Slab City and Freedom

Over the weekend, I read Charlie Hailey’s Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place (MIT 2018). It was a pretty complex little book that will keep me thinking for weeks to come. Charlie Hailey is an architect and the book features the photography of Donovan Wylie. Hailey’s work on camps was particularly influential in our thinking as we developed the North Dakota Man Camp Project and the integration of photographs with narrative paralleled our own effort in The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. Hailey’s book is palpably archaeological (although he never makes that claim), and reflects the dynamic fringe of the archaeology of the contemporary world where the field opens itself to folks who do not claim any allegiance to the discipline.  

The book describes Slab City, in the Colorado Desert of California. Standing on the site of the former World War II training base of Fort Douglas, Slab City is a long-standing, impromptu community of squatters who make their home on public land amid the slabs left behind by the short-lived camp. At its peak in the 1990s, Slab City accommodated over 3000 residents who lived off the grid without a connection to water, sewage, or electricity. The peak time was in the winter months when snow birds from the north combined with other residents some of whom would live in Slab City all year around. This diverse group of people claimed lots, build structures, and organized a loose sense of community around common interests, statuses, or places of origin.     

Slab City today is less densely populated, but the desert preserved evidence for its history. From the slabs, guard stations, and half-buried fence posts of the World War II camp to “gopher hole” latrines, arts, and seemingly random marks in the desert left by subsequent residents, Hailey’s description of Slab City traced the material history of this place while also considering how these remains offer a commentary on being free. He traces the tension between the freedom of the desert with its moving dust and sand and the desire to enclose space first at the military camp and then among residents of Slab City. The abandoned World War II era sentry posts at the entrance to Slab City reappear throughout the book marking the edges of the settlement and superimposing one kind of freedom over another.

The use of cans, stones, tires, pallets, and other detritus to mark out one’s space in Slab City represents another form of enclosure. We saw similar strategies in the Bakken oil patch as residents of RV parks sought to reinforce the otherwise invisible borders of their lots. The irony that enclosure represents a strategy for defining freedom in Slab City is not lost on Hailey. The periodic appearance of UPS trucks, boxes reserved for local newspapers, and available accommodates via Air BnB further complicate freedom at the margins of the grid. The instability of these things and the persistence of the desert offer a counterpoint. 

Hailey’s Slab City is nearly empty. He refers to two or three individuals in the book. The people of Slab City don’t tell his story. In a sense, he preserves their freedom, but allowing them to maintain their anonymity. This goes beyond the standard practice of using nicknames at Slab City and obscures the presence of individuals in the desert. The way in which attention to material culture protects the individual in an era of ubiquitous surveillance resonated with some of our efforts to document temporary settlement in the Bakken oil patch. While we did record numerous interviews, we spent at least as much (if not more) attention documenting things, and unintentionally, the interviews and the things that we documented rarely interact. In other words, the things are both deeply personal and anonymous. (It may well be that part of what an archaeology of the 21st century can do is talk about the intimate practices of everyday life without connecting these practices to particular individuals. In some sense, I wonder whether archaeology can anonymize big data by dislocating the link between the individual and the their things.)  Hailey’s view of Slab City is strangely similar. Humans shaped the landscape, but like the nicknames of residents, the relationship between specific individuals and their material traces remains unclear. In a world defined by control and surveillance practices that seek to limit our freedom, Hailey sticks true to the title of the book and does what he can to leave Slab City as the last free place.         

Materiality and Time

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the little group of articles published in the most recent Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on materiality and time. As anyone who has read recent literature on materiality (in its various forms) recognizes that materials dictate and in real ways construct how we engage and experience time. This is particularly true in archaeology where the materiality of strata, of artifacts, and of architecture constitute the stuff of chronology in an excavation. 

My interest in time derives in part from my interest in the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology and how the concept of contemporaneity in the present and with the present shapes our notion of an archaeology of the contemporary world. For someone who is much more at home doing the empirical grunt work, the theoretical and abstract nature of time and contemporaneity is giving me fits, but these articles work to anchor the complicated concept of the present much more in materiality are helping me navigate the complicated terrain of time.

