The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands – all these are the making of something and that something is soul.
Post-trauma therapist and novelist Clarissa Pinkola Estes
My Launceston Craftivist-Action Day Objects
I have on my university office bookshelf a few pre-loved Craftivist items that I pinched from Launceston’s Yarn Bombing Day at the end of November 2009. These are: a few multi-coloured wool pom-poms, a sparkling bright blue-ish knitted collar-type of thing, that I removed from its cable-ties, a knitted sweater fragment in warm mossy green colours, and an inventive ecological ‘pasta’-knit found on the grass (at first malleable and brown; now… having dried out in the sun… crisp and almost black. Because of my own 1990s earthworks practice, I am prone to preferring “environmentally P.C. art-as-a-living-system” — so, I really appreciate the latter crafted object, which I have had the pleasure of watching change states).
The ironically-entitled activity of Yarn Bombing in the public sphere, is about returning a ‘kindness’, albeit with a prankster-type of ‘guerrilla-cheeriness’ to plazas and streetscapes (which have become increasingly privatised spaces since the mid-1980s). Generally a ‘pink-ghetto’ profession: to be a Yarn Bomber-Craftivist you need a bit of the fearlessness, but I think Craftivism is a ‘service’ industry whose activist-participants carry the subtext of being ‘Carers’. The above quote, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, is to remind readers of the roots craft has with ‘narrative’ and ‘preserving’ diverse culture, as well as connections with making new, contemporary culture which engages a strategy of ‘civility-to-be-different’ through creative endeavours.
Pre-internet era of site-specific Collective Protest
Craftivism is a return to the 1980s pre-internet era of site-specific collective protest, the most infamous of which was the Greenham Common Fence at the infamous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp at the USA air force base in Cardiff, Wales, early to mid- 1980s. The Greenham Common (open-weave-wire) fence perimeter was used exclusively as a textile arts (craftivist) communication strategy via the use of the on-going display of stuffed toys and knitted craftivist objects etc. which were stuffed into it. Historian and cultural theorist, Anna Feigenbaum, analysed the Greenham Common protest, with specific reference to the fence, and the protestor’s demands for a televised debate with the Ministry of Defense. The media strategies worked well in terms of garnering popular attention regarding the U.K. stockpiling of cruise missile nuclear weapons.
Craftivism, (although it was not called that back then), has been a strategy of women artists-activist-leaders such as the media-saavy (grand-scale) installation-performance artist Suzanne Lacy, USA, and tapestry weaver-turned new media theorist/smart-textiles designer, Prof. Janis Jefferies, Goldsmiths College, London (a Greenham Common Fence social activist / craftivist).
Long before the 1980s, I am reminded of the unwilling Bauhaus weaver, painter-performer Gertrud Arndt (1903 – 2000), and her early and playful work in self-portrait photography. One could say that Arndt’s early creative and rebellious strategies ran somewhat counter to the seriousness of the Bauhaus (and, in doing so, she protested her ‘ghetto-ism’ into the ‘pink’ profession of weaving design, a field in which she also, paradoxically, excelled). Arndt’s tongue-in-cheek conformity to the strictures under which she lived and worked as an artist show that, despite this, her creative soul was thriving – and this mirrors craftivist strategies of today. Arndt was known as sensible and practical, as well as an endlessly witty person in the midst of war-time hardships. Her infamous series of 43 Masken-Selbst Portrăts, or Mask Portraits, (1930) are testament to ‘her inner personality’ and her awareness of performative strategies needed to survive (6 Bauhaus women artists were killed in concentration camps) (Müller, 2009, pp. 7 – 13, p. 59).
Craftivism as ‘encoded’ communication
Craftivism is ‘encoded’ communication, and as such, is ‘fraught territory’ which is split right down the middle between ‘social conformity’ and ‘social protest.’ ‘Quiet’ or ‘silent’ protest has been called into question in various eras for many reasons. As a result of its ambiguous stance, Yarn Bombing is safe-to-practice, but contentious in its reception. I think the new generation of (mainly female) artist-craftivists might wish to acknowledge that their energetic polemics sometimes just ‘don’t deliver’ the desired results of ‘voicing’ or ‘making’ using other creative or organisational socio-political strategies. This may be because this art activity can be trivialised into the decorative trimmings of ‘events or festival management’ and/or conflated and reduced into an infantilised cute-ness, ready for erasure by other types of community-engaged leaders. Folklore theorist, Linda Pershing discusses the fraught aspects of such art practices in her book Peacemakers by Piecemakers which is about the needleworked Ribbon-Around-The-Pentagon, a monumental social-protest artwork by Justine Merritt, U.S.A (generally erased by the media as an ‘odd woman’s’ social protest against the nuclear arms race, 1985, but finally taken up as a United Nations ‘global citizenship’ day commemoration, from 2005 onwards).
