Across the Bridge Exhibit Featured on Artscope & Hyperallergic

July 2, 2014

Friday, June 27th, 2014, 12:56 pm, By An Uong, artscope

The Salem Harbor power plant towers over the rest of the cobblestoned town.

It is hard to imagine what kind of machinery lie within the dauntingly large group of buildings, let alone all of the people it takes to run such a system. On the other side of the North River is the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, where, though students study art in all kinds of environments, carrying out the artistic process at a power plant is a first for the college.

Montserrat Professors Ethan Berry, Rebecca Bourgault and Dawn Paul developed the idea with Footprint Power, who recently became the plant’s new owner. These teachers, along with 29 Montserrat students and the plant employees, produced the exhibit “Across the Bridge: Art and Power.” The project is documentary by nature in its exploration of the employees’ histories and daily lives. Students spent their time interviewing the plant’s workers to discover the stories that exist behind normally closed gates.

Outside of the world experience that these students have gained, the public has been given the opportunity to learn about the individuals who have worked at the plant for upwards of 40 years. The plant is in the final stages of shutting down and is to be replaced by a natural gas facility.

Montserrat President Stephen Immerman has appreciated the relationship established between the college and Footprint. “As visual storytellers, the students documented, recognized, and honored the workers,” he said.

In the plant’s turbine room, amidst the seemingly tangles pipes and ladders, a maze of walls was erected to house the students’ art. The works in the show span across the genres of photography, video, drawing, painting, poetry, sculpture and installation as the wide range of media addresses the intricacies of the plant and its employees. Acting as vessels for the stories that were told to them, Montserrat students have relayed what they’ve learned by generating art to be shared with others.

Documenting the community through art challenged Montserrat students to leave their realms of familiarity. “Everybody had to step out of their comfort zone to find these wonderful narratives waiting to be told,” professor Berry said.

For Kayleigh Bird Hawes, the project led to the expansion of her artistic reach. “My work is usually very personal,” she said, “so it was interesting to make work for others.” At the completion of the course, she had made eight artist books, some of which are accordion-structured. They are collectively titled “Reflections.” They hold the stories and memories that she has gathered from those she interviewed at the plant. The books’ form reflects the interwoven lives they represent, by displaying the stories in a zigzagged manner.

Among the diverse pieces, Sarah Graziano’s installation, “Remnants,” creates an environment of artifacts. The carefully organized piece sits in a corner of the gallery. It has battered coats hanging from one wall, and a shelf of manuals and jars of coal on the other. A pedestal holds more stacked jars of coal accompanied by old manual pages, on the backs of which are stories collected from employees. The piece encourages audience involvement by asking individuals to pick and keep few stories from a pile.

Through this process, viewers carry the bits and pieces outside of the plant, into other environments where these histories can be retold.

On the more hand-drawn end of the show is Anthony Corrado’s “Turn Around 1-4,” a character study of four employees in watercolor. Each of the four panels provides a view of workers standing in different positions: front, left, right, back. The playful quality of the illustrations turns workers into possible main characters of an animation. Though the piece is 2-Dimensional, it gives us a literal 360-degree view of the people who work at the plant.

The logistically complicated project at first seemed hard to achieve, but at its culmination, students, workers, and community members were left with rare experiences and meaningful relationships. “Across the Bridge” is not simply a documentary body of work. It is a portrait of the plant and the people within it.

(“Across the Bridge: Art and Power” continues through July 2 at the Salem Harbor power plant, 24 Fort Avenue, Salem, Mass. The exhibition will be on display Tuesday and Wednesday from 1-5 p.m., Thursdays, from 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 2-6 p.m. For more information, call (800) 836-0487.)

View a slideshow of the students’ work, photos by Bethany Acheson:

Kayleigh Bird Hawes,

Kayleigh Bird Hawes, “Reflections,” 2014, hand-printed letterpress book, edition of 40, 4.5 x 4 inches

Creating Art Inside a Disused Power Plant by Robert Moeller on June 30, 2014, Hyperallergic

SALEM, Mass. — In the late 1600s, beset by an inarticulate religious hysteria and the rigors of the New World, the people of Salem set about burning the witches in their midst. Hundreds of years later and under the sway of a far different kind of fervor, they turned their attention to burning coal. Both of these events wove themselves directly into the fabric of this small New England town’s history.

