A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail a long-awaited copy of Native Funk & Flash (Scrimshaw Press, 1974), ordered over the Internet when my local used bookstore, though familiar with this vintage gem, was currently out of stock. An expressive visual record of the particular union of craft and counterculture that so flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 70s, its simple, direct cover features a close-up shot of the voluptuous ass cheek of author Alexandra Jacopetti, emblazoned with a large, three-headed phoenix charismatically embroidered on faded denim. (“This is my version of the phoenix, with three heads because there are so many ways of looking at things,“ she writes in the book.) Her handiwork is accentuated by the placement of her hand above a macramé belt, a section of her torso in black knit silhouette, and wisps of waist-length wavy hair that hang down as she leans forward against what appears to be a Berkeley “brown shingle” Craftsman home. An exuberant rainbow, echoing the red, orange, and yellow flames out of which the phoenix is apparently rising, further frames the scene. I was originally introduced to this special volume several years ago when my friend Liz Collins, artist, knitwear designer, and professor in the Rhode Island School of Design Textiles Department, showed me her treasured copy. And I was recently reminded of it by Elissa Auther, associate professor of contemporary art in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado, who I met at the panel discussion titled “The Aesthetics of Counterculture” which she organized for the 2009 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles.
After recently relocating my home and studio from New York to the Bay Area in order to join the faculty of California College of the Arts (formerly Arts & Crafts), I have been anxiously attempting to trace the history of the California Arts and Crafts movement and the legacy of early West Coast utopian communes in order to glean the ways in which the handmade seems perpetually to characterize this region (from Slow Food to home-brewed biodiesel, from old school Studio Craft to DIY Craftivism). There is a pronounced sense of civic participation here, in general as well as within artistic circles, as an abundant array of projects in the “social practice” arena would seem to demonstrate. And while New York has better fashion, the Bay Area has the history of Art to Wear, as well as that particular brand of craftastic drag, a trajectory one can easily trace back to the legendary San Francisco theatrical troupe the Cockettes, whose members Scrumbley Koldewyn, a musician and performer, and the notorious queen Pristine Condition are featured in Native Funk & Flash—the former in a performance suit made entirely of crocheted doilies, a look that pre-dates Nick Cave by several decades, and the latter in a hyperbolic pioneer dress complete with patchwork and calico ruffles that would be the envy of Paul McCarthy.
I’ve often wondered how something like folk music came to signify radicality in the 60s. It would be as if suddenly everyone saw making quilts as the coolest and most politically exciting thing to do. Considering that working within a historic craft tradition could be considered one of the most conservative kinds of making (think of the “authentic reproductions” of historic preservation, or Living History), how then can the traditional, the historic, the local, the indigenous, or the handmade, come to signify radical counterculture? In Native Funk & Flash, hand embroidery embellishes classic American work denim—symbol of blue-collar hard work and casual, youthful defiance—with fantasy landscapes, moons and stars, castles and mosques, penises and vaginas, psychedelic abstractions and smoking joints. Jacopetti writes, “Many of us have hungered for a cultural identity strong enough to produce our own versions of the native costumes of Afghanistan or Guatemala, for a community life rich enough for us to need our own totems comparable to African or Native American masks and ritual objects.” Later, she speaks of “the art of costuming” and the “fantastic ability to achieve an effect, rivaling the scary old shamans of past times for sheer outrageous impact.”
Although the logic of these words seems dated, if not totally flawed and naïve, they capture a cultural impulse, a “hunger” for taking the construction of identity into one’s own hands, using needle and thread, and for enacting that identity publicly, shamelessly. I’d like to discuss a flurry of recent projects that utilize traditional craft practices, especially textile techniques like quilting, knitting, dying, and weaving, that take Roszika Parker’s now classic text The Subversive Stitch a few steps forward toward the radical, the relational, and the queer. Part quilting bee, part drag-fashion performance, part nostalgic return to 60s counterculture, and part something else TBD, these generative projects present a more contemporary take on interactivity and social reciprocity and perhaps better reflect our own current times of war and economic recession. Since 1974, the Civil Rights movement, multiculturalism, postcolonial studies, identity politics, feminist and queer theory, and performance studies have better articulated, advanced and complicated our understanding of the performativity of identity. These artists are looking for new words to describe what would have been called a “happening” or a “social sculpture,” though their work wouldn’t be legible without those precedents.
[to be continued here]