Public Art, Grand Forks, and Joel Jonientz

We had a beautiful day yesterday celebrating the state of North Dakota’s 125thaversary and the art (and life) of Joel Jonientz. We hung his mural on a bizarre storage unit at the intersection of Walnut St. and S. 5th Avenue in Grand Forks. It looks great there. It got a nice story in the Grand Forks Herald. About 40 people came out to the event.

The program started at Centennial Part where we all admired City Councilor Bret Weber’s public orator and the fine broken clock that celebrates the timeless traditions of the Northern Plains.


We then crossed the street and admired Joel’s mural. Bret told the story of how Joel and he got together on the mural project. He left out a few parts and for the historical record, I’ll clarify here.

First, when Bret began talking about public art in Grand Forks, I mentioned that Joel had painted murals with Americorp in Seattle and was (cough, cough) never all THAT busy.  So Bret and Joel and met at J.L. Beers – a local beer and burger place – to hash out details. I drank beer and Joel and Bret hashed. 

The result of that was a proposed mural by Joel. It appears to have involved sheep. I never saw this draft of the mural, but I hope they were as awesome as these sheep.

Bret was not impressed with Joel’s sheep, and told me so. 

I told Joel – probably after a beer or two – that Bret wasn’t feeling his mural. Joel laughed about it in that way that artists sometimes laugh leaving you unsure whether he was hurt or had just added Bret to his list of people who would never get it.

Bret, of course, had not communicated this to Joel, but the next time the two were in the same place, the first thing Joel said to Bret was “I hear you didn’t like my mural.” He then told Bret to go and look at his stuff. Bret later admitted that this was usually something you did before commissioning a piece of public art, but it didn’t matter because Joel was able to repurpose some of his Fatty Arbuckle work into the perfect mural to hang across from a police station and next to a rail line.

In a less public venue, it will be fun to recount the adventures involved in moving the prepared, but unpainted panels into Joel’s van late one evening…

Here are the murals, which were finished by students and colleagues in the Department of Art and Design at UND.




It was cool to see the community embrace public art and got me thinking about what more I could do to make Grand Forks a more interesting place.

Celebrating Joel Jonientz’s Mural

This weekend the city of Grand Forks will hang a mural painted by Joel Jonientz and residents of the Near Southside Neighborhood and some of Joel’s colleagues in the department of Art and Design.

You can check out Joel’s progress on the mural here.

I was involved in putting Joel in contact with my buddy Bret Weber who is on city council. I feel pretty confident in saying that the project was a pain in the ass for both Joel and Bret, but it will be nice to have the mural hung to commemorate Joel’s time as part of our community.

The event starts at 11:30 and is at the corner of Walnut and South 5th St.

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Here’s the official press release.

The City of Grand Forks, along with the Near Southside Neighborhood, will commemorate the 125th anniversary of North Dakota statehood with the unveiling of a mural.  A celebration will start at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, at Centennial Park in downtown Grand Forks.  Located at the intersection of South 5th Street, Walnut Street, and Kittson Avenue, Centennial Park – anchored by a clock tower — was developed 25 years ago to mark the State centennial.   The event will then move across 5th Street to unveil a mural sponsored by the Near Southside Neighborhood.  Part of the Mayor’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative (MUNI), the mural project was a multi-year neighborhood effort involving brainstorming, fundraising, and hands-on community participation.  This event will also celebrate the life of local artist Joel Jonientz, creator of the mural, who passed away unexpectedly last year.   Jonientz was an art professor at UND, and his UND colleagues  helped complete the mural in his honor.   The event will wrap up at the 2nd floor of Rhombus Guys.  All are invited to attend this community event

Punk Archaeology, Digital Humanities, and DIY

A few weeks back my buddy Paul Worley penned an interesting blog post on digital humanities and “getting hit by the proverbial bus.” The post talked about the ripple effect of Joel Jonientz’s death in our little digital humanities community on campus. For the University of North Dakota, the digital humanities was an explicitly collaborative affair with almost all of the successful project from the Working Group in Digital and New Media involving more than one member. It seems like Joel was central to most of these projects as much for his willingness to learn a new skill (or fake it) as his interest in what another member of the Working Group called “O.P.P.” (other people’s projects).  