In the case of the witches, the story of the trials (improbably or not) resonated over time, and tourism remains one of Salem’s prime industries. An elongated run-up to Halloween is a mainstay in a city that cultivates a decidedly spooky aura, and where witches still can be seen, albeit hawking lunch specials to tourists outside of restaurants and bars.

In the 1950s the spell cast by the promise of jobs and cheap energy overrode any more modern concerns regarding the environment, pollution, or climate change, and an enormous coal-fired power plant was built on Salem Harbor. As the years passed, a gritty film of coal dust settled across parts of the town, but the plant employed a lot of local people and that seemed to mitigate any concerns.

Flash-forward in time, and the spell has finally been lifted: Salem Harbor Station is being repurposed, changing over to run on natural gas, a process that will take several years to implement. The footprint of the site will be smaller, and many of the employees are losing their jobs (including people who have worked there for decades). The giant turbines that turned for 60 years finally sit silent.

In the wake of these events, a partnership between Montserrat College of Art and Footprint Power LLC (the new owners of the plant) has brought about an exhibition in the monumentally scaled turbine hall (yes, think of the Tate, but on a grander scale). The show is called Across the Bridge, a title that refers not only to how the students get to the plant (via a bridge from the adjacent town of Beverly) but to the cultural divide that separates the worlds inhabited by the students and remaining workers at the plant.

To many, the thought of a partnership with an energy company might ring hollow, summoning up the agitprop regularly delivered by ExxonMobil. Here, however, Footprint Power, to its credit, exerted no editorial control over the content of the exhibition and placed no restrictions on its workers (although any future repercussions remain unseen). For the project, 29 students and four faculty members from Montserrat teamed up with roughly one hundred workers at the plant. The collaboration began with students touring the site and then building up relationships with the workers over time (the project was part of a semester-long class). A good deal of the resulting art is documentary, recording workers’ concerns that range from future employment opportunities to plant safety, to the tedium (and terror) of industrial work. The students and some of the remaining workers also act as docents, leading visitors through both the exhibition and the plant itself.

Salem Harbor Station looms over the coastline with a Brutalist majesty. Enormous smoke stacks rise over the property, dwarfing everything beneath them. Walking in, you immediately feel small; the place is absurdly large, built to specifics that only an engineer might begin to understand. A homage to our large-scale industrial past, the building provokes awe, fear, and puzzlement. There are many levels, sub-floors, and catwalks, all designed with a single purpose: the burning of coal to generate electricity.

The exhibition on the floor of the turbine hall

The exhibition is nestled on the main floor of the turbine hall and initially appears from the catwalks above as would a small encampment viewed from an airplane window. The setting transforms a rather large show into something miniaturized, like a dollhouse placed midfield on a soccer pitch.

The collaborative nature of the exhibit tamps down the personal or expressive gesture, instead mimicking what one imagines are the protocols of the plant floor — protocols that value the group and communal goals, anonymity even. The story told is omnibus versus auteur. Multiple threads weave a narrative of what it was like to work in the plant: photographs capture the space’s rough grandeur; video pieces allow the viewer to hear the workers talk about their experiences in an unvarnished way; in one installation, by Sarah Graziano, workers’ candid reflections on life at the site are printed on old plant manuals. The artists act as documenters of the past and present, drawing a human-scale narrative out of the plant’s closing. For the most part, the work is somber and compassionate.

Sarah Graziano, “Coal Stories”

Still, the physicality of plant itself continues to loom over everything, encasing the experience in the end-pages of a changing industry. For decades, this was the throne where King Coal sat; the students from Montserrat have captured his last choking breath.

Across the Bridge continues at the Salem Harbor Station (24 Fort Ave, Salem, Massachusetts) through July 2.