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Gallery Catalog Introduction

by. A.M. Rousseau

 A Rebuke to the Stasis of Lost

While spending the summer in Northwestern Massachusetts a few years ago, I chanced to visit one of the many abandoned mills that dot the area. This particular complex contained some 27 buildings - 720,000 square feet of space spread over 12 1/2 acres of land. The buildings were a rabbit's warren of interconnected buildings dating from 1865 when the Arnold Print Works opened a factory on the site to print and dye raw cotton. In the early thirties the plant had been converted to Sprague Electric for the production of capacitors and TV tubes. It was shut down gradually beginning in the 1970's. The now damaged and abandoned buildings of Sprague Electric were remarkable. One, for instance, was shaped like a boat, broad at the back and narrowing towards the prow where it jutted into the north and south forks of the Hoosac River. A series of elevated passageways, and bridges connected the structures. You could begin on one side and find your way through a maze to the far end of the property without ever stepping outside. While the buildings had no electricity, heat or power, they did have light. The summer sun slanted through hundreds of tall windows casting abstract shapes across the abandoned relics of an earlier industrial age. The light had a character and presence that seemed to defy the visible ruin.

The Detritus of Industrial Life

Empty for more than a decade, the buildings were neglected, water damaged, vandalized by humans and inhabited by animals. All these, combined with indifference had done their work. The detritus of industrial life cluttered many rooms. Insulation hung from the ceiling, holes gaped where copper piping had been ripped from the walls, shards of broken windows were everywhere and pigeons nested in the light fixtures. Their droppings, inches high, gave off an acrid, clotting dust when disturbed. Other kinds of birds, prettier than pigeons, freshly dead from who knows what, lay here and there along with the remains of unknown animals. In many rooms a carpet of green fungus flourished in watery sludge reeking of mold and age. In my explorations of the buildings I had to tread carefully, testing each step, sometimes peering through openings three stories deep. Hardwood boards heaved up in long furrows across warped wooden floors. Some rooms spookily revealed the outlines of massive machinery and ancient broken equipment. Climbing staircases that shifted under my weight, and creeping from room to room, I pushed through unhinged doors where at each turn I was met with new sights and sounds: the drip of leaking water, the flutter of wings, the creak of floor boards, the crunch of debris underfoot. In the dark silence of the buildings, I could detect evidence of abundant life close at hand. . . peeps, squeaks, and the scurrying of tiny four legged In short, everything about the place attracted me. I determined to come back and photograph it.

The Early Years of the Building

In the 1940's when the future of the electronics industry looked promising, Sprague Electric had become one of the most successful producers of high-quality television components and related products. Research efforts at the plant were instrumental to the development of World War II weapons, including the firing capacitor for the atomic bomb. The factory, once the economic heart and life of North Adams, employed over a fifth of the city's population. By the late seventies foreign competition, upheavals in manufacturing conditions, and changes in ownership led to a decline in operations. In the early eighties the complex was virtually abandoned. There was a human side to all this. Sprague had employed thousands of people. Generations of families were supported by the paychecks earned here. Many local high school graduates went directly to work in the factory, or after college came back and worked in management. Not so today. With the mills closed, North Adams and the surrounding towns look decimated. Those who could have moved away to find employment.

Vestiges of Human Presence

Now everywhere in the plant, a beautiful summers' light streams in through the windows. Many have a view of the town and of Mt. Greylock. Do they build factories with windows anymore? Did it matter to the people who worked here? I imagined sitting at a factory table, looking up and seeing the constantly changing light throughout the days, winter, fall, spring, and summer. It must have been a saving grace. I could not help thinking about the lives spent in these cavernous spaces. Rudimentary vestiges of their human presence were everywhere -- in the rows of Chiquita Banana stickers stuck on a wall by a desk, in the glass door of an empty room marked "Maternity," in the huge workman's rubber gloves on a window sill, and in the crumbled jacket still hung on its hook. 

Living Flesh in Fractured Spaces

Working over a two year period, I began photographing the interiors of the huge factory floors, at first taking pictures only of the empty rooms, the sculpture-like machinery, and the wreckage of damaged walls and floors. Later I asked a model to accompany me. It seemed important to have a living form in these fractured spaces, vulnerable flesh providing a vivid contrast to the hostile, harsh, angular edges of what was there, her motion and energy a rebuke to the stasis of loss.

A Plan to Revitalize the Area

I learned that plans were under way to convert this property into one of the world's largest museums - the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, (known as Mass MoCA.) Over the last nine years the project, intended to revitalize the local economy, had hurdled a series of near-fatal obstacles as funding was gained and lost, the victim of state and art-world politics and shifting economic priorities. However, Massachusetts has recently released funds to start construction. Expected to be completed in two or three years, the project has metamorphosed into the creation of a huge center for art galleries, performance halls, multimedia studios, workshops and a digital conference center.

Remnants of the Original Dream

The current state of the buildings is a remnant of the original dream that animated the people who built them. Yet, even in their condition of disrepair, there is much about them that connects us not only to what they once were, but to the people who populated them, and who were responsible for their creation. In the wreckage of these rooms I saw a beauty that can arise out of failure, destruction and decay and I marveled at the idea that art was now to provide the one spark of hope for what has been abandoned and destroyed. To me the history of these buildings, their abandoned interiors, and the amazing light they contained are a reflection of the human will and spirit that continues to flourish despite the odds.

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