(In the summer of 2011 I spent a week in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small industrial burg just outside of Pittsburgh, with the members of the BrokenDayton Machine, a now-defunct (I think) collective group of artists from Dayton, Ohio. My job was to chronicle the installation of their show I AM IMMORTAL at UnSmoke Systems Artspace. We stayed in a hostel, which in some ancient past life had been a convent. It was July and absolutely sweltering. Neither the hostel nor UnSmoke had AC, so during the day we drank PBR to stay hydrated.
This piece was supposed to be published by BrokenDayton in some kind of thing, but that thing fell by the wayside, as they sometimes do. So now it can live out its days here. — Josh)
Time is a curious thing.
It can be quantified, measured, yet at the same time is subjective. We all perceive it differently. When we sleep. When we’ve been driving, lost in thought, and suddenly realize that ten minutes have somehow passed, and think oh god how am I still alive? Time is the fourth dimension, one pop culture has long been obsessed with breaking. I think that’s because time is something you think you have an unlimited supply of until, suddenly, one day, you don’t. You’re dead. If there’s a constant in the world, it’s that: death. No matter how hard you may try to beat it back with clean living, new medicines, or denial — eventually you lose.
A great man once said time is like a predator, stalking us through our lives. Okay, it may have actually been said by a STAR TREK villain, but it doesn’t make the metaphor any less apt. Because, at some point, time will finally catch up to us, and make the kill.
Few things are able to escape death, to achieve some semblance of immortality. I’m not talking about abstract things like ideas, which can be almost impossible to kill. I mean physical things. Things like cities.
A city has better than reasonable odds at living forever. It doesn’t matter if it’s been burned to the ground, as Rome once was, or conquered by foreign empires and renamed — a fate Istanbul suffered, back when it was called Byzantium under the Greeks, and Constantinople under Roman and Ottoman rule. Or like Troy, which was considered just a myth, until it was discovered in the late 1800s, right where Homer had said it was. My point is that cities are able to survive the ravages of time better than almost anything else. Not even Hiroshima could be extinguished from this earth.
Even on a much smaller and less dramatic scale, a dying city can be revitalized and reinvented. It’s not an easy task; time, money, and effort are required. And without the support and investment of the community it’s almost certainly doomed to failure. Occasionally, though, a city that’s gone to rot can be successfully turned around and reborn.
A city like Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Located a few miles east of Pittsburgh, Braddock is a once-thriving town that, through a combination of unfortunate circumstance and neglect, hemorrhaged 90% of its population, and most of its business and industry, over a period of 30 years, so that by the year 2000 it had become nationally infamous for its state of decline.
But since 2005, with the election of a new mayor, Braddock has been undergoing something akin to a renaissance. Major emphasis has been placed on attracting urban pioneers to buy up old lots and buildings before they’re demolished and preserve them. With real estate dirt cheap, people can more easily buy an old house and afford to renovate it. Some overgrown lots have been turned into urban farms by residents, which are maintained in part by youth outreach programs. And by bringing in outside artists and other cultural influencers, publicity — this time the good kind — can be generated for the city at large.
Enter my friend Nick Arnold, who related this backstory to me one sweltering July day in 2011.
Nick had called to tell me about a show that his art collective, the BrokenDayton Art Machine, was planning to put on in Braddock. The show was to be called I Am Immortal, and the artists were going to explore the theme of “immortality through art.”
The reason he was telling me all this, Nick said, is because they would be spending a week in Braddock preparing for the show, and they wanted a writer to accompany them and draft an essay about the experience. Since he knew I enjoy pretending to be a writer from time to time, the job was mine if I wanted it.
At this point I was already leaning towards saying yes. The offer of being an embedded writer for a week, something completely outside of my experience and comfort zone, was one I could not in good conscience refuse. But when Nick mentioned that we would be living in an old convent, and that he wasn’t sure if the convent was still active, or if it might even be abandoned… well, how could I say no?
The BrokenDayton Art Machine, a Dayton, Ohio-based art collective, currently consists of six members: Nicholaus Arnold, Ian Breidenbach, Ren Cummings, Phillip Evans, Ashley Jonas, and Frank Travers. Though the collective had been founded almost exactly one year before the Braddock show, all of the members have known each other for much longer. All but Ashley and Phil originally hail from Dayton, and they were invited into the group through Nick, who met them while the three attended grad school at Syracuse University in New York. Also, this past summer, Nick and Ashley got married.
A couple of weeks after my phone call with Nick, on a particularly hot and humid Monday afternoon, I joined everyone at Nick’s dad’s house in Dayton. I’d met most of the BrokenDayton crew before, so I was not wholly unfamiliar with everyone.
Nick and I’ve known each for over a decade now, since we first met in the spring of 2000 as two obnoxious, self-involved kids just out of high school (your average teenagers, basically). We worked in a Meijer photo lab for a year, then when that blew up in our faces in high fashion, we found ourselves making a dramatic career change and working in a Wal-Mart photo lab across town. We worked together there for another five years.
Ren and I had gone to high school together, though I hadn’t seen her in years. I had been introduced to Ashley a couple of months before, when she and Nick were in town. Ian and Frank I’d met at past BrokenDayton shows. I’d never met Phil before, and wouldn’t ’til later on that week.
After loading up Ian’s pickup truck with lumber and drywall — a particularly sweaty task — and filling Frank’s car and my car with an astonishingly large amount of materiel and equipment, we finally departed.
Getting to Braddock was a fairly unpleasant task. I was driving alone, which was fine by me because I usually enjoy long drives in solitude. However, we ran into a huge storm front in central Ohio, and it was to be my constant and unwelcome companion for the rest of the journey. Heavy rain and lightning, plus pockets of congested traffic, meant being forced to drive slower and taking that much longer to get there. A little after seven, I finally entered the Braddock city limits.
Braddock is an interesting place. On the surface, it’s not the nicest looking of towns. In fact, driving past the many boarded up and abandoned homes, shops, and factories, and nature reclaiming the earth where it could, it would be easy to call it “ghetto” and be done with it. The reality of the situation is more complicated, and, I think, more interesting. An old industrial town (fun fact: Braddock is home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and free library), in the 1950s Braddock had a population of around 20,000 and was a booming, vibrant city. But then, with the decline of the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s, Braddock began to see its citizens immigrate to other parts of the Pittsburgh area.
What I saw now was a bit of an urban wasteland, but one with promising signs of life. Braddock had been wounded, but wasn’t dead yet.
Our destination was a gravel parking lot adjacent to the gallery where the show was to be held, a place with the unlikely name of UnSmoke Systems Artspace.
A word on UnSmoke. Three stories tall and formerly a Catholic school, the building is owned and operated by Jeb Feldman, who, I would later learn, also serves as the Deputy Mayor of Braddock. Jeb, late thirties and covered in tattoos, lives on the top floor in a heavily renovated and extremely hip-looking converted apartment. The second floor has been largely converted to studio spaces for artists who live in and around Braddock. The restrooms are also located on this floor, which, since I was drinking PBR almost nonstop during my stay, I saw a lot of it. Old sculptures, photos, and other bric-a-brac from past shows decorate the hallway. One photo, located next to the restroom, so I saw it a lot, was of a nude, long-haired man, the top of his hairy crotch just barely visible in the photo.
On the first floor, in what used to be the school’s auditorium, is the gallery space. UnSmoke plays host to traveling artists who show up for a couple of weeks, set up and put on their show, then pack up and move on. But evidence of their having been there is still present. A random group of past artists had built a small little projection room; basically a small, three-walled enclosure to be used for showing videos. The BrokenDayton crew made use of it during the show, showing a weird little video to which each member contributed a segment. Some of them were especially bizarre, including a puppet show performed by Frank, and Ian’s, which was a creepy home video of his elderly grandfather’s baptism back in the early 90’s.
