Ron Baraff is a Pittsburgh native, who like many Pittsburghers left the region for a number of years but discovered that there is no place like home. Mr. Baraff has been the Director of Museums and Archives for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area since 1998. He is currently launching Save the Carrie Deer with a community event on August 16 to save the Carrie Deer, a large-scale sculpture of a deer head by the Industrial Arts Co-op, located on the site of the defunct Carrie Furnaces in Rankin. Jen Saffron of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council interviewed him briefly on his views on the role of the arts in preserving and reinterpreting our region's industrial heritage.
1. What exactly are the Carrie Furnaces and why is it an important place for artists? What is the Carrie Deer and what does it mean, to you?
The Carrie Furnaces are National Historic Landmarks - it is imperative that we preserve them to tell the story not just of the historical significance of this region, but of the site’s impact, nationally and internationally. The Carrie Furnaces represent the story of America's 20th century industrial power and its impact on the world. To that end, the Carrie Furnaces now can serve as an economic development tool and first day attraction for the region, bringing much needed tourism dollars into the surrounding former steel communities that so desperately need them.
The Carrie Furnaces present a prime opportunity to showcase the rich industrial legacy of the region, as well as show the impact of post-industrialism on the region. This is where the Carrie Deer really comes into play – this large scale sculpture is the poster child of post-industrial rustbelt America, answering the questions: what happens to these sites when the work goes away? How do the communities act and interact with these abandoned locations and what sort of meaning can be derived from these interactions? In the case of the Deer, its presence on the site of the Carrie Furnaces, within the architecture of a former bustling industrial generator, allows us to show what happens to these former places of work, and to learn from and use these interactions to open new and exciting doors for visitors to experience the site through the arts.
The Carrie Deer encourages the exploration of the site’s aesthetics and environmental impact (built and natural), because this sculpture is there and acting as the gatekeeper. The Deer and other artists and photographers interacting with the site allows us to continue the process of art-centric redevelopment at what was formerly a place of work, a place of production - a place that became something else entirely in its post-industrial life - a formerly derelict urban space that is now positioned to host numerous ventures that are seemingly removed as “art actions”, yet at the same time intrinsically related to the site's storied history.
2. With Pittsburgh working to shed its former identity as a steel town, how does preserving and showcasing a former mill site work for or against that?
For many years there was a movement to distance the region from its "gritty" past, but I think we have moved beyond that now - it is our history, our geography, our people, and our culture that grew up in industrial Pittsburgh, that has survived, and is thriving. It sets us apart and establishes our unique place within the American lexicon and certainly within the Rust Belt. This region is now experiencing a revitalization through tourism, innovation, and expanding population, because of who we are and where we came from in the not so distant past. I don't feel that Pittsburgh should or even is shedding its former identity as a steel town - it is what makes Pittsburgh and the surrounding region what it is and colors all of us with a profound sense of place, home, and a connection to our collective past.
Look at the gathering movement towards Urban Homesteading and Exploration of the "Rust Belt Chic" - communities such as Braddock, Lawrenceville and Homestead are being revitalized and energized. This is because of our industrial history and not in spite of it. Against this backdrop stand the Carrie Furnaces, a place where we can explore the past, and navigate the present and future of this region through historical tours and discourse; art installations and exploration; new and emerging technologies through installation of Solar Power and the introduction of environmental programming and landscape restoration – all at the site. All of these factors together define who we are and shape who we can be as a region.
Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel
3. What other kinds of artistic programs or art has Rivers of Steel been involved in? What has been the response? What kind of artistic activity takes place at Carrie Furnaces, now?
At the Carrie Furnaces site we have hosted a number of different projects and programs that explore the aesthetics of the region (and life). We have hosted Alloy Pittsburgh where 15 emerging artists did site responsive installations; the Jazz Furnace, a day long interactive improvisational dance event conceived of and presented by the Pillow Project. We conduct Urban Art Tours that explore the graffiti (and the Deer) on the site and have also provided legal wall space for artists from all over the world. Photo Safaris regularly take place on site for photographers to come and explore the site, and over the years we’ve hosted numerous filmmakers, photographers, music videos, documentarians, and conducted sculpture workshops, iron-castings, and much more. Throughout its existence, Rivers of Steel has worked with traditional artists, assisting with festivals and events throughout the region, grant funding and exhibitions, foodways, and tourism. Preservation of the region's culture history and character is paramount to our mission, and artistic programs are as much a part of who we are and what we can be as our industrial history.
Throughout its existence, Rivers of Steel has been involved in artistic programming; working with traditional artists, assisting with festivals and events throughout the region, grant funding and exhibitions, a Sunday community market, foodways, art installations and tourism. We are really just scratching the surface of what we can do at and with the Carrie Furnaces - stayed tuned there is much, much more coming!
