Recently I visited “Finished Goods Warehouse”, an exhibition featuring the work of 56 artists from the Columbia University MFA program. “Presented in the ‘finished goods warehouse’ of the former Pfizer plant in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” the press release reads, “the title of the show riffs on the exhibition’s site within the plant and also alludes to the nature of an exhibition as the event that marks the culmination of a complex creative process.” With that in mind, I couldn’t help but think of the exhibition as a benchmark of another unmentioned process.
Urban neighborhoods like Williamsburg, the South Bronx, and Boyle Heights in LA, are now emblematic of how art is used by developers to drive up the value of real estate. Gentrification displaces lower-income residents and businesses, disproportionately affecting communities of color. The inconclusive discussions between artists, activists, and developers rely heavily on descriptors like “complicated” to acknowledge the entangled webs of interests at play. But often this is a sleight-of-hand; “it’s not me, it’s complicated.”
For “Finished Goods Warehouse”, Emily Kloppenburg, an artist and recent Columbia graduate, collaborated with Lourdes Rivera-Olsen, a former employee of the Pfizer plant and Brooklyn native. Their dialogue produced a site-specific work titled “Not A Jersey Girl.” It comprises a series of photographs and handwritten texts, which detail Lourdes’ experiences working at the plant and eventually her displacement from New York. I met with them both at the exhibition on its closing day to delve deeper into their exchange, and to talk about the role of art in a contested space. I ended up exploring the building with Emily, Lourdes, and Laureen Jeremie, a fellow ex-Pfizer employee.
Claire Lachow: Could you both talk about how you met?
Emily Kloppenburg: Yeah, I wanted to make a piece that reflected upon the history of the Pfizer plant for this show. I found an article online with images of the abandoned plant before any new businesses had moved in. The most interesting part were the comments at the bottom, where there was this outpouring of loving memory for Pfizer by people who had worked there. I reached out to a number of those people, but Lourdes was the only person who got back to me.
Lourdes Rivera-Olsen: The article about the “abandoned” building? Someone had sent me that when they first cleaned out Pfizer, and someone took photos and they labeled it “Abandoned Pfizer”. I was like “oh my god.”
CL: The article treated it like ancient ruins or something, but it’s, like, not ancient.
LRO: Yeah exactly. Everyone was commenting about remembering the old times… us walking down the hallways, doing baby showers in the cafeteria and Thanksgiving meals at lunchtime. Everyone used to get together and bring a meal. It was a family-oriented place. Very diverse.
CL: Were you frustrated by the narrative that was being presented by the photo essay?
LRO: “Abandoned”, yes. It was like, oh my god. But I wasn’t commenting about anything bad, it was just the good memories.
EK: That’s what was striking to me. The article was saying it’s fascinating because it’s an abandoned, dead place. But the story in the comments was saying, “No! It’s very much alive and well, it just doesn’t exist in this locality any more.” That was a major shift in my thinking.
CL: From that narrative— of Pfizer being a dead place— it creates a justification for its colonization, as if people are just arriving to a dead place and bringing new life into it.
EK: There’s a long legacy of art spaces moving into abandoned places where there used to be something else, and not acknowledging that. I thought it would take a really small gesture to bring that back here.
CL: In that gesture, you’ve photographed Lourdes and put her words on display. I wonder, Lourdes, how do you feel about seeing this? How do you feel about how you’re being represented?
LRO: I feel like it’s so.. I feel like it’s so minute. There’s so much more I want to say, and I’m just like a little piece of sand on a beach. There are so many other people that have a voice, and I know they have things that they want to say. There’s so many people that love this place, you know? We used to call ourselves the “Pfizer Pfamily”, and family had P in front of it, always. I know they love this place because I talk to them all the time.
CL: This was the finished goods area, now it’s a gallery space. There are music rehearsal spaces that are on the other side of this floor, with huge metal doors. What was there before?
LRO: I believe that used to be the PPD [Pharmaceutical Product Development] area.. They used to do stability here. Do you know how it says “keep medication at 30 degrees”? They tested it, that’s how they got their expiration dates.
EK: A lot of the companies that have come in are local food companies. But what I didn’t know before was that Pfizer was super local. People lived in the neighborhood, their kids went to the school across the street. And, Lourdes, you grew up across the way.
LRO: Oh yes, I was born and raised across the street. Growing up I used to wonder “what was that building, what do they do there?” I always wondered what this funny smell was...
CL: What did it smell like?
LRO: Weird! Chemically, like [she makes a stink face]. My mother used to take to Graham Avenue to the stores. There used to be a bridge from this building to another across the street that we walked under and it used to rain on us. My mother used to go, “I hate that smell! Let’s run!” [Everyone laughs] I remember this vividly!
CL: So all of this is like.. [looking around]
LRO: All of this was all closed up so we never saw any of this, we never had access.
CL: It’s weird to walk around here, you really feel like “I’m not supposed to be here.”
LRO: Yeah! See, I don’t know, Laureen, but to me it is a shocker because everything used to be so sterile.
