It’s almost like a still from a sci-fi film: the swirling red and green splotches, colors blending together in a delta that bleeds off a grid dotted with small, splotchy specks.
In actuality, it’s a few thousand-odd-feet-high view of a Texas cattle ranch, a feedlot where cows are fattened, the Christmas-hued morass a waste pond fed by the runoff from each neatly spaced enclosure. Stitched together from publically available satellite images, the photo and other similar works made by the British artist Miskha Henner were recently on displayed at a Liverpool are gallery. The images from “Feedlots”—beautiful abstracts that encapsulate what are otherwise visually unfathomable agriculture installations—struck a cord with many, and the shots have been popping up around the Internet for the past few weeks.
Speaking from his studio in Manchester via Skype, Henner says he’s very pleased with the reception for the food community—but he sees the landscapes in a broader context. To him, they’re not just about food, but the larger relationship between nature and industry, and that perhaps they say something about American culture as a whole.
(The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
TakePart: I’ve seen the images floating around the Internet for the past couple weeks and I’ve been quite taken with them. They’re quite beautiful and interesting and kind of scary all at the same time. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about how the project came about and talk about how the works are made. It seems like an interesting project since you’re using the satellite images.
Mishka Henner: I’ve been working on a few projects that use satellite images. When the Libyan civil war happened a few years ago, I was wondering why no on was talking about oil fields. Libya has Africa’s largest oil fields, and it surprised me that no one was really talking about that. And what I found is that you could find where oil fields were located by using different data sets. And that’s what drew me to the American landscape, because the oil fields in the U.S. are huge, and much of the land is incredibly well, what is the word, exploited, if you like. And it’s while I was working on that that I came across these strange structures that I didn’t understand what they were at all. They were all over the U.S. and they seemed to have a similar kind of configuration—they had these various types of lagoons or pools and then what looked like almost microbes. Or microbes in pens, if you like. This kind of structure.
The more I kind of looked into it, the more curious I was about it. That’s how I eventually realized that what I was looking at was something called feedlots—industrial farming operations. They’re not unique to the U.S., but I think the U.S. does it at a scale that no one else does it on. That’s how I came across it.
Were you kind of learning about what feedlots are and the exploitative nature, like you were saying the oil fields are, after having been confronted by the images, not really knowing what they were?
There’s a form of analysis in the intelligence community called geospatial intelligence. It’s the ability to read data and satellite imagery. That’s something else that I’ve been learning about as I’ve been doing it.
I kind of realized not so long ago that what I was doing was like a kind of public geospatial intelligence. I’m using publically available data sets, matching those to satellite imagery, and then trying to read the landscape in a way. On their own, these things are very abstract, right? I mean the images are completely abstract. It's only when you really understand what you’re looking at that you get a powerful sense of what’s going on. That’s important to me: The idea that, in a way, the abstract nature of these pictures reflects our own relationship to food. We don’t know where the food comes from, we don’t know what’s involved in the production, we know so little about where all these things come from. So when you see these sorts of things, it affected me quite profoundly, because I realized how far we’ve come.
I guess that as an artist it has to be interesting to start with an image and kind of have the image be a question mark almost, and then you’re investigating what information is behind the image. Because they do look very abstract and beautiful if not—I don’t know. I don’t know if they look sinister by nature or if I’m reading that into it because I know what’s behind it. So I’m wondering what that sort of knowing what it looked like, then looking into the details, kind of what that exploration was like?
I’ve got hundreds of these very high-resolution images of feedlots. But there are only a few that really stand for something, that are profound in a sort of way. Aside from the configurations that they all have that are sort of similar, I think the Coronado, with this big, red kind of lagoon and what looks almost like bones coming out of it. You know those two white islands that sit in the middle of it? I remember when I saw that for the first time, I felt like a was looking at a brain scan. It was as though I was peering inside the head of an American. You know what I mean? Like in terms of the structure, in terms of the conformity and the violence, and the sheer industrial mass of it. And obviously every single thing in that image is to do with profit. You know what I mean? All the cows are there, they’re being beefed up, they’re being fed stuff so they can be as fat as possible, so the farmers can get as much money as they can from each carcass. And they’re in the mouth of your average American. I wonder whether, in a way, this landscape is the internal landscape of your average American.
