7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.7 | MacMa­hon­GranzowJone­sPDF


Abstract | The west­ern-Cana­di­an land­scape has been deeply shaped by its inti­mate eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and social ties to resource extrac­tion. In this short essay we use the pho­tog­ra­phy of Cana­di­an pho­tog­ra­ph­er Eamon Mac Mahon to explore how the West’s shift­ing resource land­scape has recon­fig­ured rela­tion­ships between com­mu­ni­ty and place. Con­trast­ing nos­tal­gic and ide­al­ized visions of remote place-based resource com­mu­ni­ties with scenes of glob­al­ly linked infra­struc­ture net­works, Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs high­light ten­sions between shift­ing economies and ideas of com­mu­ni­ty. Read as palimpses­ts of place, we argue that, when con­sid­ered togeth­er, Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs offer an impor­tant ambiva­lence, unset­tling straight­for­ward read­ings of boom and bust. In a con­text of con­tin­u­al upheaval and change, we read Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs as sign­posts on the road to emer­gent con­stel­la­tions of place and com­mu­ni­ty in the Cana­di­an West.
Résumé | Le paysage de l’ouest cana­di­en a été grande­ment façon­né au niveau économique, cul­turel et social par son rap­port à l’extraction des ressources. Dans ce court essai, l’œuvre pho­tographique du pho­tographe cana­di­en Eamon Mac Mahon est employé afin d’explorer la façon dont les change­ments dans le bassin de ressources de l’ouest ont recon­fig­uré les rela­tions entre les com­mu­nautés et leur envi­ron­nement. Les images de Mac Mahon soulig­nent la ten­sion entre l’économie changeante et le con­cept de com­mu­nauté en com­para­nt les pen­sées nos­tal­giques et idéal­isées des com­mu­nautés éloignées, expliquées par l’extraction de ressources, avec les réseaux d’infrastructures mon­di­aux. Lu comme palimpses­tes de lieux, nous esti­mons que l’ensemble des pho­togra­phies de Mac Mahon sug­gère une ambiva­lence impor­tante, per­tur­bant les inter­pré­ta­tions tra­di­tion­nelles d’expansion et de réces­sion. Dans un con­texte de boule­verse­ment et de change­ment con­tinu, nous inter­pré­tons les pho­togra­phies de Mac Mahon comme témoin du change­ment dans les rela­tions entre les com­mu­nautés de l’ouest cana­di­en et leur envi­ron­nement.

Eamon MacMa­hon | Pho­tog­ra­ph­er
Mike Granzow | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta
Kevin Jones | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta

THE ROAD TO HERE?
Placing Community within Western Canada’s Resource Landscape

Above Image: Cut­line, North­ern Alber­ta

In this short essay we explore under­stand­ings of place, com­mu­ni­ty, and land­scape with­in the con­text of west­ern Canada’s resource econ­o­my. We are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in resource towns, set­tle­ments com­mon­ly char­ac­ter­ized as boom-and-bust towns with­in nar­ra­tives of devel­op­ment and nation-build­ing. The pho­tog­ra­phy of Eamon Mac Mahon pro­vides a lens into these con­texts. We address four of Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs, cho­sen from a much wider port­fo­lio,[1] that demar­cate ten­sions in devel­op­ment nar­ra­tives of boom-and-bust towns and speak to uncer­tain­ties with­in our own evolv­ing per­spec­tives.[2] As researchers we have approached this project as a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to read Mac Mahon’s pho­tos as a series of prompts that help us go beyond expect­ed read­ings of boom and bust and open up inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions around place and com­mu­ni­ty with­in the west­ern Cana­di­an resource land­scape.

