DIY-culture masquerades as mass production in ‘DRAY’, Natalie Dray’s first commission for Cell Project Space. For the casual visitor, it is difficult to tell exactly where factory fabrication ends and handcraft begins. Dray has reverse-engineered everyday appliances—ceiling lights, heaters and fans—to design and build her own range of customised products, configured to the gallery’s technical specifications. She inserts herself into the manufacturing process by assembling the mechanical and electrical components, then adopts the role of artist-as-electrician to install these little modular systems within Cell’s gallery space, where they convert the building’s energy supply into the ‘human comforts’ of heat, light and churned air—weak artificial representations of natural phenomena.
Powder-coated in matt black with flashes of stagy magenta and orange-red, Dray’s machines are neither homely nor industrial. They are cartoonish exaggerations of the bare bulbs and unadorned panel heaters that typify a white cube gallery’s interior design. Colour and positioning ensure that things usually designed to be invisible are instead unavoidable—to the extent that the gallery walls appear to have been rewired to emphasise the machines’ accompanying power sockets, identified collectively as ‘Face-Lift Contactum VI’. These are situated within easy reach at waist-height, a reminder that the machines on display are functional but ultimately inaccessible. Visitors can bask in the face-warming glow of the heaters, but cannot control their operation except by breaching the unspoken contract of gallery space: no touching. In any case, it seems these switches and ergonomic plugs are not meant for casual public use: the machines operate on timers.
Dray has given her artwork-appliances enigmatic names: ‘Infrared Fuchsia’; ‘Cool Neutral’; ‘New Gen Triphosphor T8’. Her language riffs on the oscillation between banality and mystique that seems increasingly to characterise technical and advertising jargon. Further emphasising the inseparability of manufacturing and marketing, the artist’s signature is literally restyled as a brand identity: DRAY, or sometimes DRAY & SONS, or simply a die-cut logo in the shape of a lightning bolt—the common cautionary symbol for electricity. The inclusion of & SONS recalls the continuing legacy of male dominance within both the art world and STEM* fields, while also linking the artist’s output to her family’s electrical business in Brighton. Dray appears to be challenging those forms of labour and production that are closest to home, investing industrial materials with artistic purpose.
By situating her practice within the realm of manufacturing and consumer products, Dray is not seeking to push the boundaries of technology or explore futuristic possibilities. Her appliances are functional, but are nothing special by commercial electronics standards—in fact the heaters and fans lack even the basic range of control settings offered by cheap off-the-shelf models. Neither does she pursue the extremes of self-reliance as explored by Thomas Thwaites in his ‘Toaster Project’ (2009), an attempt to build a simple toaster “from scratch” that demonstrated on a very physical level the impossibility of replicating the intricacies of global manufacturing on a personal scale.
Rather, Dray is concerned with the current state of goods-producing industries: from the restrictions imposed by the UK government’s manufacturing regulations, to the materials used by today’s tradespeople, and the conventions of product design and marketing. Reverse-engineering is a method of gaining access to hidden systems, and Dray uses this strategy to explore the gaps between general and specialist knowledge—and perhaps initiate a dialogue about how information shifts between these categories over time. Yet Dray does not try to demystify her processes or give transparency to her mechanisms. Everything is packaged—even the power cables are sheathed in neon sleeves. To the uninitiated, her lists of materials are not explanatory but cryptic, almost alchemical: 1.5mm 3 core butyl flex; M20 cable gland; rugged plug top. The works themselves are both metaphorical and literal ‘black boxes’—devices comprehended in terms of their input and output, as their internal workings are obscured.
By implementing but not revealing the technical language she is taking pains to learn, Dray confronts us with our lack of understanding about the world around us—including the products with which we fill our homes. We are ignorant of how these things work, where their components come from, what constraints and guidelines they must meet at each stage of production. Structures remain concealed: as consumers, it is only the behaviour of the system we are encouraged to assess.
* Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics