Braddock, Pennsylvania

“Transformazium uses the creative process in combination with locally identified resources to transform ideas into social and economic benefit.”

-transformazium mission statement-

Who: Leslie Stem, Dana Bishop-Root Ruthie Stringer, Caledonia Curry, The community of Braddock and North Braddock, P.A.
When: 2007- ongoing
Where: Braddock, and North Braddock, Pennsylvania
What: Collaborative, socially engaged art practice, rooted in a neighborhood.
Why: Life/art/creativity/transformation.

Transformazium is a collective of 4 artists and many collaborators who seek to apply the tools of art making to the challenges facing the neighborhood(s) we live in.

The questions we are looking at in Braddock, are questions faced by hundreds of towns across the United States. Maybe even thousands.

When I traveled down the Mississippi River, in towns along it’s shores I saw boarded up storefront after boarded up factory after boarded up house. Industry leaves. Shopping malls are built on the periphery. People divest. Things fall apart. And in America’s rustbelt, so much the same.

Collectively, Transformazium believes that one of the simplest and most profound things we can do for ourselves and our communities is to effect a change of perspective which shows us the value in what is present. All of our work in Braddock is more or less about revaluing what is there.

Let me tell you what I have seen and understood so far.

In 2007 I went with artists Leslie Stem and Chris Stain to create an installation in a small gallery in a town I had never heard of just outside of Pittsburgh. It was Leslie's idea. She and Chris and I had a plan to make a collaborative installation somewhere, and Leslie was looking for a town to move to where she could farm. She heard there were some stirrings in this small town called Braddock, in western Pennsylvania, of an urban farming movement, maybe some other environmental initiatives, and some artists getting involved. We went to go spend some time there and see what these rumors were about.

The couple of weeks we spent there were hard. I remembered the advice my friend George Graham had once given me, he said "You go somewhere thinking you're going to change a place, it'll change you more than you change it, every time."

There was a thick, sad, heaviness we felt, exploring around houses that looked like whole lives had been abandoned in the night, and their remains trashed little by little, over years. I don't think I expected it. I was prepared to romanticize the urban decay, to wonder at shafts of light pouring through rusted rafters, ribcages of the dead dinosaurs of the steel age, covered in vines in that way which always speaks of nature prevailing, no matter how hard civilization tries to control her to the inch.

Looking closer may always reveal something no single snapshot can capture, and this story is most certainly not that austere romantic picture. It’s many stories, about how the life of a place carries on once the industry and it’s jobs have left but the pollution remains. How neighborhood economies do or don’t stay in tact with the pressure of big box development vying to provide all the answers just down the road. And about people finding ways to re-envision opportunities unique to the particular pattern of how the pieces that have been lost fit together with the pieces that remain.

And then there was this church at the corner of Jones and Hawkins. Abandoned, and just about on it’s last legs before it would have to become a demolition like so many other demolitions this town had seen, whole structures crushed down into their foundations, all materials and all history lost. I walked in, and ghosts of possibility flooded my vision instantly. These are kind of visions you would like to ignore, because, if you had any sense, you would know the years of trials and tribulations that lay out ahead if you decide to follow them. But the one imperative of my life has always been a certain helplessness in the face of those sirens calling out to me from the rocky shores of possibility.

So, I did what I always do when that happens, and I started to talk it up with all my friends. What if? And do you think we could? And wouldn’t it be amazing if? And can you even? And would it matter? And would it work? and soon, between all my talk, talk, talk, and the conversations Leslie was having, we had built a small team of interested people, interested to see what we could create.

The back-story here is that John and Jeb, the mayor and his right hand wanted to save this building. They wanted to connect it with an enthusiastic and determined team who would be willing to going through the special set of laws in Allegheny county that would allow the property to be taken over by folks who could fix it -- and, in doing so, show others inside and outside of Braddock that it could be done.

Creating models, and showing possibility within the structures that already existed seemed well in line with our goals as creative thinkers, and so we took the leap.

Moving to Braddock as a team of 5, and me, the satellite member, still traveling and living in New York City, we became Transformazium.

