Aluminum Poetry - A. Will Brown
In July of 1948 The Aluminum Development Association, London, UK, published The First Factory-Made Aluminum Bungalow. The publication was a small and remarkably banal booklet, which detailed the transformation of aluminum from a complex wartime industrial material into a simplified form of prefabricated domesticity. The booklet functioned as both a proposal and a justification for the implementation of a program of inexpensive, mass-produced, and easily assembled aluminum homes configured from the remnants of the wartime aluminum industry. Among the publication’s more notable points is the description of the program as an overarching success.
The narrative portrays a complete, yet unconvincing, lack of criticism for the then new aluminum bungalow program: “A fair summing up seems to be that householders like the aluminum bungalow, and the particular features they approved were greater in number and in weight than those they disapproved.” 1 This sense of success is heightened further in the opening lines: “This story begins in the aircraft factories of wartime and tells how aluminum and its alloys, which for more than six years were solely materials of war, came to be given a new and peaceful role in domestic building.” 2
The use of the word “story” is the first clue that this is a designed fiction that narrates a trial approach to industrial implementation. The program appears strikingly real and of long-term value in the booklet, as though it is a foregone conclusion. Further still is the complication that this “story” is told as though for the common good, chiefly to hide its more duplicitous pragmatism: this is an approach to control a potentially unstable workforce, to save capital in the form of labor, materials, machines and trade, and to quickly and cheaply solve a growing housing deficit, another measure meant to control a potentially disgruntled domestic citizenry.
What too should we make of the use of the word “bungalow”? Did the authors wish to bolster their chances of success by making these small low-cost uniform homes sound exciting or somehow exotic? The word “bungalow” brings to mind two, of many, scenes, when included in this context: A ramshackle hut, made of found materials in a tropical, most likely beach-side location and that of a quaint outbuilding made of irregular local lumber with a thatched conical roof nestled amidst lush green foliage. Both evoke some kind of vacation-like scenario in a non-European Nation, most likely in the Global South—to be overtly general and non-specific is the crux of why it is problematic to use the word “bungalow.”
The report is rife with strange language, which are precisely the kind of subtle intricacies and contradictions that serve as the subject matter for Graham McDougal’s richly layered, yet visually concise, paintings, prints, and in this instance at Regina Rex, installations that blend sculpture, print, lightbox and painting. From war machine to domestic dream, aluminum was transfigured through a shift in context and intent.
What happens when a material, or an idea, undergoes this kind of shift in conceptual orientation? Perhaps nothing, maybe everything. This kind of all-too-subtle material change exists at center of Graham McDougal’s work. More aptly though McDougal uses this same kind of shift in his own work to capture, and simultaneously pose questions through the juxtaposition of photography, sculpture, print and painting, about the oft overlooked nature and implementation of specific materials: is industrial production distillable as a language or a series of tropes? Is there a discernible semiotics of urban vernacular signs that isn’t based in text, but in shape, density, tone, use value or concept?
In the book Add Metaphysics—a compilation of essays and assignments which deal with the nature of objects—Professor Graham Harman constructs an assignment at the end of his essay Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique, which sets in motion many of the same ideas and conceptual considerations McDougal is working with in this body of work: “The Purpose of the assignment is to reinforce the sense that objects are independent both of their constituent pieces and their effects on exterior things.” ³ Amongst the most relevant questions in Harman’s assignment to McDougal’s investigation of form and representation are these three, which are part of the fourth step of the assignment:
“How could we rebuild this object using different materials or components? What is the greatest number of changes we could make while still having the object remain roughly the same thing? What is the smallest change we could make that would destroy the object or turn it into something else altogether?” 4