Trial Balloon

Amateur Archeology

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 4, 2010 by Dale Connelly (43 Comments)
Filed under: Guest Bloggers

Radio Heartland has tickets to a show by Carrie Rodriguez and Romantica at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis this Friday night, May 7th.
The doors open at 7 and the music begins at 8pm.

Enter the drawing.
Obey the rules.
Good Luck!

Today we'll start a feature that may turn out to be regular - it's up to you!

I'm calling it "Amateur Archeology", an attempt to reach conclusions based on a submitted photo of some sort of human construction or activity. In other words, if we were archeologists looking at this as an ancient artifact, what would we think of it?

Our first submission comes from Clyde, who sent the photo below along with a few explanatory notes. Click on the image to see a larger version.

This appeared on the Minnesota State University Mankato campus either two or three summers ago. I bike ride by this most mornings on my way to work, which means that over 200 times I have speculated about it.


MSUM Sculpture medium.jpg

I have never seen a story about it on local media, but then I ignore local media. The MSUM Website has a page on campus art and landmarks, which seems to include everything else on campus, but makes no mention of this. The campus does have a bit of sculpture strewn about it, none of which appeals to me. As it was being installed, I was on the fringe of a social group which included a MSUM administrator and two professors, none of whom knew anything about it. University officials might say it sits at an entrance to the campus, of which there are many, none of which really is an entrance. It is surrounded by the extensive athletic facilities, a fair distance from the academics and arts portion of campus. The Vikings would pass this every day when they are here.

Question #1: What is it? Is it a sculpture? Does it have a practical use? I have never seen it used in any way and the wear pattern on the grass would not indicate any use. Could something be a sculpture and have a practical use?

Question #2: Is it supposed to look like something or have a larger symbolical meaning?

Question #3: Can we draw any allegorical conclusions from the placement of various items? Here I have many thoughts, but the only specific thing I want to point out is the one block with no title on it.


Comments (43)

are they grave stones for departments that have been closed? (kidding)
very interesting, clyde. thanks - gotta think more about this.
Dale- this WOULD make a great regular - thanks!

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 4, 2010 6:13 AM


Not meaning to start us off on the negative foot, but---

My first thought is "Graveyard of Academia". Here lie all the subjects that aren't considered "cost effective", nor will studying them lead to a fat paycheck (possible exception being physics, but these days, I'm not even sure many of those with money to spend have a grasp of that one).

The blank stone is awaiting the demise of yet another subject.

Reminds me of a series on Mystery called Oliver's Travels, where a whole department got dumped to make way for the business complex. (and how is giving degrees in that working out for us?)

Goodness I am crabby, should see about getting some better sleep.

Sorry I missed movie making yesterday, you are all just silly.

sorry I missed making the movie yesterday-that looked fun.

Posted by catherine | May 4, 2010 6:17 AM


Good morning to all. I think that we are looking at a work of conceptual art. However, when the university officials saw what the artist produced, they didn't like it and now will not tell any one what it is.

In fact, the installation of the art may not have been completed, so we may not really be seeing the completed work of art. It is a dark secret that the university administration is keeping to them selves because they don't want any one to know that they are supressing the work of an artist.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 6:34 AM


Catherine - don't apologize... that's the very first thought that I had... graveyard for intelligence/study.

But then I thought we're looking at it from a current perspective. Future archaeologists might start out thinking they were graves but then would be confused by the lack of actual coffins and funerary goods. They will probably think that they are just the parking lot markers for some very important people named Physics and Theatre and Geology (although there will be books and movies made about why this person's name is upside down).

Posted by sherrilee | May 4, 2010 6:39 AM


Hopscotch for Dummies?
Clyde - is that irony or just plain mean?

FYI Dale - a song that moves me to a state of chokeupedness is Ed Ames' My Cup Runneth Over. So does Rainbow Connection.

Posted by Donna | May 4, 2010 6:41 AM


Whoooee, this one is a corker!

After several cups of coffee, I have three answers to offer. They will be presented with the least sinister first, each one being darker than the one before.

