Standing Wave

Art Walk on North Canal, Lawrence, MA 7-9/02

Driving directions from Boston

Artwalk on North Canal sports several political works that also highlight the importance of site specificity in public art. Ian (sic) White’s aural sculpture, Standing Wave, is inseparably site- and environment-specific: solar-powered solenoids, mounted onto the braces above a rusty, unused railroad bridge, tap the beams at different speeds and with different strengths, depending on the weather. We’re ensconced in a chittering, mechanical forest, at times soothing and unnerving. By creating no object and thereby requiring us to experience the piece firsthand, the artist admirably strives to create the most public of art, that which cannot be commodified.

–Brett M. Rhyne, Boston’s Weekly Dig, 9/13/02

Standing Wave presents the railroad bridge over the North Canal as a sonic sentinel, recording in the molecular structure of its steel bones traces of acoustic events throughout Lawrence’s industrial history—tragic and triumphant. Stimulating the bridge, and playing back these records all at once, creates shifting patterns of harmonic and temporal interference.

Built coincidently with the canal, as part of a larger effort to harness the Merrimack River, this bridge helped to put Lawrence on the map as an industrial center. A new locomotive, nicknamed the Antelope, made the inaugural transit in 1848. So powerful was this engine that on this first run it set a speed record covering the twenty-six miles from Boston in twenty-six minutes—leaving the rails behind it in twisted ruin and requiring complete replacement.

Twelve years later, on January 10, 1860, the original Pemberton Mill, which stood directly next to the bridge—right where the current Pemberton Mill stands, suddenly collapsed killing many workers in a very short time.

It was a textile mill, running all its looms synchronously. On that day, with the water wheel turning just so, and all the looms going at once, a harmonic resonance created within the mill's structure shook the building to the ground. Essentially, it was felled by a sound wave. Other mills quickly took steps to prevent a similar occurrence.

When the Bread and Roses strike began on January 12, 1912, people had arrived from around the world to work in the mills of Lawrence. Workers and families of twenty-seven nationalities lived within a one mile radius of the bridge. Every strike and unionization meeting had to be translated into twenty-five languages. And many songs were sung. The International, certainly, but perhaps most famously, James Oppenheim’s Bread and Roses.

Not only an important event in the American labor movement, the Bread and Roses strike is a major way point in the struggle for women’s rights. Partly because many women worked in the mills, they became the principal organizers and protestors. With such demands on their time, arrangements were made to send children out of town for the duration of the strike. The police, hearing of this, converged on the train station and beat the children severely.

I imagine their cries being carried through the rails to the bridge.