If you're trapped, getting out is the thing [1]

Figure 1: Exit sign inside Stelco.

The conflux of the words factory and art wash over the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario.

Across industrial Hamilton, the rough touch of smoke stacks draw out clouds that float a shroud of smog over the city. The city was built on an industrial economy and that history has sculpted it. Since early in the twentieth-century steel and the factories that produce it kept thousands of working-class families housed and fed (well at the same time torturing the city’s air and water via industrial by-product). But since the 1980s steel in Hamilton has faced a long and slow decline. As manufacturing has shifted to places with lower labour costs and fewer regulations the city’s position as a major manufacturing hub has begun to melt away. Most of the jobs in steel are gone. For the last decade or so another industry has begun to define Hamilton. From T-shirts to painted text on the sidewalk of James Street North, the city has been plastered with the phrase, art is the new steel. What does this mean? Is art a commodity? Will arts jobs appear and employ the vast majority of the city's population like steel used to? Will those jobs have fair pay? Benefits? A pension? Will they be supported by a union?

Figure 2: My brother Nathan, an industrial millwright at Stelco and a member of the USW Local 1005 union.


As the job security that steel could once provide has shifted to on-and-off employment Hamiltonians find themselves looking for work in other places. For Hamiltonian artists who decide to leave the steel mill behind, an exit from the factory appears to be in sight. Instead, opting out of a life on the factory floor with hopes of producing emotion and attention rather than steel opens the door to another kind of factory. An artist is a factory worker of sorts; a double. Both are responsible for production and both are subject to exploitation. The art school floor is coated in uniform industrial-grade grey paint.

Factory and art have, for at least a hundred years, been involved in a dialogue with and against each other that the artists themselves have experienced as productive.[2] The factory worker produces a commodity. The artist produces affect; affect that sometimes is produced by an object that can also be a commodity.

Some of the most popular museums in the world are old industrial buildings. That or the museum is built to mirror one as in the case of Centre Pompidou in Paris. In recent years all sorts of industrial buildings have begun to transform into museums, exhibition spaces, or artists' studios. In Hamilton, Cotton Factory is an example. In a gesture of adaptive reuse, the former site of the Imperial Cotton Co. has been repurposed as a creative industrial complex. Art loves appropriating the aesthetics of industry; glamorizing working-class sites but often ignoring the precarious lives of the workers left behind.

Relentless Productivity

The basic argument of Hito Steyerl's essay Is a Museum a Factory? is as follows: Now, because more and more factories are being converted into museums, it is about time to ask what these two seemingly diametrically opposed institutions have in common that makes it so easy to transition from one to the other.[3] She writes that workers who left the factory have ended up inside another one: the museum.[4] If the factory is everywhere, then there is no longer a gate by which to leave it – there is no way to escape relentless productivity.[5] 

Productivity means different things to different people. In art through the eyes of capitalism productivity is a prolific practice of producing precious and costly one-of-a-kind objects. Art where dollar value outshines the content and context of the work. But art can also be an industry responsible for enriching life. In this view, what productivity means and how it is measured are very different. This kind of art – this kind of value – is difficult to commodify. The paying art world desires objects, not the labour that goes into an object, or even worse, artistic labour that doesn't even result in a saleable object.

Similarly, It is clear what goes into factories and what comes out of them. But the production process, the actual work process, is hardly ever shown.[6]

In his book Ways of Seeing John Berger touches on the problem that arises when processes of manual labour are hidden or deleted from an artwork.

The majority of the population does not visit art museums as they don’t see themselves in them.

The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth. Or, to put this another way, they believe that original masterpieces belong to the preserve (both materially and spiritually) of the rich.[7]

To make the invisible visible:
The team responsible for the phrase art is the new steel was The Print Studio, now renamed Centre[3], a nonprofit centre on James Street North since 2004. It took workers to sew the T-shirts, others to screen print them, and others to market and sell them. Not to mention the arts community as a whole that continues to work away in the shadow of industrial Hamilton helping to slowly grow faith in the slogan. Many hands and hours have been responsible for crafting this new reputation of Hamilton as a city where art is manufactured.

Towards a Goal

As Hamilton approaches and arrives at post-Fordism, a phrase like art is the new steel is a place to aim for, not a place that has been arrived at. It speaks to the possible potential of arts in a rusting city. But how can art as the new steel move beyond a slogan on a T-shirt?

