An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch

This past week my colleague Richard Rothaus presented a paper for the North Dakota Man Camp project on a session dedicated to “An Archaeology of Care” at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. We’re still working through the idea, but each iteration and conversation gets us closer to distinguishing the concept from the range of similar frameworks already at play in archaeology (e.g. ethical archaeology, public archaeology, et c.) and weaving together a recognizable body of theory and practice.   

By all accounts, the paper and the panel went well, and Richard graciously allowed me to share the final draft of the paper here (although I’ve found that the final draft of a paper for Richard may only have a passing resemblance to what he presents at the conference!): 

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)

A Paper Presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology
January 2017
Ft. Worth, Texas  

Richard Rothaus (North Dakota University System)
William Caraher (University of North Dakota)
Bret Weber (University of North Dakota)

I think I coined the term of “archaeology of care” impromptu during a podcast. I was searching for a descriptor of archaeological practice that intersects with living people in a way that they find positive and relevant; an archaeological practice that leaves subjects feeling valued and worthy of study, not gawked at, not as descendants of lost or vanishing lifeways. In this sense, “archaeology of care” is a contribution to conversations emphasizing the production of a more ethical archaeology that avoids the occasional anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. Such projects have surfaced across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices with particularly productive developments around community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and public archaeology. These developments look to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and to find shared values in archaeological practice and knowledge.

[SLIDE 3]

For the University of North Dakota Mancamp Project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and historical research in the Bakken oil patch. We began the project as citizens of North Dakota using an academic toolkit to response to the massive influx of population that came with the Bakken unconventional shale play. In this context, our archaeology of care developed two-fold: first, by regular and sustained interactions with the residents of the Bakken living amidst the material culture that we were studying and second, by immersing ourselves in research that, out of the myriad of possible questions, chose some relevant to the lifeways of the residents of this region. We were valued in the field because we came not to fix anything, but rather to understand what was happening. 

[SLIDE 4]. 

As we travelled, invariably residents of the workforce housing sites inquired about our work. During these informal interactions with the residents of the Bakke, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for all parties. The residents of the area appreciated that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study.  Investigators and residents recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically, and this revealed an intersection of our research goals with the experiences of individuals. The Man Camp project was an archaeology of care not just because we treated individuals with respect and involved them, but more deeply, because our academic approach to lifeways, economics, and material culture eschewed ironic and counterintuitive hypothesis building and instead found significant overlap with the experiences and expectations of residents of the Bakken.

[SLIDE 5]

While we would express it in different ways, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same concerns and expectations for how a range of social actors conceptualized the labor of the boom.  Central to these overlapping sensibilities is the issue of agency: while the vast majority of workers viewed themselves as free agents making rational choices, the reality was far more varied.  Many of the workers in the Bakken are trained professionals for whom life in crew camps and long periods of absence from home are common parts of their trade.  Distinct from that population are the large numbers of individuals who lost jobs or otherwise had their lives disrupted by the Great Recession.  There is a continuum stretching from those for whom the erratic boom/bust cycle is a regular part of their careers, to those for whom seeking employment in the oil patch was the best, worst option available during a period of great social and economic unsettlement.  Our presence and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. We appeared not as omniscient outsiders looking in, ready to pass judgment or solve the problems of others, but as co-residents of a world created, crafted, and interpreted by corporate and extractive industries. In distinction to certain expressions of indigenous archaeology or public archaeology, the archaeology of care subverts the paradigm that construes archaeological outreach or collaboration as between disciplinary archaeologists and “others”.

 [SLIDE 6]

The Bakken Oil Boom, and the influx of temporary labor into the Bakken in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 reflects global trends that Saskia Sassen has summarized as expulsions (2014). Displaced from their homes on account of the mortgage crisis, untethered from the historical fixity of middle-class life, caught up in dynamics of just-in-time manufacturing and contingent labor, and buffeted by the increased speed of an industrial boom-bust cycle, many of the migrant Bakken workers manifest the deterritorialized politics and the overlapping economy of the 21st-century world. The Bakken reflects the expulsions that shape a disrupted world and the tense emergence of new forms of settlement designed to accommodate and normalize the experience of the migrant, the refugee, the modern worker, and in some real ways the archaeologist and the academic. Archaeology is still developing the tools to understand what Cresswell has termed diasporic public spheres, a form without the arbitration of the nation-state, where “no place is privileged, no place is better than another, as from no place the horizon is nearer than from any other” (Cresswell 2006). Short-term settlement and movement in the landscape trace faint lines in the archaeological record and form a basis for the shared significance of the Bakken boom to archaeologists documenting the ephemeral and workers seeking a place within the unsettled modern world.

