This weekend, I finished reading Alfredo González-Ruibal’s new book, An Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (2019). It is an an exhaustive survey of recent trends in the archaeology of the contemporary that does not shy away from advancing its own interpretative and political agenda. This makes sense since the archaeology of the contemporary emerged from a kind of political engagement with the material present.
González-Ruibal’s book also motivated me to think about both my book on the archaeology of the American experience and one particular lingering project: the Wesley College Documentation Project. This was a eight-week long project that used photography and video, thick description, archival work, performances, and collaborative imagining to understand the history, abandonment, and final months of four buildings associated with Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
This project haunts me, and not just me, my colleague Mike Wittgraf is working on a mixed-media piece that derived from recordings that we did in Corwin Hall, my student-collaborators have approached me about continuing work on the project, and I feel like some of the ideas that I developed during that project cut across a bunch of my current projects – from thoughts on austerity to understanding the life of buildings and technology, to the concept of the contemporary.
Last semester, I started to write up some of the work we did at this project and before too long, I had about 17,000 words in a document. The words included descriptions of individual rooms:
Larimore Hall, Room 136
9.5 x 14
Description and History: This room was originally the northern part of Room 13 which was probably the waiting room of Larimore Hall where guests could wait for their friends living in this dormitory under the watchful eye of the matron. The east and west walls are original. Access to the room comes through a door with a transom window and a granite threshold in the west wall. The south wall of the room has an observation window and it dry wall. This wall does not appear on the early-1970s one-line plan or the 1979 plan.
In its final phase room 136 extended into Room 15 (on the 1979 plans and the one-lines from the early 1970s). Room 15 was a bathroom and with the removal of the drop ceiling, the changes to structure are visible with the ceiling above the bathroom striped of plaster and pipes from the upstairs bathroom visible.The north wall is largely original except for a 7 ft x 1 ft bump out added to accommodate the plumbing from the adjacent bathroom.
Of course, we didn’t prepare similarly detailed description of each space within the Wesley College buildings, but we documented enough of the buildings to provide high resolution windows that expose the dynamism of these buildings over time. I prepared annotated illustrations of each of the floors.
We also prepared inventories of the stuff that was left behind in these buildings, which still need to be transcribed, and prepared studies of certain classes of artifacts like desks.
It also includes synthetic histories of each of the architecture and use of each building and of Wesley College as an institution.
Sayre Hall was the earliest of the four buildings. It was funded by a gift of $25,000 by A.J. Sayre, who was born in Harvey, ND and made his fortune in Canada and on the West Coast in land, timber and other business dealings. The building was opened in 1908 as a men’s dormitory and could accommodate 65 students. In 1919, the building was renamed Harold Holden Sayre Hall after A.J. Sayre’s late son who had died in World War One. The rooms, like in its twin Larimore Hall, were two room suites that included a bed room complete with shaving sink and closet, and a living room area, which opened onto the hall. For many years, these dormitories were considered the best on campus (and even today would compare favorably with most of UND’s on campus housing). Over the course of the early 20th century served as the home for numerous well-known UND alumni including Maxwell Anderson, Aviator Carl Ben Eielson, Garth Howland who would go on to found the Art Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Ralph Henry Hancock, the son of John Milton Hancock.
The larger narrative of North Dakota’s Wesley College in the history of higher education in the state and even nationally remains to be written, but having taught a course on the UND budget and the history of higher education, I think this would be fairly easy to prepare.
As part of this work, I also combed the documents preserved in UND’s Department of Special Collections, and I pulled together the letter written by then President-Emeritus Edward Robertson in 1935 to raise money for Wesley College during the Great Depression. You can download a private “alpha” version of this book here.
This range of material offers a view of perspectives on the Wesley College buildings, higher education, leadership, and abandonment. My plan is not to weave these perspectives together into a coherent or synthetic narrative, however, but to model my book on the buildings themselves. By arranging the materials paratactically, the book will attempt to represent the complex times and histories of the Wesley College buildings and leave the potential narratives to understand this open and dynamic. The buildings themselves are gone, but their time remains through our documentation, through various campus and historical narratives, and through our media interventions.
I started to play with this kind of non-narrative, non-argument, presentation in my little guide to the Bakken oil patch where the structure of the tourist guide allowed for the paratactic juxtapositions of the modern and the historical, the spatial and the conceptual, and site and the landscape.
Here’s the challenge. I could finish a draft manuscript of this book in a month or six weeks at most. The problem is that I have no idea where I should send it. It will be around 25,000 words, probably, with lots of images, documents, and, if possible, links.
I’d prefer the press to be peer reviewed and open access, but it needn’t necessarily be the latter.
More than that, I want a publisher that will get this kind of project and support a more, rather than less experimental approach to what I’m trying to do.