As I think through my introduction to my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture, I want to make sure that I speak both to social (and environmental) issues on a global scale as well as distinctively American engagements with their archaeological present. I was particularly interested in the distinctive temporalities made visible in Astrida Neimanis’s article on the disposal of chemical weapons after WWII in the Gotland Deep. The article emphasized different regimes of time that defined the permanence of this discard strategy, the enduring character of the sea, and the contemporary risk of chemical weapons both to humans and to other creatures who share that space. The Gotland deep is part of what might be seen as a fairly “new” sea in the geological history of the region. At the same time, the perceived permanence of the sea made it a suitable dumping place for unused mustard gas. The delay between the dumping of the gas and our understanding of its impact paralleled the delay between exposure to mustard gas and the physical signs of contamination on the human body. The materiality of time defines the intervals at which we experience the world. Neimanis introduced me – once again – to the concept of queer time, which I honestly do not understand beyond it being a general critique of linear time. That being said, I’ve added Elizabeth’s Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010) to my reading list.

Elana Resnick’s article on the use of glass among Roma in the modern Bulgaria is a lovely short case study for how the persistence of certain materials shape their utility even in the disposable culture of the contemporary European Union. The Roma use glass jars to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables for the winter while at the same time recyclers stockpile un-recycled glass until it becomes economically viable to sort and recycle it into useful objects. The continued value of glass as use objects (and it relatively low value for recyclers) locates it in a perpetual contemporary state where it can serve to slow time for the preservation of seasonal vegetable over the winter months.

In contrast, Gay Hawkins’ work on plastic, unpacks the tension between its persistence and its disposability. Her article makes clear that plastic is particularly fascinating it the way in which it’s material plasticity has limited it functional dynamism in contemporary use. On the one hand, plastic lasts essentially for ever, and, on the other, it’s plasticity ensures that plastic objects have rather narrow functions which makes it eminently disposable. While her understanding of time as a key concern for analytical philosophy if as intimidating as it is overwhelming, I did follow her bibliography to François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015) and added it to my reading growing reading list. 

More on this, when I have time, of course.

Homeless Heritage

Rachael Kiddey’s Homeless Heritage: Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice (2017) is among the best books that I’ve read over the last few years. Kiddey describes the work of her and her colleagues, some of whom were homeless, in documenting the material culture of homelessness in York and Bristol. It also traces Kiddey’s own progress through her Ph.D. and her discovery and engagement with homelessness and homeless people as she worked with them to document their skips, routes, and lives through various cities and present the results of her research. The book is less about the empirical results of her research, although she does present some of those, and more about how how Kiddey and her homeless colleagues created a social archaeology project that both generated useful data on homeless practice and gave a sense of meaning to the daily lives these individuals. As the subtitle suggests, the project had a therapeutic element to it for both the homeless participants and, less visibly in the book, but certainly present, for the author herself.

The book was inspiring and incredibly positive despite the potentially heartrending topic. More than that, it embodies the kind of “archaeology of care” that Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I began to imagine over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. Kiddey’s work is better and more involved (and involving), but we shared her understanding that conducting archaeology communicated the significance of a situation to the homeless or to the residents of a North Dakota man camp. Here are some observations about the book (which you really should just buy and read!):

1. Heritage. The idea that the homeless produce heritage is an important because it embodies a fundamental tension within 21st century material culture. First, the era of precarity creates ephemeral landscapes that emerge and dissipate in response to various contingencies as diverse as police activity, seasonal changes, and the availability of food or shelter. The skips and squats that various homeless participants frequented often were already abandoned or access was restricted by the time that they documented them with the homeless heritage team.

The other side of this tension is the ubiquity of stuff in the modern landscape. So precarity and contingency compresses the duration over which a site remains active, the abundance of modern material produces a more robust assemblage of stuff than would otherwise be expected. The routes and sites described by Kiddey and her colleagues were filled with stuff ranging from bedding, to broken glass, beer cans, and pallets that show signs of past use and an effort to make the place a little more comfortable. 

