Manufactured landscapes


Year: 2006.

Type: Documentary film (90 minutes).

Director: Jennifer Baichwal.

Production company: Zeitgeist Films

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Page reference: Bannister, L., Beattie, H., Charlton, K., Cook, L., Livingston, D., Tijou, R. and Tucker, A. (2011) Manufactured landscapes. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/manufactured.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)



Burtynsky . . . photographs civilization’s materials and debris, but in a way people describe as “stunning” or “beautiful,” and so raises all kinds of questions about ethics and aesthetics without trying to easily answer them. The film follows Burtynsky to China as he travels the country photographing the evidence and effects of that country’s massive industrial revolution. Sites such as the Three Gorges Dam, which is bigger by 50% than any other dam in the world and displaced over a million people, factory floors over a kilometre long, and the breathtaking scale of Shanghai’s urban renewal are subjects for his lens and our motion picture camera (Source: Baichwal 2006, np link).

Burtynsky’s images of nature don’t have a shrub between them. Instead of rolling hills, he draws out the contours of quarries or coal heaps; forests of smokestacks or drilling rigs replace oaks and birches (Source: MacDonald 2008, np link).

Baichwal’s cameras follow Edward Burtynsky as he visits what he calls manufactured landscapes: slag heaps, e-waste dumps, huge factories in the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces of China, and a place in Bangladesh where ships are taken apart for recycling. In China, workers gather outside the factory, exhorted by their team leader to produce more and make fewer errors. A woman assembles a circuit breaker, and women and children are seen picking through debris or playing in it. Burtynsky concludes with a visit to Shanghai, the world’s fastest growing city, where wealth and poverty, high-rises and old neighborhoods are side by side (Source: Hailey 2008, np link).

This eerie visual essay by Jennifer Baichwal speaks eloquent volumes. Manufactured Landscapes is a documentary about the absurd contradiction of huge Chinese factories in stony raw landscapes. The opening shot is stunning. . . . The sheer size of the warehouse is ghastly (Source: Christopher 2008, np link).

Burtynsky has dedicated a large chunk of his celebrated career to documenting the landscapes altered by human endeavours . . . With little dialogue and no narration, Baichwal . . . successfully shifts our perspective on the world around us. Not only do we see a landscape weep toxic tears, but thanks to Burtynsky's gift, even the bright red streams of mine tailings look exotic and undeniably gorgeous (Source: Anon 2006, np link).

These are places that most of us, as tourists, would probably never see and can hardly begin to fathom. Among them are beaches dedicated to salvage, where mammoth rusting hulls of ships are descended on daily by armies of Bangladeshi men, even boys, who hack away at them with rudimentary tools . . . . He [Burtynsky] turned his attention to factories, both functioning and abandoned; heaps of recycled telephone dials, aluminium cans and plastic toy parts; aerial shots of urban renewal in a supremely congested Shaghai and seemingly limitless symmetrical arrays of Chinese workers in color-coded garb (Source: Diehl 2006, np link).

Baichwal's camera creeps along the floor of the Cankun Factory in Xiamen City, Fujian, a sprawling complex the size of four football fields, peering in at the work stations of employees meticulously assembling some minuscule unit to be fitted into an espresso machine. Outside, the same multitude of employees, outfitted in canary-yellow uniforms to match the buildings they work in, assemble for an early-morning pep talk orchestrated in military fashion (Source: Smith 2007, np link).

