brett Bloom made a flyposter that caught the spirit of what we were about to do:
Starts in the middle of one state, moves through big urban spaces, gathers people and pulls them out to new possibilities, stops by toxic neighborhoods, coalesces on trains, gathers in parks and rest stops, holds raucous debates outside corporate headquarters, engages in clandestine activities, people join in at all points, ends in rural areas in the middle of another state.1
While “drifting” for ten days in a fluctuating, self-organized pack through a series of sites scattered across Illinois and Wisconsin, I’m sure some of us were secretly hoping to walk the edge, loosen the bounds of our capitalist desire and encounter the radically Other, in the grand Situationist tradition of the dérive. A lot more explicitly and pragmatically, we were looking to to set up a less Chicago-centric circulation between towns like Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Madison and Iowa City, where some of us have worked and lived. Along the way the way we’d reach out to people, familiar and unknown, and make our passage an occasion for particular kinds of attention to the surroundings. We wanted take the region where we live to heart, as a place of massive unresolved social dilemmas and small, proliferating counter-cultures that have a lot to say to each other. Most of the art we saw around us was metropolitan, enabled by jet planes and electronic networks. But the world we saw around us was built on the old, extractivist relations between the city and the country, which continue to shape social classes and lived environments on either side of the urban-rural divide. Our aim was to explore the political ecology of the region over the middle and long term. For us, the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor was not a high-speed rail link between central business districts (the perennial dream of frustrated local elites). Instead, the MRCC was a set of forking pathways where you could alternately be inhabitant, traveler, follower or guide, meeting people, hearing and telling stories, learning the landscape, carrying out artworks or activist projects – and definitely getting to know something other than the quickest freeway from the airport to the bar, the university or the museum.
We were influenced by the geographical experiments of Walking In Place, a visiting wanderers program facilitated by Nick Brown and Kevin Hamilton in Champaign-Urbana; by the counter-globalization theory of the Continental Drift seminars that Claire Pentecost and myself helped organize with the Sixteen Beaver Group in New York; by the transgressive localism of the art group Temporary Services; by the travels of Mike Wolf; and by the tremendous, uncharacterizable mix of people who moved in and around an open-door, no-cash-allowed cultural and political space called Mess Hall in Chicago, whose initial keyholders included Brett Bloom and Dan Wang, later members of our gang. Over four or five years we got together regularly for meetings, winter retreats and drifts to Detroit, Carbondale and once even to China. What Compass eventually became was not so much a collective author as an extended and semi-formalized friendship network that could divide into smaller focused collaborations, do projects, organize events, make works and then later reconvene to tell stories, assess results and soak up with ideas for further adventures.
We wrote a book with contributions by our members and like-minded cultural producers from the region, entitled Deep Routes: The Midwest in All Directions, edited by Sarah Ross and Bonnie Fortune.2 We split into smaller groups to carry out particular projects, like the Monsanto Hearings, organized by Sarah Lewison and Sarah Kanouse, which were fictional tribunals for the dramatized expression of very real griefs; or Southwest Corridor Northwest Passage, by Rozalinda Borcila and myself, which put together concepts, images, maps and walks to explore the impacts of global transportation infrastructures on the Chicago area.3 Members of our group acting separately carried out projects like Between the Bottomlands and the World, by Sara Ross and Ryan Griffis, which is an interview-based video project that calls on local actors to restage multiracial and multinational social relations in the small meatpacking center of Beardstown, Illinois; or the book Re-Collecting Black Hawk: Landscape, Memory, and Power in the American Midwest, by Sarah Kanouse and Nick Brown, which uses interviews with contemporary Native American intellectuals to disrupt the incredibly widespread popular appropriation of Black Hawk, an indigenous chief whose multileveled acts of cultural resistance are still considered a “war” by settler colonial society.4 Much of the Compass experience is documented on a website, http://midwestcompass.org.
Creating and receiving all these things within a long-term friendship network sets you up for future surprises that you don’t see coming. The most recent of these is an exhibition entitled The Earth Will Not Abide, about the continental-scale changes in landscape ecology brought on by extractive agriculture in both North and South America. The project was initially shown in Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, then at the University Museum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, with future stops planned in Portland, Oregon, and Rosario, Argentina.
The project was more-or-less led by Ryan Griffis, who wrote a Humanities Without Walls grant and set up a partnership with Gallery 400. The idea was to visually represent the industrial production of genetically modified grain in both North and South America, and to analyze that production process within the framework of a global political economy that has been fundamentally transformed by the rise of East Asia.5 What we wanted to do aesthetically was to place ourselves and our viewers within a
transnational machinic process that far exceeds any individual’s direct perception, but still touches us intimately, through the food we eat and the landscapes we turn away from, until they return in our faces with all the brutal political consequences of the rural-urban divide. Could we make the most boring thing in the world, industrial agriculture, into art? Could we make the machinic process visible? Could we make the notion of political ecology tangible? Could we set up explorations and collaborations across two continents? Could we carry out such a leap in scale without totally losing ourselves in abstraction? Suddenly we found ourselves trying to formalize an approach to many of the core issues that had arisen over our years of Midwestern drifting and group experimentation.