Charting these places as heritage, then, becomes less a traditional archaeological intervention which produces a site with clearly delineated boundaries and interpretative signs, and more a documented landscape that alerts the passer-by to the potential of homeless heritage and instructs them on what this might look like and how to engage with the evidence. 

2. An Outline of Social Archaeology in Practice. The strength of the book is Kiddey’s narrative of her engagement with the homeless individuals with whom she collaborated on the project. She described how she created an inclusive environment for all the participants on the project which allowed them to share their expertise and experience without the need for an excessive hierarchy or a tidy divide between the archaeologists and the volunteers. 

This organization extended from the first phases of field work to excavation, public engagement, and scholarly publication of their research. Kiddey hints that the practical challenges of breaking down the barriers between the “researcher” and the “researched” by admitting that some of her colleagues continued to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, struggled with low self-esteem, and had personal entanglements that made consistent participation with fieldwork a challenge, but she also detailed how inclusive practice recognized these challenges and accepted them. Here you can see the faint shadow of real practices on any archaeological project where team members regularly accommodate the different abilities of participants in a project. No one has ever changed a stratigraphic level based on my observations in the field even when I was “project director.”

While the book is clearly the work of a single author, who tellingly has both a first and a last name, the work of her colleagues is in the very near background. I was fascinated by this ambiguity. On the one hand, her homeless colleagues clearly made this work possible (and, if I understand correctly, she dedicated the book to one of them) and participated as fully as possible in the undertaking including giving a paper at Cambridge and co-curating the public exhibits on homeless heritage. On the other hand, by the end of the book, I was hoping that their participation in the project would allow Kiddey to raise the veil a bit and re-craft them from participants to authors. For example, none of them ever get a last name, which at first reinforced the authenticity of the street voices protected as it were by monikers and nicknames, but on the other hand, as the participants took increased ownership of the academic space of writing, curating, and presenting their experiences, I desperately wanted them to break through the “fourth wall” and become academic co-authors (at least in presentation) closing the loop in their collective participation on the project. Perhaps this desire reflects my own experiences on projects where student “volunteers” who return and contribute to a project over time invariably appear as co-authors on papers and with more formally recognized academic identities. 

This isn’t a criticism, of course. If anything, it reveals my own normalizing of academic conventions which ignores the realities of folks living on the street and the challenges that they face. For example, I thought about suggesting that Kiddey should have authored this book as “Marmite” which was her name among the homeless folks that she encountered in the book, but I also recognized that this may be inauthentic. On the other hand, that one of her colleagues, Smiler, abandoned that name for his birth name “Andrew” suggests that the use of proper names and nicknames in this book does map, to some extent, onto the participants sense of self and identity. Perhaps, then, the authenticity of the book comes from the voices of Jane, Punk Paul, Dan, and others whose single names represent their identities and authority as homeless individuals as much as from Rachael Kiddey, whose full name (so we’re led to imagine) represents her (literal) authority as author of the book.

Managing identities, authority, and knowledge is hard.   

3. Narrating to Inspire. Finally, this book is well written and engaging. I read it more or less in a single sitting gripped as much by the book’s narrative arc as the compelling characters Kiddey presents. Without giving too much away, the book has a brilliant climax that involves getting lost, rain, and a daring drive through a hedgerow (which offers as brilliant a critique of enclosure and homelessness as I’ve ever read!). 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book was crafted to bring the reader along on a challenging journey rather than to present, in an empirical or analytically transparent way, data from an archaeological project or even a template for a similar project. As someone who has played a bit more explicitly with genre-hopping, I can only admire Kiddey’s subtlety and creativity in using a range of narrative strategies (stories within stories, dialogue, academic prose, and a broader narrative arc) to carry some of the interpretative burden of the book. In many ways, her forms a more understated parallel to Laurie Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) which likewise intermingles academic prose with other narrative forms to produce a compelling study of a university fraternity in the first half of the 20th century. As I discovered with my little effort, writing in this way is difficult, but when it works, like it does in this book, the results are inspiring and compelling.

Read this book. 




