‘Shawnee, Ohio’ brings struggling town to life

Brian Harnetty's performance piece focuses on a former bastion of the 19th-century coal mining boom that is now a decaying reminder of a Rust Belt region in transition.

click to enlarge Brian Harnetty uses old sound archives for his performance piece. - Photo: Kevin Davison
Photo: Kevin Davison
Brian Harnetty uses old sound archives for his performance piece.
Brian Harnetty is a Columbus-based multimedia artist whose work combines, in his words, “sonic archives, performance, ecology and place.” The place in the case of his latest work is pretty obvious, given its title: Shawnee, Ohio. (The performance piece, which debuted at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, will be presented 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center.)

Once a bastion of the 19th-century coal mining boom, Shawnee is now a decaying reminder of a Rust Belt region in transition. Located about an hour southeast of Columbus, Shawnee is a place where the remaining inhabitants struggle to find good jobs and to keep a healthy sense of civic pride.

Harnetty, whose grandfather was from Shawnee, uses the hard-luck town as a basis to investigate what it sounds like to be from an environment where extraction has been a way of life — first as a coal hotspot, more recently as an adopter of fracking.

“There are a lot of places in the United States that had a monoculture, went through a boom-and-bust cycle and have struggled since then,” Harnetty says by phone from his home in Columbus. “That’s a story that people can identify with. You don’t have to be from Shawnee, Ohio, to identify with the larger story of how capital and industry circulate through our lives and then kind of leave us in their wake.”

Shawnee, Ohio is a natural extension of Harnetty’s work as a “sound artist” who uses a host of archival materials for inspiration — previous projects include collaborations with the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. This new project is a true multimedia event that incorporates live music (courtesy of Harnetty and three other musician friends), projected images (including a host of vintage and contemporary photos and video) and audio recordings from former or current Shawnee residents.

“There was a whole box of cassette tapes that a fellow pointed me to and said, ‘Well, that’s not really a sound archive, but these are some oral histories that I made 20 or 30 years ago, and you’re welcome to take a listen,’ ” Harnetty says. “So I digitized all those tapes. A lot of them were really deteriorated, but there were some great recordings on there of people that are no longer living, or were children at the time and are now adults.

“It was a great place to start,” he continues. “I turned a lot of those oral histories and interviews into portraits — musical oral portraits of some of the people from the region. And then I composed the music that goes around that.”

An accomplished pianist who is fluent on a number of instruments, Harnetty studied music composition as an undergrad at Ohio State University. He’s also a writer whose work has appeared in such niche publications as The Experimental Music YearbookNew Music Box and Sound Effects.

Shawnee delves into controversial issues; the performance includes footage of someone singing a protest song related to the environmentally hazardous practice of fracking.

“I feel like I have to take a position and a stand on it because to try to remain neutral is also just taking a stand on it,” Harnetty says, when asked if he was wary of tackling such a hot-topic political issue. “But it is walking a very fine line. I worry about the environmental stuff, because it is a contentious issue.” 

Harnetty did years of research before completing the final version of Shawnee. He combed through troves of photos and other archival materials and listened to dozens of townspeople tell their stories, all in an effort to represent his subject in a truthful way.

“Sampling is so easy, right?” Harnetty says. “You can sample anything in the world that’s recorded, and it’s very liberating. But to remember that there’s an actual person that went into that recording, and that there are real people that can be affected by that recording, really puts a human aspect to the archive. It puts the one thing back into the archive that’s not there — a living, human presence.” 

Brian Harnetty performs SHAWNEE, OHIO at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center. Tickets are $15; $10 members. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.

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