Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry

Beginning in September 2013, I managed a project with collaborative artist duo Hironaka and Suib and students from Sayre High School to create a temporary moving image mural inspired by the relics of industry strewn across Philadelphia.

Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry was a temporary public art project showcased on Broad Street in Center City Philadelphia every night for three weeks in October 2014. The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Education Program commissioned artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib to create a public art project in collaboration with youth at Sayre High School. The finished piece was a looped video projection on the 7-story tall south facade of the University of the Arts’ Anderson Building.

Hironaka and Suib have been frequent collaborators since 2008. They primarily work with large-scale video projection, often in gallery and museum spaces. Their installation The Fall (2010) was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its permanent collection and they are represented by Locks Gallery in Philadelphia. Because their installations usually span floor to ceiling, they were interested in how their work could be interpreted as a mural and transition to the public realm. Mural Arts provided the artists with the opportunity to bring their work to full scale in the city.  Murals have long been a method of social justice and activism, as well as powerful interventions in the built environment. Committed to innovative, socially-engaged public art making, the Mural Arts Program has been making an intentional effort to push and expand the definition of muralism in the 21st Century. Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry pulled inspiration from canonical artworks integral to the advancement of their mediums that also sought to elevate the status of industry workers. Lumiere’s pioneering film, Worker’s Leaving the Factory (1895), and Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals (1933) were two influential reference points. Through thoughtful construction and a nod to Lumiere and Rivera’s work, Hironaka and Suib succeeded in re-negotiating how murals can be created and implemented in the contemporary moment.

Many east coast cities are left with reminders of a previous era when industry abounded. Decrepit warehouses and crumbling piers along the Delaware River are common sights in Philadelphia. How do we recognize these industrial skeletons as important relics that help us visualize history rather than roadblocks to future development? Hironaka and Suib’s project attempted to reanimate Philadelphia’s industrial past and deconstruct its complex history. Philadelphia was the Workshop of the World for much of the 20th Century which not only meant advances in technology, but also in the labor rights movement. Workers’ rights advancements were constantly being made prior to the Cold War that led to Philadelphia having some of the strongest unions in the country. In addition, women’s rights in the workplace also made strides during this time. Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry captured these often unspoken and nuanced components of industrial history, situating images of labor protests next to images of mass manufacturing of various products. The artists explained:

Just as the vacant industrial facilities that dot Philadelphia haunt the urban landscape today, reminding us of the broader, continuing transition throughout the nation from manufacturing and production to service industries, we cast the young students from Sayre High School in the work in order to haunt the past from our present day. The projected images that comprise Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry are intended to connect the participating students and younger viewers to the city’s past, and encourage viewers to remember and reconsider Philadelphia’s industrial past, and in particular the people that made Philadelphia a thriving industrial hub for more than a century.

One of the most important aspects of this project is the involvement of youth in its creation. In 2013, Hironaka and Suib made multiple visits to students at Sayre High School. The duo presented their past work and explained how they construct images. They have mastered the method of collaging many moving images together to seamlessly create new narratives. Hironaka and Suib detailed their process to students and led workshops on collage using images of Philadelphia’s industrial past. They honed in on manufacturing and briefly studied labor protests local to West Philadelphia, the neighborhood where Sayre High School students live. Illuminating local treasures of Philadelphia industry to students allowed them to better understand the current state of vacant factories in their neighborhoods. In 2014, the artists invited students to be filmed and included in the final piece. Using a green screen studio at the University of the Arts, youth dressed in 1940s and 60s period costumes and created picket signs to stage protests based on archived photos. They marched around in front of the green screen acting out their displeasure with the recently learned history of workers’ rights acting as ghosts of Philadelphia’s industrial past. This footage was collaged with source material Hironaka and Suib gathered from the Prelinger Archive and Temple University Urban Archives to create the final piece.

We explore the possibilities of using the moving-image to create a temporary monument, in this instance to Philadelphia’s industrial history. The 7-story tall projection on the south facade of University of the Art’s Anderson Building is comprised of dozens of collaged, animated film vignettes that move on and off-screen, and loop continuously with a machine-like rhythm. The images represent just some of the industries that based in the region, including shipbuilding, textile and clothing production, paper and paper products, steel and iron, industrial minting and others.

The youth’s involvement in the piece and their ability to contribute solidified a paradigm new to Hironaka and Suib, but integral to the Mural Arts Program’s practice: youth artists can effectively collaborate and create innovative public art. This project allowed Hironaka and Suib to push their own practice by inviting young people to directly participate in and inform their work. Simultaneously, the youth were able to learn not only new art making techniques, but also make tangible connections between their lives and Philadelphia’s industrial past. Bringing the forgotten history of local industry to light allowed students to better comprehend textbook history through the built environment that surrounds them.

[1] Feir, Robert, and Robert Weible, “Labor’s Struggle to Organize,” Stories from PA History, http://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-22, 2011.

[1] Hironaka, Nadia, and Matthew Suib, Artist Statement, Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia, PA, 2014.

[1] Ibid.