Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area

  • Xander describing his exhibition

     

    Politics, Propaganda, And The Steel Industry

    Author: Xander Schempf, Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – Fall 2017

    Spending over six months working with Rivers of Steel Arts taught me more about the history of Pittsburgh and its role in the development of the United States than being born and raised here. As part of my internship, I had the opportunity to develop a new exhibition for the traveling “Steel Case” – a mobile display case that functions as a miniature gallery on wheels. In preparation for the exhibition, I began by sifting through Rivers of Steel Arts’ vast archive to create a list of possible themes. None of them were quite right, so I always ended up scrapping them for something else. Eventually, I stumbled upon some old magazines created to spread information about union rights. Searching for related materials led me to an array of interesting artifacts and documents that taught me a lot about the WWII era, a moment in US history that until now, I did not know very much about. 

    With the guidance of Director of Historic Resources and Facilities, Ron Baraff, and the Chief Curator, Chris McGinnis, I developed a Steel Case exhibition that examines the political propaganda produced before, during, and after WWII in response to the rise of the steel industry in the United States. The rise of the steel industry ushered in new political ideas, my case considers how the political climate of the period was shaped by two major competing ideologies. There were left-wing groups who sought to attract steel industry workers to the socialist ideology, and in response, there were large corporations who quelled and attempted to maintain the existing capitalist working state. Themes such as the “common man” and the “greater good” were staples for each side in discrediting the other and strengthening their own views. Yet, hidden beneath corporate language was a continued effort to quell movements that threatened their status. The objects on view are only a small selection of the materials that can tell this story, but the ones I have selected seek to illuminate the progression of these interactions from unions, the industry, and popular culture, exploring how their influence made its way throughout many facets of twentieth-century America.

    The exhibition is on display at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland through April 30, 2019.  

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    Koyo Kouoh and Jennifer Josten at the public lecture

     

    Students collaborate on 'Dig Where You Stand' exhibit for 57th Carnegie International

    Author: Rebecca Giordano

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    As a student in HAA professor Jennifer Josten’s Contemporary Art on/and Display graduate seminar I have had the pleasure of attending several events and seminars with Koyo Kouoh, exhibition-maker and founding artistic director of RAW Material Company, a contemporary arts space in Dakar, Senegal. Kouoh is participating in the 57th edition of the Carnegie International, set to open in October 2018, by mounting an intervention in the museum based on its permanent collection and the history of the International. During her ten-day residency in Pittsburgh we have had the opportunity to hear about Kouoh’s practice from a variety of perspectives. In a public brown bag lunch discussion, organized in collaboration with the Pitt Global Studies Center’s Creative Pedagogies Initiative, Kouoh emphasized RAW Material Company’s education programming including the evolution and emergence of RAW Académie. This program is an intensive 8-week artist-led workshop centered around different themes for recent graduates interested in developing an understanding of art practice as a system of thinking. Kouoh and her collaborators identified a need for critical development and professional growth for artists and cultural producers who are in that vulnerable place right after graduation and trying to find their footing. RAW Académie aims to remedy those gaps and draws artists, critics, and curators from around the world and from Dakar to foster new networks and cross-cultural dialogues.

    Our conversations continued after lunch in our class meeting with an emphasis on Kouoh’s exhibitions both in Senegal and around the world. Hearing from Kouoh firsthand about her practice and specifics about the different manifestations of her core concerns­—what she calls an “obsession with digesting colonialism”—provided interesting case studies for thinking about how display with its colonial histories, baggage, and expectations can be reimagined to press forms beyond colonial thinking. Insisting that art is a system for thinking in and of itself, Kouoh figured the making of an exhibition as a way of producing new knowledge through display and dialogue. Kouoh’s dedication to providing art a space in civil society came through clearly. Rooted in Dakar’s love of discourse, RAW provides a place for the public to have critical discussions about visual art and actively positions art as a part of political and civic life.