Contemporaneity and Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Historical Archaeology

This weekend, I got my very first paper copy of the European Journal of Archaeology. I felt very international! 

The EJA is one of those journals where I always find at least one article that intrigues me. The most recent issue had an article titled “Modern Colonialism, Eurocentrism and Historical Archaeology: Some Engendered Thoughts” by Sandra Montón-Subías and Almudena Hernando. The article is open access.

The authors argue that “de-Eurocentring” archaeology and history is more than just opening our disciplines to indigenous voices, expanding our views of agency, and developing more socially aware practices, but also needs to include critiques of the very basis of disciplinary logic. In particular, they suggest that history and archaeology focus on change at the expense of stability and continuity. The former tends to celebrate individuality which, in turns, tends to emphasize both the development of hierarchy and technology. It goes without saying that this trajectory has tended to emphasize men. In contrast, they argue, women often play key roles in maintaining social stability particularly in non-hierarchical societies, but these roles, experiences, and spaces tend to be overlooked because our history and archaeology tend to focus on change. In fact, the projecting of change, and ideas of progress and development, backward from the Enlightenment into earlier periods (and the emphasis on, say, developmental models of periodization and endless debates over continuity and change. The historical trajectory of male, capitalist, expansionist, hierarchical, and technological Europe has become a model for all societies and change is in these places is seen as evidence for the advanced state of European culture and an excuse for colonial practices that, at best, seek to elevate the condition of “undeveloped” societies.

There’s a lot for me to unpack in this article and many citations to follow (particularly those related to “relational identity”), but it got me wondering about what an expanded role of contemporaneity plays in destabilizing on of a key element in defining discontinuity in archaeology. As a number of archaeological theorists have argued, our knowledge of the past often requires us to recognize a “broken tradition” between the time of the archaeologist and the past. While scholars have obviously challenged this deeply modern way of viewing the work and perspective of an archaeologist, it is difficult to deny that the disciplinary logic of archaeology insists on the place and time of the archaeologist is very much separate from the time occupied by the objects that they excavate, study, and interpret. The accounts from the prevalence of the metaphor of excavation which sees the surface as the present and levels beneath the surface as belonging to a past otherwise hidden from the archaeologist’s gaze, in modern and archaeological thought. In other words, the notion of change – and radical change at that – is implicit in archaeological work as long as the archaeologist remains situated outside of archaeological or historical time and works from the perspective of a perpetual present.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the idea of contemporaneity in archaeology. It seems to me that an archaeology of the contemporary world upsets the idea that the time of the archaeologist and the time that they study are different. It undermines the notion that time is defined by breaks and discontinuities that are so often viewed as the manifestations of radical moments of individuality pushing back against the torpor of tradition. The most common definitions of the contemporary (the last 20? Or 30 years?) press back directly against the accelerated pace of modernity by insisting on the long present. By locating ourselves in the same time that we study we insist on continuity in a discipline defined by change.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that this simple time shift will decolonize archaeology, but perhaps its a way to open more space for critical engagement with gender, social inequality, and the narratives of progress that underpin the logic of our disciplines.  



Hearing Corwin Hall

On Friday afternoon, after a long week filled with jet lag, frantic course preparation, and seemingly endless page proofs, I snuck off to hear UND’s music department perform their regular faculty showcase. I was particularly excited to hear Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall” performed. This piece developed from our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project which focused on studying the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College prior to their demolition in May 2018. 

Last week, this piece debuted at the KYMA International Sound Symposium (KISS) in Santa Cruz earlier this month and this was the first time that it was performed in North Dakota. 

