Ingrained is a collaborative exhibition on view at Automat through April 15, 2016. 319 N 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
Personal interview with artists Abby King and Marie Manski
HIWP: What inspired you to create an exhibit on the history of the 319 N 11th Street Building, known in art school / independent art vernacular as the ‘Vox Building?’
AK: Well I have had a space on the sixth floor, studio space, since we graduated from PAFA; for the last two years or so. For a lot of people I know, it has been a kind of center. Most of us who have art studios in the building are not native to Philadelphia, we’re transplants, and that building is sort of how I learned about he contemporary art scene in Philly. Through PaFA, I made friends with the Marginal Utility folks: David Dempewolf and Yuka Yokoyama. And I decided to leave the space to get an in-house studio, which I regretted pretty much instantly and was able to get my studio back. But that is when I started thinking about how to take this space with me, and I was printing the floor and thinking about the architecture of the inside of the building but also the building itself and the grubbiness of it and I realized I didn’t know a lot about it. And we’re there a lot. The fact that we even call it “the Vox building” it doesn’t totally have an identity. You know, it’s not the Crane, its an unknown, dirty building in Chinatown. Thats sort of what I was interested in and I talked Marie into applying for an Automat open call for a smaller version of the show. They wanted us to expand it. I also really like the format of interviewing people. I did that for a previous show in Delaware and we together came up with the idea of interviewing people and then using those personal stories as a jumping off point. Something that matters a lot to me is that we’re not art historians or city planners, we’re not any of those things, we’re artists. We are not trying to do a comprehensive history of the building, that would be a lifelong project. We planned to, in a really pretty short timeframe, talk to as many people as we could and gather stories to then interpret. For us it was about creating a sensory experience of the building. First it was the woodgrain that would be the fabric, and from there it was interviewing people. It felt like a puzzle. We had all these things, and certain things would repeat. And certain things stuck in our minds, and for a while we were stuck on the idea of a “hive,” because it is this tall building. That didn’t make it to in the endgame. We edited a lot.
MM: The project started when Abby was moving out of her studio in the 319 building. She was moving to a home studio and wanted to create a keepsake to take with her, so she began taking prints of the floor. Since then she has moved back to her studio and for both of us Ingrained has been a process of reflection on the history of the building. We’ve learned that it was first a cigar factory when the building was established in 1937, then it became a novelty factory, and then a garment factory. Since then it has evolved into a mixed-use space. We wanted to learn as much as we could about the building from as many perspectives as possible. That’s sort of the mantra we’ve been saying when we introduce the project to people. And as new pieces of information kept unveiling themselves, they led to new clues.
HIWP: There’s still people sewing in there.
MM: On the second floor.
AK: Yeah that is the last bit of it. For a while it took up at least two floors. So Bob Weinten, the landlord, bought the building in the 70s. His business was sewing machine repair company. He bought this building and filled it with sewing factories, like the perfect business model, as Scott Kip would say. For a while, Steven Dufala was saying, the basement was filled with broken sewing machines. I would love, If we ever had enough money, to just build a monument of broken sewing machines. Sewing came up a lot and I think thats something that Marie has a closer connection with, and Steven sews his own cloths.
MM: Bob’s wife is interested in art so maybe that is why the building is the way it is. Bob, he sees the building as his gift to his children. He won’t sell until he dies or until he gifts it over to his children. He sees it as a legacy because his family owned a building in Chinatown and they gave that to him, and so he sees that that way. That’s a little bit of the security of it. Who knows…that neighborhood is rapidly changing…well, as Scott Kip says, “it’s been rapidly changing, slowly for years.” People have different perspectives on how fast and slow things are changing.
HIWP: It feels to me like this building is THE independent art scene hub in Philly. I mean, there should be more and hopefully there will be, but it seems like, I mean, for Bob’s wife “being interested in art,” that’s quite good!
AK: I think that’s why we wanted to do the project. I think it is. I mean there are good spaces but I think…I mean you’ve got Vox [Populi], and Vox seems to be the anchor of the space. It’s only been there for less than 10 years. It was in a building on Cherry Street, right across from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts MFA studios, before the convention center was built.
MM: The Gilbert Building.