Maybe the best place to begin is Claire Pentecost’s series of three oil paintings on large wooden panels, collectively entitled Pandora’s Basket. It’s an oneiric triptych that sets up a destabilizing but unflinchingly honest imaginary relationship to the agricultural real. The first painting is smugded with smokestacks, oil pipelines, nitrogen plants, laboratory beakers, an outsized tractor modeled on a real machine seen in Argentina, and cuts of meat flying through the air like constellations of bright consumer desire against a dark black industrial sky. It’s a pictorial translation of the raw, unmediated horror you might feel if you confronted your most idyllic dreams of the countryside with, say, a confined animal feeding operation butting up against thousands of acres of strictly engineered GM corn. This is a vision of what the political ecologist Jason Moore calls “cheap nature,” where the tremendous biological diversity of a New World landscape gets reduced to the price tag of “two dollars a bushel.”6 The second painting is based on black-and-white photographic plates from an East Coast orchard in the 1910s and 20s. Prints from the old plates are glued onto the wooden panel, showing a prize 1-lb. peach weighing in on a scale as a kind of trophy piece resulting from precocious experiments with pesticides. These documentary elements are overlain with a colorful modernist fantasia that seems to emanate directly from the fine aerosol sprays of the early industrial growers. It’s not only about “the machine in the garden” (to quote the famous book by Leo Marx), but also about the research lab in the garden, with yet another set of consequences. In the third painting Claire lets go of years spent studying industrial ag production in order to seek a more intuitive relation between the painter’s color-palette and the patch structure of small-scale peasant agriculture. This piece tries to look beyond what our friend Brett Bloom calls “the petroleum space/time continuum” of freeway travel in sealed automotive bubbles.7 In fact the little vignettes you can see on either side of the work portray the extraordinary anatomies of the fossil plankton creatures of the Carboniferous period that eventually reduced into pools of oil stranded here and there in the subsurface of planet Earth.
One great thing in an exhibition is when the different parts seem to talk to each other, like the people who made them do in real life. Here, the wordless affective probing of Claire’s paintings is answered by a video entitled A Great Green Desert, made by Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross. This work uses intricate documentary editing to juxtapose features from two very different eco-regions, the US tallgrass prairie and the Brazilian cerrado, which have been visually and functionally unified by strictly identical practices of extractive agriculture. The voice-over frames the radical simplification of the landscape as the culmination of a long history of settler colonialism, which has thrust the very soil of the Americas into the accelerating system of global commodity circulation described so presciently by Marx, at a time when these lands were still being expropriated from their original inhabitants. Today a new process of expropriation unfolds, as the “soy frontier” expands in Latin America’s Southern Cone and a fresh colonization of the remaining grasslands is carried out in the North. The video shows the transnational machinic process in action: hybrid GM seeds, no-till farming, mechanized harvesting, road, rail and river logistics, and the transfer to ocean-going vessels for global trade coordinated by electronic finance. These scenes are accompanied by explicitly formulated questions that sketch out the concerns of the entire show. Here are some of them:
Where can we see the transformation of ecosystems into land for the global grain trade?
What are the mechanisms for moving hundreds of thousands of acres of that land?
If land is power, what power do we have when vast territories are ceded to a few varieties of crops inedible to humans? What power do we have when vast territories are ceded to a few varieties of companies? (…)
If land is power, what does it mean to strip land of its ability to sustain life?
Where does this power reside when it is extracted and shipped away?
These questions owe a lot to one of the foundation stones of political ecology, the collectively authored 1987 volume Land Degradation and Society, which uses a range of historical, scientific and philosophical methods to show how the life-sustaining capacities of specific regions can be diminished by exploitative land management.8 The results, according to the study, are proliferating social conflicts over environmental issues. The phrase “The Earth Will Not Abide” is a direct reference to the warnings raised in the conclusion to this far-sighted book.
