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Of the land and us: Cartography of oblivion – Claudia Orsetti

The construction sector is one of the largest in the world economy and keeps increasing as housing stock needs to expand in order to accommodate a growing population.

Consequently, the extraction of stone keeps rising at a considerable rate, and so are all those deconstructed territories that we are creating as we dig for material for our own cities.

Many consider quarries to be scars left on the face of the earth – a blasphemous misuse of the land, torn, mined, blasted and brutalised by mechanised monsters.

When we think of landscapes, we generally refer to a scenery of unaltered land, steeped in romanticism as they are suggestive of something pristine, untouched.

Because of the dynamic relationship between humankind and nature, industrial development and urbanisation have affected our idea of landscape.

Altered, man-made, new topographics are void of traditional aspects of canonical beauty, and yet we are attracted to them – we actually find them beautiful.

Those landscapes become much more similar to architecture but in reverse, as a negative space. Quarries seem to be defined by the absence of their blocks, more than by what is there.

Is the landscape becoming an economic product while still seen as an aesthetic object?

The world population today stands at 7.8 billion. At least 1.1 billion do not have access to electricity. The number of mobile devices worldwide in 2020 stood at 14.02 billion.

Copper is necessary for electrical items and electronics, two things the world cannot do without. But do we need that many?

Copper mining has a number of environmental consequences; the mines are usually located in areas scarcely populated, with little rainfall and poor biodiversity. 

Land degradation, increased deforestation, water and air pollution from particles of sulphuric acid – which severely affect those residing near mines – these are a few of the consequences. Not to mention the enormous physical hole left on the territory. 

Like a drug, it’s bad but we are dependent.

Nowadays we are used to eating any kind of fruit or vegetable at any time of the year: seasonality is a concept on the periphery of the current generation, not to mention local products.

Eating an avocado or tomatoes in December in Sweden is against nature’s biological rhythm. Although the possibility of cultivating anything, anywhere, anytime gives access to food to a large part of the population, and it is regarded as human progress, it is currently abused and exploited – especially in first world countries.

The clearing of land for intensive agriculture is one of the causes of increased concentration of greenhouse gases, which are in turn responsible for global warming.

Moreover, the huge physical impact of intensive agriculture to the land is impossible to ignore. Areas like El Ejido, (31.000 hectares of greenhouses in the south of Spain) or Battipaglia (Italy), where these photographs are taken, are almost a no-man’s land – a vast expanse of white plastic, closer to industrial slums than agricultural fields.

Certain gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping, which is a good thing otherwise the planet would freeze. The balance of the concentration of these gases is essential, but burning fossil fuels – which is at the base of industrial human activities (and let’s not forget, electricity) -causes an overload of Carbon Dioxide.

We have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by 47% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which means the planet is getting warmer. The rising of temperatures causes the melting of polar ice caps. Since the Arctic and Antarctic are covered in white snow and ice that reflect heat back into space, they balance out other parts of the world that absorb heat. Less ice means less reflected heat, meaning more intense heat waves worldwide. 

Deposits of soot – unburned carbon particles –stain parts of the Arctic black, changing the ice from a reflector of sunlight to an absorber of heat, accelerating the melting of ice. 

When temperatures rise and ice melts, more water flows to the seas, ocean water warms and expands in volume. This combination of effects has played the major role in a rising average global sea level, which produces a cascade of long-term effects; sinking land, eroding coasts, and temperamental storms. 

CO2 is the largest driver of global warming, and the transportation sector, including ships and planes, generates the largest share of Carbon Dioxide.

Globally, we consume around 350 million tons of meat a year.

The production of meat has more than doubled in the last 30 years and production is expected to keep growing to a projected 460 to 570 million tons by 2050. 570 million tons would mean a consumption of meat twice as high as in 2008.

Meat production puts immense pressure on the earth’s ecosystems. It’s a very “inefficient” food source; it requires more energy, water and land to produce than any other food source. It has a much higher energy footprint than any other food. It takes 75 times more energy to produce meat than corn, and it takes an area of vegetation 7 times the size of the EU to produce food for the cattle and other livestock animals in Europe.

66% of agricultural land is used to grow animal feed. Only 8% of agricultural land goes to food that we directly consume.

30% of ice-free land on earth is used for livestock raised for meat, meaning and a large contribution to global warming.

Meat production is also a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, especially emissions of methane from cattle and manure – a gas with 28 times more global warming potential than CO2 – and so plays a major role in climate change, land degradation and , ultimately, desertification.

The importance of land for the climate and for biodiversity is paramount. A the necessary measure to act against the climate emergency in the next few years will be the reduction of meat consumption.

“There is a difference between land, which is earth, and landscape, which signifies a kind of jurisdiction. It always meant the framing of an image… The word originally came from the Dutch and had to do with making pictures… From the earliest time, it has been loaded with wishful thinking.”

– Simon Schama

We humans have been altering our land since the beginning; in tangible, evident ways – building our cities – and in all sorts of invisible ways, which are directly related to it.

All the marks we produce on the earth, in order to support our lifestyle full of an immense number of goods, are so outside of our daily experience that we have no real understanding of them.

We live in a time where we often talk about climate change, but for the average person most of the time it feels like an abstract concept, something too big and out of our own control. Although there is an increasing consciousness of the problem, there is also an obliviousness.   

The aim of this work was to somehow bridge that gap, to connect our most basic habits and our most used tools to the signs they (we) directly produce on the land; not only as an environmental impact but also as a physical one, which too often gets neglected. The deep, engraved man-made signs we leave on earth are the visible wounds of our activities and lifestyles, and its consequences. 

Combining images of everyday goods and of the land altered by their production or their use, there is a clash between beauty and urgency. Through a soft visual aesthetic, we are urged to reconsider our own habits, our real needs and, in the end, our relationship with the earth.

Photography is not used as a mere witness, but as an artistic tool, playing with the framing of the images and transforming them into abstract, surreal, scale-less visions. The series is a cartography of our own oblivion, a visual map of a number of identifiable and recognisable behaviours associated with their consequences, both physical and large scale environmental.

After all, nature and human are two inseparable realms.

I am an architect and a photographer currently based between Italy and Amsterdam. I am naturally attracted by contradictions and those usually become the centre of my work, which typically gravitates around the concepts of territory, time and memory, moving across landscapes, documentary and reportage photography. / @claudia_orsetti_photography

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