Quarantined into rectangles, tiny dots litter the landscape. Seen through a satellite’s eye, the dusty brown landscape is dramatically scarred with blood-red splashes, like a festering wound. We must zoom in to make out the source of this disturbingly beautiful infection.
Mishka Henner, a new media artist based in Manchester, UK (with a current solo show in NYC), has been gathering these satellite images of feedlots. Referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in the business, feedlots are where thousands of livestock are kept and fed grains for the few months preceding their slaughter. Noxious miles of land packed full of cows, which are fattened up before they’re killed.
In Henner’s images, the striking number of cows is overwhelmed only by the dramatic red and green patches of waste that they produce. While for years environmental advocacy groups have been raising concerns about the health risks of that waste, even the EPA is now worried. Any un-quarantined runoff from the waste is toxic to the land and to us.
What’s not in the picture is the toxic gas all those cows are creating. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found in 2006 that livestock accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation. As apocalyptic as the feedlots look, the polluted air between the satellite and the ground may be the most alarming aspect of them.
When we talk about free speech, we often think of the rights of activists and journalists. But images such as Henner’s are becoming increasingly subject to legal scrutiny. Mark Bittman brought ag-gag laws to wider public attention in 2011, writing for the New York Times about a recent spate of laws being debated and passed throughout the United States that make it illegal to photograph or document these farms.
The laws are a draconian response by big agro lobbyists to block activists and whistleblowers from capturing animal abuses on camera. Many animal rights groups had been sending in undercover workers to document the horrific treatment of animals at these farms, sharing the results with a world that had been comfortable ignoring the issue. Now many states, including North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, and Iowa, have passed ag-gag laws. In some states it’s even illegal to photograph farms from public roads.
Henner’s series elevates the public discourse surrounding these lots (and images of them) to a position far beyond local jurisdiction. In this way, he joins a lineage of visionaries attempting to see our world from outer space, seeking a way of being that is in balance with the whole.
Forty years ago, many hoped that Apollo 17’s “Blue Marble,” the first photograph taken of the entire Earth, would inspire a new consciousness, spurring humanity to act together as one sustainable and peaceful whole. The image inspired the Whole Earth Catalogue and even a proposed flag for our planet. Spaceship Earth, popularized by Buckminster Fuller’s book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, was another framework for reconsidering our relationship to the globe; it conceptualizes the Earth as a spaceship with finite resources that we can’t get anywhere else — a sort of recalibration of how we must make decisions.
Maybe that’s a mindset Henner believes we still need to cultivate, but by zooming in from an orbiting perspective, not out. The grand modernist narrative of an image that could unite an entire planet feels sorely outdated now; instead, one of the most powerful ways that we can use new technologies and art is to find new perspectives that encourage us to reexamine ourselves. And there is nothing more pressing right now than rethinking our environmental impact, on a global scale.
Mishka Henner: Semi-Automatic is on view at Bruce Silverstein Gallery (535 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.
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