The Place of the Humanities

“Mobilizing Technologies of Observation, Or Observing Technologies of Mobility?: Some Initial Questions From the Middle of a Practice, Formed in Part While Riding in an Air-conditioned Corn Combine, That Could Have Been Considered While Riding in My Air-conditioned Car”

By Ryan Griffis

We drive a “hybrid” automobile. A 2008 Toyota Prius, to be more precise. It operates on what’s called a “Synergy Drive,” which I think means that it switches between using the gas-powered engine and an electric battery to move the car. We have been using this car a lot to carry ourselves and electronic recording equipment to Beardstown, IL—digital video cameras, solid-state audio recorders, microphones along with all the usual stuff like cell phones. The “we” includes my collaborator and spouse Sarah Ross. We’re working on a long term experimental documentary project that is in part about this smallish town on the Illinois River and its place in a contemporary and historical global political ecology. I could tell you the make and model of the recording equipment, but have decided that it matters less than the make of the car. I could be wrong about this, but we spend as much time in the car as we do using any of the recording gear.

Most of this corn is going to end up floating down the Illinois River, then on down the Mississippi River, towards New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.Three combine harvesters were in the field, collecting the tiny kernels of corn in a manner not unlike a blue whale harvesting plankton in the Pacific Ocean. The whale, however, would have had to engineer the sea to contain dense, homogenized rows of plankton to be as efficient as the farmer-combine. Moreover,  the whale wouldn’t actually eat the plankton, but would ship it off to other whales far away to process into derivatives and “value-added” products. A Discovery Channel “documentary” on corn has called the US corn harvests the “Superbowl of farming” in recognition of the scale and magnitude of the effort. It’s also an apt analogy given the fierce competition and branding involved. Two of us documented the day’s harvest, each riding in one of the mammoth, green, air-conditioned, GPS-equipped John Deere 9660 STS series combines. We ended up in the Dudley’s combines by sheer luck—we were making our way east, driving away from Beardstown when we saw them in action. I took still photos, Sarah recorded some video.

Like many artists who practice site-based research and production, we probably look like “serious tourists,” those that sociologist of leisure Chris Rojek describes as practicing a “voluntary activity in which the individual develops a sense of a career, self-worth and progress.” (Rojek 2000) That would be an accurate assessment—we are there as artists. But what is striking me as equally relevant to the questions of representation and identification, are the material realities facilitating both our mobility and our ability to observe/produce representations and narratives. The camera lenses and microphones that allow us to store, reproduce and distribute experiences are already recognized within the equation of self-reflection and criticism. They are identified as tools of practice, tools that carry with them the problematics of observation and representation. The Prius? Not so much. It doesn’t even register as “backstage.”

Leaving the field, we followed an 18 wheeler loaded up with the freshly separated, golden kernels heading east on State Road 125. We passed a couple of grain elevators, complexes of steel and concrete cylinders that are much larger than they appear from the road. Eventually, we pulled up to a fairly sizable elevator owned by Dudley Farms, Inc, just south of Pleasant Plains. The truck is weighed and then pulled up alongside the elevator, where the trailer is tilted up to dump its 1,000 bushels into the dump pit. The driver showed us how the corn is moved from the dump pit, into small, but rapidly moving buckets on a conveyor belt that take it up to a distributor network directing it into the desired storage container. From here, the corn will eventually be transported by truck to a terminal on the Illinois River in Beardstown. From there, it will travel by river barge to another terminal where the cargo will be transferred from river barges to much larger deep sea vessels and eventually off to ports in Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, Egypt or one of the other big US corn importers that took in over 40 million metric tons of US corn this past year. This corn will join the almost 60 combined metric tons of goods also classified as bulk exports—wheat, soybeans and cotton—that made their way to other ports in China, Nigeria, the Philippines, the European Union, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia.

But what happens when one considers means that seem peripheral or marginal to production, to borrow anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s conception of margins, alongside those aspects of a practice that are more easily recognized as essential? How does the use of an automobile bend the spectrum of possibilities for Sarah and I in unquestioned ways, for example? Not just the obvious ways relating to our physical mobility to Beardstown, but also how automobility affects our understanding of what it is we are doing there, and what we are able to see?  How do we  interrogate the marginal where it affects that which is central? The things we are consciously documenting constitute the political, economic and physical mechanisms that facilitate the movement of grain, people, pigs, money, jobs, water, land mass. Our car is just one part of the equation that brings us there, and we are, of course, one of the things moving into and out of that defined territory, as we document it.

The brevity of this post leaves my inquiry in more than a compromised position—the car is simultaneously literal, metaphoric and metonymic of the apparatuses constituting the experience that we will transform into a representation. That such experiences exist in a world of uneven privilege cannot be taken for granted. The jetliner-immigrants who have come to Beardstown from Togo to work at a pork-processing plant, for example, have a dramatically different experience of mobility than the automobile-artists or combine-farmers.  A vehicle is not simply the same mechanism irrespective of the traveler.

See a video sample here: http://vimeo.com/15536291

Ryan Griffis is an Assistant Professor of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His work examines tourism as an art form, and critical responses to urban planning, architecture and other mechanisms that shape environments. Ryan Griffis often works under the name of the Temporary Travel Office, a semi-functional travel agency that attempts to investigate the potential of tourism as a critical activity. Towards these ends, he produces guided, and self-guided tours as well as research documents and proposals for rethinking monuments, parks and other contested spaces.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
This entry was posted in Theme: The Place of the Humanities (2010-11), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Place of the Humanities

  1. Sharon Irish says:

    Hi Ryan,
    I very much appreciate the way that you reflect on the car as part of your toolkit. Of course, implicated in the mode of transport are the highways and roads, the salt and the paint, the bridges and the swales that construct our car culture. The parallels you make between the combine/farmer and the car-driving artists–both activities that have so altered central Illinois, heighten my awareness of the tangles of food supply and mobilities.
    –Sharon

  2. Lori Newcomb says:

    Ryan, I love how your post makes “big” and “slow” and “local” wax and wane. As when epic poetry uses similes that play with scale, the effect is to recalibrate our values. The hybrid car is dwarfed by the combine harvester, the grain elevator devours highway traffic. The treasures of cultural cosmopolitanism—a green car, the latest recording technology—are mere grains in the global journey of plain old yellow corn. The corn travels slowly, by boat, but too far to be celebrated as slow food. Still, the corn will enter other local economies, where it may sustain other lives, animal and human, a bushel at a time. Whether or not it there is filmed by other documentarians in other vehicles, the granular is political. How might our local practice of humanism be changed when we realize that Illinois corn is more worldly than we are?

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