I started to make the first round of maps for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch.
Here’s the map for Route 1:
Here’s the map for Route 2:
As always comments and mockery are appreciated in equal measure!
As readers of this blog know, I’ve been churning away on a revised version of the final chapter of my Tourist Guide to the Bakken. These revisions have two goals. One is to make it more accessible to non-academics and the other is to reflect on the particular role of oil in the creation both of tourism and the industrial world.
Below is the first part of this concluding section. Enjoy:
The final section to this guide lays out some theoretical consideration central to our decision to choose the genre of tourist guide as a useful way to present and understanding the Bakken landscape. This section is rather more academic than the guide itself and argues that the practice of tourism offers a distinctly modern way for engaging the Bakken. One goal of the guide is to bring order to the apparent chaos frequently encountered during a visit to the Bakken oil patch. The tourist guide is also meant to encourage critical engagement with the Bakken oil patch by locating this text and the visitor to the Bakken in a historical and social context. We hope by surveying some of the recent research in tourism and the archaeology of the contemporary world to suggest that a tourist guide is a particularly suitable form of writing for organizing and analyzing the social, economic, technical, and historical complexities of the modern world.
The organization of this final section is more genealogical than historiographic. In other words, we do not try to trace how a single tread of historical thinking led to the present volume, but, instead, try to weave together the influence from various different disciplines and fields ranging from landscape and industrial archaeology to the history of tourism, tourism studies, sociology, and popular culture. This final section identifies a series of overlapping territories which influenced the development of this tourist guide in much the same way that the Bakken represents a series of overlapping interests, histories, and communities.
The unifying element to this study is oil. The large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels, whether coal, oil, or gas, has shaped our modern world (Petrocultures Research Group 2016). The gradual shift from human labor to fossil fuel powered production during the industrial revolution transformed economic, social, and political relationships around the world. The us of fossil fuels in manufacturing accelerated access to consumer goods, shaped a middle class, propelled mechanized agriculture, and opened new horizons for settlement, travel, and, of course, economic exploitation. At present fossil fuels, and especially oil, foster “capital deepening” in which more capital is increased from human work, and this fortifies our expectation of continuous economic growth. Our oil-driven confidence in economic growth plays a vital role in Western political culture where, among other things, it fortifies our commitment to the equality of economic opportunity. European settlement in western North Dakota has only ever been possible because of fossil fuels. First, coal and oil fueled rail links made it economically viable for permanent settlements in the region to have access to markets. Interstate highways, affordable personal transportation, and mechanized farming accelerated the region’s engagement with the rest of North America and the world. Over the course of the Bakken boom, pipelines joined truck traffic and an expanded rail presence to move sweet Bakken crude to refineries and markets outside the region. That oil, in turn, fuels the cars, trucks, plains and trains that carry oil workers into the region, runs generators that power lights at drilling rigs, and keeps lonely RVs warm during the winter. Modern tourism would not be possible without oil-fueled transportation or the emergence of a middle class with the surplus resources necessary to make travel for pleasure possible.
In this context, a tourist guide seems the ideal tool to link the industrial and historical landscape of the Bakken because it offer an opportunity to emphasize the role of tourism, industry, and oil in the development of the middle-class in the modern world. Most of these ideas came from the sociologist Dean MacCannell. His important book, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, celebrated tourism’s role in allowing the growing global middle class to become a leisure class, at least for the duration of their vacation and travels (1976). This change stemmed from the growing disposable income of the middle class, which allowed them to imitate the upper class traditions of “seeing the world.” It also depended on increased access to low-cost transportation powered by fossil fuels. The first middle class tourists traveled on steam ships and then trains and automobiles. MacCannell and other also noted that by the mid-20th-century tourism offered chance for the middle class temporarily to shake off the stability of suburban life for travel and adventure.
Today, tourism continues to offer the same element of escape, although it remains closely tied to oil. In most cases, lower price of oil makes travel more affordable and, in the right circumstances, strengthens industrial and post-industrial economies inspiring consumer confidence. At the same time, oil presents certain challenges for tourism. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, had a negative impact on tourism along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska hurt that states tourism economy. While tourism to the Bakken has a tiny economic impact on the region, the steep decline in the price of oil over the course of 2015 has driven down occupancy rates in hotels and pushed out more marginal businesses serving short term oil patch workers. All this is to show that the relationship between oil and travel, tourism, and local economies is both complex and significant.
