Between Labour and Leisure: Steven Laurie and the Working-Class Consciousness

by Stephanie Vegh


From painting and sculpture to weaving and bricklaying, all crafts and trades were once equally recognized as acts of art, united by the common human need to make and counting among their number all forms of manufacture that could derive from the word’s Latin root in “making by hand.” As recently as the last century, the futurist engineer and inventor Buckminster Fuller was content to count Henry Ford among the greatest artists of his time on account of the mechanically perfected production and distribution through which ‘the Ford automobile transcended full market penetration to become the world symbol for a car.’[i]

The idea may, as Sol LeWitt famously declared, be the machine that makes art but a human hand still drives the machine in the execution of an idea, be it LeWitt’s remote instructions for a wall drawing or a factory-made Model-T Ford. But where the quaver of a gallery assistant’s pencil may lend its own evidence to the work’s manufacture, the factory labourer’s hand is symbolically severed by the machinery he serves. These horseless carriages bear no memory of the worker’s touch; it is this loss that has separated manufacture from the realm of the arts, this lapse in labour’s fulfillment that is reconciled in Steven Laurie’s inventive reconfigurations of working-class machines.

Laurie’s kinetic sculptures are appropriately situated in this current exhibition at Hamilton Artists Inc., in a city that is the “forward cleat” of the Golden Horseshoe, so coined by Westinghouse President Herbert H. Rogge in a speech to the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 1954. This arc of cities that follow Lake Ontario’s shoreline from the artist’s birthplace in Oshawa to the Niagara River takes Hamilton as its central crucible with a reputation for steel, shipping and cheap hydro electricity flowing west from St. Catharines via the Welland Canal. With the establishment of Stelco in 1910 and Dofasco in 1912 bolstering a period of dramatic population growth, Hamilton was soon producing sixty percent of Canada’s steel and securing the working-class sensibility of its people. Drawn by the literal promise of cheap power, the first half of twentieth century brought many manufacturing interests into Hamilton along with plentiful employment opportunities that, paradoxically, offered a scarcity of options through which the city’s men and women were to earn their livelihood.

‘The lines of work are as numberless as the hooks in the sea,’ says Lewis H. Lapham in his preamble to Lapham Quarterly’s historical survey of labour-themed writings, ‘but they divide broadly into employments bent to one’s own purpose and those bound to a purpose other than one’s own.’[ii] It is this latter category that has shaped the manufacturing sector in the Golden Horseshoe and elsewhere since the Industrial Revolution; as demand rises with the world’s population, the supply of things has been taken out of the hands of the individual who is trained instead in only the most specialized and minute parts of creation. This breakdown of work was observed in the earliest stages of the Enlightenment by Scottish economist Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. His pivotal text speaks to the impossibility of a single man taking on the trade and identity of a pin maker when its manufacture has already been fractured into numerous sub-branches of ‘peculiar trades’:

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper. And the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.[iii]

This division of labour is neither new nor nearing obsolescence. An educated estimate assigns some 20,000 workers, whose compensations and freedoms remain a matter of dispute, to the building of the Pyramid of Khufu. The achievement of notable human ambitions still demands the collective labour of vast numbers of people who toil in obscurity at infinitesimal parts of a task: the 400,000 workers, for instance, who contributed to the Apollo 11 space launch.

Whether the unnamed angels who danced on the head of a rocket gained greater satisfaction from their work than those engaged in the making of pins is unnoted in the histories of human progress.

Aside from its return in trinkets and monuments, labour produces another civilizing effect in the meditative calm of the repetitive task. Humble monks and decadent intellectuals alike have attested to the spiritual benefit of manual labour, and its value as a sanctuary to the interior self remains well known today to those who seek refuge in gardening or knitting, making food and clothing out of pleasure rather than necessity. Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, recalls how in the repetitive labour of logging in Montana he found ‘something beautiful when you are working together – at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power.’[iv]

In addressing the blue-collar origins of his work, Steven Laurie speaks of the mechanical hobbies that subsume the suburban Whitby garages and proverbial man-caves where he grew up, of shift labourers who commit their leisure hours to the fixing of old cars. When one’s livelihood is earned in the piecemeal division of labour, what becomes most desirable is not only the fantasy of working for one’s own purpose on the other side of Lapham’s dichotomy, but also for that purpose to rest and invest itself in the ownership of one’s craft as a whole, from concept to completion.

Like an old muscle car made to shine through loving labour, Steven Laurie’s performative machines bear the artist’s imprimatur through their design, creation and use; they harness the ‘abstractions of motion and power’ that predominate the work and play of the masculine labourer. The working engines at the core of his sculptures celebrate the pulsating thrum of machines, but more significantly they suspend the most sedentary moments of that machine’s life. The steady drone of a Laurie engine has no destination in mind save to burn its rubber on the road, dragging out a race of constant braking. Laurie’s machines are not inventions of productivity, but rather of downtime drawn out to roaring life.

Steven Laurie’s objects draw their horsepower out of Ontario’s dwindling golden age of industry while engaging an impoverished aesthetic of object-based installation art. The everyman informality made possible by taking sculpture down from the aggrandizing pedestal breeds familiarity and, in the case of Laurie’s objects, menace in the mad-scientist whiff of destructive power hobbled together for a confounding, society-defying lack of purpose. Such chaotic play using the found materials of the suburban garage rather than the master’s studio is a contemporary consequence of revolutions that have seen stone and bronze monuments toppled in the name of egalitarian ideals:

If we were to follow the signals that have accompanied the opening of this new century, we might conclude that we have come to live in an age that defines itself by the disappearance of monuments and the erasure of symbols – a headless century.[v]

The chainsaw that would decapitate the figureheads of soulless industry is, in Laurie’s iteration, a bladeless impotence of fumes and noise that positions its power instead in the possibility of invention. Like the authority of kings and tyrants, the whorls of scorched rubber burned into concrete by his machines will fade as the engines grind out a lullaby of muted frustration playing on the car radio, but this joyride of the working class has yet to reach the end of the road.

Steven Laurie redeems the labour of the individual operating in a post-industrial twilight overrun with the mass-produced commodities of their efforts and the waste they produce. The threat posed by a legacy of material decadence is both exacerbated and remedied by Laurie’s recycling of suburban tools into exhaust-spewing machines that defy the notion that the end of manufacturing in the Golden Horseshoe will signal an end to work, art, or life. As Hamilton’s heavy industries have closed their doors in recent decades and the city has opened its mind towards an economy of education, health and the arts stripped bare of their manufacturing brethren, the idle impulse of invention will generate new possibilities for working and living, in this Canadian city and many others.

In her posthumously published autobiography, Agatha Christie shared her belief that invention comes from some place other than necessity – ‘invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness.’[vi] While the Victorian gentleman’s collection of ancient relics and modern wonders locked away in his curios and wunderkammer presaged a society of excess, the tinkerings of humbler men of leisure in their garages offer more productive and powerful forms of play. With indulgence and time, they may yet invent their way out of our current crises of labours lost and pollutions gained for which Steven Laurie provides both fitting memorial and promise to the future in their sheer madness and joy.


[i]            Laura Hoptman, ‘Unmonumental: Going to Pieces in the 21st Century.’ Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. London & New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007.

[ii]            Lewis H. Lapham, ‘The Servant Problem.’ Lapham’s Quarterly. Vol. IV, No. 2 (Spring 2011).

[iii]            Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Part One. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902.

[iv]            Norman Maclean, ‘Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’ The Norman Maclean Reader. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[v]            Massimiliano Gioni, ‘Ask the Dust.’ Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. London & New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007.

[vi]            Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. London: Collins, 1977.