Lost & Found Factory revives missing objects as public art

“At the Lost & Found Factory, what is gone is not forgotten, nor is it ever truly gone. Artist M. Michelle Illuminato is helping them reconnect to what they miss.”

Lost & Found Factory revives missing objects as public art at Three Rivers Arts Festival

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By Gabe Rosenberg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Photos: Allison Farrand/Post-Gazette

At the Lost & Found Factory, what is gone is not forgotten, nor is it ever truly gone. That may provide some peace of mind to, or at least allay some guilt of, the wife who misplaced her husband’s cuff links, or the curator who had a famous painting go missing under her watch, or even the woman who never got to see the dollhouse her grandmother bought for her mother.

Artist M. Michelle Illuminato is helping them reconnect to what they miss.

Setting up shop in a glass-enclosed kiosk on Liberty Avenue, right where the VisitPittsburgh Downtown welcome center used to reside, Ms. Illuminato’s Lost & Found Factory is one of four public art projects that came to life as part of the 2015 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. Under the overarching theme “Unseen/Unheard,” the project was constructed to interact with both its visitors and its landscape.

“Making a factory in Downtown Pittsburgh is an ode to those factories from before, trying to remember them, giving us a chance as a public to remember that,” Ms. Illuminato said. “The other thing I’m doing is giving people a chance to think about their own loss. When things change there’s always loss, no matter what. Even when it’s wanted change, there’s something that disappears.”

A Beaver Falls native and associate professor at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., Ms. Illuminato has always had one foot in Pittsburgh, keeping a studio in the city and returning occasionally for art projects like this one. She, along with artists Emily Blair and Phuong Nguyen, runs the collective Next Question, which since 1994 has created interactive public art in the urban spaces of cities like Buffalo, N.Y., Darmstadt, Germany, and Florence, Italy.

They’ve worked in Pittsburgh, too, over the years, most recently creating The Neighborhood Revisited project as part of the Open Engagement conference in April.

While The Neighborhood Revisited looked at the altered faces of Pittsburgh, the Lost & Found Factory thinks about people’s altered memories.

“We have a nostalgic feeling for places, and yet we forget certain things,” Ms. Illuminato said. “I’m interested in inviting the public to think about something they’ve personally lost and reach back in time, tell a story about it and then re-find it in reality again.”

The tiny Lost & Found Factory, newly painted in bright reds and blues with colorful flags outside, has an intake station on one side and a checkout station on the other, with artist tables visible through the large glass windows in the center. Open today and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m., the Factory invites passers-by to submit a form with something they have “lost,” describe it to the artists, get assigned a Lost number and watch as the artists re-create each object. It may take them a few minutes or a few hours, depending on its difficulty and how many artists get involved, Then it’s photographed (by Iranian-Canadian photo, video, and performance artist Rah Eleh, who came down from Toronto just for the occasion) along with its intake form and posted online at michelleilluminato.com/lost-and-found-factory/. People then can take their object home — at no cost to them.

The form asks people questions to help conjure up the missing thing: When/where was it last seen; what was its size, material, texture, smell, sound, and taste; and finally, why do they want to find it?

Ms. Illuminato asked me to come with my own “lost” object so I could experience the Factory process firsthand. I thought about an old LEGO space shuttle, a model of the real-life shuttle Discovery and the last of my many LEGO sets. In high school, the shuttle fell off my dresser and shattered into a million pieces, and with no instructions around, I could never put it back together. I thought I might let the artists try. I handed my sheet to Laurel Jay Carpenter, an installation artist and designated intake clerk, and it was rechristened Lost #9.

She doesn’t want to tell people how to interact with the project, so the intakes have varied wildly. Some, like the missing painting or cuff links, are tangible, physical objects associated with the guilt of responsibility; others, like the dollhouse, are connected to a personal or familial loss.

A few losses, however, are hard to describe and even harder to re-create. “I have lost touch with close friends,” Lost #38-B reads. One woman, leaving the Factory on Friday afternoon, joked to Ms. Illuminato, “I started out saying I lost my mind and I don’t want it back.” For items like these, Peter Kope, Michele de la Reza and the Pittsburgh-based Attack Theatre troupe volunteered to help out. They set up last Sunday in the Gateway Four Plaza right behind the Factory to perform “Lost + Found: Memories Through Movement,” a series of improvised dialogues and dances that interpreted nine Factory intakes.

When I went to retrieve my space shuttle on Monday afternoon, the Factory had finished its first 50 commissions. Mine was labeled and hanging in a clear plastic bag among all the other ghost objects under a sign that read “Found.”

The shuttle, complete with loading dock, engines and windows, is made of soft, springy Styrofoam, and it won’t break if it falls.

Gabe Rosenberg: grosenberg@post-gazette.com, or on Twitter @gabrieljr.

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