Carer or Critic? The (female) Craftivist’s Fraught Territory
When I read Pershing’s research at the turn of the millennium, I was in the middle of making The Irish Linen Handkerchief Memorial. Pershing’s detailed findings made me realise that the ongoing reception of my own artwork (which had a similar approach to Merritt’s Ribbon) might be more obscure and more complicated than I had anticipated (despite the gains made in the last 40 years of the ‘fresh ungendered face’ of the Postmodern Sculptor). I think this has proven to be accurate. From the all-male journalist team, who compiled the post-1994 chronological Names List-of-those-killed-in-The Troubles sectarianism, Brian Feeney (on behalf of David McKittrick et al) rejected my counter-monument without even taking up an invitation (mid-2008) to walk through and experience it. The Linen Memorial was once staged as a ‘social protest – against – sectarian – violence’ and then, subsequently, it has become a commemorative Craftivist artwork-memorial, in 2007, due to the quieter socio-political situation in (‘post-conflict’) Northern Ireland.
Craftivists, themselves, come from various backgrounds with various intentions and might feel disconcerted, disconnected and / or unaware of the focus of their artistic intentions and unable to target and work effectively with their subconscious creative identity-politics concerns. If a Craftivist’s orientation is unquestioningly naive, then their craftivism remains a ‘past-time’. Full participation in an artworld can be scary: this is where the competition can be ‘catty’-between-competitive women and very steep for any professional opportunities. Anonymous home-making may seem preferable and more peaceful. Either way, the artwork is often playful (with avant-garde references) but often claims a serious subtext.
Textile arts / needlework craftivism is an interdisciplinary artistic field with conceptual concerns regarding the body, migration theory, gender studies, the history of non-erotic ‘Christian’ love / charity and communal well-being. Craftivist practitioners need an understanding of the complex history of public and private space, including of both incredibly intimate (sexualised and/or taboo ‘sites’) as well as a sense of the opposite and larger scale: urban planning.
Craftivist as Carer
Whether a professional or amateur pursuit, Craftivist / Yarn Bombers should acknowledge that they, indirectly, become carers of 1) the sustainable environment and 2) the sustainable (non-violent) community and, as such, their art-making becomes a service. In these methods, public artists also critically protest the lack of time for conversation in an highly mediatised world increasingly reliant on e-communication and e-relationships.
Craftivism Action Day
November 21st 2009 was Arts Action Day organised by Kim Schneiders at Arts Access Link who had heard about the colourful cult following of contemporary knitting /yarn bombing. The day was a ‘test-run’ for a collaborative festival to be held later this year, associated with Arts Alive, an artist-run gallery space in Launceston, Northern Tasmania.
The Launceston Access Arts day was also, in part, a non-council approved anti-bureaucratic plea for art-for-community-by-community and for ‘art-as-we-like-when-we-like’. Some of the main players in Launceston’s action were Amy, a twenty-year-old Scottish conservationist, Abigayle, and Tess. Tess is a 30 year old University of Tasmania Arts Academy BCA graduate: a ceramicist, now apprenticing in animation in the U.K. Tess and Amy spent some time talking with me about the event.
Tess who learnt knitting from her grandmother when she was young, wanted to use it as a healing therapy with her mother. She was re-learning the skill from You Tube videos, also in order to send a gift to her friend overseas. She wanted more camaraderie and so she volunteered for Schneiders’ Arts Access Link to help lead a weekly creative group for physically challenged persons to learn craft-based skills at the Invermay Arts Railway precinct (where the UTAS art school is also located).
They consider themselves Yarn Bombers who appreciated the connection with the future festival, but who preferred (at this point) not to get caught up with its administration. Abigayle’s most pleasurable highlight of the Craftivist Action Day was wading through the newly renovated fountain at Prince’s Park in the centre of Launceston to place her knitted bikini bra on one of the female nude sculptures (in part a two-pronged protest against a recent local Tasmanian newsworthy tid-bit about public nudity and the history of the ‘male gaze’ in the traditional high arts of painting and sculpture). After this climax, the collective group was freezing cold, so they all disbanded, leaving the town more than colourful and the townsfolk questioning. The aftermath was that, in an expensive endeavour, the city council had to drain the fountain, remove the bikini and re-fill the pool.
Background to Craftivist Communication strategy
Craftivism cannot escape its direct, unrelenting and very specific links with the gendered history of craft, the lack of women’s equitable employment / financial independence (especially in craft in the first and forth worlds for very different reasons), lack of creative or organisational leadership opportunities, (and the resultant consequences for their independence and safety). For the young female artist / craft /design person who wishes to work with their matri-lineage in the art of textiles, or just because they are talented with textiles, or they like the contemporary issues which textiles connotative of: such as references to mobility/migration/time/touch/cultural or ethnic diversity/ ‘the abject’ etc. and/or for the sculptor of either gender who wants to participate more fully in the public realm (with textiles) — then, that artist needs to be knowledgeable about the gendered history of public space and realistic about how conventional media will perceive the Craftvist genre. Increasingly, the dauntless artist with lasting mainstream credibility who is able to gain funding for their inter-disciplinary art/craft/conceptual voice has been (since the mid-1990s) the committed practice-led doctorate/post-doctorate researcher.
- Estes, Clarissa Pinkola Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballantine,1996.
- Müller, Ulrike with Ingrid Radewaldt and Sandra Kemker, Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design, Flammarion, Paris, 2009
For more information, see: Crafitivism — www.conceptualinstallationart.