- Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance by Curtis Marez
Agribusiness, California, Cesar Chavez, Collaborative Media, Documentary, Farm Workers, Futurism, Gaze, Gender, Labor Struggle, Performance, Race, Unions, Visual Field, Freya Schiwy, Curtis Marez
Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance compellingly brings into view a plethora of visual and audiovisual interventions in a contested mediascape. Curtis Marez's superb critique traces the history of agribusiness's speculative imaginary and farm workers' appropriation of visual technologies from the 1940s to the present. Bracketed by a substantial introduction and an extensive afterword, Farm Worker Futurism's three detailed chapters offer nuanced readings of the narrative, visual, and audiovisual creations, performances, popular culture, and advertisements that have been a part of the labor struggle in California. Marez clearly articulates complex intersections between capital, patriarchy, and white supremacy as he reads against the grain of the polished imaginary created by agribusiness capitalism, but also exposes the at times contradictory effects of farm worker struggles on the visual field. This analysis is anchored by two key concepts: the visual field and futurism/futurity. Reading agribusiness as well as farm worker projections in the visual field illuminates mediations and struggles over power that occur at the level of what is apparent and what is inferred. When Marez opts to speak of futurism, rather than futurity, he draws attention to the dominant physical and symbolic practices of white patriarchal agribusiness that have projected a high-tech fantasy, cleansed of workers of color and their antiracist labor struggles, but also to the limitations and contradictions of union interventions in the visual field.
Marez begins with an analysis of the dominant futurist imaginary of agribusiness advertisements, exemplified by the International Harvester Company and the TV documentary The Big Land (1967). Projecting pastoral family farms into a future evolving before the audience's eyes, images of streamlined machines and buildings visually evacuate material labor conditions and contemporary labor conflicts. Technology did not, however, actually replace working bodies. Rather, as Marez argues, it enabled the concentration of agricultural corporations, the disciplining of the workforce, and the deskilling of labor. As labor was subordinated to the technical proficiency of the machine, capital externalized its risks. Increased profits came at the expense of lost limbs and other severe worker injuries. Marez notes that the struggle in the visual field included, as well, agribusiness's physical alterations in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys through irrigation channels, industrial wells, and the presence of new agricultural machines. Images of the changed environment were again projected in film and on television. State university researchers, in turn, colluded in the idolization of machines and chemical farming as they expanded from wartime pesticide research to applications in [End Page 258] defoliants and agricultural pesticides and the reengineering of fruits and vegetables adapted to handling in bins.
Farm workers and those sympathetic to labor struggles contested this visual field with a range of counterimages, including documentaries like Poverty in the Valley of Plenty (1947), Fighting for Our Lives (1974), and Wrath of Grapes (1986). The latter highlighted crop-dusting helicopters that contemporary viewers readily associated with the Vietnam War and the US military presence in Central America. Marez argues that the film successfully opened the horizon from the visually depopulated agricultural fields of central California to the global, neoimperial context of capitalist warfare on brown bodies. El Teatro Campesino's performances and the art and graphics of the artist collective Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) further strengthened this counternarrative. RCAF's work, in particular, builds on the visually impacting spectacle of mass marches led by the United Farm Workers (UFW) that made the labor struggle visible by counting on news coverage's aerial shots. RCAF also created futuristic images of Chicano technologies in flight and on the ground, thus allowing for farm worker futurist alternatives to agribusiness idealization of technology in the service of labor exploitation. With his focus on futurism, Marez's sophisticated reading avoids easy binaries. He emphasizes the ethnic and gender diversity of farmworkers that complicates the reduction of labor struggles to a single ethnic...