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revisiting history

May 7, 2012 at 3:20 am

I got an email this past week from a journalist-type person asking if I would answer some questions about my artistic interest in industrial landscapes & why “creative types” like myself find them inspiring. Despite being in deadline mode, I carved out some time to write back. It’s not a perfectly crafted piece of writing or anything, but I was glad to get to re-think some ideas from earlier writings (2006, 2009) on my relationship with the industrial spaces around me.

I was also excited to write about problems with capitalism for a story about “how industrial cities like Providence are drawing new residents” — which I assume takes as a baseline that development & capitalist progress are good things. (That might be a mistaken assumption — we’ll see when the piece comes out — but I know my work has been used to justify capitalist development projects in the past…)

The questions were about what drew me to Providence, and about my & other artists’ finding artistic inspiration in old industrial sites.

My answers were, again, not perfect, but turned out interesting enough to post here. (At the bottom are some links to mind-blowing interviews I’ve been listening to recently, super necessary, don’t miss them!)

I came to Providence in 1999 to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, after three years in Chicago attending & dropping out of the University of Chicago, waiting tables, & doing theater tech. Re-applying to art schools, my other option was in Manhattan, and I chose Providence after a conversation with an older artist about how not being in a big city gives you time & space to focus & figure out who you are & what kind of work you want to make. Ultimately this was a good instinct, as I feel that my education as an artist and a person has come mainly from Providence & from the communities I’ve become involved in here, rather than from RISD!

In 2001, I got involved in a struggle to save a group of historic industrial buildings from demolition, initially under an inarticulate, historic-preservation-y, “I love these old decrepit buildings, they are so beautiful, it’s so sad to see them get knocked down!” feeling. This emotion quickly developed into standing up for the rich potential engendered by cheap & flexible spaces that provided places for artists to live for little money while making whatever kind of work & noise they needed, as well as places for other project/business initiatives that didn’t necessarily fall under the “art” umbrella, but were equally important to a lively city full of possibility.

Suddenly I found I had a political stance about local initiative from below vs. corporate development imposed from above. My awareness rapidly expanded further to include an understanding of capitalist development & gentrification as affecting more than just “artists” but entire neighborhoods, especially Black & Hispanic populations who were seen as not-worthwhile, un-important residents by the city government, developers, & police. So my initial attraction to the beauty of these old industrial buildings led me to a very intensely humanist and radical political stance about the value of every person’s life & the unjustness of a system that reduces us to what we produce and purchase, that attempts to control us based on nationality, ethnicity, or class.

I love old buildings (not just industrial buildings, but any building made by hand and/or before the onset of mass-manufactured building materials, roughly pre-World War II) for the strangeness of their dimensions, the way every one is different, the ways they’ve been changed over time through being lived in, used, & modified… These slight differences, the visible effects of aging and living, connect them to our bodies and to us, they feel human like us, we give them the metaphorical attributes of our own structure (outer protective skin, windows as eyes, internal intimacy, etc)… Newer buildings, about which the construction decisions are made according to the pre-determined machine dimensions of their materials, are less compelling and have less correspondence to our human lives…

In Western/European society, there’s a extremely long tradition of artists & weirdos being drawn to ruins, decrepit areas, and decay as an inspiration for their work — the Italian Renaissance (which was inspired by digging up Roman-era ruins & scuplture), Dürer’s & Piranesi’s engravings, the European Romantic poets & artists, British landscape architects creating fake picturesque ruins on the estates of rich landowners… (to name the examples that come immediately to mind, I am not really an art-historian…!). I see the artists currently working on imagery of decaying industrial buildings as a continuation of this fascination with ruins, for the same reasons as Western artists since the 1400s — because they bring our humanity and our mortality clearly to mind. For instance… wandering through a decrepit building evokes our imaginations of the lives that have been lived in its now-empty spaces. As the structure is exposed through decay, the craft of the human labor that has gone into it is eloquently revealed. The invasion of moisture, rot, and growing plants make clear the ultimate futility of humans’ bold attempts to create things, and the building’s final collapse shows what will be the inevitable result of our continuing efforts to create right angles and vertical walls.

So all this stuff has a long-standing place in our cultural imagination, our Western/European concepts of human vs. natural, death vs. life, chaos vs. order, etc. Right now, there is especially fertile ground for US artists inspired by these buildings: the scale and hubris of 19th- & 20th-century US industrial development and its subsequent rapid collapse following the multinationalization of corporations, the exploitation of non-unionized workers around the world, and the abandonment of industrial installations here in North America. Buildings built 70 to 140 years ago, which stopped being carefully maintained in the 1960s or 70s, are quickly reaching the end of their structural life, and I appreciate the initiative of skilled photographers and artists who are rushing to document these soon-to-be-lost places!

I think there’s also a growing awareness of the irrelevancy and destructiveness of 20th-century capitalism, and these buildings are a relic of & metaphor for how capitalism’s ideology of progress — and the revelation of the emptiness and disaster behind that ideology — have utterly changed our world in the past 200 years. This is our history, embodied in these structures, so we are working with it & processing it through art. In my own work I find myself turning away from documenting or romanticizing these old buildings. Even though I feel their beauty & emotion, I’m more interested in imagining a future beyond and past and separate from capitalism… what do we build next? If we can use & re-inhabit these old structures, great! But we still have to keep living, whether it’s in the ruins or on the ground where they have crumbled, so how do we deal with their polluted history (literally and figuratively, chemically & emotionally) and work towards reclaiming our lives & supporting our friends & building new families and societies? To echo Durruti, workers built those buildings in the first place, so we can build new & more beautiful things if those are destroyed. That’s what I find myself thinking about these days…

So yeah, this is me remembering that I am a political artist, & feeling more politicized now than ever (mostly thanks to amazing friends / conversation partners / co-conspirators!). Listening (and re-listening, and re-listening) to amazing interviews with Judith Butler and with Dean Spade & Eric A. Stanley while printing Plant Sale posters this last week… Also along similar lines, I got to see some David Wojnarowicz screenprints today! Whoa. Extra super inspired about the possibilities of and necessity for political art… hopefully I can actually accomplish & work on the things I am thinking about…

1 Comment »

  1. Nice job Ian. Making me miss Providence and all my friends (Human and architectural).

    Comment by Post Industrial Glenn — October 31, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

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