The World Of Arts Fabrication: Reframing the Mystique
Close up of wooden structure of Magnifying Glass rim in progress for Strange But True at the Queens Museum.

This vozarrón marks the second installment of our investigation into the world of arts fabrication from the perspective of Powerhouse fabricators. We glean insights from Ben Cohen, our Director of Wood, Metal, and Digital Fabrication drawing from his engineering background, his collaborative launch of the Gowanus Studio Space, and how he comes to define “arts fabrication.”

For Ben, whose professional experience has allowed him to apply skills in prototyping, engineering, and digital fabrication to a wide range of art, marketing, and industrial design projects, there exists an opportunity to educate the public on the reality that many artists are creating work in concert with a wider, often invisible, team of skilled technicians. The arts community often maintains the “mystique” of the singular artist-as-genius to the detriment of allowing room for recognition of a wider team effort.

A student of Industrial Design, Ben honed skills including prototyping, engineering, and CAD drawing. Despite this foundational experience, he found himself unfulfilled in this sector and redirected attention — alongside fellow artist friends — to founding an arts nonprofit, Gowanus Studio Space. Through this initiative, Ben and his artistic community built a space equipped with a metal and printmaking shop providing resources for artists to create art. Today, they have a growing community of 50 members.

Aside from opening an arts non-profit, Ben has always collaborated with his friends to build boats from discarded found materials such as construction-plywood, steel, and or police barricades. With an engineering background focused on machining, precision work, electronics, and interactive works–Ben formally began to work with public artists. His role was to help plan projects and work with other fabricators to make CAD drawings, and overall project management. He expanded a wide range of skills with projects that involved technical and electrical elements. He then supported many artists who needed an electrical printed circuit board with graphics or robotic elements while working with other fabricators. He lived in the engineering center of all those projects.

He also worked for a digital marketing agency creating physical interactive art installations for brands. There, Ben was hands-on fabricator and Lead Engineer with a team of software engineers, hardware engineers, and designers and completed ambitious projects. It is clear that Ben didn’t follow a traditional path, but through his engineering background he married both commercial and artistic communities that centered on making.

What is fabrication?
Ben defines “fabrication” simply: this is the kind of technical work that requires specialization. He sees his role as an intermediary to translate the work from the artist’s visual and conceptual language to that of materiality. He brings ideas into physical form. It’s the fabricator’s job to find ways to bring those two worlds together yielding something tangible.

Imagine the average visitor of a museum. It is unlikely that they recognize much of the work on view were not actually produced by the artist themselves.

The fabricator’s role is to bring the artist’s vision to life, not to impose artistic decisions but rather to find practical solutions to the production efforts. Our Wood, Metal, and DIgital Fabrication Shop does not take creative liberty. It is the artist’s role to guide the creative process. In this sense, Ben’s background in industrial design is critical to map and illustrate the artist’s precise intentionality through preliminary design sketches and CAD models, often placing himself in the artist’s shoes in order to make critical decisions on how to actualize their conceptual vision.

What’s the intake process of a project like?
One of the keys to success in business is creating consistent, efficient workflows. Fabrication is an industry that benefits greatly from the implementation of consistent processes. Though no two projects are exactly the same, the goal remains to implement a formulaic introductory intake meeting to learn the preliminary project needs and assess the artist’s vision. After the initial intake, Ben suggests that sketches and drawings are the next step. These drawings are reviewed and approved in tandem with the artist before being turned into fabrication prints that are circulated to the fabrication team as blueprints, and those prints go to the fabricators. Ultimately, fabricators’ time is the most critical — and costly — resource. Ben’s role is to implement and manage the workflow to prioritize brainstorming, innovation, and “play” at the front-end of the project to ensure that once the project is in the fabrication stage, it is a smooth transition from idea to product — the result of an effective proof of concept.

How do you feel about fabricators being credited?
Powerhouse hopes to establish a new precedent: to normalize making labor visible. Ben is supportive of creative work being credited the way it is in film. The fear about crediting work is that artists may lose the historical “mystique” associated with the artist as sole “genius”. This may be a myth that many artists don’t want to abandon. All this said, Ben suggests that he doesn’t feel strongly about being credited personally. He enjoys the role of behind-the-scenes fabricator — and the safety to experiment, innovate, and even fail — that it yields.

Ben acknowledges, however, that many fabricators feel strongly about offering credit where credit is due. This introduces further complications, though, including how credit is offered. Are individual fabricators and artisans owed credit? Is one’s organization or fabrication facility to be credited? At what point do vendors — the spray finisher or powder coater, per see — and purveyor of raw materials become a part of the narrative? What about the lumberyard or the spray finisher and the powder coder? What about the administrative work behind the organization? Is it those who have direct hands-on work on the project?

In film, hundreds of people get credited. At what point, however, does this process become too laborious, unwieldy, even counterproductive? Ultimately, the question remains — is crediting fabricators essential to their continued success in the business, beyond simply granting a feeling of appreciation?

In defining fabrication, it is clear that these questions remain complicated and highly personal. How do we navigate these issues while remaining mindful of the artist’s role in today’s society?