The interdependence of tourism and oil has not deterred the development of certain kinds of socially-conscious tourism. Tourists can now go on trips built around critiques of colonial practices, tour sites of catastrophic environmental pollution, and visit slums in order to appreciate the social, economic, and environmental costs of the modern world. This kind of tourism echoes the growing interest in recent past in the field of archaeology. While most people imagine that archaeologists are focused on the cities, temples, and tombs of distant antiquity, over the past twenty years, archaeology has also become more willing to study sites and to address questions of immediate social and political significance to living communities. For example, archaeologists used material culture to revise histories of colonialism, demonstrate resistance to political and economic forms of domination, and to collaborate with communities to develop skills, economic opportunities, and new historical narratives. In Western Europe and North America, archaeological attention to industrial sites and entire landscapes has brought to light not only a history of corporate innovation and profits, but also the experience of workers and families who supported the the growth of the industrial economy (Petrocultures Research Group 2016; Mitchell ). Our tourist guide seeks to bridge the gap between the distinctly modern experiences of tourism and the understanding of an industrial landscape both by commemorating significant sites throughout the Bakken and by offering the tourist a way to experience some of the changing character and hectic pace of the Bakken landscape first hand. In short, the presentation of the Bakken as a tourist guide allowed this work to serve the archaeological purpose of documenting an industrial landscape as well as contributing to a growing interest in socially aware tourism.
Our goal with this book, then, was to produce a practical guide suitable for the needs of a range of visitors to the Bakken ranging from industrial tourists, journalists, scholars, photographers, industry outsiders, and to document the bustling activities in the Bakken in an archaeologically sophisticated way. To accomplish this, we employed the concept of historical and archaeological landscapes. Archaeologists and historians have increasingly used the concept of landscape as a way to describe the interaction of the natural environment, man-made sites, movable objects, and people on a regional scale (Johnson 2007). By presenting the Bakken as a landscape, we locate the various activities potentially encountered by tourists as part of a unified whole. In this way, the Bakken landscape includes big picture features such as the topography and geology of the region as well as more ephemeral activities, like buying Cinnabons at the truck stop at 13-Mile Corner, moveable objects, like trucks, drill rigs, and frack tanks, and individuals that contribute to making this region a distinct place. In fact, some of the most intriguing tensions in the Bakken come from juxtaposing the natural world, long-standing sites in the area, and the short-term changes of the Bakken. Rolling hills, badlands, rivers, and once-abandoned towns frame oil-related activities, temporary settlements, and fleeting encounters with the always changing cast of characters who make their home in the Bakken. This landscape also tries to create space both for nature and historic actors as well as oil company executives, long-time residents, pipeliners, researching scholars, and frack truck drivers. Thus, our notion of the landscape represents both the physical space of the Bakken as well as all the various attitudes and activities taking place there.
I learned last week that my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch has been accepted for publication. It received two more or less positive peer reviews, a good editorial review, and the endorsement of an established, but up-and-coming press.
I now have about a month to make some serious revisions to the manuscript and to prepare maps for each of the seven tourist routes through the Bakken. The biggest challenge will be to revise the final section of the guide which is a more scholarly treatment of landscapes, tourism, and archaeology. In keeping with ideas that I began to hash out in my work on “slow archaeology,” I focused on the intersection of archaeology and modernity but instead of relating it archaeological methods, I consider how archaeology can help us to understand the dynamic landscape of the Bakken.
I make this move using a bit of puckish trickeration. Archaeology intersects with tourism to transform the past into our modern concept of heritage, which can then be commodified and monetized. This parallels the role extractive industries play in transforming geological formations into fossil fuels available for the market. Tourism binds the two together as the Bakken landscape – for both the tourist and worker – depends on oil to structure our interaction with it.
I recent book titled After Oil from the Petrocultures group at the University of Alberta emphasizes the link between oil and the foundation of modern society. Oil is not just another commodity or resource, but also a key structuring element in our economy, political culture, and society. For the conclusion of my book, I play with Dean MacCannell’s idea that tourism (particularly self-guided tourism) provided a quintessentially modern way to organize bourgeois dominion of the world through the creation of highly mobile tourist class, and mash it up with growing interest in the archaeology of the modern (and even contemporary) world. Tourism in the Bakken (and, perhaps more broadly, industrial tourism) offers the tourist a chance to subject their own world to the critical scrutiny of the “tourist’s gaze.” Through this process, the Bakken gains a kind of authenticity – produced ironically from the tourist expectation that their encounters with the wider world exist outside the influence of tourism. In other words, tourism, particularly in places where tourists are not expected, plays directly to our modern, Western, 21st-century ways of viewing the world. What’s more exciting is that by authorizing this kind of industrial, contemporary tourism, we’re offering glimpse of the founding acts of modernity in the production of fossil fuels. Without oil, tourism, the tourist class, and our modern world would not be possible.