First answer: this jumble of stone is some addled artist's notion of a picnic ground. Students can come to these level surfaces, sit there on a warm spring day and maybe eat a picnic lunch while reading some inspirational book and smoking a funny looking little cigarette.

Second answer: this jumble of stone is a bitter metaphor for the impact of athletic sports on institutions of higher learning. There is obviously enough money to erect a large athletic building, but the consequence of that is that the traditional elements of higher education are disregarded and strewn about in chaos..

Third answer: this jumble of stone is al allegory for the impact of severe fund cutting on higher education. These various academic "books" are meant to be part of a larger installation that was going to conclude with a pile of these books (representing a college education) that would be topped by a statue of a dancing coed celebrating her four inspirational years in Mankato. Halfway through the project a governor's veto wiped out the funding, so a morose college president said, "Hell, let the thing sit there looking like it does. It will serve as a metaphor for incomplete dreams and lack of planning around here!"

Good morning heartlanders!

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 4, 2010 6:43 AM


Not sure why earth is upside down, but heaven is placed above earth. Also not sure what we can infer from the placement of philosophy over literature, with inversion opposite of the astronomy/geology pair. Are we being offered an aesthetic question? There was a time not so long ago when there was no computer science. Maybe the blank stone honors the fact that all that will exist is not necessarily with us now or even predictable. What can be made of these fields of academia being literally carved in stone, or are we even to consider the medium?

Clyde, are people ever sitting on them when you pass by? Are we looking at art with functionality?

This variety of art calls to mind the Jenny Holzer benches at the Sculpture Gardens. I remember when her installation was at the Walker and how impressed I was with the stunning presentation of her truisms, and I like the fact that the benches with the truisms carved into them remain in the garden.

Well, I've exceeded the acceptable amount of thinking for a Tuesday morning. Back to firewall rules. So much easier to sort out.

Good morning, all.

Posted by elinor | May 4, 2010 6:48 AM


Maybe they are just some left overs or mistakes from a campus building project. They were intended to be part of a building, but weren't used. Whoever was supose to get rid of them didn't do it and now no one knows what to do with them.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 7:05 AM


Donna--hopscoth has never crossed my mind. Otherwise so far I have thought of everything suggested, more or less bitterly, depending on the day.
elinor--I ride there before 7:30 a.m but every so often around 4-5 p.m. Have never seen students pay any attention to them and there is no wear pattern on the grass that anyone ever really does sit there. It could be seen as a sort fo small theatre perhaps except it faces directly onto a very busy and noisy corner (I was standing in the street when I took this photo).
There isn't one big sports building behind it; there are acutally four, not to mention the football field and other fields to the right of it across a street.
I spent more than a year waiting for it to be finished, or a sign to be put up. It seems intentional, or did the artisit or designer envision participatory art and tell the crane operator to drop them wherever he pleased?
I agree with barb in bh and I told Dale this yesterday--a good idea, the rest of you have to send in more mysteries for us to solve. So, if we look at this from Dale's suggested perspective, many years later when this is dug out of the earth, no one would think they had been placed there but that something had fallen, or there was an earthquake. As the father of an archeologist, I wonder how often we assume a rational mind or purpose and thus misconstrue what archeologists find.

Posted by Cly de Mankato | May 4, 2010 7:13 AM


I cannot think of any songs for this but "I Did It Their Way," which was played yesterday or "Thus Spake Zarathrustra."

Posted by Clyde | May 4, 2010 7:32 AM


I will have to contemplate longer - clearly y'all are more capable of profound thought than I at this hour.

I keep going back to the upside down Geology and Philosophy...like those before I figure there must be something there. And it can't just be that those two subjects have sometimes turned reality, as we thought we knew it, on its head. If that were true, why not an upside down Physics or Literature?...

Or I'll stick with Steve's third suggestion. I like that one.

Posted by Anna | May 4, 2010 7:42 AM


My first reaction to the photo is "boy, is that butt-ugly!" I think the whole thing is the first part of a larger sculpture installation that had its funding cut two thirds of the way through the project. Somewhere there is a heart broken sculptor with large statues stored in her quonset around Mankato. The figures are half finished and look as though they are trying to emerge from the stone, to no avail. How's that for morbid on a Tuesday?