AK: Yeah, and they had Vox and Fabric Workshop was in there. And when they tore that down to build the convention center, and that’s when Vox moved over [to the 319 building]. We actually found out that deal was brokered by Jamie Dillon, who was one of the Black Floor people. Black Floor Gallery was the first gallery space in the building. That’s why the Aux Performance Space floor is painted black. That’s left over from this gallery called Black Floor Gallery. In the early 2000s, the Black Floor was a really interesting space. Before that it had just been people with artist spaces there, and there were still prevalent sewing factories. But this group of – they all kind sound like punks – there were this group of people from Cincinnati, which is where I lived. This is so interesting to me, because there’s all sorts of weird connections. Like I could talk with Jamie Dillon about Cincinnati, and Over-the-Rhine, and the same community there. But part of why I like Philly is its so similar to Cincinnati…but its cooler. But they all moved here together. Jamie got into Tyler School of Art and people moved with him. And they put up this gallery. Black Floor gallery was there for a few years and then that ended. Some of those members are still there, some are part of Practice, and Jamie runs a t-shirt company, but they had some really influential people show, like Shepard Fairey, Alex Da Corte, they had a show featuring Swoon.…
MM: But apparently when Vox was in the Gilbert Building, it had the same sort of prestige and cleanliness that Fabric Workshop does. It was not the kind of space that it is now in the 319 building. It was very clean, polished, white walls. It’s my thought that they became the anchor because they brought over that prestige that they established so long ago in the Gilbert Building.
AK: I’ve been told that they are sort of the oldest totally artist-run coop. I know places like The Plastic Club and other people would totally argue with that because they’re only 30 years old but they’ve been around. So they anchor it [the art presence in the building]. Next to move in was Tiger Strikes Asteroid, and then places like Napoleon popped up, Marginal Utility popped up, and they kind of all formed organically. None of it was planned. I think that’s why it is such a great artist hub: it’s all in one building. Many artist-run places co-habit one space. We interviewed the “kids” who just started The Great Far Beyond. They are all still at school at Tyler. They know they have a built-in audience without even advertising. There aren’t a lot of places like that. Maybe old city in the summer. But your demographic is different [there].
HIWP: Marie, I know the labyrinth is very important to you…Can you describe its importance and how that comes into play in this exhibition? Can you both describe what the labyrinth means to you in this exhibition?
MM: In my artistic practice it is important for me to engage the audience in an experience. It is my hope that their experience can be inwardly and outwardly reflective. I have found that the goals that I have run parallel with that of the goals of labyrinths and I have been exploring how to use the labyrinth as a template for experience.
HIWP: That makes sense to me, because the labyrinth is built for meditation. You don’t have to find your way through. If you follow it, you’ll go in and out….
AK: I think that is important to note too. It’s a labyrinth, not a maze. We talked about it because its not a traditional labyrinth. But it isn’t a funhouse either.
MM: It is a hybrid between a maze and a labyrinth.
AK: Mazes are whimsical, and yeah, you win. But this is about the actual experience.
MM: In this specific exhibition, the labyrinth walls are made of prints of the wood grain floor. We are giving the audience a view of what they would normally glance over or ignore, bringing more importance to it. By putting the floor at eye level, I hope that the audience can reflect on all of those who have walked the floor in the past. I feel like that’s maybe one of the many reasons for using the labyrinth in this space, but I think that was the main reason for using it: to draw attention to the floor and have it tell a story about the space. It is what we walk on and what is a part of our everyday reality but we don’t maybe give it that much weight and attention.
AK: We literally elevated the floor. In hopes that people would maybe look back down at it too. I mean, we didn’t want to pull a perfect wood grain. They still look like paintings or objects, but we did want it to represent the floor, and have the same grittiness of the floor.
HIWP: It’s pretty high too, I mean, it goes way above your head.
MM: Yeah, depending on how tall you are. Haha. That is something we always had to consider when we were building it: the range of people who have to experience it, from child to, you know, a man who’s 6 feet, 6 inches, and what it would be like for each of those people. It is mostly designed for adult height.
AK: I think the other thing I didn’t think about was the amount of people. My ideal audience is still a small group. One woman commented about how you run into people and that was really interesting and how that simulated the building in another way, and she was like it reminds me of the hallways and how you get stuck. There were people pushing and I did see someone like knock into it and that changed the meditative quality of it.
MM: Reminds me of when I went to check on – we’re calling them vignettes, one of the mini installations within the labyrinth – someone said, “Hey, who are you?” And we started a conversation, and they said, “‘This is a really good place to meet people!’ haha….”
HIWP: How did you go about gathering information for your research? Who did you interview? How long did you research?
