Implementation/Interpretation: Oregon City

Last week I took some photos for Scott Rettberg and Nick Montfort’s sticker novel Implementation. They recently sent out a call for help with a related coffee table book project, and it is a fascinating one. Rettberg and Montfort printed up hundreds of sheets of Avery-style stickers with randomized, discrete paragraphs of the original prose novel, and they have asked people all over the world to place and photograph the paragraphs/stickers in public places. Click here to check out the impressive flickr collection of images they’ve amassed so far.

For my own contribution, I chose to sticker and photograph the recently-defunct End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City. The center was built in the mid-1990s to boost tourism in Clackamas County and also as an educational resource for local elementary schools. With the economy flatlining in Oregon for most of the 2000s, the center ultimately found itself financially unsustainable, and was hence mothballed in September of 2009.

Over the past 8 years, I’ve spent at least 6 hours every week commuting to/from/past Oregon City on I-205, and the center’s massive metal ribs never fail to sadden me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never been a fan of grade-school style Manifest Destiny, and I’m deeply troubled by the fact that so much of what passes for “history” in the Pacific Northwest begins and ends with soaring metanarratives which overdramatize the Anglo experience. I toured the center about five years ago and found the same predictable platitudes about Lewis and Clark and The Hudson Bay Company, the same negligent euphemisms describing the still-recent genocide of indigenous peoples, and the same wholesale omissions of the environmental disasters brought on by deforestation and industrial pollution that has given the Willamette River valley a century-long case of toxic shock syndrome. Nothing new to report on those fronts, either, by the way.

What saddens me, then, isn’t the silly death of nostalgia farming, but rather the missed opportunity to kick-start important conversations about such simple questions with deceptively-complex answers (how about starting with these two: “just how did my family get here in the first place?” and “what kind of messy business was involved in all that anyway?”). Certainly something called the “End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center” isn’t going to do this important work by itself; I emphasize the word “Interpretive” here because it’s a carefully-selected and almost defensive/guarded bit of language by those who politicked to finance and build the roadside attraction in the first place, and these of course are people of tremendous luck, fortune and power. It is an audacious and arrogant act to build and maintain something like this, for sure.

But in the gaudy ignorance of something like an “End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center” persevering, there is at least the opportunity to resist the metanarrative, and to flesh out the willfully-narrowed cultural record. In shuttering this project, the community/county/state is effectively ending the conversation, and of course, doing so before it’s even had a fighting chance to come correct.


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