Ghosts of Industry and Technology – The Urban and Rural Explorer
Some time back in 1999 when I was still a high school student I bought a book entitled Country: Old Memories, written by some guy named Mason Fletcher. It was purchased at Roy’s Coffee Shop in Strathroy, Ontario, where the book, flanked by packs of breath mints and cigarettes and lotto tickets, was being displayed at the cashier’s counter as an impulse item.
It was obviously self-published. Its uniformly flat orange exterior the colour of a slow-moving vehicle sign—standard accoutrement adorning the rear of tractors and other snail’s-pace farm machinery—was patently do-it-yourself, but with a sort of folksy charm. Lacking the ISBN or cataloguing information typical to a mass-marketed paperback, the book was an enigma. Self-publication was still relatively uncommon and expensive in 1999. The book was printed in Canada at The Aylmer Express, a Google search of which will return the address and profile of a print-on-demand service operating in a small farm town in the middle of cowpie country. More significantly, as I leafed through the book at the cashier counter I was intrigued by the thought of why someone had taken the time to produce a volume that included prose pieces and poetry on rusty tools, defunct farm equipment, and outhouses (literally a place where one expels waste), the kind of rural objects that one might see decaying on the properties of generationally inherited family farms, “weather-beaten object[s]”—as they are described in “The Passing of the Backhouse”—of “simple classic art” (lines 3, 10). Some of the poems and prose pieces are accompanied by photographs of the now anachronistic technology they memorialize: old corn planters, antiquated surveying equipment used to measure plots of land, manually powered post-hole augers, crockery ink wells, horse-drawn hay mowers, crank pumps, glass milk bottles and so on. Who cares about all this crap?, I thought to myself. It’s just junk bound for the scrap yard.
Obviously I cared enough to be intrigued, and in spite of my teenage cynicism I surrendered ten dollars to Roy and left with the book.
As I have matured in my perspective on junk (I am not a cynical teenager anymore, after all, but rather a cynical adult), I came to realize that the poetry Fletcher recognized in rusty, defunct equipment is the poetry of labour. As Romany WG puts it in his 2011 photo essay Beauty in Decay, there is a certain “spatial poetry” not only in decaying architecture, but also in decaying and abandoned technology. In a section called “Industrial Evolution: Ghosts of Work in the First World” he states:
“Industrial ruins signify the failure of industrial production in an area. Areas where you can find industrial ruins densely grouped, such as the USA's 'Rust Belt', are regions of failed industry. They tell us a story about work, about society and about the social process we are involved in globally. This is a subtext of Urban Exploration: a revealed secret story of what is happening now. … An uneasy sense of vertigo creeps in when one considers how much stuff we need to live as we do and how little we know about making it. This is the phantom haunting the desolate factory. Maybe we don't want to work production lines anymore, but we are still addicted to what they produce. The industrial ruin brings us squeamishly close to facing those who now do our work so that we don't have to. … And what of our great-grandparents? When we stand in the abandoned textiles mill, in a reverie of remembrance, we touch the lives of our recent predecessors, and doesn't it feel a little difficult to look those ghosts in the eye? They who worked so hard for so long while we enjoy our laptops, our 37.5 hour week, our online chat and endless supply of coffee? … Perhaps we can appease those ghosts out there in the ruins by at least acknowledging them and thereby acknowledging, too, those around the world who continue to work in similar conditions today.” (Beauty in Decay, 2011)
I had an agro-oriented conversation about these ghosts of labour with a local farmer I recently partnered with to transition our pasture to organic crop production on the family farm. We converted 100-year-old ecologically managed grassland that fed cattle into organic soybeans destined for the environmentally-minded vegan and vegetarian markets, depriving at least three at-risk bird species—bobolinks, meadowlarks and short-eared owls—a place to nest (see grassland management references here and here). I was discussing with this farmer the areas on our land where water pools. I explained to him how sixty years ago my grandfather and a crew of local men hand-dug a trench through 20 acres of hard clay to lay the clay drainage tile that was used in those days. It must have took them months working 12-hour days of digging in unforgiving soil. When they reached the flood zone, the fall in the trench was too short. Months of hard labour ended in complete failure. My grandfather never tried again after that; the price of expended labour was too much. But the furrow still exists to this day as a scar in the landscape healing over several decades. Now we have big machines that dig for us. And if we fail, it’s no big deal to go back and make corrections. We have big machines to do everything now, things that used to shorten the lifespans of beasts of burden and humans alike. Ploughing hard clay is as simple as running a diesel-powered behemoth through the field. These are our new beasts of burden. The steel horse-drawn plough that quietly decays behind the barn is a monument to sweat and sacrifice into the future. The young farmer and I acknowledged the hardship of our grandparents. “We have it easy. It’s too easy.”
