By Jan Åman
Harvesters and machine guns.
It was for the purpose of manufacturing this somewhat odd pair that the factory which now houses Färgfabriken was built in 1889. Helge Palmcrantz, entrepreneur and inventor, was the first owner and the man behind the inventions. There are a couple of etchings which depict the newly inaugurated factory. They show workers busy welding in an otherwise completely open hall. What must in reality have been filthy and noisy appears almost stark and graceful when rendered in drypoint.
When Palmcrantz died and his empire collapsed, Wilhelm Becker bought the premises. From 1903 until the 70s, they served as a paint factory. Then for a few years – in a state of growing disrepair – as a warehouse, a floorball court and as a site for various painting trials. This was because the owners were not granted permission to tear the building down. Which was probably more a matter of chance than of any conscious strategy on the authorities’ part. Most of Sweden’s factory heritage disappeared when the wealthy and modern nation wielded a wrecking ball to create air and light in the 60s and 70s.
When they were being used as a paint factory, the premises were constantly being remodelled to accommodate changes in production methods and working conditions. A mezzanine was added, interior divisions were erected and a number of spaces within the space were created. The open hall disappeared. But other things were added.
When Färgfabriken was being set up in 1995–6, those late 19th-century etchings were an important resource in returning the building to its original state. Behind all the additions and extensions it turned out that the original structure was intact: a cast-iron construction of hollow pillars in two rows and I-beams between the longer walls.
Ten years later David Byrne has turned the main hall into a musical instrument.
David has created something whose scope I did not at first see. He has turned the architecture itself, the space and its construction, into a musical instrument. The sounds are produced without any amplifiers at all, via vibrations and resonances. Visitors really will be able to “play the building”, with harmonies, bass and a rhythm section at their disposal.
This looks like more than mere coincidence. I can hardly think of a better way to celebrate our tenth anniversary.
Färgfabriken is no museum. We have no mission to fulfil, handed to us by the government or the local council. But Färgfabriken is no ordinary art gallery, either. We have no permanent collection or single sponsor who coughs up all the cash. Purely on our own survival instincts, we have had to define what we can contribute in the current social climate, locally in Stockholm as well as in a broader context.
One side of this is what we call our laboratory of the contemporary. We discovered that the independent cultural platform was a particularly useful tool for sparking a discussion and engendering debate on a wide array of issues. We could shoulder a role which other players – the media, businesses, politicians – cannot, but which they urgently need.
The other side is precisely what Playing the Building illustrates: we collaborate with artists and allow them to develop completely new projects, usually of a character which, for one reason or another, would make them impossible in an ordinary museum or art gallery.
Last year, Doug and Mike Starn went from twenty years of representing light phenomena through photography to actually creating light. The year before that, we had Carsten Höller changing exhibitions every day in order to add yet another element of confusion to the exhibition phenomenon. And before that, Maurizio Cattelan produced a miniature Hitler for Färgfabriken and stood him on his own in the large, empty space.
Playing the Building is something more than a site-specific installation. I’m not quite sure what to call it, but what David Byrne is exhibiting is really Färgfabriken itself. Only reformulated into a musical instrument.
Neither is it your average sound installation. Somewhere, Jorge Luis Borges is surely smiling at this opportunity to try a completely new instrument, like a new alphabet or language. Nobody knows what it may contain – and what music will be made with it. But everyone is welcome to test its possibilities. All you have to do is sit yourself down and play the building.