Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.    

Montgomery Hall

This morning, I’m going on a little tour of Montgomery Hall with both thee Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and representatives of University of North Dakota’s facilities department. The plan is to run another one-credit course on the history of this building, its place on our campus, and most interestingly for me, how the physical fabric preserves signs of adaptation and reuse.

Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is an example of the Tudor Revival architectural style The hall was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1911 to be the dining hall for students

The original building dates to 1911, and unlike most of the campus from the 1920s on, this building is in the Tudor Revival style. It stands set back from University avenue and represented a nice example of the first major wave of campus expansion under President Frank McVey. Originally, it served as the Commons for the university, but in 1929, it was adapted for use as the university library which had outgrown the contemporary Carnegie Library. It served as the library until the opening of the Chester Frtiz Library in the late 1950s. After that time, the building, presumably rechristened Montgomery Hall, served as faculty offices, classrooms, and in the 21st century, as the deanery first for the College of Arts and Sciences and then for the Graduate School.

Today, the building is mostly empty and ready for its ascent to the great campus plan in the sky. The University is planning to build the new business school on the lot to take advantage of the frontage onto University Avenue and the proximity to Gamble Hall which currently houses the College of Business and Public Affairs. As part of the mitigation efforts, the University is doing the equivalent of a HABS level-2 documentation on the building before it demolition (and I can’t say enough about the current administration’s willingness to take historical documentation seriously). I plan to work with a group of students to understand the traces of history left on the building’s fabric over time following a model that we developed with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

The challenge for me, though, is to also think about how to make this project different from what we did with Wesley College. Recent work in the archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped my recent ways of thinking about how we document and understand campus buildings. The kind of archaeological documentation that I prefer (because I luv data) can subordinate our understanding of these buildings to the routine of our method and rob the experience of being in the spaces of vitality, foreclose a certain amount of creativity, and narrow our view of how buildings make meaning. 

Because these buildings are slated for destruction and no longer “living buildings” on campus, it seems like we have opportunities to do things that celebrate the liminal state of these structures: no long in use, but not yet destroyed. Rather than looking at all aspects of what is inside these buildings as evidence for the past, we can try to find ways of understanding these buildings as they exist in the contemporary. How are they changing? How are they producing meaning? Literally, what are these buildings doing

I know this sounds a bit slippery and elusive, but I hope that by asking these kinds of tricky questions and maybe even thinking about these buildings in different way and with different notions of time will open some productive possibilities. 

A Draft of a Response to Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory”

This past week, I offered to write a response to a piece by Andrew Reinhard over at the journal Epoiesen. Having the opportunity to write a response there had been a recent bucket list thing for me since I started to work with the journal’s editor Shawn Graham to publish the paper and paginated version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Reinhard’s piece is titled “Assemblage Theory” and it consists of a short essay and an album of music based loosely on an assemblage of found sounds. In my response, I want to probe the rest of the assemblage as a way to think about the way in which archaeology works to produce knowledge. Nothing I’m going to say is new on profound, but I hope it at least works alongside Andrew’s ideas and takes on some of what the first response to this piece (Jolene Smith, which you can read here) and Neville Morley’s noted on his blog here.

As a final note, this is just a draft. My original idea was to produce a series of statements on the piece that form an assemblage both on their own and in relation to the piece itself. As with most of my clever ideas, that one gave way to the limits of my creativity and energy, but hopefully, some parts of it persist in this roughest of rough drafts of a response.

~

Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album – and the work that preceded its release (and indeed, the article that introduced it on Epoiesen) – makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, or individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacaphonic character of the original group of samples, but to project a kind of order on this chaos.

The smoothness of Reinhard’s final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character to the samples as it does to bring them into meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). When I read this work, albeit in another context, I mused that archaeologists continue to work in Victor Frankenstein’s tradition of practice: to creates a smooth digital reality that is both indistinguishable from our experience of time and inauthentic as a way of recording, understanding, and ultimately re-experiencing the past. In fact, we can argue, following Freeman, that modernity sought to create a past that eliminated the abrupt and affective character of its pastness created through awkward and profoundly human assemblages and replace it with a smooth and seamlessness experience that largely looked to the present as a point of reference, or, at very least, suggested a kind of familiar, future utopian reality (a Foucauldian heterotopia). Reinhard’s selective remixing of these samples offered an approach to smoothing our disjointed encounter with the past. In fact, out ability to recognize constituent parts of these songs is lost entirely as Smith has already noted in her response. This, however, is a common feature of our  diverse, digital, post-industrial and post modern world which so often seeks to eliminate the jarring disjunctions that the seams between parts of the assemblage become all the more intense and, as the tragic humanity of Frankenstein’s monster demonstrates, real.

Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he shaped and presented his assemblage; he drew on traditional pop song structure and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard to anticipate his music while identifying sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage.  

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. As Neville Morley has show, different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements. This reading of Reinhard’s project accepts the ontological integrity of the samples that Reinhard used in his songs. We can all agree that they exist and that they are things and as such they can be combined with other things which range from narratives, song structures, technology, and experiences.

By making the samples of one song available, Reinhard allowed us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. Among archaeologists, however, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare; the fact that Reinhard only released the artifacts from ONE song parallels neatly the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release their notebooks which were often the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships.     

Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” also invites us to think about the elements in the assemblage that served to mediate our encounter with it. In fact, the emerging field of media archaeology considers the way in which both the physical and conceptual structures of media impact our engagement with our environment, the past, and the present.  

When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through by much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the entire album just felt too damn loud. To be clear, I was listening to the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs, which are paper-cone, full range driver speakers flanked by a pair of super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. In fact, sometimes when I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass get a bit sloppy for some reason. To try to listen to the music more carefully, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but perhaps not as big. When I played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES). It cleared up most of the boomy-ness for whatever reason.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. We can probably assume that the sound that we hear is similar enough to what Reinhard created to form the basis for a meaningful conversation, but even across my various listening environments there is plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works. At the same time, we can recognize in the LOUDNESS of the tracks (their compressed dynamic range) a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was around 8 db, but could be as high as 13 on vinyl. The most flagrantly loud album in my playlist is Oasis’s 1995 What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? with a dynamic range of about 5db.

What we can understand, however, is how companies and individuals have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits to compensate (barely) musicians and to serve us advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed – whether in the rather more “raw” .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3 – may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, playing these games is more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.    

Sometimes this is imbedded within longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, but even this is a response to the growing scrutiny of samples used in hiphop music. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of paid for samples becomes a point of pride for rappers. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he didn’t even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas didn’t make any money:

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God – Serchlite publishin’

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detaches himself from the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he didn’t release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly. There is no ceramic catalogue, nor did he make his data available by crediting his sources. In fact, his tracks aren’t available for free download and only appear on paid streaming services. We can imagine that maybe Reinhard is getting “a coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” 

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships that define their value. The easy fluidity of digital space emphasizes the instability of assemblages especially at their margins and the push and pull of efforts to stabilize how they produce meaning. We do this through controlling access, through various strategies of narration, and  through the leveraging of various media affordances.

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I suppose that I’m trying to nudge swap lenses and considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier work, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines which expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. The idea of Delanda (and Deleuze and Guattari) emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century. This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. 

In some ways, excavating Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” embodies both one potential relationship between the disparate fragments of found sound collected from internet as well as the ways in which 21st century digital assemblage exist within an ecosystem that not only allow us to experience them but also monetizes our access. 

<more soon…>

Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

This past week, Bret Weber and I put the final touches on a chapter that we’re contributing to Kyle Conway’s innovative Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018. The book combines the republication of the 1958 Williston Report with a series of new chapters that consider the Williston Report’s conclusions in light of the early 21st century boom. Having read the entire manuscript, the book is a useful response to our tendency to see boom as unprecedented and the challenges associated with them as unique. The similarities between the 1950s boom and the 21st century boom in Western North Dakota and local responses, demonstrate that while all booms are not the same in terms of scale, character, and setting, it is possible to learn from past booms, to avoid certain mistakes, and to anticipate the future challenges. (Whether we do this or not, has less to do with knowing the past (despite the famous Santayana quote) and more to do with whether we care.)

As you might expect, Bret, Richard Rothaus, and I offered our observations on workforce housing. The contribution isn’t perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. We do a much better job integrating some of our interviews into our analysis and the sections from the 1958 Report and the other chapters in the book offer useful foils and points of expansion for our contribution. 

