A Conclusion to Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I started pulling together a short article for Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen. I’ve been posting them in somewhat random order here on my blog. Because I wanted to foreground Mike Witrgraf’s video work “Hearing Corwin Hall,” I decided to introduce the article with only a very short lede and then embed the video work on the page. You can read that here and watch the video here.

Then, treating “Hearing Corwin Hall” as a kind of archaeological data or object, I proceeded with a longer discussion that offers context for the piece and some basic analysis. You can read more of that here.

Finally, I’ve put together a not entirely satisfying conclusion here which draws on the work of Sara Perry, Ruth Tringham, and Cornelius Holtorf. This will obviously require some revision for clarity and it’ll also need to be expanded, but I’m tired today and have grading to do and some other projects that are demanding my attention. So for today, this feels like a wrap. I’ll put the entire piece together sometime in the next week or two, circulate to my co-authors, and then send it off to Shawn and Company early next year.  

Conclusions

The piece seeks to communicate in non verbal ways the history and archaeology of Corwin Hall. This approach to archaeology with parallels with recent calls for an affective archaeology. Sara Perry’s work, for example, explored the role of enchantment and affect in producing knowledge of the past (Perry 2015, 2019). For Perry, enchantment lies at the core of archaeology’s ability to produce action. Hearing Corwin Hall communicates the anxiety of change in campus through a range of non-verbal techniques anchored in the reproduction of the acoustic character of the recital room and the various events associated with the Wesley College Documentation Project. The techniques used in Hearing Corwin Hall paralleled those discussed by Ruth Tringham’s in her recent article on creating ways to explore the deep past that do not rely on the use of contemporary language. Tringham’s willingness to create engagements with the past that allow for significant ambiguity where the audience has opportunities for an emotional response, imagination, and reflection often lost in traditional archaeological texts, descriptions, and reconstructions (2019). We hoped that Hearing Corwin Hall allows listeners to not only experience some of our own encounters with these buildings, but also formulate their own views. Despite the ambiguity of many of the electronic sounds and the garbled looped voice, and the abrasiveness, abruptness, and density of the piece invites strong opinions and responses.

In many ways, the appeal of Hearing Corwin Hall to the enchanting and affecting potential of heritage, does not entirely avoid appealing to“crisis based” or “heritage at risk” narratives. As Cornelius Holtorf has argued crisis based narratives which seek to communicate a sense of urgency by viewing of cultural heritage as a limited and ever shrinking resource has only a limited potential to motivate more expansive, inclusive, or resilient views of the community (Holtorf 2015, 2018). At the same time, by seeking to commemorate and recognize the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus through conventional documentation practices as well as performances and the Hearing Corwin Hall recording we situated the demolition of these buildings within a larger conversation of change on campus and the anxieties that liminal states induce. Our efforts to document the changes to these buildings prior to their destruction by using the compromised acoustics of the recital hall as filter for Hearing Corwin Hall serves as both a reminder that campuses have always been the locations of change and art, music, history, and archaeology offer ways to bring attention to both the emotional impact of the contemporary situation, but also the resilience of the campus community. Hearing Corwin Hall makes clear that the loss of the Wesley College buildings contributed to a sense of local trauma. Performances offer one way to recognize, communicate, and ultimately mitigate the impact of continuous trauma of liminal anxiety on our campus.

More Fragments from Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I’ve been working on a piece for Epoiesen based on Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

You can watch the video here: 

My article introduces the video with a brief lede. The rest of the article follows the video and includes a short introduction to the Wesley College Documentation Project called “Studying Corwin Hall” and then a section on the history of Corwin Hall (“Building Corwin Hall”). The final two sections, which I’ve included in the blog post, deal at least superficially with performance, ruins, and affective and emotive archaeology.

Performing Corwin Hall

By the time that the Wesley College Documentation Project began the buildings were already abandoned. The last psychology faculty had reluctantly pulled up stakes from Corwin-Larimore Halls only after he had sent off the last grant application of the season. The honors program and campus technology services had departed Robertson-Sayre Hall at around the same time. Thus the buildings themselves entered a period of liminality. The traces of their prior use continuing to linger in the rooms, offices, and hallways, but at the same time, their fate was sealed and asbestos mitigation and demolition scheduled. The objects left behind and the histories of these buildings seemed to have reached a clear end point. Offices with mid-century desks, 21st century chairs, particleboard books shelves, bulletin boards, window air-conditioner units, and locked filing cabinets still preserved the imprints of their former occupants. Classrooms remain filled with rows of abandoned chairs too outdated for even state-university surplus and tables and lecterns long ago supplanted by high-tech ”teaching stations” with integrated computers. The labs of the third floor were filled with aging computers, dense tangles of obsolete connectors, and abandoned equipment of uncertain age and function. The content of these spaces reflected not only their present abandoned state, but revealed the abandonment as a process that began long before the university scheduled these buildings for destruction.

