Over the past month or so, I’ve been working on a side project that has slowly taken on a life of its own — as most side projects do. The project is titled Work Force Housing: Man Camp 11, and it’s the product of almost 5 years of documenting one particular workforce housing site. The vast majority of the book consists of images, but I also included a few interviews with residents and management conducted over the years.
Yesterday morning, I took the manuscript and sent it along to an open access press that I very much respect. It was done in a pretty spontaneous way, and while I’m not disappointed that I submitted the manuscript to this press, I wonder whether my proposal contextualizing the work was not entirely what it could have been.
The project was designed along three axes.
First, I’ve had a long standing interest in the Bakken oil patch which has resulted in a number of publications which range from formal articles in journals and books to more experimental efforts to explore the landscape in critical and reflexive ways. At the same time, I felt like we had only scratched the surface of the data that we collected from the field. The most haunting dataset that we had was the collection of almost 10,000 images taken from various workforce housing sites across the region.
These images differed from the extraordinary photographs taken by professional photographers and artists that have been the subject of any number of exhibitions and publications. I’m neither a professional photographer, nor a particularly skilled one. The goal of our photography (and video), however, was to document workforce housing in a way that might be useful for the arguments that we sought to construct as archaeologists and historians. As a result, my photographs often focused on the reuse of objects, like pallets, on expressions of individual identity through ad hoc architecture, on the evidence for everyday life, and on the relationship between units. The photos also tended to follow my movements through the space of Man Camp 11 often circling a unit to photograph it systematically or, as in the case of the video stills, moving slowly up and down the rows of units.
To my mind, the combination of photographs as documentation of the objects of study and as documentation of our method, movement, and time created a distinctive, if not unique, encounter with the space. Unlike many of the more formal photographs of workers, the Bakken, and workforce housing our photographs and stills are less frozen moments in time and capture the fuzzy moments of encountering the space of the camp. This distinguishes our work, then, from the efforts of more accomplished photographers to document life in the region as we present most of our archive which, in turn, reveals our methods and work.
Second, I’ve become increasingly interested in scholarship that is not the typical academic argument. For example, Bret Weber and I have recently produced a little article titled the Bakken Hundreds, which experiments with the very short, paratactic arrangement of sources. Some of my interest in these forms of writing has developed from growing fascination with jazz music. I’m not proposing that my work can achieve the level of sophistication and artistry of jazz, but I’m fascinated by the way in which musicians arrange concepts, solos, snippets of melody, and rhythm to offer an argument or interpretation. For some musicians this involves stripping a well-known song down to its barest melodic or rhythmic elements. For others, this involves expanding the potential of a melody into new directions and exploring new possibilities. Tone, tempo, timing, and the interplay between the musicians themselves allow them to continuously reinterpret a piece of music evidence.
The arrangement of photographs, interviews, and video stills is my first public (well, if it’s published) efforts to take a standard form of archaeological evidence – the photograph – and experiment with it not through visual manipulation, but through juxtaposition with other photographs and texts. To be clear, this isn’t some innovation on my part. I’m following the lead of other archaeologists and scholars interested in archaeology of the contemporary world. At the same time, I feel like this work is unique in that it exposes so much of the archive and captures the spontaneity at the moment of argument building in the field. To return to jazz, some of what I’m trying to capture is the kind of blowing sessions that happen when musicians explore concepts and produce interpretations together live.
Third, I hope this work fits into the growing scholarly interest in affect. Our “Bakken Hundreds” project sought to identify passages in our notes, interviews, and images that evoke emotion and capture in their brevity and arrangement something of the experiences of the Bakken. Whether our goal is to recreate our encounters or simulate our memories of these encounters through texts is difficult to know entirely.
All the same, the use of images to engage the emotional registers of life in the Bakken follows a larger trend of seeking to find new ways to engage the anthropocene, capitalism, and a world where global encounters threaten to reduce our spaces of interaction into a series of homogenized non-places.
While obviously this proposal is more personal and conversational than a formal proposal would have been, it iincludes things that I’d like to have said when writing about our manuscript.
Not much I can do about it. Alea iacta est.