web analytics

Curating the industrial space

Continued from “Rebuilding the Industrial Space

In the last article, we reflected on how to preserve, rehabilitate and respect the heritage of industrial spaces. In addition, we also began to explore examples of successful rehabilitation interventions on industrial buildings. We will now analyse in greater detail such examples and their ability to function as ‘non-white cube’ exhibition spaces. Due to its characteristics, the industrial space is directly connected to contemporary art, creating an ideal environment for collaboration between the two concepts. When dealing with industrial sites it is imperative to reinforce the idea of layering, that is, instead of completely removing the original characteristics, one should build new layers, rethink, adapt, and try to work together with both temporalities, the old and the new.

1.1. Minimal Intervention

Darling Foundry (Montreal, Canada)

The Darling Foundry is a former foundry, located in Montreal, Canada. Recently renovated by the architecture studio In Situ, today it functions as a visual arts centre with a floor space of 3500 square meters. Both the exterior appearance, as well as much of the interior has been preserved with regular revisions added by artists on to the façade. The Foundary opened as an exhibition space on June 20th, 2002, and in addition to its two exhibition galleries, the building also contains offices, a reception area, studios for artists, and even a restaurant.

The two exhibition rooms are known as: the Main Gallery and the Small Gallery. The first kept the foundry’s original raw, greyish features, and mostly presents site-specific works. The Small Gallery underwent a more extensive renovation, mixing white walls with the original ceilings and columns. The Darling Foundry’s renovation respects the buildings past, honoring the time when it was still operating as an industrial facility. There is evidence of this both in the architecture of the building and in the institution’s communication materials. This respect has created an exhibition space with a dual identity. The first, more similar to a ‘white cube’ environment, and the second representing a more “raw” aesthetics that allows a broader variety of solutions and curatorial opportunities. These two spaces within the same building allow a wide variety of solutions and curatorial opportunities to be explored. By engaging in an international residency programme at the institution, there is also the opportunity for artists to create site-specific work for both exhibition rooms, deepening the dialogue between artworks and the former foundry space.

1.2. The Hybrid Museum – Industrial Archeology and Contemporary Art

Museu da Electricidade – Fundação EDP (Lisbon, Portugal)

The Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum) combines the preservation of the industrial archeology heritage – from central Tejo1 – with contemporary art. The exterior of the building is fully preserved, and inside, an extensive part of the space is dedicated to the power station machinery and other elements of the original factory. Coexisting alongside the machines is the permanent exhibition Faces of Central Tejo, which depicts portraits of the workers as well as the labour from the factory2. Quoting directly from the museum’s website: “the exhibition is a fair tribute to the men who were unloading tons of coal daily, while balancing on planks of wood and who accepted the challenge of bringing electricity to the entire city of Lisbon. These images depict a time when you worked under terrible conditions and with such polluting manufacturing processes. “(EDP Foundation s.d.). The upper floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions. White walls were added however, the space does not conform outright to the formula of a ‘white cube’, as the original ceilings with metal railings have been maintained and restored.

It is very clear that the intention of this renovation was to convey and value the original essence and purpose of the building. There is a preservation of the industrial archeology, bridging the gap between electricity and science, through opting to maintain the traces of the original architecture. In the exhibition rooms for contemporary art, the choice was made to preserve the majority of the initial elements, adding white walls, according to the exhibition needs, whilst still allowing the spectators to perceive clearly its industrial origins.

It is necessary to find a solution for preserving industrial heritage, both movable and immovable. Professor José Cordeiro points to the need to create a National Reserve Industrial Heritage of historical and museological interest, to prevent its disappearance and evoke the state to take responsibility for its preservation (2012, 55). The buildings possess undeniable historical interest, heritage, and identity, as well an extreme versatility. Reusing them is also environmentally the most viable solution, as it reduces debris and waste. Overall, across the globe, there is a valuable industrial heritage that is being lost every day due to lack of interest or care. Predominantly, what is at the heart of the conservation concerns of this type of heritage, are the distinctly visual elements. Although there has been progress in this field, there are still challenges concerning how the industrial heritage can fit in definitions shaped for other typologies (Alfrey and Putnam 2003). Increasingly, there has been a connection between conservation possibilities and tourism. It was by preserving their heritage through museums, that the UK has protected much of the heritage of the Industrial Revolution (Lamb 2012, 51). This has created opportunities for many regions of industrial tradition, besides from capital cities, as these spaces can now function as development areas.

