Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing

FACT, Liverpool, 4 June – 31 August 2015. Travelling to Norwich Castle, Museum and Art Gallery, 3 October 2015 – 3 January 2016.

Reviewed by Heather Garner

Heather Garner holds a BA in Fine Art at Liverpool Hope University. She is currently Assistant Editor at The Double Negative magazine and a freelance writer with a particular interest in contemporary drawing practice and the historic interface between art, craft and science.

There are a lot of things in life that seem to effortlessly work together like the cogs of a well-oiled machine: Lennon and McCartney, for instance, or Jelly and Ice Cream. However, in the twenty-first century, craft and technology have never really found that same harmonious coexistence and, instead, seem to provoke an “either/or” response amongst the general populace.

Figure 1. DoES Liverpool, Desktop Prosthetics, 2015. Image by Frankie Flood

The current exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT – Build Your Own: Tool for Sharing – reconsiders our understanding of traditional craft techniques in an attempt to redress this contentious rift. Here, four newly commissioned artworks place craft back at the heart of our communities by encouraging others to share tools and skills, albeit through slightly unconventional means, and in doing so raises the question of whether craft and technology can ever truly converge.

Figure 2. Rachel Rayns with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Neurotic Machines, 2015.Image by Brian Slater.

The investigation into craft immediately begins upon entering the foyer of the gallery with Rachael Rayns’ Neurotic Machines (2015). Created in collaboration with Raspberry Pi (a charity that seeks to affordably share computer programming skills), we are presented with a robotic gardening system that remotely controls the temperature, humidity, feeding and light levels of plants that are sparsely displayed in the gallery space. Here, the hands-on craft of gardening is reduced to the mere pressing of buttons and sliding of colourfully (and humorously) labelled switches on a nearby control panel – temperature, for example, can be adjusted from the less than technical “hotter than the sun” to “oven chips” right down to “ice ice baby.” Such technical trickery leaves the green fingered among us thoroughly clean-handed.

Yet, if craft is to be understood as being a skilled process of making, in this piece, one can be forgiven for wondering: where lies the craft? Perhaps Neurotic Machines is Rayns’ attempt to shift the context of craft away from the physical act of gardening and instead move us towards the act of making tools and machinery that are capable of doing the dirty work for us.

Figure 3. Linda Brothwell, Acts of Care: The Lost Letters of Liverpool, 2015.Image by Brian Slater.

This focus upon tool making is echoed in artist Linda Brothwell’s series of ongoing artworks, Acts of Care, in which she learns and utilises traditional craft skills in order to repair public sites such as those in her 2015 piece, The Lost Letters of Liverpool. In this work, the missing letters of building signs across Liverpool are lovingly and thoughtfully replaced using Polish Wycinaki (paper-cut) designs using the English tradition of hand pressed brass scroll work. Photographs of these recreations are delicately pinned to the gallery walls with physical examples of the designs displayed opposite, a display that manages to demonstrate the functionality and beauty that can occur in the blending of two cultural craft traditions.

Figure 4. Will Shannon and Assemble, Homework, 2015. Image by Brian Slater.

Chiming from this restorative ethos, artist Will Shannon and Turner Prize-nominated collective Assemble have collaborated to transform an otherwise empty house into a series of workshop spaces with a concrete casting factory in the backyard, in order to create mantlepieces for terrace houses in Toxteth, Liverpool. With the ethos of sharing in mind, the collective hired apprentices ensuring that the skills they developed were passed on beyond the duration of the exhibition: an idea that has its roots firmly in the Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris’s creative workshops. In an almost shrine-like manner, the tools of industry that the collective have used – brooms, shovels, cement covered buckets and pliers – are composed and lit in the gallery space as if artefacts of a by-gone era; the display seems to elevate these humble instruments to items of totemic significance.

So far in the exhibition, the idea that tools are central to the purpose of craft has prevailed, yet the hand itself is perhaps the key component in the creation process. For this reason, entrepreneurial creative community, DoES Liverpool – consisting of Ross Dalziel, Patrick Fenner and Adrian McEwen – has ventured to use 3D printers for the efficient and potentially life changing creation of “Raptor Hand” designs (see Figure 1), to be used by those whose limb deficiencies have left them unable to perform routine tasks. Each component is imagined and carefully designed using a specialist computer programme – a feat of technical ability in itself – then once printed each component is assembled following a step by step process in a production line fashion thereby making it possible for others to use these hands functionally. Perhaps in the future these prosthetic hands will be sophisticated enough to execute those traditional craft skills with which we are so familiar.

So, in answer to the question – can craft and technology truly converge? – this exhibition responds with a resounding yes. After developing centuries of craft techniques from carpentry, stitching and pottery, it is always going to be difficult to re-evaluate our understanding of craft within the context of new technology. However, the aforementioned artworks are shining examples of some of the varying ways this convergence of technology and craft can occur and, in doing so, offers a tantalising glimpse of how craft can once again become central to our everyday lives.