AK: So, the research part took longer than anything else. I slowed down our process…things got stressful at the end…I think because it was so important for me, for us to have so many hours, and for me to listen to all of them and transcribe a lot of them. I wanted to get people’s words as close as I could. Because I think I hear things differently. I know I twist things. But yeah, we started at the source: with Scott Kip. Who I think is at the center…. He is the artist that’s been there the longest; he has been there for fifteen years. His studio is on my floor and he is a friend and we knew if we started with him…he kind of gave us his blessing and helped us find a lot of other people. We started with him and it was all very casual. The interview was also, selfishly, a way for me to get to know all these artists I’ve wanted to know for a while. We got to chill in Steven Dufala’s house, and he gave us a tour of old Dufala work and work from artists like Sarah McEneaney. So we kind of branched off from there. We talked to Jamie Dillon from Cincinnati. We talked to David and Yuka of Marginal Utility. I feel like they’re my art parents. We were definitely aware that we stayed within our own network. These are people we met because of my studio mate, these are our connections, this is our community. So that’s why we did the “Whiskey For Your Thoughts” program. That was a way to get other perspectives. As much as I kind of feel like we wrote a little bit of a love letter to the space, I didn’t want to be too gushy. And we wanted to hear from people. And we did, we heard from people who had not always positive things to say about the space…. So, the program was super pop-up DIY. We came with the table, didn’t even tell the gallery we were doing it. So we set that up “in the cover of darkness,” we brought a table down from my studio, covered it in black paper, dressed all in black, slicked our hair back, we were almost unrecognizable. A couple people I talked to didn’t realize it was me for a second. We were incognito and we talked to people. We also split ways. I talked to people from Little Berlin and they were like, this place isn’t the center of the universe and people need to stop thinking that. It was a good collection. Of course, everyone is afraid of when everything gentrifies. And, of course, this place is going to be condos. Of course; it’s an inevitability.
MM: We started our research with interviewing people who have longstanding relationships with the building and Philadelphia. Each interview offered us not only more information, but more leads to other people who would have information about the building. We also interviewed Jamie Dillon, David Dempewolf, Yuka Yokoyama, Steven Dufala, Chris Ryan, and Sarah McEneaney. The other thing I wanted to note about the “Whiskey For Your Thoughts,” or “Confession Session,” as people were calling it, is that we focused on three main questions: -what they knew about the past of the building, -what they thought about the present, and -what they knew, or what they hoped, the future was going to be for this building. And we got, really again, a lot of different responses. I talked to a lot of people who, I feel like a quarter of the people I talked to, it was their first time there ever! So that was really kind of interesting.
AK: So the project, or at least the research, is unfinished. And we know this. When the project comes down, the exhibition, that iteration will be done but…. But I feel like it’s a big, big project too, what we created. Part of using other people’s stories makes it limitless in a way. Not that we have to continue but there are so many other stories and ideas. And I would like to know more about Vox Populi itself.
HIWP: How much does what you learned play a part in the artwork you are showing? Did aesthetics come toward your research, or from it? Are there interpretation aspects that come more personally from one of you and your experience with the building? Abby, you’re in the building working, and Marie, you are attending, but you both are very connected.
MM: I think the overall aesthetic of the project came from our individual practices. This is speaking for how the work looks: we both predominantly use black and white and sometimes a bit of intentional color. The interviews we conducted and the stories we gathered directly influenced and created the works exhibited in “Ingrained.” Although, there are a few pieces that are not depictions of stories; there are some vignettes within the labyrinth (the mirror for example) that are interpretive. Because I see the present moment (or at least this is the way I interpreted the mirror part) is that I see the present moment as part of the history of the space, I wanted to include a nod to those who walk the labyrinth, as being a part of the history of the building too. There are also some very literal depictions of stories too. In a very interpretive way. For example, the piece with the purple light that had the sound of heels walking back and forth, that is a nod to what the fourth floor used to be which is, well…I’ll let you take it…
AK: Well, so, where Jeff Stockbridge’s photo studio is now, was an S/M dungeon. A man, and they could hear late at night the sound of heels walking across the whole floor. And this person left suddenly. No one saw it in operation except for Jamie Dillon. The guy showed it to him and it was all purple and wall-to-wall-carpet. It was all very DIY: Constructed with 2x4s and painted black and purple. He showed Jamie this wall with leather masks sewn to it. So that was there while Black Floor was in operation. So you had this on the fourth floor and Black Floor on the third floor and it was recalled that a couple times people dressed for an S/M scene would show up to the Black Floor gallery, like “nope! wrong floor!” So that’s happening at the same time: you have this prominent art gallery that’s getting a lot of attention and then you’ve got an S/M dungeon and you’ve got sewing factories, and they’re all having overlapping exhibits and activities and business hours, in the same building.
MM: Truly a “Mixed-Use Space!”
