Monthly Archives: October 2013

Beneath the Surface of Abandonment

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

Abandonment art is routinely lamented for its literal and metaphorical focus on aesthetic surfaces; that is, abandonment art risks reducing the weathered, damaged, and derelict exteriors of abandoned buildings to an ahistorical style that fails to illuminate processes of ruination.  Some critiques of ruin art are guilty of their own romantic desire to paint transparently uplifting or “authentic” pictures of a place; in many instances, they somewhat xenophobically resist a host of “outsiders” spilling into eroding urban cores; and some critics of “ruin porn” hazard ignoring the genuine structural decline of much of urban America.  Nevertheless, a shallow gaze on abandoned landscapes may indeed hazard trivializing complicated historical decline by fixating on the visual dimensions of ruin.

A collage from "I'm the Mempry of Mannix F" (Ewa Fornal)

A collage from “I’m the Memory of Mannix F” (Ewa Fornal)

Ruins may well have assumed their elevated contemporary prominence because of the digital documentation of abandonment: the likes of flick’r and tumbl’r are awash with ruin images; instagram-armed camera phones document a decaying planet; and artsy urban transplants have led a digital dissection of the ruins in their midst.  Images of decline can quite productively evoke waste, loss, and transition and fuel interventions against structural processes of ruination; the challenge simply is to avoid romanticized notions of an aesthetic decline disconnected from deep-seated inequalities.

An archaeological approach to ruination ideally sifts through layers of ruination and visually and materially interprets processes of creation, growth, decline, and ruin.  Some artists may be borrowing much the same method to creatively rethink ruins.  Polish artist Ewa Fornal, for instant, might be circumspectly characterized as an abandonment artist.  Fernal, who lives and works in Ireland, toys with the distinction between aesthetic surfaces and the historical depth of ruination.  Many photographers work with the visual representation of abandonment, but Fornal is among a handful of artists who work with the material detritus of ruins (e.g.,  the 2010 Modern Ruin exhibit in Dallas). Read the rest of this entry

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Imagining Hominid Aesthetics

The most recent Dmanisi cranial find (image Georgian National Museum).

The most recent Dmanisi cranial find (Georgian National Museum).

The unveiling of spectacular archaeological finds has now become a somewhat formulaic media event, and the recovery of early hominids nearly always includes some artistic imaginations of the skeleton.  Last week Science published a study on the fifth early hominid skull excavated from the medieval town of Dmanisi in Georgia since 2000.  Nearly all of the articles were graced by fascinating if predictable visuals of the finds:  photographs in situ, scans of skulls, video imaginations of the hominids, and reconstructions of the long-lost ancestors.  The Dmanisi press coverage is simply one of myriad popular narratives that illuminate how popular visual representations shape archaeological narratives—both for better and worse.

The 1.8 million year old skeletal remains from Dmanisi are among the earliest hominids outside Africa (excavations at Dmanisi were reported in 2002 and 2007), so they have significant implications on hominid evolutionary narratives.  Nevertheless, the popular Dmanisi story may be told as much by evocative images as it is being told by conventional archaeological discourse.  We probably could say much the same thing of nearly any other archaeological tale reaching popular discussion, so there is nothing unique about the Dmanisi coverage.  Nevertheless, it compels us to think carefully about media storylines and visual imaginings of the distant past. Read the rest of this entry

The Prosaic Relics of Breaking Bad and Fan Culture

WWundiesThis week an anonymous bidder secured one of the most fascinating relics, a material thing evoking the distinctive power of a venerated figure: Walter White’s cotton briefs.  The Breaking Bad anti-hero is a dark, vengeful character with whom we uncomfortably sympathize, so it might seem somewhat surprising that his underwear and many more series items are in demand.  Yet Walter White is compelling because for many people his tale brazenly questions universal morals.  In the desperate face of impending death, Walter White lives in a world in which good and bad ideals become clumsy and unsettling abstractions.  Many of us are fascinated by the resolve of an individual acting with their own sense of honor and morality, even if his choices are often problematic if not evil.

Walter White's underwear

Walter White’s underwear

Walter White’s narrative has spawned a far-reaching fandom that inevitably reaches into the material world.   Few things in Breaking Bad could be more iconic—or more personal—than Walter White’s cotton briefs.  As part of an auction of Breaking Bad items, 109 people bid for the underwear that eventually sold for $9900.  Much of the press on the auction was reduced to shallow curiosity over the attraction of Walt’s ill-fitting underwear or the cost of Hank’s rose quartz and Jesse’s DEA mug.  Strangely enough, nearly no press expressed any surprise that underwear and television series props would be so expensive and desirable.