By re-appropriating the founding moment of modernity through the tourist gaze, we confront the complexities and contradictions necessary to produce the energy that our world – including the act of tourism – requires. In other words, we creating a way for modernity to look at itself in the mirror.
These ideas are complex and require a familiarity with both the discourse of modernity and the more specialized critiques of industrial archaeology, archaeology of the contemporary world, and tourism. The series editor requested that I revise the final section of the book significantly and, instead of offering an academic critique, make it as accessible to a wide audience as the rest of the book. After a bit of grumbling (to myself) I decided to start that process this weekend. Keep an eye out for revised and clarified text!
Over the next few weeks, Kyle Conway and I will be offering some sneak peeks at our forthcoming edited volume: Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota which should come out early next month from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.
Here’s our introduction:
The Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota
This book is about the human side of the oil boom in the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. We began work on it in 2013, when a barrel of crude oil sold for a little more than $90. At that time, economic optimism was the order of the day. People were asking, would the boom last twenty, forty, or sixty years? Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of Continental Resources, went so far as to tell the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, “I still think we will reach 2 million barrels a day [by 2020]. I don’t think that’s over the top, folks” (quoted in Burnes 2014).
Now, as we write this introduction at the end of 2015, that same barrel sells for less than $40. What we did not know—what we could not know—when we began was that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would refuse to cut production in the face of dropping oil prices, in an apparent attempt to make oil production from shale, such as in the Bakken, too expensive to continue (Murtagh 2015; Olson and Ailworth 2015). In retrospect, the estimates of a forty- or sixty-year boom seem naive: by all appearances, we were at the boom’s peak. In December 2014, there were 174 rigs drilling in the oil patch; a year later, there are 65. There are also five thousand fewer jobs, and monthly in-state income on oil royalties has dropped from $128 million to $69 million (Donovan 2015). Inadvertently, it seems, we captured an important moment, when the bust people dreaded (but thought would never happen) was just on the horizon.
Our purpose in putting this book together was to give voice to as wide a range of people as we could. We were both professors at the University of North Dakota, so we sought out other scholars. We researched the boom, so we sought out our collaborators. We taught about the Bakken, so we sought out students. But we also read the news, went to art galleries, and read poetry, so we also sought out journalists, artists and museum curators, and poets. The boom was one of the most interesting things we had ever seen, and there were more ways to know it than through the cold rationality we privileged in our scholarship. Journalists, artists, and poets could reveal things we would not otherwise see, experiences or emotions that academic prose could not capture, but art or poetry could. As much as drilling for oil in the Bakken produced an economic and demographic boom, it also was an intellectual and cultural moment for North Dakota, and our book tries to capture that.
Our approach was propitious, if the controversies around hydraulic fracturing (or simply “fracking”) are any indication. In the time since we began soliciting submissions, a wide range of books have been published, each more polemical than the last. In one, an environmentalist asks what happens when she inherits mineral rights in North Dakota and has to choose between her ideals and financial security (Peters 2014). In another, a conservative media darling calls out environmentalists for what he sees as their duplicity and willful ignorance of the human rights abuses inflicted by governments of oil-rich countries on their own citizens (Levant 2014). In yet another, an investigative reporter tells the story of an Alberta woman’s fight for justice from the oil industry (and her own government) after fracking poisons her water supply (Nikiforuk 2015).
In this back-and-forth, it is clear that the pro- and anti-fracking groups are talking past each other. This is where our book does something different. By and large, contributors sidestep the controversies about fracking and focus instead on the social impact of the boom. There is much to learn here: whether we support or oppose fracking, it has had a significant impact on people’s lives. For people living in the Bakken region, life has changed, and we want to understand how. What impact did the boom have on longtime residents? On newcomers? On women? On Native Americans? How did it reshape the healthcare infrastructure? Housing? The media? These are the questions we asked our contributors to answer.