[SLIDE 7]

The North Dakota Man Camp Project identified 50 workforce housing sites in the Bakken region of North Dakota for systematic investigation. Our research sites were visited regularly over a four-year period and documented through video, photography, sketches, and text descriptions. We complemented the material culture documentation with oral interview. The open-ended sampling method captured not just the stories of workers, but also of spouses and children, of camp managers, and even long-term residents of Western North Dakota. People were almost always eager to share their stories, and seemed to quickly comprehend the intention of the study: they told their unique tales about lives lived during this specific historical moment of resource extraction. Despite the hardships, people were generally optimistic, dogged, even indomitable.

[SLIDE 8]

The interviews captured a thick description of life in temporary worker housing. Beyond basic demographic data, interview subjects were always asked where they came from, how long they had been in the patch, what brought them there, and what sort of work and fortunes they had found or failed to find. They were also asked about where ‘home’ was. After responses that were often emphatic (home is here in the Bakken! Or home is back where I make mortgage payments), follow-up questions generally provided interview subjects with an opportunity to produce more nuanced and complicated descriptions of what they meant by home.

[SLIDE 9]

To deal with the variations among the mancamps in the region, we developed a typology of three classes of camps, all of which are defined by the level of formal organization visible to outsiders and which reflect both historical and contemporary understandings by residents of the camps and their surrounding communities. The ethos, but maybe not the reality, of the Bakken Boom was not that of a worker ending up at the predestined factory job, but the cowboy-entrepreneur, fully cognizant of his own commodification and choosing his own path. These are the denizens of the 21st-century “wage earner’s frontier.” For many the choice of where to live was part of a rational decision to join the boom. For many others, life was ‘hell’ and living in the man camps was an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice, and one that disproportionately consumed a large portion of their earnings. Nonetheless, interviewees had commonly not only thought about this, they could articulate it, and our interest in their choices and articulations was a large part of the archaeology of care.

[SLIDE 10]

The type I camps, run by large providers, are the most highly organized both externally and internally, and inhabited primarily by skilled employees of the major oil companies. An individual lives in a type I camp by virtue of employment arrangement, although it must be noted that the choice to live there is almost always optional. The Type I camps typify the depersonalized non-place, and outside visitors frequently describe them as “sterile” and “prisons”.  The camps are organized as identical living spaces arranged either axially or on a grid. The function of the camps is defined by the interchangeability of parts and people. The profitability of the housing arrangement for the provider depends on its modularity, mobility, and temporal flexibility; the camp can move to where it is needed, when it is needed, and changes are easy as all parts are the same.

[SLIDE 11]

Typically, type I inhabitants are individuals who come in for 21 day stints, working 12 or more hours a day in hard and dangerous working conditions. They are physically and temporally committed exclusively to work during their stay, and thus have minimum need for living space beyond eating, bathing, and sleeping. The Type I camps are a non-place, and the workers are in a window of non-life with no sense of community and certainly no political involvement in the area or processes where they earn their living. They do not personalize their living space, because their life is not here, it is elsewhere, and it is the flow back to their real-world that punctuates time. So it is not that these are people who do not care about domestic space (although there are some such folks among them); rather the Type I camps are inhabited by people who have organized their life around the optimized, maximally efficient deployment of their labor. While we found people in Type I camps who were nonplussed by the arrangements, and reasonably happy to accumulating capital to spend at their other place, we also found other people who had turned themselves ‘off’ to become temporary cogs, waiting to return to actual lives—lives that were ‘generally’ disrupted in damaging ways.

