Agnes Bolt flipping through her book ‘The Braddocks.’

The Braddocks: A conversation
with Agnes Bolt and Jess Wilcox

Agnes Bolt’s book brings together two towns that had never heard of each other: The Braddocks of rural North Dakota and post-industrial Pennsylvania. The project examines the social and cultural differences of these namesakes through the stuff of their inhabitants. From discarded meat grinders to pheasant feathers, people’s things and the narratives around those things begin to take on drastically different meanings as they get passed from one person to the next. Bad memories become yearnings, conquests turn into warnings in humorous, awkward and poignant exchanges. Encounters were conducted from word of mouth, and door-to-door. The following is a discussion between Jessica Wilcox and Agnes Bolt about the project

JW: Two towns with fairly unique cultural histories and social demographics arbitrarily share the same name. You set out on an expedition to meet and then unite the residents of the two towns. How did the same name become the starting point of this project?

AB: The idea to connect the two towns based on the arbitrariness of a common name was the initial, playful impulse for the project. Do towns Google themselves the way people do? If so, what shift in self-identity occurs when the place you live suddenly takes on a whole new context and isn’t unique anymore? People compare themselves against other people like this all the time. Take for example, namesake conventions where, say, Chris Whites from all across the country come together in hundreds just because they share a name. A few years ago, 164 Martha Stewarts converged upon the celebrity’s TV show to be part of the audience. It’s that eternal question of how we distinguish ourselves within a history of everyone else that basically repeats the same story. In the case of the town doppelgangers, I was interested in investigating whether a similar set of questions exists in the way people see themselves linked to where they live.

These Braddocks just so happened to be the only two in North America, except for an abandoned ghost town right across the Canadian border. As an outsider, could I introduce one town to the other with interesting results? What would an aging grain elevator operator have in common with a young hip-hop DJ from across the country? Could I instigate a romantic encounter between the two places?

The Family An image from ‘The Braddocks’.

I’ve also always been interested in this idea of the telephone line game. What happens to a message as it gets passed along from mouth to mouth without the instant modes of communication we usually rely on? Exploring this symbolically, as an object getting passed from one hand to the next, seemed appropriate for examining these small towns. After all, this, maybe in the form of gossip, is how information tends to spread the fastest in small places. When I arrived in Braddock, North Dakota, I had only spoken to one local resident over the phone, and only a couple hours prior. It was midday and not a single person was on the main street, a dirt road. A man in a truck suddenly pulled up and greeted me by my name. Louis, whom I had spoken with earlier, had managed to spread the word to everyone in town that a visitor was about to arrive.

The people of Braddock were my primary audience. The book audience is my secondary; I’m now interested in seeing if the relationship clusters created through the object exchange can be seen as micro-communities within these “micro-communities.” What possible interesting parallels can a reader draw between a blind woman, a cattle-raising family, a rebellious blacksmith, religious patriarchs, and a young aspiring actress? The title The Braddocks implies one large family that perhaps has several eccentric members who all have to figure out how to coexist.

JW: The short story “Door in Your Eye” by Wells Tower is included in this publication. One can imagine this encounter between neighbors playing out in either one of the Braddocks, but beyond that there is no clear connection between your project and the story. Can you elaborate a bit on your decision to include this piece of seemingly non-related fiction in the publication? Is it meant to be a happy surprise for the reader?

AB: First, I really like the story. I like how much I can invest in characters that I would not typically have reason to pay attention to. And how those characters challenge my expectations of them through the decisions they make and by what they yearn for. Tower’s story is about how people perceive each other before and after meeting. I hope my project provides the same service—both to the people in the Braddocks and to the book reader.

The images in the book are only part of the story. The relationships, empathy, voyeurism, openness, risk, and personal narratives that the participants provide are the other part. Tower’s story extends that narrative even further by allowing us to use our imaginations a little. We’ve learned a few things about the people in the book, but realistically there’s room for healthy musings, speculation, and doubt. I don’t want to claim that any of these stories are authoritative documents.

JW: The Braddocks seems to be in dialogue with documentary traditions through the use of photography and the sociological subject matter; however, the distinction of your subjective voice more closely aligns the project with the essay film. What is your stance toward each of these genres? Your mention of the emergence of an extended relationship/friendship with Allen muddles the viewer’s trust of your perspective. Do you see yourself as working in an alternative third and perhaps emerging genre?

The Family An image from ‘The Braddocks’.

AB: The images read like traditional documentary photography. The narratives mostly focus on personal, immediate experiences I had with people and implicate me into the project as a subjective, imperfect messenger. Conceptually, I ask participants to make decisions—donate something of theirs to a stranger and then trust that I will come back with something in return. These approaches conflict with each other because I can’t say I trust any one of them alone, or expect anyone else to. I’m interested in juxtaposing these different approaches and letting the viewer decide for herself if there is one or multiple compelling versions.

