Sylvia Grace Borda’s Aerial Fields: The Apparatus, Labour and Territories of Agri/Cultural Production
My good friend Sylvia Grace Borda approached me nearly a year ago with a request to write an essay about a video installation she had made back in 2013 for the Surrey Art Gallery's UrbanScreen. The gallery has requested a pared back version for the screen's publication series, so I am posting the original completed draft here before performing major surgery on it to meet the gallery's needs. Hopefully someday a revised version of this full text will be published by them later, but in case not, here it is.
- Paula Blair
Like the produce it depicts, Aerial Fields (2013) by Sylvia Grace Borda was cultivated on British Columbian farmland and brought to the city for consumption. Largely presented in a double split-screen format, it depicts agricultural tools, work and spaces from aerial views recorded by a camera-mounted drone. Its summery images of cultivation and harvest were projected on Surrey Art Gallery’s UrbanScreen from 21 September 2013 to 19 January 2014, that is, during winter when the land becomes unworkable, and, as Liz Wells points out, ‘at a time of day when, in actuality the area would be dark and thus imperceptible’, creating for spectators ‘a dreamlike distance’ from the scenes (2017). The screening’s outdoor urban location and the geography of Surrey, a city near the featured land just south of the Fraser River and a little north of Canada’s border with the USA, bore further significance. Rather than adding to urban infringement on rural space by containing the projection indoors, the installation’s large, outdoor display of normally unseen sites and processes of production allowed rural space to claim back a little territory. The Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre which is home to UrbanScreen is, after all, built on reclaimed land in a city whose charter of sustainability includes agricultural land reserves, the social imaginary of which was visualized by the installation’s performative positioning of rural space and agriculture in this specific place.
Made during her residency at Surrey in 2013, Aerial Fields is one of five works contributing to Borda’s This One’s for the Farmer project which foregrounds largely unseen agricultural practices, labour and spaces both as part of society and as art subjects. Its images show tensions and slippages in the boundaries between the rural and urban and the organic and technological in ways that invite consideration of issues affecting contemporary farming in the province. This disjunctive convergence of rural and urban was enhanced during the screening by the spontaneous sound design involving live audio generated unawares by spectators, passersby, traffic and the ambient soundscape of the surrounds. The warm, daytime, but silent rural images were projected against cold night sky and urban sounds. Such live contingencies made the exhibited work unique with every play while offering space to notice and reflect upon further tensions between individualism, humancentric impositions on the landscape and collective responsibility evoked by the video.
As well as marking the disjunction between the rural and urban, the temporal disruption brought to bear by the installation calls to mind global increases in year-round, non-seasonal, industrial-scale food production that places further pressure on farmland and organic/mechanized workforces. To redress this and make the city environmentally sustainable, Surrey encourages urban agriculture to reduce the reliance on food transport and to support local food processing agribusiness. This, and related schemes outlined in the city’s sustainability charter first released in 2008, became necessary as it emerged that Surrey is Canada’s fastest-growing city with projections estimating that its population will outgrow British Columbia’s capital, Vancouver, by 2030. This One’s for the Farmer acknowledges the strain that agricultural apparatuses, labourers and territories are under to sustain this growing population as well as themselves, and in various ways allows viewers space and time to pause, view and consider the implications of these issues. As visual arts practices facilitated by Google Street View and drone technologies, the work furthers inquiry into the philosophies, politics, apparatuses, processes of and shifts in contemporary moving image production more broadly. In the following analysis of Aerial Fields, I tease out some of that inquiry while situating Borda’s work in thought concerning humanity’s increasing unity and co-dependence with advancing technologies that made the video such a prescient and important inclusion in the UrbanScreen programme.
Ways of seeing and being seen
Borda is no stranger to technologies that facilitate ways of seeing and monitoring the activities of others. Prior to her residency in Surrey, she lived and worked in Northern Ireland, a region transitioning from three decades of political conflict in the late twentieth century. At the root of centuries-old tensions in the northernmost Irish province of Ulster (consisting of the six counties of Northern Ireland and three in the Irish Republic) are religion and territory. Although officially now in peacetime – a precarious, fragile peace – further tensions around inequality, truth and conflict resolution persist. When Borda taught at Queen’s University Belfast in 2007–9 and during the subsequent years when her practice was shaped by observations she made about lesser noticed aspects of the area, Northern Ireland’s devolved consociational government appeared to be going reasonably well. This has since broken down and, in 2019, Northern Ireland is cast adrift amid border wars erupting from the UK’s attempts to leave the European Union. In 2012, though, Borda fittingly examined power-sharing by observing the similarities and blurring distinctions between places of worship. CHURCHES: Coming to the table installed in Belfast Exposed in early 2012 consisted of documentary photography of churches of undisclosed denominations that Borda observed as exhibiting characteristics of modernist architecture printed onto a series of ceramic plates laid out on a long dining table. However, it is Borda’s unexhibited Orchards: Bramley apples series (2010–12) documenting the labour and processes of orchard growers in Counties Down and Armagh that turned out to be the preparatory work for This One’s for the Farmer.