    In a public lecture and conversation on Thursday, January 25, Kouoh drew out more of her commitment to building an innovative contemporary art institution like RAW. She addressed the changing nature of “the curator” and the ways this term shifts in different languages and places as well as the ways it ties to different systems of cultural production including colonial hangovers. For many of the students in the class, these questions about the nature and breadth of a curator’s work, how these roles shift geographically and historically, and how they bear ethical and political weight are central to our consideration of how the contemporary is produced through exhibition-making and collection-building. Primed by an excellent class visit the week before by Carnegie International curator, Ingrid Schaffner, and, associate curator, Liz Park, the Carnegie International’s history and future was certainly present in our discussions.

    Five students in the seminar (including myself) are now aiding Kouoh and her team in researching, designing, and developing Kouoh’s exhibition, Dig Where You Stand. To kick off our contributions, we joined Kouoh and Park on visits to the Braddock Carnegie Library and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to think more about how Pittsburghers are digging where they stand. These opportunities usefully intertwine the content of our class, which asks us to think about the meaning of display and the construction of the category of the contemporary, with working directly with curators who are enacting these ideas in real time. More than just thinking critically about the end product of the exhibition process—a useful endeavor, of course­­—we get to trace and put to use these ideas as they unfold in different stages of an exhibition’s development.

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    Political Interests of the Former Steel Industry

    Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area - Fall 2017

    My experience working with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area (RoS) has shown me new ways in which an organization focused on exhibitions and preservation connects with the history of the area it represents. Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh, I’ve enjoyed seeing its history up close and presented in unique ways.

    The project that I have been working on and will likely finish even after this semester is the creation of a new exhibition for the travelling ‘Steel Case’. The ‘Steel Case’ is currently exhibited at the ‘Indiana University of Pennsylvania’ and focuses on how the steel industry was presented in popular culture. My task was to design a new theme, pick a location for it to be presented, and create promotional material.

    The first portion of my time there, which ended up being a majority of my time, was going through the archives and learning what objects and exhibition materials RoS had with the goal of developing a focus for the ‘Steel Case’. This was definitely the hardest portion of the internship, but also the most fun. I went in with a rough theme already in mind, which was to look at some of the science that influenced the industry and how this was presented to industry heads and workers. Yet, as I spent more and more time within the archives I kept straying away from this idea while going off into tangents about labor strikes, propaganda, and many other parts of the 20th century steel industry. I eventually decided on a focus that highlighted the development of political ideals during the steel industry, specifically the rise of socialism and the associated propaganda that sought to weaken either capitalism or socialism. Some items included are articles about labor strikes, socialist newspapers and publications, memos to managers warning of the dangers of socialism to the labor environment, photos of leaders, awards from companies to its employees, illustrations of figureheads, and many more.

    Currently I am in the process of pulling these objects from the RoS archives and filling out the proper paperwork while creating some promotional material for the exhibition. I will likely continue the work into next year even after my graduation, as the process has taken much longer than expected and I would like to see the project come to completion. The subject matter is very unique and interesting, and I hope that the way in which I present the information to the public is succinct and eye-pleasing, yet capable of teaching the public about the 20th century politics that influenced the steel industry and America as a whole.

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    Ferdinand Bauer engraving

     

    What is the real, "real" object?

    PhD Student in the School of Computing and Information and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    As an information scientist striving to define and describe online exhibitions, I am constantly reflecting on what constitutes a “real object” versus one that is acknowledged only through its absence. The status of the object has historically correlated to changes in museology, and in this regard it seems we are in the midst of a particularly challenging moment. With the proliferation of museum apps, for example, museum visitors are simultaneously engaging with site-specific media while also being pulled away from their actual physical or “real” surroundings.