Reaching this potential is not possible in a meaningful way by simply advertising how creative a city is from the capitalist point of view of artistic productivity. Instead, it is the visible and authentic existence of an arts community, which, in Hamilton, exists in abundance. What does not exist is an arts community that receives economic validity anywhere near the scale of what the steel mills could once provide.

The conditions necessary for survival are labour-intensive, and it is nearly impossible to meet them and still leave time and energy for creativity.[8] In Hamilton, there are artists representing working-class communities from within; actively working with and for the thousands of residents who built the city but have been left behind as specialised machines have replaced the workforce and manufacturing has moved elsewhere. How can these artists have their bills paid by art the way steel might have once upon a time? What would happen if they did? More headspace to make art that enriches everybody's lives; more stories; more creativity in our day-to-day lives thanks to the ideas of well-rested and well-fed artists.[9]

North Stars or Something

For artists in Hamilton looking to validate their efforts as work, the 1969 formation of the Arts Workers’ Coalition in New York shines as a guiding light. Its members were artists and critics, including many conceptual artists who did not make traditionally saleable objects, aiming to publicly redefine themselves as workers – even, some would insist, proletarians.[10]

Another light shines towards santralistanbul in Turkey, a museum split in two. Half of the museum houses contemporary art devoted to cultural studies of the area. The other half is devoted to recording and remembering the building as it once was – from 1911 to 1983 the Silahtarağa Power Plant was responsible for lighting up Istanbul.

In the Tate archives, I looked at plans, blueprints and drawings, from when the Bankside Power Station made the transition into Tate Modern. The documents show: From the river back, at the axis of St. Paul’s Cathedral, sat warehouses, the power station, and coal storage. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like had Tate gone the same route as santralistanbul in Turkey. Maybe it's not too late. Maybe an artist can still do a show in the Tanks or across the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern that rebuilds them as they once were in Bankside Power Station. The exhibition could be invigilated by ex-workers, or friends and family of ex-workers who know their stories, for a wage in line with that of a unionized industrial worker, not a zero-hour contract arts worker.

A manilla folder in Tate’s archives contains photographs of Bankside Power Station that volunteer a look into what it used to be.

Image one: Black and white, horizontal.

Inside the turbine hall of Bankside Power Station is a maze of winding polished pipes, ladders, railing, and platforms. In the foreground, one large pipe arches from the middle of the image towards the bottom right-hand corner. Framed by the arching pipe is a well-kept worker inspecting the structure.

The backside of the photograph reads:


Image two: Black and white, horizontal, high contrast.

Sitting in front of a desk at the helm of a control room a single worker in crisp white coveralls and shinned black shoes talks into a phone. In front of the desk are many grey mechanical boxes housing buttons, levers, clocks, and readings. The room is extremely clean and well-organized.

Image three: Black and white, horizontal, grainy.

A grid of lights on the roof of the station sit in the foreground. Behind them, the Power Station is at full output. A hazy silhouette of the city peaks out behind plumes of industrial smoke.

Image four: Black and white, vertical.

The left half of the frame is glowing in white light. In the shadows on the far right are two workers, one on a ladder, and one loading a wheelbarrow.

The backside of the photograph reads:

Image five: Black and white, horizontal.

A row of vents lead towards a worker dressed in baggy coveralls and big boots that kick a blurred ball.

The backside of the photograph reads:
Football on the west roof during lunch.

Image six: Black and white, vertical.

Soon to be acquired by the Trustees of London's Tate Gallery, the Turbine Hall sits seemingly abandoned in the dirty and gloomy decommissioned electricity generating station. Caution tape covers broken railings. Behind all the unused machinery a tall window drapes light across the inside of the building.

The backside of the photograph reads:
First visit to Bankside Power Station, July 1993.

Imaginary Museum

Hamilton is in flux; the city and its industry will continue to change. The factories already feel anachronistic in some ways. At Stelco, one of the two giant steel manufacturers in the city, its mirror being Dofasco, coke ovens and cold rolling finishing works remain in operation but the plant has not produced steel since 2011. Many jobs have disappeared. Eventually the machines will be packed up and shipped overseas. Staff will be retrained and start working from home. Maybe in the future the ruins of the factories stretching across the industrial area of Hamilton will be declared a historical monument and developed into a museum.