Our encounter with Corwin and Larimore Halls was not only infused that its failure to survive as an independent institution and its impending erasure from campus, but also by the objects that were left behind which served as a diachronic reminder that campuses exist in a state of constant flux. As a result, our work in the liminal space of the Wesley College buildings amplified the pervasive sense of anxiety across campus. In an effort to recognize the liminal state in which these buildings existed, we decided to combine our work with two events designed to mark out both contemporary and past changes on campus. The first event centered on recognizing that Sayre Hall was renamed in the 1920s for Harold H. Sayre who was killed in World War I. To commemorate the demolition of this building almost exactly a century after the Armistice that ended the Great War, we invited campus dignitaries, officials from the Grand Force Air Force Base and the city, as well as faculty, staff, and students to a short ceremony designed to recognize the end of this memorial building. The event involved brief reflections on the building, the sacrifices of veterans, and a bagpiper on a beautiful spring day. The program included a poem composed by Sayre’s pilot who credited Sayre’s bravery with saving his life when they were shot down in France.

Simon Murray’s recent book, Performing Ruins, considers the feelings that ruins evoke when they serve as the setting for performances. Murray acknowledged that the definition of ruins was ambiguous, but that the term typically described buildings that were in movement or between the states of use to terminal collapse. In this context, the Wesley College buildings, while still standing and intact, were ruins as their abandonment, neglect, and fate combine to create a sense of inevitable decline. As Wyatt Atcheley’s photographs, which accompany this article demonstrate, the status of the Wesley College buildings as ruins produced an experience of the uncanny which is common in liminal spaces and confused encounters with the familiar and unfamiliar. In Murray’s work, he notes that the occupation of ruins through their performance seeks in some cases to suspend these spaces and to arrest, for a moment, their movement into oblivion (288-289). The ceremonies associated with Sayre Hall implicitly invited the community to consider the parallel between Sayre’s death and the destruction of his memorial. By accentuating Sayre’s memory, the ceremony briefly reversed the inevitable flow of time toward the building’s destruction and the memorial’s erasure from campus. This also presented an opportunity to critique the changes taking place on campus by drawing attention to buildings prior to their destruction. The tendency for contractors to demolish in between terms and in the summer months when students and faculty are not on campus is often a concession to safety, but it also has the effect of making buildings seem simply to disappear.

The second performance associated with the Wesley College buildings was a final concert in the Corwin Hall recital room. William Caraher introduced the room and the selection of songs with brief remarks at the beginning of the event. Then, Michael Wittgraf performed several songs from the Methodist hymnal on an electronic keyboard to a small audience who sat amid stacks of abandoned classroom chairs, tables, and scraps of paper. At the end of the performance, he recorded a series of sounds designed to capture more clearly the acoustic signature of the space. To record the room’s signature and the concert we arranged seven microphones both within the recital hall, but also throughout Larimore Hall and on the landing outside the southern entrance to the room. Our goal was to produce an acoustic archaeology of the room by capturing not only whatever character of the original recital hall remained, but also the sound of the transformed space. In this way, we use acoustic recording methods in a similar way to the visual recording techniques typically used by archaeologists to record buildings and landscapes.

The inspiration for this project came from several recent efforts to capture the acoustic character of Byzantine churches in Greece and Turkey (Papalexandrou 2017; Gerstel et al. 2018). These projects typically involved sophisticated recording strategies and technology as well as choirs performing period appropriate music. This work, however, sought to reconstructing ancient, Medieval, or Early Modern “soundscapes” (Smith 1999). It was appealing to imagine that we could reconstruct the original acoustics of the now-compromised Corwin recital room, but we neither had the technology nor the time to attempt such an ambitious sonic simulation. Instead, by performing in the Corwin Hall room, we aimed to document the room’s abandoned and transformed state. Like the project’s broader effort to recognize the traces of use throughout these buildings, the acoustic signature of the room would capture, even if in subtle and indistinct ways, the sounds of its transformation, neglect, and abandonment. By performing this event with an audience we once again sought to pause the inevitable progress of the building toward demolition and abandonment. We also sought to locate bodies in the acoustic space of the building invoking its history as a recital hall, a classroom, and part of a bustling department and campus. In short, our recording both recognized the terminal status of the building and the room, while also capturing its transformations. The songs were superficially familiar, but the transformed space rendered them uncanny.

Hearing Corwin Hall

The event in the Corwin Hall recital room was not the final performance associated with the project. The recordings of the music and the sounds of the rooms became the basis for a multimedia performance work called Hearing Corwin Hall which captured the liminal state of Corwin Hall but also embodied the anxiety present on our university campus. These performances, in turn, became the basis for the video associated with this article. By using the acoustics of Corwin Hall as a filter for the audio component of performance, Wittgraf located the anxiety present in the recital hall’s liminal and compromised space. It also embodied the anxiety endemic on university campuses and in the particular situation on UND’s campus created a heightened sense of anxiety.

Hearing Corwin Hall told the story of the buildings and the Wesley College campus. From the construction of the buildings, triggered by the placement of a brick on the stage at the 1:30 mark which interrupted the peaceful chorus of crickets that comprised the first 100 seconds of the piece. The introduction of the sounds of motors and passing traffic along side the crickets and soon a looped track of Caraher’s voice indicates the purchase of campus by UND in the 1960s. The initial placement of a sledge hammer on bricks, then brings in the organ and Sheila Liming’s bagpipe from the Sayre Hall memorial ceremony as the din of traffic and Caraher’s looped voice continues. The powerful blows with the sledgehammer at the 6:40 mark the start of the building’s destruction which then slowly descends into the reverberation acoustics of the Corwin Hall. The last four minutes of the piece lingers offering a false sense of resolution. The buildings are gone, but their echoes persist.