Posted by Renee | May 4, 2010 7:46 AM


I agree, Anna, and couple others, some elements demand that we extract an allegorical meaning, which is why I wanted this group to see it. I was expecting all you theater folks to respond to the placement of that block.

Posted by Clyde | May 4, 2010 7:49 AM


If you enlarge the photo and look carefully at the "Geology/Astronomy" stone, it appears this is a photography trick. I think the Geoloy part has been cloned upside-down. Look at the continuity of the left stone edge and note the line between the two words. Are you sure that the original blog isn't just a trick?

Posted by Larry from Hillsdale | May 4, 2010 7:59 AM


If it helps, there is a place, a much better place, where this could be placed right in the heart of the academic/arts section, pretty much right in front of the theater, which would make it a more useful place to be a picnic area or outdoor theater.

Posted by clyde | May 4, 2010 7:59 AM


Greetings! Wow, nice dance set, Dale! I was just about to type a comment when Brave Combo came on, so I couldn't sit down for a while.

I have to agree with comments that the picture looks like grave markers for higher learning while sports has taken over. The movie "Idiocracy" makes a clear point of how disastrous this can be. Very funny movie set in future where sports and commercialism has totally trumped intelligence.

Or it could be a stone structure like Stonehenge, with sacrificial alters for our intellect. OR it could be like the sculpture outside the CIA. It's a huge copper and stone sculpture called Kryptos and it's all in code which has STILL not been solved after 20 years. The solution is locked in the director's office. Here's a recent article about it http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/17-05/ff_kryptos?currentPage=all

Fascinating .... check it out.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 4, 2010 7:59 AM


Theatre is above all? all the world's a stage and the rest are merely players (the other subjects?)

i find it interesting that there is a stone for physics AND astronomy. that'd be like having a stone for biology and zoology. i think Jim is correct - it was "unfunded" halfway thru.

when we were at Va Tech (home of the fighting Gobblers - now Hokies) the football team was invited to play a night game to be televised. but no field lights! so, big lights were installed for just that one game - and coincidentally (or not) the anthropology dept. was closed.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 4, 2010 8:08 AM


We should also consider the possibility of something from outer space. May be we are seeing some of the parts of a large board game played by extraterrestrials that some how fell out of their space ship.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 8:08 AM


oh, and Clyde - the goats would LOVE to jump on and off of those stones - bring up here! we'll appreciate them!

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 4, 2010 8:09 AM


The photo is not photoshopped. That's how the stones appear. I've wondered and have so little imagination this morning (or any other time I"ve seen these) that I just shake my head at the things I don't understand.

Posted by Ken in Northfield | May 4, 2010 8:09 AM


Thanks, Ken. I was just about to pledge that this is the pix as I took it without alteration. barb, come get it!! It's yours for that good VaTech story.
Here's an interpretation you will not come up with: when I start riding in mid March I am struck by how dark all the "blonde" co-eds are. So in this blonde Kassota stone (from just north of here) we are given an image of the yourg women all lying in tanning beds ignoting their academics. A local joke is that you can tell the GA co-eds from the MSUM coeds because the Gusties are real blondes and pastey white while the MSUM coeds are bottled blondes and baked brown. Of course, there are other ways to tell.

Posted by clyde | May 4, 2010 8:19 AM


i am in nevada today in 90 degree heat and thinking we minnesotans don't think often enough how good we have it. may 4th and the season here is already shot. no more outside activities for the locals. round of golf in the ac golf cart then back to the clubhouse on the way to the forclosed townhouse.

the art is obviously a maintanance department ploy. they wanted to keep those hills from being eroded and walked over by pedestrian traffic. the grass doesn't even look good with no foot traffic , imagine what it would be like if someone walked on it. they had a department and because their concerns and brain work in utilitarian modes they thought that stones with the names of departments would be good enough to pass as a justification for tax dollars and an in your face presentation of ugly aesthetics that serve their purposes rather than our taste. imagine what these could be replaced with if the committee had cared about stimulation and beauty or artistic statement rather than plugging the hill with stones. my guess is that the two guys who drew the short straw and had to install this project threw the stones down and no one ever questioned the blank and or upsidedownness of the placed stones.

clyde i think you have something here. we now have a place to present the questions the universe offers. good new direction for rh to pursue

Posted by tim out west | May 4, 2010 8:25 AM


Thanks Barb; for the image of goats frolicking on the stones jumping from one to the other and just standing on top of one like king of the hill.
This could be where the movie Goats From Outer Space starts, the goats arrive and take over the campus.

