Native Funk and Flash (part one)

Photograph by Christina Linden

Photograph by Christina Linden

Photograph by Christina Linden

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]

Report on Nostalgia and Renewal

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at Edinburgh School of Art. Here she reports on a day symposium she organised on the theme of nostalgia and renewal. The various contributions seem to reveal nostalgia as a particularly productive field of critical reflection. 

Nostalgia proved ripe for debate on June 26, when the University of Southampton Library and the Edinburgh College of Art organised a one-day symposium to explore the theme. Throughout the daylong conversation, focus veered back and forth along two axis. Nostalgia as a positive experience sat at one end of a line of thinking. Nostalgia as a negative mindset perched at the other extreme. A further contrast was the experience of nostalgia as an individual and intimate response to personal memory, versus the same sentiment considered on a national and even global scale distanced from first hand experience.

Slide carousels were definitively moved to the past with the first speaker of the day, Kevin Murray, speaking via skype about authenticity and craft. Murray’s thought provoking contribution explored “craft through the nostalgic lens” and introduced the British audience to Australian exhibitions and practitioners engaging with the theme. Whistling, milk bottles and the typewriter all found their way into the conversation. Murray spoke of a today’s “hypercapitalist world filled with material redundancy” and concluded that nostalgia acts as “both a retreat and a recovery”. Our testing of remote technology set the intended experimental tone for the day. Regrettably, one lesson to be gleaned from the experience was our inability as an audience to fully communicate to the speaker our engagement and enthusiasm – elements that are palpable when standing at the podium.

Linda Newington, Head of Faculty Services held an informal conversation with Tim Wildschut of the School of Psychology, both at the University of Southampton. Newington’s interest in nostalgia and knitting provided an accessible link to Wildschut’s research. In basic terms, Wildschut revealed that negative moods can trigger a nostalgic state of mind, but the result can leave an individual with “an increased sense of social support” which acts as “private self comforting”. Armed with this evidence that nostalgia is not indulgent whimsy after all, many speakers and participants expressed relief at the science Wildschut’s research illuminated. Curiously this point was returned to again and again throughout the day, suggesting the alleviation of much unspoken anxiety around the theme.

Carol Tulloch, a Reader in Dress History at Chelsea College of Art and Design, concluded the morning with a talk on her use of photographic archives to research dress history in Jamaica. Tulloch contrasted this experience with her more recent use of photographic collections inherited from her mother-in-law, drawing on Homi Bhahba’s notion of “fragments of history” to acknowledge that research “cannot gain all of the story”. But she also acknowledged that the “physical act of trolling through the photographic archives” she first used in Jamaica is an entirely different experience to the database dependent archival work many undertake today. “Unexpected finds” if nothing else, are often omitted when research is screened first through the tool of the digital database. So too is the slower pace with which the archival material comes to be known.

From Tullouch’s exploration of the recent past, conversation wound its way even further back in time to the Neolithic. Angela McClanahan, Lecturer in Visual & Material Culture at the Edinburgh College of Art introduced us to the Stones of Stenness, “a spectacular Neolithic henge monument located in the Orkney Islands, and the roles it has played in various forms of cultural production surrounding identity, ‘belonging’ and the construction of community over the last two centuries.” Recounting the “purposeful acts of curation, particularly romantic interpretations of the site as a Norse-Pagan ‘sacrificial’ ruin when it was taken into state care and interpreted for public consumption in 1906”, McClanahan tackled the question of nostalgia from the wide lens of the tourism economy and the identity as World Heritage Site. More recent controversy over the potential of a wind farm to be built visible to the site revealed yet another interpretation of nostalgia: a memory to remain static and unchanging despite of a local thirst for modernisation.

To conclude the day, I spoke with Textile Artist Clio Padovani about the role material and memory play in her current practice. Trained in tapestry, Padovani now works with video to create works that are in many ways ‘constructed’ as a tapestry would be assembled. The central role time plays in both weaving and new media were foregrounded in Padovani’s discussion of her practice. Here the spectrum of nostalgia was apparent in references to the artist’s Italian childhood, as well as a cultural nostalgia for the paintings of the great Italian masters, now reconfigured in digital works as ephemeral as the emotions they explore.

This event was modest in size, a detail that Linda and I felt, as organisers, to be crucial to both the audience and speakers ability to explore alternative and informal modes of presentation. We were lucky to enjoy the contribution of an engaged and questioning audience, who fed a lively and ongoing conversation throughout the day. But I wonder too, if the theme of nostalgia lends itself to this? Without feeling the need to be a subject expert, I sensed that everyone felt they had valid questions and comments to bring to the conversation, often based on personal anecdotes. Throughout the day, these contributions shed light on larger and more formal research topics introduced by the invited speakers. This event is one of two linked research days; the second will take place at the Edinburgh College of Art on July 24 and considers the theme of renewal. I wonder if the future will hold as much pause for thought as the past provided us with last week.