[SLIDE 12]

Type III camps are at the opposite end of spectrum: ephemeral, chaotic places that primarily existed in the earlier days of the boom. Like the Type I camps, the organization of the Type III camps reflects the labor of those within them. The Type III camps are inhabited by semi-skilled people who had wandered to the Bakken to find jobs and careers outside of the orderly movement of skilled labor. Where the Type I camps are uniform and undifferentiated, the Type III camps were individualized conglomerations of tents, trailers, shipping containers, and piles of stuff left in shelter belts. The Type I camps were ephemeral at the discretion of the company, the Type III camps are ephemeral at the discretion of the individuals or local law enforcement. At Type III camps, individuals piece together an extralegal existence that they fully expect to be temporary. The individualization does not, for the most part, represent an intent to define personality and space, but rather an ad hoc, highly independent period of existence.

[SLIDE 13]

Type II camps are akin to RV parks. These camps, like much that one sees in the patch, are often owned by outside interests, investment groups who have sometimes never set foot in North Dakota. Within the camps, housing units are often individually owned trailers, situated in ways that most closely replicate the sense of community found in working-class suburbs. As a result, units that are only meant for temporary living have increasingly become near permanent housing structures operating independent of building and safety codes. The Type II camps occupied most of our time and effort, because within these we were able to see the complexity of individual organization and choices. Such complexity certainly was contained in Type I and III camps as well, but there it was obscured by uniformity or chaos.

[SLIDE 14]

We were drawn to the Type II camps because of the diversity and visibility of material culture. Type II camps facilitate study of the spaces between the trailers. There we are able to observe individuals adapting material culture manufactured for impermanence into at least a simulacrum of permanence. The hyper-abundance of wooden pallets, insulation, fences, gardens, grills, freezers and miscellanea opened the door to the study of personal, temporal and seasonal variations. We found our window to engage fully in an archaeology of care by not asking about the boom, but by asking the question “how have you chosen to live within a boom.” The answers, alas, do not fit within our time limits, so we refer you to our forthcoming papers in Historical Archaeology and the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.

[SLIDE 15]

What makes the UND Mancamp project truly an archaeology of care is our relentless focus not on external economic and organizational structures, but on the organizational structures developed by the workers whose time and bodies have been commoditized in a late-capitalist 24/7 globalized extractive industry (Crary 2014). Our shared investment in understanding the modern world has caused us to arrive, to our own surprise, at a somewhat radical intellectual space, and interestingly, while we did not get there by chance, we also did not get there on purpose. Like many of those living and working in the Bakken, our study entered the stream of what British Economist Guy Standing refers to as a global reality of precariousness in which people from across a multitude of racial, educational, and income categories strive to make sense of the present neo-liberal driven uncertainties that disrupt both our social and economic lives.  While superficially our work drew upon many different disciplines to understand what was happening in the Bakken, we discovered that common ground between the workforce in the Bakken and our work as researchers at a micro-level has proved the most beneficial. How interesting that we arrived at an archaeology of care by focusing on the lifeways of commoditized labor, and in turn we found an archaeology that helps us understand ourselves, our neighbors, and the worlds we work in. We are pleased to bring humanistic tools to bear on the changing nature of labor , and our experiences in the Bakken illustrate that many non-academics are surprisingly in agreement (McKenzie Wark).

[SLIDE 16]

 

 

References

Caraher, W., K. Kourellis, R. Rothaus and B. Weber. “The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Fields.” Historical Archaeology, forthcoming.

Caraher, W., R. Rothaus, B. Weber. “Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, forthcoming.

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World.  Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Standing, Guy. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso, 2015.

Mobility and North Dakota

This weekend, I binge read Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006). I was familiar with his Place: A Short Introduction which I read a few years back alongside Raymond Williams’ Border Country. The book is as good an introduction to mobility as I’ve ever read, and it should be required reading for anyone living in North Dakota.

The introduction is particularly useful for understanding the social issues facing the state of North Dakota. He makes clear that mobility is both a product of modernity, but also something that – for both historical and political reasons – seen as a threat. For example, the tourist or the mobile worker is expected element of the modern world where travel for work or pleasure is common. At the same time, there persists a distrust of certain kinds of mobility. Refugees, vagrants, and “drifters” continue to be stigmatized as individuals who lack commitment to a place. Cresswell recognizes mobility then as a central and politically charged element in the discourse of modernity and explores its intersection with such diverse expressions as dance, photography, airport architecture, and women’s suffrage. Mobility becomes a way of talking about the contradictions that core of modern experience and the impetus to move embodies both the pace of modern capital (and Marx’s (and David Harvey’s) that time obliterates space) and the growth of what many critics have called the carceral landscape (riffing as it were on Foucault’s carceral state).

