Hidden City Philadelphia - Disston Saw Works

Jul 08 2009 Published by under Geekalicious

Gear overhead [640x480].JPG

Throughout the month of June, Philadelphia-area residents had the opportunity to take advantage of an extraordinary arts festival - Hidden City Philadelphia.

This unique arts festival...brings Philadelphia's best unknown historical and architectural landmarks back to life through original works of art...There are many historical and architectural landmarks around Philadelphia that at one time were all important to the city's neighborhoods, but their significance - and in some cases their existence - has been forgotten over the years, making them hidden to the people who walk, run, or drive by them every day. Performing and visual artists have created dance, music, sculpture, video, print, and mixed media pieces inspired by the history and architecture of their selected sites to draw attention back to the important people and places forming Philadelphia.

Mr. Z and I spent the day a few weeks ago roaming about the city, visiting three of the sites on the Hidden City tour: Founder's Hall, Girard College; German Society of Pennsylvania; and the Disston Saw Works, which I think was the most interesting of all for both the site itself and the fantastic multimedia art installation created by artists John Phillips & Carolyn Healy. This was an absolutely perfect match of artists with technological/architectural site. I've posted loads of pictures after the jump.

Their video, audioscape and sculpture installation incorporates numerous artifacts found on the Disston grounds and imagery derived from early engineering drawings from the company files.

Henry Disston immigrated to America from England in 1833, apprenticed to a saw-making business, and eventually began his own enterprise. The full story of the Disston Saw Works is quite remarkably and is a microcosm of the rise and fall of the industrial/manufacturing age in the U.S. A curious side note (from the handout at the exhibit):

Disston purchased 390 acres of land...in 1871...and set aside 40 acres for his new factory. Disston, however, desired Tacony to be an ideal working community, centered on the factory and Disston's paternalism. During its first years in Tacony, the work force reached 1500 in number. Disston and his family worked to provide workers with training, adequate wages, and assistance in their home lives. The Disston family funded construction of new homes, made financing available, created a trade school, and gave workers a benefits package. The town gained a Disston-funded school and a firehouse. Disston even provided his workers with their own water source, a hall, a library, and a newspaper. Disston's deed for his estate proved the most interesting instance of his paternalism: his deed restricted buildings that sold liquor. Battled often, the deed has withstood the test of time.

Into the 20th century, Disston products became standards for quality. Though the company's fortunes have faded somewhat since the 1950's, it remains in business.
Here is the artists' statement about their work:

This multimedia environment created for the unusual Drop Forge building of the Disston Saw Works, dramatizes the imagination and industry that have inhabited this site since 1872. We've combined audio, video, and sculptural elements, derived from sounds, images and artifacts collected on the Disston grounds, to create this piece. Through the generosity of the Disston and Tacony communities, we've been afforded rare access to early engineering drawings from the company files and early maps of Tacony, which factor prominently in Running True. Our aesthetic interests are rooted in the abstract and metaphorical, yet, since we began researching Disston, we have also been drawn to the physical processes and metallurgical science involved in treating and shaping steel. Despite the many machines and technologies that the Disston factory employs, the manufacturing process, like artistic processes, still come down to human craft. At the end of the process, each new blade needs to be hand tuned - a skill cultivated by only a few craftsmen today - before the company can be sure that it will "run true". With the exception of the contemporary video and audio technology, and a few materials brought from Carolyn's studio, everything in this work was found at the saw works or in Tacony. This is our tribute to the tremendous creativity and legacy of craft represented by Disston and the Tacony community, which has played (and should continue to play) a major role in ensuring Philadelphia's prominence as a center of cultural and economic innovation and prosperity.

It is a shame I cannot bring to you the video and audio at this exhibit. It is a shame that this exhibit will not endure permanently. It truly captured the scope, awe, sheer physicality, and technological achievement that was and is the Disston Saw Works. It documented an important moment in our technological history. And if, like me, you just enjoy looking at technological objects anyway, you would doubly enjoy seeing them sculpted into art objects.
Come with me into the exhibit.

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Exterior shots

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Exterior View II [640x480].JPG

This is actually a shelf in the still working part of the saw works.

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Now begins the exhibit - saws and boxes.

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Gears and boxes II [640x480].JPG

Overhead of saws display.

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Side view of saws sculpture.

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This part made me sad - all these neglected ledgers, once so important in the past.

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Gear Tower [640x480].JPG

I loved the hammers display.

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Hammers from above...

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Here you get a glimpse of one of the video screens in the background.

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A sculptural melange...

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In the original use of this building, molten metal poured directly into the building and was forged into the saw parts...this sculpture attempts to recreate, with cloth, wire, and lighting, the sense of molten metal pouring down a track.

Molten metal [640x480].JPG

This wasn't part of the exhibit but i just liked the way even the scrap metal looked in the dumpster on the way out.

Metal Scrap in the Dumpster [640x480].JPG

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  • Barn Owl says:

    Great to see you blogging again, Zuska, and what fantastic photos! I love how the artists have incorporated their sculptures, found or scrapped objects, the videos, and the factory itself into a cohesive and historical artwork.
    One of my great-uncles, who was a machinist in an aircraft factory, would have loved exhibits such as this. Had his socioeconomic circumstances been different, he likely would have studied engineering at a university; though with his high school education, he was inventive and skilled at his trade.
    Have you ever considered putting together a geekalicious book of technological history and art exhibits?

  • Art says:

    Pretty, and interesting, but sad.
    I'm reminded of one of the top knife smiths who lamented the fate of so many of his knives when they became museum pieces. He had poured his heart ad mind into them as tools. An object judged on its ability to gracefully and efficiently produce results in the hands of a workman. To comply and serve his/her needs and desires and to do so in a complimentary way while demanding only minimal care and concern for itself.
    He loved the idea of his knives being used and being used up in productive work. Being displayed as art objects violates their purpose and the intention of the artist that made them.
    Seeing tools idle, covered in dust and displayed as art objects is sad. A saw doing its job is a demonstration of the intricacies and art of applied metallurgy. After a time even the most callous user develops a feel for the subtle differences of set, pitch, rake angles and tooth spacing and how they interact with the workpiece. How they make the work easier or harder.
    Displayed as art objects the viewers are ignorant of, and will remain ignorant of, the nuances of what they are looking at. They understand at only the coarsest level. The fine but critical differences in design are made meaningless. Years of hard won experience and dedication to advancing the art and science of saw blade design, man-years of sweat, toil and investment of will, reduced to empty place-holding silhouettes, profiles that might as well be cut from cardboard.
    Sad.

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