One of the consequences of Joel’s passing is that many of us have had to pick up where he left off and actually try to learn new tools to complete our projects. The good Dr. Worley learned to animate using Photoshop, Dr. Ommen deployed his raw, but vivid illustrating skills to finish his adaption of Isocrates’ Against the Sophists, and I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself in the intricacies of Adobe’s InDesign to keep The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota afloat. It is appropriate that the first book that I worked on is an edited collection of essays on Punk Archaeology where the DIY ethic thrives and compromised production values represent an aesthetic choice as much as a practical reality. 

As Paul noted, dynamic, collaborative Digital Humanities projects should always be somewhat fragile as DIY skills pass from one collaborator to the next and projects transform in changing contexts.  The significance and potential of collaboration will always extend beyond specific outcomes – e.g. a book or a successful grant proposal – and the value of catalytic individuals like Joel and spaces for collaboration like the Working Group, is in the transfer of specialized skills from one member of the collaboration to the next. From the university’s perspective, this transfer of skills provides stability and continuity for (sometimes well-funded) initiatives. From an individual faculty perspective, however, the fuzzy outcomes of digital humanities initiatives which often come in the form of skills rather than products, can be difficult to articulate, for example, within traditional tenure and promotion guidelines. To some, this tension is terrifying and represents the contradiction between the goals of the university as a community and the expectations placed on its individual members.

That being said, the task of taking new skills and using them is pretty scary too.


Today, Brett Ommen is going to begin recording the final episode – at least for now – of Professor Footnote. It is a memorial episode for Joel Jonientz who died late last month before more episodes could be recorded and produced. A number of his friends are going to swing by the the Working Group in Digital and New Media lab to chat with Brett about Joel and, in keeping with the theme of the program, any topic outside our area of expertise.

I want to talk with Brett about a couple of topics that I had just begun to share with Joel. So I thought I would get some thoughts down here before I head into the studio.

One thing that Joel could do better than anyone I’ve ever met was collaborate. He had the ability to shape his creativity into almost any form required in a project and manage his frustrations with us and the project in an almost superhuman way. Since he died, I’ve been thinking about what he had that allowed him to collaborate so easily with a range of other folks across campus and what we could take away from Joel’s commitment to collaboration.

First, collaboration is not longer a luxury in academia today. We’re not longer in a world where individual projects celebrate the lonely genius of devoted scholar. Today, non-collaborative work represents – in most cases – a poor investment for funding institutions and disciplines. Collaborative work takes advantage of economies of scale and the idea that two people working together and sharing expertise can accelerate the production of knowledge in ways that a solitary scholar working away in his or her dimly lit office cannot. Collaboration, of course, take many forms and should not diminish from an individual’s ability to contribute to their field or the debate, although it might effect the credit and control an individual has over their contribution.

In the humanities, our most common collaborative moments happen in the background. We regularly rely on editors, conscientious colleagues and interlocutors, and, of course, our students who rarely get explicit credit for their contributions. Perhaps it is our familiarity with that model that make more involved and elaborate collaboration between scholarly peers less appealing.

Whatever the reason, Joel had certain characteristics that made him an effective and willing collaborator, and while it is dangerous to generalize from a single example (I do live dangerously, of course), I think we can learn something from his methods:

1. Take risks. Over the past few weeks, we’ve probably worn out Joel’s enthusiasm for bad plans. That being said, his willingness to go along with a bad plan reflected his relatively high tolerance for risks and his own confidence that he’d be able to figure out a way to make something happen. In fact, as with many entrepreneurs, I suspect his tolerance for risk was no greater than most of us, but his confidence in his abilities to mitigate that risk was greater.

The ability to manage risk is crucial in collaboration. By including more people and more moving parts, the number of variables increases and our ability to control all aspects of a project decreases.