    In her writing, Andrea Witcomb suggests that objects in the material world carry “weight...authority, knowledge and privilege” whereas “multimedia,” or virtual objects, are characterized by their superficiality or otherness: their immediacy, temporariness, and popularity. (1) Traveling through and among the various institutions and collections that were included on the Consuming Nature workshop itinerary, I was constantly thinking about perceived distinctions between real and digital objects. Particularly as we hopped from the Hunt Library, with its exquisite engravings and ink drawings of botanical specimens, to the overgrown vacant lot of Carrie Furnaces, I thought about what distinguishes the real and the real object. This is a confusing and unhelpful qualification, but I have been trying to grapple with the levels of human intervention that are represented by or within any particular object, and how these levels contribute to notions of authoritativeness and authenticity.

    Of course, these ruminations largely revolved around the figure of the “curator,” the individual traditionally endowed with the power to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one. At the core of curation likes the act of selection or “the crucial idea” that “turns a part of the natural world into an object and a museum piece.” (2) As an “object,” where does Ferdinand Bauer’s engraving of Pinus cembra (1803-1824) stand in relation to the wild grass growing in the garden next to an abandoned Pennsylvania steel mill Throughout the workshop, I found myself pondering the distinction between reality and fiction, or between data and capta. With regard to this latter element, I was thinking about data in the eighteenth century sense, as something that is given or assumed rather than something that is captured, or taken. At its conclusion, I think my brain had accepted that everything we saw during the workshop was the result of human intervention: from the alcohol-soaked beetles in the CMNH’s section of entomology to the errant trees growing atop a former furnace.

    Should I be anxious about the way that museums incorporate real and fake representations of things? Probably not. Is it important to signpost these things, such as what parts of the dinosaur’s skeleton are actual fossils versus man-made plaster reproductions? For me, yes. Brenda Laurel, author of the book Computers as Theatre (1991), describes the artificiality of the computer interface as follows: “...in the world of interfaces, the graphic designer renders the objects (like zoom-boxes and pop-up menus)” and represents “both concrete and ephemeral aspects of context through the use of such elements as line, shadow, color, intensity, texture, and style.” (p. 10) In depicting nature, broadly, so many representations (2D and 3D, alike) provide a similarly mediated version of “reality.” As Colleen O’Reilly and I endeavor to describe and even re-contextualize the dioramas in CMNH’s Hall of Botany through our online exhibition project, these are some of the questions I continue to ask.

    (1) Andrea Witcomb, “A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), 35.
    (2) Susan Pearce, “Museum Objects,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2003) 10.  

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    Curating Little Steel

    Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area - Fall 2016

    This past summer, I worked at Rivers of Steel, in Homestead curating an online exhibit called Little Steel. The exhibit documented the lesser-known steel mills in Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. When one thinks of Pittsburgh steel, one thinks of companies like Carnegie Steel, US Steel, and Jones & Laughlin. However, there were over four hundred medium-sized and small mills that operated in Western Pennsylvania. These smaller mills competed with the bigger companies by producing high-quality specialty products. Despite the success of some of the smaller mills, US Steel bought many of them at the turn of the twentieth century. I looked through boxes of postcards, archival photographs, ephemera from the steel mills to decide what to include. Moreover, I took advantage of the numerous records digitized and freely available through Google books and Historic Pittsburgh database to find information on the small steel mills. The picture included here is one of the advertisements I found. Looking through old maps and city directories on Historic Pittsburgh, it was interesting to see all the urban redevelopment, especially in the Strip District, and the North Side, both of which were major areas of industry in the first half of the twentieth century. When one visits these parts of the city, one can sometimes see some remnants of industry. Throughout the course of my research, I discovered several previously-unknown steel mills. All in all, I wrote biographies for about fifteen steel mills and accumulated over one hundred photographs and advertisements. As more books like steel industry records become available in the public domain, researchers will be further able to discover and write about the previously-overlooked steel mills that played a vital part in Pittsburgh’s steel industry.

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    This is one of the first legal pieces done at Carrie along the 400-foot wall designated for graffiti. It features the iconic logo of Rivers of Steel in the center. 