After being shown around the gallery by Jeb and Molly, the codirector of UnSmoke, we were taken next door to our living quarters for the week: the Convent.
The Convent is not actually a convent, I was disappointed to learn, though it had been one in a past life. Going in, I’d had visions of rooming side by side with nuns, joining in a gospel choir, wearing a habit and getting into shenanigans, and basically reenacting the plot of SISTER ACT. Alas…
In its present incarnation, and now owned by the mayor of Braddock, the Convent has become a hostel; a temporary home to transient artists and other folks just sort of passing through, including an intensely enthusiastic fellow named Cicero, a pair of traveling comedians whom I never actually met, and a very nice Brazilian woman who was there with her two kids while pursuing a brutal divorce.
We were introduced to the Convent’s concierge, a quiet Columbian gentleman in his early sixties by the name of Juan. Juan has lived there for several years, performing much of the repair and renovation work after the mayor bought the building some years earlier, and generally keeps the operation running smoothly. From what I could tell, he does a damn good job at it.
Upon entering the Convent, our host pointed out a sign hanging in the foyer. It read: “One Golden Rule. Everything Clean And In Its Place.”
True to that maxim, everything about the Convent was indeed neat and tidy. There were about eight rooms, all located on the second floor. They were small, but each had its own mattress and sink. Clean towels were laid out, and outside the communal bathroom was a chest full of towels and other toiletries. Juan takes care of all of it.
After giving us the tour and explaining some other basic rules, Juan showed us to the kitchen, pulling a two liter bottle of Coke out of the refrigerator, and pouring us each a cup like it was the blood of Christ, but tastier.
And after that little rite was concluded, the tour was over. It was time to get to work.
Over the next three days, something approaching a routine was established.
I would awake in the morning and groggily stumble down the stairs of the Convent and across the parking lot into the gallery. All but one day there was someone already inside working, so I would pop in, say hello to whoever was there, and wander up into the kitchen nook. Make myself a cup of strong, strong coffee, grab a cinnamon granola bar, take a seat at the long wood table, and fire up my laptop for an hour’s worth of catching up on the happenings of the Internets. By then, most of the team would have trickled in and started working.
Then I’d leave my little hole for a while to go mingle: finding out what everyone was working on, taking notes, in one instance actually helping to set up, and just generally bullshitting with everyone.
It’s fascinating to watch what the pros call an “art installation” come together. You start with an empty space, and from that blank slate things slowly come together. I suppose it’s no different than watching a house being built, but because there’s no blueprint to art, the process is less formal, more chaotic, and wholly organic. The art is arranged, of course, to what is aesthetically pleasing, but also to what is practical; what the space will allow.
And sometimes when the space isn’t what you need — you have to build.
I mentioned earlier that the crew hauled a truckload of lumber and plaster. This was so that they could construct three column-like freestanding walls inside the UnSmoke gallery, which would give them more options on where to display their art. The walls took over a day to build, and when finished each stood about ten feet tall by four feet wide. More than anything they reminded me of the Monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey — except these were painted a bright white and, also unlike their fictional counterparts, weren’t enigmatic machines built by an advanced alien race.
Most days, usually in the middle of the afternoon, when Team BrokenDayton was focused on their respective tasks and I had grown restless from sitting indoors on the computer, I would retire to the front porch of the Convent to relax in the shade and read for a while.
Across the street, the steel mill was constantly belching thick plumes of ugly black smoke out of its tall stacks. When I had first arrived in Braddock I thought the noise coming the mill was deafening, but by the end of the week I’d grown accustomed to it. A stream of white noise, comforting in its flat steadiness.
My main task for the week was to spend some time with each of the artists, follow them around, ask questions about their work and the meaning behind it, and document it. This mostly involved me frantically sending a continuous stream of notes to myself via email on my phone, like a cracked-out texting teenager.
