Matter of Context: The Problem with Industrial Art

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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.

Gallery Show at the 333 Midland Annex Gallery

I had a great gallery show, earlier this month at Highland Park's 333 Midland Gallery. Alongside my work were some stunning wire shapes and images created by Anne Mondro, a University of Michigan Art Professor. Big thanks to Rick Cronn and Robert Onnes, owners of 333 Midland, who rent out a couple dozen studio spaces to professional artists. They also host great gallery shows in the Annex Gallery.   

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What is EDM wire?

The brass wire these lamp shades are made from is used in a process called electrical discharge machining (EDM), also called die sinking, or wire erosion. The wire itself does not do the cutting; it's the small electrical explosion (my words) that occurs when the positively charged wire comes in contact with the negatively charged metal part that needs to be cut. These cuts can be very small and precise, and it all occurs in a bath of water. Who knew? 

The silver wire is brass electroplated with zinc. I became interested in working with EDM wire because even though it can become tangled, the tangle is manageable and somewhat predictable due to various unique properties. Even so, it’s not the easiest stuff to work with. And although the artist in me ran wild with some of these first lamps, I also wanted to create easily repeatable designs.

One day while I was at the metal recycling center I found several huge boxes full of silver and yellow brass EDM wire. I had no idea what it was but as I moved the tangled mass through my hands I realized it had some very unique qualities I’d never seen in wire, before. No matter how tangled it got, for instance, it always wanted to lay in a horizontal plane. That is, it lays flat under its own weight. And when it bends it wants to hold a certain radius without kinking. When it does kink it becomes very weak and breaks — low tensile/sheer strength — but has very strong linear properties. And, of course, it shines.