As part of “The Workers” show at Mass MoCA, Camel Collective will pull from the site’s actual history to recreate a moment from the 1970s when labor took a stand, and got creative in order to do it.
“The Workers” opens on Sunday, May 29.
Camel Collective — which for this project is made up of Anthony Graves and Carla Herrera-Prats — is recreating a scene from the 1970 strike at the former Sprague plant, utilizing a 40-foot chain link fence and screen-printed imagery pulled from the Transcript’s account of the times.
With one huge image and 12 smaller ones, the piece reveals a moment captured by the press when workers used a similar chain-link fence to hold Styrofoam coffee cups as part of the message of their protest.
“The reporter who took this picture named this intervention of the workers as artwork,” said Herrera-Prats. “So, in this picture from the ‘70s, there is a moment from the future, of what would happen in the future. They’re calling these workers artists, who are doing an intervention on the site of what in the future will become an art museum.”
While there were surely other creative moments in the complex over the years of its existence, this is the first time that anything in the media was captured and disseminated as art — and Camel Collective is celebrating that odd moment of precognitive journalism by taking it and blowing it up far beyond its original proportions contained in a newspaper microfiche and decorated by what was originally an instrument of control on the part of management.
“We didn’t anticipate that it would be about the fence,” Graves said. “We went through many, many images trying to figure out what struck us, which is when we came across this sign system that workers had improvised on the existing institutional structure. The fence, as I understand it, was put up by Sprague to limit the access of the strikers and to offer protection for the supervisors and scabs to enter.”
It was an act of appropriation on the part of the workers, and Camel Collective’s installation memorializes this forgotten symbol at a time when labor struggles have been in the news again.
“We wanted to have the fence in the gallery space and refer back to the images and be an example of the contemporary struggles that workers are facing today,” Herrera-Prats said. “We were able to link what is happening today with the fight for unions, with what was happening already in the ‘70s, because it is a continuation in this process that has not really changed but actually has been directed to a very specific direction.”
“It’s a similar struggle, but there’s also so much happening in terms of not just popular representation in the media of unions and what unions do, and also fewer and fewer people are able to recognize themselves as working class per se, because the economy has changed so much since the ‘70s,” Graves said.
Camel Collective’s modus operandi is one of research, as well as a rotating roll call per project. There is a third partner in the collective — Lasse Lau — and any given project will utilize combinations of the members as well as other people who are brought in for that specific project. With various artists allowing the thrill of research be their thematic guide, a situation is created where the collective never really knows where their investigations will take them or what will result. In this way the group starts off with at least a semi-blank slate that benefits from the collisions of artistic styles.
Herrera-Prats says that even though the group might not have preconceived notions of a project, it does drift toward topics that concern them the most.
“Our interests are education, technology that deals with work and the worker, that deals with the ‘70s as a generation,” she said, “and becomes more photographic in the sense in that the three of us were born in that decade and to go back and look at the material that formed the first years of our own education has been in our interest,” she said.
“These things have been already decided, in terms of the collective, as some things we like or agree as being interested in and whenever we’re looking at images in an archive, we start looking for those things, or whenever we start a project, that will be not an easy topic, but we’ll already have a common geography in terms of research.
“Our interests are similar but our approaches can differ,” said Graves. “The reason we’re in a collective to begin with is to negotiate different approaches, the social activity rather than isolation as an approach.”
For the group, there’s a seat-of-their-pants aspect to any given art project. Even if they acknowledge the allure of the site, they still don’t know what specifics that site will offer as material for work.
“That can produce a lot of anxiety because there’s always a fear that maybe the material isn’t so interesting, but somehow it’s always interesting,” Graves said.
Graves says the collective process is a nice way of learning and surprising one another, especially since the work tends to bust the image one might have of collaborators. It’s a method that gives as much to the creators as it does to the visitors in a gallery, and creates a group artist identity that might be far more healthy and useful in a collective existence than in the lonely life of one painter, one room, one canvas.
“If we take an individual artist as the model if there’s antagonism, then you immediately pathologize it as a personality disorder,” said Graves, “but if you have a collective doing the same thing, that’s like a personality order.”