Despite trends of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, glob­al­iza­tion, and eco­nom­ic diver­si­fi­ca­tion, the Cana­di­an econ­o­my remains sig­nif­i­cant­ly ori­ent­ed towards nat­ur­al-resource extrac­tion (Nat­ur­al Resources Cana­da). This is espe­cial­ly the case in the West, where the Alber­ta tar sands are a cen­ter­piece of region­al and nation­al eco­nom­ic growth. Since OPEC’s 2014 deci­sion not to restrict oil pro­duc­tion and with the recent eco­nom­ic down­turn, the price of oil has fall­en dras­ti­cal­ly to less than 30 dol­lars per bar­rel, tak­ing thou­sands of jobs and the Cana­di­an dol­lar down with it. The effects of the down­turn are par­tic­u­lar­ly strong in Fort McMur­ray, the urban ser­vice area of the tar sands. As one local busi­ness own­er described in a recent news­pa­per arti­cle, “it’s like the place has gone dead” (The Globe and Mail). This is only the most recent moment in a long dra­ma of boom and bust that extends beyond oil to log­ging, min­ing, and fish­ing, and that has defined much of Canada’s his­to­ry, cul­ture, and geog­ra­phy.

Imagining Resource Communities

The resource town holds a strong place in the Cana­di­an social imag­i­nary. Resource com­mu­ni­ties are often seen as social­ly cohe­sive, sup­port­ed by hon­est work, and vir­tu­ous in their prox­im­i­ty to nature. They are per­ceived as resource­ful, not sim­ply resource depen­dent. As Eliz­a­beth Fur­niss argues in her study of small-town British Colum­bia, the cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives of these places evoke rhetorics that place rur­al com­mu­ni­ties in oppo­si­tion to urban expe­ri­ences and pro­mote fron­tier his­to­ries and iden­ti­ties root­ed in the mod­ernist expe­ri­ence of colo­nial expan­sion and the west­ward march of progress in North Amer­i­ca (83-85).

Inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to the myth of the resource town, the haunt­ing image of the ghost town is equal­ly a part of the west­ern Cana­di­an land­scape. The resource town appears immutable when viewed from the per­spec­tive of Cana­di­an nation­al­ism, but is equal­ly frag­ile in its capri­cious rela­tion­ship with resource economies gov­erned by mar­kets, demands, and val­ues that exist across net­works sprawl­ing far from the fron­tier. Busts are rou­tine and car­ry with them a sense of loss that reflects some­thing more than the expe­ri­ence of indi­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties. They attract wider social curios­i­ty and the sto­ries and images that doc­u­ment their decline are equal­ly essen­tial to fron­tier nar­ra­tives. As a dom­i­nant spa­tial­i­sa­tion of bust, the ghost town per­forms com­plex and select­ed nar­ra­tives of Cana­di­an expe­ri­ence and presents a par­tic­u­lar plac­ing of com­mu­ni­ty with­in the nat­ur­al world.

Place, Community, and the Ghost Town

Over the last cen­tu­ry, Canada’s resource economies have seen a pat­tern of shifts in space and time that recon­fig­ure how we under­stand place and com­mu­ni­ty. Rela­tions of place have become stretched and mobile as tech­no­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al inno­va­tions over­come spa­tial and tem­po­ral barriers—a process orig­i­nal­ly the­o­rized by human geo­g­ra­phers as time-space com­pres­sion (Har­vey 260). These ideas emerged in the lat­ter part of the last cen­tu­ry as a way to attend to the spa­tial, tem­po­ral, and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal effects brought about by ever-shift­ing forms of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Asso­ci­at­ed with the advance­ment and speed­ing up of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies and the result­ing shrink­ing of glob­al geo­gra­phies, time-space com­pres­sion has poten­tial­ly major impli­ca­tions for how we con­ceive of the rela­tion­ship between place and com­mu­ni­ty. In her book Space, Place, and Gen­der, Doreen Massey asks, “[h]ow, in the face of all this move­ment and inter­mix­ing, can we retain any sense of a local place and its par­tic­u­lar­i­ty? An (ide­al­ized) notion of an era when places were (sup­pos­ed­ly) inhab­it­ed by coher­ent and homo­ge­neous com­mu­ni­ties is set against the cur­rent frag­men­ta­tion and dis­rup­tion” (146). Massey’s use of paren­the­ses sig­ni­fies a skep­ti­cism towards the sup­pos­ed­ly nat­ur­al rela­tion­ship between com­mu­ni­ty and place. The decline of place-based resource com­mu­ni­ties in Cana­da offers a strik­ing exam­ple of the chang­ing rela­tions between com­mu­ni­ty and place. Once cen­tral to the nation­al econ­o­my, these places are increas­ing­ly ren­dered imper­ma­nent and frag­ment­ed as cor­po­ra­tions are bet­ter able to move around the globe in search of more prof­itable time-space con­fig­u­ra­tions. It is not that Canada’s resource econ­o­my is dis­ap­pear­ing; rather, we see a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of a par­tic­u­lar spa­tial­i­sa­tion of extrac­tion that for a moment sup­port­ed the old resource-town mod­el. Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs pro­vide a nar­ra­tive for this trans­for­ma­tion through scenes of ruina­tion and decline, evok­ing a sense of loss and nos­tal­gia for places left behind. In the fol­low­ing analy­sis we use a selec­tion of Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs to both illus­trate and con­cep­tu­al­ize shift­ing place-com­mu­ni­ty rela­tion­ships in the Cana­di­an West. We treat these pho­tos, not as author­i­ta­tive or real­ist depic­tions, but as impor­tant constructions—poetic frag­ments or palimpses­ts that shed light on the nature of place in west­ern Canada’s resource land­scape. Recent devel­op­ments of the con­cept of the palimpsest in lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al stud­ies (see Dil­lon) are par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful in attend­ing to the com­pet­ing dis­cours­es and imagery in Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs. Con­sid­ered as palimpses­ts of place, the pho­tographs pro­vide an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er ten­sions between shift­ing economies and com­mu­ni­ties in the Cana­di­an West.