Cornelia Parker, Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

British Library, London. 15 May – 24 July 2015.

Reviewed by Emma Shercliff

Emma Shercliff is a textile maker, writer, researcher and educator. She is Senior Lecturer in Textiles at the Arts University Bournemouth. Her research explores textile making in social and educational contexts, the differences between implicit and explicit forms of knowledge, and the meanings of hand-making within post-industrial digital cultures. http://aub.ac.uk/staff/eshercliff

The ambition to capture and commemorate a significant event in embroidery follows time-honoured traditions, both noble and popular. The Bayeux Tapestry springs to mind – a meticulously executed document of international historical importance – as do numerous recent hangings and banners made by committed volunteers in communities around the country such as The Great Tapestry of Scotland (2012-13), recounting the history of Scotland, initiated by writer Alexander McCall Smith and stitched by 300 volunteers from the country, and the Greenham Common banners stitched by women protesters in the 1980s and hung along the perimeter fence of the military base.[1] Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery), commissioned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and on display at the British Library, pays homage to these varied traditions of monumental embroidery. Measuring almost thirteen metres long this collectively stitched document has involved more than 200 contributors including prison inmates working with Fine Cell Work, embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework and Hand & Lock, members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, and invited individuals many of whom have been selected because of their connections to law and civil liberties.

In a double twist of sophisticated irony Parker has managed to convey both great sensitivity and bold irreverence in the work. This isn’t a facsimile of the Magna Carta document; it’s a detailed replica of its Wikipedia entry as it appeared on 15 June 2014. An embroidered version of the actual document would have no place today; the words enshrined in it no longer resonate directly with viewers. More precisely, it is the history, evolution and impact of the Great Charter that we celebrate, and this is perhaps best represented today by its Wikipedia page.

Figure 1. Wikipedia logo, embroidered by Janika Magi, Hand & Lock. Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) on display at the British Library. Photograph © Tony Antoniou

 

With echoes of the original, this artwork was conceived by Parker as a snapshot of history in the making. The virtual Wikipedia page normally recognized as a transient, openly accessible secondary source of information has been transformed into a carefully handcrafted, primary source of reference in material form. In turn it has brought the legend of the Magna Carta to life and is making history in its own right.[2] In one sense it has literally been ‘made’, and in another it has raised the debate about civil liberties in the digital age.

One can’t help asking why the document has been hand-stitched. It could have been printed on cloth at the same scale, would have existed as a tangible object, and contained the same information. But the fact that it is hand-stitched multiplies the layers of meaning. Since the Women’s Suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, embroidery has been used as a powerful tool for political subversion.[3] It is both troubling and intriguing that needlework has provoked crucial questions concerning the representation of law and justice and how legal documents are made accessible.

In spite of the technically masterful embroidered vignettes, symbols and logos representing the visual references included in the Wikipedia page, I found myself drawn to the stitched words. The embroidery is pieced of eighty-seven panels recounting the history and development of the Magna Carta documents and clauses. Parker’s incisive wit is apparent in the words attributed to some of the invited individuals, again by turns both deeply poignant and provocatively subversive. For example, Baroness Doreen Lawrence stitched “justice, denial” and “delay”; Julian Assange “freedom” and “ancient liberties”; Edward Snowden “liberty”; and Moazzam Begg “held without charge”. Parker herself stitched “prerogative” rebelliously asserting her “exclusive right” as artist to have made such a laboriously decorative material copy of virtual text.

Figure 2. Detail of Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) on display at the British Library showing the subtle differences in stitching made by different contributors. Photograph © the author.

The impersonal uniformity of screen-based text we have become so accustomed to is challenged by the work. In a poetic representation of democracy the subtle insertion of individual histories into what is otherwise a large collective artwork acknowledges and symbolizes the contribution of each individual to society. The voice of each participant comes through in the slight differences of stitching noticeable section by section, and word by word.

I am an embroiderer too. I am acutely aware that the slow steady rhythm of hand-stitching can instil a reflective frame of mind and I can imagine the individuals who have worked on this piece dwelling on the significance of the words as they stitched, their intervention thus democratizing the artwork through the very act of making. The contributors have literally made history; their engagement with the document through their hand-stitching will have rendered the issues raised the more pertinent because they “wrote” it. The embroidery is participatory art at the sharp end, achieved not through spontaneous performance but through hours of crafted labour, conversation and quiet contemplation.

 

Notes

[1] Other notable examples include The Leeds Tapestry (1992-2002) embroidered by hundreds of volunteers to celebrate life in Leeds for the occasion of the millennium and The Patchwork of The Century (1951) made of 100 panels, each commemorating a key event from each year and exhibited at the Festival of Britain.