With an eight minute long tracking shot past hundreds of workbenches covering kilometers of floor-space in China’s Factory of the World, Baichwal makes us believe that we will be witnessing China’s very fast and expansive industrialization. For about five minutes, we see observational and inquisitive images of workers performing boring repetitive tasks at their individual workstations. The soundtrack is composed of various buzzing and other rhythmic mechanical sounds from all the different machines but at a very gentle, almost lulling level. This mechanical lullaby is interrupted when suddenly Burtynsky starts to talk. This voice-over narration was not recorded for the film, but it is the recording of a talk he did in an art gallery for one of his shows. The clash is harsh. Baichwal has broken the spell. With a rather distant tone Burtynsky talks about nature, our relationship to nature, the landscapes we construct, how these define who we are and how he doesn’t want to pass judgment, just show what it is: ‘it is a landscape.’ Over his voice we continue to see hundreds of people working in the same factory, not one natural element in view. Credits start to roll and announce the film. The sound climaxes and the factory images become more pressing. On a black wipe that is half natural (because the tracking camera glides behind a big dark obstacle) and half constructed in post-production, the moving image of the factory becomes a photo diptych of this same factory photographed by Burtynsky. After a bell has announced a break for the factory workers, the moving camera records people leaving the factory, this time from a similar high angle as the one Burtynsky chose for his diptych. Then it pans with a closer frame over the empty workstations. The camera pauses on a man who stayed behind and is asleep on his table: a subtle comment on the repetitiveness and dullness of this work. In the following scenes outside the factory, Baichwal chose formal transitions similar to the cross fade mentioned earlier to construct her narrative. She cuts from an image of the factory’s facade, stating without any irony in black letters on a yellow background ‘The Factory of the World, The Channel of the World’ to all the workers gathering outside. Gradually, more and more people appear each time filmed with a larger frame, until we see that the whole street has filled with hundreds of uniformly dressed workers, gathered in little groups like multiple yellow army squads. From this overview, the camera pans down to the asphalt to follow a yellow line that divides the street into two lanes. This grey plane divided in two by the yellow stripes cross-fades to the image of a sunflower field. It is only briefly credible as an image of nature because at the end of the cross-fade, when this image is perfectly lined up with the yellow striped line of the asphalt, a clear cut remains in the middle, like the division between two pages of a book. As a pan upward shows us, this sunflower field is a mural on the factory’s gate that ends in a bright yellow sky with a happy face as a sun in it. A voice in Chinese shouts ‘Good Morning.’ Cut back to all the workers outside the factory getting organized in groups for a pep-talk by their group captains. Not many happy faces there! The captain of group 2B sums up all the shortcomings of his team and reprimands his workers severely. A young man runs by to pick up garbage. While the reprimanding of group 2B continues the camera slowly pans over the numerous rows of workers in their yellow uniforms, neither looking very happy nor awake. The filmmaker observes all this calmly and collects several other stern voices and commands: ‘don’t laugh,’ ‘don’t talk,’ ‘you, stand behind him, stand straight.’ Gradually these voices become a generalized murmur, which is then suddenly interrupted by an off-screen voice that shouts, ‘Edward, how do you like it so far?’ Burtynsky responds: ‘It’s ok, if we move and try to fill this area here, that is the most important.’ Once again the filmmaker has switched our attention abruptly from sympathizing with these workers to the distancing formal approach of the photographer. In the following scene, we see Burtynsky high up on a forklift, preparing his large format camera to shoot. We see him from below: he is literally placed on a pedestal. While the moving camera pans again over the hundreds of workers gathered in the street, Burtynsky continues his comments on the spectacle and gives directions on how to move people as to make it a better picture. His description of ‘them’ reflects what they will look like in the large format photo: objectified. At this point there is no translation anymore of what the workers ‘down there’ hear or say; instead, we hear Burtynsky complain about the light that has deadened down. Just before a cut to him putting the film in the camera, he says: ‘I think we are good, I am shooting now’ - the only line that is repeated in Chinese: it sounds like one more command to the workers. Burtynsy takes the photo and right on the click of the camera, Baichwal cuts to the still photo of this scene. We hear him say: ‘that’s good,’ ‘that’s perfect,’ as if he is praising his own work. The murmur of a crowd swells in the background while the image zooms out of the photo to a man admiring the same piece in an art gallery. An off-screen voice announces with lots of enthusiasm ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Ed Burtynsky!’ and loud applause follows. The zoom out of his photo ends and cuts to an image of Burtysnky doing an artist talk on being inspired by nature. So far, the only nature we have seen is a painted mural of a sunflower field on a factory door. This entire opening sequence sets the tone for the film. Baichwal’s documentary will keep crossing that line between the artificial world of the artist and the real world of industrial work and waste (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.124-5).