Ryan and Sarah recorded video interviews with farmers, activists and intellectuals in Brazil and the US, extending the conversation about the machinic landscape. Meanwhile I reached out to an Argentinean friend, Alejandro Meitin of the group Ala Plástica, whom Sarah Lewison and I had met on a trip to Argentina in the summer of 2014, and with whom Claire and I later traveled up to the Brazilian border.9 We brought Alejandro to the States for a lecture at Gallery 400, and for some Compass-style drifting in Carbondale. A lot of the talk on those trips was about watersheds and bioregions. These interests led the two of us to begin an “inter-basin collaboration,” involving the creation of an online multimedia map with two parallel investigations. The map explores the Paraná-Paraguay river basin, which encompasses most of the soybean land in South America, and the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins, where corn is king and soy runs a close second. However, we didn’t start our investigations with mechanized agriculture, but with a far more basic fact: the circulation of water in, through and beyond our bodies, linking the human metabolism to the biogeochemical cycles of planet Earth. Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos is the name of our double project, which comes together under the heading “Open Veins of the Americas.”10
I used a lot of public environmental science data in my half of the map, which is divided into four main sections: Biomes, or characteristic ecological habitats such as grasslands, marshlands, riverine spaces, etc; Anthromes, or radically transformed “anthropogenic biomes,” especially the corn-soy anthrome that covers most of the Upper Midwest; Wars, by which I mean conditions of extreme land degradation brought on by practices like excessive fertilizer or pesticide use; and finally Visions, which goes looking for alternative rhythms, discourses, imaginaries and modes of inhabiting the two great watersheds of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, whose dividing line runs through the city of Chicago where I live. The map has all kinds of subsections focusing on the political ecology of the Midwest, underscoring things like the role of ethanol as a driver of land-use transformation, or the spatial pattern of nitrogen pollution and its relation to the formation of “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. The general point is to make you aesthetically feel what you intellectually understand, and vice-versa. But of course, it’s also a geographical map, and it stimulates people to tell tales about places, or to go out and experience them.
For his part, Alejandro Meitin took a more grassroots narrative approach, based on decades of experience with Latin American social movements. He set up some different categories: Cuenca, or watershed; Extracciones, or extractions; Golpes, or political coups; and finally Mutua Crianza, which is the Spanish translation of an Aymara Indian word that speaks of something like “reciprocal fostering” or “mutual upbringing.” Crianza, as Alejandro notes, “implies conversation, dialogue, understanding, pacts, negotiations, reciprocities, exchanges and agreements between human and non- human entities.” This is where a phrase like “land use” really starts to mean something: when it is treated as a reciprocal relation. I am totally entranced by Alejandro’s first-person accounts of the way in which willows are collectively cultivated and harvested on Delta wetlands that have no formal owner – veritable common lands, whose productive capacities are sustained according to the principles of an oral tradition. Alejandro and his partner Silvina introduced new designs and uses to extend traditional willow basketry and furniture production into twenty-first century economic circuits, as a way to help sustain a fragile culture of the land. But a look at the Golpes or Wars sections of our maps will remind you that this is hardly the dominant way of doing things. Grain production, like all extractive industries, is about expropriation, violence, and the concentration of political power according to the demands of the world market. And the violent coups that have brought soy-exporting interests to power in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil are the result of exactly those demands, echoed in the North by the violent environmental expropriations of the Trump administration.
All the works in “The Earth Will Not Abide” revolve around what political ecologists call “social metabolism,” or the extraction, transportation, processing and consumption of natural materials. Recent scholarship makes it clear that the metabolic rate of global capitalist civilization has risen dramatically over the last two decades, with a consequent rise in socio-environmental conflicts. This notion of social metabolism is not just a metaphor. More than any other factor, it is the rising appetite for meat in the newly industrialized countries of Asia that has driven the expansion of the grain market, primarily for animal feed. Similar pressures of the world market affect the extraction of all basic commodities, such as metals, minerals, rare earths and oil.11 In the representations of extractivism, the manufacturing centers of Asia are often the missing link, the absent “other scene.” Yet the odd thing for the Compass group is that China has been part of our Midwestern conversation for years, due to our Chinese-American collaborator Dan Wang. Some of us even drifted together to China, as I mentioned; so our group became imbued with the atmosphere of the Lashihai Valley, where Sarah Lewison filmed the multichannel video installation entitled Naxilandia in the 17th.
Sarah doesn’t focus on the grain trade. Rather she goes straight to one of the many edges of Chinese society, and focuses her camera on the slow, almost imperceptible resistance of the Naxi people, who are a language group of about 300,000 speakers living in the foothills of the Himalaya.12 Here, the pressure of the global commodity system is mainly felt through the five-year planning frameworks imposed by the Chinese National Party Congress – in this case, the 17th Party Congress held in 2007, which introduced fundamental changes relating to the industrialization of the countryside and the privatization of land use. Sarah’s video installation confronts you with peasants who resist integration to the nation state and the world market, and attempt instead to continue with village-scale subsistence farming. So it’s a work about peasant resistance. Yet you also see villagers caught up in the burgeoning tourist trade, which is strongly encouraged and sometimes directly managed by state companies. This is internal tourism, conceived for the rising new classes of Chinese consumers: yet it appears as another transnational machinic process, with uncanny similarities to tourism in Brazil, or the US, or Argentina. In a text panel that provides a narrative for the installation, Sarah lets us know that she feels directly concerned by these kinds of transnational machinic processes, because her father, a continuous process engineer, worked for a company that placed a high-stakes bid on the installation of nitrogen plants in China in the 1970s, during an earlier phase of the country’s modernization. In the same sequence, the grandfather of the family compound where Sarah did her residency goes into a deep discussion of the ways the Naxi have responded to state programs. When you come to that moment, you feel an intense insight into the ways that machinic processes cut not only across spatial scales, but also across generations. However, Naxilandia in the 17th isn’t fundamentally about the state or the transnational economy. Instead it is about the ecology, or if you prefer, the intricate social metabolism, of a very particular valley in the foothills of the Himalaya.