Scholars and journalists shared insight that they gained from their particular perch. But artists and poets did something more: as they talked about how the boom has reshaped North Dakotans’ sense of self—how North Dakotans see themselves and imagine their future—they evoked something akin to emotional truth. For that reason, we have devoted considerable space in this book to their work. Because art has to potential to affect viewers at a gut level, we included, among other things, a catalogue from an exhibit about the Bakken at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. We also included comments left by members of the public.
We also decided to open this book with a prologue in the form of a prose poem. Language is an imperfect tool. It serves us relatively well when we describe technical aspects of a situation, but in other cases it falls short. We know this most acutely when we experience powerful emotions such as joy or grief and words fail us. In the Bakken, for instance, it is relatively easy to describe the monetary or environmental costs of an oil boom, but it is much harder to find words for the ache we feel when our home no longer looks the same. But in poetry, language comes closest to breaking free of its bounds. When poet Heidi Czerwiec writes, “Given enough time, a sea can become a desert; given enough time, even a desert has value,” she presents us with an image not unlike the art in the catalogue. In the dried up sea, we see our own fall from plenitude to emptiness. But the loss is paradoxical, in that it brings a new type of value. Her image brings the contradictions that undergird our experience into view. Even if we cannot put them into words, we can see them and feel them.
So what do we learn from all of this? What do scholars, journalists, artists, and poets reveal about the human side of North Dakota’s oil boom? Resources are stretched thin, and to compensate, people have had to rethink the social and physical networks that link them to others. As a result, the geographies of western North Dakota—the ways people understand their relationship to space and place—have changed. Part of this change is material, such as the demographic shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part. A decade ago, nearly a third of the state’s residents, those in Grand Forks and Fargo, lived in the narrow strip between Interstate 29 and the Red River. In other words, almost one out of three people lived within five miles of Minnesota. No longer is that the case, as towns such as Williston, Watford City, and Dickinson have doubled or tripled in size, creating unmet needs in social services, law enforcement, healthcare, housing, and other forms of infrastructure.
Part of this change is psychological, too. The stories people tell to make sense of their place in their community or the world have changed. They understand their relationships with their neighbors differently. Some longtime residents and newcomers view each other with a suspicion that grows out of a disparity in wealth and access to resources. Others look for what they share in common.
One result of these changing physical and mental geographies is that many people have had to make do with less, especially those who were already in vulnerable positions. Rents have gone up, but the stock of quality housing has gone down. Travel takes longer and is more dangerous, and unfamiliar people congregate in once familiar places. Even as the boom has subsided, social networks remain stretched for longtime residents, who face new disparities of wealth and ongoing political challenges, and for newcomers, who have left families in faraway homes in search of work. In short, there are more cracks to slip through.
But there is also resilience and creativity. Longtime residents have found ways to extend hospitality to newcomers. Artists have found ways to reimagine their place—which is to say, our place—in a landscape punctuated by oil rigs and tanker trucks. We cannot understand the challenges posed by the boom without considering the creativity it has brought about, nor the creativity without the challenges. One tugs constantly on the other.
To close, let us consider an interesting potential symmetry. In 2013, the bust was on the horizon, but we could not yet make it out. We must not forget that booms and busts are cyclical. Perhaps the next boom is on the horizon now, but as with the bust, we will see it most clearly in retrospect. As Karin Becker writes in her chapter, change has reached a plateau. North Dakota in 2015 is not the same as North Dakota in 2005. People talk of a “new normal.” The state has reversed its longstanding trend of outmigration, and the population is up almost 20 percent compared to a decade ago. The median age is younger, and jobs pay better: even Wal-Mart has to pay $17 an hour to its employees in Williston, where the average annual salary is still more than $75,000 (Donovan 2015).
The changes North Dakota has undergone are real, and we owe it to ourselves to ask how they have shaped us. We would do well to listen to everyone—citizens, public figures, artists, poets, and even scholars. This book is not the final word on the Bakken oil boom, but we hope readers will find in it something useful, a starting point for understanding how the boom has affected us and who it is we have come to be.
Burnes, Jerry. 2014. “Hamm: Bakken Will Double Production by 2020.” Williston Herald, May 23. bit.ly/1JDpCHv.
Donovan, Lauren. 2015. “Oil Patch Slides Toward a New Normal.” Bismark Tribune, December 25. bit.ly/1Sk2ULN.
Levant, Ezra. 2014. Groundswell: The Case for Fracking. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart.