7-1-7-2_eamonmacmahonwebFig­ure 1. Aban­doned truck left at the for­mer Gun­nar Mine site near Ura­ni­um City, Saskatchewan

The depic­tions of Ura­ni­um City and Gun­nar Mine in par­tic­u­lar illus­trate an exam­ple of a once-boom­ing com­mu­ni­ty left behind by the uneven flows of cap­i­tal. In “Yel­low Truck” (Fig. 1) we see the ruins of the Gun­nar Mine’s sud­den and dra­mat­ic col­lapse. An old pick­up truck propped up on con­crete sup­ports stands over scat­tered debris. The walls of the build­ing that once enclosed it have crum­bled, leav­ing only a flat con­crete foun­da­tion. Up on blocks with the hood up, the weath­er­worn truck appears frozen in time, as if its mechan­ic left mid-repair. The fad­ed yel­low body is cam­ou­flaged by encroach­ing autumn over­growth, empha­siz­ing what Georg Sim­mel saw as the dialec­ti­cal form of the ruin. Caught “between the not-yet and the no-longer” (Sim­mel 382), ruins rep­re­sent the strug­gle between spir­it and nature. This ruin-dra­ma has long cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of writ­ers and artists, most recent­ly find­ing expres­sion in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of images of Detroit and oth­er post-indus­tri­al land­scapes.[3] This recent bout of “ruin lust” (Dil­lon) coin­cides with a wave of aca­d­e­m­ic inter­est, as soci­ol­o­gists and cul­tur­al stud­ies schol­ars in par­tic­u­lar turn to study­ing places left behind (DeSil­vey and Eden­sor 2014; Mah 2012; Lorimer and Mur­ray).

7-1-7-3_eamonmacmahonwebPick­et Fence, Ura­ni­um City, Saskatchewan.

Mac Mahon’s “Yel­low Truck” draws on the ruin trope, con­jur­ing feel­ings of loss and aban­don­ment. We do not need to be famil­iar with the par­tic­u­lars of Gun­nar Mine’s col­lapse to be moved by the image. The pow­er of the ruin is pri­mar­i­ly alle­gor­i­cal, tran­scend­ing the parochial­ism of local­i­ty and place to draw on a poet­ics and pol­i­tics of destruc­tion and loss. In his rumi­na­tions on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Wal­ter Ben­jamin sees cap­i­tal­ism as the angel of his­to­ry, the “sin­gle cat­a­stro­phe which keeps pil­ing wreck­age upon wreck­age and hurls it in front of his feet” (257). In this view, mod­ern ruins such as ghost towns become a kind of space of cri­tique, haunt­ing the opti­mism of inno­va­tion, devel­op­ment, and growth and remind­ing us of what gets lost in the name of progress.