Check it out here.

And stay tuned for the book in early 2020!!! It’ll be another contribution to our “Bakken Bookshelf”!

Chelmis and Historical Archaeology in Greece

This fall, we received some really helpful reviews on an article that we submitted to the Journal fo Field Archaeology on our work documenting the Modern site of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. Among the comments was the suggestion that we develop the relationship between our work and historical archaeology more fully. Fortunately, I’ve been reading a good bit of historical archaeology over the past couple of years mostly for a project on the archaeology of the contemporary world. Below is my first effort to locate our work at Chelmis in this context. It’s rough, but very fun to write. 

First, historical archaeology has emphasized the impact of capitalism on our material environment. In fact, capitalism is one of Charles Orser’s famous “haunts” of historical archaeology along with colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. While the archaeology of the modern Greek landscape remains in its infancy, there is a clear interest in how capitalism in both the recent past and in the 19th century shaped land use and settlement. [I blogged a bit on some related work yesterday, but one should include here Mark Groover’s survey of the archaeology of North American Farmsteads as well as his important work at the Gibbs farmstead as representative of the interest in capitalism.]  The famous “Contingent Countryside” of the Southern Argolid embodied the changing strategies of Greek communities as they adapted to the demands of regional and transregional markets. A. Vionis work in Boeotia has likewise recognized cycles of economic boom and bust in the Ottoman countryside that along with various political and environmental factors shaped the countryside in the 18th and 19th century. Changes in the furnishing of Greek houses, for example, paralleled the rise of Western bourgeois sensibilities that demonstrated both access to a wide range of middle class goods, capital to purchase these objects, and leisure time to enjoy small luxuries (Vionis 2012, 335-336).

The appearance of mass produced good in Chelmis, like milled nails and tools, aluminum pots and pans, and plastics, demonstrates this community’s changing relationship to markets, to the networks that supplied manufactured goods to the Greek countryside, and to rural practices. The relatively small assemblage of household goods, particularly ceramics, suggests that the buildings at Chelmis were primarily used for seasonal habitation prior to the appearance of mass produced goods at scale across the Greek countryside. A similar trend occurs throughout Western Europe and North America where the assemblages associated with the rural buildings change significantly in response to market penetration in the countryside.         

The study of settlement in the Greek countryside also represents an interest in the archaeology of rural settlement and the countryside that emerged in the UK and, to a less extent, in Western Europe. These studies are not necessarily separate from the longstanding interest in capital, but have tended to focus particularly on the role of modernity in shaping the use of the activity countryside. Chris Dalglish’s book, for example, focused on changes in rural life in Scotland brought about by various rural “improvement” programs of the 18th and 19th century. Charles Orser, on of the grand old dudes of historical archaeology, studied three Irish rural houses from the the same period and considered the changes to the rural landscape as part of the larger process of rationalizing the landscape. In fact, much of the work on the British landscape, as Matthew Johnson has unpacked, seeks to capture the relationship between the modern and premodern world in the countryside and understand not only the world that was lost but also the processes of change.

While the settlement at Chelmis is almost certainly later than many of the rural landscapes that underwent improvement, rationalization, and modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, it nevertheless, was also shaped by efforts of the Greek state to transform the landscape. The development of settlements like Chelmis on land between the steeply terraced fields of the mountain villages and the fertile field of the Argive plain reflected efforts by the Greek government to encourage private ownership of formerly state lands. Transhumant pastoralists often developed these lands which were near their winter pastures and allowed themselves greater economy and social flexibility by creating relationships with villages on the plain. The end of season use of the settlement reflects several trends and policies as well. The decline of transhumant pastoralism in Greece, for example, which scholars have documented over the last 40 years reflects changing attitudes toward the movement of flocks through fields and toward the place of pastoralists in the economic and environmental life of the countryside. Mechanized agriculture has also changed the Greek rural landscape. It’s made temporary rural housing largely unnecessary and made it increasingly convenient for farmers to live full time in villages that also provided state and private amenities ranging from banks, to post offices, grocery stores, cafes, schools and government offices. Finally, urbanization and the inexorable draw of regional urban centers, like Argos and Nafplion, as well as Athens drew population from the countryside and away from rural life ways. 

