Research Trip to North Platte, Nebraska

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The Royal Scottish Academy were kind enough to award me the Barns Graham travel bursary after completing my MFA. I wanted to visit the town of North Platte, home to the world’s largest train yard. This was my proposal.

“…As a next step, I would use this award to travel to the Bailey Train Yard in North Platte, Nebraska. At over eight miles across, it is the largest environment for the management of freight transport on the planet. Approximately 14,000 carriages traverse the yard daily and are maintained by several thousand personnel. It is serviced by the local community and, being placed in the geographic centre of the United States, is widely recognised as an informal barometer of the nation’s economic activity. The satellite images of the yard are overwhelming. Despite the obvious formal attractions of this environment to my practice, the relationship between mechanistic infrastructure and working population is just as fascinating. That a cultural landscape can be coloured by the concentrated demands of one industrial and post-industrial sector is familiar to my reading of the Scottish experience and subsequent artistic treatment. As a potentially stimulating and fascinating locale of my practice, I would seek examples of both symbiotic imperative and alienating strain between the yard and the community serving it…”

So off I flew. From the first, something about this whole experience is being driven by imagery from above – whether satellite or aircraft, map or internet, something about the rendering of the subject from above and the marking of the land has developed in contrast to my sensory experience. There feels to be a discrepancy between my assumed knowledge of a geographically certain location and what my eyes tell me. This ‘unreality’ has pervaded the whole experience and I think it began with looking at the satellite imagery of the Bailey yard. When I flew over the Labrador seas, the aerial view of the ice sheets breaking up confirmed a sense of the abstract combating raw, tangible experience on the ground.

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I had a week’s stop in LA where myself and Rebecca were able to catch up with a dear friend before she flew back to the UK and I journeyed alone inland. Although not part of the travel proposal, the contrast between that part of California and it’s endless carpet of populated concrete compared to the wide open stretches of central Nebraska has really shaped my thinking from the start.

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Compare this image of Los Angeles to the overhead view of Nebraska.

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Apart from the obvious climate difference, I have been particularly struck with the tessellation; the rhythmic interplay of land to human infrastructure leaving it’s mark. In such a repetitive and featureless flat plain, I hypothesised how this would shape one’s developmental attitudes to a sense of place. For example, if one traveled for hours by land and arrived at a destination no visibly different from where one left, I wondered how that would shape the individual’s sense of transitions, of boundaries, relational distance, the passage of time, etc.

Anyway, without trying to pre-guess any artistic ‘product’, I’ve simply been walking huge distances everyday. Textures and noises – from the peeling paint of winter-blasted derelict homes to the diesel infused black soil around the train yard – I’ve been capturing images and recording long stretches of ambient sounds. I’ve caught the long rumbling of seemingly endless freight cargo to the alien chatter in the local diner. Cars have stickers that say, ‘support our troops’. Liquor stores have signs outside that say ‘hunters welcome’.

I have felt conspicuous. I can literally count on the fingers of two hands the number of people I have seen walking the streets.  Instead, it is entirely a car-culture. I have felt suspect taking pictures of homes.

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The train yard itself is beautiful and powerful. My fondness for the repetition of the multiple and the scope of infrastructure is well rewarded here. On several occasions, I have attempted to film the complete passage of one train despite my frozen hands clinging on the camera for dear life as the wind freezes me. From overhead, I’ve filmed them rumble beneath me.

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I have given myself a variety of mini projects and destinations each day. Some obvious such as the viewing tower and others more mundane. To expand on one that utilises this notion of the mismatch between aerial abstraction versus individual senses, I isolated this one section of the older part of the yard.

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I suspect it is the remains of an old turntable connection and the buildings that serviced the locomotives. I knew that experiencing the environment from this perspective would brutally jar with the sense of impossibility at actually standing there within it. So I went there.

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Sure enough – it’s nothing like what the global imagery prepares me for. I don’t know what any of this contrast means to me yet, but it is picking at me; making me work on a way of expressing it – not the images themselves, nor the place, exactly – more the juxtaposition of preparation for an assumed knowledge of a locale clashing with the sensory experience of actually feeling it. We’ll see where it leads.

Anyway, I’m preparing to leave now. I have amassed a huge stock of material to pore over. I’m resolute that I’m not simply going to summarise a bunch of pretty (bleak) pictures into a record of the experience and claim it to be art –  because I sense the temptation.

So for now, I’m going to have a rest and sign off with some images of North Plate, NE. I’ll be writing more once I’ve had time to reflect and catch up on my sleep. I have a long list of internal connecting buses and planes to deal with.

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