Social Observatory

a tribute to Ward, Colorado; Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and Williston, North Dakota

 

With a group of artists, writers, curators, and students, I traveled 1,500 miles through the eastern Rocky Mountains and Western Plains in an 18-passenger caravan. Of the dozens of towns along the highway roads, I was struck by three places because of their unexpected visual similarities: Ward, Colorado, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and Williston, North Dakota.

 

Ward was founded in the Colorado Gold Rush and remains a home rule municipality with around 75 inhabited homes. Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Ogalala Lakota Tribe. The city of Pine Ridge itself the most populated in the region but with the highest rates of poverty in the country. At the time, the boomtown of Williston was sprawling with ‘man camps’ to temporarily house oil field workers. Hundreds of miles apart and wildly different in terms of demographics, geography, and economy, I found the visible thread of ad hoc architecture to connect these three places. Yet, the reasons for utilizing makeshift materials and jury-rigged methods are a direct result of their different circumstances: frugality and grit are necessary for survival in the isolated mountain town of self-described “recluses and misfits” in Ward; institutional poverty and restricted access to the “great American economy” limit access to building materials on the Pine Ridge Reservation; roughnecks from across the country flocked to Williston looking to work and play hard, putting up shelters only as temporary as the cash flow of the oil boom.

 

Using recycled/found construction materials and rendering a camper truck non-functional, Social Observatory is a physical representation of the resilience, ingenuity, necessity, and absurdity of the improvisational structures in these places. As an outsider peering into these communities momentarily, the ‘observatory’ is meant to emphasize the questionable, voyeuristic nature of the project if only considered superficially.