Hearing Corwin Hall

One of my favorite things is Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen journal. As its tag line suggests, Epoiesen is a journal for “creative engagement in history and archaeology,” and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to contribute something more substantial than a response to its digital pages.

A couple of years ago, I worked with an amazing team of students and friends on the Wesley College Documentation Project. As part of that project, my colleague Mike Wittgraf produced a mixed media piece called “Hearing Corwin Hall.” He has both performed this piece nationally and recorded a video version. Our plan is to submit the video version with an accompanying essay to Epoiesen sometime “soon.” The video is done and my essay is… well, it’s coming together. The hardest part so far is balance my need to explain everything with the desire to allow the work to stand on its own. My current solution is a short “lede” followed by the video. I think will develop more of the academic component of our piece in a “discussion” after the video. None of this is cast in stone, obviously, but I present it here as a start.

Hearing Corwin Hall

Introduction

Hearing Corwin Hall is a multimedia work composed and performed by Michael Wittgraf. The piece is based on two month archaeological, architectural, and archival documentation project of two, adjoining, double buildings on the University of North Dakota’s Grand Forks campus: Robertson-Sayre Halls, built in 1929 and 1908 and Corwin-Larimore Halls, built in 1909/1910. The buildings were originally part of Wesley College, an independent, Methodist Institution established in Grand Forks in 1905 and closely affiliated with UND. Sayre and Larimore were men’s and women’s dorms respectively and Robertson and Corwin hall were offices and classroom space. Corwin Hall also housed music rehearsal rooms and the college’s recital hall, a fine room with a capacity of 100.

In 1965, UND acquired the buildings and until 2016, they housed various departments, programs, labs, classrooms, and offices. In 2018, UND demolished the buildings as part of an effort to reduce the campus footprint by eliminating buildings encumbered with significant deferred maintenance costs from the university budget and campus. A team of students in collaboration with William and Susan Caraher formed the Wesley College Documentation Project to study the buildings and the objects left behind. They had virtually unfettered access to the buildings in the time between their abandonment and their demolition. This project produced not only a small archive of descriptive data, photographs, and analysis, but also coordinated two public events and published a photo essay that commemorated and critiqued the buildings, Wesley College as an institution, and the contemporary financial and cultural situation on UND’s campus.

Hearing Corwin Hall draws upon the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project. It integrates images from the building’s final months, audio drawn from the project’s public events, and the acoustic signature of the Corwin Hall’s recital room which although compromised over the 100 year history of structure preserved traces of its past function. Michael Wittgraf’s Hearing Corwin Hall is also set against the backdrop of significant institutional, administrative, and cultural changes at UND and in higher education more generally. A more thorough consideration of the work and the Wesley College Documentation Project appears in the discussion below.

Discussion

College campuses are anxious places.

The looming demographic downturn, changing funding priorities among donors and legislators, and a whelming tide of anti-intellectualism in American life have contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of higher education. Many college campuses, at least in the United States, have initiated strategic planning, prioritization, and reimagining programs designed to help institutions navigate an uncertain future. Each year, another crop of books appear promising to diagnose, mitigate, or manage current or anticipated crises in funding, enrollment, teaching, research, and student expectations. There is an expectation that higher education is an industry in transition and that the college campus of the future will look very different from the campus of today.

The contemporary situation in higher education in many ways follows a familiar path. State universities, in particular, have long situated themselves at the intersection of progress and tradition. They celebrated both cutting edge research and conservative practices both in the rituals of college life, the architecture of campus, and the academic and research programs undertaken by students and faculty. College Gothic buildings rub shoulders with the latest in post-modern architecture, the century-old rituals of commencement and graduation accommodate spectacles of more radical inclusivity and reconciliation, online teaching introduces students to Classics and calculus, and researchers on Shakespeare share library budgets with new programs in nanotechnology and unmanned, autonomous vehicles.

Many contemporary college students remain liminal creatures as well. They live communally in dormitories or rental housing, and their lives pivot as much around the rhythm of the semester as off-campus employment, family life, and socializing. As a result, many college students neither bear the full economic and social responsibilities of adulthood nor the living arrangements and dependence of childhood. As any number of commentators have observed, college is a time of social transition for students. In college students learn to navigate the responsibilities of adult life without fully giving up the structures of student life or parental protections which are often transferred to institutions who provide food, housing, and social opportunities. The distinctive space of the college campus, for example, often locates the liminal experience of college students in areas not entirely public and integrated into the fabric of their community or entirely private and set apart.

Thus, college campuses embody a kind of liminality that not only emphasizes the current sense of institutions in transition but also longstanding tensions between progressive values and traditional practices and between adulthood and student life. As mid-century anthropologists have taught us these liminal situations often contribute to a sense of anxiety which underscores the vulnerability and strangeness of institutions and individuals that resist clear definition and stand “betwixt and between” various social statuses. Societies often seeks to resolve and contain liminal individuals and groups through formally structured ritual practices, confinement, and other forms of social limiting designed as much to protect society from the destabilizing entities as to confer a temporary status on those outside of traditional categories. Rites of passage, for example, frequently mark the successful navigation from one status to another and resolve the tension of liminal transitions with celebration. At the same time, we continue to treat individuals and groups who are unable to escape from the liminal status with deep suspicion.

The Wesley College Documentation Project involved a group of students interested in studying the Wesley College buildings on the University of North Dakota campus. The class began as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018 and paralleled an honors class dedicated to studying the UND budget which had undergone significant changes over the preceding years. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the architecture and material culture of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings.

