Art Installation Protests Pittsburgh-Based Firm's Role In Deadly Fire

Aug 14, 2020

By any reckoning, the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, in London, England, was a tragedy. Seventy-two died in the blaze. But in Pittsburgh, filmmaker Chris Ivey says, one aspect of the fire has been too little remarked: the role of locally based corporation Arconic. The Alcoa spin-off manufactured the exterior cladding panels on the high-rise apartment that a public inquiry in the U.K. has identified as the primary cause of the fire.

"This is me trying to do my part to help put the faces of the 72 lives lost literally at Arconic's doorstep"

Investigations and a court case are ongoing, on both sides of the Atlantic. But Ivey plans his own protest Friday. He’s setting up a one-night video installation about the fire, its victims, and its aftermath along the Allegheny River trail, just outside of Arconic’s corporate headquarters, on the North Side.

“This is me trying to do my part to help put the faces of the 72 lives lost literally at Arconic’s doorstep,” he said.

Asked to respond to the planned protest, Arconic released this statement: “We express our deepest sympathy to anyone affected by the 2017 Grenfell Tower Fire. We remain committed to supporting the authorities as the relevant investigations and UK Public Inquiry work through the complex questions presented.”

Arconic, known as Alcoa until 2016, makes and markets aluminum products for industries including aerospace, transportation, and construction. It supplied the polyethylene-filled exterior panels for the 2014-16 renovation of Grenfell Tower, a high-rise apartment complex.

The $14 billion company’s part in the tragedy was a focus of the public inquiry, which recently resumed after a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The inquiry is meant, in part, to determine whether criminal charges will be filed. A separate police investigation is also underway.

Arconic and another firm, Celotex, are also the defendants in a suit filed by survivors and victims’ families in federal court in Philadelphia.

Ivey is a filmmaker known for his activism. His documentary series “East of Liberty” explored the cost of gentrification in that Pittsburgh neighborhood. The video installation on Grenfell Tower is part of his ongoing project “We Are Here,” which explores social-justice issues in communities in Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Charlottesville, Va., and Cape Town, South Africa.

When he first heard about the Grenfell Tower fire shortly after it happened, he recalled, he was especially haunted that one of the victims was an up-and-coming artist, Khadija Saye.

Ivey, who is Black, was also struck by the fact that most of the victims were Black or members of other ethnic minorities in England.

He learned of Arconic’s role just last year, when he traveled to London to document the second anniversary of the fire. He said many of the survivors were then still living in hotels, while the 23-story Tower itself remained standing as an unavoidable reminder of the tragedy. (The building is slated for demolition.)

The video-and-sound installation Ivey will offer Friday consists of interviews and protest footage he shot in London, interwoven with British news footage about the fire and its victims. It will run as a loop lasting about an hour on four screens arranged in a loose square on the trail, in a spot visible from the adjacent Andy Warhol Bridge.

The event will be socially distanced, with four guests at a time permitted to view the screens up close, though viewing will be possible from up to 100 feet away, Ivey said.

Ivey said he is in frequent contact with British activist groups including Justice4Grenfell and Grenfell United.

He said his immediate goal is to get Arconic to take responsibility for its role in the deadly fire – even if the company is based here and the tragedy occurred an ocean away.

“It’s on the other side of the pond, you know, it’s not in their face,” he said. “It’s important for me now to make sure it stays in their face as much as possible, until they address this stuff.”

The video installation will run from 8-10 p.m. Friday.