Cresswell could have just as easily considered the role of fossil fuels in the construction of modern mobility. They both make travel and the shrinking of the world possible and require a kind of urgent globalization as extractive industries relentlessly search for new resources. The need to move fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – from the ground to refineries and markets has attracted attention lately. In some ways the movement of fossil fuels via pipeline, train, truck, and ship reflect another aspect of their problematic character in the modern world.

Here in North Dakota, the intersection of mobility, politics, and fossil fuels demonstrates the political uses of mobility in our modern discourse. Recently, supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have called the protestors camped at Cannon Ball river “outside agitators” and using their purported lack of connection to the place as a way of delegitimizing their protests. At the same time, the (albeit somewhat faded) vitality of the oil industry in western North Dakota relies on workers from outside the region to extract the oil, build the pipelines, and maintain the infrastructure in the Bakken oil patch. These workers, of course, are not universally embraced as the antithesis of outside agitators and often seen as threats to the stable life in the small rural communities across the western part of the state. In an effort to replace the mobile workforce with a more permanent one, community leaders have resisted and discouraged the use of crew and man camps in the region preferring to invest in the construction of houses, condominiums, and apartments. In sum, outside agitators and workers are threats even if they contribute in a meaningful way to the economic or ecological future of the state. The risk, it seems, is in their mobility tempered by political expediency.

As an aside, the media can enjoy the irony of the DAPL protesters enduring the polar vortex in their temporary protest camp which for some embodies the a fleeting nature of the protest in the face of the inevitability of the pipeline. The same media was far less attentive, smug, and ironic in their reporting of oil workers huddled in substandard housing while working to extract oil that keeps so much of the country warm. 

My experience of the Bakken oil patch was one of unmitigated movement and I chose the genre of the tourist guide to represent this sense of movement in the landscape. I wish I had been more familiar with Cresswell’s book while I was working on the guide!

A Deep Map of the Bakken

Over the long weekend, I immersed myself in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map). (1991). I didn’t know this book until a conversation with a few graduate students this summer after my tortured attempts to explain my tourist guide to the Bakken project. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the term “deep map,” but as I explored PrairyErth, I came to realize that Heat-Moon’s project with this work, which explores a single county in Kansas, was fundamentally similar to what I wanted to do with my tourist guide. The biggest difference was that Heat-Moon was a kind of story-teller, ethnographer, and oral historians where my speciality was in things.

So, the base map for the deep map that I want to prepare for the Bakken is the tourist guide (which should appear next year from NDUS Press). It provides a route through the space of the Bakken which runs across US Route 2 before turning south at 13-Mile Corner to trace US Route 85. This inverted L forms the main artery of the Bakken both from its origins around Tioga to its current heart in William and McKenzie Counties. Our anchors are the towns of Ray, Stanley, Tinga, Williston, and Watford City, but we recognize that the Bakken is also made of places like the abandoned town of Wheelock, the depopulated township of Manitou, the area called Johnson’s Corner, and the numerous nameless agglomerations of tanks, unit yards, mobile workforce housing, and gas plants. This is the framework for a deep map.

When we submitted the original draft of the guide to new Heritage Guide series editor at the NDSU Press, he suggested that we add more people to our work. I begrudgingly did this, thinking all the while, that tourist guides aren’t really about people but about places, monuments, and stories. If people do appear, they’re past people or individuals who make short cameos (like the kindly priest who has the keys to the historic church or the vivacious merchant who will offer you tea while you browse his wares). Complicating matters more is that our guide is not about a landscape forged in the distant past but about a dynamic contemporary space. In other words, historic personages who populate traditional tourist guides played a relatively small role in our work because our primary focus was on the present. While I don’t regret the decision of inserting a few people in our guide, I think the object-oriented approach to our guide limits how one can encounter the Bakken landscape.  

Heat-Moon’s deep map is, in contrast, all about people. Most short chapters, even those with a rather more empirical bent, focus on the people from Chase County, Kansas. In fact, he uses the ugly word “countians” so many times that I am almost comfortable with it. For the Bakken, we have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews that could populate our deep map and we received a small grant from the University of North Dakota to publish these interviews next year.

