The small town of Harrison, NJ, just outside of Newark, is not quite the sprawling cityscape of its overbearing neighbor, but is quieter, slower, and multilingual. Rows upon rows of multi-family apartment buildings foster community while simultaneously negating any semblance of privacy.
In the 1990s, one of the distinguishing features of Harrison was the overwhelming presence of factories and industrial buildings. The street I grew up on, Bergen Street, had on one corner of the block a steel fencing production plant, and on the other an industrial ceramic firing facility. Most distinctly, I remember a cookie factory across the street: a windowless, red brick, block-long structure with multiple industrial chimneys wafting out the sweet scent of sugar and flour. In 2007, the Century Cookie Factory was demolished to accommodate a new luxury apartment building.
My fondest childhood memories are not of playing on grassy backyard lawns, in idyllic single-family homes on tree-lined streets, but instead include exploring the remnants of these semi-abandoned factories and decaying structures (and subsequently empty concrete lots once they began to began to be torn down). I look back on those adventures with an uncanny, yet fond, nostalgia.
I’ve taken special interest in art spaces housed in former industrial settings. Lately, I’ve been asking myself: What does it mean when arts spaces co-opt, preserve, and re-contextualize industrial remnants? By doing so, do arts spaces romanticize a manufacturing economy that has failed and ultimately left many disenfranchised and jobless? Alternately, do these spaces have the radical potential to situate artists as laborers, to commit to an already-existing dialogue attempting to legitimize art as labor?
A recent trip to L.A. led me to Hauser & Wirth––a former flour mill, now complete with various galleries, a trendy restaurant, a publicly accessible reading room, an outdoor community gathering space, and a chicken coop. This made me consider other spaces similar in concept. Dia:Beacon, for example, a former Nabisco factory along the Hudson River in Beacon, NY, houses an impressive body of minimalist artwork from the Dia Art Foundation’s collection. In Brooklyn, Dustin Yellin’s Pioneer Works, a multidisciplinary cultural center, was formerly Pioneer Iron Works, a large-scale production facility for machinery like railroad tracks. These spaces all have the aesthetics of the industrial past embedded in their walls.
Mana Contemporary is similar to these spaces in practice. A recent project by one of Mana’s former artists-in-residence, Michael Clemow, investigated the history of 888 Newark Avenue, the site where Mana Contemporary currently exists. Formerly occupied by the Lorillard Tobacco Company, the building now houses studio spaces, and is home to artists working in many disciplines. Clemow’s project, Tabaci Memoriae, which involved growing tobacco plants in DIY greenhouses in his basement studio, was really a conceptual gesture about labor. In an artist statement related to the project, Clemow states:
This project might seem like it’s about tobacco or the history of this building, but it’s really about people working. My hope is that by bringing these plants out of my studio and sharing them with you we can together reflect on our labor and the systems that determine its value. We should remember those systems that came before, examine those that surround us today, and speculate about those to come.
I appreciate Clemow’s project on many levels, but primarily, I believe that in order to remain relevant, arts spaces must actively engage in institutional critique. By supporting an artist research project like Tabaci Memoriae, Mana is recognizing and highlighting its own history, as well as paying homage to the key players of the industrial manufacturing economies that built this nation.
Harrison, NJ was repeatedly referred to as a “commuter town with grit” during my upbringing, due to its proximity to both the PATH train and its menacing neighbor (Newark, NJ––a majority black city associated with race riots in the late 1960s). Harrison now boasts a plethora of luxury condos and glittering apartment buildings. Today, urban development caters to upwardly mobile groups displacing primarily immigrant communities once reliant on manufacturing economies that no longer exist. In many ways, I am less disillusioned by the art world’s appropriation of former industrial spaces than I am by the white-washing and complete erasure of these histories.