In the last few years, the Brooklyn-based artist fields harrington has interrogated the history and applications of technology and its relation to race, class and gender. For his online show at Wagner’s Union Gallery, harrington shares work from his series, “Black Secret Technology” (2019), “What Remains Constant” (2020) and “Steam Economies” (2021).
In “Black Secret Technology,” harrington asks, what and who have been left out of the dominant narrative of invention? With a specific interest in the underrepresentation of people of color, he creates a series of drawings that replicate the original patents submitted by long-forgotten or largely unknown inventors.
In “Steam Economies,” harrington focuses on one of these inventors, the late Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894), who recognized that the economy of steam could be produced through the recurrence of latent heat in steam and vapors. Rillieux created a more efficient way of evaporating sugar cane juice that was also markedly safer than prior forms of extraction, reliant on slave labor. But, as harrington notes, “the workers who operated the Sugar Train method are not entirely liberated through Rilliuex’s invention.” harrington both recognizes Rillieux’s contribution to knowledge and technology and his uneasy position in the Antebellum South through a diptych that foregrounds his contributions through the formula for “latent heat” that he applied, superimposed over his likeness, which reminds us of his own complex legacy; the accompanying image references an erasure from history.
“What Remains Constant” takes as its point of departure the 19th century invention of the spirometer, a tool designed by an insurance company to test the lung capacity of members of the British working class and thus the degree of risk associated with their insurance policies. The works from this series illustrate what harrington calls “the social implications of [how] the science of work, the invention of the spirometer,” among others, “contributed to categories of difference and determined values of ‘vitality’ with the use of measurements of capacity.”
— Philip Cartelli, Wagner College Gallery