Hell is beautiful. A profound meditation on what the human species is doing to the planet we live on. . . . A film that begs to be hung on the wall, studied, absorbed, and learned from. . . . Baichwal takes the industrial landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky and unfreezes it in time, releasing images of unparalleled loveliness and damage. The result is a hymn to disorder and, implicitly, a warning. There's little narration . . . Baichwal and Burtynsky prefer to show rather than tell. . . . much of the resulting footage testifies to the scabbed ecological underbelly of the Chinese economic miracle and, by extension, ours. . . . Burtynsky's photographs uncover the beauty in what he calls "industrial incursions": strip-mining, waste runoff, slag, and scree. He finds the ruined poetry in extraction industries and also at the other end of the consumer life span. A series of brightly colored crushed cubes in a junkyard have an eloquence belied by their meaning: They're America's technological cast offs, sent to China to be picked down to wire and motherboard. . . . Whole towns are devoted to this recycling ; kids strip discarded computers as heavy metals drip into the water table. A side trip to Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh shows families wading through toxic sludge to pull apart tankers plate by plate. (The average life expectancy there is 30.) Mountains of coal pile up in Tianjin Harbor, while, inland, 1.1 million people in 13 towns are relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric project so massive that a wobble in the earth's rotation was detected when the gates were first opened. The relocations, we hear, were accompanied by deception and not a few broken bones. Are the people happy with their new homes? "Do not ask me this question," replies a Three Gorges spokesman. "I am not in charge of this." "Manufactured Landscapes" zooms in close, as well, recording the repetitive gestures of factory work. Mechanical or human, it's much the same: A line of steam irons acquires the grace of a slowed-down Busby Berkeley routine, while workers snap together electrical breakers in seconds, striving for 400 a day. The components are bound for the United States on container ships that look like outsized conduits of globalization. The film's pace is inexorable, the rhythms aggravating, and strangely lulling (Source: Anon 2007, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis. These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times (Source: Burtynsky nd, np link).

Canada’s endless landscape gave him the sense that ‘we are just a momentary presence inhabiting this place.’ … he went to Ryeson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, where one of his teachers gave him the assignment that informed his life ever since: “Go out and make a set of images that speak to the idea of the evidence of man.” Most of Burtynsky’s work is done before he snaps the shutter. In advance of each trip, he carriers out extensive research, reading everything from novels set in the area to government reports (Source: Diehl 2006, p.122).

To me, what is interesting as an artist, or mediator, is to reconnect to the sources of our lifestyle, to find a way to capture the immensity of scale and activity there, but not in what most think of as a purely “documentary” fashion [about a specific example but choosing one] that somehow has a special quality that allows me as a photographer to transform it into something that goes well beyond the thing itself (Source: Burtynsky in Campbell 2008, p.42).

Baichwal: I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want to do a biographical film and I didn’t want to do a ‘portrait of an artist’ film. I wanted our film to try to extend the narrative streams that are inherent in these photographs. When you’re standing in front of one of the prints, you’re confronted with the wide view, and it’s often overwhelming, and it’s aesthetically very seductive. Then you look in and you see the hundreds or thousands of details in these photographs that are all little stories and narratives that can be picked up. We would pick them up in the medium of film and follow them, and keep coming back to the wide view (Source: Slutsky 2006, np link).

The film’s narrative actually starts and ends with Burtynsky’s work in China, bracketing the four other sites of manufactured landscapes. The filmmaker followed Burtynsky to China on one of his travels to photograph the effects of that country’s massive and quick industrial revolution and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It is in these China scenes, where the filmmaker actually is with Burtynsky ‘‘on assignment’’ and ‘‘on site’’ that the differences in their approach become most apparent. While Burstynsky makes documentary photos to turn them into art, Baichwal reconfigures a traditional artist portrait into a complex social documentary. Piling up images both of construction and deconstruction, the documentary gradually becomes a multilayered puzzle of ethical questions, laid out for us as a Manufactured Landscapes constant pressing undercurrent to the uncomfortable beauty of Burtynsky’s photos (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.123).

Baichwal did not want to create an ecological manifesto (personal communication, 20 November 2007), but her film definitely explores more than Burtynsky’s work - the ecological and social issues at stake, and this from the very opening of the film (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.124).

This reversing of scale and focus is a recurrent theme throughout the film. Interesting is that the narrowing down from a larger social and ethical point of view to the more limited aesthetic plane of Burtynsky’s photos is actually done by zooming out. Several times, Baichwal first shows us the tiny black dots in a Burtynsky photo from up close so that we see them for what they are: people at work in huge mines or factories and dumps or demolition sites. Then she zooms out to the photos in which these people are only tiny dots in abstract, colored tapestries. In the film, these dots have become people again, and by showing people at these various sites at work in moving images and with sound, they become part again of the bigger picture of globalization and its impact worldwide. This is one of the ways in which the filmmaker reattaches the quality of documentary photography to Burtynsky’s work, while he is eager to do exactly the opposite, namely stripping it of that realist quality by emphasizing the artistic qualities of his large-scale images (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.126).