Heat-Moon’s deep map is more than just people, though. He uses people to tell the geological, the historical, the political, the cultural and the economic story of the county’s various landscapes and places. We’re fortunate for western North Dakota to have not only an outstanding (and new) geological history, but also have an intriguing (and growing) body of literature about the region and some solid historical treatments of the places. 

As I continue to turn the idea of a deep map over in my head, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that guide to the Bakken is just a beginning for a deep map. 

Thomas McGrath and North Dakota Quarterly

This November is the centennial of Tom McGrath’s birth. He is perhaps North Dakota’s most globally recognized poet and perhaps no author is more closely associated with North Dakota Quarterly than Thomas McGrath.

So NDQ has posted its archive of works on McGrath with a new introduction by Dale Jacobson, a leading McGrath scholar. Here’s what I wrote:

In recent years, his work as a definitive poet of the Northern Plains and the American West has received renewed interest and attention. Charlotte Mandel’s recent essay in Poets’ Quarterly captures the scope and tone of McGrath’s work as well as any. McGrath’s biography at the Poetry Foundation demonstrates his deep roots in the American heartland, in a dreamlike reality, and in the pages of North Dakota Quarterly.

In recognition of McGrath’s 100th birthday, we asked McGrath scholar Dale Jacobson to share his thoughts on the poet and to frame McGrath’s work in North Dakota Quarterly. Jacobson’s essay is below and links to McGrath’s contributions to the Quarterly follow.

Go check it out here.

If you find yourself needing more McGrath (and frankly, who doesn’t need more) and are in town, go check out our reading of McGrath poetry on November 20th:

Ndq mcgrath flyer

Me in the Media: Outrage and the Bakken

It’s been a hectic week here in North Dakotaland. So hectic, in fact, that I don’t have time to write about myself. The self-promotion machine has run up against the oppressive reality of … life and books and outrage!

Fortunately, when I’m too busy to promote myself, other people do pick up the slack.

I was really excited to see this article by Megan Gannon in the MIT-based UnDark Magazine. She discusses the North Dakota Man Camp Project in the context of other – frankly more established and well-known – archaeological projects that focused on the contemporary world. It’s a real honor to be discussed next to the seminal work of Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, and Jason DeLeón. 

The Grand Forks Herald has a short piece on the NDUS Arts and Humanities Outrage Summit that begins tomorrow. Check it out here.

Finally, on Tuesday, North Dakota Quarterly re-published my little article on the historical context for Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. It’s a nice little piece that ties together Robinson’s career as a teacher and a leader in the Department of History with his crowning achievement. 

Lots going on this week!

NDUS Arts and Humanities Outrage Summit

We have the final program ready for the NDUS Arts and Humanities Outrage Summit. It includes a sweet cover designed by Donovan Witmer. Here’s a draft of my very brief opening remarks

The hashtag is #NDUSOutrage (which oddly enough hasn’t been used lately)!

Outrage Program Cover

Here’s the program. 

8:00 – 8:30
Welcome
Lecture Bowl

Bill Caraher
Associate Professor, Department of History, UND

Mark Kennedy
President, UND 

9:00-10:00 AM          
Panel
The Art of Outrage
Badlands Room 

Light and Darkness: Tragedy and the Use of Light in Public Art
Patrick Luber, UND

Quick Response to Outrage
Jenni Lou Russi, VCSU           

8:30-10:00 AM          
Panel
Historical Outrage
Lecture Bowl 

Public Outrage (Re)shaping Settler Commemoration
Cynthia C. Prescott, UND

From Outrage to Change: A Historical Overview of the Black Campus Movement: 1960-1980
Daniel Cooley, UND

Outrage in Historical Perpsective
Eric Burin, UND           

8:30-10:00 AM
Panel
Music Therapy Suspension: Shock, Denial, Outrage, Bargaining, Depression, but not Acceptance
River Valley Room           

Music Therapy: An essential allied health profession
Anita Gadberry, UND

Music Therapy in the Evolution of the UND Music Department
Gary Towne, UND

The Impact of the Suspension of Music Therapy on UND
James Popejoy, UND

The Suspension of the UND Music Therapy Program: A Case Study of Flawed Process
Katherine Norman Dearden           