There was no air conditioning in either UnSmoke or the Convent, and the days without fail were sunny with temperatures in the upper eighties or low nineties. We definitely would need something to drink during the day to O keep ourselves cooled off and hydrated. So on the night we arrived, we of course bought several cases of cheap beer. Probably not the most practical of liquid refreshment, but it did its job. Plus, Nick and Ian told me they do their best work setting up a show when they’re drinking.
Needless to say, I spent most of those three days perpetually sweating and maintaining a mild buzz, which made the notes I sent to myself occasionally difficult to later parse.
Nick’s contribution was a colorful exercise in serigraphy — which is a fancy term for “screen printing” — and was one of the first to go up. Taking up most of one wall and hewing to the theme of the show, his was a wall piece that spelled out “WE WILL BE IMMORTAL FOR YOU,” where each letter was individually screen printed and held to the wall by small, powerful magnets. Each letter was placed over a composite background image consisting of a photo of Nick and an MRI of his brain.
His second piece consisted of 4,000 lithographic posters, which were similar to the wall piece in that they featured bright colors and another sexy photo of Nick. One half of the posters read “THOUGHTS ARE FOREVER” and the other “WE ARE IMMORTAL.” Attendees of the exhibition were invited to take one home with them.
“The Wandering Man, the Hungry Bird, and the Desert” was the title of Frank’s one-man performance piece that he was to perform on opening night. No one was really sure what he had in mind, and, honestly, I’m not sure Frank did either, aside from a basic idea and story. When I asked him if he had a script, he showed me a crumpled piece of notebook paper covered with cryptic lines written in a near-indecipherable scrawl. The premise, Frank told me, was a character gets offered immortality by a bird as he’s being eaten alive, and is forced to choose between life and death, with a twist at the end. As he was going to be playing all three characters, Frank created a mask for each character. The most complex was a bird mask that fit over his head, and featured a long yellow beak with a bright plumage of feathers on top of the blue “head,” which altogether gave the impression of a very trippy-looking Toucan Sam.
Additionally, Frank had several pieces of artwork on display relating to his performance piece, which he made ahead of time. Each featured in some way a representation of a parrot.
Ren was not able to make it for the installation, which was a bummer because I would have liked to have seen her. However, that didn’t stop her from sending some work to be exhibited. Hers was a sequence of nine vinyl print cutouts, where each cutout was one or two silhouetted figures: a maroon monster-y figure and a more advanced, golden-hued human. The sequence depicts the monster stalking the human, getting progressively closer, and then attacking. The human is consumed and something new is born — a rebirth, and metaphor for Braddock’s situation.
On a practical note, what made this interesting is that, even though Ren wasn’t there, with the use of advanced technomagicks — an iPhone and Skype — she was able to direct where the individual pieces of the sequence were placed on the wall. I acted as cameraman, aiming the phone so that Ren could see the wall. Nick would place each set of figures where Ren directed, maybe asking him to move it higher, to the left, etc. It was very cool, an “I’m living in the future” moment.
Then there was Ian’s two-fold contribution to the show. The first: bedazzling one side of a Monolith. It’s part of a series of such works involving pyramid-shaped temples which Ian calls “Before the Temple in Ruins.” As Ian began gluing the first rows, he told me he’d done this at an installation before, using 4,400 tiny plastic jewels to make a seven-step pyramid. This one was only going to be a four-step pyramid. But, Ian added, cheerfully, he had full confidence this one would be driving him nuts in no time.
The second part of Ian’s contribution also involved a Monolith, but was a bit more esoteric. Two videos — one filmed in 2009 and the other a month before the Braddock show — projected, concurrently, against another Monolith. Both videos depicted Ian out in the desert, looking like a young ginger Santa Claus about to commit seppuku. Instead of disemboweling himself, though, he was cutting off his long beard, a ritual that would eventually see the shorn hair turned into candles.