Murtagh, Dan. 2015. “Shale’s Running Out of Survival Tricks as OPEC Ramps Up Pressure.” Bloomberg Business, December 27. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-28/shale-s-running-out-of-survival-tricks-as-opec-ramps-up-pressure.
Nikiforuk, Andrew. 2015. Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. Berkeley, CA: Greystone Books.
Olson, Bradley, and Erin Ailworth. 2015. “Low Crude Prices Catch Up with the U.S. Oil Patch.” Wall Street Journal, November 20. www.wsj.com/articles/low-crude-prices-catch-up-with-the-u-s-oil-patch-1448066561.
Peters, Lisa Westberg. 2014. Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
A year or so ago we submitted a manuscript to a top-tier archaeology journal describing our North Dakota Man Camp Project. It was a long manuscript – 12,000 words, it was descriptive and report-y, and tried to say everything at once. It came as no little surprise, then, when we received a “revise and resubmit” request from the journal along with some really positive (and critical) comments. It turns out that our article was far worse than our project (at least we hope). We hope this article is better.
I make a couple of maps yesterday using the really great data from the North Dakota GIS Hub.
A year later, we’re ready to resubmit, and this marks one of the few tangible results of my sabbatical (so far?):
Over the past week, Capital Lodge near Tioga announced it was closing permanently. It was one of the biggest camps in the Bakken and at its peak could accommodate over 2000 workers and had infrastructure capacity – including its own sewage treatment facility – for 3000. News reports indicate that it cost close to $30 million to set up.
The owners of the Capital Lodge suffered from the decline in oil prices and activity in the Bakken and when the camp closed it had only around 100 residents. We visited Capital Lodge in August and guess that many of those were employees of the lodge. The decision to close the facility came at the end of some rather lengthy negotiations to try to rezone the camp either as an extended stay hotel or to move at least part of the camp to another site in the region. The reluctance by the community to allow the camp to be rezoned (and the economically unfriendly conditions attached to the setting the camp up elsewhere in the region) represented as much “market forces” as the local media spun it as decisions made by the local communities.
The decisions made by communities in the patch with regard to temporary workforce housing have received national attention. The city of Williston, for example, has established a moratorium on new camps and has a date for camps to depart from city limits. RV parks and the like are under pressure as well as they try either to renegotiate their zoning or find ways to continue to generate revenue as the boom slows to a crawl. Over the last few months, I have received calls from national and local media and financial firms from across the US asking my thoughts on the man camp situation in the Bakken.
This has led to me to think about how the communities in the Bakken are asserting their autonomy during this lull (let’s say) in the boom. First, many observers have critiqued the role that the state of North Dakota has played in encouraging the rapid acceleration of oil related activity in the Bakken. There is no doubt that lax regulation, low taxes, and various incentives made it appealing for companies to invest in their Bakken operations and persist with them even as the price of oil has declined. The state not only accelerated the impact of the boom in the Bakken, but also prolonged the boom even as it became clear that the price of oil could not longer support the more costly extractive processes used in the Bakken.
Under these circumstances, local communities often struggled to accommodate the rapidly growing workforce, the infrastructural demands of the oil industry, and the social pressures associated with the boom. Since local communities had very little control over what goes on outside their limited territorial jurisdiction, they often sought extra territorial authority from the counties or to expand the city boundaries and by-and-large were granted these rights. Even these expanded rights, however, did not impact the state policies that dictated the extent and pace of oil work in the region. City and county authority can influence the inventory of workforce housing, however, and recent decisions by both counties and city councils have demonstrated a growing reluctance to allow temporary workforce housing to expand or persist unfettered in their communities.
To be clear, I’m skeptical whether these communities’ decisions to limit temporary workforce housing is the right one. Since most work in the oil field is temporary, expecting short-term oil field workers to sign leases or purchase housing in a community is unrealistic. At the same time, I do recognize the strategies used by these communities represent a kind of control over the processes associated with the oil boom. Cities and counties have virtually no control over the extractive process, but they do have control over the social impact of these processes.
Efforts to limit the extent of temporary housing is not just about making it harder for oil companies and related industries to expand the number of workers in a community. While there are tax implications associated with permanent housing – either in apartments or houses, I’d argue that this isn’t simply an economic decision on the part of these communities.