Thanks to its ambiguous form mixing two documentary genres, an artist portrait and social documentary, the film forces the viewer to look beyond the beauty of manufactured landscapes all over the world that Burtynsky so artfully exposes, and question the ecological and social impact of the mass production and mass consumption in which we all take part. On a meta-level, the film also questions the role of the artist (both the photographer and the filmmaker) in exposing important issues such as the hidden costs of globalization. Burtynsky and Baichwal thus personify the age-old struggle in photography between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but a moralized ideal of truth telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism. ... Baichwal definitely has taken on the role of truth teller. She unmasks the hypocrisy of our society and she informs us about the effects of large-scale industrial and construction projects in China (among other things) and she does this, except for the odd moment, without being didactic. Burtynsky, on the other hand, definitely goes for beautification, showing the same projects as large-scale colorful photographic tableaus that make us forget what we are looking at. The critics of Burtynsky’s work could therefore also read Baichwal’s film as an attempt to unmask his hypocrisy. But I wouldn’t go that far. Any comparison between his photography and the film suggests that things are not black and white. For those who are able to see beyond the beauty of Burtynsky’s photos, his images do confront us with the scale of the impact ‘‘progress’’ has on nature, but most likely only those already aware of the issues will take notice. Baichwal’s documentary addresses a larger audience and it is enjoyable for both its journalistic value and its beauty. ... The entire film is aesthetically pleasing and a great cinematographic experience. But more than Burtynsksy’s work it is thoughtful and politically engaging. The film reminds us that we are all implicated in the cycle of industrial production and that these processes are reconfiguring our landscapes. The film offers the viewer the ability to go into time and space as only film can do, giving the viewers time to ponder on certain details, and taking them to the places and circumstances where the images were shot (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.128).

Other inscriptions that Baichwal adds to Burtynsky’s photos are not about the ecological and social contexts, but about the work of the photographer and the circumstances of the shoot. That is where her film oscillates back to being an artist portrait. We witness a difficult discussion with the owners of an industrial site as Burtynsky tries to get permission to shoot. The crew is told to turn the camera off; the spokespeople for the site worry that the image won’t be pretty, which is obviously a huge understatement proven in the film by what Burtynsky was able to shoot in the end. In another scene, we see the photographer pay the people who posed for his image. Although hardly noticeable, since it is a very quick shot, it is an important footnote on the ethics of his shooting practices in poor countries. Last but not least, there is also a short scene where the filmmaker made an inscription to her own work as a documentary filmmaker. A guide for the factory of the world, who has not been on the job very long, tries to recite the official text about the grandeur of the place, but she is so nervous that she forgets her lines. She excuses herself in broken English and asks if she can read from her notes. When the guide continues, the camera focuses on her hands, no longer on her face, as to emphasize that this is an official communication, not a personal one, indirectly informing us about the difficulties of shooting in China despite the openness that was promised in anticipation of and during the 2008 Olympic Games (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.127-8).

One of the challenges Baichwal's crew faced in China was being shadowed by ‘minders’ and foreign affairs officials. Negotiations would erupt over what they could and couldn't shoot every time they turned on the camera (Source: Reid 2006, np link).

At Bao Steel, company reps simply worry that Burtynsky's images won't be ‘beautiful’ (Source: Smith 2007, np link).

Discussion / Responses

The photographs of Edward Burtynsky suggest an edgy relationship between nature and technology. The reshaping of terrain by modern industrial activities of refineries, quarries and waste sites, often photographed at indeterminate scale, illustrates the vast extent of man’s intervention in the landscape. The result is an appreciation of the built environment as ‘manmade sublime’ (Source: Smout, Smout and Allen 2005, p.1).

The opening image of ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ is a mighty eight-minute-long tracking shot along a vast factory floor in Xiamen City, and as one aisle of machinery relentlessly follows the last, you either flee the theater or find your sense of time and proportion irrevocably altered. The film demands we pull back - way back - from our daily business and consider the long tail of consumption, creation, and decay (Source: Anon 2007, np link).