(Quick aside: When I saw Ian in Dayton at the beginning of trip, I didn’t recognize him at first. Gone was the long, flowing red hair, the thick beard that went down to his chest. Instead there was a stranger, clean-shaven and short-haired.)
For her part, Ashley offered a different take on the themes of immortality and rebirth, and the resulting works was unique, as those specific pieces could only have been created in Braddock. Called “Found Objects,” it is just what it sounds like: finding objects and things that had been discarded, and turning them into interesting conglomerations called assemblages. In essence, she breathed new life into them; made them immortal.
Finding these objects involved some legwork, spread over two days. Frank and I accompanied Ashley on the first day, and found us traipsing around Braddock, searching abandoned buildings, poring through the contents of dumpsters, and scouring overgrown plots of land for usable things. No lie: it felt a bit sketchy at times, standing watch outside an old building, windows missing or broken. Gaia doing her goddamnedest to reclaim the land around us. But there was an exhilaration in that sketchiness, playing urban scavenger. Plus we didn’t get mugged or arrested, which is always cause for celebration in my book.
Among the items Ashley had found were: a battered vinyl suitcase, tile flooring, one wooden leg off of a church pew, a wood radiator enclosure, and a box full of faded medical records (with identifying names and info blacked out, of course). These items we hauled back to UnSmoke. Ashley went to work, and when she was done, the objects had been transformed into three weird, lovely assemblages.
Earlier in the week I asked when Phil, the only member of the collective still a stranger to me, was going to show up. “Probably on Thursday,” I was told. “He’s finishing work on the time capsule.” It struck me as kind of a last minute thing, since time capsules can’t be that big or complex, right? And honestly, what sort of work really needs to go into making one? I figured it had probably already been assembled, and just needed tarted up a bit so it would look suitably fancy and unique. I asked as much, and got a laugh. No, it didn’t come pre-made or -assembled. Phil had designed and fabricated the time capsule from scratch.
Well, even so, I thought. How difficult could that be?
When Thursday evening arrived and Phil showed up, time capsule in tow, and I finally saw it… I felt kind of like a dick.
Standing on end, the time capsule measured two-and-a-half feet tall, and a little over a foot in diameter. It was made of steel and painted white with engine block paint. BROKEN DAYTON stenciled in black paint, running vertically up one side.
The BrokenDayton crew decided when planning the show to have the time capsule constructed in the shape a hexagonal prism, where each of the six sides represented one member of the collective. To emphasize the idea of immortality, with respect to Braddock and its community, guests who attended the show would be invited to leave an item to be sealed in the time capsule, which would be housed on the UnSmoke premises.
By Thursday night most of the heavy lifting was done. All that remained were a few finishing touches and some cleanup. In less than 24 hours “I Am Immortal” would open.
Friday. Opening night.
Turnout for “I Am Immortal” was good, enough so to satisfy the BrokenDayton crew. A number of people who we’d met throughout the week showed up, including a few other guests staying at the convent.
The first thing someone entering the exhibition would see was the time capsule, situated in the center of the gallery space upon a white pedestal. The words I AM IMMORTAL had been stenciled alongside BROKEN DAYTON.
The atmosphere was relaxed, upbeat. The artists walked people around and talked about their work. I stayed to one side, observing. Also trying to avoid the siren call of almighty Beer, as I was supposed to leave in a few hours.
Some of the things people brought to place in the time capsule included: a pair of jeans, an audio cassette tape, a small log of wood, a container of shampoo, a copy of Frank’s CV he found in his car, some photos, and a small version of Nick’s Giant Face, which is exactly what it sounds like — a large printout of Nick’s face attached to a stick.
It occurred to me I had nothing to deposit in the time capsule, so I quickly scribbled a letter to my future self, which included a bit about how if I were no longer alive at that point in time, then it might be a little sad and weird for whomever ended up reading the letter. I also added, “Hi, Nick!” Either way, dead or alive, somewhere I will be laughing.