AK: Yes, parts that are cleaner and parts that are dirtier and parts that are….
HIWP: What years was the S/M studio active?
AK: I think it was early 2000s. Because Scott Kip has been there for 15 years so I think he moved in in 2001. Jamie and them moved in maybe a couple years later. I think they were there a solid 2 years with no one. They convinced Steven to moved in a couple years later.
MM: Jeff Stockbridge is on the fourth floor now. He runs a photography and print studio.
AK: His printing studio did our elevator image. So we used in-house printing!
HIWP: I like that elevator moment a lot because I walked through the labyrinth three times before I saw that. It’s one of several moments within the piece that feel like a discovery when you come to them.
AK: So I guess to answer your question again too about the visuals and the style of the show: I agree with Marie that we brought what we had to offer, to meet the research. And Marie took more the lead on the ideas for the vignettes. We worked on them together but I was surprised how some of them incorporated my skill sets already! But there were certain ones like the hole specifically was really important to me that it stylistically felt like the building. The hole was the big graffiti trash pile I made. That’s what we called it: the hole. The shit that is in the hole, I, at two in the morning, while it was raining, walked around Chinatown, no more than a three-block radius, that was a rule of mine, and gathered up trash. So I wanted it to feel as much like you were in the hallway as possible: the smell and the feel and the look of it. That was something too, to push my own aesthetic to be even dirtier and grittier.
HIWP: For me the mirror was a very striking moment. This moment lived on in my imagination as an eerie experience of being visually consumed by the pattern on the labyrinth fabric walls, which I know to be impressions of the floor on the 6th floor of the building. For both of you, how much do these happenings within the labyrinth have to do with history, how much with personal experience, and how much with the psychology of inhabiting or visiting the building?
AK: In preparation, Marie made all these really beautiful, whimsical drawings that visualized everything we were talking about. And it surprised me that the mirror and the hole came through more, which follows some of the recurring language in my personal work. I really like your idea, Marie, about being in the present moment. I think we created an optical allusion in a way. And it drew attention to the [actual] floor which was really important. And Marie did really beautiful, hand-painted lettering on the floor. So it drew attention to the floor and created a moment. We thought a lot about sensory overload with the floor. We thought a lot about scale too. We wanted it to be big and giant and dirty. And not everything was going to be that way. And I think the mylar was even more simple. We pared down a lot. And it was just about being in that space. Which brings you to this idea of presentness. Which I really liked. It’s not all bells and whistles…it’s not a funhouse.
MM: Well as you know I have a tendency to draw in a childlike way, that’s just how it comes out. And we both felt like that wasn’t the tone of the show. I guess the overlap there is maybe that there’s…discovery. You are afforded the opportunity to discover something. You have your lens to look through when you experience that. So, it can be interpreted infinite ways. But yeah I think we tried to balance the sensory experience that was distributed throughout the labyrinth. The hole was a consolidation of experience whereas the mirror tried to be simple. Other pieces tried to be more descriptive, maybe like the cigar or the elevator. I think the heels tried to be more mysterious. We tried to include a balance of what one would experience. We wanted the piece to hopefully play like a song an have a progression to it. And that’s individual for each person but I think hopefully they get to experience each piece and they make their own format for experience.
AK: I think it was also just such a huge undertaking, that I thought more about time than money. Like if we had more time…. Like for the mirror, the thing the mylar stopped short for me was that it was important to me to have the architect, the builders, and the date written on the floor, and to then draw attention back to the floor. Because that’s where it started. I love your idea of the present moment, but I also really wanted the reflection, I wanted that to be there. And the mylar doesn’t totally translate that. It starts to, to a really really observant person, but it’s not as obvious. We put a light there. We definitely put more into the research than is evident. We’re giving ourselves a little critique….
HIWP: Would you consider 319 predominantly a “reclaimed space,” an “abandoned space,” an “art collective,” or something else?
MM: I see the space as constantly searching for and discovering its identity. I feel like our research has proven that this space (and all spaces) are constantly in flux. The majority of people we interviewed are afraid of the space being sold to create condominiums, and maybe that is what will happen next, but I believe it shows you that everything has a life. And maybe instead of seeing change as death, we could just see it as change. I am sure the community was disappointed to see the cigar factory and garment factories leave, but I believe it shows one how to look at the present and try to see it for what it is. I feel like this way of thinking leads back to why I am interested in labyrinths, because as opposed to a maze, there is one way in and one way out, the labyrinth is designed to guide, as opposed to disorient. And above all else labyrinths are designed to make one aware of the present moment. So…yeah I see it as something that is constantly in flux and I guess I don’t see that as a bad thing. That is sort of the natural life of everything, in history. Ha, and I guess that is sort of a big way to say things or to think about things. And its normal to be sad to see something that you created die, or a part of your culture leave; that is sad. But there is a beauty in that aIso in that cultures, don’t have to just die, they can also merge, and form something else. And ultimately we create the culture that we live in so we actually have power and agency in making what we want to be in the world. And as artists that gives us a really special perspective and responsibility.