Here’s Mike Wittgraf’s abstract for the piece:

Hearing Corwin Hall uses sound sources from the third floor of two adjoining now-demolished buildings, resulting in a radical altering of the acoustic space of that location since the time of recording. It is fascinating to look up at the open space where the third floor used to be, twenty feet above the ground, and imagine the former building structure and its acoustic signature, as well as the mics, cables, and people present during the recording. Corwin and Larimore Halls, formerly on the campus of the University of North Dakota, demolished in May of 2018, were originally constructed in 1909 as part of the Methodist-Church-affiliated Wesley College, which later was absorbed by UND. For a period of time Corwin Hall housed the Music Department, and adjoining Larimore hall served as a women’s dormitory. Hearing Corwin Hall uses source sounds from a recording taken on March 13, 2018, after the buildings were abandoned, but before they were demolished. The recording took place on the third floor, which included the Corwin recital hall. Eight microphones were placed in a variety of locations. During the recording the composer presented an informal “memorial service” that included a keyboard synthesizer performance of five hymns from the Methodist hymnal, after which attendees were encouraged to wander the third floor and engage with the microphones in order to capture the acoustics of the space. Hearing Corwin Hall takes digital data from these sound sources and applies them to time-based parameters in a live-processing environment in order to symbolize the fleeting nature of time and objects, as well as highlight the acoustic signature of the space. Using time in this manner creates an altered state in contradiction to the usual passing of time. Video projection of historical and recent photos, as well as photos of the demolition and post-existence of the buildings accompany the music.


Our plan is for Mike to perform it once more on campus and to record it for publication. My hope is to have something suitable to publishing in Epoiesen over the next six months. Our article will have three themes to it (as I conceive of it not) which work at the intersection of archaeo-acoustics, the study of time, and the considerations of how we experience the recent past especially after it has been radically altered.

1. How Buildings Sound. Over the past few years, my friend Amy Papalexandrou and I have been talking about the acoustics of Byzantine churches (and she’s published on this here and Sharon Gerstel here). As Amy makes clear, sound plays a key role in how we experience our environment and it was particularly significant in the context of monumental ritual spaces in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine worlds. The location of particular features in Byzantine churches, the movement of individuals in the spaces, and the intentional and unintentional effects on the sound of ritual in these buildings contributed to how individuals experienced the rituals there.

For Corwin Hall, like the nave of a Byzantine, this has particular significance because the room where we performed the recording was a recital hall for the music department of Wesley College. The space featured a deliberate design with a proscenium arch, acoustic shell, and vaulted ceilings which gave the room particularly desirable acoustic characteristics. By arranging eight microphones throughout the building, including in key spaces in the recital hall, we were able to capture the sound of Mike Wittgraf’s performance of a series of hymns from the Weslyean hymnal as well as the ambient sounds of a group of people moving throughout the space. It makes sense to document the space a recital hall with sensitivity toward its acoustics just as archaeologists have long studied lines of sight in ancient buildings or traces of movement between rooms.

2. Time. Our work to document the sound of Corwin Hall, however, was an effort to capture the original sound of the room or the building. The room itself endured a series of significant modifications that included a solid wall with a single door along its north side that separated the recital hall’s acoustic shell from the rest of the room at the proscenium arch. Moreover, air-conditioning ducts were installed around the room’s perimeter and covered in acoustic tile. The windows lacked curtains when we recorded and the room was filled with discarded desks and other furniture removed from the rest of the building. In other words, the room as it was preserved was rather different from its original design. That being said, the original design persisted, even in its compromised state, and, as a result, our recording was a kind of state plan which showed the existing state of the space while also indicating its original arrangement.

Full set pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 56

 E103 pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 05

Archaeologists regularly use photography and illustration to accomplish this kind of time shifting. We indicate earlier phases of a building through the visual inspection of existing structures and combine the past and present states of a building or object in a plan. To accomplish this kind of acoustic time bending we also placed microphones (some of which seem to have worked… ) in both Corwin Hall and Larimore Hall to which the former recital hall was attached through the doorway in its northern wall. This door merged the spaces of the recital hall with the offices carved out of rooms in the former women’s dormitory and transformed its acoustic signature. This created new spaces to record and hear the sound of the recital hall and allowed us to record the sounds of the recital hall in a way consistent with its later use as a classroom and offices. Individuals were encouraged to move and interact with the microphones so that we could record the sound of people through the space from various locations. In effect, we were able to create an acoustic phase plan that, however imperfectly, captures both the original plan and the state plan. 