Few observers have really questioned why fandoms seek such prosaic things linked to fictional performances.  The prosaic tighty whiteys are a relic of sorts, a material thing associated with a venerated figure.  The most powerful of all relics are those things associated with the body of a saint, such as literal human remains or an item of clothing touched by the figure.  Those things are invested with the symbolic power of the venerated figure who once held them, focusing secular narratives as well as triggering deeper philosophical reflections raised by the lives of saints. Read the rest of this entry

Roadside Rebels: Heritage Theatre and the Confederate Flag

In 1913 a Confederate veteran posed for this picture alongside the "conquered banner" (image from Library of Congress).

In 1913 a Confederate veteran posed for this picture alongside the “conquered banner” (image from Library of Congress).

Last weekend a Confederate battle flag rose alongside Interstate-95 in Chester, Virginia.  Chester is just south of Richmond, which is surrounded by Civil War landmarks including more than 30 preserved battlefields (e.g., New Market Heights and Chimborazo Hospital), the White House of the Confederacy, and the phalanx of Confederate heroes memorialized on Monument Avenue.  Planted by the Virginia Flaggers, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia provides travelers a passing glimpse of America’s reduction of the Civil War to theater.

It was optimistic if not disingenuous for Free North Carolina to suggest that “The flag will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.”  The Virginia Flaggers repeated similar stale platitudes when it reduced the Chester flag to an homage to Confederate heritage, arguing that “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.”

A 1907 Confederate reunion in RIchmond paraded along Monument Avenue in front of a Confederate flag (image from Library of Congress).

A 1907 Confederate reunion in Richmond paraded along Monument Avenue in front of a Confederate flag (image from Library of Congress).

On the one hand, the problem is not with the flag itself:  the Confederate flag could be an enormously productive symbol to discuss one of the nation’s most complicated historical moments.   On the other hand, it is naïve to suggest that reducing Confederate heritage to this symbol—and a clumsy theatrical event along I-95—can illuminate the war’s historical and moral contradictions.  Rather than honor the many people who fought and died for the lost cause, flag-waving performances hazard reducing historiography to mere emotional provocation.

Ultimately the Chester flag is barely even visible from the interstate, but the public theater may have become more consequential (and self-defeating) than the flag display itself.  After first decrying the placement of a flag in plain view of countless travelers in his wonderful Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall conceded that the semi-secluded location made it a much less divisive symbol (see images of the flag in the Richmond Times-Dispatch).  By then, though, the flag’s installation had been reduced to media theatre that reduced heritage to shallow talking points about honor and enslavement. Read the rest of this entry

Communicating Archaeological Scholarship

Students in a 2013 archaeological field school at Angel Mounds supported by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant (image courtesy Jeremy Wilson, IUPUI)

Students in a 2013 archaeological field school at Angel Mounds supported by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant (image courtesy Jeremy Wilson, IUPUI)

This week in the midst of a government shutdown Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith took a stand in USA Today against archaeology and a swath of ambiguously defined “science programs.”  Cantor and Smith argue that the nation should significantly restrict federally supported science projects (especially social sciences), and in a moment of economic hardship such fiscal discipline sounds attractive.   However, their superficially reasonable fiscal sobriety masks a deep-seated aversion to critical scholarship and the academy, caricaturing archaeological research and taking aim on all social sciences in the process.

Cantor and Smith’s deceptive assault on National Science Foundation funding singles out disciplines like archaeology that they reduce to luxuries and recreational pastimes.  Berkeley Professor Rosemary Joyce provided a measured defense of projects that Cantor and Smith suggest should not be counted among our national priorities.  Joyce very thoughtfully acknowledges that “misleading storyline offered in this opinion piece begins with the suggestion that the tiny amount of the Federal research budget dedicated to the scientific exploration of the past is blocking research on urgently needed medical innovations” (compare responses from James Doyle and Adam Smith).

Of course the oddly timed attack from the Hill has little to do with funding priorities and limited funds.  Instead, it has much more to do with Cantor and Smith’s anxiety about the culture of scholarship.  Cantor and Smith’s opinion piece is transparent rhetoric that grossly misrepresents the academy and caricatures a few archaeological research projects to serve their bolder misrepresentations of scholarship and the academy.

It probably serves little purpose to defend the series of grants singled out by Cantor and Smith, since it leaves their fundamental rejection of social science funding unchallenged.  Instead it is more productive to shift the discussion and ask precisely what archaeology is doing well, and for Cantor and Smith we may need to simply articulate what archaeology does at all.  Surprisingly, archaeologists are not always especially articulate advocates for the cause, unable to rationalize our discipline beyond advocating for the virtues of knowledge about self, society, and heritage.  Those are not bad answers as much as they sound self-serving to an outsider who may have accepted the caricatures of academics as spoiled elitists; that is, we risk appearing unsympathetic to the material realities of our neighbors’ experiences if we simply defend abstract knowledge and archaeological employment. Read the rest of this entry