AK: I think I agree with you in that there is no single identity of the building. There’s still even businesses. I think that is why I like the space is that there isn’t a singular identity of the space, there’s no organization. There happen to be a bunch of really great artist spaces there but there’s no governing body deciding that that happens. And that’s why there can be all these weird permutations. Like with Crane, where Crane has people organize that stuff. A decision that’s been made. Curated, in a way. I don’t think this building has been curated, I think its like a really happy accident. Scott Kip found that place by skateboarding around and seeing a sign. And then he brought another person. And how did the Cincinnati people find it? They saw an ad in the city paper. No one was talking to each other. And now there’s starting to be more discussion but it still won’t be a conglomerate. And I love that about it. And there’s still industry. There is a giant humidor in the basement. There’s still a sewing factory. It’s still a dirty building with a rich history, where a bunch of weird shit has happened.
HIWP: So the last question, this is kind of a big question. This is like my big question for a life time, but: Sometimes I think of buildings in Philadelphia as forgotten spaces. Do you think this idea comes into play in your practice in general as local artists? Does this ever affect you inwardly/in your practice/manifest in your work?
AK: I don’t know if the word forgotten would apply. I would say it’s “overlooked” or “under the radar.” But the Vox building, it’s a buzzing, buzzing place. Like I loved the people who called it “the hive,” because that’s how I see it. Working there late at night, installing the show, even at 2 in the morning I realize that people are there. People are there all the time. It’s not forgotten. But I think it is overlooked. It’s a space that’s not necessarily given the care it needs but it is given just enough. And Bob makes sure everything’s up to fire code so it’s not unsafe to be there, but that’s as much as it’s going to get. It’s very DIY. In my own practice, definitely the idea for the printing came from my fascination with old buildings. The building is only from the 1930s, and in Kentucky where I am from, that would be considered and old building. But here, that’s young. I think also, the architecture starts to seep into your art work. Wood has been a really important thing. It’s a major component of Philadelphia in general, and I see that a lot with our PaFA classmates’ aesthetic. I notice that from being in the building, I become obsessed with the woodgrain and old things. When you said forgotten, I don’t like the idea of “ruin porn” and I don’t want to fetishize something unjustly. Part of why I love this building is it’s not abandoned, it’s not totally falling apart and it still has utility. And I think the decay at the Vox building is at the perfect level where people can still use it and make beautiful work and it can be a great space. And it is just lo-fi enough that there’s no risk in doing something dirty like destroying my studio floor to make hundreds of yards of prints, without any problem.
HIWP: Right, you do not have the barriers that come from particular standards or rules that limit creative operations in other buildings.
MM: This abandoned building that I remember most from when I was a kid was this abandoned stable that was on my bus route growing up. I remember driving past. Whenever you see something so much, it becomes like a movie that plays in your memory. I remember one time I actually explored it, I went there to take pictures. It was the first time I was aware of being in an abandoned building. But I talked about that fir place on Broad Street…. When we began this project I realized that I knew next to nothing about the 319 Building before it housed galleries. When I walk around Philadelphia, I see history everywhere. There is one building in particular that comes to mind. It’s on Broad and Wharton and the sign reads “Meglio Furs”. I hope I’m saying that right. There are outdated mannequins and sun faded posters in the display windows. Every time I walk by, I imagine what it was like in its heyday. It was probably this amazing business that everybody who was of a certain status went to…but yet it’s frozen in time. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the time you are in but I try to see the present moment as history in the making. I feel like Philly is a vital component of my artistic practice. And since moving here, Philadelphia has changed the way that I see the world in a very big way. Well, that and the the internet, has changed the way I see the world. I don’t think I would have the same experience of interacting with the internet if I had stayed where I’m from. It wouldn’t have played as big of a role in my life. And in that sense I feel so much more aware of things that I would never have been aware of in my life, just what’s going on in the world. Yeah, I feel like spaces in Philly, or even just my experience in Philly in general, socially, has not only changed who I am as a person, but my artistic practice, who I am and how I try to engage my audience because its the audience I am trying to engage. So I might as well try to understand as fully as I can.