Dale, you could photo shop goats into the picture for the promo……

Posted by Kate in Eden Prairie | May 4, 2010 8:31 AM


So, are you expecting sympathy, tim?
It was my idea the group should study this; it is Dale's idea that we do a regular feature of "Amateur Archeology," which I hope we do, if you all send in mysterties.
I am glad all agree, or those who have addressed the topic, that this is not very attractive.
I too have considered several reasons for an accidental placement, but level is not accidental, and they are all level.
Ah, there's a song for it--Easter Island Heads.

Posted by Clyde | May 4, 2010 8:33 AM


One last comment before I go to the dr. and see what drug he wants to try now.
When I was a student at the U, several TVs were stolen from dorm lounges one afternoon while students were watching them, before everyone had a TV in their room. Two men in over-alls just walked in and said "We're taking these," unplugges them, and walked out. None of the students could really describe them. So who knows if this is even a legitimate placement. Who would ask? Here we would just assume Glen Taylor wanted it and paid for it.

Posted by Cly de off | May 4, 2010 8:46 AM


This is our Stonehenge...

Will have to read most of this later, I like the new format. Have a good day, everyone.

p.s. Donna added some great plot end of yesterday's blog...

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 4, 2010 8:47 AM


I suppose that the stones could represent the spines of books, and that they were placed there by librarians to encourage students to take books out of the library.

Posted by renee | May 4, 2010 8:51 AM


I suppose if many people have seen the "gravestones" I'd have to withdraw my idea that this scene is photo-art, but the Geology stone still throws me. I suppose if an Astronomy block was placed on top of the buried Geo. I would concede. But it's still strange that all stones show corner shadows except the Geo. It's still a photographic anomaly.

Posted by Larry from Hillsdale | May 4, 2010 9:19 AM


Off topic for just a moment-- Barbara in Robbinsdale, I posted information about the portable HD radio at the end of yesterday's blog.

Posted by Molly | May 4, 2010 9:29 AM


Renee - you win!

I couldn't help myself... spent some time googling.

Pillars
Pillars, by Saint Paul sculptor Steven Woodward, is comprised of eight massive limestone blocks set in grassy berms at the corner of Stadium Road and Ellis Avenue, just west and south of Otto Recreation Center. Woodward describes the amphitheater-like space is a "sculptural landform." Most of the four-ton blocks are etched with the names of academic disciplines: Literature, Physics, Theatre, Astronomy, History, and Philosophy and Geology, which are upside down. "It makes you think," Woodward says. "That's part of a university. The sculputres are foundation blocks, metaphorically reflecting the mission of the university as books nestled within the terraces, and steps and platforms to actively engage the students in a landscape of learning."

Posted by sherrilee | May 4, 2010 10:23 AM


Okay, it is a completed conceptual art work but I think the idea came from extraterrestials, probably the colony where the goats from space are found.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 10:36 AM


Jim -- I agree completely. After all, how could college students get those massive stones in place? As Reilly says in "National Treasure"... "the aliens helped them"!

Posted by sherrilee | May 4, 2010 10:49 AM


Maybe it's the Dutch in me, but couldn't they have made the area around those blocks prettier-some tulips or daffodils, and herb garden, a decorative stone pathway?