[Baichwal’s] film can be seen as a series of inscriptions that bring the troubling conditions obscured in Burtynsky’s large scale, de-contextualized, abstract photography back into view, up close and personal, and clearly identified (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.126).

Perhaps the most compelling scene in the film is the opening shot. An uncomfortably long tracking shot steadily passes row upon row of Chinese factory workers. The deliberate decision to move sideways through the factory creates a dizzying sensation as we seem to move forever without direction and without scale. The absence of voices makes it nearly impossible to distinguish human from machine except for the workers’ curious stares. There is no way to tell how large the factory is, not until the camera is hoisted high above the floor and looks out lengthwise into the building, whose proportions stretch out into the horizon – the final still shot becomes a near-perfect representation of one of Burtynsky’s own photographs (Source: Harrison 2006, np link).

When you see these huge factories and see the amount of energy and focus that goes into assembling the spray nozzle for an iron . . . there's something absurd and tragic about it because so much of what they're making is entirely disposable, . . . You can't get away from it there. You begin to grow keenly aware of your own role in the whole production line because as consumers, we're all complicit. A huge majority of everything we buy in this country is made in China, and we easily put the experience of the factory worker on the back shelf. It's not part of our reality, . . . I think it's important that we do recognize what's happening - not that what's going on in China is specifically bad. We had no desire to make any judgments about what's right or wrong. We're simply pointing out the dimensions of this new industrial revolution (Source: Baichwal in Anon 2006, np link).

Mesmerizing, breathtaking and horrifying, this hauntingly beautiful film is the ‘Apocalypse Now’ without fiction. Slow in pace, quiet in mood, it gives good glimpses of the poisoned patches of Earth that may well be signs of an inevitable doom (Source: Nexflixzzzz 2009, np link).

Watching Burtynsky prepare to shoot swarms of yellow-clad workers in the street outside the city-sized factory in China, and you may marvel at the economies of scale such an operation represents. When Baichwal cuts from the factory to an equally large refuse heap and the poorly paid workers who dismantle old computers and sift out the precious (and sometimes toxic) metals, perhaps it seems a productive use of labour. Or maybe you'll find the circle of manufacturing, with its cruel mimicry of natural cycles of creation and destruction, meaningless, even nauseating. . . . Baichwal is at her best when on location with Burtynsky in China for his latest group of pictures. The factory floor photo is a marvel, but Baichwal's moving images add a dimension to be found nowhere else, and she also captures the supervisor of Group 2B telling them their error rate on product No. 7652 is too high. It's like eavesdropping on a science-fiction dystopia made real (Source: Knight 2006, np link).

Contrary to Burtynsky, Baichwal asks more of our ethical than our aesthetic sensibilities. In the China sequence described earlier, we are able to identify the workers and sympathize with them before they dissolved into the tiny dots of square yellow patches that Burtynsky shows us (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.126).

But just as it is a conflicting experience to see his photos of ecological disasters in the white and quiet spaces of art galleries and museums, this film is also far more complex than being just a portrait of the artist and his work. The scarce comments of the photographer himself reveal his artistic obsessions in terms of exposure, framing, even the positioning of some bystanders, but this concern to get the picture right -that is, beautiful in an almost painterly fashion - clashes with the bigger picture as it is captured in a more realist mode in the film: the gigantic damage done to nature by worldwide industrialization, and the devastating ecological and social consequences of globalization (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.122).

Burtynsky has obviously chosen to broaden that gap in favor of presenting a rather ‘‘neutral’’ view of ecological disasters as high art. Baichwal, on the other hand, even though her first goal is to make a portrait of the artist and his work, has made a film in which the focus shifts back to a more socially and ecologically engaged documentary. Even if this was not her first objective, simply the nature of film as a medium allows the viewer a deeper insight in the problems at stake then what we can observe in the still and silent images of Burtynsky’s portfolios. While we remain filled with awe for his work, in the film the awful buried in his artful photos is uncovered (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.123).