In the Bakken, man camps and workforce housing stand as a challenge to traditional notions of domesticity. Traditional domestic space accommodates family life whereas temporary workforce housing serves single individuals, typically men, who live in dormitory style rooms and dine in communal space. Traditional domestic space is stable and permanent, whereas workforce housing – whether prefabricated and mobile man camps or RV parks – are inherently mobile and temporary. The investment in permanent housing recalls the investment in the traditional family and the importance of property and fixity in both the myth of American life and in the economic and social life of local communities. Finally, traditional domesticity continues to play a key role in the dominant discourse of morality. The fixity of domestic life and the presence of the family reinforces accountability in the context of traditional morality.
Managing workforce housing, then, presents an opportunity for local communities to exert control in a situation that is largely dictated by the state and by transnational corporation. They do this by appealing to traditional domesticity and the economic, social, and moral controls inherent in these long-standing structures.
Over the long weekend, I relaxed a bit and read Lucy Lippard’s newest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press 2013). The book is quite wonderful and thought provoking and brings together art and argument in visually appealing ways. Lippard’s book considers the political ecology of the American West by focusing on the intersection of the local and global.
The book begins with gravel pits in New Mexico and considers the role these pits play in the production of roads. Road, in turn, open up the settlements, sacred landscapes, and delicate ecologies of New Mexico to development. At the same time, gravel provide a source of prosperity for isolated communities which frequently have limited resources, but also involves engaging those communities with a global economy that shows little interest in the local. Lippard’s use of gravel as her first case study evoked images of gravel pits across the Bakken and reminded me how important gravel has been to creating the infrastructure necessary for extractive industries in western North Dakota.
Lippard’s New Mexico shares many characteristics with the Bakken. Indigenous communities, small towns, and natural resources lace a sparsely populated and geographically and economically “marginal” landscape. Extractive industries, industrial development, and discard reflect patterns of use for marginal landscapes as local residents negotiate integration with the larger economy. Ironically the appeal of integration is that it can often provide access to resources necessary to preserve local ways of life. In New Mexico, gravel provides roads for the extraction of uranium, water, coal, and exploration for gas and oil.
Lippard’s book also provided some parallels and local context for events like the dumping of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. Lippard discussed the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) near Carlsbad, New Mexico where radioactive waste from reactors around the US is deposited and ideally isolated for 10,000 years. The radioactive history of New Mexico extends to the earliest days of the nuclear warfare as the Trinity site at White Sands witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The radioactive plume from that detonation billowed northeast up the Tularose valley contaminating the air and the soil. The rural West with its isolated, poor, and minority communities seems particularly susceptible to dumping toxic material beyond the gaze of the urban world. In the documentary made about the dumping and excavation of the Atari games, Zak Penn, the director, asks the mayor of Alamogordo if he’d be willing to open the city’s landfill to another dump of video games. He answered in the affirmative, making explicit the link between local attitudes and global networks.
Lippard concludes her book with a meditation on the role that art can play in negotiating the fraught political ecology of New Mexico. While she recognizes that art also participates in the global market especially spectacular landscape works, she hints that local artists, embracing DIY approaches might find ways to leverage their access to specific landscapes, communities, and experiences to offer distinctly local solutions to global problems.
Finding ways to mediate between the specific and the global remains a key challenge for articulating a political ecology that is simultaneously sensitive to the specific and generalizable to the global. My effort at writing a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch fits into this larger project of making a distinctive landscape part of the universal, modern experience of tourism.
I spent part of yesterday morning contributing to an email discussion of digital humanities and virtual reality with the good folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council. This was both fun and productive. One result of these conversations is that I was encouraged to propose some new grant initiatives to the NDHC. These are just proposals, but I wanted to think out loud here on the bloggie-blog to gets some feedback from as wide an audience as possible. As with any grants, the outcomes are only as good as the program will allow. Poorly articulated grant programs produce poor projects.
The first of two new programs that I’d propose would be called Digital North Dakota Grants. These grants have three goals:
1. Extending the Reach: The state of North Dakota has long suffered a diaspora of sorts as people with strong North Dakota ties have moved elsewhere for a better climate, more opportunities, and a different life. These individuals often retain a strong sense of connection to the state and its communities. The energy and remittances from this diaspora community has had an impact on life here in the state. The Digital North Dakota Grants would be a way to engage the North Dakota diaspora in the vibrant, local humanities scene.
More importantly, perhaps for the NDHC is that these folks have resources, and as the NDHC has turned its attention toward development to ensure that our programs can weather upheavals in federal funding, we need to expand the impact and reach of the NDHC to the diaspora who have typically remained active in state initiatives.