More Thinking About Cities

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been revising, in my head, the last chapter that I wrote for my little book on the archaeology of the American experience. This is not best practice on a number of grounds especially since it’s making it harder for me to make progress on my next chapter and causing me to second guess every other chapter in the book. 

At the same time, it’s been great to have the luxury to mull over topics, read a bit more expansively (in an entirely undisciplined way), and think about some new work on the archaeology of contemporary cities. For example, this past week, I read Christopher Matthews and Bradley D. Phillippi’s new edited volume Archaeologies of Violence and Privilege (New Mexico 2020). It included two chapters that directly related to my work (and a wealth of useful observations and arguments throughout). 

Chris Matthew’s chapter on the impact of the excavation of Interstate 280 through the city of Orange, New Jersey contributed to what Matthews termed a “carceral” landscape. The construction of the Interstate through the middle of city destroyed key community resources, separated neighborhoods, created a wasteland flanking the highway. The highway also facilitated the emergence of predominantly white suburbs and the establishment of a network of byways between places that allowed black and white residents to pass through each other’s communities without interacting. The social, political, and economic processes that led to a racially divided landscape likewise led to the concentration of police activities in a black community which bore the brunt of the social and economic displacement created by the new interstate. This new carceral landscape both embodied and reified racists attitudes toward the increasingly isolated black community whose struggles become problems to control with force and violence rather than conditions to ameliorate.

Paul R. Mullins, Kyle Huskins, and Susan B. Hyatt contribute an article to the same volume that explores the intersection of environmental history and race in Indianapolis. The article begins with a proposed urban beech along the White River in the city that was largely derided because of the river’s reputation for pollution. Mullins and colleagues traces that perception to the use of the White River in the late19th and 20th centuries for swimming by the city’s African American community. The course of the river through working class neighborhoods and its use as the dumping ground for industrial pollution contributed to its reputation as dirty and unclear. The construction of local swimming pools throughout the city in the 20th century provided the white community with more sanitary conditions for swimming, but excluded the black community who were banned by rule and custom from white pools. While there was one pool set aside for the use of the black community, many blacks continued to swim in canals despite the danger of pollutants and fast flowing water. 

Contemporary attitudes toward the White River preserve the history of city’s racist past long after the city integrated officially segregated swimming pools and sought to clean up the region’s waterways. 

Finally, a talk at Dumbarton Oaks (which I could not attend) brought to my attention the work of A. K. Sandoval-Strausz on the role that Latinos have played in late-20th and 21st century urbanism. I have not finished his book, Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City (2019), but read with great interest his 2014 JAH article, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America

Using the Oak Cliff, Texas as a case study, Sandoval-Strausz argues that the influx of Latino immigrants into this economically depressed community revitalized its abandoned and ruined buildings, businesses, and economy. Low costs attracted these immigrants to declining urban areas, but the character of Central American urbanism shaped the kind of communities that they constructed in these places. The imported to American cities their familiarity with small, family-run businesses, walkable neighborhoods, and outdoor socializing and filled the void left behind by Americans move to suburbs, corporate chains, and architecture that privileges the privacy of the back yard to the public facing front yard and porch.

Latino immigrants effectively construct a transnational city in the ruins of American urbanism. It finds parallels to recent work that seeks to find “the possibilities of life in capitalist ruins” and the role that Central American immigrants play in providing labor and community in regions like Pennsylvania coal country that have struggled to transition to post-industrial or light-industrial economies. Moreover, this work complicates notions of decline and ruins in US cities by revealing how these are not terminal conditions but part of more complex cycles in the life of global cities. 

Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on my paper for the 2020 ASOR annual meeting. The paper is officially titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective,” but if I could, I’d change that to “Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken.” The paper will appear in a routable called “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” convened by Ömür Harmanşah. Since, the roundtable will primarily focus on a conversation among participants, our paper are to be kept short (<10 minutes). Mine is  perhaps slightly long, but I figure I’ll tighten it up a bit before it’s read to go live.

I feel like this paper is the first tentative step toward understanding our work in the Bakken in a new way. If you want to get some broader context on my thinking, I posted a four part series last week that sort of sketched some approaches:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

As always feedback, comments, or complaints are always welcome.

“Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken”

The archaeology of contemporary climate change has a necessarily global scope, but as Charles Orser famously quipped, archaeologists are generally inclined to “think globally, dig locally” (1996). Since 2012, I’ve worked with a team of archaeologists to document workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While our work has considered workforce housing through the lens of domesticity, colonialism, migration, and the landscapes of work, this will be our first focused effort to think about our project as the archaeology of contemporary climate change. The goal of my very short introduction to our work to consider the relationship between extractive industries, climate change, and capitalism in the Bakken…

At first blush, the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota appears to have little connection to the Middle East. In fact, the oil booms of the early 1950s, 1980s, and in the 21st century correlate closely with political situations in Middle East, from the first post-colonial moves to nationalize oil production in Iran (1951) and share profits in Iraq (1952), to the nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980 in the aftermath of the 1970s US oil crisis, and the long messy legacy of the Second Gulf War in the 21st century. It is largely a coincidence that two North Dakotans, Thomas Barger and Frank Jungers led ARAMCO in the 1960 and 1970s, but less coincidental that companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger were active in both the Bakken and Middle East, as was Target Logistics, who at one point accommodated 1% of the state of North Dakota’s population in their various workforce housing sites. Of course, the various Bakken oil booms also align with changes in the post-war American economy and society as well, from the rapid expansion of consumer culture, suburbanization, and automobiles in the 1950s to the rise of the gig economy in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” in the 21st century.

