the indigenous art collective digging up pittsburgh's problematic labor legacy

Postcommodity unearths the city's invisible narratives, creating the most important art work at this year's Carnegie International.

by Benoit Loiseau
02 November 2018, 4:25pm

In 1889, Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie — at that point, one of America’s richest men — wrote his landmark article “The Gospel Of Wealth.” A manifesto for the modern philanthropist, it preached the newly established American upper class’s responsibility to tackle the inconvenient phenomenon of wealth inequality. Addressing privilege and exploitation would have been a good start but, no. Rather, it proposed to utilize surplus wealth for the civic good: universities, museums, public baths. So that the “man of wealth,” Carnegie wrote, could grace the commoners with “his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer.”

Some 130 years later, the suitably named artist group Postcommodity has dug up Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy to provide an alternative reading — this time, focusing on jazz more than gospel. At the 57th edition of the quinquennial Carnegie International exhibition — established by the man himself in 1896, a year after the Venice Biennale — the collective has infiltrated the Carnegie Museum of Art’s otherwise pristine Hall of Sculpture with chunks of steel, glass debris, and coal. The large-scale installation, titled From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, is modeled after a Navajo sand painting, while also acting as a functional jazz score.

But the work isn’t just about the Steel City’s industrial history, says Kade L. Twist, one in a constellation of members, when we meet at the museum. “It’s really about black labor,” he pauses. “That’s what it’s about.”

Like other Midwestern and Northeastern urban centers, Pittsburgh became a key destination during the Great Migration, which saw millions of African-Americans fleeing the rural south in hope of better job opportunities and living conditions. And the mills did provide jobs in abundance, but the conditions — particularly for black workers — were harsh.

Postcommodity Install
Postcommodity installation shot, © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, photography Bryan Conley

“The labor of brown and black people contributed to other things than just white advancement,” says Cristóbal Martínez, another member of Postcommodity. “It contributed to cultural self-determination.” That same self-determination was not only the driving force behind the unionization of the 1930s — which enhanced the organizing of black labor, though still heavily burdened by inequity. It also forged Pittsburgh’s underground jazz scene, one of the world’s most influential — home to the likes of Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Ray Brown.

For Postcommodity, unveiling the steel industry’s invisible narratives is a key component of the work. Beyond its sculptural elements, made out of repurposed local materials — salvaged from the defunct Carrie Furnace — the piece incorporates a graphic score, devised by collaborator Raven Chacon and interpreted by local jazz musicians four times a week. “It’s about building a new public memory,” says Twist, also an Associate Professor at Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. “It’s important for us to honor black history in this country, and to think about the relationship between indigenous people and black people.”

There is certainly an element of nostalgia to the work, composed of rusting steel sheets, bars, and pipes, like remnants of the past. But according to the collective, there is a contemporary reading, which should not be undermined. “There’s now another great migration happening,” advances Twist, pointing to migratory flows coming from Latin America to the northern states, as opposed to the increasingly hostile South. “It’s a recent look backwards in history.”

Repellent Fence Postcommodity
Repellent Fence documentation image, courtesy of Postcommodity

The dialogue between historical and contemporary identities across the Americas isn’t new to Postcommodity’s work. For 2015’s Repellent Fence, their most ambitious project to date, the group envisioned a two-mile long ephemeral land-art installation over the U.S./Mexico border, made of 26 tethered balloons of 10 feet diameter each, floating 100 feet above the desert landscape. The balloons were enlarged replicas of an ineffective bird repellent product, coincidently using indigenous medicine iconography. The monument served as a suture that stitches the peoples of the Americas together — a healing process which culminated in a four-day ceremony conducted with people from the once-unified border towns of Douglas in Arizona and Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico.

Reconfiguring the cultural and economic identity of Pittsburgh, now in relative decline since the deindustrialization of the 70s and 80s, hasn’t been an easy task. Increasingly branded as a tech hub, the city recently pioneered Uber’s self-driving cars program at Carnegie Mellon University, and is currently in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the tech industry finds a spiritual home in the Rust Belt’s now-defunct industrial heart.

Tech companies like Google have been known in recent years for their office design that provides abundant food and entertainment, as a carrot on a stick, to keep employees at work (if you’re into ping-pong, that is). “They’re able to create a hive of labor where people never leave,” comments Martínez, also the Chair of Art and Technology at the San Francisco Art Institute. “Coming to Pittsburgh, I realized it came from Andrew Carnegie — the idea that if you provide amenities that are otherwise inaccessible, it makes it harder to leave, even if it’s an abusive relationship.”

And this is why Postcommodity’s contribution to the Carnegie International matters. It brings much-needed, site-specific criticality to this otherwise inconclusive exhibition which prioritizes attention-grabbing, internationally-worthy names — only one participating artist, Mel Bochner, is originally from Pittsburgh. This is, in fact, aligned to the original, 19th-century model of international expos the Carnegie International arose from. (Another valuable contribution, however, was that of Cameroon-born curator Koyo Kouoh: an easy-to-miss show within the show, looking at the colonial legacy of the Carnegie’s collection).

To speak of internationalism in Pittsburgh today should be to reconsider its former industrial glory, while speculating on its possible futures (an urgent conversation which, in light of the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, lays bare yet again America's deeply rooted racism and religious intolerance). Part of that narrative is the region’s problematic labor history, that this very museum is built upon, and which continues to shape the city’s post-industrial aspirations. That’s a whole show right there. In the meantime, Postcommodity has pushed a door open and, as Martínez says, “whenever a portal closes, some residue is left behind.”