This weekend, I was able to hang out in the Bakken Boom exhibit down at the Plains Museum of Art in Fargo. It took up the top two galleries in the Plains and featured over 20 artists from around the U.S. I was fortunate enough to know a few of the artists whose work was on display making the show a bit more intimate than an ordinary visit to a gallery. In particular, I was excited to see one of Joel Jonientz‘s last works “Chérie, tu vois quelque chose de nouveau ici?” We also had a chance to check out contributions by Kyle Cassidy and John Holmgren who are both collaborators in the North Dakota Man Camp Project. My buddy Ryan Stander, who is now a professor of photography at Minot State, also had some fascinating contributions to the exhibition including a visually arresting print of the fire ball that emanated from the tanker train derailment outside of Casselton, ND.
Rather than review the show, I’d rather just encourage you to go and check it out, and offer a few observations.
1. The Real and Documentary. One of my favorite things about the show is that is messed with our collective view of what was “real” and what was “documentary” in the Bakken. Several documentary photographers were represented including a series of Alec Soth’s photographs made famous by his New York Times Magazine spread in 2013. The juxtaposition of these well-framed photographs with the numerous mixed media pieces in the exhibit made them seem somehow detached, abstract in their own way, and perhaps even a bit inauthentic. While most of approach critically the tradition of literalism and even objectivity that frame the unwavering gaze of the camera, it was still quite shocking to feel so jaundiced and skeptical about the photographic images in he show. I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was the complexity of the mixed media pieces that made them feel more authentic and real, or whether I was lured into overlooking the complexity of the photographs by the stares of the subjects.
2. Anxiety. The anxiety of the exhibit was palpable. I thought the frenetic character of many of the mixed-media pieces created a kind of vibrating filter through which made the Bakken appear constantly shaking, out of focus, and contingent. A video installation from the artist collective “Road to Williston” provides a great example of this feeling some of which comes through just by watching the video at their Vimeo site. Ryan Stander’s massive, fragmented print of the Casselton, ND explosion, titled “Missing Information” likewise provided a feeling of angst as the flames billow skyward over a series of panels leaving the viewer to search for its origins in the obscured tank cars at the lower left. The archaeologically arranged discarded objects in Jess Christy’s “Through the Window” designed to document her life as a single woman, living in Minot on the edge of the patch. Her installation left me feeling particularly anxious as it communicated some of the impact of the oil boom at a personal level.
3. Alternate Perspectives. One thing that was missing from the exhibit were perspectives that considered the possible benefits of the oil boom in the Bakken. The images used frequently seem to overlook (or maybe occlude?) the pre-Boom residents of the Bakken and to locate the Bakken boom against the backdrop of a depersonalized pastoral landscape. (There were two pronounced exceptions to this, Joel Jonientz piece and Sarah Christiansen’s haunting “Skogens’ Bedroom Window, Cartwright, ND, May 2013”). The photographs from Wayne Gunderson’s “Road Conditions: Faces from the Patch” blurs the line between “locals” and “New North Dakotans,” without much explicit social comment. Lucinda Cobley’s “Last Tree” and Molly McLain’s “Gold Boom/Critical Habitat” strike ecological notes, that while obviously relevant, side step the trickier question what and whose environment we should preserve.
I hope this critique doesn’t make me sound like an advocate of big oil or an apologist for the environmental, human, and social cost of extractive industries in the Bakken, but the potential for positive outcomes does exist. The challenge, of course, is that these positive outcomes need to be imagined. The contributors to this show demonstrate that the Bakken Boom has stimulated our collective imagination is dramatic and exciting ways, I only wish that the show had reflected more broadly on the stakeholders, possibilities, and future of the boom.