JW: How do you see your role, that is to say the role of the artist, in this project? Facilitator? Provocateur? Pen-pal matchmaker?

AB: I like projects that force me into an uncomfortable relationship with my own desires for a particular outcome and what actually happens. I like to provoke something but not necessarily determine the final outcome. But unquestionably, I affect the outcome and translate it.

JW: The project seems to be as much an investigation of small-town life as it is an exploration of social relations. Both Braddocks suffer from economies that are limping along with the decline of the industrial sector. Braddock PA’s recent history in the spotlight, from mayor John Fetterman marketing the town as a destination for urban pioneers and artists to Levi Strauss’s charitable revitalization campaigns, make it a particularly interesting point of comparison. What is your interest in small-town culture? How does Braddock PA’s limelight and cultivation of a unique marketable identity shape the contours of the project? For instance, you could have chosen to do a project to unite all the various Concords of the United States. (I use this name of my hometown because I was always amazed at the number of other places that shared its name.)

AB: I first heard about Braddock in New York, from a curator at a major museum, who was fascinated by its innovative mayor who had a shipping container on top of his house, then from a friend who described it as a remote pioneer town where artists were creating secret farms and living outside the law. When I finally went there, I realized that I had already driven through it on countless road trips across the country: it was essentially exemplary of hundreds of impoverished postindustrial small towns. I began reading the incredible number of articles and conversations the town seemed to inspire to understand if and how it was unique. That’s when I realized that the marketing campaign around it overshadowed the town itself and often ignored the sentiments of many of the people who live there. I’ve always been attracted to the underdog, and in this case, the underdog was experiencing a bit of an identity crisis caused by sudden fame. Imagine if Braddock, North Dakota, and the 18 seniors who make up its population were suddenly featured on an MTV travel show as the next undiscovered weekend getaway. It inspired expectations and confusion without delivering solutions to real and extremely complicated issues within. By the time the Levi’s campaign launched, I had already finished my project but was applying for funding for the book. The campaign certainly gave me a moment of reconsideration as to whether I was also part of the problem. I think it forced me to reassess more strongly the differences of intention in my project. That’s to say, my intentions were a series of open-ended questions and observations. I was extremely interested in expanding the campaign of a small American town to another small American town that had its own set of economic problems (post-agricultural, rather than post-industrial) but that had no public profile at all..

The Family An image from ‘The Braddocks’.

JW: One of the interesting moments in The Braddocks is when Allen chooses as his gift the historical novel Out of This Furnace. Set in Braddock PA, the book traces three generations of Slovak immigrants working in the steel industry through their struggles with poverty and organized labor. You note that you were initially disappointed in his gift because it seemed that he was giving a packed response to a prompt, but then he seemed to convince you otherwise. Allen’s situation differs greatly from that of the Slovak immigrants in Out of This Furnace, yet he seems to see a connection. How do you think your interactions with residents of each Braddock were influenced by class consciousness?

AB: As I mentioned earlier, I’m consistently drawn to the underdog. Class was something I was continually aware of but was not the driving force behind the project. As I examined the meaning of the object given to me, I realized that each came from a unique motivation. Allen was representing himself, or at least drawing parallels to a common class struggle, by giving me the book. Andy’s mini grain elevator was something that kept him sane during endless days alone guarding hay, and Pius’s meat grinder was just another thing to hold on to. If anything, my interactions were consumed with figuring out what was being communicated to me through the objects.

JW: What interested you in the exchange of objects to begin with? As opposed to an exchange of photographs, for instance? What is the connection between this exchange you set up and traditional systems of reciprocal trade such as potlatch?

AB: To me there is something both tender and confrontational about the exchange. To extend Marcel Mauss’s theories on the potlatch, there is a social bond attached to giving these personal objects that’s different from a pure capital exchange, which operates anonymously. You buy something and you walk away. In a gift economy, there is the weight of having to consider whom an object came from and, inversely, how your contribution will be received. When these gifts circulate, they strengthen the cultural wealth of a community by also circulating the narratives behind the gifts. Each person is left with something tangible that gives him or her a simple way to digest and interpret something larger. And of course there is also purging and sacrificing. There’s more at stake with this kind of exchange. There’s a curious overlap here in the way personal relationships evolve, yet it’s completely orchestrated based on these arbitrary parameters I’ve set up. I’m very interested in that idea of where such a relationship could go and what expectations and obligations we have for each other under artificial circumstances.

Jess Wilcox is the Programs Coordinator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Before joining the museum, she worked as an independent curator, and held positions at Performa, Storm King Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has contributed to a number of publications, including Artforum, Art in America, etc. She holds an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

The Family ‘The Braddocks’ by Agnes Bolt.

Order a copy of ‘The Braddocks’ from our online shop here.