10:15-11:30     
Musical Performance
Ball Room

Fiery Red
Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)

Luminus
Piano Trio (MSU)

Jon Rumney, violin, MSU
Erik Anderson, cello, MSU
Dianna Anderson, piano, MSU 

String Quartet No. 8
II. Allegro molto
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) 

MSU String Quartet
Jon Rumney, violin (filling in for Will Schilling)
Nikisa Gentry, violin
Nina Coster, viola
Rebecca Randash, cello 

10:15-11:45     
Panel
Literary Outrage
River Valley Room 

The Monkey Smokes a Cigarette, or, Yelling at Your Television
Brian Schill UND

Medieval Zorn, Modern Outrage: The Narrative Aspects of Discontent.
Shawn R. Boyd, UND

Dog-Woman on a Slow Burn: Translating “Jeans Prose” by Billjana Jovanovic
John K. Cox, NDSU

The Outrage of the Disabled Body
Andrew J. Harnish, UND           

11:45-1:30
Lunch and Keynote:
Ballroom

Opening Remarks
Debbie Storrs, Dean, UND College of Arts and Sciences 

If You Are Not Mad, You’re Not Paying Attention” Outrage as Performance, Industry and Politics in Contemporary America
Mark Jendrysik, UND  

1:30-2:45
Roundtable
Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline: A Dialogue at the University of North Dakota
Lecture Bowl 

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, UND
Cody Hall, Alumni UND
Chase Iron Eyes, Alumni UND
James Grijalva, UND
Jaynie Parrish, UND
Mark Trahant, UND 

1:30-2:45
Panel
The Outrage of History: The Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism in Modern Discourse
River Valley Room 

The Black Peter Discussion: the limits of tolerance in the Netherlands
Ernst Pijning, MSU

North V. South: The Legacy of the ‘African Holocaust’ in Ghana
Ty M. Reese, UND

Undermining Outrage: Native Participants in the Conquest of Mexico
Bradley T. Benton, NDSU           

3:00-4:30
Round-Table
How about a Third Place? A Panel Discussion about Downtown Real Estate and Building Community
Lecture Bowl

David R. Haeselin, UND
Sheila M. Liming, UND
Sheryl O. O’Donnell, UND
Bret Weber, UND           

3:00-4:00
Performance
River Valley Room

Entransed: The Making of a Transnational Woman
Monika Browne, VCSU

3:00-5:00
2016 North Dakota Arts & Humanities Faculty & Student Exhibition Reception
Colonel Eugene E. Myers Art Gallery (Hughes Fine Art Center)

Oil Patch Patina

I generally don’t blog about a book until I’m done reading it, but I am pretty excited about Shannon Lee Dawdy’s recent book, Patina: A Profane Archaeology (Chicago 2015). There are some good reviews on the interwebs for anyone interested in getting a broader sense of the book.

What drew me into this book was Dawdy’s exploration of the concept of patina in the first chapter or so. In New Orleans, patina has long described the slightly thread-worn, faded, and polished character of the city. The patina is maintained, Dawdy argues intentionally and after Katrina, an additional and significant layer of “Katrina Patina” has linked places and objects explicitly to the storm and recovery.

These ideas fascinated me on two levels. First – and most whimsically – I’ve been interested in the conversations around vintage watch collecting. What’s drawn me to these conversations is the combination of technical details (and remarkable craft) and signs of wear. It appears, for example, that collectors have rather strict criteria for the development of patina on the watch. For example, evidence for interventions – such as polishing or re-applying lume to the face – are generally seen as negative, but the gradual fading of the face and the lume, particularly if it is uniform and reveals colors or patterns less visible in the original colors and design of the watch. The more interesting and uniform the patina, the more appealing (and generally pricey) they watch. For example here and here and here.

