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The Heartland Laid Bare

Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross at College of the Redwoods Art Gallery



We cut from mariachi dancers to the softball diamond. Flat limitless fields, nondescript buildings, canals and barges flicker past. A hopper belches out a river of golden corn. High above the threshing blades, sealed inside an air-conditioned cab, a farmer pilots a mammoth harvesting machine across fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. These are scenes from documentary videos made by Chicago-based artists Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross that are currently on view at College of the Redwoods Art Gallery.

The exhibition, titled "Between the Bottomlands and the World," consists of three videos made for the nonprofit Regional Relationships, wall-mounted text and documentary photographs. The videos alternate personal reportage with reenacted conversations based on material from interviews conducted by activist and urban planner Faranak Miraftab. These artworks depict facets of a place most Americans have never heard of: Beardstown, an Illinois River hamlet with a population of 6,000 that, the filmmakers make clear, is also "a place of global exchange and international mobility."

The first video "Submerging Land" focuses on the massive infrastructure projects that transformed the swampy landscape of central Illinois in the early 20th century, changing what had been wetlands into a flat, well-drained place that would later be optimized for the bulk production of soy and corn. The second, "Granular Space," focuses on the millions of bushels of corn Beardstown produces annually, following kernels as they move from field to elevator, to barge and to oceangoing vessel. The third and longest video "Moving Flesh" considers how Beardstown's demographics and culture have been transformed in the post-NAFTA era by the arrival of thousands of documented and undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

"Why? What pulls these people here?" one mystified longtime resident asks. Turns out the answer is straightforward: work. Immigrants tell of being hired from their native countries by outsourced recruiters working for Cargill, which owns the hog slaughterhouse located in Beardstown. The slaughterhouse, the largest of its kind in the country, processes up to 21,000 hogs a day to provide global markets with "meat solutions." The largest privately held corporation in North America, Cargill is Beardstown's only major employer other than Wal-Mart. The thousands of mostly dark-skinned workers Cargill has recruited from abroad have transformed Beardstown's historically segregated population. Now, we learn, the local library staff is trilingual ("We have to be!"); the majority of attendants at daily mass at the town's Catholic church are immigrants from Africa.

Griffis and Ross interview recent immigrants, longtime residents, community organizers, corporate representatives and local journalists in search of answers to the question that motivates their research: "how and why so many people from around the world have come to Beardstown, a formerly all-white, sundown town of 6,000 people." In doing so they explore the community's long history of segregation, as well as the racial tensions that have taken hold more recently.

Beardstown was a "sundown" town for much of its history — an all-white place that practiced segregation, excluding non-whites via discriminatory local laws, intimidation and violence. (There were 502 such towns, we learn, in Illinois alone.) The older white Beardstown residents we hear from struggle to cope with sweeping demographic and cultural shifts that have reordered the world they once knew, even as they seek to disassociate their viewpoints from the town's racist past. Several speakers allude to a central paradox: The homogenous, secure small-town existence many elderly people now remember with regret was underwritten with the threat of violence and could only ever have been construed as idyllic for whites. One middle-aged man remembers the Beardstown of his childhood fondly — yet also as a place where black travelers had good reason to fear if they found themselves inside city limits when the sun was going down. He says his hometown was "a good ol' white American community — all of our childhood and all of the time we were growing up, there were no blacks in Beardstown." An elderly woman says simply: "We knew if blacks came to Beardstown they would disappear."

Just as well that the project's illustrated glossary features a kind of comic subplot in which the artists document some of their largely fruitless efforts to engage directly with major agribusiness concerns. These corporations do not come across as particularly interested in transparency. Several initially grant access to refineries or factories, only to subsequently take it back. At one point a suspicious corporate rep demands, hilariously, "What does this have to do with art?"

It's true. If you were under the impression that art must be the pursuit of the beautiful, the images Griffis and Ross stitch together here leave much to be desired. And yet, how could it be otherwise? The film's functionalist look crosscuts competently filmed interview footage with sustained frontal shots of flat, monotonous views, featuring a lot of profoundly nondescript landscape from which all traces of biodiversity have been scoured. Only ugly, monotonous images can faithfully depict a place that is this ugly and monotonous by design.

One of the points this valuable documentary makes clear is that aesthetics, like the well-being of area residents, played little to no role in the latter-day planning of this modern-day company town. Griffis and Ross show convincingly that that this sparsely populated, immigration-dependent, intensively managed artificial landscape in America's "heartland" exists and looks the way it does solely to maximize corporate shareholders' return on investment. That poverty of inspiration shows in every line of the relentlessly functionalist environment and every one of the enormous commodity-producing squares of the grid into which the supine land is carved.

The videos by Griffis and Ross in this show can also be viewed at

Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata. 

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