Return to Ritherdon is a Research and Development residency at Ritherdon & Co Ltd, a manufacturer of  steel electrical enclosure and clever metalwork in Darwen, Lancashire. During the residency I will investigate all areas of the factory ecosystem, fully embedding myself within its working culture, studying efficiency and lean manufacturing philosophy in everyday production, business, marketing and distribution operations. The project will develop my relationship with the family owned manufacturer over a period of 18 months, resulting in a new body of multimedia works.

My relationship with the factory will be contextualised by research into the Artist Placement Group material at Tate Archives, with a view to identify new ways in which an artist can work with a manufacturer.

The project, developing methodologies and artworks will be discussed during a series of free public discussions taking place throughout the timeline of the project. These discussions will be held at galleries in various post-industrial locations in the North of England, along with public festivals and at the Ritherdon factory itself.

http://www.nicolaellis.com/

http://www.ritherdon.co.uk/

https://festivalofmaking.co.uk/


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In an effort to begin understanding the internal workings and overlapping operations of each department, I will be spending a bit of time shadowing staff throughout the Ritherdon factory. First on the agenda is the ‘Paint shop’, which predominantly produces powder coated components to be assembled into the final Ritherdon products, along with a very small amount of wet spray paint process.

During my previous time spent at Ritherdon, I have been totally and utterly seduced by the paint shop. The matte powder melting in the oven to become something hot, glossy and perfect is particularly visceral and sexy. In part this is thanks to the surface quality of the metal. Another reason is never being able to witness the melt happen in the ovens first hand. The visual of the process can only exist in the imagination. The liquifying gets done in the pitch black at 180 degrees. That’s hot.

 

This reflection helps me get my head around the first few works made in the ‘Dead powder series’ (Images above by Jules Lister). The ongoing series is tied to the output of Ritherdon products during the period of time I will be in residence there. The steel support for the work is surplus ‘negative shapes’ left over from completed jobs.  The dead powder coating the support is lifted from the IBC waste tub which collects all the powder cleaned out of the booth in between colour changes throughout the day. The steel and powder are combined to make the work on the same day they both become waste, forming a kind petrified evidence that a process occurred, while the product itself is shipped off somewhere to complete its functional destiny. The powder is applied to the steel by hand in order to retain the chunks of colour present in the layers removed from the tub. The close up photo above shows places on the works surface which became overloaded, and therefore sag in the ovens during liquification. These are the points of interest in which the whole process regains a bit of autonomy. Nobody has any agency over the works when they go in the ovens, so I get what I’m given when they come out the other side. If I’m lucky, its a thick drooping skin made of a million pieces of multi coloured powder. Living the powder coating artists dream?

Another thing I was very pleased to have working experience of was the stopping and starting of the line (the system which transports the components through the whole process). I was expecting the line to be moving at a much more consist speed than it actually was. This wasn’t because of inefficiency- the Ritherdon team get the job done in good time!- but because the larger items require more load, spray and unload time than smaller ones individually. Due to the factory working to the ‘Just in time’ approach (a customer makes an order and the factory produces the item in a short turnaround, as apposed to mass producing in anticipation of a customer order later on), an order of large cabinets might be followed by a large order of tiny products that can be loaded quickly but take up more space on the line. Managing the loading, spraying and unloading of these objects with completely different demands on the same line was super interesting to be a part of (industry nerd alert!). It was like juggling, if juggling involved the chemical treatments and heating of metal objects, the order of which was decided by an external force.  A super example of a system within a system within a system recurring being managed by well practiced intuition, patience and muscle.

Many thanks to Pete and Matt for letting me shadow them in the paint shop, for answering my barrage of questions and for showing me some of the ropes.

 

During my Art in Manufacturing residency at Ritherdon, Lauren Velvick kindly visited the factory and wrote about the project (you should read it here on Soanyway: https://www.soanywaymagazine.org/issue-one ). In the writing Lauren mentions a conversation we had about seeing functional things existing in industry – for example the luxuriously clotted paint coated multi coloured fibre backing of the wet spray booth- and agreed that we have seen this sort of object appearing in contemporary art a fair bit. I think the next post will be dedicated to unraveling my thoughts about these experiences.

 

I also recommend following lauren on Twitter for some art world insights: https://twitter.com/LaurenVelvick

 

And my Twitter/Instagram for real-time Return to Ritherdon updates

https://twitter.com/_Nicola_Ellis_

https://www.instagram.com/_nicola_ellis_/

 

 

 

 


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I have Returned to Ritherdon! All the catching up, calendar sharing and phase one sounding out is now complete!

Here are a few initial points of focus:

  • Lean Manufacturing Philosopy- what is it and how is it put into practice at Ritherdon?
  • How does each department function/manage it’s own workload. How does this overlap with other departments?
  • As an Artist on site, what and how can I contribute. What am I contributing to?
  • What is efficiency? Where is it on site? How can it be experienced or studied?

Moving forward, Ritherdon have kindly allowed me spend a bit of time assisting the knowledgeable staff in each department, to understand daily and not-so-daily occurrences.

 


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