Yel­low Truck” evokes a sense of nos­tal­gia and opens up a space to ques­tion the his­tor­i­cal process­es that con­tin­ue to shape the west­ern Cana­di­an land­scape. For the crit­i­cal eco­nom­ic geo­g­ra­ph­er, these process­es are pri­mar­i­ly dri­ven by the needs of cap­i­tal. In an epoch of con­tin­u­al upheaval and change, the resource town is a micro­cosm of the capri­cious and uneven effects of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism (see Smith, Har­vey). “Yel­low Truck” presents a clas­sic image of the ghost town, a genre of ruins inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to imag­in­ings of small-town life. Sig­ni­fy­ing the ghost town, “Yel­low Truck” pro­duces a nos­tal­gia for the past, evok­ing an ide­al­ized ver­sion of for­mer­ly nat­u­ral­ized rela­tion­ships between iden­ti­ty, com­mu­ni­ty, and place. The pow­er of “Yel­low Truck” is in the sec­ond-order of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion that Barthes (1972) calls myth. It is not the his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty of the decline of Gun­nar Mine that is the pri­ma­ry sub­ject of the pho­to; rather, the image is con­struct­ed to bind with a larg­er myth of a lost west­ern Cana­di­an land­scape of place-based resource com­mu­ni­ties. Through this image we long, not for Gun­nar Mine, but for “a place called home” (Massey), an imag­ined refuge from the dis­ori­ent­ing and dis­lo­cat­ing effects of mod­ern life.[4]

7-1-7-4_eamonmacmahonwebFig­ure 2. Traces of Every­day life in Ura­ni­um City

In con­trast to the more arche­typ­i­cal ghost-town scene of “Yel­low Truck,” “JJ’s Cab­in” (Fig. 2) hints at the after­life of resource com­mu­ni­ties. Traces of social life are vis­i­ble; an almost-emp­ty liquor bot­tle, an over­flow­ing ash­tray, and a beer can lay strewn across a cof­fee table. In her book Indus­tri­al Ruina­tion, Com­mu­ni­ty and Place, Alice Mah fore­grounds the messi­ness and con­tin­gency of the every­day lives of those who con­tin­ue to live in con­texts of decline and ruin. While influ­enced by crit­i­cal geog­ra­phy, Mah argues that “the dis­tinc­tive­ness and com­plex­i­ty of land­scapes and lega­cies of indus­tri­al ruina­tion can­not be account­ed for by the bina­ries of suc­cess and fail­ure, cre­ation and destruc­tion, or con­sump­tion and dev­as­ta­tion” (8). Mac Mahon’s pho­to­graph makes vis­i­ble the edges of this dis­tinc­tive­ness and com­plex­i­ty. The scat­tered signs of every­day life illu­mi­nat­ed in “JJ’s Cab­in” tell of a per­sist­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Indeed, the heavy tools of the polit­i­cal econ­o­mists and crit­i­cal geo­g­ra­phers might eas­i­ly miss the qui­et com­mu­ni­ties that per­sist, strug­gle, and even pros­per in ruins such as Ura­ni­um City. While the local min­ing indus­try is long gone, Ura­ni­um City is a ghost town that con­tin­ues to sup­port a small com­mu­ni­ty of about 200 peo­ple.[5] In addi­tion, less obvi­ous com­mu­ni­ties might exist at a dis­tance, through shared expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries, as the inter­ac­tive web doc­u­men­tary Wel­come to Pine Point (Shoe­bridge and Simons) beau­ti­ful­ly depicts. “JJ’s Cab­in” com­pli­ments Mah’s idea of “indus­tri­al ruina­tion as lived process” (131), point­ing us to cul­tur­al geo­gra­phies of bust and the con­tin­ued pres­ence of place-based com­mu­ni­ty. Fram­ing west­ern Cana­di­an resource land­scapes in this way unset­tles pure­ly sym­bol­ic read­ings of ruins, empha­siz­ing the ways these places and com­mu­ni­ties are con­tin­u­al­ly prac­ticed and lived.