The Orchards and Churches series were influenced by the strong tradition of documentary and journalistic photography in Northern Ireland so vital in confronting issues around perspective and truth underpinned by the psychological impact of intensive surveillance during and post-conflict. From the list of prominent artists’ names including Victor Sloan, John Duncan, Donovan Wylie, Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright, you would not be mistaken for believing this to be a predominantly male enterprise. There are of course women photographers, but rather than being observational, the work of Mary McIntyre, Susan MacWilliam and Emma Campbell, for example, is more performative, symbolic and creates or recreates narratives. The staging involved in their work bears similarities with the posing necessitated in Borda’s Google Street View collaboration with John M. Lynch, Farm Tableaux (2013–15). Combining the observational and performative approaches to photography so prevalent in Northern Ireland which both aim to mine out and depict some sort of truth, making Farm Tableaux and its continuation, Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland (2015), involved staging scenarios depicting everyday acts of agricultural labour. As Wells points out, ‘[t]he project reminds us of the economic centrality of labor and the harshness of work conditions even despite mechanization’ (2017). Mixing landscape and portraiture, the 360-degree images also require the viewers’ active integration with technology to browse and operate the images produced with technologies that, like drones, have evolved from twentieth-century military surveillance devices that satisfy the desire to observe that which cannot otherwise be seen with human vision.
In her seminal essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ that draws together feminism and technology, cultural theorist Donna Haraway identifies ‘the relation between organism and machine’ as a ‘border war’, the stakes of which are ‘territories of production, reproduction and imagination’ (1991: 292). Through its production with drone technology and its subject matter of mechanized agriculture, Borda’s Aerial Fields video installation demonstrates some of the ways such organism/machine border wars have not only increased in volume and complexity, but their boundaries, particularly when it comes to labour, are becoming more indistinct in the early twenty-first century. For example, the drone whose original incarnations in the early twentieth century were emergent technologies for warfare, now can assist and determine art production such as this work by Borda, while the images produced show that despite the increased mechanization of farming, much work still must be completed by hand – and whose hands those are often involves another kind of border-crossing. The implications of organic and mechanical labour are discussed after first considering the technologies and apparatuses central to Aerial Fields.
Technology and Apparatus
Given its increasing social uses in geo-mapping, recreation, retail delivery, climate monitoring and creative enterprises, the drone’s identity and function as a machine of death and destruction operated from a control room half the world away is diminishing. More formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones join a lineage of devices developed for military use that have been appropriated by image-making practitioners to facilitate innovations in moving image production. Following developments since they first emerged towards the end of the First World War, in the 1960s drones were deployed by the US army on a large scale and performed a variety of functions in Vietnam, including reconnaissance and missile strikes, both of which require integration with imaging hardware. For the same conflict, the US army developed portable video equipment to facilitate surveillance – a medium initially developed in the early twentieth century for what became television broadcasting (Elwes 2005: 3). While handheld camcorders were quickly adopted by artists and domestic users, drones, although commercially available today, still have not reached the ubiquitous ownership as commodity items, or indeed as tools in creative practice, as video cameras. Although many of us own phones capable of producing good-quality images, few of us possess the training, skills and wherewithal to obtain the legal permissions necessary to control a remotely piloted aircraft. Nevertheless, drones join video as a militarily advanced technology that has been appropriated by creative individuals and industries, resulting in expanding the boundaries of image-making practices and aesthetics. Camera-mounted drones can, after all, produce less costly and potentially safer and more dynamic aerial shots for film and television.
In adopting the drone as image-making apparatus, not only has Borda incorporated herself with technologies developed for military surveillance, violence and social control for use as creative tools, she employs them to experiment with different and innovative ways of seeing, understanding and working with agriculture – another patriarchal system shaping the Anthropocene. As a woman, both filmmaking and farming are industries to which Borda’s presence is typically peripheral. In recording the farm’s activities from very high and very low levels – at times shown simultaneously in digital diptych in the finished video – Borda’s presence as artist feels at once marginal and all-seeing. It is this marginality that enables observations of otherwise unseen and unnoticed details in the micro and macro levels of the farm’s operations.
Borda’s re-envisioning of farming processes in Aerial Fields, including the use of technology in conjunction with the codes of nature, relies on and is determined by mechanized, disembodied vision. The subject is not seen from the artist-documenter’s embodied point of view, but rather the views it records are distant from human vision. In the finished edit, often appearing next to high, wide, dynamic, deep-focus images of fields, the work carried out on the farm and surrounding areas, are close, shallow-focus shots filmed with a static camera placed at a low level capturing, for instance, individual stems blowing in the breeze and the labour of drones of the arthropod kind depended upon for the pollination and propagation of crops and natural flora. Both types of shot capture images beyond the capacity of unassisted, unmediated human vision and so give access to alternative ways of seeing aspects of everyday farm life that are usually unnoticed or taken for granted.