Figure 1: Framed in the window of a tour bus is one of the Museum's blast furnaces.

I visited home in September. Whilst there I spent time on the 3rd-floor of the Hamilton Public Library to research the city's history and explore the archives. I sat in the reading room and leafed my way through the Stelco scrapbooks. As I encountered the archive it became a way to rethink the future well digging into the past. Each photograph became an entry into an imaginary museum. A museum where the site was taken as ready-made; the factory as a whole declared an artwork; a palimpsest of its former self. 

Figure 2: Two museum guests see a flaming charge pushed from the coke ovens.

It looks like this:
The whole trip through the plant takes two and a half hours and has all the fantastic imagery of a monstrous magic show. See it blasting, see it firing, see it pouring that red hot iron. It’s an awesome and at times breathtaking sight, this 850-acre tract of smoke, fire and heat that turns a mound of red iron ore and a pile of rusty scrap steel into a formidable finished product. Second-best clothes and walking shoes are recommended. The guidebook is titled Site Memory and weaves oral histories of factory workers with those of the museum workers who have taken their place. Museumgoers read stories of their day-to-day work rituals, working conditions, camaraderie, and resistance.

Figure 2: Most spectacular sight of all, for those who are there at the right time, is the operation of “tapping a heat” – emptying an open-hearth furnace of its molten steel.


Instead of waiting patiently for some deus ex machina to lead the way towards the exit, art workers and working artists can instead embrace the role of worker; labourer in the factory of cultural industries. I am compelled by what happens when art not only appropriates the aesthetics of the industry but takes on aspects of its form and wonder: What would happen if Hamilton truly embraced the entanglement of art and steel?

Authors Note:
Occasional sentences and phrases have been culled and collaged from an article titled “Steel Draws The ‘Tourists’” found in the Stelco scrapbooks of The Local History and Archives of Hamilton Public Library.

The source is:
“Steel Draws The ‘Tourists’”, The Hamilton Spectator, May 1, 1963, pp.34-37. The Steel Company of Canada Scrapbook, Vol.3, 1962-1971. The Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton, On.

Reference List:

[ 1 ] This line is adapted from the subtitle of Kurt Vonnegut's short story ‘A Deer in the Works’ published in the April 1955 issue of Esquire Magazine.

[ 2 ] Elsaesser, T. (2009) ‘Is a Factory a Museum?’. In Steyerl, H. Beyond Representation. Köln: Walther König, pp.239-246.

[ 3 ] Ibid.

[ 4 ] Steyerl, H. (2009) ‘Is a Museum a Factory?’. In Steyerl, H. Beyond Representation. Köln: Walther König. pp.228-235.

[ 5 ] Ibid.

[ 6 ] Rübel, D. (2010) ‘Factories as Places of Knowledge: Richard Serra and the Production Process’, in Sigler, F. (eds). Work: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery. pp.161.

[ 7 ] Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books. pp.24.

[ 8 ] The White Pube. (2021) Ideas For A New Art World. London. Rough Trade Books. pp.30.

[ 9 ] Ibid.

[ 10 ] Bryan-Wilson, J. (2012) ‘Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work since the 1970s’, in Sigler, F. (eds). Work: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery. pp.36.

Also see Bryan-Wilson, J. (2009) Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

Image List (in order of appearance):

[ Fig 1 ] Exit sign inside Stelco.

Photo by Nathan McMillan.

[ Fig 2 ] My brother Nathan, an industrial millwright at Stelco and member of the USW Local 1005 union.

Photo courtesy of Nathan McMillan.

[ Fig 6 ] Framed in the window of a tour bus is one of the Museum's blast furnaces.

Photo from the HPL archives.

“Steel Draws The ‘Tourists’”, The Hamilton Spectator, May 1, 1963, pp.34-37. The Steel Company of Canada Scrapbook, Vol.3, 1962-1971. The Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton, On.

[ Fig 7 ] Two museum guests see a flaming charge pushed from the coke ovens.


[ Fig 8 ] Most spectacular sight of all, for those who are there at the right time, is the operation of "tapping a heat" – emptying an open-hearth furnace of its molten steel.