Burning Questions: an interview with the founders of Alloy Pittsburgh

Second Steel curator and Pittsburgh art blogger Alexandra Oliver interviewed Alloy Pittsburgh co-founders Chris McGuinness and Sean Derry about the work they’ve been doing in the Carrie Furnaces. Their project resonates in interesting ways with Second Steel—in its focus on site and renewal and possibilities of space, its belief in art’s ability to help us reimagine our spaces, its small admin team out to do big things mentality, and its desire to be part of an international as well as a local dialogue—and we’re thankful they took the time to talk to us. Find details on their opening reception (Sept. 28 from 2pm-6pm) at the bottom of the interview!

Alexandra Oliver: How did you first get interested in the Carrie Furnaces?

Chris McGuinness: Like many people, I think my first interest in the CF came from simply seeing it while crossing the Rankin Bridge and wondering, “Wow, what is that place? I want to go there!”

I remember enjoying the fact that I could see the past and present of industry in the Monongahela Valley by either looking downstream at the CF or upstream to the Edgar Thomas Works. So for better or worse, I sneaked into the CF site one morning at about dawn to take photos and just explore.  That was before I knew that the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead offers “Hard Hat Tours.”  I eventually went back to the site on one of these tours, which better satisfied my interest in the history of the site.

Sean Derry: I had the opportunity to visit the Carrie Furnaces on one of the first Hard Hat Tours and the place has stuck in my head ever since. As a relatively recent transplant to Pittsburgh, visiting the furnaces provided an experience that helped me orient myself in the city.

The Carrie Furnaces.

The Carrie Furnaces. Photo by Heather Tabacci.

A: Where does the name “Carrie Furnaces” come from? Is this an official designation or of local coinage?

C: As far as I know, the name Carrie was given in honor of a female relative of the original owners or builders.  This evidently was a common practice at the time.  I always suggest that anyone interested in a more complete understanding of the history and function of the mill, visit http://www.riversofsteel.com or take a guided tour of the site.  Their Director of Museum Collections, Ron Baraff, is our project partner for Alloy Pittsburgh and a great resource for more information.

A: OK, so what have you guys been up to?

S: Our overarching goals of the program are to establish a forum where artists and communities come together to collectively reimagine their surroundings.  We are particularly interested in fostering new community partnerships and celebrating novel ways of reimagining a post-industrial site.  We both feel strongly about advancing the careers of emerging artists from the region and have structured Alloy Pittsburgh to maximize the exposure of regional artists.  To address these goals, we structured the program in two phases.  First was a weeklong research residency that occurred in early June.  We combined site-based programming at the mill with free public lectures in the evenings.  Presenters included internationally recognized installation artist Ann Hamilton, Philadelphia based author, photographer and landscape design consultant Rick Darke, local historian and spoken-word artist Chuck Lanigan, and sculptor and Industrial Arts Cooperative President Tim Kaulen. The lecture series complemented research activities occurring on-site at the Carrie Furnaces. Since the research residency, we have been periodically meeting with the artists on-site and finalizing plans for installation of their projects.

C: Sean and I felt that extended time to research the site was particularly important for participating artists to get beyond a superficial experience with the mill.  The Rivers of Steel opened up their archives to participating artists, which was a big help for at least a few of the artists.  We did incorporate some structured programming at the mill, but for the most part we wanted artists to have time.  Time to get lost, get bored and perhaps notice things they passed over initially.  One afternoon we had two former workers from the CF tour the site with the artists.  Their personal insight proved to be incredibly influential to everyone in the program.

A: Your press pack frames the project’s aims temporally: to contend with the site’s history, to consider current state and to imagine possible futures. How have particular artists accomplished this?

Carrie Furnace artist

An artist engages with the site. Photo by Heather Tabacci.

C: The artists have engaged the site from a range of perspectives.  Some have responded to how light intensity affects particular parts of the mill in subtle ways.  Others have considered the role of play and interpreted the site as a giant game.

S: I think this is a particularly interesting moment to be developing a program for the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark. There is a groundswell of interest in the site and physical changes are occurring on a daily basis. Chris and I were interested in facilitating a project that would allow artists to contribute to the discourse surrounding the site. It was important that participants in the project had some understanding of the past, but we don’t want the work to become monuments. I hope the physical interventions the artists are planning become a collective experiment that attempts to identify the latent potential of the site.

A: What challenges did you encounter, in getting this project off the ground, bringing together various stakeholders and/or defining the project concept?

S: At the beginning I don’t think either of us fully understood the scope of what we set out to accomplish. Balancing the administrative tasks and seeking funding from half a dozen institutions has been daunting at times. Working as a collaborative team, Chris and I have been able to divide the workload and remain on track. It has been relatively easy to get people excited about the project and it has been humbling to have so many people step up and make the program what it is.

C: I would agree with all of what Sean said.  It has been humbling to see how many people kicked in their time.  It has also been difficult at times to coordinate schedules and maneuver the administrative end of things.

A: There are intense debates about the value of “creative labor” and the “knowledge economy.”  How did site inflect current issues about labor, class, workers’ identity or notions of economic productivity? Can these sites be used to ask critical questions, rather than just giving in to ineluctable charisma of gorgeously rusting factories, indulging in a postindustrial romance where The Factory stands in for Ozymandias?

S: We think so. The projects constituting Alloy Pittsburgh emphasize our belief in the necessity for participation, dialogue and action within the post-industrial landscape. I hope that by enabling artists to work at the site we are creating a space of possibility at a site once defined by the singular pursuit of iron.

A: I’m sold. It’s clear why this is important for our region and our history. But what is its significance to the broader, international enterprise of contemporary art generally?

C: Well, there is certainly international precedent for projects like Alloy Pittsburgh that approach former sites of production from an artistic perspective.  The Landschaftspark in Germany’s Ruhr Valley and Sloss Furnaces in Alabama are a couple of examples of similar projects. I feel that one of the most exciting things happening in contemporary art is a re-thinking of the typical museum/gallery paradigm. In my own experience creating and producing exhibitions, there seems to be a push for a more experiential visual art encounter. One that more effectively bridges the gap between the general public and the arts. I think part of the attraction to projects like Alloy is that they engage the public in a less intimidating environment such as a mill, the street corner or a parking lot. Rather than museums and galleries, which are ultimately less approachable due to their history as cultural learning environments. This is not to suggest that art museums and galleries are going anywhere or even that they should. Both play a role in what I feel is becoming a generally more approachable art world.

Your opening is Sept. 28 at 2pm. How do I get there and…where exactly is it again?

Alloy Pittsburgh artists will reveal their completed site-based artworks in a public reception on September 28th, 2013 from 2–6pm.  All artwork will remain on display through October 26, 2013.  Alloy Pittsburgh is a ticketed event with proceeds benefiting the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area and Alloy Pittsburgh. Tickets are $20 and available through the Alloy Pittsburgh blog, The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area website, and can also be purchased from participating artists. Youth under 18 years of age will receive free admission to the project.
The reception will take place at the Carrie Furnaces National Landmark along the Monongahela River, downstream from Braddock, PA. Attendees of Alloy Pittsburgh will ride a free shuttle into the mill complex. The shuttle will pick up from a secure parking lot off of Braddock Ave in Braddock, PA. Please visit www.alloypittsburgh.blogspot.com for a map to the parking lot. The shuttle will also make regular stops at the Swissvale Station of the East Busway for any travelers coming by Port Authority bus.

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