Critical Tours

It is impossible to inhabit the Pier 9 space without being a part of, giving, or observing a tour. Held multiple times a day, multiple times a week, offered by Autodesk-trained docents as well as Pier 9 occupants, tours of the facilities are a fundamental part of life at the Pier. Concentrated primarily on the machine, metal, wood, and printing shops, the tours highlight the cutting-edge fabrication methods, specific outputs, and general creative production that happen in the space, but also speak to the everyday occupations, community-building purposes, and future-facing intentions of Pier 9’s role within Autodesk as a corporation.

Our unique situation of working as a research group within a corporate institution caused us to question how we might self-consciously interrogate our work within this larger institutional practice of talking about itself. Given their ubiquity, it was natural to use the language of tours to imagine how we might reflect upon the institution, from within the institution, using the means of the institution.

While our inquiries into leveraging the tours fell into two main categories—language and physical space— the two were inextricably linked when it came to execution. We expanded the focus of tours to include office spaces as well as fabrication facilities, and we consciously reframed the way that stories about the Pier were told.

In traversing the space, we felt that tours could become more nuanced and impart greater meaning to visitors through the use of three tactics. First, much of our project research concentrated on locations and stories that were seemingly tangential to Pier 9, but which were often related directly, albeit in subtle ways; our research identified historical or contextual foci that helped to position Pier 9 within a larger military, industrial, and environmental context. By juxtaposing our research stories in the style of the Situationist Dérive, we could place the Pier’s production within a larger history in ways that encouraged participants to form the connections themselves. One tactic would be for these narratives to be straightforward. As with artist Andrea Fraser’s tactics in Museum Highlight*s and Welcome to the Wadsworth: A Museum Tour, our explication would concentrate not only on the typical stories of the Pier, but also lesser-known histories and viewpoints. A second tactic would be to present participants with imaginative stories, either tangential or outright fiction, allowing them to make connections that were more evocative than real. Effective examples of this approach can be found within the work of artistic walk organizations such as Elastic City and the work of artist Walid Raad. In Eve Respini’s essay "Slippery Delays and Optical Mysteries: The Work of Walid Raad" for the 2015 Museum of Modern Art catalogue of his work, she wrote:

[Raad’s] performances, with their literary titles, colorful characters, diversions, digressions, and self-referential texts and images, work to demonstrate that the construction of history is unstable, being open to interpretive intervention. These lectures can be understood as a performance of memory on levels personal, national, and historiographic. The slippage between authenticity and imagination, the academic decoding of stories and archival documents, is at turns probing, absorbing, and confounding, and resonates deeply with our own experiences of remembering and understanding the images, documents, and stories that are integral to our own lived experiences. (p.34)

Finally, a third tactic would emphasize revelation. In many conversations, Pier 9 staff and artists-in-residence shared elements of their own experiences which were not typically revealed in a standard tour. In a tour, these revelations could concentrate on subcultural narratives (in the tradition of community history organizations such as Shaping San Francisco), or portray distinct perspectives gained from working within the space.

From these conversations about what was absent from tours of the Pier 9 facility, three revelatory themes emerged. The first was to integrate and emphasize demonstrations of tools, what machines are and how they work, and by doing so explicitly reference the day-to-day Pier 9 experience. The second theme is the polar opposite of the first, focusing solely on speculation. Our conversations about this approach ranged from the relatively pragmatic—potential future uses of Pier 9, the potential environmental impact of this kind of fabrication facility—to the entirely imaginative, such as the role of Pier 9 during zombie apocalypses and environmental collapse, or what the "future future" of the Pier might be. Some of the people we spoke with noted that incorrect information was often provided unintentionally during tours; this informed our second tactic, described above, of deliberately integrating fictional elements including outlandish ones.

The third theme encompasses new ways of seeing, defined broadly. That includes making the labor of the Pier more visible, investigating the media archeology of waste from the Pier, and focusing specifically on direct interaction. Though mini-exhibit spaces throughout the Pier bring together touchable objects for visitors, our conversations revealed a desire to push physicality in tours even further—intersections with more kinds of objects (for example, comparing the weights and other properties of various kinds of outputs from individual machines), materials (what can and can’t be used with different sorts of processes), and machines (including more details about not just how they work, but also how they sound and feel when in use). Questions about these types of sensory interactions led to conversations about pacing and rhythm; our collaborators suggested that tour guides deliberately build in pauses, both to allow participants to process what they are learning in and about the space, but also to establish a performative rhythm for the tours themselves. Discussions also arose about how to tell the stories of the lives of objects, and how to coherently articulate the complexity of inspiration.

Our conversations and investigations confirmed that no single overarching approach or narrative can accurately capture the experiences of the Pier. By creating a deliberate program of tours that could address a range of specific themes, through the use of a variety of tactics, we concluded that we could more evocatively weave together a sense of the life of Pier 9.