Without having ever been inside, Andy Sternad and John Kleinschmidt (pictured) won a small commission to create a kind of organic cloud of a hanging installation at the old Goffe Street Armory.
Then they entered the building for the first time. Their eyes widened at one of the most magnificent indoor spaces in town.
They looked up at the array of riveted I-beam trusses that vault across the wooden floor of the drill hall 40 feet below. Instantly they knew their plans had to change. The building’s history and geometries took over and became a kind of third collaborator in their new conception.
The young artists’ radically changed art work – a military chevron-shaped geometric curtain of old rotting armory floor boards hanging by delicate nylon lines from the trusses – was being slowly installed on Wednesday.
“Against the Grain” will be one of 18 site-specific commissions filling up the Goffe Street Armory over the Oct. 11-12 “alternative space” weekend, the first of three weekends in the 17th edition of Artspace’s Citywide Open Studios (CWOS).
This year’s moniker is “Transported/Illuminated.” It features the alternative space weekend at the armory on October 11-12; the “Transported” weekend on Oct. 18-19, with visits and tours to artists’ studios citywide; and Erector Square weekend on Oct. 25-26.
The festivities, involving more than 300 area artists, about a third of whom will also be showing at the armory, kicks off with the main opening reception this Friday night at Artspace. (In deference to Yom Kippur, which coincides, a soft opening is taking place Thursday night, same time same place.)
The impressive 1929 Armory—now empty, owned by the city and slowly being secured against the ravages of delayed maintenance and ongoing roof leaks—was such a hit with the artists and visitors that a return engagement was called for, said Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder.
She cited the building’s “varied, quirky, and resonant spaces, most notably the drill hall,” where on Wednesday Kleinschmidt and Sternad, who are partners in Shallow Studio, were busy hanging the first of 150 nylon mason’s lines from the trusses.
The ceiling with its trusses and intricate metal webbing was not available for artists to use last year. This second time around they are making the most of it.
In addition to Kleinschmidt and Sternad’s hanging chevron curtain Jo Yarrington will be displaying seven glass panels from a cable hung at the southern end of the drill hall to catch the light pouring in from the transoms.
In between there will be a wide range of performance pieces and other work including as with years past utilizing the locker rooms, kitchens, music room, stairwells, and other spaces off the main drill hall area.
Wednesday Scott Schuldt (pictured), the facilities coordinator and co-curator for the armory installations, helped Kleinschmidt and Stenard ride up and down on the scissor lift and find the best way to attach their nylon lines to the flanges of the trusses. The unexpected thickness of the beams dictated using c-clamps.
An artist himself who is showing faux boxed artifacts (“Received from Parts Unknown”) hung in the stairwells off the armory’s main entrance, Schuldt is also a trained engineer. He needs to be in order to calculate the bearing loads of the exhibiting artists’ work, be their point man with the fire marshal, and also to trouble-shoot the armory’s ancient electrical system, featuring cartridge fuses.
“The artists have to share the electricity,” he pleaded.
Works such as Kleinschmdt and Sternad’s are the ones that “really make use of the size of the drill hall,’ Schuldt added.
Sternad said that when he and Kleinschmidt, both second-year students at the Yale School of Architecture, first arrived, they walked about the 146-by-213-foot drill hall, “and the space just kept getting bigger.”
They said they both knew instantly that the initial proposal, a kind of organic cloud of materials hanging from above and based largely on photographs they’d seen of the hall, was not going to work.
It was immediately clear that the “trusses are the most essential feature of the building,” Kleinschmidt said. “They are tectonic.”
So they were challenged by “how to make the space more measurable.” And they focused on the trusses with their old fashioned and beautiful riveting.
For example, Kleinschmidt said, just looking up at the trusses, you have no idea how wide they are. They dropped a test row of lines and then realized if they added another on the other side of the same beam and dropped those nylon lines, one could stand between the lines with your shoulders approximately the width of the truss.
“This was a way of relating your body to a space that’s huge. It was a weird sensation this morning. Standing, looking up, the truss felt closer. It changes for a second the way you understand it,” said Sternad.
After that came the notion to use old two-inch floor boards wrecked by rain and no longer usable to hang by eye hooks from the end of the lines. The young architect/artists then did some calculations lining up their curtain with the ends of the balcony that sits overlooking the hall on the Goffe Street side of the hall.
That balcony is itself a wonder, a heavy concrete floor balcony with a hundred built in seats in rows, all hung by cables from the trusses so that no supporting columns below would interfere with drilling. The artists’ conception gives a nod to it, lining up the ends of the chevron with the balcony ends.
When you have such a site as the drill hall and you make a site-specific or site-responsive installation, is there a danger that what you do might not augment and even subtract from the sublimity or the power of the space in the raw?
“It’s always a concern not to overdo it and detract from the sublime, but it helps to know why an amazing space is amazing,” Kleinschmidt answered.
Kauder said that 50 site-specific proposals were received for the armory, and 18 were chosen and given modest grant money. Kleinschmidt and Sternad received $350, which they are spending on mason line, c-clamps, and lots of eye-hooks, among other supplies. Artspace is providing the expertise of Schuldt to work with the installing artists and the scissor lift and cherry picker.
Kauder described Artspace as a partner with the city as it moves to upgrade the great pile of bricks for future uses, including possibly as basement storage for the Board of Ed and for arts groups.
Might the armory become a kind of permanent west side venue for the CWOS of the future, as the Erector Square studio location is on the east side of town?
Answer: Unlike the Pirelli Tire Building, which had been another of the artists’ favorite alternative spaces, but is isolated and has no surrounding neighborhood, the armory is so centrally located that Kauder has become “an ardent believer in the site’s enormous potential to build community.”
“We’re hoping for at least one more CWOS festival there. This past summer we received a few proposals from artists, including outdoor projections onto Goffe Street facade, that were just a bit too ambitious with our current staffing and so are being planned for next year. We are already at work on those projects,” she replied.