I’ve recent come to appreciate how our time in Corwin Hall both during the recording and during the larger research project served as what Sara Perry has called “bodystorming” as we discussed with Mike, the research team, and members of the public the history, space, and sound of the building. Our microphones captured our movement through this space and superimposed our research project, public engagement, and performance. 

3. Presenting Corwin Hall. Mike’s performance of “Hearing Corwin Hall,” however, was not a literal presentation of the sound of the space neatly arranged for the audience’s consideration. Mike’s piece sought to bring the audience not only into Corwin Hall as a space but into the experience of Corwin Hall as the site of a research project, as an example of change on campus, and in the process of being transformed from a standing building to well manicured lawn that preserves beneath the surface archaeological remains of the former college. To do this, Mike integrated sound, video, and performance(s) in “Hearing Corwin Hall” in distinctly evocative ways.   

Last week, I heard an interesting paper by Ruth Tringham (the first paper here) on the use of sound to evoke emotional (and intellectual) responses from archaeological sites and objects. A key point that Tringham makes is that archaeologists have been too dependent on texts (both written and spoken) to communicate the past. She considers the work of the composer György Ligeti who has used singers to create emotional states without the use of text and calls attention to Alice Waterson’s work “Digital Dwelling” (or here) on the Neolithic village of Skara Brea in Scotland which similarly uses video and audio, but not text, to communicate the experience of both the space and the past.

Mike’s piece integrates both the acoustic space of Corwin Hall with its final months and a number of related performances designed to recognize the importance of these places on UND’s campus and in the community. For example, both the video, the sounds, and Mike’s performance communicate the violence of the building’s demolition both physically and emotionally. The destruction of these buildings embody an ongoing conflict on campus between an administration who is eager for rapid economic, cultural, and physical transformation across campus and faculty and community members who remain committed to established practices and priorities. The violence of the piece (and its performance) captures how the destruction of these buildings – their transformation from classrooms and offices into archaeological remains – generated significant emotion across campus and in the community. 

What makes this piece even more unique is that Mike integrates our efforts to document and commemorate the building into his performance. My voice, for example, is merged with the acoustic signature of Corwin Hall and looped over and over so that the words have become unintelligible, but it nevertheless evokes the sound of a bustling campus building. Sheila Liming’s bagpipes, played during a campus ceremony to honor Harold Holden Sayre after whom one of the Wesley College buildings was named, likewise loop through the performance as the tension and anxiety builds. My voice reflects the campus din as well as the work of documenting the Wesley College. Sheila’s bagpipes communicates both the death of these buildings as visible monument as well as how we commemorated their memory. The blurring our experience of the buildings between their lives as active campus structures and as objects of abandonment, study, and commemoration.  

More importantly, “Hearing Corwin Hall” communicated the violent tension between destruction and commemoration, between standing buildings and archaeological remains, between tradition and progress,  through the linearity of texts, but through sound. This does not make the piece any less archaeological, however. It remains dense, nuanced, complex, rhythmic, and multivocal.  

I can’t wait to share it with a wider audience. 

Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

Figure 8 house7 image20 2009 d263338a90

After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

I Let My Tape Rock ’til My Tape Popped: Music and Media in the 21st Century

A couple weeks ago my friend David Haeselin posted a nice review of Deerhunter’s Double Dream of Spring on the North Dakota Quarterly page. I’ve been wanting to write a response, and this is my first draft. 

The most curious thing about the Deerhunter album is that it was only released on cassette tape. 

Cassette tapes have always fascinated me (and some of this, I’ll have to admit, is simple nostalgia). They anticipated in so many ways the release of compact discs, but carried with them some of the same limitations of vinyl records. First, the were portable and ideally suited to mobile playback in such iconic devices as the Sony Walkman and in cars. Second, like vinyl LPs, they were relatively fragile and deteriorated over multiple plays (and were susceptible to oxidation over time). Third, compared the the compact disc it was possible for a tape to sound really good with suitably expensive playback gear and high quality tapes, in most cases, tapes sounded pretty bad and, in this way, they reflected the character of vinyl records, which could and can sound divine, mostly didn’t because most records were cut poorly and played back on mediocre equipment. (The final iteration of Dolby noise cancelation for tapes “Dolby S” was apparently almost CD quality). Finally, cassette tapes could be dubbed either completely or into mix tapes initiating an entire culture of dubbed, bootlegged, and pirated content that continued into the CD era and has structured, in many ways, our engagement with online digital music. 