In the film, Baichwal compensates for this lack of a deeper ethical dimension in Burtynsky’s work by showing the human face of these humongous projects and dumps. Sometimes adding a human face and adding scale is done subtly in the film as with the zoom ins and zoom outs described earlier, or with the play between still and moving images as in the opening scene. Other times though, the filmmaker adds more frank inscriptions to the still images by letting a worker tell us directly about his or her work. For example, a factory worker who is shown making smart circuitbreakers, proudly tells us that she has worked in the factory for six years and that she can make 400 units a day, without overtime. When hearing about her 400 units per day, one cannot help but think back to an earlier scene in the film where workers were sorting through piles and piles of e-waste and lots of circuit-breakers. In that particular scene, Baichwal’s inscription to Burtynsky’s photos is both more ambitious and more ambiguous. On one hand, she clearly shows the (de-)pressing context of people dealing with all the world’s e-waste, on the other hand, some of her images are framed just like Burtynsky’s photos: from afar, without people, as abstract tableaus. One can see the usefulness of these images to create smooth transitions in the film back and forth to Burtynsky’s work, but they also confuse the viewer with regards to whom the author is. Moreover, these abstract still shots obviously cannot function as inscriptions to Burtynsky’s photos; they can only mimic his work. Only as part of a sequence can these more abstract shots made with the moving camera work as inscriptions. For example, Baichwal cuts from a worker in the Factory of the World making a clothes iron, to an abstract image of a metal dump with the leftovers from a used iron in plain view. Hence she clearly demonstrates the cyclic pattern of mass production turning into mass waste, a link that is not directly present in Burtynsky’s work. Unfortunately, she repeats this particular link between shots, cutting back from the used iron in the dump to the new ones made in the factory, which turns this initially witty statement into a moralizing comment (Source: Cammaer 2009, p.127).

One lesson to be learned from ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ is the necessity of being far more aware as consumers, trying as much as possible not to conspire in the consumption of JUNK. China clearly has a huge problem with pollution on a VAST scale and apparently few effective laws to limit it. It’s not enough to bash China, but the scale of environmental vandalism there is unique. The Chinese nightmare would not be “prospering” without insatiable Western consumers only interested in price (Source: smartwines 2010, np link).

There’s a strange tension in Burtynsky’s work, which Manufactured Landscapes doesn’t shy away from: how can something so brutal, so violent to the Earth, so toxic, be so beautiful? There’s an ambiguity in his work, where the same photographs can hang on the walls of the corporations that are responsible for these places that we visited, and on the walls of the environmentalists who are fighting against those corporations (Source: Slutsky 2006, np link).

Aestheticized horror, of course, is precisely the mode . . . [Burtynsky and Baichwal] employ to implicate us self-reflexively in these dehumanizing scenarios of industry and devastation. Modernity as progress, as planetary pillaging. The double bind is inescapable. The brilliance of Baichwal's film . . . is that it never asks you to accept a line of argument about what you are seeing. Instead, it invites you to observe, and to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the processes the camera unveils. The judgments you arrive at are entirely your own. For that reason, Manufactured Landscapes may one day be seen not as a slyly staged diatribe or piece of political propaganda, but as a time capsule of civilization at a crossroads, an elegy for life on the cusp of irrevocable change (Source: Smith 2007, np link).

That dilemma is our simultaneous need to exploit the natural world and preserve it. The dilemma becomes all the more complicated, as Burtynsky's pictures attest, because that exploitation can lend itself to magnificence as well as horror. The mightiness of mankind's feats of engineering really can make for great visuals. One of the things that sets Burtynsky apart is his unwillingness to ignore either side of the equation (Source: Feeney 2009, np link).

[Baichwal] also attempts to give his work deeper political context, but only manages to muster frustratingly slight and banal reflections on ecological vandalism and the perils of globalisation. Manufactured Landscapes is neither a revealing biography and of the artist not an in depth analysis of his work, but it is full of striking and arrestingly beautiful images (Source: Dalton 2008, np).

The power of the images comes from their ambiguity and lack of didacticism, which leads to the experiential ‘horror of encountering the ‘detritus of our existence’ in what initially appears to be abstract painting ... Burtynsky disavows an intent to editorialize about what is right and wrong, being more determined to leave the pictures open to multiple readings in different registers aesthetic, political, ecological, technological, and more. . . . The pictures focus less upon indexical truth claims (that this happened there), than iconic symbols (the process at large) (Source: Crang 2010, p.1095).

