Alex Lukas worked as an artist-in-residence at Prairieside Outpost in November 2018. During his residency time, Alex explored, researched, filmed and immersed in the quiet of the season and timelessness of Chase County, Kansas. He brings his own hometown history from Boston to his experiences in Kansas, and in January 2019, Alex presented (Untitled), 2019 at the Boston Exhibition & Convention Center as part of as part of Boston Cyberarts’ Art on the Marquee program. (video below)
“Unless you count possums, skunks, raccoons, and deer, there’s no coming and going on this road . . . I am walking it, and I believe it to be the last exposed piece of the original concrete, however broken, of what was once U.S. 50 South in or touching Chase (County, Kansas). These fractures, a crazed pattern of cracks and crevices crammed with plants, give it the look of the slabbed Appian Way. . . The old highway, this ghost of a road, the one under my boots, this one quiet for thirty years and starting to disappear under sediment and scrub: it reveals better than any other place nearby the power of prairie, its continuous insistence, its opportunism, its capacity to lie unheeded and let human intrusion pass and only then to begin to creep back from what seemed nonexistence, to germinate and grow . . .”
- William Least Heat-Moon
PrairyErth: A Deep Map. Mariner, 1991. (46 - 47)
I arrived in Matfield Green as the seasons were changing. Daytime temperatures that approached 70s had faded into snowfall on my last day in Kansas. It was fortuitous that the precipitation heald off, because I was spent most of my time looking at what was underfoot.
To borrow a phrase from J.B. Jackson, I’m interested in odology: the “study of roads.” (Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. Yale University Press, 1986. (21)). Odology explores not only road construction, but their direction and intention and the political structure surrounding movement upon their surface. As the author clarifies, it might be better described as the study of “ways.” My own niche within this already niche field of study centers on the American road space when encountered on foot, often with a focus on representations of the highway in post-apocalyptic literature. I’m interested in instances where roads, when they are disused or misused, become more than pathways to and through, but destinations in their own right. With William Least Heat-Moon’s slow investigation of the county as a valuable guide, I began several projects new projects during my two week stay in the Flint Hills.
Following directions laid out in the hallucinatory history of PrairyErth, I searched for and (eventually) found William Least Heat-Moon’s section of in U.S. 50 in Saffordville, Kansas. I visited this “ghost road” several times, including for the first snow of the season. Trains rumbled by in both directions, their long strings of mixed freight and intermodal containers pulled by locomotives adorned with the names of distant cities. As I prepared to leave after one of my visits, a westbound train made up mostly of oil tankers, passed on the southern set of tracks. It slowed and screeched to a halt across Road A, separating me from the warmth of my waiting truck. As the grade crossing incessantly dinged and the snow fell, I waited.
Bocook Street sits two blocks south of Prairieside Outpost in Matfield Green. Turning left off of Madden Street and onto Bocook, the pavement ends just past an old school building. Here, as the road heads east out of town, it takes on a new name. LittleCedar Creek Road crosses the south fork of the Cottonwood River about a quarter mile past the old school. With minimal effort it is possible to scramble underneath the bridge where, it appears, locals write their names.
The inscriptions are predictable and personal. “Caleb Was Here ‘81,” “Teri + Brandy,” “Laura G. 1977.” They veer towards the vulgar and occasionally the absurd or even the critical, “(Fried Eggs),” “I wish you would write neater, I can’t read it!” Authorship gets confused, “Whoever wrote my name down here is an SOB.” Most of the writing appears to have been done in charcoal, but I was hesitant to touch it and confirm this speculation. I didn’t want to be the one to smudge the names away after all these years. The writing seems to have reached a pinnacle in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Class of ‘78’s collective autograph adorning the bridge several times. Curious about these vandals, I visited the Chase County Historical Society in Cottonwood Falls where I found local yearbooks from the time in question. Here, beside a life-size cut out of Knute Rockne, I was able to put faces to names.
I found Betty Anne and Caleb and Steve and Daniel and more. But others disappeared, or I could find only their siblings in the graduating classes before and after, but not them. I was looking for Mary Smith but found only Alan and Jean. One vandal, who signed the bridge in 1981, appears as a first year student in a 1978 volume, but vanishes thereafter.
Five miles north of Matfield Green on State Highway 177, just past the bridge that takes cars over the BNSF mainline, is an open stretch of pavement. A sign at its entrance announces “Highway Material - Keep Out.” There isn’t another soul in sight, so I drive in. Beyond the posted notice is a nonsensical road, where double yellow lines criss-cross each other; where lane dividers appear and disappear; where, suddenly and unexpectedly, one is in the wrong lane.
In January of 2019, I presented footage from this Kansas site on the 80-foot tall LED sign in front of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center as part of Boston Cyberarts’ Art on the Marquee program. An integral jewel in the revitalization of Boston’s Seaport district, The Convention Center sits just feet from I-90, a highway extension completed as part of the infamous Big Dig.
The Big Dig heralded a major restructuring of Boston’s infrastructure and the way eastern Massachusetts moves. Growing up in Boston in the 1990s, the project loomed large, taking on almost mythical status. I remember being awed that, at least according to the radio, this was the biggest road infrastructure project in history. Since its completion, the efficacy of the Big Dig has been incessantly debated. Besides massive cost overruns and allegations of corruption and graft, some of the work proved to be shoddy. Ceiling tiles fell and salt water poured in from the harbor. What’s more, it’s not clear the congestion the Big Dig promised to alleviate has been improved. It too is a faulty road.
Transporting the Kansas blacktop back to Boston further disrupts the assertion of an orderly, understood, and known road space. Displayed on this gigantic scale, It becomes a quiet, abstracted dystopian thriller screening next to the promise of the Big Dig.
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you can find more about the work of Alex Lukas at https://alexlukas.com/