These processes are not unique to Greece but the material evidence for these changing practices and relationships in the Greek countryside remains underrepresented in archaeological literature and rarely articulated in the context of either the broader fields of European (and particularly British) landscape and rural archaeology or (largely North American) landscape archaeology. Instead, there’s a particular strand of landscape archaeology in Greece which tend to look to Classical antiquity as its point of reference and contact, and this tends to imply a kind of continuity in the Greek countryside. At the same time, Greek scholars have a long standing interest in folkways, vernacular architecture, and historical studies of the countryside that often serves the development of national narratives. Our work at Chelmis is situated at the intersection of these analytical paradigms and also looks to historical and landscape archaeology to complicate our perspectives on the modern countryside. 

Mechinic Consumerism

Yesterday, I started to digest Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology ((2019) 53:3–24), “The Archaeology of Machinic Consumerism: The Logistics of the Factory Floor in Everyday Life” (h/t to Kostis Kourelis!). Roller examines an assemblage from a mining town in Pennsylvania as a way to consider the rise of what he calls “mechinic consumerism.” Mechinic consumerism is a blanket term that describes the network of practices, technology, social forms, and landscapes that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. This network manifests itself in this assemblage through the physical evidence for the growing prevalence of machines in manufacturing, the logistical infrastructure necessary to produce the diverse objects in the assemblage, the recognizability of objects associated with national brands and the shared experience of department stores, a common aesthetic language, and the sheer abundance of objects in this one assemblage.

The article offers a theoretical grounding for this modern assemblage drawing on Marx, Deleuze and Guatari, Althusser, and other lights of the Frankfurt School to expand how we think about the assemblage present in this Pennsylvania privy. Paul Mullins and LouAnn Wurst offer thoughtful and critical comment in a pair of responses and Roller, in turn, responds to their critiques. Since they offer such useful and perspective commentary on this paper (and they’re much better archaeologists and thinkers that I am!), I won’t critique the paper per se, but I will babble on about how it provides a framework for understanding a few assemblages that I’m working to deal with these days.

1. Chelmis. Last spring we submitted an article that was somewhere between a methods article and a preliminary report to the Journal of Field Archaeology. Because this isn’t really a kind of article, we’ve been asked to revise and resubmit. As part of that work we need both to expand our description of the artifacts from the site and to contextualize it more fully in the changes to Greek material culture during dramatic changes that take place within the 20th century Greek landscape, economy, and society.

The site at Chelmis, for example, not only reflects changes in rural land use and settlement structure tracking the development of marginal lands as part of transhumant practices in the late 19th or early 20th century and the ultimate abandonment of these lands with the decline in transhumant pastoralism and changes in the agricultural economy of Greece (and the Peloponnesus) after World War II and the Greek Civil War. Mechanized agriculture, greater economic integration on the national and international level, and changes in rural land use policies shaped the rise and abandonment of Chelmis and the use of the structure at the site. Along with these changes, villages increasingly emerged as the centers of economic, political, and social life connected by roads and other forms of infrastructure to cities and this reorganization of life and movement in the Greek landscape also contributed to the structure of assemblages at Chelmis. 

The deepening integration within political and economic systems in Greece directly influenced the material culture present at the site. The use of milled nails for example demonstrated the changing character of manufacturing in Greece over the life the buildings. Their abandonment as habitation and their episodic reuse as storage offers a diachronic view of changes both to rural activity and the network that such activities require. The presence of donkey saddles, wood and milled metal beds, fertilizer bags, glass veterinary medicine bottles, and plastic Nescafe shakers track not only the use of these places but also discard practices and the access to various objects.

2. The Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the most remarkable things about the assemblage present in the four, now-demolished, buildings that constituted Wesley College on the campus of the University of North Dakota is that they preserved such a diverse assemblage of material. Like the privy studied by Roller, these buildings accumulated objects over their 100 year history and these objects – as well as the buildings themselves – mapped the changing values, resources, and networks that defined higher education in North Dakota over a century. 

