Things and Assemblage: Codex in Retrospect

Because my trip to the UK was cancelled, I’m back to working on my book on archaeology of contemporary American culture. When last I left it, I was wrestling with a chapter on things, agency, and materiality. This chapter, in turn, was part of the first part of the book which sought to unpack and generalize some of the lessons that I learned from the Alamogordo Atari Excavation. This section involved three chapters: (1) garbology, (2) things, materiality, and agency, and (3) media archaeology as archaeology.

Right now, I’m wrapping up chapter two with a section on assemblages and a concluding case study drawn from Micah Bloom’s Codex project (and the resulting book that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published in 2017).

Here’s what I say.

The final part of this chapter will reflect on a recent multimedia project developed by the artist Micah Bloom in Minot, North Dakota. His work, which was not archaeological in a proper sense, documented the aftermath of the Souris River flooding which devastated the small city of Minot in 2011. The floods caused the evacuation of over 4000 homes, the construction of almost 2000 shelters by FEMA, and a final cost of over $1 billon. Bloom’s work captured the tremendous impact of these floods by photographing the books left behind by the receding waters over the course of 2011. He also collected some of the books and created an instalation that traveled to several venues across the U.S. In this exhibit, he arranged some of the waterlogged and disintegrating books on shelves annotated with a series of inventory numbers. He also displayed the Tyvek suits, masks, and plastic gloves and scientific paraphernalia that his team used when collecting and examining the recovered books. Finally, his installation featured a graveyard where Bloom arranged books in neat rows on a carpet of earth awaiting burial. On the walls surrounding this cemetery hang photographs showing the find spots of books with forensic clarity. The published book associated with this project includes essays from a range of scholars who respond to his work. These essays make explicit many of the

Bloom is hardly the only artist approaching books with archaeological sensibilities. In fact, a number of municipal waste disposal centers developed artist residency programs (San Francisco, Philadelphia) as a way to capitalize on the long standing recognition that everyday objects take on new meanings when discarded as waste and repurposed as art. Bloom’s photographs of books abandoned by the retreating Souris River and disintegrating emphasizes the materiality of paper slowly returns to pulp when exposed to water. Their unnatural entanglement with the wooded banks of the river further suggests that the flood reversed the process of book manufacturing by returning the books to pulp and then to vegetation. The status of books as treasured objects (Prugh 2017; Sorensen 2017), carefully curated in libraries, in homes, and in institutions, made these images of regression even more haunting. By playing on books as personal things, always in the process of construction and decomposition (Liming 2017; Haeselin 2017; Kibler 2017), the disembodied state of the decaying books makes the absence of humans all the more visible. The absence of clear human intervention in the fate of these books offers a salient reminder that agency is not limited to individuals. The interplay between the books, the flood, and their post-deluge deposition reveal evidence for the work of insect, animals, microbes and the inherent fragility of any single material state.

Finally, Thora Brylowe’s contribution to the book dedicated to the Codex project recognized in this assemblage of books the interplay of forces on the global scale. The weather patterns, for example, that produce the 2011 Souris flood occurred as part of the larger El Niño-Southern Oscillation when the cooling waters of the equatorial Pacific produced a La Niña weather pattern which caused wetter than normal winter and spring in the Northern Plains as well as the East Asian drought. Climate change will likely make El Niño and La Niña events more intense, and the 2011 La Niña was the warmest on record. Brylowe notes that industrial practices, including paper production which both removed old growth trees from the landscape at a massive scale and relied upon fossil fuels not only allowed for the emergence of books as an affordable, personal commodity, but also spurred global climate change. The entanglement of books, climate, humans, microbes, weather, and history demonstrate the dispersed character of agency across assemblages. These assemblage not only spanned continents, but also centuries emphasizing the immediacy of Bloom’s photographs and installation as interventions which, like archaeology, seeks to provide some limits on how we see the interplay between objects.

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