Native Funk and Flash (part two)

This is the second part of the post ‘Native Funk and Flash’ by Allison Smith. For the first part, go here.

In 2004, Brooklyn-based artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi initiated a series of quilting forums called An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail, the title taken from a protest poster she found at the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society archives.  In the spirit of a quilting bee in which the quilt both facilitates conversation and contains the residue of it, participants across the U.S. and Canada contributed to the making of a quilt depicting personal slogans and decorative vignettes of bunnies caught in various modes of erotic engagement. She writes on her website, “I see the history of family and community quilting as harnessing possibly the foremost political activities: community-building and dialog, creating a sense of belonging for those who participate. The quilting forums are symbolic of the same ideals upheld by my own queer community. While redefining these traditions, ‘An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail’ brings the spirit of this shared experience to an extended community.” She continues, “The end product is not the piece, but rather the process—the informal gatherings and invaluable dialog between friends and strangers.” In some ways, this project can be read as the lighter, sweeter, and generationally “post-AIDS” postscript to that masterwork of relational queer craft The NAMES Project.

In her collaborative performance and site-specific installation series Knitting Nation, Liz Collins explores the notion of knitting during wartime and simultaneously reveals aspects of the textile and apparel manufacturing process in time-based events with costumed knitters working on manually operated knitting machines. She describes these events as “a type of ‘happening,’ drawing spectators into the buzz of activity, where the sound and motion both stimulate[s] and transfixe[s] the participants as well as the audience.” In June of 2008, she presented “Knitting Nation Phase 4: Pride,” an homage to and reconstruction of the original rainbow pride flag made by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 to symbolize the diversity of the gay community. Created by an army of uniformed machine knitters, Collins’s knit rainbow flag ascended the steps and hill of a public park in the center of Providence, Rhode Island over the course of six hours. An important component of this project was a massive survey Collins sent out asking, “How do you feel about the rainbow flag?”

Indigo Girls is a “craft-action dye happening and social sculpture” that Brooklyn-based artist Travis Boyer has been performing since December of 2008. For this event, he invites participants to come and dye whatever they like in a natural fermentation indigo dye vat: clothes, art projects, wood, leather, etc. Boyer writes, “The results are gratifyingly positive; the craftwork is non-age- or skill level-discriminant…Indigo Girls is a party about auto-fashion empowerment, creativity, identity, pedagogy, and camaraderie. The technique is ancient and cross-cultural. It is ecologically green and non-toxic. The process of dying marks the dyers; it stains our hands and costumes but also facilitates profound illumination.” Boyer’s use of the term “costume” and his inference of personal transformation seems appropriate here in relation to this particular process in which material transformation figures so heavily: wet cloth emerges from the vat an unearthly neon green and transforms before one’s eyes into blue upon its exposure to oxygen. Items of clothing are given “new life” as participants engage in a process of personal reinvention through creative self-styling.

Onya Hogan-Finlay presented a riff on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party called The After Party in conjunction with the traveling exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the VIVO Media Arts Centre in December of 2008.  It was billed as “An All (gender) Inclusive Weekend Package: Un-packing the pants of vaginal imagery in feminist art.” The press release reads as manifesto, here are some excerpts: “This series of happenings will take shape through your participation. Read on, sisters! In the spirit of Feminism, The After Party will host a series of events in Vancouver: A Thursday night group walk-through of the WACK! exhibition at the VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery), followed by a day-long hands-on cardboard craft workshop and two temporary installations at VIVO’s Friday night Riot Grrl event, a Saturday brunch, and finally, a Sunday bonfire at Wreck Beach. [The weekend] will have the feel of something between a debauch Feminist clubhouse, Santa’s workshop, and a DIY cardboard utopia. This work will respond both to WACK! and to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979) which featured place settings honoring women icons and aimed to ‘end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.’ Objects will be suspended like mobiles from VIVO’s ceiling or will join an assemblage of limited edition multiples on a table to stage a wild “after-party” scene a.k.a The After (dinner) Party installation. Cut-up some cardboard, cut out the patriarchy, and let’s make this happen together!”

And the list could go on. In June of 2009 Sheila Pepe invited participants to dismantle a crocheted environment at Austin’s testsites space and to re-crochet it into objects and garments for themselves. One could read this project as a re-doing and un-doing of Faith Wilding’s famous “Womb Room” of 1972, activating the shelter created by the work into a truly fertile space of productivity. Lee Maida presented a body-weaving event in which participants were literally woven together with fabric tape reminiscent of the seats on Shaker chairs as part of the project Sessions: Con Verse Sensations organized in upstate New York by Katerina Llanes as part of her thesis project for the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies. Boston-based author Greg Der Ananian and artist Jesse Kahn have been hosting a series of public needle-working sessions for gay men called Nine Inch Needles. Also in Boston, Gina Siepel’s ongoing project The Boy Mechanic invites participants to craft a practical or fanciful handmade object from the book of the same name first published in the early 1900s.

There is a burgeoning academic and curatorial discourse surrounding this topic. Of particular note is the recent IASPIS (International Artists Studio Program in Sweden) project Craft is Handmade Communication. With a focus on fiber practices that address recording/marking time and craft, public acts of crafting, and political activism through craft, the Gestures of Resistance panel at the 2008 College Art Association conference in Chicago postulated a theory of handicraft as performative: active, public, and affective rather than passive, private, and obsessive. That same year, “Handmade Utopias” (chaired by JMC Editor Glenn Adamson) focused on extreme cases in which the handmade has been linked to the idea of Utopia—whether by individuals, communities, or governments, and on how contemporary practitioners employ the handmade to create new social configurations.  There was a Queering Craft session hosted by CAA’s Queer Caucus for Art at the February 2009 conference in Los Angeles, which included panelist Julia Bryan-Wilson. The foremost thinker in this arena, she has produced important critical work exploring these ideas including the article previously published in JMC 2:1 “Queerly Made” which links Harmony Hammond’s floor pieces to more recent instances of queer craft. This CAA panel was echoed by the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society’s “Crafting Queer” panel discussion in April. A “Queercraft” exhibition was mounted in conjunction with the former, and an exhibition called Threads was organized as part of this year’s National Queer Arts Festival, also in San Francisco, for which I served on the curatorial committee.  Upcoming in 2010, another CAA panel will ask “How is ‘Queer’ Art Relational? How do ‘queer’ practices and tactics…enact a different version of so-called ‘relational aesthetics’…the ‘art’ of crafting protest, dialogue, community, political action? How does ‘queer’ (art)work enact an aesthetics of the relational that is critical of normativity in all of its forms?” It will be interesting to see how these relational queer craft practices and the accompanying conversations around them evolve beyond myriad re-workings of traditional crafts and craft history into something truly new, like a phoenix.

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]