“Transformazium has been working together on public and socially engaged projects since 2001. Our original point of connection was a shared interest in the expansion and democratization of public space in post September 11 New York City. Street art, graffiti, and acts of public celebration were our counterpoints to fear, privatization, silencing of dissent, and increased police presence. Eventually we began to struggle with the relevance of our projects–we felt as though we were talking to ourselves. We found meaning instead in youth development, farming, and food security issues. In 2007, we moved to North Braddock, PA. The new sets of resources and challenges that we encountered here have deepened and widened our practice immeasurably. Our model for our practice is relationship based. We are neighbors. Our intention is to examine systems of value; make room for new systems; use the tools of the artist to call attention to existing wealth and strength; use the established social value of art to amplify voices and direct resources; use art and design methods to meet practical needs for information and communication in our neighborhood; speak to multiple audiences and facilitate communication between neighborhoods and communities.”

Transormazium introduced itself to the community of Braddock through the “Points of Interest” project where we paired artists from around the country with teens from the Braddock Youth Project, a successful youth employment program that works on projects all over the neighborhood. The teens identified spaces in their neighborhood that they felt were in need of a little attention, and then partnered with artists to help them execute murals and sculptural installations that would reactivate those spaces.

So far so good.

Shortly after, the neighborhood screen printing shop was born. A local screen printing business donated some no longer needed equipment, and the Braddock Carnegie library donated the space and the transformers set to work creating a neighborhood resource for graphic communication of all kinds.

The past 5 years have seen the creation of the “Resident artist in Residency” program, a conduit to offer recognition and resources to creative residents of Braddock, a “Neighborhood Conversation Starter” position developed at the local farm stand, whereby a local resident is employed to create conversations and seek connections between sets of needs in the community, and the construction of a super-adobe dome from the dirt dug out of the foundations of a nearby house which is almost complete, and sits in the lot adjacent to the church.

This and countless other large projects, and daily small gestures make up life in Braddock, but, in truth, I, not a full time resident, am unable to accurately explain them. I have been only tangentially involved with most all of these wonderful projects -- but through my little bit of involvement with each of them, have learned an incredible amount about dedication, thoughtfulness, and creating work that truly is an asset to a community. They would be embarrassed to hear me say it, but I would venture that there is a kind of a selflessness to the working process of Dana, Ruthie, and Leslie, which in all honesty gives me little shivers of awe when I really stop to think about it.

Life in braddock has been challenging. Two of the initial team of five left after the first year. Progress has been slower than planned on the rehabbing of the church building, though some of that slowness was planned in. There was a sense that the best way to know we were doing something that would be vital and necessary, that would respond to the needs of the community, while also creating a landmark that might be recognized outside of Braddock, would be to live and work there for a while. To establish trust amongst our neighbors, to see the neighborhood through some seasons and cycles, and to know that we were working from an understanding that can only grow through long-term commitment.

We have engaged our neighbors as economically compensated art producers in our Family Portrait Project. We have created an accessible graphic communication tool with our Neighborhood Screen Printing Shop. Our 15104 Communication Network creates a paid position for resident communication experts, and values our neighbors’ skills with our Human Resource Guide. We explore ways to activate the relationship between the buildings in a neighborhood and the people who make the neighborhood. We are currently developing our Resident Artist in Residence and Neighborhood Building projects.

We have found ourselves between two realities of our locale. (1) a town marked by industrial collapse, population loss, blight and abandonment, and public health challenges. (2) a town aggressively marketed as a place of opportunity for artists and creative professionals. In navigating these realities, we have listened to our neighbors and examined our responsibility to our neighborhood. We have at many points been reticent to involve ourselves deeply with the larger art world and its institutions because we have been uncertain how our whole neighborhood can interact with these institutions (when one segment of our neighborhood—young, mostly white artists, including ourselves—has the capacity to interact with art institutions seamlessly, troubling issues of power and representation surface, especially when “art” is being described as a strategy to revitalize). We are now at a point where we want to push against these issues and expand our conversation. We trust in the strength of our local relationships, and are excited by the opportunities to expand our local.