Laureen Jeremie: When I first came in I thought “it’s so dirty”. But when we were here..
LRO: You could eat off the floor... Look! [she points to a nearby label on the wall] 2008.
LJ: That looks like Angel’s handwriting. He works where I work at now and his initials are AA. He did the calibration for that.
EK: That is amazing that you recognize that.
CL: What you were saying before about the Pfizer Pfamily- now in the elevators you see flyers for all the different businesses, saying “Discounts for the Pfizer Pfamily”. They’re trying to create a community here but everyone is doing their own separate thing.
LRO: Yeah, when I see those signs using the Pfizer name, I’m like no! You can’t use that name.
CL: Since you had to move to New Jersey, you are identified by what you’re not— “Not a Jersey Girl.” But the Pfizer building still gets to be the Pfizer building, even though it’s not. It could be called “Not the Pfizer Building.”
LRO: It’s true, but I feel like it will always be the Pfizer building.
CL: It’s just a weird quality of buildings that they keep the same identity, even though the contents change, but people don’t get to keep the same identity.
LRO: Exactly. The people that are working in here now? No, you’re not “Pfizer” people. No. You didn’t put the time in, as we did. You’re not “Pfizer Pfamily”. No. Sorry. You can’t use that label.
EK: Another level of appropriation.
LJ: You see advertisements for the “Pfizer” building, that they’re going to have a bacon fest…
EK: But there’s intrigue in that, right? To me, it’s a little inappropriate because they’re trying to use it as clickbait or something.
CL: It’s like “the local flavor”.
LRO: Yeah, they must’ve seen that label somewhere, and they’re like “Well. I’m going to use this to my benefit”. No, no, no. It’s not gonna work. This is our label. We take pride in that. When I first saw that when I was here, I was like “that’s us”. That’s our blood. Because we bled that, you know, because we sweat here.
EK: But even this kind of thing, where like, using the new framework of new food...
[She points to a sign for a cupcake business, into which they’ve photo-montaged images of the original Pfizer signage.]
LRO: Exactly. But like, this is fine [she points to the cupcakes], but using this part that belongs to us? [she points to the Pfizer signage] No. That hurts.
EK: I’m documenting this, Lourdes.
CL: In your writing, you talked about starting out as an operator and then got promoted to being the first female mechanic here. Was that a physically demanding job?
LRO: Yes, I was in the blister department. The rolls of film were like 97 pounds. It was tough. Because, you know, the guys didn’t make it easy. The supervisors, they toughened me up. One of them actually told me “you need to roll with the punches.”
CL: It was a big pay increase for you?
LRO: It was a big drastic increase. But it wasn’t something I was looking to do. I helped out the mechanic and that was fine with me, I was good. But when the job was posted, the mechanic was like “you’re going to apply.”
CL: What’s it like at your new job in New Jersey?
LRO: I work at a pharmaceutical, I’m an operator. They wanted me to be a mechanic. It was on my resume.. But it’s not Pfizer.
CL: Why is it so different?
LRO: It’s not the same. Here, for anything that you needed, you had medical, you had HR, you had the gym. Any question that you had for any reason, you used to walk into the office and they used to take care of you. At my job today, you go in there and they give you a phone number. But you try to put your finger on it… Why is it different? The people? Maybe it’s because most of them are from Jersey? [Everyone laughs] Most of the people here were from Brooklyn.
CL: Before the factory closed, did you have a sense that things were not right?
LRO: We knew it was coming, but we didn’t think we were going to get affected because this plant was the original Pfizer factory. But then when the first wave of layoffs came, we were like, wait a minute. That’s when we started getting nervous, like, we have to be prepared.
EK: Did they give you an okay severance package?
LRO: It was a great severance, Pfizer took care of us. They really did. You know, that’s why I can’t.. I can’t say anything bad about them. Not at all. I was nervous about what was going to happen with the building. I was like “I hope they don’t knock it down.”
EK: I think it’s protected, it’s a landmark.
LRO: Yeah, so that’s what I’m happy about.
CL: You would feel worse if it had been knocked down versus all this?
LRO: What! I would totally have been here, probably bawling. I’m sure many of us would be here watching it go down probably crying like crazy.
EK: That’s the ultimate erasure. Like it never existed.
LRO: That would’ve been horrible.
LJ: Sometimes you feel like, if I go past the building, I can still see it. But if they knock it down...
LRO: Oh, no. That would not be good… You know though, I don’t regret any of it it. And I would totally do it all over again.. [She laughs] Totally. Go through all those SOP’s [standard operating procedures] and everything. I would totally do it all again. Those good old days. Wow. [She sighs]
LJ: We see people on Facebook, even if we don’t get to see each other in person. We can still feel connected a little.
LRO: It’s crazy. And every time we get together, we always go back. We never just talk about now. We always go back, always. [sighs] It’s just crazy.