Compared the vinyl records and tapes, compact discs represented an amazing leap forward in sound quality and durability and offered enhanced portability. Deerhunter’s release of a cassette tape reflects the negotiation of a number different affordances and different historical attitudes. On the one hand, cassettes offered a convenient portable medium for distributing their new EP and people who wanted to listen to the music would, at first, be limited to a small group of individuals who had access to working cassette players. The physicality of the tape itself stood as a immediate barrier to the circulation of the music and a badge of exclusivity. On the other hand, Deerhunter knew that copies of the EP would soon enter the digital realm and circulate widely on forums and Reddits and other places where Deerhunter fans congregated. This would, of course, reinforce, in the short term, access to a community of Deerhunter fans. In this way, a tape like this parallels the circulation of bootleg recordings prior to the internet which found their audiences in fan magazines, pre-concert festivities, and word of mouth.

About a month after Deerhunter released Double Dream of Spring, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their first album as The Carters, Everything is Love. The single from the album was titled “Apeshit.” Like Deerhunter, the single was released in an exclusive way, but rather than on nostalgia-inducing cassette, on the streaming music service Tidal of which Beyoncé and Jay-Z are part-owner and which has a significant number of African American subscribers compared to other streaming services. The single itself likewise defies convention in its lyrics and title which would limit its radio play. (The old relationship between the single and the radio seems to be almost completely over thanks, in part, to the challenging lyrics and popularity of hiphop music.) The lyrics themselves celebrate this flaunting of convention with Beyoncé demanding “pay me in equity” which would certainly resonate with Tidal listeners aware that the service is owned at least partly by artists, many of whom are African American. The iconic music video for “Apeshit”, also premiered on Tidal and its setting in the Louvre emphasizes how the reception of art is as mediated by class and race. Unlike the ephemerality of the cassette tape, “Apeshit” stakes its claim to museum quality permanence.    

At the same time, Tidal has its limits. Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal in 2016 which famously led to wide spread pirating of the album as fans attempted to get access to the album without paying the service’s fees. West’s departure from the Tidal ownership group has sometimes been attributed to the mishandling of The Life of Pablo launch (and that Tidal owned him money), but its hard to separate that album with its changing list of songs, versions, and order from the streaming medium. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the album would have been pirated less had it been released as a conventional download. 

Without this little essay devolving to yet another case study of how the “medium is the message,” Deerhunter, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West demonstrate how the current moment in the music industry sees the medium as far more than simply a passive method for disseminating creative works but as the co-creator of the art itself. This isn’t new, of course, as artists have long recognized the relationship between their music and album covers, the color of vinyl, music videos, and even the ironic reminder by Tom Petty “Hello, CD listeners, we’ve come to the point of his album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape.” I do suspect, however, that, today, that the intersection of technological and music has an explicit relationship with a growing awareness of the significance of fan communities, inequality within the music industry, as well as issues of race and social class.  

Lakka Skoutara: (Almost) 20 Years at a Rural Site in Greece

This past week, David Pettegrew and I revisited the rural site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinth. This is a settlement that developed over the course of the  first half of the 20th century with around 15 houses loosely clustered around a rural crossroad with a church dedicated to Ay. Katerini. There is also the crusher base for what must have been an olive press that likely dates to before the 20th century settlement, a number of impressive threshing floors, and series of cisterns providing water to this dry upland depression. Residents from the nearby village of Sophiko had occupied the houses in this valley periodically over the course of the 20th century usually during the harvest. There were periods when residents lived more or less full time in these houses in an effort to escape from the mid-century disruptions of World War II and the Greek Civil War. In 2001, we visited the valley and found that the houses were in various states of abandonment that ranged from total abandonment to occasional use and seasonal re-use.