     

    Spray Cans and Stereotypes

    Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area - Spring 2016

    Click. Click. Click. Shhhhhh.

    The shadow watches as a single stream of black spray paint shoots from the nozzle. Shaking the can softly again, the ball mixing the paint rattles encouragingly to continue. One hand steadies the canister while the other shakes slightly in nervousness. Just a few more lines…done. The writer flings the can into their opened back pack before trailing back through the moonlit trees in front of the Carnegie Library.

    What image did you create as you pictured the scene? If you were being completely honest, who in your mind’s eye is the culprit of the vandalism to your library? Is he a teenager with too much time on his hands? Is he a rowdy youngster, craving recognition that his parents just don’t provide? Is it a destructive gang member out to create a disruption in their mundane, mainstream environment to prove a point for his or her buddies? Whether we like it, acknowledge it, or bother to care, our prejudices and pre-conceived notions of the graffiti writer influence us and our perceptions of their art. Who is this invisible individual leaving a trail of paint drips, words, and images?

    This sad, yin and yang eyed face reveals that the writer is aware of his transgression. (see above image) Ironically, he acknowledges that a spray paint can in hand may not adequately relieve him or provide him with what he is after. Yet another scrawl is located close by: “I wish I were a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”[1]

    Now unless you are a poetry guru, you would have never known that these lines were taken from a T.S. Eliot poem. In this simple black scribble, we are confronted with our artist who is certainly no desperately bored teen seeking a temporary thrill. This piece is charged with meaning, shows intentionality, and demonstrates an appreciation of 20th century poetry, all in a single quote drawn in spray paint. Our artist is aware of his site and the ironic sense the quote carries on the library. It is an internal, deep, and reflective statement. The phrase shows the writer’s heightened conscientiousness in wishing to express ideas of independence, freedom, and power. In a single scrawl, previous biases are washed away. This piece encapsulates graffiti’s many provocations. What I am interested in, not only as an Art History student but also as a Psychology major, is if and how stereotypes and notions of graffiti play into how people experience viewing graffiti.

    It is at the unexpected spot of Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh where I have found graffiti flourish alongside these questions and thoughts. Carrie stands—her huge, gaping, and rusting exterior—against the serene backdrop of the Monongahela River. For almost 70 years, these blast furnaces produced iron for the Homestead Works and at their peak, were producing almost 1250 tons of iron a day. The site was left empty in 1978, but once the steel mill workers left, graffiti artists filled their places. Graffiti tags accumulated across pipes, walls, and the precarious peaks of the furnaces. In 2010 however, the historical preservationist organization Rivers of Steel claimed ownership of the site.

    Yet, the graffiti scene continued to prosper once Rivers of Steel realized that the colorful murals were attracting visitors to the industrial wonderland of Carrie. A 400-foot wall and the interior space of a power house were dedicated for new, and most importantly, legal graffiti developed by talented and art-minded graffiti artists. Ron Baraff, the proponent of the movement says this of the graffiti artists—“They’re coming in here, creating this art, so let’s give them this canvas, and by giving them this canvas and showing them that respect, we can then educate them on what we’re trying to do.”[2]  

    The graffiti writers, hipsters, and those interested in their local history aren’t the only visitors however. Returning, finally, are the former steel mill workers who give tours of Carrie. A handful of men dedicate their afternoons to instilling a sense of pride in their listeners as they walk through Carrie’s echoing caverns. They tell of lives threatened by brutal working conditions. They share stories and discuss labor unions. They paint pictures of history that mingle right alongside the painted murals. But, do these two ever collide?

    As the workers return to their former place of employment—a place of pride and power—how does the graffiti affect them? As they conduct tour after tour, does the graffiti just fade into the background and become common place? Or does the destruction of a place they identify with so closely enrage them? This month, I have been collecting oral histories from a few of these workers in hopes to understand their views as either supporters or rejecters of the graffiti. We are all participating in a past history of steel while simultaneously crafting the history of a future that challenges former notions of graffiti and its creator. 