Unbeknownst to me until much later in life, only a few concessions from where I grew up in the vacuous outlands of southwestern Ontario lives an artist named Scott McKay. Essentially McKay’s work involves the “repurposing” of discarded metal into sculpture—what might be considered a form of objet trouvé in a similar territory as Marcel Duchamp’s (mis)appropriation of urinals, bicycle wheels and snow shovels, everyday objects rendered uncanny through a type of disuse, misuse, or de-contextualization. Because the raw material of McKay’s work is comprised of “scrap” or refuse, I was struck by a description on his website about how he locates and acquires the materials for his work, a process which at times necessitates clandestine rambles through forests and the back lots of farm estates. Intrigued by his artist’s statement about how his “eye catches a form in the forest or a scrap pile that deserves tribute,” I contacted McKay. In particular, I wanted to know how encounters with human-constructed debris abandoned in forests and on rural properties influence his artistic practice. The premium that some farmers place on their piles of rusting steel seems ironically contrasted by scrap’s existence as devalued refuse and the value that artists like McKay place on it as deferred art, as material with potential for new uses.
McKay wrote to me in an email: “I have asked many farmers about their scrap pile. Some are happy to see it gone, some will have it turn to dust or perhaps they say to their wives ‘This will all be yours when I am gone’…” Whether such hoarding of wasted technologies is driven by market conditions—the hope that one’s garbage heap will appreciate in value—or by nostalgia, or by a curatorial aspiration, or by preservationist instinct (which is likely the case for older-generation farmers who experienced The Great Depression or rationing during the World Wars), the tragic irony is that nostalgia assigns curatorial value. The beauty of junk is in the eye of the beholder.
I asked McKay if there is any sort of preservationist motivation to his work. He is, after all, imbuing the scrap with new use-value (albeit aesthetic use-value) while at the same time altering the original design of the objects he refashions. His response was that he does “feel a motivation to preserve the work that was put into the individual pieces,” to display the visible remnants of the defunct tools and equipment he appropriates. The rationale for this will-to-preserve seems to be an infectious reverence—transferred from owner to owner, or artisan to artisan—for the human agency involved not only in the original design, but also in the history of a thing’s use:
“Take a gear for example. To get to that point there was ore that was mined and refined, steel produced, a form made and the rough casting produced, several levels of mill and lathe work, the gear is installed on a piece of equipment, the equipment is unserviceable for some reason, the gear is removed and taken to a scrap yard… I find it. That is a lot of people involved and I always think it is a waste that so much effort is put into a single piece. Even if it can be melted down and made into something else all those steps and human effort are gone. […] This thought developed in me from going to auctions, which I have done for a long time. I used to buy a box of good crap for 25 cents. So many little items. Things worn out, bent steel, jars of screws that have stripped threads. Each screw has a story, each piece of string that is too short, the jar that houses the useless parts was on the table of a family in the presence of family conversations. It unsettles me at how sentimental I am about useless crap. […] I was working on a piece of steel a few years ago that had been a set of drags which were pulled behind heavy horses. The steel quality was amazing and some collectors would have shot me knowing that I had cut it up to make a pronghorn antelope! While grinding the steel I could smell the soil, the sweat from the horses, the leather and the horse shit…” (McKay, email)
Without a doubt McKay’s background as both a miner in Yellowknife and a millwright gave him an appreciation for the minutiae of the manufacturing process, the progression from harvesting, refining, and shaping, as well as the life infused in those objects through use and through presence, through human exchange and residual memory of the labour. It is at the thought of how memory resides within defunct matter that a trivial object, a tool or a piece of equipment, ceases to be a mere object and becomes something beyond its exterior husk.
In “Origin of the Work of Art,” philosopher Martin Heidegger famously attempts to decipher the mystery of common objects and their ontological significations by distinguishing things with equipmental value from those with aesthetic merit. Choosing the example of a pair of peasant’s shoes, he equates the minimalist exhibition of mere footwear with work rendered in a more readily identifiable artistic medium, namely, Vincent Van Gogh’s well-known “pictorial representation” (32). “A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more.”
"From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of [the peasant’s] slow trudge through the far spreading and ever uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field." (33)
Just as Heidegger traces the ontological complexity of the subject-object relationship in the leather, the “stiffly rugged heaviness” of a common object that represents the residue of human agency, McKay’s fascination with seemingly “useless crap” functions to re-evaluate that residue through subject-object relations. Attraction to useless things becomes an interpretive exercise that focuses not on utility, but on trace of human labour. Perhaps this fascination with trace might explain what McKay said was most amazing about his repurposing experiences: our “insignifican[ce] in a temporal sense,” the transitory memories that “live on” in ephemeral things, and that can be “quickly forgotten… and rediscovered for a moment… maybe… like the smells of horses on steel” (email).