Unsettling the Resource Landscape

The semi-truck is an ever-present object with­in the Cana­di­an North, rac­ing across vast land­scapes, con­nect­ing far flung places, and car­ry­ing with them the momen­tum of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. For many motorists the over­sized vehi­cles are a bane, either slog­ging uphill or rac­ing over roads of all (and in all) con­di­tions to ful­fill deliv­ery sched­ules and get their dri­vers paid. For fron­tier resource com­mu­ni­ties, the trucks have been the essen­tial means of bring­ing in all man­ner of prod­ucts for local con­sump­tion while also haul­ing resource wealth away. Mac Mahon’s “Eagle Plains” (Fig. 3) cap­tures a truck dur­ing a momen­tary stop, between des­ti­na­tions but already caked with mud from long hours on the Dempster’s grav­el road­way. The truck, its vibrant colour and inevitable momen­tum, con­trast against a back­drop of a north­ern wilder­ness shroud­ed by fog and rain.

 

7-1-7-5_eamonmacmahonwebFig­ure 3. Semi-truck along the Dem­ster High­way, Yukon

We might read­i­ly read “Eagle Plains” as indica­tive of the fron­tier, with roads prob­ing into the wilder­ness at the edge of Cana­di­an expan­sion. Such nar­ra­tives relate com­mon themes not only of colo­nial progress but also of the sep­a­ra­tion of nature from soci­ety and civ­i­liza­tion. Yet the famil­iar­i­ty of the scene and the ubiq­ui­ty of this expe­ri­ence sug­gest alter­nate read­ings as well. Resource town may be geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant, but they are usu­al­ly high­ly inte­grat­ed, con­nect­ed not only by vast net­works of roads and high­ways, but by com­plex net­works of sup­ply and demand with inter­link­ages around the world.

Resource extrac­tion in Cana­da has always been a glob­al enter­prise, from the Hudson’s Bay Com­pa­ny to the cur­rent tar-sand oper­a­tions of north­ern Alber­ta. Resource towns are not out­posts, but rather hubs with­in com­plex social and eco­nom­ic net­works. In the con­text of such com­plex­i­ty we can­not eas­i­ly con­fig­ure the rhetor­i­cal bound­aries between wilder­ness and soci­ety, periph­ery and cen­tre, and rur­al and urban (see Bren­ner). Through this pho­to of an every­day sit­u­a­tion, “Eagle Plains” chal­lenges the view­er to explore ten­sions between the trope of the iso­lat­ed, fron­tier resource town and the advanc­ing forms of mobil­i­ty that make these places pos­si­ble.

7-1-7-6_eamonmacmahonwebFig­ure 4. Aer­i­al view of seis­mic cut­ting through bore­al for­est near Edson, Alber­ta.

In “Cut Lines” Mac Mahon pro­vides a sec­ond artic­u­la­tion of the mobil­i­ty of resources and the muta­bil­i­ty of fron­tier dualisms. The pho­to relates the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the straight cut-lines of indus­tri­al oil and gas devel­op­ment against the sin­u­ous flow of a creek. We can read the pho­to as envi­ron­men­tal cri­tique, draw­ing atten­tion to the rou­tine risk (see Per­row) of pipeline fail­ure and loom­ing eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter or high­light­ing the ways in which lin­ear devel­op­ment tran­sects land­scapes, cre­at­ing bar­ri­ers for the move­ment of wildlife. More­over, in rela­tion to his­to­ries of boom and bust, the pho­to also prompts think­ing about pipeline economies or, more specif­i­cal­ly, the mobil­i­ty of those economies, as well as the rel­a­tive con­fig­u­ra­tion of resource com­mu­ni­ties and devel­op­ment.

Dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic dis­course pro­mote pipelines as the source of eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty and growth for west­ern Cana­da. The Cal­gary-based ener­gy com­pa­ny Enbridge argues that the North­ern Gate­way pipeline will pro­vide ben­e­fits, not only for Alber­ta, but for resource com­mu­ni­ties in British Colum­bia as well. In the face of oppo­si­tion from resource com­mu­ni­ties, Enbridge’s pro­claims promis­es of jobs, tax rev­enues, and increased prop­er­ty val­ues.[6] It is not that such ben­e­fits would be unap­pre­ci­at­ed, but rather that com­mu­ni­ties have met such promis­es with a lack of trust and skep­ti­cism. Who gets paid and how much for accom­mo­dat­ing the risks of an acci­dent with­in BC’s high­ly val­ued riv­er and marine ecosys­tems? How can com­mu­ni­ties lever­age tax dol­lars direct­ly from devel­op­ment as opposed to the cen­tral purse of the Provin­cial Gov­ern­ment? What kinds of jobs will be pro­vid­ed, for how long? How do the ben­e­fits of devel­op­ment remain with­in com­mu­ni­ties, as opposed to being trans­port­ed else­where? We have repeat­ed­ly heard these types of ques­tions in our research con­ver­sa­tions across north­ern BC.

These uncer­tain­ties are indica­tive of wider skep­ti­cism about the future of resource com­mu­ni­ties and the via­bil­i­ty of pos­si­ble future booms. The mobil­i­ty of resources, labour, and cap­i­tal chal­lenge the per­ma­nence of com­mu­ni­ty and our under­stand­ing of north­ern com­mu­ni­ties. Work camps replace neigh­bour­hoods, labour moves in and out flu­id­ly, and resource jobs become tem­po­rary ser­vice jobs—all of which is exac­er­bat­ed as sec­ondary pro­cess­ing moves fur­ther and fur­ther afield. Thus Mac Mahon’s pho­to series not only points to pipeline pol­i­tics, but sig­ni­fies a shift in the ways in which com­mu­ni­ties relate to land­scape and resources. The images depict a land­scape in which local­i­ty is becom­ing less per­ma­nent and local ben­e­fits of resource wealth ever more ten­u­ous.

(Re)placing Boom and Bust

Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs evoke an ambiva­lence that under­mines any straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive with which to inter­pret the shift­ing resource land­scape of west­ern Cana­da. This ambiva­lence is con­struct­ed through a jux­ta­po­si­tion of arche­typ­i­cal scenes of bound­ed ruin (Figs. 1, 2) with images of mobil­i­ty, inter­con­nec­tion, and flow (Figs. 2, 3). Con­sid­ered a ruin as polit­i­cal alle­go­ry (see Ben­jamin), the ghost town sig­ni­fies both the anni­hi­la­tion of com­mu­ni­ty by cap­i­tal and a long­ing for a firm­ly root­ed sense of self, com­mu­ni­ty, and place. How­ev­er, as we have attempt­ed to illus­trate, Mac Mahon’s depic­tions of infra­struc­tures of mobil­i­ty imme­di­ate­ly com­pli­cate a roman­ti­cized view of ruins, pulling us out of the realm of myth and into the actu­al­ly exist­ing and uneven rela­tions of place and com­mu­ni­ty. In this way, the pho­tographs act as palimpses­ts of place that unset­tle lin­ear nar­ra­tives of the cor­re­spond­ing decline of resource towns and com­mu­ni­ty, offer­ing a far messier and con­tra­dic­to­ry pic­ture of west­ern Canada’s shift­ing resource land­scape. Resource towns have always been enmeshed in region­al, nation­al, and glob­al rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, and the last sev­er­al decades have seen an extend­ing and inten­si­fy­ing of such rela­tions so as to ren­der the myth of the iso­lat­ed, authen­tic min­ing town increas­ing­ly implau­si­ble.

