Thursday, November 20, 2014

Creatives in a Post-Industrial Society

Robert Boyd

I had been at the Asia Society in New York looking at Nam June Paik's robots. My next stop was a place I had never heard of, Pioneer Works Center of Art and Innovation, down in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Red Hook. I was going to see a show of photos by Mark Hogancamp. I got on the number 4 train on the Upper East Side and took a long ride to downtown Brooklyn. From there, I got on the B61 bus. No subway went anywhere near Red Hook, as far as I could tell. But the bus put me within a few blocks of my destination. It was a long trip--I hoped it would be worth it. It didn't seem like an especially artsy neighborhood at first glance, and I almost walked right past the anonymous red brick building that houses Pioneer Works. The building is on the waterfront, and the area nearby is full of warehouses.

Pioneer Works seen from its courtyard

Pioneer Works seems to try to be everything all at once. Exhibition space? Of course. Residencies? You bet. Classes (ranging from traditional crafts to modern Maker-style classes)? Of course. Residencies for scientists? Why not! A magazine? Yep! A sculpture garden. Actually I'm not sure about the last one--but they had an outdoor space that had sculptures, so maybe so.

Pioneer Works' courtyard/sculpture garden

It's a new space (founded, as far as I can tell, in 2011). The founder and director is a sculptor named Dustin Yellin.Yellin's work reminds me a bit of some work by Paul Kittelson in that he presses two dimensions items between plates of glass to create a 3-dimensional object.

Dustin Yellin sculpture

The building was built in 1881. It was a factory for the Pioneer Iron Works, a fabrication company, until the middle of the 20th century. After that it was used for storage.

Pioneer Works interior

Pioneer Works list 19 names with functional positions on its contact page. I don't know if they are all full-time employees or employees at all. Maybe some of them are volunteers. But whatever the case, I suspect that this is a lot fewer people than Pioneer Iron Works employed in its heyday.

Several of Robyn Hasty's photos. She is a member of Pioneer Work's photography program

Art institutions reuse old industrial sites all the time, particularly in the Northeast where a lot of obsolete factory buildings are still standing. The most famous example is the Tate Modern, housed in what had been the Bankside Power Station. In the U.S., two well-known examples are Dia: Beacon, housed in a former Nabisco box printing factory and MassMOCA, which repurposed the former Sprague Electric Company factory.

Adeline De Monseignat, The Eclair Project: The Body, 2013, vintage fur, handblown glass, metal, pillow filler, fabric, nametag, ottoman. This was displayed in the 2nd floor gallery space at Pioneer works.

Not too long ago, the hope of cities was the "creative class," as convincingly theorized in Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class. But the bloom is off that rose, as we've seen in the recent recession. Creative people don't get paid much and are as likely to be exploited now as ever. And we'll never need as many creative people as we once needed factory workers. Those guys stamping out boxes for Nilla Wafers in Beacon and fabricating boilers at Pioneer Iron Works were contributing to an economy that brought more people up from poverty than any other ever did (at least, until China's recent economic opening).

Michael Joo, Anemone, 2009, Bronze, patina and enamel paint, steel base, 73 x 50 x 34 inches (hat tip to Bernard Klevickas)

Don't get me wrong. I loved Pioneer Works. Their exhibits, their cool magazine Intercourse, their residencies all seem great. It certainly seems like a better use of the facility than the storage space it was just prior to its becoming an art space. But the conversion of defunct factory spaces into art spaces is a powerful metaphor for the conversion of U.S. cities from places where thousands of people made stuff to places where a few hundred creatives toil, typically for low wages.

Brett Swenson, Strewn, 2014, gypsum cement, found objects, 38" x 102". Displayed in the 2nd floor gallery at Pioneer Works.

Brett Swenson, Strewn (detail), 2014, gypsum cement, found objects, 38" x 102"


  1. The sculpture in the courtyard is by Michael Joo
    Foundry link

  2. Problem is, jobs like the ones at Pioneer Iron Works aren't coming back until it becomes cheaper to make those products here than to make them somewhere else and ship them here. Meanwhile, there are certainly more people employed at Pioneer Works now than there were when the building was used tor storage.

    1. Indeed. And it is surely better that North Adams, MA, have Mass MOCA than a bunch of derelict buildings.