What drew me to Dawdy’s book, other than recommendations from some trusted colleagues, is that she thinks about the tension between the past and present in New Orleans, in a way reminiscent of Michael Herzfeld’s treatment Rhethmenos on Crete. I have started to wonder a bit about how things will play out in the Bakken oil patch now that it has well and truly entered the bust cycle. My experience out west is that the Bakken towns had accumulated patina during the boom. The signs of habitual wear, in Dawdy’s definition, mark the roads, buildings, and landscapes of the Bakken leaving it with a patina that lacked the romance of the old New Orleans, but is clearly visible. The worn boot scrapers at hotel and restaurant doors, the rutted roads, and the bruised and burnished tables and bars at local watering holes all carry forward evidence for the boom. This Oil Patch Patina becomes the persistent reminder of the cycle of boom and bust and the wear exerted on communities, objects, and buildings during the boom lingers on as the resources to overwrite the patinated landscape dissipates with the end of the boom. 

Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline

It seems like quite a few of my colleagues have been following with interest the Dakota Access Pipeline crisis and the protest initiated by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that has quickly garnered international attention. The issues at stake involve North Dakota’s mercurial petroleum economy, the challenge of extracting, moving, and using oil without damaging the environment, the need to recognize and understand a range of cultural sensitivities, and the role of archaeology in managing material cultural resources of the entire community (not just when its convenient or when it fulfills one’s cultural explanation).

Needless to say, I feel profoundly unqualified to address any of these issues much less their complex intersection that gave rise to the Cannon Ball protest camp. Fortunately, my colleague Sharon Carson, over at North Dakota Quarterly, compiled a wide range of links that provide a range of (largely sympathetic) perspectives on both the Cannon Ball protest camp and the larger DAPL crisis. 

So go read her post today and surf around the links that she provided!

Greece and the Bakken

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading things on the current situation in Greece. Most of it is written by scholars. I blame Kostis Kourelis for this and Richard Rothaus. They introduced me to the fine work of Heath Cabot who has written on both the ongoing financial and refugee crisis in Greece. I’ve enjoyed surfing around in two of the three books that Panos Leventis reviewed in the Journal of Architectural Education.

I’ve found the treatment of graffiti in Greece in Remapping ‘Crisis’: A Guide to Athens intriguing and the discussion of the privatization of public space especially relevant in my community of Grand Forks and consonant with some my experiences in Bakken. While our experiences in western North Dakota have generally been positive, some of my colleagues were once stopped by private security on a public road as they photographed a flare at night. The incident de-escalated fairly quickly, and while the presence of private security in the Bakken is understandable, the confrontation on a public road did demonstrate the growing reach of private concerns to public land and concerns. Similar concerns appear in the open publication City-Scapes: Athens and Beyond. I particularly enjoyed the treatment of flows which embraced the movements of humans and infrastructure. This offers a more sophisticated and obvious  treatment of what I was trying to do with my tourist guide to the Bakken. Between roads, rail, and pipelines, the Bakken is defined by flows of oil, people, and trains.

Yannis Hamilakis interest in the refugee crisis and the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration has fueled not only a forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, but also conferences and panels both in Greece and abroad. While the significance of this work to the lives of the refugees remains unclear,  there is no doubt that the efforts by Hamilakis and colleagues are arming scholars and hopefully policy makers with a new set of both archaeology tools and data to address real world problems.

The quality and intensity of the academic conversations about the Greek refugee and financial crisis has been remarkable. The recent events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (recently summarized in the New Yorker, but getting heavy local and national media coverage) demonstrate that extractive industries here in the North Dakota continue to impact the state even after the most recent boom has subsided. For example, anyone thinking about the recent boom and the current crisis could do worse than reading Sebastian Braun’s contribution to our Bakken Goes Boom or buying a copy of Trout, Broby, and Houston (eds.) Fracture. Braun reminds us that “All the booms and frontiers on the plains have one thing in common: water is the key resource.” While his article focused on the twin challenges of fracking and wastewater disposal, he is clearly aware that it’s not merely the consumption of water but also the risk of contamination that locates water in the same category as air when assessing the impact of extractive industries on a global scale. As a result, the DAPL protest can’t be just about local water, Native American rights, or even North Dakota politics – any more than the Greek financial or refugee crisis is about Europe or Greece. These situations are global concerns that cut across national boundaries and highlight a wide range of political, environment, and ultimately human failings. Hopefully, scholarly attention on these situations will continue to provide a useful – if modest – counterweight to corporate publicity machines, media hype, and political rhetoric. Whether the work of scholars actually matters, remains uncertain.