Rather than repress the connections of viewer and viewed, as colonial photography did, here the images serve to restage the repression of global connections. The detachment allows an aestheticization and denies an overt critical positioning that can be troubling in the face of industrial civilization’s environmental incursions. ... It is telling that in ... Manufactured Landscapes (2006), the film oscillates between trying to emulate the open spectator position encouraged by the pictures and providing narration to both picturing and the pictured that is otherwise absent ... Baichwal suggested that the film did ‘what [the images] could not do, which was to follow the narratives that exist in all the photographs and be able to focus on the detail that makes up that picture,’ the detail of human lives (Source: Crang 2010, p.1096).

'TODAY IS BORING' films, in conjunction with BFI, had a special pre-screening of the documentary film MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, in London 2008. This is a clip of the audiences' reactions and feedback of the film (Source: riotart4kids 2009, np link: see film here).

Impacts / Outcomes

[Baichwal] has made a film that transforms the cinema auditorium into the meditative space of an art gallery. There are no simple answers here (Source: Birchall 2008, np link).

When Manufacturing Landscapes opened commercially in Toronto, Baichwal hoped it might last the week. . . . Eleven weeks later, it is still going strong, and has just been added to the line-up of the Sundance Film Festival next month. ‘Astonishing’ is a word used to describe the response (Source: Griffin 2006, np link).

Taken as a whole, ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ is a mesmerizing work of visual oncology, a witness to a cancer that's visible only at a distance but entwined with the DNA of everything we buy and everywhere we shop. We are not in charge of this, you may want to reply. If not, who is? (Source: Anon 2007, np link).

It . . . allows people who would normally walk away from something much more stridently political and just say, “No, I don’t agree with that at all,” to engage in it and perhaps be changed by it. And I think that the film tries to do that too. It tries not to preach, it tries to witness, I suppose (Source: Slutsky 2006, np link).

Manufactured Landscapes is quite an unforgettable viewing experience – at least I’ll never regard my toaster and iron the same way again (Source: Nexflixzzzz 2009, np link).

I am ironing. The iron will be my fourth in three years, a fact that is grotesque, shaming, expensive and testament to the fact that repair shops for home electrical devices don't exist anymore. It's partly because no one can replace the cheap fiddly plastic bits Chinese manufacturers use and partly because consumers, accustomed to casual overconsumption, can just buy a new one for a derisory sum. . . . I measure out my life in irons, all of them now sitting in a landfill here, or possibly shipped back to China. In Manufactured Landscapes, a 2006 documentary on Edward Burtynsky, the photographer of modern industry, I watched a young yellow-uniformed Chinese woman methodically inspecting products in a factory that makes most of the world's irons. It employs 23,000 people. I could have sworn I saw my iron (Source: Mallick 2011, np link).

... the day after the DVD was released in Canada… in fact the day the DVD was released in Canada, it was already on sale on the streets of Beijing for a dollar US with exactly the same cover as the Canadian DVD.  And from my friends in China …erm… it’s quite widely circulated, so a lot of people see it but in more of an underground way.  It wouldn’t be officially distributed for two reasons.  The e-waste sequences, e-waste cycling is technically illegal in China, even though many people do it, and drawing attention to that is a problem because it’s a cottage industry. People do it at home but the government knows that it is toxic, so what that has the effect of is that people are driven inside with the window shut, rather than outside on their porches – which is worse.   The other issue is these hold-outs. There’s a tremendous number of people in China who are protesting about their relocation, for one reason or another, and interestingly enough it’s like an incipient beginning of democracy in that country, in that these people aren’t immediately jailed, they are allowed to protest, many of them I think.  It’s allowing a new voice of protest (Source: Baichwal 2008, np)

Burtynsky: I like the fact that different disciplines can come in and approach this object and begin to say it relates to this and also to that. I found something very interesting when I presented my work at Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario. We did a cross-disciplinary thing, where the engineering, geology, geography, arts, environmental science, and business departments all came together around the images and each responded to them. And now we’re actually doing them as a forum (Source: Smith 2007, np link).