Posted by Renee | May 4, 2010 10:50 AM


sherrillee--thanks for finding that. I could not find anything about it anywhere. It's about what I thought the artist would say. Pillars? Pillars? Lying down? It's still ugly and projects many messages few of which are positive. It is amphitheater like but because of noise unusable. Did just ride by it in middel of nice spring day of finals week. Students in groups in many places but not there.
Larry-it is hard to photograph, get it all in without some part in shadows because of either sun direction or trees to the left. I took it at 7:30 a.m. yesteday under full clouds which was good light, or the best I was likely to get.

Posted by clyde | May 4, 2010 11:26 AM


barb--gots dancing on it to the "Rites of Spring" is a nice image.
The artist said the point was to make viewers think (a pretty general justification for a lot of things both good and bad), so in 200 plus rides by it, here are some things I have thought which I have not yet said, many of which you have named:
Ugly, but better this than no art on campus and really better than the other sculpture on the campus. Why not a changing sculpture garden of student work?
Clearly books, maybe stolen library books; maybe a symbolism of the death of books in electronic age; maybe symbolizes value of books when you go to sell them back to the bookstore; maybe what students really do with textbooks.
Maybe interstellar message as in “Sirens of Titan,” or alien game pieces, or launching pad.
Maybe represents a poker game called Minnesota Fold-Em.
One of few new things on campus not paid for by Glenn Taylor (as far as I know) so it represents all of the things he never pays for.
Maybe represents all of the quarries around here or imitates the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, but his houses look like quarries to me.
With theater on top it portrays that all of academia is pretense a stage, a la “I Did It Their Way.”
No matter how you look at it, astronomy on top of upside-down geology demands an interpretation as does the philosophy/literature pairing.
Any sense of randomness is destroyed, which impacts the message: Why everything dead level (I have checked by the way)? Why only one type face? Why an old-fashioned type face? Why all Kassota stone? Books are not all identical.
It would be very interesting and useful 1.5 blocks north in the middle of the much quieter space near the theater where there are several other visual elements.
But would it tell future archeologists anything about us, our technology, values, rituals, etc.? It might.
So who else has something for us to interpret?

Posted by Cly de Mankato | May 4, 2010 12:39 PM


I should say that I know that ideas for art, like that which has come to light today, do not come from outter space. A member of my family has been working on a degree in fine art and I have become aquainted with art that is similar in approach to Pillars. Art like this is working toward expanding and advancing the field of art and is not always easily understood but I think very much a real attempt to make advances in art.

I agree that the installation is not placed very well and at least they could try to take better care of the lawn and, also, it might be good to have something there giving the name of the work of art and the artist. I guess the artist did get us to do some thinking, which might be sort of what he had in mind and he sure got a reaction from you, Clyde.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 2:09 PM


Hope you had fun with it all today, which it all is, just fun.
Have a good week all. I think a pledge drives starts this week; did I hear right? I am going to spend most of the rest of this week dealing with the mystery called the American Health Care System, which makes even less sense and is no fun at all.

Posted by clyde | May 4, 2010 2:17 PM


I think humor can be included in art and might even be a part of the art we saw today or at least it lead to some humor.

Posted by Jim | May 4, 2010 3:24 PM


Chuckling, Clyde, over Minnesota Fold-Em.
I wonder if the artist would be interested in this discussion. Maybe not.

Off topic - thanks for the info, Molly. I NEED something for the car...

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 4, 2010 3:35 PM


What is missing from the installation is a large calculator, backpack, laptop, ruler, beaker, etc, to set off the books.

Posted by Renee | May 4, 2010 4:19 PM


Barbara--I sure hope he didn't see us having fun with his talent and effort. Bet he would tell us though he is not happy with MSUM about its care and maybe placement. I would not want him to have a free shot at my art.
Jim--sure hope art can include humor.

Posted by Clyde in Mankato | May 4, 2010 4:20 PM


Sometimes discussion is the point....

Posted by Ben | May 4, 2010 9:07 PM


Ben--you are sure right. I was waiting for you to come in and comment on theatre's supreme position in the pantheon.
bar in bh--just thought of this re your Va tach post--I am proud to say I played football, if you can call it that, at a university that replaced its fb stadium with a library, even though it is a very famous stadium, famous in the annals of physics as well as football.

Posted by clyde | May 4, 2010 10:11 PM


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