Matter of Context: The Problem with Industrial Art


Over the years, "industrial art," has become freighted with meaning, like a rusty old railcar. For starters, the term is used (interchangeably and problematically with "industrial design") to describe what mechanical engineers get paid to do, and also what creative people with a little spare time do, for free. The former serves a utilitarian purpose, the latter serves a cuItural one. I think of massive sculptures built from old car parts or factory machine gears. Obviously, people have gone in many creative directions with industrial art, but if the goal is to make some social commentary, the trope of anti-capitalism is almost impossible to avoid. The role art plays in bringing awareness to the exploitation of the proletariat is an important one, just not a particularly fresh idea, among artists. I say this as a maker apolitical art, and this is not an advice column about how to wring more social commentary from wrought iron.

Industrial art, as a genre cannot escape its own irony. The tools and machines used by the factory worker take on a new life, as sculptural objects the same factory worker cannot afford, and might not care about. On the other hand, machine parts forged and tooled long ago by engineers are curiously beautiful, especially to those who have never popped the hood of their own car. Those are the people -- not the neighborhood mechanic -- who would buy a seventeen-foot-tall swan made entirely out of VW transmissions. And there's nothing wrong with such a sculpture, it's just not my thing.

I did not know what brass EDM wire was when I first found a pile of it at a metal recycling center. I did find it very aesthetically pleasing. And, although I had no intentions of becoming a "wire artist," I wanted to make a lampshade out of the stuff. This process led to my exploration of the material. Brass wire, I knew, had potential as an artistic medium that went way beyond lamps. Still, I never thought of anything I've made from EDM wire as an exercise in "industrial art," precisely because my finished products make no reference to anything industrial. Most people have hard time figuring out if it's wire, or string.

The problem with industrial art is one of reference. It is difficult to create flower from airplane propellers without the piece referring directly to aviation. An abstract structure made from copper plumbing will always leave you wondering if a guy in a white van charged by the hour to install it. And that's not an insult to plumbers. They have a steadier, better-paying gig than I do.

I am very interested in constraints when it comes to artistic mediums. One could argue that my idea about reference is one of the constraints faced by the industrial artist. But this constraint is not one of material limitation, it is one of content, meaning, representation. Now that I think about it, one my aversions to industrial art is the lack of constraints in the production process. For example, if I owned a welder and knew how to use it, I could easily start building sculptures. With my only constraints being scale and weight, however, I would quickly be overwhelmed by options, paralyzed by possibility. I realize that's not a good reason to avoid learning how to weld, but I never learned. There are far more practical reasons I prefer working with brass wire, instead of clay, paint or iron, but I'll save those for another post.         

If I'm going to draw semantic lines between "recycled art," and industrial art, I would say that industrial art incorporates a manmade product built to produce other products or perform mechanical tasks. Recycled art is created from end-use products. But my point about "reference," in industrial art would often apply to recycled art. Ball bearings could be another artistic medium with industrial origins. They are analogous to brass wire in the sense that their forms (balls) are at once common and abstract enough to be worked into beautiful objects that make no direct reference to industry.