2. Have a dynamic body of work. Joel’s work was spectacularly dynamic from traditional humanities-type scholarship in the history of comics and animation to painting, computer animation, video work, and most recently sound. His ability to move from one medium to the next allowed him to both understand the challenges facing collaborators as they struggled to develop specialized skills, as well as to supply skills over a range of different areas.

Collaborations usually depend on our ability to understand the diverse workflows of various actors, the best academic collaborators have produced dynamic body of work that demonstrates both their ability to adapt and understand challenges outside their area of specialty.

3. Have skills. Closely tied to experience with different media, is the need for real, substantial, specialized skills. The best collaborators bring a specific body of expertise to a project. This expertise might be a distinct skill – in Joel’s case this ranged from graphic design to animation – or honed understanding of a particular set of tools – in Joel’s case this meant digital tools.


Having a well-defined skill set or area of expertise helps to formalize the conditions of collaboration by defining clear domains of responsibility. Just as having a dynamic body of work ensures that a good collaborator can understand diverse workflows, a clear set of skills ensures that a collaborator have a set of realistic responsibilities.

4. Be willing and able to work independently. One of the silliest things I hear from people resistant to collaboration is that they don’t like to work with other people. This is crazy. The best collaborations do not necessarily involve working together. In fact, I might suggest that the best collaborative ventures involve individuals with distinct skills working independently toward a common goal.

Over the past year or so, I worked with Joel in creating a new digital press. The project had (and will continue to have) its challenges moving forward. Even when the project bogged down in university politics or our own overwhelming schedules, I could rely on Joel to take the initiative and get things done without constant badgering or pressure. He could work independently to move a project forward.

5. Advocate for collaboration. Finally, the best collaborators are advocates for collaboration. One of the most bizarre things taking place at the University of North Dakota is how they go about encouraging collaboration on campus. They provide funding for collaborations at the beginning of projects, but so far have done little to reward collaborations when they’re completed.


It doesn’t take much creativity to propose a collaborative project, but it does involve creativity to bring one to completion. I’d suggest that our fine university consider the the preceding criteria as a way to ascertain the whether a collaboration is likely to result in a positive outcome.

More importantly, however, they need to work toward practices that ensure that faculty are rewarded for successfully completing collaborative practices. Joel contributed to a white paper produced by our Working Group in Digital and New Media that helped ensure that faculty who do collaborate get recognized in the same way as those who toil away (inefficiently) on their individual projects. Recognizing the results of collaboration will do much more than funding projects at the onset to support collaborative work on campus.

I’ve blogged on similar topic here and here.

Curating Digital Joel

On Monday evening, some of Joel Jonientz’s University of North Dakota colleagues and I began the gut-wrenching process of preparing his digital archive. (For more on Joel, check out his blog here and my little post on him here.)

While Joel was trained as a painter, in the last decade he had moved heavily to digital media for his work. His animation, design, video, and audio content was scattered over three computers and a bunch of hard drives. After a quick look, we determined that almost everything on these machines was work related, but his organization was a bit complex, so instead of just grabbing content files, we imaged the drives on the computer (more or less) to make sure that we got everything we might need.

As we did this, we looked over the terabyte or more of data and realized that the process of curating this content would be more than just a long evening or weekend. Joel has three kids and a fabulous wife and they wanted copies of his digital legacy. Moreover, we wanted to make some of Joel’s legacy available to the university archives as part of its mission to archive the work of faculty. They are just now coming to terms with the complexities of archiving digital work, so my colleagues and I are looking to help them as much as possible.

So far, we’ve encountered three issues as we began to think through the process of curating his digital collection:

1. Formats. Joel worked pretty easily across multiple proprietary software platforms for image, video, and audio editing as well as layout and design. As  result, his hard drives are a bewildering array of file types that will have to be converted to archival formats. In some cases, that will be easy. Audio files can be converted to .wav files and Photoshop files convert easily to uncompressed .tiff formats. Video files present a different challenge, of course, as they have – from what I can tell – garnered the same kind of wide agreement for an archival format. 