[2] The updated Wikipedia page now contains a section about Parker’s embroidery.

[3] For more on this subject see Roszika Parker’s 1986 seminal text The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: Woman’s Press, 1984).

 

Sheila Hicks, Foray into Chromatic Zones

Hayward Gallery, London. 23 February – 19 April 2015.

Reviewed by Denise Jones

Denise Jones is currently studying for an MA in Textiles at UCA Farnham. She has a particular interest in the process of embroidering.    

Figure 1. Sheila Hicks, Nomad Treasure Bales, (2014-15). Installation view, Sheila Hicks: Foray Into Chromatic Zones, Hayward Gallery Project Space, 23 February – 19 April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hayward Gallery, London

It is not surprising that the exhibition of work by Sheila Hicks (b.1934), at the Hayward Project Space, celebrates the materiality of fibre and the joy of vibrant colour. Hicks studied at Yale School of Art under Bauhaus tutor and colour theorist Josef Albers and spent considerable time in South America observing traditional textile techniques.[1]

This exhibition offers a snapshot of Hicks’s oeuvre and a glimpse into her long and prolific career, a career that has helped to transform the profile of textile. Hicks has always ignored and defied categorisation; her work spans the visual and decorative arts, architecture and design. She conjoins creative ideas – relating to the body in movement and memory of place – with manual skills and above all gives pre-eminence to the handling of materials and the use of colour.

The Dan Graham Waterloo Sunset Pavilion adjoining the Project Space has been “inhabited” with massed meshed sacks of fibre. The viewer is encouraged to become horizontal, to pause and be immersed in a sea of bright colour which sharply contrasts with the grey, brutalist architecture surrounding Waterloo Bridge. In the accompanying film, The Sunbrella Project (2015), Hicks scoops, twists, pulls, and stretches fibres in a wordless dialogue. She engages with the elemental vocabulary of fibre and threads. She knots, loops, embroiders, entwines, wraps, winds and weaves. Her processes are hypnotic. It is as if she charms the threads as they uncoil, unravel and reform.

The mystery of her threads is reiterated in the white gallery spaces. Nomad Treasure Bales (2014-15) (Figure 1) and Conductor Batons (2014-15) are fibre forms bound intensively with multi coloured threads. In these works Hicks suggests that threads move, have dynamism and limitless energy. The batons become conducting wands; the treasure bales, precious containers. In these works, she is unafraid of using shiny threads, which terrestrially sparkle and suggest starbursts. Baoli Chords/ Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow (2014-15) (Figure 2) is a collection of thick root-like wrapped primal cords, which tangle and search, visually dancing against the gallery walls.

Figure 2. Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow, (2015). Installation view, Sheila Hicks: Foray Into Chromatic Zones, Hayward Gallery Project Space, 23 February – 19 April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hayward Gallery, London

In the smaller back room of the gallery are examples of Hicks’s Minimes. Displayed are a coherent selection of Hicks’s small weavings, which are perhaps the most intimate and revealing of her practice. They make a direct reference to the natural world in their incorporation of shells and feathers. Standing in their own right, they are compressions of personal meanings. They suggest “much in little” and explore the structurally complex.[2] She describes these works as formal investigations where she picks and pokes as if writing an uneven letter. She weaves, wraps and embroiders. Threads become cloths and cloths become threads. Registering these works, in what has been described as one of the most beautiful of books, Weaving as Metaphor, Hicks states,

I found my voice and my footing in my small work. It enabled me to build bridges between art, design, architecture and the decorative arts.[3]

Refreshingly, Hicks does not shy away from using the term “embroidery” to describe one of her processes. Her recently remade architectural panels for The Ford Foundation building in New York, are of repeated embroidered “knots”. In regular rows, they resemble dials or wheels, suggesting the conflation of time and movement, clocks signalling hours, minutes, seconds in embroidered thread.

The naming of this exhibition, the use of the word, “foray” implies the act of venturing into a territory. On a grey March morning, up stairs, overlooking the incessant London traffic of Waterloo Bridge, Hicks seizes us with her chromatic zones of colour. For a while, we are taken on her very particular journey. Alongside her, we too perceive a fluid terrain translated into fibre and threads. We note with her, the energy of matter and the colour of the world, and most importantly, travel along her thread lines of enquiry.

Notes

[1] Joan Simon lists Hicks’s extensive global travels, stating that she has visited every country in South America. Simon draws attention to the influence of Andean textiles in particular and of time spent in Peru, Mexico and Chile. Joan Simon, “Frames of Reference” in Shelia Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 47-51.

[2] Simon describes Hicks’s Minimes as “much in little”, a condensation of meaning and form. Simon in Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor, p.56.

[3] The book won the gold medal for “The Most Beautiful Book in the World” at the Leipzig Book Fair 2007. The quote is taken from Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor, p.17