The population of the state has historically trended older, but recent trends have shown that the state is, in fact, getting younger and the media age of ND residents is now below the national average. Our younger constituency typically lacks the financial resources of the North Dakota diaspora, but should nevertheless be a target audience for humanities programing. Digital North Dakota grants would help bring a generation of citizens more familiar with digitally mediated discussions into the conversation.
2. Celebrating the Local. The National Endowment for the Humanities initiated its Office of Digital Humanities in 2011. This office has funded a wide range of grants that they recognized as having national and international impacts. They have been somewhat less interested in digital projects that have local impacts or reflect the more focused priorities of local communities. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Red River flood or the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elwyn Robinson’s influential History of North Dakota, we encounter local events that speak directly to history of the region, the state, and our communities. Funding to support digitally mediated projects that engage these events (as examples) is unlikely to come from a federal sources (and even if it does, the NDHC brand should be associated with work to preserve, celebrate, and reflect on these memorable events).
3. Preserving the Conversation. The NDHC is remarkable in its ability to stimulate conversations. All too often, however, these conversations, discussion, and engagement are ephemeral. Digitally mediated conversations offer a way not only to expand the conversation but also to preserve it allowing future generations of North Dakotans to reflect on how certain events or encounters transformed their ways of thinking or even their communities. For example, the recent tumult over the new University of North Dakota nickname provides a fascinating perspective into the relationship between UND stakeholders and Native communities, ideas of North Dakota identity, and the politics of race in the state. Creating a digital application where members of the community can contribute their reactions to this process, while it remains energized by emotions, polemic, and conversation, presents an exciting way to document and capture the local history of the state at a particular moment in time.
With these goals in mind, my proposed grant would encourage applications that (1) extend the reach of traditional humanities programming, (2) focus on local concerns, issues, collections, and conversations, and (3) feature robust data management plans to ensure that both the program and conversations are preserved. Successful proposals must stimulate discussion, focus on local groups or communities, and encourage and preserve dynamic and thought provoking engagement with the humanities. Purely archival or access based initiatives will not be funded unless they foreground dynamic opportunities for reflective and reflexive engagement with collections. Whenever possible proposals should involve open source software and encourage free, open access materials.
The second proposed new grant program would focus on the North Dakota Humanities Council’s already successful GameChanger Series. One of the most exciting things about this series is how effectively it stimulates discussion and brings together a diverse and dynamic group of speakers and from the community to engage with the most pressing issues of the day. The first GameChanger focused on conflict and culture in the Middle East, the second focused on the challenges and opportunities of the digital world, and next year’s series will celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize.
The disappointing thing about these events is that the energy of the conversation tends to dissipate rather quickly as the attention of the small NDHC staff ramps up for the next year’s event. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the game has, in fact, changed (or just the playahs). The KeepChanging Grant Program would support programs and projects that continue the momentum and themes of the GameChanger series in the three years following the event. Each year at least three grants would be available with at least one grant set designated to support a project related to each of the previous three years of the GameChanger. (Wow, that’s hard to articulate in a clear way!).
The goal of the KeepChanging program is to extend the impact of the GameChanger series without taxing the small NDHC staff. It will also provide us with an informal measure of the impact of the GameChanger in on the humanities in the state. Presumably more engaging events will spur ongoing interest.
As per usual on the blog, I’m interested in any and all feedback on these ideas. They are, as I said, just proposals; just my thoughts, man – right or wrong.
You can’t open Facebook these days without seeing a profile picture superimposed with a French flag. A year ago, profile pictures had multicolored hues in support of equal marriage rights or gay marriage. At various times of year, social media profiles sport pink for breast cancer, mustaches for prostate cancer, or various other regular designs to demonstrate solidarity or sympathy with this or that cause. Invariably, there are columns that comment or complain about a particular practice, the uncritical and uncomplicated adoption of potentially fraught symbols, and the deleterious effects of “slacktivism.” Most worry that a changed profile picture will substitute for political or social action and superficial expressions of sympathy, solidarity, or awareness will replace genuine engagement with issues. These concerns are so pervasive that they constitute part of the discourse of representation on social media and are in no ways less hackneyed or superficial than the practice that they critique.