7-1-7-7_eamonmacmahonwebBar­rel Dump, North­ern Saskatchewan

As Hen­ri Lefeb­vre (1970) point­ed out almost half a cen­tu­ry ago, even seem­ing­ly periph­er­al and rur­al locales are often (and increas­ing­ly) deeply enmeshed in the urban fab­ric. For Lefeb­vre, “[t]his expres­sion, ‘urban fab­ric,’ does not nar­row­ly define the built world of cities but all man­i­fes­ta­tions of the dom­i­nance of the city over the coun­try. In this sense, a vaca­tion home, a high­way, a super­mar­ket in the coun­try­side are all part of the urban fab­ric” (4)—a sen­ti­ment true of the hun­dreds of indus­tri­al resource oper­a­tions scat­tered across the west­ern Cana­di­an hin­ter­land. Tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments in mate­ri­als and trans­porta­tion have con­tributed to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fly-in/fly-out work camps (Storey)—highly pro­vi­sion­al places that, while geo­graph­i­cal­ly remote and sur­round­ed by wilder­ness, are hyper-con­nect­ed on region­al, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al scales. As the per­fect spa­tial­i­sa­tion of boom and bust, the work camp ful­ly embraces mobil­i­ty, imper­ma­nence, and pre­car­i­ty in pur­suit of the most effi­cient modes of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. When eco­nom­ic con­di­tions turn unfavourable, camps can be quick­ly and eas­i­ly dis­man­tled and relo­cat­ed to more desir­able locales. Beyond their mobil­i­ty, mod­ern resource camps are per­me­at­ed by cor­po­re­al, imag­i­na­tive, and vir­tu­al mobil­i­ties (see Urry). A far cry from the rel­a­tive­ly remote resource camps of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, mod­ern camps are ser­viced by air­ports, con­nect­ed to high-speed inter­net, and some­times even include lux­u­ry ameni­ties.

Con­sid­ered in light of Lefebvre’s ideas of the urban as well as more recent dis­cus­sions around plan­e­tary urban­ism (Bren­ner and Schmid), Mac Mahon’s depic­tions of resource ruins and the after­lives of remote com­mu­ni­ties seem less about a nos­tal­gia for the past than a med­i­ta­tion on the future of the west­ern Cana­di­an resource land­scape and a re-imag­in­ing of the rela­tion­ship between com­mu­ni­ty and place. As Svet­lana Boym notes, “[t]he ruins of moder­ni­ty as viewed from a 21st-cen­tu­ry per­spec­tive point at pos­si­ble futures that nev­er came to be” (1). As flex­i­ble trans­porta­tion net­works, extrac­tion meth­ods, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies erode the myth of the west­ern resource fron­tier, we are ush­ered into the Anthropocene—a geo­log­i­cal era defined by human beings’ impact on the Earth. By unset­tling sta­t­ic under­stand­ings of place and com­mu­ni­ty, Mac Mahon’s pho­tographs offer a start­ing point to inter­ro­gate and re-imag­ine these ideas across ever-widen­ing scales in rela­tion to Canada’s con­tin­ued reliance on resource extrac­tion.

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Notes

[1] For a look at Mac Mahon’s broad­er cat­a­logue of pho­tographs vis­it his web­site: http://​www​.eamon​macma​hon​.com

[2] Over the past year both authors have been part of a team of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ars who have been explor­ing gov­er­nance inno­va­tions in response to the chal­lenges of boom-and-bust com­mu­ni­ties in both British Colum­bia and Alber­ta. This research, includ­ing a series of qual­i­ta­tive research engage­ments span­ning both provinces, pro­vides a back­drop for many of the thoughts elicit­ed in this essay. Fur­ther infor­ma­tion about this research can be found at http://www.crsc.ualberta.ca/en/What%20We%20Do/GoverningBoomBustCommunities.aspx

[3] A promi­nent exam­ple of this aes­theti­ciza­tion of the decline of Detroit is Marc­hand and Meffre’s “Ruins of Detroit” (http://​www​.marchand​m​ef​fre​.com/​d​e​t​r​oit).

[4] Rather than fram­ing this nos­tal­gia as regres­sive or anti-mod­ern, we might con­sid­er it a fun­da­men­tal aspect of modernism—part of the “strug­gle to make our­selves at home in a con­stant­ly chang­ing world” (Berman 6).

[5] http://www.mds.gov.sk.ca/apps/Pub/MDS/muniDetails.aspx?cat=5&mun=2810%3E

[6] See http://​www​.gate​way​facts​.ca/​B​e​n​e​f​i​t​s​/​B​e​n​e​f​i​t​s​-​T​o​-​B​C​.​a​spx