The control the artist can exert over what appears in the frame in the aerial shots to capture such details is contingent on factors such as weather, permitted jurisdictions, the device’s battery life and its range capabilities. Given its remote-control tether, the drone similarly lacks autonomy but is not as regimented as the methodical, programmed workings of the harvesting and bailing vehicles shown in the video. Although it is not directly incorporated with the body, it provides a wireless extension of the artist’s eyes through her remote-control piloting actions. Vision and contact are both mediated; the control is embodied with signals sent to the drone, while the view the drone captures is distant. In an abstract sense, then, the drone is cyborg technology interdependent with its human-organic operator. It is an extension of the artist as active agent, while also at the mercy of weather, natural lighting and climate conditions, legal restrictions (such as airspace and proximity to the US border) and technological limitation (the small model used is low-altitude). The type of camera used further affects the image and point of view. Although the recorded images are realist observation, given the necessity of a wide-angle lens on a small, relatively cheap camera (due to the practicalities of cost and potential for damage), the appearance of the expanse within the frame is inevitably distorted in terms of shape, size and waving pixilation during recording. What is produced is a unique version of the scene as it was through this view determined by the many practical factors involved in digital image capture – the product of the device’s labour.
In addition to technological experimentation with drone-facilitated image capture, Borda’s work centres what is usually peripheral in two main ways: 1) as a woman pilot, Borda disrupts the perception that such practice is men’s work, and 2) the content of the videos she makes using drones de-centres urban imagery of modernity, focusing on the activities and results of industrialized farm labour and crop cultivation, all while the farms are increasingly encroached upon by suburban sprawl. The camera mounted on the drone grants Borda the opportunity to re-envision both gender binarism and agricultural uses of the land and how these are viewed. As it tracks the farm’s labour and methods of cultivation and harvesting, its roving frame as an indicator of unseen but present operation also creates a record of the equivalent labour and cultivation methods in this mode of visual art production. In both cases, the means of production are to an extent revealed.
While the drone is remote as Borda guides it, the machine usually remains within her view from the ground, which is a further difference from distanced military uses that bear more similarities with gaming (implying entertainment rather than work). Importantly, what the camera captures is not live-mediated for her via a desensitizing screen at ground level the way it is in military action or high-budget media production. Due to this limited vision, Borda must imagine the frame’s content while filming/flying, and then edit with the captured footage, which has been done in ways that reveal connected micro and macro farming narratives. From the uncertainty that comes with employing drones in filming emerges creativity and the blurring of distinctions between artist and apparatus. This convergence is further marked by the lack of explanatory text or voice, which distances Aerial Fields from traditional observational documentaries which tend to employ an authoritative narration that often condescends the featured labourers. Instead there is an equality between the people and machines involved. They become collaborators in the labour of cultural production, mirroring as well as documenting the cooperative efforts between animals, humans, plant life and machines in the production of food for human consumption as suburban sprawl encroaches on their territories of production, reproduction and imagination.
In the approach to video-capture undertaken by Borda for Aerial Fields, the drone’s flight and the camera’s wide-angle lens maximize what is contained within the frame and draw attention to the off-screen space beyond the image as its boundaries shift with the drone’s flying, hovering and swivelling movements. Every aspect of such shots appears in the same focus, and although it compresses the detail in the images, the wide lens bulges distant objects into an arc, generating a distorted sense of depth as if the landscape is being condensed and squeezed forward at the same time. In a sense, this is precisely what is being depicted; the workings and appearance of the farms are being pushed into alignment with the technological curve to continue operating. The mechanized view of the farmland and buildings as well as the nearby woodland and bordering housing developments illustrates the forced squeezing and shaping exerted by the external economic agents to which they are all bound.
In addition to the three divergent uses of the land vying for territory emerging in the images are co-existing differences in natural and human-constructed aspects of the landscape such as ponds and river tributaries near the woodlands in contrast with irrigation and drainage ditches dividing one sort of crop from another. Aerial Fields also draws attention to the differences between manufactured box beehives at the edges of fields and natural honeycombs spied through foliage. The latter shot appears to the right of aerial views of farm buildings, thereby drawing a relationship between the bees’ dual habitat-workspaces and those of the farm’s human and mechanical labourers. The labour and workers of all kinds are not intruded upon as the drone allows enough distance to avoid invading workspaces or provoke much distraction or self-consciousness, unlike a handheld camera necessitating the combination of operator and machine being near the subject or even each other. With so much machinery already in use on the farm, it is worth wondering how much notice was taken of one more device going about its business in its airspace territory.