     

    [1] “Pittsburgh 360: Carrie Furnace Art.” WQED video, 6:51. October 17, 2013. http://www.wqed.org/tv/watch/?sid=574&series=4

    [2] “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Poetry Foundation, accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/173476

     

    • Photo: Nicole Scalissi
    • Photo: Nicole Scalissi
     

    Covered in Rust, Paint, and History: The Carrie Furnace Graffiti Project

    Once a heat-swollen, record-setting producer of iron for US Steel, Pittsburgh’s Carrie Furnaces is now a bony relic of the American steel industry, a salvaged monument to the sweat that built the region, and – amazingly – an expansive collection of graffiti.

    Starting in 1978, the furnaces were turned off, cooled down, and dismantled – piece-by-massive-piece – for sale, scrap, or theft. When the access roads to the time-clocks were shuttered and no one was looking, Carrie would accumulate not just dust and oxidation, but aerosol paint, Sharpie, and oil stick – the colorful images, throw-ups, initials, and characters composed by daring graffiti writers who slipped through the gates and trees to paint the remaining structures, the behemoth and bizarre architecture of industry. Rustic and discreet, the site became a popular site for local and national graffiti artists looking for open, challenging spaces for their work. Their early window-breaking, quiet-sneaking, and furnace-scaling efforts resulted in a “collection” of spray-can art that would never have survived the publicly accessible walls and doors of any city.

    With the Monongahela along one side, and raised train tracks up the other, the once-industrious furnaces were cut off from Pittsburgh. Preserved by this geographic obscurity, the accumulated paint tells not just the story of Pittsburgh’s graff culture, but of an artistic community that ducked (necessarily) quietly under the official radar across the United States. No public audience, they wrote for themselves – to each other, to themselves, for the sake of doing. No “buffing” squad regularly visited the site to remove tags from the forgotten site, and with relatively low police supervision, pieces could take longer to paint and remained on the wall for longer. With expansive surfaces uniquely shaped for producing molten metal, little supervision once inside, and the security that once your work was up the only threat it faced was the tag of another writer: what would be possible?

    Not just a set of blank walls, or a “gallery” of and for graffiti, Carrie was a lab, a space of experimentation for local and traveling artists. The paint on Carrie, then, is not just a history of the furnaces, or Pittsburgh’s industrial heartbreak, but a story about how the graff community developed as a larger, integrated phenomenon. Carrie is the setting; the coast-to-coast network and the artistic developments they initiated here are the story.

    To tell the narrative of Pittsburgh’s oasis for spray-can experimentation and production, and to reveal how the city was part of a larger network of graffiti artists, researchers in the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh are dusting off old photographs, tracking down graff artists, and talking to former steelworkers. This small team of undergraduate and graduate students are collecting oral histories and researching this extraordinary history in partnership with Rivers of Steel, the artists, and the workers who made the site what it was in the first place.

    Now about one-third of her original hulk and sprawl, Carrie rests in the shade of the trees lining the bank of the Monongahela. The access roads have been reopened to visitors who come to see the 92-foot blast furnaces on tours led by former steelworkers. The overgrowth has been pushed back, the collapsed structures secured. Some of the graffiti she accumulated over the 80s and 90s remains, but writers no longer tumble over the train tracks to paint without permission. Rivers of Steel, the preservation and community history organization that has operated the site as a protected National landmark since 2006, continues to embrace this layer of Carrie’s history by preserving some of the historical graffiti and by inviting international contemporary artists to paint legally in designated spaces. The wall on Carrie’s riverside is less a barrier and more of a gallery, a growing sample of diverse work of artists from around the world.

    As we conduct this research and develop an online exhibition over the coming months, keep up with our progress here on Pitt’s Constellations Blog.

     

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