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Issue 228

Danielle Dean’s Parallel Amazons

At Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, the artist looks at the history of the Fordlândia colony in the Amazonian rainforest in relation to Bezos's megacorporation

BY Margarita Lila Rosa in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 29 APR 22

Not too long ago, when someone said the word ‘Amazon’, you might conjure up the Amazon rainforest, imagining layers of flora forming lush canopies over the forest floor. But today, of course, when someone says ‘Amazon’, they are likely referring to Amazon.com, Inc. In what constitutes a major shift in the history of humanity, a company named after a dying rainforest has taken over our ecosystem, both literally and figuratively. What seem like developments out of the pages of Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower (1993) are highly visible and occurring in real time. In her exhibition ‘HIT (Human Intelligence Task)’ at Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles, artist Danielle Dean highlights both the present moment and an iteration from the recent past of the power relationships that are helping to define it. Exploring the history of Fordlândia colony, a prefabricated industrial colony in the Brazilian Amazon founded by Henry Ford in 1928, which closed six years later, Dean illustrates how, both then and now, deforestation and technological development impacts indigenous populations and other communities local to the rainforest. 

Danielle Dean, Elizabeth, 2022
Danielle Dean, Elizabeth, 2022, watercolour on paper, walnut frame and watercolour on artificial leaves, 1.2 × 1.2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Four of the pieces in the installation, Amy, Elizabeth, Greg and Hunter (all works 2022) are watercolours on paper, arranged to resemble collages. Each pictures a collection of landscapes and individuals from environments defined by colonialism, either as workers or tourists. In Elizabeth, a greyscale drawing of bark tapping is shown alongside portraits of an industrial worker from the Fordlândia colony, cardboard boxes of canned oranges, an Amazon worker sitting at home with a laptop and, in the bottom left corner, an idyllic landscape of the Amazon rainforest. Together these images are used to represent the dystopia of today’s international gig economies, which rest on colonial practices. 

Danielle Dean, Bugs, 2022
Danielle Dean, Bugs, 2022, Dell Latitude laptop, LED light, Amazon Basics laptop stand, digital animation, Amazon Mechanical Turk website, archival prints on Dibond, four parts: aloe with pink flower, 66 × 40 × 8 cm; cactus, 91 × 33 × 8 cm; palm, 153 × 107 × 8 cm and laptop with stand and light, 85 × 123 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

In a series of watercolours combined with digital prints on Plexiglass, Dean superimposes the red camera ‘focus squares’ of a digital camera to highlight foliaged elements from a Ford advert, such as a bush or tree. Dean then creates a replica image of this single element of flora and places it alongside the original drawing of the advert. The extraction of the tree from the landscape mimics the process of extraction that Dean conveys in her representations of early-20th century ecological destruction. At the bottom of such images, Dean places a button or a question, in a form similar to how they might exist on an Amazon online questionnaire. Offering the viewer a choice, Dean’s button might say ‘Submit’, or there might be two options: ‘Contains people’ and ‘Does not contain people’. In essence, by participating in the installation, we are asked to verify our own humanity – our ability to decipher between the artificial and the real. The centrepiece of the show, Bugs, is a laptop installation of an Amazon login page, which features crawling tarantulas and insects, bringing to life the use of the word ‘bug’ to describe a software malfunction. In the case of Dean’s composite image of industrial colonialism, the bug might be inherent to the whole enterprise of the gig economy.

Danielle Dean, 6.46 am, 2021
Danielle Dean, 6:46 a.m., 2021, watercolour on paper and walnut frame, 1.3 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

In an installation of 23 works, Dean conveys the mechanization of indigenous lands for industrial purposes, propping up prints on Dibond, and displaying typewritten letters, bulletin boards and collages to cast visitors as documentarians. This installation focuses on the worker, the historical and contemporary figure whose labour the colony (and the company) depends on. It suggests that Amazon’s sourcing of workers to perform remote, sedentary desk work might be just a current manifestation of atomized jobs, an expression of the same extractive pattern that underpinned Fordlândia – and one that may soon prove similarly emphemeral. 

Danielle Dean’s ‘HIT (Human Intelligence Task)’ is on view at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, until 14 May.

Main image: Danielle Dean, "A very poor burn due to heavy rain", 5.25 am, 2022, watercolour on paper, 2.3 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Margarita Lila Rosa is a lecturer and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University.