Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing in Peoria, Illinois

As previously announced, on Thursday 16 April 2009, I gave a brief presentation at a symposium organized by the Inland Visual Studies Center at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Because my presentation was very brief (allotted 10 minutes of speaking time, I spoke for 10 minutes, during which I managed to read aloud pages 335-337 of American Colossus, which concern the "sublimity" of colossal objects), and because I did not have the opportunity to answer a single question at the end of the 90-minute-long panel, I will keep my commentary here brief as well.

1. I saw a great many grain elevators during the five-hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Peoria, and this was quite a treat, even though I saw them from a car traveling 65 miles an hour and I never exited the highway, not to mention got out of the car to take a closer (and better) look. Most of these elevators were small "country" elevators that stored their grain in a few very large cylindrical steel tanks, many of them either brand-new, recently painted or coated with a substance that preserves or protects their "original" shine. The elevating legs at these structures (also made of steel) were "naked," that is, not enclosed in buildings of their own, but exposed to sight and the elements just as they are. It was only when we approached and then crossed into Illinois from Indiana that the grain elevators were larger and employed grain bins (and workhouses) made out of reinforced concrete.

2. On the way into downtown Peoria - indeed, standing right behind the Prairie Arts Center, which was where the reception and inaugural lecture for the Inland Visual Studies Center's symposium were held - I "delighted" in the sight of a large grain elevator located on the banks of the Illinois River, built out of reinforced concrete and currently operated by Archer-Daniels Midland. "Delighted" has to be in quotes, because it was clear from the machine/buildings that had been added to the original structure, which was evidently a lake-to-rail/rail-to-lake transshipping elevator built sometime around 1930, that the complex was now an ethanol plant. As I mention on page 30 of American Colossus, ethanol is a perfect example of the illogical "rationality" of the profit-driven market: it is "surplus grain" (corn, in fact) that is plentiful for some -- but not for all -- precisely because petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides were used to grow it, and that gets processed into "food for cars" because petrochemical fuel is reputedly too expensive.

3. Not surprisingly, several of the farmlands along the route from Cincinnati to Peoria bore signs that proclaimed that these farmlands or, more precisely, the corn and soybeans grown on them, were to America what oil fields are to Saudi Arabia: sources of pride, profit and power. But there is another illogical "rationality" at the basis of such boosterism: it aims to reduce America's dependence on petrochemical fuels that come from foreign countries, but ignores or rather reinforces America's dependence on petrochemical fuels as such. (Note: gas stations in the Indiana/Illinois area inform their patrons that up to 10% of the "gasoline" available at their pumps is ethanol, but this doesn't mean that the "gasoline" for sale is 10% cheaper, or a source of 10% less air pollution.)

4. It was certainly gratifying that two participants in the symposium -- Bruce Lindsey, an architect/professor at Washington University in St. Louis who gave the inaugural lecture mentioned above, and Bennet Johnson, a professional architect from Chicago who participated in one of the two panels that preceded the one I attended -- gave PowerPoint presentations that included pictures of grain elevators, one of which (the Sante Fe Elevator in Chicago) I recognized right away. But it was regrettable that neither gentleman was free to attend the other panels at the symposium, or at the very least "my" panel, which began just minutes after the conclusion of the box-lunch meal at which we were introduced to each other. Also regrettable was the subsequent absence of two other people who either said intelligent things during their respective presentations and/or lunch: Michael Mercil (Ohio State University) and Greg Samata (a computer programmer/video artist from Dundee, Illinois). Their presence was sorely missed during "my" panel, at which one heard that wheat was growing and waving in the wind when the frontiersmen and "settlers" of the 19th century arrived in the Midwest (Bill Conger, a curator/professor at Illinois State University); that "people" in New York City -- which was consistently denounced during the two morning panels -- are alienated or separated from nature, while people in the Midwest -- which was consistently praised for its difference from the "coastal" regions of the country -- are closer to or "in touch" with nature (Paul Krainak, Bradley University); and that the Midwest -- far from being connected to both the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard through a vast system of rivers and canals -- is actually "landlocked" (Bob Esmer, a sculptor from Chicago).

5. To the aforementioned gentlemen: the Midwest (aka "the Prairies") is not a natural environment, far from it; its entire indigenous ecosystem -- which included Native American peoples, prairie grasses and herds of buffalo -- was in fact destroyed and then replaced with a new one, which was half-imported from the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries and half-created by the dictates of the global market of the 19th and 20th centuries. In a word, it is as "natural" as New York City's Central Park.

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