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Streamlined: Belterra, Amazônia / Alberta, Michigan

Clarissa Tossin


The Image Centre, Toronto
May 15 – August 3, 2024

Streamlined: Belterra, Amazônia / Alberta, Michigan positions moving images of nearly identical Ford Motor Company towns in dialogue with one another. The left side of the video moves across Belterra, a rubber plantation village in the Amazon forest, while the right shows Alberta, a sawmill town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Both were built at the same time in 1935 for the purposes of producing rubber and wood for the manufacturing of the Model T in the United States. Depicting the two towns in parallel, the work focuses in and out of residential buildings, tree harvests, moments of daily life and natural landscapes. Articulating the tensions between simulacrum and authenticity that inform these pre-planned communities, Tossin’s use of mirroring across disparate but deeply linked geographies both establishes and unsettles a sense of space and place. Ultimately, Streamlined offers a subtle inquiry into the histories of globalized production and their material and social residues.


References to extractive tendencies towards place, land, and settlement are seemingly limitless—including in the form of the ubiquitous company town. Deeply associated with the proliferation of industrial capitalism and serving as potent symbols of modernity, resource-based settlements brought land, labour, and raw materials together under the regulatory control of corporate interests. Recognizable examples from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Fordlandia, Brazil, map the company town onto the history of extractive or military industries. Commonly founded and operated by a single business and replete with main streets, housing, schools, and grocery stores, these communities transformed ecology into property. Currently, company towns remain largely decommissioned or redeveloped as public entities. Their legacy persists, however, in the form of corporate campuses, signalling the enduring social and economic influence of these distinct spatial typologies. 

Tossin’s Streamlined offers a suggestive inquiry into the histories of pre-planned communities by aligning moving images of two almost indistinguishable Ford Motor Company towns. The left side of the video moves across Belterra, a rubber plantation village in the Amazon forest, while the right shows Alberta, a sawmill town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The video opens by panning unhurriedly and deliberately across the façades of mirrored structures and from there unfolds through streetscapes, residential neighbourhoods, tree harvests, children playing, and further glimpses into the quotidian. A soundscape of saws, cars, birds, thunder, and trees rustling sonically connects the images and establishes a sense of quiet intimacy. The slow pace of the moving images lingers on the rhythms of daily life, giving space to the pulse of a place. Further, Tossin’s contrasting—yet almost mirrored—framings point to the tensions between simulacrum and authenticity, the ersatz and the existent, and the artificial and the genuine that simultaneously inform company towns, while pointing to the ways globalized economies and the financial systems through which they are built are similarly informed by knotty polarities. At once opaque and material, speculative and tangible, structures of capitalist accumulation are conveyed through diverging and sometimes conflicting conceptualizations.  

Simmering beneath Tossin’s images is the company town as an acute locator of capital formation, industrialization, labour relations, and power. Canadian company or resource towns emerged in the colonial era to conserve work forces for family-owned businesses and peaked through the mining industry of the1890s. In the United States, multinational corporations established company towns locally and internationally to both expand economic reach and export ideologies related to work, discipline, race, and gender. Self-ascribed as favouring community building and social engineering, such towns were more routinely defined by authoritarianism and exploitation. Corporate paternalism frequently translated to persistent surveillance, poor living conditions, and racial segregation. Through the guise of the model village, basic and social, religious, and educational amenities were offered but at the expense of the labour force, who paid their employers inflated rates for food, shelter, and other needs, often by way of debilitating debt obligations. Whereas company towns were distinguishable from one another in particular details—some were more munificent than others—a pervasive commonality was their forceful suppression of unionizing, which recurrently erupted in violent clashes between organizers and owners. Yet, even as these districts were designed to keep labour in close proximity to sites of production and to increase cost-effectiveness through strict mechanisms of socio-spatial control, workforces adapted, contested, and negotiated their relationships to their surroundings.

Tossin’s embedded watchfulness does not outwardly chart these histories. Rather, her perceptive renderings suggest that these enclaves are contested sites through which community is built, lives are lived, and labour negotiated. In the subtle and restrained images of place made visible by Streamlined: Belterra, Amazônia / Alberta, Michigan, the company town reveals itself as a complex spatial referent. Through this lens, “spaces of external control [translate] into places of internal meaning.”1​

[1] Christopher W. Post, “The Making of a Federal Company Town,” in Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power and Working-Class Communities, ed. Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara (London: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 112. 

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