From the original donors of the buildings to the tangled masses of obsolete cables found in an abandoned lab space, each set of objects opens onto a complex network informed as much by the expansion of capital and “mechinic consumerism” to regional and supra-regional social networks that blossomed from the marginal and transient spaces of the Northern Plains. I wish I had more time to immerse myself in this project.

3. The Alamogordo Atari Excavations. Two years ago, I wrote an article on the excavation of Atari games in Alamogordo, New Mexico that emphasized the various narratives that intersected to create meaning for this distinct archaeological context. You can read the paper here.  Narratives remain attractive to me as a way of critically access meaning across archaeological assemblages (and, as far as I can tell, the critical engagement with narratives in an archaeological context has not been applied to literal archaeological assemblages or to more theoretically tinged corpora of networked objects. 

To my mind, one of the great challenges of understanding assemblages of objects, practices, methods, and experiences is articulating the overlapping and interdependent meanings that these groups of objects produce. How do we produce narrative strategies that unpack these assemblages with their often recursive and sometimes contradictory meanings without collapsing into redundant, impenetrable, or unrepresentative prose. In some ways, the critiques of Roller’s article offered by Mullins and Wurtz reflected the limits of narrative and presentation in archaeology as much as any theoretical or practical shortcomings.

4. Publishing Archaeology. Mechinic consumerism is about more than just reading and articulating meaning in archaeological assemblages from the past. It also reflects how we produce archaeology through narration and publication. Last spring, I continued a on-and-off project that explores in some sense, the archaeology of publishing archaeology. I argue for the significance of the term “work flow” with its 20th century roots in scientific management practices and elided it (somewhat awkwardly, I’ll admit) with concepts of flow developed by Deleuze and Guattari. You can read that here

A deeper and more critical engagement with the process of publishing and the ecosystem in which it functions – the assemblage – offers a way to consider the impact not only of what we publish, but how we publish. The publication process is as dependent on practices embedded within the larger system of mechinic consumption as the material that we frequently study. The final section of Roller’s paper suggests ways to resist the forces of mechinic consumption that range from recycling to reuse, conservation, and traditional practices that exist outside the pressure of direct market forces. It’s idealistic for me to imagine that my little press can offer real resistance to the pressures of capitalism and consumerism in our society, but if it can scratch out a little garden – no matter how commodified – I’m satisfied. 

Chairs Telling Stories

I read last week that Michael Wolf died. He was a photographer whose work mostly concerned cities. As part of his interest in urban street life he produced a series called “Bastard Chairs.” You can check it out here.

There’s something strangely personal about chairs. They reflect our daily routine and our daily movements. They are our constant companions and the make their forms and limits felt in our bodies. I have a favorite chair at home that reminds my neck and back weekly of our incompatibility. At various times in my career, I’ve collected orphan chairs from around the various buildings where I worked and moved them to my office. They aren’t terrible comfortable or attractive, but they sometimes prove useful. An office or a room without a chair seems particularly abandoned or unoccupied. A chair represents human presence and is a useful metonym for the human who occupies it: e.g. department chair. 

One of my favorite books is Jonathan Olivares, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. (2011), and it was a helpful guide to the abandoned office furnishings in the Wesley College buildings that were destroyed last summer.

Here are some of the chairs left behind. I love how they’re rarely at the center of the photo and often out of focus. At the same time, they represent the absent presence of the individuals and groups who dwelled in these spaces.

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Rivers, Floods, and Trash

The Red River and and Red Lake River literally define Grand Forks. The founders of the settlement situated it at the confluence of these two rivers anticipating that it would become a profitable regional depot for riverboat traffic moving north and south along the Red River. The Red River valley snakes its way across the now-vanished bed of the glacial Lake Agassiz forming a shallow valley through one of the flattest landscapes on earth.  

As much as the river has defined the geography of the town of Grand Forks, it has also defined its history. A series of devastating floods in the 19th and 20th century, including the massive and highly destructive flood of 1997, have shaped the character of the community and many in Grand Forks reckon recent time by before and after the flood. Each spring, the town turns its eyes to the rising flood waters and the newly constructed flood walls. This spring, the flood hit 48 feet, but this remained well below the top of our 60 foot flood walls.

One of my favorite things is to walk along the edge of the receding flood waters. It forms a temporary beach wrack where debris pools and is stranded by the receding water.