What can we do with the vast experience of the earth system that continually pulses through our own bodies? In this text, I’ve been suggesting that one of the ways to make art and to carry out cultural activism is to maintain a long-term conversation within a friendship network that gradually spreads out and dissolves into a territory. For us, that territory is at once real and mythopoetic: it’s the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor. It’s worthwhile to bring a bit of that myth along, even when presenting highly formalized cultural artifacts dealing with complex assemblages such as industrial agriculture. Any study of transnational machinic processes will raise daunting questions. Like, how do you bear the weight of what you know? How do you bring your own self and those whom you love back into the complex artifacts that you make to represent those processes? How do you slow down or mitigate the effects of the big machines, without necessarily fleeing from them, or denying their multiscalar abstraction? Are these possible questions for a museum or a university colloquium? Can additional contexts be created to ask and maybe even answer some of these questions over the upcoming years?
The Situationist biopic to which my title refers is called “On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time.” It contains a great aesthetic statement conveyed through a simple voice- over against a blank screen. The statement goes like this:
What usually makes documentaries so easy to understand is the arbitrary limitation of their subject matter. They describe the atomization of social functions and the isolation of their products. One can in contrast envisage the entire complexity of a moment which is not resolved into a work, a moment whose movement indissolubly contains facts and values whose meaning does not yet appear. This confused totality would then be the subject matter of the documentary.13
What I’ve offered here is a pretty confused totality. Without any conclusion I’ll end by evoking a group portrait from the last Compass family gathering, for a summer-camp event called the Kickapoo Conversation, convened by Sarah Kanouse and Nick Brown. We posed, seated and standing, at the base of great stone outcrop wrongly called Black Hawk Rock, to which we were guided by a tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk nation named Bill Quakenbush. This was another great surprise: almost everyone from the early days had come out for the occasion, and the conversation that started in 2008 was still ongoing.
1 See http://midwestcompass.org/continental-drift-through-the-midwest-radical-cultural-corridor.
2 The whole book is online at http://midwestcompass.org/deep-routes; or ask us for a copy.
3 See http://monsantohearings.net and http://southwestcorridornorthwestpassage.org.
4 See https://regionalrelationships.org/bottomlands and www.recollectingblackhawk.net.
5 A website gathering documentation can be found at www.regionalrelationships.org/tewna.
6 For the concept of “cheap nature,” see Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation
of Capital (London: Verso, 2015), p. XX: “Cheap Nature is produced when the interlocking agencies of capital, science,
and empire… succeed in releasing new sources of free or low-cost human and extra-human natures for capital.”
7 For this concept see Brett Bloom, Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down
Press, June 2015), p. 94.
8 Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield, eds, Land Degradation and Society (London: Methuen, 1987); the book was also
republished by Routledge in 2015.
9 See the Ala Plástica website at https://alaplastica.wixsite.com/alaplastica. Also see https://cuencaslab.wordpress.com,
for documents of the project where members of the Compass group first met Alejandro Meitin, as well as Sarah
Lewison’s reflections on the trip and its teachings, at http://midwestcompass.org/thinking-with-a-river.
10 The maps can be accessed at http://ecotopia.today/livingrivers/map.html. Our umbrella title refers to Eduardo Galeano’s
brilliant 1971 book, The Open Veins of Latin America; however, the North American section underscores the degree to
which the imperial extractive process is also carried out on US and Canadian territory.
11 For the concept of social metabolism in its relation to recent processes of geopolitical change, see in particular the
article by Roldan Muradian, Mariana Walter and Joan Martinez-Alier, “Hegemonic transitions and global shifts in social metabolism: Implications for resource-rich countries. Introduction to the special section” in Global Environmental Change 22/3 (August 2012).
12 For documentation of the work, see http://www.regionalrelationships.org/tewna/project/naxilandia-in-the-17th-sarah- lewison.
13 Guy Debord, director, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps, 18’, 48’’, 1959. Available at https://vimeo.com/58909937. I have slightly adapted the translation given in the subtitles, in order to come closer to the original French syntax.