The 21st century Bakken boom describes the massive influx of workers into the predominantly rural counties of western North Dakota. The need for workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere in the overheating regional economy exceeded housing capacity and this led to a range of ad hoc and provisional response from both workers and the overwhelmed municipalities.

The stories of workers camping out in the Williston Walmart parking lot and local parks made national headlines. In response to this situation, Williston, the largest city in the Bakken region, approved “man camps” within their expanded jurisdiction to accommodate the influx of workers. National and global logistics companies constructed and managed these facilities to serve the needs of other large companies who sought lodging for shifts of workers arriving in western North Dakota to drill for oil, to build pipelines, or to improve local infrastructure. Additionally, Williams, Mountrail, and McLean counties provided provisional zoning for outside investors seeking to build RV parks for temporary workers without connections to major companies or who were looking for work. The result was a patchwork of over 100 workforce housing sites across the region that provided shelter for workers in a wide range of conditions.

The most elaborate housing sites, such as those erected by Target Logistics, provided clean housing, decent food, and limited amenities to thousands of workers. The single or sometimes double rooms were standardized and workers who came to the region for four or six week shifts had limited opportunities to personalize their space. The public spaces of these camps were plain, but functional, enlivened only by the occasional print of generic patriotic or natural scenes.

The situation in RV parks was more varied and attracted more of our attention. In general, residents owned their RVs and at the height of the boom, RV parks showed a remarkable range of efforts to customize these spaces and adapt them to the challenges of the North Dakota winter. The most elaborate RVs featured not only insulated skirting around the sides, but also fenced yards, gardens, raised walkways, cooking, eating and socializing areas, and storage sheds. Elaborate mudrooms are perhaps the quintessential feature of these units. In their simplest form they constituted a lean-to aligned with the door of the RV where residents could extract themselves from their work and winter gear. Not infrequently they also provided space for storage, additional living space, and transformed the rectangular RV into a L-shaped building that also offered more privacy for their outdoor space.

When we first visited the Bakken we couldn’t escape admiring these innovative efforts to expand and adapt RVs into full time, if temporary residential structures. These architectural adaptations almost led us to overlook the fragility of water and sewage infrastructure in many of these camps, the dust and mud that were constant parts of daily life in the spring, fall, and summer, and the desperate attempts to fortify the RV from the biting North Dakota cold wind. Moreover, by 2015, counties had begun to pass new ordinances restricting how residents could adapt their RVs. They banned skirting that rendered the RV immobile and mudrooms, for example. As the intensity of the boom declined owing to lower oil prices and improved technology in drilling, the number of residents in RV camps declined as well and many camps took on a rougher, more forlorn appearance. Abandoned camps have left their scars on the prairie landscape as gravel pads, buried pipes, and discarded polystyrene, treated wood, wiring, metal, and other detritus complicates returning these sites in agricultural production.

Efforts by temporary workers in the Bakken to personalized their living spaces demonstrated an effort to re-create some of the pleasures of an American suburb even as foreclosures displaced many of the same workers from their suburban homes. Hostile municipalities, the risks associated with work in the oil industry, the volatility of global markets, and the challenges associated with substandard housing, reflected the kind of “structural violence” inherent in capitalism that Michael Roller has associated with life in late 19th century coal towns of western Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, it is notable that restrictions on workforce housing did not accompany efforts to improve workers safety or environmental protection. Throughout the second decade of the 21st century, the Bakken maintained one of the worst records of worker safety in the US and has experienced major spills of both oil and waste water. Alongside these problems, writers have long recognized the violence of hydraulic fracturing, the dominant form of technology used to extract oil from the tight shale of the middle Bakken formation.

Over the last decade, the Bakken has been a center for recent efforts to highlight the relationship between extractive industries and climate change. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which links the Bakken to the Pakota Oil Terminal in Illinois, offered an explosive reminder of the strong ties between colonialism, extractive industries, and the state violence in maintaining our uninterrupted access to petroleum. Our work in the Bakken, at the start of the pipeline, sought to make visible a more subtle indication of these same violence in the housing of the temporary workforce who makes our persistent dependence on fossil fuels possible.

Few can deny that the contemporary climate crisis represents a moment of existential violence for many communities around the world.

The Bakken and Climate Change: History

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Earlier this year, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a book that combined chapters of a 1958 report on the situation around Williston during the first Bakken oil boom with a series of new chapters written about the early 21st century boom.  For both booms, scholars of the geography, economy, politics, medial and social aspects of the Bakken oil boom contributed chapters and those writing in the 21st century sought to bridge the gap between the most recent boom and that of the 1950s.

(You can download the book for free here.)

As the only historian writing for the volume, I have to admit that our contribution missed an opportunity. We predictably focused on workforce housing and our article works for the volume as it recognizes the parallels between the concern for workforce housing during the first and 21st century booms.

