- Avery Slezak
Franklin Furnace Archive: The Making of Art History
Here on Pratt’s campus, nestled between two classrooms on the second floor of the ISC building, lies an archive with over four thousand artists’ books and documentations of experimental artwork. It’s a treasure trove of the past, with avant-garde relics existing from 1976 onwards, many of which are works that have been overlooked or gone unseen. The Franklin Furnace Archive exists to preserve and support time-based art of the past in its archival efforts, as well as uplift emerging artists with grants and funding. This way, they create art history.
Harley Spiller, the Executive Ken Dewey Director (a title named for esteemed performance artist: Ken Dewey), has been with the nonprofit since 1986 and was hired directly by the founder, Martha Wilson. In his words, “Franklin Furnace is Martha Wilson. Martha founded this place. I am now the Ken Dewey Executive Director of Franklin Furnace, but Franklin Furnace Archive was and always will be Martha Wilson. It's her baby. It's her concept.” Spiller has what feels like an encyclopedic memory, recounting stories upon stories about the history of the archive, his own involvement, and various artists he has worked with over the years. He says one of his first interactions with Wilson, her work, and the archive was with a book she made called 1. Truck, 2. Fuck, 3. Muck. In the piece, she recounts an autobiographical experience where she hitched rides with truckers across Canada whilst trying to make it as an artist. Spiller enjoyed the experience of the book but noticed the last two pages were upside down. He pointed this out to Wilson who responded with, “I know. I did that on purpose,” perfectly encapsulating the power of the medium and what Franklin Furnace is all about.
In addition to artists’ books, Franklin Furnace is dedicated to the documentation of performance art. Spiller recounts an experience working with an anonymous artist “who asked for money and support to pray and fast for one month in a home-built mini monastery in our space. The guy did not eat for 31 days.” Spiller says they did sponsor this artist, after a doctor’s visit of course, and the artist went into the structure and stayed there for a month alone. They were “praying and fasting in an effort to see God. It was not a success in that respect, but we documented all of it.” Jeff Matsuno eventually took credit for the work, but in the archive, it is still credited to “Anonymous”.
Franklin Furnace has been here at Pratt since 2014. They leveraged their position on campus by working with several other school organizations, professors, and departments. One notable example is their annual exhibition collaboration with the Pratt Library, called Live at the Library, that they have done for the past seven years. Currently on view is “46: Artists’ Books from Franklin Furnace Archive, 1976-2022” curated by Fang-Yu Liu and Nicole Rosengurt. It includes one book from each year of Franklin Furnace’s existence.
If you want to learn more about Franklin Furnace, peruse their momentous digital archives, or subscribe to their newsletter, please go to https://franklinfurnace.org/. You can also make an appointment to visit the physical archive of artist’s books on campus by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We continue to support artists with their dreams. Wacky, weird, wild, tasteful, distasteful, no taste, and support them in presenting this work to the world. Not only that, we insist that they document this work, so that we can embed their work and them in art history.”
– Harley Spiller
Photo 1 & 2: Martha Wilson, 1. Truck 2. Fuck 3. Muck, 1975, artist's book. Photo: Massachusetts College of Art and Design, https://blogs.massart.edu/artistsbooks/
Photo 3: Installation view, 46: Artists’ Books from Franklin Furnace Archive, 1976-2022, the 7th annual Live at the Library exhibition collaboration between Pratt Institute and Franklin Furnace Archive. Photo: Avery Slezak