1.3. “Building Occupation”

ASA Factory (Guimarães, Portugal)

The ASA Factory, a former textile factory located in the vale do Ave region3 was closed for production in 2006. In 2012 it served as the stage for the experimental exhibition Buildings and Remnants, which also included a cycle of conferences and meetings. The exhibition explored found objects, materials, films and spatial structures. It invited authors and artists specifically interested in the cultural dimension of physical space and its intersections with areas of cultural production – anthropology, ethnography, history or politics, to create multidisciplinary reflections on post-industrial areas and buildings (Buildings and Remnants 2012). The factory remained deactivated and without industrial activity until 2011, when the new owner, the Lameirinho Group, decided to turn it into a space to receive the so-called ‘culture and creative industries’. At the present time in 2016, it is where the ASA Factory4 stands and it has been called “Business Center” and “Creative Platform”, hosting several companies and professionals from various fields. Before the factory was transformed into what it is today, in 2012 as part of the official program of Guimarães European Capital of Culture, the exhibition Buildings and Remnants occupied the entire G sector of the ASA Factory. The space remained exactly as it was, in an act of profound defiance against the ‘white cube’ model and pursuing the curatorial project’s concerns. Some necessary walls, plinths or supports were constructed with materials that blended with the original architecture.

This model brings us closer to the occupation of abandoned spaces that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, which was a direct use of the available space; now this concept has also been combined with broad contemporary concerns regarding exhibition design and curation. In this case, the exhibition was only shown for a few months and the building is currently assigned to other activities. However, we can consider the further exploration of this “occupation” model as a consistent option for projects with greater temporal extent. Several activities could be integrated into a museum program that are linked to the issue of post-industrial areas, such as conferences, educational service activities, and complemented for example with an artists residency programme.

2. Curatorial Challenges

To bring artworks into an exhibition context means the existence of relocation and association processes, which convey meaning to the parts as well as to the total set. Contemporary art is a crucial field for reflection about philosophical, political, and social issues. To what extent is it our responsibility not to let our recent past and history be obliterated? There is little differentiation between past, present, and future, for it is through research and significant efforts that the past and the present will reach the future.

Entirely white walls, light sources, and other elements as imperceptible as possible, an abstraction of time and space – so it becomes supposedly the ideal space to perceive the “essence of art.” This is not only a physical space, but also an ideological construct that seeks to exclude the reality ‘out there’, such as the historical, political, and social context. Brian O’Doherty claims that in the effort of making itself invisible, the white cube actually ends up imposing itself upon the artworks (1999). Artworks are and will always be the content and the essential element of any exhibition, however, they relate to other components producing a specific dramaturgy. The anonymity of the white cube equalises a space in Hong Kong to one in Lisbon or in New York. Naturally, this also has positive aspects, and a clean setting can work well with some works and exhibition solutions. However, a lot is also lost, since each space is a distinct space, and curating uses precisely these signs and complex meanings that one can harness and produce. In the capitalist era in which we live, we can find the same stores or restaurant chains all over the world. The same applies to the white cube. It is appropriate to rethink this hegemony and how it is possible, through curatorial solutions, to use alternative sites.

Whitney Birkett questions the isolation to which the artworks in a white cube context are subjected to: Art was not created in a void. No matter how fantastical or abstract, all works of art are the products of their creators, the subject presented, the school of art, the techniques used, the location in which they were created, their era, the social, and its social, political, and cultural environment. Even after creation, the meanings continue to evolve and expand. While the provenance of a piece of art may not have been inherent from the beginning, such information, too, effects meaning and perception and eventually becomes an integral part of it. Why, then, do museums insist on removing art from its history? (2012, 60) As we mentioned before, in part I of this article regarding the palimpsest building, the post-industrial space is thus composed of several layers, and different time frames.

At this location presences and absences, material and immaterial traces can coexist. These spaces have a load (material and semiotic). To exhibit and occupy these spaces is also to work with this load. It is necessary to establish a dialogue with stories, old and new, with concepts, space, containers, and found objects. The sites are normally in a used condition, darkened by markings of machines, materials or hands, and do not hold human proportions. They invoke the machinery proportions. (Moreira 2012, 32-33). Not to neutralise these spaces is to explore the relationship between local and context and its specificity. In an exhibition, everything converges: the building, event, place, and space; which allows one to work – as opposed to curating in a white cube – with a location where all the presences and absences become form. These are spaces filled with performativity are multiple narratives with which we can perform a curatorial connection. This action is totally dependent on the concrete space in which one exhibits, it is important to know its stories and memories, so that when combined with the works, new meanings can be created.

These three examples of reconversion help us to understand some of the practical challenges involved. One can perform a minimal intervention, leaving a room in its original condition, while in another there is introduction of white walls for greater flexibility, without transforming the space into a white cube. Or we can consider a museum, which combines industrial archeology with temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Or still a direct “occupation” of a space, keeping all marks and imperfections. In fact, it seems that industrial reconversion, particularly for artistic or cultural purposes, has become a paradigm. However, often the intrinsic potential of the space’s original character is untapped, and it is transformed into “just one more” exhibition space. It is neutralised and its identity is not respected. Sometimes less is more. Naturally, the museums and foundations want to distinguish themselves by having avant-garde buildings and striking architecture. However, numerous times these projects could have been created from scratch. They did not require having their foundations built from a factory, warehouse, or plant, etc. as they have very little connection with them.

Regarding the exhibition rooms, a white cube can be identically constructed anywhere in the world. A space with intrinsic narratives has to be lived in, to be experienced. It contains in itself markings, presences and absences that produce meaning. These spaces cannot be built in a few of months. It is urgent to preserve the industrial heritage while at the same time creating new exhibition solutions. Heritage, even concerning our most recent history, should be preserved. It is important to consider these processes, since there are large numbers of untapped former industrial sites, which can be rehabilitated, promoting the permanent materialisation of these possibilities.

1 A power station in Lisbon, that worked from 1909 until 1972.
2 This particular exhibtion is composed by photographic records made from 1918 to 1949.
3 A traditionally industrial region, in the north of Portugal.
4 See http://www.fabricaasa.eu

Alfrey, Judith, e Tim Putnam. The Industrial Heritage: Managing Resources and Uses. Routledge, 2003.

Birkett, Whitney B. To Infinity and Beyond: A Critique of the Aesthetic White Cube. Setan Hall University: Tese, 2012.

Buildings and Remnants. Buildings and Remnants. 2012. http://www.buildingsremnants.com/concept-conceit/ (access at 09 July 2015).

Cordeiro, José Manuel Lopes. “Museus e Musealização de espaços industriais em Portugal.” In Edifícios e Vestígios, por Inês Moreira, 
51-57. INCM, 2012.

Fundação EDP. Fundação EDP - Exposições. s.d. http://www.fundacaoedp.pt/exposicoes/rostos-da-central-tejo/63 (access at 09 July 2015).

Moreira, Inês. “Brown Rooms/Grey Halls: A Curadoria de Espaços pós-industriais.” In Edifícios e Vestígios, por Inês Moreira, 29-41. 
INCM, 2012.

Williams, Richard. “Remembering, Forgetting, and the Industrial Gallery Space.” In Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, 
por Mark Crinson, 121-140. Taylor & Francis, 2005.
  • ASA Factory (Guimarães, Portugal)
  • ASA Factory (Guimarães,Portugal)
  • Darling Foundry - Small Gallery
  • Darling Foundry (Montreal, Canada) Main Gallery
  • Darling Foundry (Montreal,Canada) Main Gallery
  • Museu da Electricidade – Fundação EDP (Lisbon, Portugal) Faces of Central Tejo
  • Museu da Electricidade – Fundação EDP (Lisbon, Portugal) Gallery Space
  • Museu da Electricidade – Fundação EDP (Lisbon, Portugal)