More than that, the formats of files do preserve traces of Joel’s artistic process. Animation for example might easily involve both proprietary still image formats, design, and video. While we plan to have several copies of the imaged drives preserved, we began to think about how the relationship between proprietary file types and process should be represented in the more carefully and selective curated archive. Converting all the propriety file types to archival formats runs the risk of overwriting part of his creative process by obscuring the tools he used to make his works. 

2. Structure. The issue of curating process extends to file structure as well. When we produce a curated copy of his files saved to archival formats, we will have to make some difficult decisions on how to reconcile the formats present on multiple hard drives with multiple file structures that often preserved parts of the same project or projects. Some of this will involve working closely with people familiar with various projects. Joel was an intensely collaborative dude who worked with multiple people on multiple projects so it will be a challenge to figure out who can help understand the key components and organization of his work. 

3. Stability. This is the biggest challenge and one that we don’t have to face alone. We need to move a significant amount of data to a stable medium that will be there for his kids when they start to get interested in their father’s work. Right now hard drives are not particularly stable when we’re looking at a decade or more of storage. In fact, hardware in general is not stable over such long periods of time. So we’ll have to make a plan to keep migrating the data to new hardware and to make sure that it will be available for the future.

For now, we have a solid start on organizing and curating Joel’s digital legacy. Once I get back from summer fieldwork, we are going to start to digital curation process in earnest. As we do that, and make progress, I’ll keep the world in the loop.

Joel Jonientz

Yesterday we lost Joel Jonientz, one of my closest friends, collaborators, and neighbors. He was 46 and has a wife and three small kids. It sucks.

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Joel was a remarkable guy. He had vast knowledge ranging from painting, drawing, and comics (his scholarly specialty) to music, technology, baseball, football, and (while he refused to discuss it as a Seattle sports fan) the NBA. He knew how to use a circular and a table saw (and rebuilt my front porch while I helped). Whenever there was something to do, he’d remind me: he could read how to do it on the internet, and he had a masters in FINE arts. He could go from moderating a panel of poets, artists, and writers at the UND Writers Conference to complaining about an offseason move by the Seahawks in a moment.

He co-produced a podcast and you can hear it here.

He maintained a blog that documented his art here.

He has videos on Vimeo here including this one in Mayan.

He designed an amazing poster for Punk Archaeology here for free because he though the entire thing sounded fun. He laid out the book and designed the cover art.

He always stayed to the end of the game when watching sports at my place. When things were going well for one of our teams, he would insist on high-fives. I don’t do high fives.


He understood that it was just as important to hang out when things were going poorly. In 2011, he was the only person watching the NLDS with me (in a crowded house) and we both noticed Ryan Howard limping after running hard to first on the final out of the Phillies’ losing effort.

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More than any of that, he was a family guy. He loved his wife and kids in a way that gave perspective to the entire world and gave him a consistent set of priorities that guided his life, work, and friendships. When he and I were stressed out about something, he’d smile and tell me that when he got home, he had three little people who would remind him of what was really important in life and produce joy.

Whenever I needed something, he would be there to help. He was supportive of most of my ideas (and he was supportive of most of his friends’ ideas) even if it was largely because “he loved a bad plan.”

Yesterday, I was barely able to function, but today, I think I’m seeing a bit more clearly. Anyone who met Joel – even just for a moment – remembers him, and we’ll all feel his loss for a long time.

Joel and I had plans! He was the co-director of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me. We had both worked hard to direct the disparate energies of the Working Group in Digital and New Media (there was even talk of us getting a web page!). He was fascinated by my work in the Bakken and, when we last talked on Easter, he was excited for my plan to excavate Atari games in the New Mexico desert.

If yesterday, I was wracked by grief, and, while today I don’t feel any less sad, I also realize how much work I have to do to live up to Joel’s legacy.

A little update : This post has received over 400 page views in the last few hours. Joel used to tell me that a mention on my blog was worth about 30 page views on his. He and his friends are returning the favor 10 fold. So take a few minutes to click through to his blog, listen to a podcast, or check out a video. This image was touching today.

One update more: My good friend Tim Pasch shared this with us today. It’s a cover of Grateful Dead’s Ripple.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.