As well as production and reproduction, Aerial Fields makes visible the farm’s territories of imagination to which consumers and audiences are not typically privy. At just under halfway through the 33-minute sequence, a high-angle shot shown in full-screen tracks over a canal dividing two fields with houses discernible through the trees on the arched horizon. As the drone flies, the tracking shot it makes reveals a visual pun as it becomes apparent that the shapes moving along the righthand side of the frame form part of a maize maze. As the drone nears the Fraser River, beyond which are more fields flanked by housing in the distance, the maze goes largely out of sight, only edging in at the bottom-right corner as the drone steadies, hovers and pivots. In conventional framing, such details glimpsed in the margins would typically lack importance, but in a work that transcends production conventions, this invitation to witness and register that which emerges in peripheral vision generates value and meaning. It is also, of course, contingent on flight conditions. The maze is clearly as much a product of mechanical engineering combined with design and organization as every row of crops that make up the shapes of the fields and farms, not in a way dissimilar to the pixels in the digital video images of them. Indeed, the maze reflects the shapes and lines of a circuit board; the farms are part of the circuitry of human life.
In the screening, the fields were further technologized by the UrbanScreen IMAX projection literally and figuratively stretching their boundaries even more. It is rare enough that video art and landscape art should receive the IMAX treatment, but that banal, everyday aspects of farming should too is notable given that IMAX is largely synonymous with mainstream cinematic spectacle. Like the city of Surrey, the gallery too bucks a global trend by supporting, sustaining and promoting artists through the UrbanScreen scheme that grants them a level of visibility and public spectacle normally only afforded to cinema blockbusters. By showing Borda’s Aerial Fields in this way, the gallery in tandem with the city demonstrated the necessary work of re-centralizing farming in culture.
Interventional Agri/Cultural Produce
In its appearance in Aerial Fields, the maze provides an example of mise en abyme; it is an artwork within an artwork with something to say to and about the outer project. The shots capturing such explicit traces of human interventions on the landscape resist the pastoral romanticism or the sublime so often typical to landscape art that has historically denied the existence of the labouring classes and industrial uses and shaping of the land that keep populations fed. Glimpsed in the frame’s margins, the maze also resists being romanticized while it can be appreciated from above as an aesthetic product of industrialized labour. It is positioned alongside the labour that created it and the housing developments putting pressure on that labour. The distorted but informative image shot with an unmanned flying device defamiliarizes human vision; it is an unemotional drone’s eye view rather than that of a human awed by the landscape, as tends to be conveyed in pastoral art. From the partial view of around fifteen metres above ground, the impression of the maze epitomizes the visual paradox that farmland exudes to many urban consumers; it is outside and largely green, and so it must be natural. It is, in fact, nature controlled, manipulated and put to work. In redressing the exclusion of industrial agriculture in visual art, Aerial Fields responds to an urgent need for society more broadly to acknowledge, understand and engage with agricultural practices and their sustainability.
As Haraway observes, we are beyond returning to what was ‘natural’. Aerial Fields helps us probe modern and contemporary notions of what it is to be natural. This inquiry begins in challenging the urban ideal that the countryside housing supposedly brings to ‘nature’. The closeness of the housing to the crops shown in the video visualizes the lack of – and evidences a need for – green belt legislation. Where the codes of nature have been technologized, industrialized and turned into capital beyond the point of no return, there is a need to preserve and protect what resources remain. With the help of interventional art projects such as Aerial Fields and This One’s for the Farmer providing visual evidence and a talking point around different ways of seeing that evidence, the public have an opportunity to become more aware of the local, regional, national and global implications of the intensification of farming and sub/urban sprawl to meet the needs of rising populations. Each having to jostle with the other for the space needed to produce and reproduce cannot be sustained in the long term, and there remains urgent need for territories of imagination – such as UrbanScreen showing Borda’s works – to facilitate dialogue.
City of Surrey Planning & Development Department (2008), The City of Surrey’s Sustainability Charter, 6950-30, Surrey, B. C.: City of Surrey Marketing & Communications, https://www.surrey.ca/bylawsandcouncillibrary/R175-0F09.pdf. Accessed 19 March 2019.
Elwes, Catherine (2005), Video Art, A Guided Tour, London: I. B. Tauris.
Haraway, Donna (1991), Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.
Imperial War Museum (2018), ‘A Brief History of Drones’, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-brief-history-of-drones. Accessed 9 October 2018.
Sylvia Grace Borda Official Website, ‘Orchards: Bramley apples’, http://www.sylviagborda.com/orchards.html. Accessed 19 March 2019.
Wells, Liz (2017), ‘Shifting Perspective: Sylvia Grace Borda’s Aerial Fields’. Unpublished essay.