We invited artist Noah Fischer to write about his current project, Electrical Forest: Made in Troy, a site-specific installation in Troy, New York. — Ed.
During my initial research missions to Troy, New York I met a colorful bunch of historians, painters, potters, professors and arborists, and was struck by the miniature grandeur of the city. There was a need to respond to its historical aura; going to Troy was stepping into another world. This was interesting to me because it’s not a gentrified international destination; it’s more or less a graveyard of American industry, a city of the Rust Belt. Working with The Arts Center of the Capital Region and independent curator, Lauren Wolk, who invited me to Troy for the project, I crafted the outlines of Electrical Forest: Made in Troy. It was to be a project that depended on the community of Troy to harness the aura of their city. Electrical Forest: Made in Troy would tell the story of a small American city set deep in the landscape of progress.
The project had two stages. The “Factory Phase” was a challenge to produce 10,000 “leaves” in one week on a human-powered assembly line. The line consisted of many stations, each with a volunteer who would repeat one action on the synthetic leaf as it moved past on a conveyor system. Toward the end of the line, each leaf would be scanned and uploaded to an online database at www.electricalforest.com, creating a linear movement from industrial age to information age. For the “Forest Phase,” we headed into the woods to gather trees; re-imagining the linear architecture of the assembly line as a woody ecosystem and finally hanging the manufactured leaves on an electrical light-filled canopy. Ultimately the “Forest” overtook the “Factory,” but left traces of what had been there before. Tree trunks grew up through workers’ tables, branches pushed tools aside, a canopy of leaves covered the ceiling.
When I sketched out the assembly line, I was drawing on the history of the region, which was revealed to me by geologist, collector, artist, and local historian Bill Skerritt, who drove me around to old factories in his station wagon. As another Troy historian, Tom Carroll, contends, Troy was the Silicon Valley of the 19th century, a model of high-tech and efficient industrialism. Here, factory workers manufactured products from precision instruments to shirt collars distributed via steamboat on the Hudson River and Erie Canal, and by rail. Troy was famous for cast iron stoves, bronze bells, and the ability to stamp out a million horseshoes in a week, supplying the Union Army during the Civil War. Yet, the assembly line in Electrical Forest was not quite a historical re-creation. Rather, it was an experiment that asked a group of twelve people to sync up in a giddy rhythm and engage in serious play.
Not only did the community play this instrument, the songs were original, personal, and inspired. We worked in two-hour shifts—twelve volunteers per shift; three shifts per day. The experience for each volunteer was to be drawn into a choreographed dance of industry: energetically producing leaves that echoed those falling outside the gallery window; to be part of a machine, though a natural one. Onlookers heard the sounds of laughter, singing, and an eclectic funk and whispering organ soundtrack spun on vinyl records punctuated by bells. A big bronze bell cast in Troy in 1854 by the Meneely Bell Co and loaned to me by Bill Skerritt was rung with a hammer after every 10 leaves produced. Groups of professors and professionals came by on office development days and ended up “letting their freak flags fly,” as they got into the infectious rhythm of production. One woman found it therapeutic. Others came to many shifts until they learned each step in the process and took on empowering roles overseeing, fixing, and modifying the assembly line. One older retired man who seemed at first a little grumpy surprised me when he showed up the next day. He didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to spend the afternoon playing.
The forest is the other side of the industrial coin. Upstate New York had been filled with vigorous deciduous forest until the 19th century, when almost all of it was logged for buildings, railroads, and fuel for factories. At this time, which predates modern environmentalism, forests were seen as natural farms; trees were crops to be harvested and clearcutting was the norm. Existing deep ecological systems were not acknowledged or preserved. But the Hudson River School paintings make it clear that the natural landscape exerted a forceful, if troubled, pull on the culture as painters such as John Frederick Kensett captured a pre-industry Garden of Eden in the local landscape. I think that during the age of progress 150 years ago, the natural environment was defined by a contradiction of desires to be both cradled by primeval nature and to modify the landscape for human utility. Still, today we desire our fast new computers, luxurious SUVs, along with fresh air and natural landscape. Wrapped up in progress is this contradiction, which I wanted to highlight in the second phase of Electrical Forest.
I worked with a man named Jack Magai, who is an arborist, dancer, and father of two sons whom he homeschools. Jack and I went into the woods of Troy and looked at trees as we discussed the ethics of cutting them down for an art installation. While my friends from New York City found it wrong to chop, Jack and others I met in Troy didn’t see the problem. Trees were everywhere and often the conversations would turn to trees falling on houses during storms; people here loved trees but life with them was complicated. Jack taught me that trees near the edge of the forest grow in graceful curves away from the competition and toward the light, and we sawed down young Buckthorns and Ashes for the installation. I bought some big logs from a kind-faced father and son named Burt and Peter, who had a firewood operation on their property, and it took a small group of straining volunteers and Jack’s dancer’s ingenuity with the weight and balance to get the massive logs into the gallery. Once inside, we arranged tables from the assembly line into a circle and used them as anchors for the branching trees, onto which volunteers attached the 10,000 manufactured leaves. To this, we added motorized halogen light units and a textured electronic soundtrack by Brooklyn composer Rafael Cohen. The lights created a complex phenomenology of moving shadows, as if one were in a thick woods at night with cars passing by. Shadows, leaves, and people are ephemeral, but combined, these elements created a monument to the community of Troy.
Noah Fischer is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY.