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Nicholas O'Brien's Net Art Highlights ConAgra's Destruction Of Historic Architecture

Nicholas O'Brien's Net Art Highlights ConAgra's Destruction Of Historic Architecture

Along with being home to the Union Pacific Railroad, the College World Series, Warren Buffett, and Saddle Creek Records, Omaha, Nebraska is also headquarters of ConAgra Foods—makers of delicacies like Chef Boyardee, Peter Pan peanut butter, Reddi-wip, Slim Jim, and Lean Cuisine just to name a few.

But if you’re a fan of any of these foods, you may want to take a closer look at Nicholas O’Brien‘s latest net artwork, A Temporary Memorial Project for Jobbers’ Canyon Built with ConAgra Products, which brings light to ConAgra’s destruction of 24 historic buildings in order to build their corporate headquarters back in 1989.

Even though Jobbers’ Canyon was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the designation only protected from federal powers trying to destroy it. So in order to build their Missouri riverfront campus to perpetuate America’s favorite snack foods, they destroyed some of the Midwest’s most characteristic architecture.

After making a trip to Omaha to uncover architectural plans and immerse himself in the site’s history, O’Brien rebuilt a selection of these buildings online out of ConAgra products, ultimately showing how big brands trumped these historic warehouses. We spoke to him about his process, why he was drawn to this issue, and why he thinks digital art needs more historical context.

Current View of ConAgra Headquarters, former site of Jobbers’ Canyon, Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Nicholas O’Brien.

The Creators Project: What about Jobbers’ Canyon and its demise originally sparked your interest? Why is this relevant now?
Nicholas O’Brien:
A couple of years ago I started to get involved in making these large 3D geometric sketches that I wanted to act as digital monuments of a kind. However, I got really frustrated with how these images were nice to look at, but fundamentally lacked substance and context within the environments that they occupied. So I became interested in trying to work with this idea, but to respond to space from either a historical standpoint, or due to some kind of personal connection. The former route led me to look at the Chicago listings in National Register of Historic Places (since that was where I was living at the time), and through this process I discovered a secondary list in the National Register of sites that had been lost. Jobbers’ Canyon immediately jumped out at me for being the largest site in this documentation, and also because its loss had been a result of demolition as opposed to natural disaster or some other accident. This led me down a rabbit hole of a years worth of research and experimentation, eventually arriving at the version of the project as it stands right now.

The relevance of this project is very important to me for two reasons, one being that I think that digital recreation and commemoration is a very tricky terrain for artistic expression and it was a specific challenge I wanted to post for myself. The other reason was because I feel as though a lot of net art or digitally-influenced work sorely lacks a historical/cultural context beyond its own technological insularity. To take the tools that have become popular within the repertoire of digital art (3D simulation) and to use them to talk about something that is not bound up in the novelty of that technology has been an important motivation for my more recent work. However, I think the relevance of this work is that these buildings, and their loss, exemplify contemporary American corporate interest dominating over the need to preserve cultural history.

Why reconstruct the buildings to have them ultimately deconstruct? Was this project more about digital preservation, or illustrating the power of big corporations?
Although the reconstruction of these building made me really appreciate the architecture and engineering of these sites, “architectural appreciation” is not the primary incentive behind the conceptualization of this work. The recreation and exaggerated demolition of these structures is meant to highlight the loss of these sites as a result of ConAgra’s decision to forego the desire to co-exist with this historically-significant district. Also, these buildings are not merely “deconstructed” but instead are obliterated by the metaphorical domination of ConAgra’s brands. In that sense, the work is not meant to be about preservation, but instead about loss and how these buildings can never be recovered, regardless of how faithful my digital recreations might be.

John Deere Company Building at time of demolition. Photo by Lynn Meyers.

Still Image From John Deere Plow Company Building / Slim Jim Original Flavor

What kind of tools did you use to build and destroy these warehouses? What was your process like?
This project is made entirely with Blender 2.63a using the Bullet physics engine native to the game development portion of this software. The process of rebuilding these structures consisted of a lot of research at first. In fact, the pre-production of this project was actually what took the most amount of time for the creation of this work. I felt it necessary to not only visit Omaha to gain access to the remaining architectural plans of these buildings (as well as to witness the architectural abomination that is the ConAgra HQ), but also to delve into the history of this site as best I could given the documentation that I acquired from Lynn Meyer. Lynn was indispensable since she was the individual who originally drafted the nomination papers for Jobbers’ Canyon to be listed in the National Register and fought vigorously for the need to preserve this site during the 1989 demolition decision.

After that, I had to figure out which buildings were which by piecing together the plans, the history, and other peripheral documentation. Afterward the plans were arranged so that they were to scale and proportionally consistant across various perspectives (front elevations, side cross-sections, etc.). I then went about constructing the facades of the buildings, ostensibly bit-by-bit, and then moved into the interior after the outer walls had been built. Unfortunately, some of the buildings do not include as detailed interiors as I would like, but the physics engine would not allow me to simulate that much geometry and collision given the technology I have available.

Was there any rhyme or reason in choosing which product represented each building? Do you enjoy consuming any of these foods?
There are some subtle equivalences that I am drawing between some of the buildings and their chosen products. I particularly am fond of the John Deere Building and the Slim Jim pairing, just because I imagine (perhaps wrongly) operators of such equipment might enjoy that product. I also wanted the Creighton Building to have something more flashy, since it is considered one of the most ornate buildings of this district, and the Kid Cuisine packaging fit that very well. However, the other choices were made somewhat randomly, and although I wanted to make more of a connection between buildings and products, I felt that forcing this wasn’t necessary.

Also, I had to make do with hi-res images found online, as I didn’t want to purchase any of these products for scanning purposes and support ConAgra financially in any way. So, No, I don’t enjoy any of these products.

Still Image From Creighton Building / Kid Cuisine animation

What’s the value in using the digital medium to preserve historic architecture? Is this something you plan to explore in future projects?
The value to me seems relatively straightforward in that these tools allow us to re-imagine and reconstruct these sites to rediscover a significant moment in late 19th-century architecture. Although, as I said, I know I could’ve done more to completely reconstruct these buildings, the important thing for me was more to illustrate their destruction then to simply rebuild them. In some ways, if I had just reconstructed them instead of commenting on their loss, I would’ve done these sites a disservice by ignoring the fact that they are no longer around. Also, 3D tools (although I don’t think Blender is particularly popular in architecture offices) are what would typically be used by preservationists and/or students of the Renaissance Revival style for the purposes of reconstruction/admiration.

I would hope to continue to develop my practice around these lines, but I think to really work faithfully in rapport with a site, it has to come naturally and/or unforced. Instead, I like to try and find equivalences between historical moments in art, architecture, and culture and our current moment within digital media. Doing so allows me to open up avenues of interpreting and understanding the contemporary through a lens of a more studied—and in some ways a more thoroughly understood—past.

A Temporary Memorial Project for Jobbers’ Canyon Built with ConAgra Products is a 2012 commission of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. for its Turbulence website. It was made possible with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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