References / further reading

Anon (2007) An eloquent ecological warning. The Boston globe 22 June (www.boston.com/movies/display?display=movie&id=9921  accessed 23 June 2011)

Anon (2006) Landscapes that weep toxic tears. Vancouver sun 10 October (www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/arts/story.html?id=4d790b58-5b93-404f-a301-5abc12ff7725 last accessed 23 June 2011)

Baichwal, J. (2008) Manufactured Landscapes: talk at BFI Southbank (DVD extras). San Francisco: Zeitgeist Films

Baichwal, J. (2006) Manufactured Landscapes. edwardburtynsky.com (www.edwardburtynsky.com/Sections/The_Film/Manufactured_Landscapes.html last accessed 23 June 2011)

Birchall, C. (2008) Beyond the frame. The guardian (UK) 30 April (www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/apr/30/photography last accessed 23 June 2011)

Burtynsky, E. (nd) Exploring the residual landscape. edwardburtynsky.com (www.edwardburtynsky.com/ last accessed 23 June 2011)

Gerda Cammaer (2009) Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes: the ethics and aesthetics of creating moving still images and stilling moving images of ecological disasters. Environmental communication: a journal of nature and culture 3(1), p.121-130

Campbell, C. (2008) Residual landscapes and the everyday: an interview with Edward Burtynsky. Space and Culture 11, p.39-50

Christopher, J. (2008) Manufactured Landscapes. The times (UK) 8 May (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/film_reviews/article3887707.ece last accessed 23 June 2011)

Crang, M. (2010) The death of great ships: photography, politics, and waste in the global imaginary. Environment and planning A 42(5), p.1084-1102

Dalton, S. (2008) Manufactured Landscapes review. The times (UK) 20 September

Diehl, C. (2006) The toxic sublime. Art in America February, p.119-123 (http://metiviergallery.com/download/artist/burtynsky_art_in_america_feb_2006.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Feeney, M. (2009) Unnatural beauty. The Boston globe 2 May (http://articles.boston.com/2009-05-02/ae/29263456_1_edward-burtynsky-dilemma-manufactured-landscapes last accessed 23 June 2011)

Griffin, J. (2006) Manufacturing of a movie a la Edward Burtynsky. The Montreal gazette 11 December (www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/popculture/story.html?id=f4579dba-a2e7-45ce-bbfa-87e113c25baa last accessed 23 June 2011)

Hailey, J. (2008) Manufactured Landscapes: storyline. imdb.com 9 May (www.imdb.com/title/tt0832903/ last accessed 20 June 2011)

Harrison, M. (2006) Beautiful devastation: filming the earth’s scars. Ottawa express 16 November (www.ottawaxpress.ca/film/film.aspx?iIDArticle=10830 last accessed 27 June 2011)

Knight, C. (2006) Photos worth a thousand frames. The national post 29 September (www.canada.com/cityguides/toronto/story.html?id=a90f5d8e-37fe-4a28-bc01-fa2f1868e22d&k=2680 last accessed 27 June 2011)

MacDonald, F (2008) Nature but not as we know it. Metro (UK) 1 September (http://e-edition.metro.co.uk/2008/09/01/19.html last accessed 20 June 2011)

Nexflixzzzz (2009) ‘Acopocalyse Now’ without fiction: user review. imdb.com 9 April (www.imdb.com/title/tt0832903/usercomments last accessed 27 June 2011)

Reid, M. (2006) Glorious wastelands. Victoria times colonist 16 November (www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/arts/story.html?id=185e7e7a-56bf-4dac-a380-6aaee3eb9daf  last accessed 27 June 2011)

riotart4kids (2009) Manufactured Landscapes: audience feedback (intro). YouTube.com 25 March (www.youtube.com/watch?v=jraJBHJ6Ok0 last accessed 14 June 2011)

Slutsky, M. (2006) Brutal beauty. Montreal mirror 14 December (www.montrealmirror.com/2006/121406/film1.html last accessed 20 June 2011)

Smartwines (2010) Manufactured Landscapes: comments. YouTube.com (www.youtube.com/watch?v=67j7JlEZzpQ last accessed 23 June 2011)

Smith, D. (2007) Made in China. Bright lights film journal 58, np (www.brightlightsfilm.com/58/58landscapesiv.php last accessed 23 June 2011)

Smout, A, Smout, M. and Allen, L. (2005) Restless Landscapes. in Nordes, in the making. Copenhagen: Interactive Institute, p.1-5 (http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/13086/1/13086.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Compiled by Lucy Bannister, Harriet Beattie, Katy Charlton, Lawrence Cook, Daisy Livingston, Romain Tijou and Alex Tucker, edited by Daisy Livingston (last updated June 2011). Page created for followthethings.com as part of the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module, Exeter University. Trailer embedded with permission of Zeitgeist Films.Thanks to Gerda Cammaer.