As the region’s arts council, a membership organization comprised of many non-profits and artists, we receive calls and requests of all kinds, all in the name of helping our region’s arts community thrive. This spring, after having run into fellow photographer Heather Mull and hearing about her plans to go to South Africa, I received an email from Linda Dukess, Heather’s colleague, asking to talk about their wild idea to teach documentary photography in South Africa. Having taught media in the field in Northern Ireland, Jamaica, the Navajo Nation, and Alabama, my interest was piqued.
There is nothing quite like looking through the lens of a camera, in the field and working with young people, if you want to instantly cause intercultural learning, global awareness and serious reflection about one's place in this world. The photographs are usually good, even for a short term, immersive project, but the profound takeaways – compassion, humility, gratitude, and self-determination – are better than good. People think cameras are about the gear. Think, again - cameras are literally about seeing, teaching a person to observe, consider, and reflect.
Linda and I met, and she shared her passion project, the Kliptown Photography Project, involving herself, her partner Jody DiPerna, Heather, and their friend Juliana Kreinik. Moved to do something to help the situation in a South African shantytown, their plan is to work with South African photographers Jerry Obakeng Gaegane, Patrick Selemani and Tila Nomvula Mathizerd with South African curator Zanele Mashumi and let the power of the documentary image take hold. Together, they would enact a week-long photography program for teens in Kliptown, one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa. In the mix is the Kliptown Youth Program, helping the photography project work with teens in the area and providing a space for the project within the township.
Linda and her colleagues are in Kliptown, now, and I asked them to share their stories with The Arts Blog readers to raise awareness of their efforts to make a difference, and to broaden our understanding of how the arts function within a set of larger community concerns, such as poverty and racism. Find out more about the project, here, and we will post three blog posts from their adventures, today and into early next week.
Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
How do artists make art – what do they DO? At last week’s Living the Artist Life with NEXTPittsburgh, a sizable group gathered to explore that question at the Mine Factory’s gallery at 201 South Braddock Avenue – indeed, the entire Mine Factory building is chockablock rooms with artists holed up in their studios, working away – artists like Bill Miller, Barbara Weissberger, Alexi Morrissey and Carin Mincemoyer. Within sculptor Ryan Lammie’s exhibition entitled Origins & Gravity, about 75 of us snacked and talked our way through creative conversations about “practice” – what we actually DO to make art. How does it happen? Artists Seth Clark, Fabrizio Gerbino, Dee Briggs, Ron Copeland, Ramon Riley and Ayanah Moor shared their practice and philosophies with us through their artist statements and projections of their work in various mediums.
At core, art is the exploration of space – of recreating a scene or person (landscape or a portrait), of building something (sculpture, public art), of exploring the relationship between 3D and 2D (photography), of making sound (music, moving through space) and the ideas that emerge from considering all of that. Sounds simple, and is not. Most artists spend their lives in raw, sometimes unheated spaces like garages, basements, attics, warehouses –the studio: where artists explore space and make things that hopefully communicate their ideas.
While some artists primarily work in studios, some also work in the field of “social practice” – that is, inquiring into social concerns, and making art in direct response to those concerns through methods that look more like anthropology or community process than art - gathering community input, exploring neighborhoods, researching historical events. Social practice artists like Naomi Natale and the One Million Bones project involve non-artists in art making, commenting on serious social issues and working collaboratively with citizens to produce and exhibit works outside of the traditional gallery or museum context. The art of the social practitioner is often seen within the fabric of a community or at a public venue, and viewers sometimes wonder, “Is it art?”
In Pittsburgh starting next week with the Three Rivers Arts Festival, two local artists, Christiane Leach and Edith Abeyta will showcase two works involving this kind of community involvement, both meant to bring awareness to the viewers about social issues in our own city.
Christiane Leach collected over 100 complaints about Pittsburgh from regular Pittsburghers – everything from potholes to racial equity issues – and together with her collaborators, Phat Man Dee, Andrew Laswell, Doug Levine and Deryck Tines, they wrote a song, the Pittsburgh Complaints song. Who will sing it? Well, the Pittsburgh Complaints Choir, comprised of citizen singers of all stripes and sizes. You can hear them sing and swing with lines such as, “Most livable for whom?” Look for them throughout the duration of the festival, on stages and bridges.
Edith Abeyta will raise awareness about water usage and the fashion industry in her piece, o:ne:ka, amassed from 3,000 t-shirts donated by Pittsburghers and transformed into a public installation in Point State Park. Her aim in installing this piece at the confluence of our three rivers is to bring awareness to important environmental facts such as the fact that it takes 700 gallons of water to produce a t-shirt. Look for her piece - you probably won't miss it as you enter Point State Park.
Pittsburgh, home to many artists – more per capita than other cities our size – and home to supporting entities such as the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Office of Public Art, who helped support Leach and Abeyta’s involvement, is ripe for more interactive, social practice art making, and it’s without doubt that we can look forward to experiencing more of this kind of art, in the future.
Photograph of Christiane Leach and Edith Abeyta, courtesy the AP Collector