ART REVIEW: "INGRAINED" at Automat Collective

Graffiti. BDSM. Cigars. Sewing. The 319 N. 11th street building contains multitudes. Collaborators Abby King and Marie Manski investigate the stories and history of the space, inviting participants to explore a labyrinth whose walls are the literal fingerprint of the building. See, smell, hear, touch, and reimagine the past, present and future of the space.

With this tantalizing, spare description of INGRAINED, Abby King and Marie Manski invite the viewer into their large-scale indoor installation that uses all of the senses to create a living history of the historic 319 N. 11th street building, on whose third floor AUTOMAT Gallery sits. They have created what is essentially a labyrinth inside the gallery, separating open floor space into narrow passageways divided by black-and-white cloth suspended from the ceiling. Viewers are encouraged to wander inside this maze and to navigate its blind corners and dimly lit walkways.
Installation view. Photo by the author.

INGRAINED’s opening on March 4, 2016 coincides with a whirl of crowded receptions all along the hallways and across several floors of this charmingly run-down building. While most of the galleries with opening exhibitions provide a slight refuge from the ever-present buzz in the background, upon entering INGRAINED one first notices the heavy, thumping sound of recorded footsteps. On this night, AUTOMAT’s generous gallery space is dimly and warmly lit, with a slightly smoky, industrial smell lingering in the air.

Walking into the maze, the viewer encounters several installations of varying size that reflect the history of the building as described by the artist. In one corner of the maze a cigar box sits on a white pedestal under a spotlight.  The box reads “GHP CIGAR CO VINCEO PHILADELPHIA,” which emphasizes the uniquely Philadelphian aspect of INGRAINED, grounding the work as a whole in a definite sense of place. In one of the passageways, a mass of dangling paper cutouts of scissors hangs like a mobile, representing the work of the seamstresses who once toiled in this building. In another corner of the labyrinth is what looks like a rough, exposed wall covered with graffiti and surrounded by loose wood, tires, trash, and traffic cones, referencing a grittier side of the building’s past. On one cloth “wall” of the maze is what appears to be a reproduction of a rectangular chain link fence that functions as a sort of blurry window. On the other side of this false window is an image of a red door, also attached to the cloth wall, in a building that is slowly crumbling. Lastly, hanging above one passageway is a purple mood lamp that, while unrelated explicitly to BDSM, evokes a kind of sensuality, giving this small space a more intimate feel that persists despite the variety of ambient noises at play.
Installation view. Photo by the author.

The way the audience interacts with the installation mirrors the idea behind the work itself: part of the experience of this installation derives from people accidentally running into each other around the labyrinth’s blind corners—people from varied walks of life, coming to see the show, who may not have ever met if they hadn’t bumped into one another in this maze. The audience’s random, uncontrolled interactions within the installation reference how people with all sorts of professions and all sorts of backgrounds have collided and interacted within the 319 building over its long history. INGRAINED also manages to bridge a common gap in art-viewing between those two types of people who might come to an art exhibition—those in the know and those not so familiar with art—by creating a universal experience that everyone who experiences the installation can in various ways understand and appreciate.

Automat Collective + Gallery is the newest inhabitant of the 319 N. 11th street building, the charmingly run-down former industrial building north of Chinatown whose tenants include Philadelphia artist-run mainstays NAPOLEON, Grizzly Grizzly, Practice, Vox Populi, and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Opened in January 2015 by a group of recent Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art graduate students, Automat has succeeded, with INGRAINED, in facilitating an exciting mode of interaction with the exhibition that is both thoughtful and playful, as well as utterly memorable, and succeeds in honoring the idiosyncratic city in which it is located.