Sound and Vision

Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

“Blue, blue/
electric blue/
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
blue, blue—”

These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.

For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.

Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”

Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.

The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.

The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?

"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”

His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.

"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.

Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse. 

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

A Concrete Example

Concrete is everywhere. Foundations, buildings, bridges, sidewalks, roads, sculptures, tunnels, retaining walls, and even skateboard parks are made with concrete. We are surrounded by this gray, cold, often impersonal, and ubiquitous material. Yet, I know very little about concrete, except that it is a construction material composed primarily of aggregate (sand and crushed rock), cement, and water, and that it is often reinforced with steel. On the rare occasions when I think about concrete, I immediately picture the Hoover Dam, a construction and engineering marvel built with more concrete than I can fathom.  According to the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, the Hoover Dam “contains enough concrete to pave a strip 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to New York.”  However, prior to the Hoover Dam’s construction in 1931, others were mixing it up with concrete.

In the early-twentieth century, for example, Robert Augustus Cummings (1866-1962), a civil engineer who worked primarily in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made significant contributions to the field of reinforced-concrete construction and foundation work. Cummings clearly stated his confidence in his material of choice in a 1904 presentation to the Member Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania (and “member” refers to construction components, not engineers with a secret handshake):

Reinforced concrete makes an excellent paint for preserving iron or steel, adhering to the metal very firmly and protecting it thoroughly against corrosion. It can easily be made water tight, and its durability is beyond question. . . . Correctly designed re-enforced concrete structures are not liable to sudden failures, as is the case with ordinary concrete, but gives warning by the falling off of the surface concrete long before the point of failure is reached.

Pamphlet, Reinforced Concrete The Cummings System, circa 1907.

Cummings knew his concrete and built his reputation and livelihood around it. Founded in 1900 and incorporated in 1911, Cummings Structural Concrete Company specialized in reinforced concrete for the construction of all types of structures, from bridges, barges, warehouses, filtration systems, private residences, machine shops, dry docks, and piers, to retaining walls, abutments, factories, dams, and locks. If it involved concrete, Cummings was doing it.

Cummings is best known for inventing the “Cummings System of Reinforced Concrete,” in which iron or steel bars are embedded within a mixture of Portland cement (a finely ground powder made of limestone mixed with clay or shale) water, sand, and gravel or broken stone. The Cummings system utilized steel rods of any size or grade that were welded together to form a variety of shapes. Cummings held over 25 patents related to reinforced concrete and metal structures (see U.S. Patent 761,288 for one example). Spaces between the metal structure were filled with concrete to form arches, walls, floors, walls, and roofs.

Types of metal bars and framework (1905) that Cummings used.

Cummings's son, Robert A. Cummings, Jr., holding metal framework, around 1905.

Some of Cummings more noteworthy projects included the Davis Island Dam on the Ohio River; a water tank for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad; the Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh; the Harbison-Walker Refractories in Birmingham, Alabama; a concrete floor for the machine shop, National Tube Company in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania; a mill building and boiler house for the National Casket Company in Ashville, North Carolina; pilings, abutments, and retaining walls for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company; and a clear water basin (a drainage area to collect runoff) for the H. J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh.

A 1911 image of a commercial building being constructed near H.J. Heinz Company. Depicted are metal bars in wood frames awaiting concrete.

A reinforced concrete column at the National Bureau of Standards Laboratory in Pittsburgh, 1913. Robert A. Cummings is standing to the right of the column.

In 1915, the Scott Paper Company (also known as the Chester Paper Company) of Chester, Pennsylvania, manufacturers of Scott tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels, contracted with Cummings to work on their beater rooms (housing machines that beat, rolled, and processed paper fibers) and machine rooms. Cummings work at the Scott Paper Company is well documented through sketches, blueprints, design notebooks, specifications, correspondence, progress reports, payroll records, and photographs. For example, in a July 21, 1916 letter, Cummings sent a quote for the work to Mr. Leibeck at the company:

[O]ur bid, entire job, $132,250.00. Substitutes reinforced concrete for structural steel in floors. Also flat slabs for docks. Sheet piling omitted. Reinforced concrete piles $1.40 per [linear?] foot in place. Can start work immediately. Alternate bid, actual cost, labor, materials, and miscellaneous expenses, plus ten percent.

In his Manual of Uniform Field Methods, 1915, Cummings outlined how the company would conduct its work. Job sites were to be photographed on the first and sixteenth of each month to show progress and special features of the work, leaving behind a wealth of photographic documentation such as these images from a construction album for the Scott Paper Company. Meticulously documented, the album pages provide a rich visual history of concrete construction processes, equipment used, and men laboring.

The negotiations with Scott Paper Company were carefully and thoroughly recorded, primarily through correspondence. Details of the work, especially the timeframe for completing the job would become an issue for Cummings.  Among papers related to “contract planning” is a letter dated May 7, 1917, from President Edward Irvin Scott of Chester Paper Company to Cummings.

Now Mr. Cummings, we have got some plain talk to give you. We cannot stand for the delay on the buildings at Chester; our beater rooms are nowhere near completion; you only have a small amount of people, and we have absolutely got to have that work finished, and we cannot submit to further unnecessary delay.

Scrapbook of photographs, Scott Paper Company, Chester, Pennsylvania, 1916-1917.

Cummings finally finished the project a month later; clearly, Cumming wasn’t working with quick-set.

To learn more about the concrete endeavors and inventive career of civil engineer Robert A. Cummings, visit the Archives Center.

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References

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 50, Ann Arbor: University Microfilm, 1971.

United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, http://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/History/essays/concrete.html (last accessed October 17, 2012)

All images are from the Cummings Structural Concrete Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.