In Pittsburgh, the ghost of industrial America is more unwieldy than in any city this side of Detroit. Abandoned buildings and machinery abound, with a lot less of this past repurposed than in more modern and populous places like Brooklyn or Chicago.
Alloy Pittsburgh’s bi-annual exhibition at Carrie Furnaces, just over the city’s border in Homestead, PA, looks to create a symbiosis between Pittsburgh’s heavy rustbelt legacy and the opportunities its rubble leaves. The furnaces stand as the only ones left in the region, and are maintained and toured year-round by a company called Rivers of Steel. Every other fall, Alloy recruits local artists to use the site for a sort of beautiful, ambitious recycling program.
This year’s set of artists, whose work is up until October 31, includes some with direct lineage to industrial heritage. Patrick Camut, a sculptor who was born and raised nearby, has a balancing structure called STAN at the furnaces, named after his steelworker grandfather Stan Kwasny. His grandfather (who he affectionately calls “pap”) was present at the show’s opening, and Camut readily involved him in his descriptions of the work.
Camut’s structure (pictured above) appears precarious as it seesaws, with a large basket of coke coal opposite a long, rusty arm with Kwasny’s union-branded coffee mug standing proudly at its end. The creation acts as a metaphor for the fragile and stressful lives of past blue-collar workers, but also as an embodiment of Camut’s imagination growing up in Pittsburgh.
“When you grow up in western Pennsylvania,” he says, “ you see a lot of post-industrial decay, and when I’d drive by it and notice it as a kid, in my mind I’d want to make it work somehow. ‘What’s this big bucket sitting by the side of the road? For 15 or 20 years I’ve been driving by it. Why doesn’t it work, and how would it work?’ My younger self would be very happy [with STAN].”
In one of the furnaces’ few electrically serviced spaces, in decayed chambers you have to take stairs up to—only some of which are safe; you must sign a lengthy waiver to see Alloy’s show—Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson has a sound installation called STEEL-FONICS. A commentary on the historical invisibility of African-American steelworkers, Iamuuri’s parafictional band is a menacing neo-soul outfit.
“It’s a protest, first and foremost,” Iamuuri says. “A protest of how history is written, and the things that are omitted from history. I don’t know why it took me almost all of my life to learn more about African-American participation in the steel industry. It was information that I really had to seek out.”
Next to Iamurri’s work is a video-and-sound installation by Scott Turri, a lifelong Pennsylvanian whose grandfather, a former coal miner, died from lung complications. Turri was a political activist in the area near the time of the steel industry’s collapse, and his installation is a kind of imagined retrospective of the more social components of a steel mill.
Nick Liadis and Dan Ivec, Chimneys, 2015. Courtesy of the Artists.
Like Iamuuri and Turri, Nick Liadis and Dan Ivec’s Chimneys breathes created characters into the site’s broken framework, albeit in much more abstract fashion. Their installation is a series of large-scale cloth drawings strung up through a decimated coke shaft. “Steel suitcases were once made in this town, suitcases that could carry the heaviest things imaginable,” their tale reads as you walk through it. It also includes the suggestion that “a person might go mad if they were to really ponder the good and bad things accomplished by whoever once used these towers!”
Sarika Goulatia, Strength of Stele, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist.
A more preserved coke shaft across the campus hosts elegiac, bright white plaster-cast shapes amidst jagged black coal, and they look almost like tombstones. Sarika Goulatia, the sculptor who made them, speaks reverentially of a few retired old furnace workers she met through Rivers of Steel:
I wanted to pay homage to them. I wanted to honor them. They spoke with so much pride about the work. They said the saddest day of their life was when they had to put out the final flame at the furnace. You have to respect your roles there, you had to respect your job. One mistake and everyone can die—it was a very serious, high-stress job and it really moved me to hear about it.
One need not reflect on regional history to capitalize on the unique range offered by this site. The scale and imagery of the terrain is a sight in itself, and it creates rare aesthetic opportunities that include a sound-and-mirror installation all alone in a massive warehouse, a chasm of angular stained-glass, and huge stained fabrics draped through a long alleyway.
Alloy co-founder Chris McGinnis describes the aim of the show as “contemplating the important role this site had in defining what it meant to be American, and how to riff on that through the arts to create a unique experience.” Nearly three decades into the extinction of an industry that continues to define the city, many of Pittsburgh’s strongest new impressions still form within steel’s shadow.
(Image at top: Patrick Camut, STAN , 2015. Steel, Coke, Ceramic Cup. 84" x 60” x 312”)