Flood Plain screens a documentary about otherworldly art space The Mattress Factory


The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh is a quietly remarkable institution, having hosted superstars like James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama as well as emerging and local artists over its 40 years on the city’s North Side.

An equally quietly remarkable film about the museum, Site Specific: A History of the Mattress Factory, screens on Saturday at Flood Plain.

It’s a documentary and a love song from David Bernabo, a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist and writer.

“I was trying to tap into the sense that I got of the Mattress Factory over the years,” Bernabo says. The film, he says, is “mysterious, it’s sometimes abrupt cuts. Sometimes it’s a bit of a narrative, sometimes it’s a little elusive,” he says. “The material I was working with lent itself to that.”

Interwoven among the interviews with founders and co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk and archival footage from past installations, the film tracks the installation and opening of Vanessa German’s 2017 exhibition, sometimes.we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies. It’s an elegant device, providing the spine of a timeline for the film’s occasionally discursive and meditative storytelling style.

It also gives a peek into the underappreciated world of museum staff and the painstaking preparations that go into building an exhibition.

“A museum is a little chaotic,” Bernabo says. “Schedules constantly shift. I just wanted to show a little bit of the behind the scenes—the staff is so accommodating.”

The museum was founded by artists in 1977 as a food co-op and art space. It hosts site-specific installations on the property, with few of the restrictions or guidelines that most institutions have in place. It’s been a living laboratory for 40 years, and the film tells the story of its evolutions as well as gives a sense of what can happen in such a singular place.

It’s the kind of place that went out and rented a cutting-edge camera to film artist David Ellis falling into paint for the lush 2008 video work “Fly,” as well as literally catching him at the end of his glorious skid. It’s the kind of place that let artist Hans Peter Kuhn poke giant rods through the roof for his “Acupuncture” installation. And it’s where, last year, Meg Webster’s “Solar Grow Room” took over with an indoor garden fed by solar-powered grow lights. 

“Even if you haven’t heard of the museum, it’s an interesting introduction, and kind of an interesting case study for any museum,” Bernabo says.

Bernabo, a lifelong Pittsburgher, first started going to the Mattress Factory 18 years ago, as a junior or senior in high school.

“We would go to the Mattress Factory because it was the cool thing to do in the city,” he says. “It was the weird art museum. I was getting into philosophy and music. It was a time when I was very accepting of anything that was coming.”

The first piece he saw there was Robin Minard’s 2000 installation, Silence (Blue). In it, a carpeted room holds 341 speakers between clear and blue plexiglass with the faint sound of water emerging. Bernabo says the piece isn’t strictly beautiful to look at or even technically astounding, but it provides a sense of transport, of moving to another place.

He’s been going ever since.

The film is like the museum: In parts, it’s straightforward narrative, but in others it’s lyrical and impressionistic. Any music you hear that’s not part of an artwork was composed and performed by Bernabo.

If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory belongs on your must-visit list. But Saturday night you can visit its environment just by heading for Cherokee Street.

Site Specific: A History of the Mattress Factory screens Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at Flood Plain Gallery, 3151 Cherokee. Tickets are $10.