At that point we realized had been walking and talking for over 2 hours, and Lourdes had to leave to go back to New Jersey. Emily and I continued the conversation back in the exhibition:
CL: This project was a big shift in the way you’ve approached your work, and architecture in general, which has been primarily through your direct experience rather than another person’s perspective.
EK: Yeah it’s a completely different approach to architecture than looking at a building and seeing how it operates in space. It’s thinking about a building abstractly as a container, as something that may not be physically changing but is always evolving... What happens when one architecture replaces another? The architecture isn’t the structure itself, but rather the social structure. I kept thinking to myself, “how do I take this thing that I’ve learned exists, but represent it in a way that other people can see and feel?” It pushed me to collaborate. I didn’t avoid that in the past, but it was a completely different way of listening to my subject matter. I definitely came into the project with a lot of preconceived notions about Pfizer. It made me work with a lot more care and respect.
CL: How did the collaborative aspect of the work inform your aesthetic decision making processes?
EK: To be honest, it all kind of evolved as it happened. I had a vision of what I wanted it to be: a set of photographs with corresponding text. But when I first started speaking to Lourdes, I didn’t even know what she looked like. I offered to go out to New Jersey to photograph her. She proposed that we sit in a park by her house. I followed that as a place that she would like to see herself. The discussion represented here first took place over the phone. I recorded and transcribed the conversation. I handed her the transcription and a legal pad, “this is what we both said. You can re-write this, you can do whatever you want in this space.” I wanted my perspective to not seep into the work as much as possible; I saw myself as a conduit to bring her back into the space.
EK: The use of the transparency material brings a degree of softness and reflection, picking up the light from the atmospheric dimensionality of the space itself. It also makes the photographs a little difficult to get at; they’re hard to see from far away, and they change as you walk around them. To read them clearly, you have get close- you have to engage. I really want this piece to be for those observers who take the time to listen and to stop, and maybe reconsider where they are... Reconsider where art can be, and how art can operate in certain spaces. It’s how art can be active in our lives.
CL: In thinking about how this work operates, I think about Hans Haacke’s work, which I know has been influential for you, particularly Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings. He was presenting objective facts about slumlords as institutional critique, implicating the Guggenheim Museum’s complicity in those practices when they refused to show the work. What you’re presenting is a subjective account of a life, and how it connects with this exhibition space... It’s a complex relation, because ostensibly Lourdes is the subject of the work, but by stepping back and attempting to cede editorial control to her, she becomes a co-author rather than subject, and the subject instead becomes the building and its particular conditions of existence...
EK: Also the people interacting with it. The artwork happens here, in this space around the actual material. But that idea of collaboration is something I made very clear to Lourdes from the beginning. She approved everything. I told her how the photographs would be displayed. I didn’t move forward until I knew it was ok with her. I was still nervous when it all went up that I would’ve missed something.
CL: It’s almost like your relationship with Lourdes is the raw material for the work more than anything else. Because the constraints are, instead of aesthetics, about trust and communication, which formed the criteria for the development of the work.
EK: Yeah, I don’t see Lourdes and her story as a “finished good”. When the exhibition is over, the work is done. It will be available through documentation, but I feel like it would be incomplete if it was shown anywhere else. But in a similar vein, the work isn’t over. I now have a relationship with Lourdes, in the same way that she has a relationship with this place. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, we all know those things don’t necessarily end when you leave. The written content ends on a sad note, “I wasn’t able to come back”, but... she was? It wasn’t in the same way. We can think about how we can come back to things, and how they can manifest in other ways.
Afterward I thought about how Lourdes and Laureen kept bringing the conversation back to their memories as it related to what we were seeing in the plant. It was important that they reclaim their position as holders of the Pfizer legacy, against the dominant colonizing narrative that would cast them as quaint relics of the old regime. I returned to Emily’s comment about “how art can be active in our lives”, and then considered the raised stakes of putting on an exhibition like this. Not merely a site for the production of meaning, art spaces are active producers of history, for better or worse.
Confronting this project, the “complicated” nature of these issues unfurls before you— revealing itself to be, at once, thorny and fertile. Although art about gentrification intends to interrupt the colonial process, it can be a self-serving reification of the colonizing narrative, in which art is inherently good and beneficial to the community. But the space of this work also creates an opportunity for these suppressed histories to critically engage the present; it empowers marginalized voices to speak for themselves rather than be tokenized. All these things co-exist uncomfortably.
As I leave Pfizer, I walk south on Flushing Ave., first imagining Lourdes as a child with her mother; they are running towards me, darting underneath the leaking bridge hand-in-hand. Then I see her as a proud young woman, the first female mechanic, walking to work. I look up at the scaffolding lining the Pfizer building as it stands today, “Space For Rent” banners affixed to the construction mesh, while Lourdes goes about the rest of her day in New Jersey. Soon after I arrive to my studio 2 blocks away.
Emily Kloppenburg’s current solo exhibition, “Don’t Shower When It Rains,” is on display through November at Ortega Y Gasset Projects: http://oygprojects.com/