At the same time, we do very little to situation workforce housing within the changing character of housing in the second half of the 20th century. It is telling, of course that, J.B. Jackson’s famous essay, “The Westward Moving House” appeared in 1953, a mere two years after the spudding of the Clarence Iverson #1 near Tioga, North Dakota. This essay traced the Tinkham family’s homes from the first house they family constructed in the 17th-century New England wilderness to the most recent in mid-century Bonniview, Texas. If Nehemiah Tinkham’s house represented a deep commitment to a place through its solid, if inflexible architecture. By the 20th century, Ray Tinkham’s new house was designed to adapt to changes in their family and priorities and to support a mobile lifestyle made possible through fossil fuels and their surplus capital. If Jackson were to have continued the westward movement of housing in the US, he would have almost certainly added a chapter to the Tingham family’s history in the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona. Here, the “crabgrass frontier” defined the air-conditioned suburbs from the desert and the extractive landscape of coal mines situated on the Navaho Nation near the Four Corners where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. In 1960, Jackson published a short article, “The Four Corners Country,” on the trailer housing of this area occupied by Native Americans and arrivals to the region who worked in rapidly expanding coal industry developed to support the cities of the New West.

At the same time that America was enjoying its post-war prosperity, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were working to secure greater control over their oil reserves. The fields developed by ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia drew American workers to the region as early as the 1930s when the American corporate enclave of Dhahran was founded. By the 1950s, Dhahran became an “outpost of Empire” featuring many of the amenities of an American suburb. By 1959, North Dakotan Thomas Barger was the president of ARAMCO who famously tapped Wallace Stenger, the “Dean of Western Writers” (who also spent time in North Dakota) to pen the history of ARAMCO and its discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula. (It is interesting to note the Barger was succeeded by another North Dakotan Thomas Junger in the 1970s.) 

These anecdotal connections between the Middle East and North Dakota and the American West should not detract from the more substantive links between the changing character of post-war America life and the need for a stable supply of fossil fuels. The suburbs, consumer culture, and rapid increase in the number of automobiles came to define American life and North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch and ARAMCOs growing footprint in Saudi Arabia both represent forms of political, economic, and cultural colonization characteristic of both the post-war world and extractive industries. Indeed, the development of the oil industry in the Bakken represents an interesting domestic example of what Andre Gunder Frank called “the development of underdevelopment” where multinational companies intentionally manage the flow of wealth to local communities and use a wide range of economic, social, and cultural methods to construct dependent relationships that eventually make residents of these regions less capable of political autonomy. The impact of these kinds of relationships on North Dakota is painfully apparent as the state’s oil soaked political culture has struggled to produce sustainable economic gain from the most recent oil boom despite now ranking second only to Texas in barrels of oil per day.

The relationship between the history of the Bakken oil patch, post-war colonialism, American consumer culture and suburbanization, and climate change is not subtle. The archaeology of contemporary climate change operates at the intersection of historical and cultural developments as well as climate science. The specificity and detailed character of our study of workforce housing in the Bakken is not epiphenomenal to the current global climate situation.

The subprime mortgage crisis which touched off the Great Recession contributed directly to the labor pool who arrived in the Bakken eager to tap into the region’s petroleum wealth. Some lived in mobile housing units of the same kind deployed in Iraq to house contractors and solider or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans whose scattered population represented only the most visible and dramatic example of the coming wave of migrants displaced by new and intensified patterns of our increasingly volatile climate. In other words, an archaeology of climate change must recognize how the mechanisms developed to finance the growing rate of economic inequality, to accommodate soldiers during colonial wars and house the displaced in the aftermath of natural disasters also contribute to extraction of petroleum from the Middle Bakken formation in Western North Dakota.   

The Bakken and Climate Change: Fieldwork

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

In our brief organizational meeting last week, Ömür remarked that he was increasingly drawn to the idea of fieldwork as a method for understanding climate change and ecology. He shared an article by Alexandra Arènes, Bruno Latour, and Jérôme Gaillardet which discussed their efforts to offer a local, “Gaia-graphic view” of actors and systems that produce the surface of the earth (the so-called “critical zone”). To do this, they encourage intensive research at the level of the site, which not only would orient around local concerns and questions, but also the kind of local knowledge that allows scientists to understand the geo-chemical processes in a more “concrete, dynamic, complex, heterogeneous and reactive” way. Only later in the process will researchers pull together the heterogeneous work of these “critical zone observatories” to create a more integrated view of the “nested envelopes necessary for sustaining life.”

Our work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota was not concerned with the geochemistry of the critical zone, nor was it part of a sustained project of observatories designed to produce a network of intensive local views. It was, however, intensely local. We developed our research questions, methods, and analysis on site and in response both to the changing local situation in the Bakken as well as our experiences doing research there.

In this sense, our work is decidedly not about the Middle East and in many ways not about climate change, climate politics, or climate justice. Instead, we focused on workforce housing and the variety of local approaches to temporary life in the oil patch. We often discussed, as we drove from site to site across the region, the range of adaptations designed to accommodate the precarious and highly mobile employment situation characteristic both of the historical organization of extractive industries in the American West, and also in the growing prevalence of the gig economy on a global scale. Our comparanda for discussing and understanding workforce housing, then, ranged from the informal shacks often present in 19th century Western mining camps, barracks on bonanza farms or the high-tech accommodations on the North Slope of Alaska to the manufactured housing used to house migrant workers at large-scale construction projects in the Persian Gulf or the dormitories at factories in Asia that cater to the fluid world of just-in-time production. 

