The use of landscape art as icons of national identity is well precedented. Classical depictions of Canadian wilderness have historically primed viewers for resource extraction and settlement by depicting areas that were non-threatening, infinite in resources, and above all “uninhabited”. Among other vessels, landscape art in Canada has become a multi-generational trojan horse in which these colonial ideas are ferried into popular culture. These “wilder-centric” depictions are at odds with the fact that more than 81% of Canada’s population lives in urban areas. How does the present-day urban cultural landscape reconcile with a wildercentric collective identity?
The Rouge river valley, approximately 30 km east of Toronto’s downtown core, manifests as a microcosm of the broader syncretic relationship between urbanism and natural phenomena. The Rouge is an early indicator of the potential reinvention of how urban culture can integrate with ecology due to its unique status as North America’s largest swath of urban wilderness. Through the dissemination of picturesque images featuring beach sunsets, family farms, and a diverse array of visitors, Parks Canada’s mandate for the valley is essentially to deliver the iconography and experience of Canada’s national parks to the doorstep of the nation’s largest urban centre. The parks 24 golf courses, 6 abandoned landfills, and 3 major highways are notably absent from visual or written representation.
Prevalent throughout all documentation and literature pertaining to the Rouge is the use of maps and visual guides. While at first glance these aerial-perspective representations are politically benign, it must be pointed out that the practices of surveying, categorizing, and bordermaking are inherently colonial, especially when exercised by a state agency. Both critical and contradictory to this colonial view is the notion of “ground truth”. Ground Truth is a colloquial term used in geography, archaeology, and other fields that refers to information obtained or confirmed by direct observation (eyewitness, direct engagement, etc.) as opposed to information provided by inference (data projection, remote observation, etc). Even after a landscape has been measured, quantified, and described via every available technology, the area must be “ground truthed” to ensure accuracy.
By superimposing images onto measured landscapes they function as photographic equivalents to ground truth. In this context, the indexicality inherent to photography is complicated by its opposition to the elevated viewpoint of map-making and border drawing. If an all-seeing government perspective measures landscape in terms of acres, stakeholders, and dollars, photography measures relative to a subjective encounter between a body and its surroundings. By depicting scenes that can’t be relegated to natural or anthropological, the images act as artifacts of an emerging genre of landscape that currently lacks its own sets of codes and symbols.