Personal branding on social media is no less complicated than personal branding in any medium and criticizing its simplicity is, in itself, a failure to understand the complications associated with branding and interpretation of branding across various media in our image rich society. My November mustache might be ironic, it might show I’m participating in “Movember,” or it might be that I genuinely like how I look with a mustached lip. Or it might be all these things. Most of us recognize the ambiguities present in these simple personal branding exercises (and even relish the potential for an un-ironic mustache!) and even appreciate the earnestness of people’s efforts to celebrate a cause, negotiate the political landscape, or just to show preference for one brand over another.
When it comes to branding a larger enterprise, we are less tolerant of this kind of ambiguity. I’m waist deep in type-setting a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota right and beginning to think a bit about cover designs. I’ve been fortunate that my collaborators on this project have offered images and designs for the cover and these designs are all visually arresting. The book is titled The Bakken Goes Boom and it should appear early next year, but the cover design project represents another chapter in the larger Branding the Bakken project. From Alec Soth’s black-and-white images of the oil smeared worker to Sarah Christianson’s The Skogens’ bedroom window, images have dominated our apprehension of the Bakken boom. It is hardly surprising that my own work documenting workforce housing in the Bakken has generated over ten thousand of photographs and videos.
The image-driven nature of our engagement with the Bakken means that selecting the cover of the first book-length academic study of the Bakken boom takes on particular significance. Each cover represents a different aspect of the Boom and a different point of emphasis in the book (as well as a different style).
My co-editor Kyle Conway created an arresting cover image that shows a drill rig situated near his families property in Williston.
Photographer Kyle Cassidy who has worked with our team in the Bakken and has a contribution in the volume offered several fantastic cover designs:
Comments and feedback are appreciated!
Today drops the inaugural volume in North Dakota Quarterly Reprint Series. It is a collaboration between NDQ and the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The goal of this series is to bring some of the back catalogue of North Dakota Quarterly to public attention again and we started with a series of articles that deal with the Great War in North Dakota and on UND’s campus.
This reprint series had the added benefit of serving as a little design study as I continue to work on my layout and editing skills. To that end, I used a recently reconstructed, digital version of The Doves Type to add a bit period-appropriate gravitas to reprints. I also had to negotiate the absence of a bold or italics for The Doves Type, through the use of a small-caps for titles (recognizing that this is not a true small caps, but just the same upper-case letters in a smaller font).
(For those who don’t know The Doves Type story, it was an Arts and Crafts typeface initially designed for The Doves Press that was dumped unceremoniously in the Thames River after a dispute between partners at the type’s foundry in 1916/1917. Here’s a little video about the fonts recovery. Note that the diver is wearing some kind of sweet diving bell helmet, and the recovery of this font has an unmistakably archaeological vibe to it. We also thought it paralleled the recovery of parts of NDQ from obscurity as well as the modernist vibe of the “little magazine” movement of which NDQ was a part.)
I tried to keep the pages quite vertical with rather large margins to allow Doves Type some room to stretch out and enough space to breath. Despite this attention to the font and the page, I still see plenty of little infelicities that I need to create systems to eliminate in future efforts.
It’s not entirely about design, of course. The articles in the volume are good especially Wesley Johnson’s 10,000+ word recollections of his time in the fields and trenches of France and Hazel Nielson’s experiences in France with a cadre of North Dakota nurses. The volume also documents historian Orin G. Libby’s flip-flop from being an opponent of the war to the chair of UND’s War Committee. It is not difficult to see in his work the brewing controversy with UND President Thomas Kane who Libby accuses of mismanaging the influenza outbreak on campus which resulted in the death of several cadets. In any event, the entire volume makes for interesting reading and brings to life the style, perspective, and spirit of UND in the era of the Great War.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this is part of my larger (and growing) role as North Dakota Quarterly’s Digital Editor. My job – at least as I see it – is to expand NDQ’s presence on the web and to enliven how people interact with this venerable landmark in North Dakota’s cultural landscape. So, in a very limited way, publishing this volume is designed to draw people to the NDQ website and, perhaps more importantly, to get them to sign up for periodic emails from NDQ which highlights new content, delivers some interesting and timely links, and allows us to spread the word about the Quarterly to a new, online centered, audience. We have no plan to get away from print any time soon (and I think we’ll likely produce a print version of the University of North Dakota and the Great War at some point.)
If you want to download a copy of the University of North Dakota and the Great War, go here for the Digital Press or here for North Dakota Quarterly. And to get more stuff like this delivered right to your email inbox, subscribe to NDQ’s email newsletter (tentatively called NDQ5… get it? A 5th volume of a quarterly?) here.