Scavenger hunt leads Brian Harnetty to ‘Ohio Imprint’

The artist and sound archivist collaborated with videographer Kevin Davison for his new exhibit, which opens at the Ross Art Museum on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
Brian Harnetty at Serpent Mound
Brian Harnetty at Serpent MoundCourtesy the artist

For Brian Harnetty’s new exhibition, “Ohio Imprint,” the Columbus composer and sound archivist attempted to retrace the footsteps of Dick Arentz, venturing to the locations of various images captured in the early ’90s by the photographer in small towns scattered across central and southern Ohio: Mechanicsburg, Delaware, Chillicothe, Ripley, Tyndall, Jackson and the Serpent Mound in Peebles.

At each location, Harnetty, working alongside videographer Kevin Davison, recorded several minutes of video, along with field recordings that captured the sounds of each site, most of which were located in remote spots near roadways and buzzed with chirping crickets, distant barking dogs and the occasional whoosh of a passing car. In setting up the video camera, the two attempted to match the composition of Arentz’s photograph, emerging with what resemble living versions of the original stills.

“So they look static, but the longer that you look at them, there’s a tree slowly changing or smoke coming out of a smokestack. Or, if you watch long enough, daytime turns to dusk, and you can watch the clouds go by,” said Harnetty of the works included in “Ohio Imprint,” which opens at the Richard M. Ross Art Museum on Wednesday, Jan. 18. (The museum will also host a public reception from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22.) “They have a time-based quality, and they start to tell their own stories, or we put our own stories on them."

Harnetty said the exhibit originated at the invitation of the Ross Art Museum in the months prior to the pandemic, centered on the idea of finding new ways to utilize the museum's archives. “And that’s right up my alley,” said Harnetty, who has a history of transforming archival material into compelling new work. “So, we proposed this idea of following in [Arentz's] footsteps, revisiting the sites of all of these photographs. For me, it was kind of a curiosity. When I look at a landscape, in particular, I think, ‘What are all of the other contexts of this place? What does it sound like? What are people like there? What is it like today?’”

In at least one instance, this final question went unanswered, with Harnetty and Davison unable to locate the exact site at which Arentz photographed a decrepit greenhouse in Tyndall, a tiny village off Route 16 just south of Coshocton. “It was a beautiful structure, but it was partially torn down … with trees growing through it, and I knew there was very little chance it was still standing,” said Harnetty, who circled through Tyndall, questioning locals to see if anybody had recollections of the greenhouse.

In the end, the two settled on a location at which they imagined the greenhouse could have once existed, setting up the camera and recording at a distance from a nearby farm, a wide expanse of cloud-streaked sky overhead.

Ripley, Ohio
Ripley, OhioCourtesy Brian Harnetty

Harnetty described the creative process, much of which took place in the fall and early winter of 2022, as a scavenger hunt, of sorts, the two trying to locate sometimes-remote sites with little more than a city name, a few visual clues and a healthy dose of intuition.

Searching for the site in Delaware, for example, Harnetty had only the city name and the image, which depicted a slight valley between two curvy roads. And while he could have phoned Arentz for more detailed directions, he refrained, instead embracing the possibility inherent in the search.

Eventually, Harnetty located the site, which turned out to have a connection not only to his own family history (as a child, Harnetty visited his brother-in-law’s family at a house just down the road from where the photo was taken) but to American history, as well. “We found a historical marker,” Harnetty said, “and the marker was saying this location was once a Civil War camp.”

Echoes of history were also present in Ripley, where Harnetty and Davison filmed on a bridge overlooking Red Oak Creek.

“And, again, the context of that place, which is a very famous spot on the Underground Railroad, and escaping slaves could look up the hill to this place called the John Rankin House, where they’d get the go ahead on whether it was safe to cross the river or not," Harnetty said. “So, just from this simple act of saying, ‘I’m going to go on a scavenger hunt,’ all of this other stuff comes up that before I wouldn’t have noticed or paid attention to.”

At times, these realizations could emotionally overwhelm the artist, as they did when he recorded at Serpent Mount, an act he termed “a religious experience.”

“And you feel it," Harnetty said. "You feel it as you’re driving to the place, as you’re walking up the hill. Each aspect of it needs to be felt to get that deeper experience. So, yeah, with the title of ‘Ohio Imprint,’ it got me thinking not just of photographs, but of impressions and the way places make a mark on you.”

Harnetty’s work continually draws him back to these off-the-grid locations, with the artist repeatedly immersing himself among Appalachian communities and people in forgotten Ohio towns in an act he described as “deeply hanging out.”

“Part of that, for me, is really grounded in ethnography, and spending time with people in a particular place over a long period of time and building relationships,” said Harnetty, who will actively seek out physical connections in his sound archival work, attempting to locate surviving relatives who might be able to bring more dimension to decades-old recordings. “I realized early on that this recording of a singer I really liked, she’s someone’s grandmother, and she’s really vulnerable offering up this song. And there’s a certain kind of responsibility and stewardship in that to reach out to the family members. It’s all connected with place and sound and listening, and then trying to connect all of those elements together.”

“It really is just trying to deeply pay attention … to these places and the sounds and the things I see,” Harnetty continued. “And then to somehow try to convey that to others and encourage them to do the same.”

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