The goal of our visit yesterday was to see how houses that we have documented (somewhat) regularly over the last 19 years were holding up. The initial goal of the project, when we started it, was to use these houses to think about formation processes in the Greek countryside. This visit was our first since 2009 (although we seem to recall a visit in 2012, but so far we can’t seem to find the photographic evidence for that trip). Having decade between visits meant that we had to get re-oriented to the area, but after a bit we were able to find our study houses, take some (but not nearly enough) photographs, and think about change (while) in the Greek countryside.

We have three snap impressions from our day wandering this settlement:

1. Houses fall down at an irregular pace. One thing that we certainly noticed is that relatively little had changed for buildings whose walls had collapsed prior to our first visit in 2001. In some cases, the walls were more visible because of changes in vegetation. But the general character of the collapse and associated material appeared more or less unchanged with some of the same scatters of artifacts present collapsed houses being more or less stable over the past 10 years.

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The reasons for this are, of course, obvious. The largely collapsed houses are less the focus of human activity and, as a result, less susceptible to various curation strategies and various other intentional and accidental human interventions. The remains of these houses are more resistant to various natural processes as most of the vulnerable elements in the houses have already given way, collapsed, or otherwise deteriorated. The remains, for example, of a brick and tile oven look essentially the same after 10 years.  

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2. Wall plaster disappears quickly. When we first encountered House 14 in 2001, it had some of its roof intact as well as plaster on its exterior walls and on a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall that originally separated two rooms. By 2009, the roof had collapsed and exposed the walls and the plaster-and-lathe wall had fallen to the floor. In 2018, most of the plaster had melted from the exterior walls and the plaster on the lathe wall had vanished to the point where the wall was no longer visible.

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3. Continuous Change. One of the less surprising aspects of Lakka Skoutara is the continuous change to the region and to its buildings. In one house, that appeared to be maintained but not in significant use, a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall was carefully removed. 

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Another house, constructed of cinderblocks in rough courses received a new balcony and a series of nicely built patios suggesting a transition from a kind of rough functionality to perhaps a more recreational purpose.

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The western part of the Lakka has seen the development of all sorts of new structures.


These include some curious examples of reuse.


Lakka Skoutara remains a dynamic landscape even in “abandonment.”

Wesley College Wednesday

Over the last week or so, the Wesley College Documentation Project has shifted its attention from the buildings themselves and their physical fabrics to their history in the University of North Dakota archives where the Wesley College papers reside. The students have eagerly moved through archival collections for clues as to the history of the buildings. 

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They’ve found some great stuff that speaks to the day-to-day lives of students residing in Sayre and Larimore Hall, of students who were charged for new rugs after rendering theirs “too dirty to clean without being destroyed,” of damage to hallways from impromptu dormitory hockey games, and of Steinway pianos and of new electrical fixtures.

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At the same time, I’ve been patiently working to describe the rooms in Larimore Hall and will soon move on to Corwin, Sayre, and Robertson. I’ve been using our remarkable archive of photographs, my drawings, and a collection of plans which show Corwin/Larimore Hall in various phases of renovation in 1970s. 

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So far, I’ve focused on describing the second floor of Larimore Hall (or the 3rd floor depending on how you count!) and primarily on the architecture and furnishings rather than the small finds or objects present there. Writing up this stuff in tedious detail has really helped me wrap my head around the changes to the building and the complex interplay between its original and later form. This interplay demonstrated the tension between the 21st century building and its 20th century bones and preserved the physical memory of its past function even as its abandoned 21st-century form. For example, rooms used at in 21st century GTA offices saw the least modification during the 1979 remodeling demonstrating a kind of persistence of use over 30 years. Research spaces on the fourth floor featured more older furnishings than office spaces did on the second floor showing a greater tendency toward curating older objects. 

Part of the goal of this project has become to use intensive documentation as a way to commemorate these century-old buildings and to recognize their entire history from their origins with Wesley College to their 21st century demise.  

This is obviously still a work in progress, but you can download some fragments of my preliminary report here

The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.