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The retreating waters leave behind lines of debris on tiny ridges marking the maximum extent of the flood.

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Like the coast wrack in Norway described by Þóra Pétursdóttir in her 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205), the waters of the Red River leave behind of their journey along the Minnesota and North Dakota border. Some of the debris redistributed is clearly local like the blue bags filled with dog shit that people use to keep the trails tidy.

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The river excavates and shifts subtly objects dropped on the golf course that stretches along the wet side of the flood wall.

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The river also returned our love of plastic water bottles, aluminum soda and beer cans, and styrofoam and plastic cups.

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It also reminds us how much we use styrofoam forms, extruded polystyrene, and other plastic objects – like PVC pipe – that float along on the river’s current until it drops this unintended cargo at random ports.

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Over the last few years, I’ve been working along the banks of the Inachos River in the Western Argolid. Unlike the Red, the Mediterranean Inachos River is primarily a seasonal torrent that cuts deeply through the rocky landscape.

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Like the Red River, the Inachos also carries trash during its seasonal romps through the Argive countryside. In fact, the force of the Inachos is enough to serve as garbage chute for communities along its path who discard trash into its bed which is carried away each winter with the rains.

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If I had a bit more energy and imagination, there is a nice little comparative paper thinking about modern trash in the two riverine landscapes and two situations. 

 

Hyperart

A colleague sent me a fascinating little article in the Norwegian Archaeological Review by Stein Farstadvoll titled “Vestigial Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and
Hyperart” (h/t to Derek Counts). The article applies the concept of Hyperart, developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, to the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Akasegawa defined hyperart as “material vestiges, things that have become detached from their intended purpose and function.” Farstadvoll’s article proposes that a red polypropylene snow stake found in the vestiges of the 19th century landscape garden fit this definition. The snow stake was out of place from a functional standpoint as it was not marking a road edge or feature that needed to be visible during deep snowfall. It was also out of place temporally standing in a landscape otherwise defined by abandonment. The rupture between the snow stake and its surroundings in both the time and the place render the object meaningless or at least profoundly ambiguous. Anyone who has done archaeological work – particularly archaeological survey – has invariably happened across these kinds of Hyperart.

Two little scenes from my work in the Western Argolid may well qualify as Hyperart. One is a Greek coffee cup that hangs from a nail in a wood cabinet in another wise ruined seasonal house (kalyvi) at the settlement of Chelmis.

  
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It’s not so much that the resident of the house wouldn’t enjoy a cup of Greek coffee from time to time so that the object is out of place. It’s that the cup remains hung by its delicate handle from the nail in the wooden cabinet even after the roof of the house has long collapsed and the house no longer serves the function that would offer an appropriate context for coffee drinking. 

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The juxtaposition between the coffee cup still in its place and the otherwise ruinous condition of its surrounding has never failed to attract our attention. In fact, this past summer my colleagues and I joked about how many photos we’ve taken of this forlorn coffee cup hanging by a nail in a house that is collapsing more and more every year.

The settlement of Chelmis is connected to the nearest village not be bonds of kinship or even, necessarily, regional economy, but by a road and electrical lines. The electrical lines take a more direct route than the road which roughly follows the slightly meandering path of an east-west running ravine. The electrical lines run along a straighter line and cut through olive groves and fields and often stand some 10 or 20 meters south of the road. They provide power to one or two houses that Chelmis that continue to be used and the church of the Panayia nearby. 

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The posts that support the electrical lines also have street lights. These are strange because in many cases the electrical poles are not near the street. These lights do not light up the street. The might, of course, serve another function, for example, to show whether the power lines have current, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps at some point the road ran closer to the electrical poles. Maybe the electrical poles were supposed to be installed along the road, but for whatever reason were not. We know that during the spring when the Chelmis was occupied for threshing grain and in the winter when the flocks were present, children from would have walked from the settlement to the village for school. Perhaps they would have left in the morning when it was still dark the the streetlights, though misaligned, would have shown the way through the countryside.

Today, they don’t seem to serve any purpose and we’ve never been in that area at night, so we don’t even know if any of them work. Maybe they’re vestigial. Maybe they’ve always been out of place.    

Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.