Interview with SUB-MISSON artist Austen Brown

Apr 19, 2016

Interview with Austen Brown
May 6 – June 25, 2016

By Makenzi Fricker

MF: Your images capture scenes of human interference on the landscape, such as housing or mining infrastructure, yet do not depict the figures themselves. Why have you chosen not to show the people behind the activities?

AB: There are a few reasons. There’s been lots of work out there, primarily video, that has focused on people who have moved to the Bakken for work, the environmental effects of fracking, and the communities working to understand and play catch-up to the extremely rapid growth of the industry and the people that come along with it. I was certainly interested in all these ideas, but when I did my fieldwork I was confronted with the instability of the industry - it was very easy to see that none of this was going to last very long. I can get into this in greater detail, but essentially the state was allowing, or encouraging depending on whom you ask, the extraction of oil before the regulations become tougher. The speed was very palpable. What no one really expected was that the global market become flooded with all the new oil and gas producers, eventually making the price of oil per barrel so cheap that oil production in North Dakota didn’t produce any profit. Of course this means that the work dried up and people moved on, leaving behind improvised shelter and housing. I found this much more interesting, looking past the present towards the inevitable future, and studying what marks were going to be left on the landscape as well as what will be left in the communities and municipalities.

I went in to the project thinking that the interesting part would be the movement of people over land, creating a theoretical ‘no-place’, where the landscape and the communities are filled up and then emptied out- the most common analogy is an airport, people go there to go some where else. I was obviously wrong; this region had a clear definition.

MF: What led you to study this region, and can you explain a bit of its history?

I’ve always been interested in urban planning and informal economies. In the summer of 2014 it seemed like every other day there was a news story about Man Camps in Williston, ND, covering the social ills of rugged men migrating into sleepy towns in the west. It didn’t add up to me, but I was intrigued by the sheer volume of growth.

To give some quick history on the region, fracking became a cheap, viable option to produce oil and gas around 2008. The technology was cheap enough, but more importantly the price of oil was expensive. In order to make a profit off of fracking in the Bakken, oil needs to be roughly $80 per barrel or more. If the price of oil is less than that then companies lose money. It’s also important to note how important land rights are, and how this contributed to the growth of oil production. North Dakota has very business friendly rights when it comes to land. Land is split into two, surface and subsurface mineral rights, and most of the time people don’t own both of them. What ends up happening is that some one can own the surface, but either the state or a company owns the subsurface mineral rights, which is where the oil and gas are. By law, the person who owns the surface has to provide an easement to allow the exploration and extraction of oil to who ever owns the mineral rights. These factors, cheaper production, expensive oil, and relaxed rights to land led to an explosion of growth.

In 2014 roughly 40,000 people had moved into the Bakken for employment, and there simply wasn’t enough housing to fit everyone moving there, making the prices skyrocket. At one point a one-bedroom apartment in Williston, ND was more expensive than a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. To alleviate this cost companies created temporary housing, think of a shipping container home, to house employees that were contracted and sent to the fields for a specific contract, yet these didn’t make sense for most of the people working in the secondary employment sector. In order to produce an oil well you need trucks, roads, mechanics, janitors, and on and on. For these people, work paid less and was more precarious, so they ended up making due in RVs. From Williston to Minot you find vast lots of RVs, and these became informal communities of oil field workers. And of course these aren’t solely comprised of single men, but are also full of families, women, etc.

MF: How have fields such as geography, geology, archaeology, anthropology, etc. impacted your practice?

AB: I’m greatly influenced by geography, less so with geology, archeology, etc. I’m interested in how power is produced spatially. I research different sites to see how they’re connected, whether it is through industry, ideology, etc., and I explore what relationships are produced through these spaces. There’s a term that I like, ‘buildings as evidence’, meaning that ideas of power, global economies, the price of oil, exist in very tangible, physical ways. To me, the question of ‘where’ is the question of ‘now’.

MF: Included in the exhibition are source materials such as shale and data sheets, which you present as artifacts and indexical marks of the mining operations in North Dakota. What’s the relationship between those objects and the more ephemeral video and sound elements of the exhibition?

AB: This goes back to the last question, in some ways. The core sample of shale, which is what is broken apart in fracking to extract oil and gas, and the data sheet accompanying it are there to give a material center. It’s an interesting question, what is the root cause of all of this? What produced the spaces represented in the videos? In some ways you can directly link it to the material substance of oil, but that’s obviously not the entire answer. You have to take into consideration the infrastructure surrounding it. Halliburton produced the core sample of shale, so it leads us down another route, one of scientific exploration, multinational corporations, a company with political clout. I knew I was also contending with a history of Land Art, and wanted to take a jab at Smithson. Formally its very similar, a box full of rocks, conflating the center and the edge. But I was always frustrated that Smithson placed his work in geological terms and not in the context of his time. He ignored how political and contentious this topic really is.

MF: How do you plan to transform THE SUB-MISSION space, and how do you see this project fitting into the narrative of your work as a whole?

AB: The interesting thing about the SUB-MISSION space is that it’s a basement, so we already know that we’re underneath something. I plan on playing with this idea of surface and subsurface, making us feel that complication of vertical space found in the Bakken. The installation consists of three videos that will be hung off the walls so we understand them more as a physical presence, in our space. The sound is a composition of field recordings taken from the different sites depicted in the videos. Its arranged to fill up and empty out the space sonically, so it gets very dense and loud and very sparse as well, almost like its breathing in and out.

MF: All of the video and sound elements are on a loop, and are essentially “moving stills”. How does the passage of time factor into your conceptualization of the project?

AB: For this piece I think less about the passage of time, and more about the collapse of space. Each video is a depiction of a very clear, deliberate space, framed almost as if it exists as evidence. My goal is to collapse these spaces, domestic, industrial, scientific, into one gallery space so we can understand that there is a correlation. If they existed more in time, one after another, I think we would lose that aspect of the work, and think about it more as a projected narrative.

MF: Do you intend to further study the region?

AB: I have some thoughts about projects that would be fun to do there, but the distance from Chicago is frustrating. I think this one is shelved, but I have some other projects in the works centered around Bertrand Goldberg and the hope, ambition, and conflict held in modernism.

MF: Does the exhibition implicitly comment on issues such as sustainability, environmentalism, or the impact of neoliberalism on global economies?

AB: If some one thinks about oil and fracking, they’ll automatically head towards sustainability, environmentalism, neoliberalism, and global economies, so I do think that there is an implicit commentary. At times I wish it were more explicit, but it’s hard to have your cake and eat it too. This work was made during my time as a graduate student at SAIC, and the critique panels would always ask if I was an activist. Of course this work isn’t activism, it’s not calling for direct measures to create change, and I think those questions from artists show how out of touch they can be when it comes to social movements and what is needed to enact change. That said, this work has content and is about something that exists out in the world that we’re in.

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