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Dirt: Media, Medium & Monument


soil-3252856_1920By Prof. Mark Juszczak 

The Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, is set to open on April 26, 2018. The Museum is meant to be, first and foremost, a memorial to the over 4,000 lynchings that occurred, primarily in the South, in the century following the Civil War. While this article is not intended to be a review of the design and experience of the broader museum, I believe that the experience it is meant to create in visitors is as powerful, if not more so, than Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It is often forgotten, in the louder discussion on social media, that memorial and monuments are media and media technologies and that innovations in them are not merely of function but also of form and conveyance.

Nowhere is this true than in the EJI initiative that is the predecessor of the Memorial and Museum – the collection of jars of dirt gathered from the lynching sites scattered across the United States.

National Geographic’s article, titled “The Blood of Lynching Victims is in This Soil“, eloquently captures the significance of preserving and labelling soil from such sites.

The glass jars are not small. At a little over a foot high, the white lettering is overpowered by the amount of color of dirt.  Where a name is known it is indicated. Where it is not, it simply states ‘Unknown’. There is a place. And a date. And the massive edifice of earth that both illustrates at one glance the diversity of American soil and the breadth of the injustice endured.

What I want to focus on is not the emotional impact of these glass jars of dirt. But on the use of dirt as a media technology. We often forget that one of the challenges that media face is durability. USB drives fail. Hard drives crash. It would take but one magnetic storm to wipe out a data center. What we experience every day is an illusion of permanence. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth in the way in which our media technologies operate.

Dirt is different. It requires no external source of power to persist. It requires no machine to operate. It requires no hash file to interpret. Like a physical book, its message is a self-contained nearly indestructible technology. The message of the dirt is the simple variation of its color and texture. The message is solar powered. As long as the sun burns in the heavens the arrangement of dirt alone conveys the scope of the atrocity and tells the story without any external tools required.

As we pursue the evolution of media technologies, it is helpful to be reminded that technology is not necessarily digital advancement. Technology is any tool or platform that provides power. Advances in technology come in advances in that provision.

There is no more powerful form of media to speak truth to power and to shed light on the brutality of a past than to create a medium that is indestructible and that requires no other tools or mechanisms to convey its meaning.

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