In this talk about landscapes, it seems like you’re working on landscape images or I want to say landscape painting—because that’s kind of the historic school of art—you’re talking about internal landscapes, external landscapes, and landscapes of capitalism and then these physical landscapes. So I’m wondering where you locate yourself in within that tradition—that’s such a long tradition in art, maybe one of the longest—of working on landscape images and how both the means of production and the sort of far from bucolic nature that’s dominated landscape works for much of history. I’m wondering where you see yourself and how that progression works in the scope of art history.
I’ve been wondering lately if there’s a connection between the Abstract Expressionist in America and the way in which industry has left its own expressionist marks on the American landscape. The oil field series—I have not really put it out there yet, that will be the next one—but I have images there that look like they are Abstract Expressionist canvases. They look like paintings by Franz Klein, or Jasper Johns, or Barnett Newman, or Jackson Pollack.
As a photographer, the problem always with landscape is this constant allusion to painting. If there’s one thing I can’t stand its photographers talking about how their landscapes look like, you know, Romanticist paintings. You know what I mean? They’re sort of beautiful, sublime images. What’s interesting here, is there’s a connection to be made between Abstract Expressionist works and industry, and the ways in which industry has almost painted its own landscape on the canvas of America, if you like—don’t use that, that’s a terrible line. But you know what I mean? The way in which industry has almost painted itself onto the landscape.
It’s definitely the case that you can’t consider an American landscape—or a landscape in any country—without considering industry now. And I think that’s especially relevant in relation to agriculture, since that small American farm or small British farm that we mythologize, that’s not where things are coming from. So you can’t do that. So I think there’s some truth to what you’re saying.
Just to give you an example, my daughter is one and a half years old, so I’ve been singing Old McDonald’s Farm to her for the last year and half. She’s got toys that are about Old McDonald’s farm, or farm animals, you name it. And you look at the depictions of farms in those children’s toys and books, and then you look at the reality and it’s brutal. They’re almost like death camps. The reality is absolutely brutal—and on an industrial scale that’s a million miles away for Old McDonald’s farm.
And I guess the physical sense of removal that the images have from being shot from however many hundred feet up speaks to that as well.
I think that its quite possible that this is the only way you can accurately represent these things now. If I was on the ground, could I realistically convey the scale of a feedlot? Could I convey the scale of its pollution and residue and impact on the overall landscape?
I’ve seen places like that on the ground, and you can tell that it’s large, but there’s definitely something unique about seeing them from the aerial perspective in the images you make. And I’ve seen somewhere else that you stitch them together and do a bit of work on the color. Could you speak a bit about how you engage with them as the artist?
Well, satellite imagery is quite dull for the most part. Generally because the image isn’t post-processed. Almost all of the photography that you’re used to seeing is post-processed in some way. Now we have apps that do it automatically for us.
Satellite imagery just isn’t popular enough a medium to have that kind of approach given to it. Raw imagery is pretty, yes, I’d say it’s pretty dull. So what I do is I increase contrast, I’ll alter the color balance to make it more natural, because the color balance is even off. In the lagoons, for example, the reds and greens, they’re there. Obviously I’m bringing them out, because as they are rather dull. But when you see them in large scale—I’m looking at two of them right now in my studio—they’re much more impressive then when they’re on screen. And they’re not as vibrant as when they’re on screen. In a way they look more natural in print form than on screen.
Are you familiar at all with the debate over what they call ag-gag laws in the United States? It’s definitely been a big subject of debate amongst people who are concerned with these issues: This idea that there’s the potential of it being varying degrees of illegal to see and document them if something bad is going on.
The way I present my images is relatively ambiguously. I don’t include along with it an artist statement that talks about how terrible these things are. I want viewers to be as shocked and drawn into these images as I was initially. And they can do the thinking for themselves about what this might mean.
It’s been interesting how various lobbies for sustainable farming and so on have kind of attached themselves to these images and promoted them as reflecting how terrible things are. And that’s fine. But I take a more allegorical stance on it. Like I mentioned to you about: Is this a view inside your average American? I don’t think it’s just about farming; I think it’s also about culture and an idea about how to live.