On the side wall of the gallery there’s a large window that opens into the small dining room where I spent a lot of my time. This window also served as a perfect stage for Frank’s performance piece, which got underway just after 8:30. It began with Frank, wearing a bright yellow mask, rising up and screaming, “Who am I? What am I doing here?” A few members of the audience jumped in surprise.
It got weird for the next little bit, but it was also mesmerizing. Frank deftly switched among his three characters, changing masks each time, and told his tale. If there had been any hesitation on Frank’s part, or his confidence faltered in any way, it would not have worked. But he didn’t, and for those five minutes the audience was spellbound, watching with rapt attention as Frank owned the room.
After Frank’s delightfully odd performance, a number of us migrated outside to escape the heat, and so the smokers could suck on their cancer sticks in peace. One of my last moments of the trip was also one of the more memorable ones for me: everyone standing outside under the waning sun, drinking, talking, and laughing, and generally just being ridiculous. Nick’s Giant Face made its way outside for a while, and was being thrust at passing cars, which to our loud cheers would sometimes honk at us.
I had to be back in Dayton for a thing on Saturday afternoon, which meant I had to leave that night. I tossed my bag in my car, said my goodbyes to everyone, and headed out.
As I pulled away the sun was just about to dip below the horizon. The last but of daylight mingled with the vast amounts of air pollution, making the sky look like it was assembled from orange and black pixels.
In the rearview mirror, Nick’s Giant Face smirked back at me.
One week later all six members of the BrokenDayton Art Machine returned to Braddock to close down the exhibit and bury the time capsule… except it wasn’t going to be buried.
The original idea had been to seal it under the parking lot of UnSmoke, but there wasn’t really a good place to dig.
The solution? Seal it in a crypt.
I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. After hearing what it took to entomb the time capsule — most of Saturday, toiling beneath the hot sun, and two tons of cement — I wasn’t too heartbroken.
The crypt rests on the front corner of the parking lot, a large concrete cube facing the street. Big block letters, etched on the front in two vertical columns, boldly proclaiming BROKEN DAYTON. A beacon of hope, just waiting to be tagged with graffiti.
There is no agreed-upon date to open the time capsule. Several intervals were mentioned, from six to twenty years — or, as Nick informed me, when the collective has enough money to afford a monster truck to remove it, but before the world runs out of fossil fuels.
I hope I’m there for it, whenever BrokenDayton does open the time capsule. I’ll be curious to see what Braddock is like then. Will the town’s rebirth have hit a wall, and it’s once again slid back into a virtual ghost town? Or will its rebirth continue on its current weird, wonderful path, towards a robust community with a vibrant arts scene. The entombed time capsule, Jeb told me, is the hopeful first step towards transforming UnSmoke’s ugly parking lot into an enclosed garden filled flowers, plants, sculptures, and other pretty things.
There is, of course, a non-zero chance the time capsule will never be recovered. Someone else could buy UnSmoke and decide to remove “that goddamned weird art thing in the parking lot.” Or BrokenDayton could eventually disband, or otherwise cease to exist, and the time capsule is forgotten. Maybe the opposite will be true, and some years hence the collective will be thriving; a going concern in the arts scene. The artists and their families returning with a hydrogen-powered, monster hovertruck (this is the future, right?) to rip the crypt from the ground.
What I would prefer, but have not told anyone, is that the time capsule never be unearthed. I like to imagine the time capsule’s crypt, some decades hence, chipped and marred by the steady march of time. Situated inside an enclosed, verdant garden, surrounded by an assortment of other cryptic artefacts. Its origin, purpose, and creators forgotten. A quirky part of the scenery to the people regularly around it, one that’s rarely if ever given a second thought.
Just another odd, enduring bit of art. Like the town in which it resides.
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