Our foothold in the Bakken provided us with insights into the daily and seasonal life of the precarious labor pool who worked on road construction crews, drove trucks filled with oil or fracking fluid, built pipelines, ran casing on drill rigs, and fished out equipment dropped down bore holes, as well as workers in the Bakken who supported the oil industry in other ways: cooking, cleaning, and security at workforce housing sites, repairing and cleaning diesel equipment, managing local businesses, or serving at restaurants and bars across the region. These workers, on the ground, remain an essential component of both the contemporary global economy and the climate regime.  

The ability to extract oil from the Middle Bakken formation depends in no small part on the ability deploy and maintain a workforce in a relatively remote region amid both the volatility of the oil market and the often-difficult weather of the North Dakota winter (itself dependent in no small part on the global weather patterns). Intensive fieldwork at the local level allowed us to produce not only a patchy deep map of white settler-landscape interaction over the last 100 years (a la Borges), but also a broad map of contemporary efforts to create a temporary home in Western North Dakota. 

In this context, the RVs surrounded by vegetable gardens, elaborate mudrooms, elevated walkways, and the distinctive marks of personal tastes connect the individuals in the Bakken to notions of home anchored in dispositions developed in American suburbs. The new temporary suburbs accommodated a precarious middle class who worked to extract the fossil fuels destined to power the expectations of post-war capitalism, consumer culture, patriotism, and suburban settlement. The hollow parody of these suburban affectations along the dusty lanes of Bakken workforce housing made visible the cruel optimism of the capitalocene (that we termed “Bakktimism”) and the incipient failure of the very system that these workers tirelessly drove onward. 

As humanity continues to assess the looming impact of global climate change, the local mechanisms which continue to accelerate our consumption of fossil fuels often give lie to its promise of capital deepening and petroleum prosperity. This contradiction is most visible on the ground where the deep horizontal wells of the Bakken meet the human labor necessary to keep the oil and gas flowing to refineries and markets. 

The Bakken and Climate Change: Flows

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Anyone who visited the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota, especially at the peak of the its boom, would witness a region in constant motion. A grid of roads and railroads forms a defining feature of the landscape, and the constant flow of trucks and trains produced moving monuments to extractive industry. The “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River snakes it way through the heart of the oil patch, from the Montana border until the Garrison Dam pools its waters in Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The regular appearance of tank farms, natural gas compressor stations, and “processed water” disposal sites, hint at the role that “midstream” service providers play in bringing oil and gas to market and disposing of waste. 

For five years at the height of the Bakken oil boom, the North Dakota Man Camp project documented temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. Initially we focused our attention on workforce housing sites especially those defined by the clusters of RVs, neatly arranged grids of carefully managed mobile housing units, or, especially during chaotic early years of the boom, impromptu camp sites in parking lots, shelter belts, rural farmyards, and abandoned townsites. Set against the timelessness of western North Dakota’s Ektachrome skies, the palpable ephemerality mutability of the so-called “man camps” stand out. In the first years of the project, the time spent traveling between our various study sites across the region was far greater than out time on site. In fact, our time sitting in our project trucks moving through the congested and occasionally terrifying Bakken traffic formed a rolling seminar of sorts where we formed typologies, hypotheses, and arguments for what we were seeing across the region. In other words, the encounter of motion in the Bakken was one that we initially felt and experienced as much as understood and analyzed.

In this context, the concept of flow and its key place within larger studies of the modern world was palpable. Indeed, the flow of oil from the Bakken and the flow of workers and other forms of capital into the Bakken allowed us to understand the landscape of western North Dakota as not only coterminous with the landscape of extractive industries elsewhere — whether on the North Slope of Alaska, the Permian basin, the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, or the oil field of the Middle East — but also the confluence of flows that inscribe ever more deeply the scars of capitalist urgency on the landscape and advance the rate of anthropogenic climate change.

In an effort to document the complexity of these modern flows we adapted Tim Ingold’s concept of taskscapes in our effort to describe the confluence of movement in the Bakken. In an effort to narrate our encounters we presented our work in the form of a tourist guide. Tourism, or at least its modern variety, situated our work as both within and outside Charles Orser’s oft-recited “haunts” of historical archaeology: colonialism, Eurocentrism, capitalism, and modernity. The archaeologist as tourist naturally moves with the flow of capital, along paths established through colonial appropriation, outward, at least intellectually, from our European (rational, empirical, industrial, disciplinary, and racial) metropole, and with all the expectations and convenience of modernity. As Dean MacCannell taught us, the emergence of the middle-class tourist, as opposed to an upper class “traveler,” relied as much on the increase of surplus wealth available to the middle classes and their desire to define their class through behavior that intentionally evoked the habits of the wealthy as it did on the low cost of fossil fuels which made travel possible. If the ubiquity of transnational flows in capital allows us to make the Bakken coterminous with oil fields in the Middle East, then our fieldwork in the region mimicked a tourist’s itinerary where the wonders of modern industry passed by our windows in all their industrial glory.

The dual poles of “ecotourism” and “toxic tourism” reflect persistent modern (European, colonial, and capitalist) efforts to make visible the invisible world of ecosystems and pollution. Industrial tourism and “poorism” which brings well-heeled travelers to witness the poor communities, likewise, reflects an ironic desire to reconcile the power of capital to create and destroy. The tourist remains comfortably ensconced in a flow of experience that smooths the incommensurability between their position as witnesses, the world that they are encountering, and any potential alternatives.

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

This has been a challenging month. I have too much on my plate and too many competing priorities. I did, however, manage to produce a very rough draft of a chapter for my slow moving book project. Below is my standard post on why I’m sharing book chapters and a link to Chapter 7.

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A couple of years ago, I watched one of my buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

To date, I have completed seven chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the seven of the first eight chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

The Ecology of Cities

I’m still flailing away at the penultimate chapter of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. The last month or so has been among the most hectic in my life as I’ve struggled to balance teaching, service, new opportunities, and old obligations. During this time, I’ve been chipping away at my book, but the chips are getting smaller and the coherence of the various chapters more tenuous. There will be distinct difference between chapter written pre- and post-COVID. A more creative author than I am would be able to make this a feature rather than a bug. 

In any event, here’s the final chunk of chapter 7 which ostensibly considers industrial archaeology, ruins, and cities. You can read earlier chunks of it here, here, here, and here. My goal today, between grading, course preparation, some reading, and a committee meeting is to file down some of the rough edges and then call it a chapter draft. On November 2nd, I start the next and final chapter draft. My deadline is January 31st for a completed manuscript. 

Cities provide particularly visible spaces for protests in the 21st century in part because they are epicenters of change in the post-industrial world. The mid-20th century role of American and many European cities as manufacturing centers that transformed raw materials into consumer goods has steadily declined in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The rise of global supply chains and distributed and just-in-time production practices has transformed both the urban landscape in the United States and Europe. The rise of suburbs, “white flight,” and the decline in tax revenue available to increasingly impoverished cities contributed to economic, regional, and racial tensions. As we have seen, cities such as Detroit or the South Bronx section of New York have become iconic as much for its industrial ruins and poverty as its once storied past as a manufacturing and cultural centers.

The decaying industrial landscapes of these cities form an appropriate backdrop to not only the economic and racial protests, but also environmental concerns. The incipient interest among historical archaeologists in the environmental impact of industrial practices and urbanization (e.g. Benjamin 2017 [2020]; Dawdy 2010). As Jeff Benjamin observed contemporary industrial ruins are not just a commentary on the limits of capitalism, but also an opportunity to consider ways to escape from the environmental legacy of our industrial past. Dawdy’s understanding of the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans offers both new ways of seeing the city and disasters. When hurricane Katrina destroyed the levies holding back the waters of the Mississippi, the literal boundary between the city and river collapsed. The clean up and remains left behind after this disaster preserved the blurred line between the ordered space of the city, the devastation of Katrina, and the natural and political forces that constituted destruction and recovery. For Dawdy, the ruins revealed the inequalities in economic, social, and political power within the city that dictated which sites were rebuilt, when they saw attention, and how they were rebuilt. Ruins also cultivate the emergence of alternate forms of social and material relations as Anna Tsing (2014) has argued in her study of the matsutake mushrooms which thrive in landscapes produced by industrial logging and abandoned intensive agriculture. As Edensor (2005) and DeSilvey have observed among industrial ruins, these spaces blurred any number of social and ontological divisions that define our world (2005). The natural and the cultural, the industrial and the rural, the past and the present, and the neatly ordered and chaotic, all coincide in the space of ruins.

By blurring the division between the natural and the human, these critiques of ruins open onto a larger critique of the relationship between humans and their environment. While the archaeology of the contemporary urban world remains in its infancy, it seems inevitable that the thriving field of urban environmental history will exert a significant influence. The work of William Cronon, especially his epic study of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis (1991), recognized the relationship between cities and their often expansive hinterlands. Rather than envisioning these connections as spokes on a wheel or a series of connections and nodes, the ontological blurriness that describes the character of ruins might likewise apply to the categories of cities and their hinterland. For example, A. Beisaw’s article on the archaeology of the New York City massive water supply parallels David Soll’s recent history (2013) of the network of watersheds, reservoirs, aqueducts, communities, agencies, and policies that bring New York its fresh water. The requirements and habits of the New York residents have shaped the landscape and ecology though dams, reservoirs, and watershed conservation designed to ensure the security of New York’s water. These efforts, however, have limited the opportunities among upstate communities to develop economically despite their access to lakes and natural space. Amahia Mallea’s work (2018) on the relationship between Kansas City and the Missouri River locates the city and its policies along the longest river in North America at the messy intersection of social, economic, and regional attitudes. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline’s route beneath the Missouri River not only reflected local concerns for the pipeline’s route, but emphasized the massive reach of the Missouri’s course and the diverse communities impacted should the pipeline become compromised. The dense web of infrastructure that allows contemporary society to function continuously redefines the character and extend of urban space and transgresses the limits of traditional demographic and administrative divisions. For example, Andrew Needham’s environmental history of Phoenix, Arizona (2014) goes beyond the blurry “Crabgrass Frontier” of the southwestern city’s suburbs and follows the high-current power lines to the coal mines and power plants on the Navaho reservation which made Phoenix’s Post-War expansion possible. Matthew Kingle’s environmental history of Seattle begins and ends with the journey of the Pacific salmon whose annual efforts to return to their spawning grounds invariably take them past Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park. The preservation of industrial ruins forms a backdrop to more recent efforts to restore the ruins of city’s waterways.