Embedded Resistance

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

For the first time Collect was staged at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery, off the King’s Road, in a beautiful open and airy space, away from the usual places where crafts are encountered, exhibited, sold and sometimes bought. This Collect was hailed as being exhibited in a place of ‘fine’ (or other) art, therefore rated equally etc. etc. etc., a marketing ploy that played on all the usual insecurities. I will leave the more journalistic evaluation and celebration to others and focus on the dynamics that involve the crafts as a practice of meaning.

In my view, we need to be aware of the significance of the craft object as a commodity and at the same time explore the it as a dialogical device of differentiation and of meaning. In accordance with other theoretical thought systems, significantly semiology, we might regard the object as a sign, a sign by which human beings, individually or in groups, communicate or attempt to communicate. This applies to a lot of cultural manifestations like clothes, advertisement, food, music etc., and of course crafts are no exception. The object functions as a sign regardless of the maker’s intention, and it does so whether it has been mass-produced, is a one-off piece or a conceptual work. The reading of the object as a sign becomes especially interesting in cases where the maker is aware of the linguistic sign function of the object and integrates this awareness into his/her own artistic practice. These makers often develop work methodologies, which on a conscious level attempt to take control over the sign function of the object and intentionally play with the possible readings of the work.

The crafts practitioners I focus on engage in the development of creative working methodologies that enable the re-construction of signs and their creative and social function. Autobiographical and historical narratives need to be integrated into a process of making and desires need to be managed. This does not lead to the representation of the surrounding world ‘as it is’; it is primarily an artificial field of signs, which can be manipulated—a cultural artefact. It leads to an approach to artistic production as a tactical game of significations.

The structures and dynamics of culture production involve the crafts in a ‘double take on a double take’. Craft’s initial resistance to mass-culture makes it all the more attractive as a commodity. A market situation is generated where crafts has to simulate itself to be economically successful. Every maker knows how hard it is to sell objects that remain outside the standard territory of commodity signification, and so to achieve artistic autonomy.

Contemporary crafts practice occupies a curious place. On the one hand, we find mass or batch production, which simulates the machine-produced, repressing one-off creation in favour of simulating variation. This side of crafts is often considered successful practice because it works economically. On the other hand, we find crafts practice, which denies machine culture and nostalgically celebrates the hand-made, despite it being often economically unviable.

Crafts like every other art form needs curators, gallerists or project developers, who are creative themselves beyond the economic viability of their businesses and who are empathetic to the artist’s project and development, who are interested in cultural dissemination, view making as a relevant reflective language, or simply are easily bored by too much sameness. Only in such working relationships can makers resist becoming the makers of their own brand and can afford to remain creatively inquisitive and evolving. The other option would be to evade the gallery system altogether and to engage with other more guerrilla tactics to get one’s work seen and appreciated.

In polite Collect, Hans Stofer’s Off my Trolley stood out with an imagined soundtrack of The Clash. His piece of resistance was ‘in your face’, using punk and scatter-art strategies, a piece of work where nothing more needed to be said – the piece was the message…

hans-stofer-1-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-1-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-5-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-5-gallery-so-collect-09


hans-stofer-2-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-2-gallery-so-collect-09

…only in the context of Collect, it was one of the pieces that offered a resolute, if deeply nostalgic,  counter-position and resistance to the sameness of contemporary crafts commodity.

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

On the other side of the scale, Collect 2009 seemed to have lost the domestic, functional and delightfully usable, being replaced with ever more ‘modern’ table-sculpture. No question, some of these are simply impressive in application of skills, exploration of materials and scale. But objects of a more humble nature and objects that emerge from crafts practices that resist commodification seem to be difficult to bring to this audience. Given that the galleries that show at Collect are selected (apart from the fact that they need to be in a position to be able to afford participation) for the creative output of the artists they represent, the question arises if we are encountering another circle of homogenisation in the appreciation of objects – a collectively shared belief, a taste, of what constitutes ‘good’ crafts. Like all culturally established hierarchies this is difficult to resist, fundamentally non-contemporary and counter to maker’s passionate investment in artistic experimentation.

I am particularly mindful about the impact this might have in the creative practice of emerging makers who are only in the process of finding out what it is they are doing. The most frightening result I could think of would be the simulation of accepted appearance at the price of a self-reflective and critical practice, as difficult as this might be to bring to the attention of an appreciating audience.
On my way back from Collect, walking through London’s nightly streets, I saw these richly decorative historical crafts objects reflected in the window of one of London’s most cutting-edge gallery and found this image more eloquent than any of my words could possibly be…

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night