The politics of community collaboration through craft

Joan Key questions the apolitical nature of many visual art projects involving community collaboration through craft.

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

My writing on the subject of craft was really limited to a certain period, around 1994-2000 and reflected particular discourses of that period about craft in the art gallery, which was the subject of the ‘Craft’ exhibition shown at Richard Salmon Gallery and Kettles Yard. In current practice such issues are less contentious because strategies engaging craft are more dispersed into a wide range of cross-generic fine-art practices. Even so, some residual observations may be relevant.

The communal ethos of makers/making craft artefacts can suggest a social context of the works’ production as a subtext to the work of art. At the period in which the Craft essay was written, I was thinking along these lines in an unpublished seminar paper about the Hohenbuchler Sisters’ work, seen in London at the ICA and at Camden Arts Centre around 1996. The communal aspect of the Hohenbuchler’s ‘sisterhood’ and their collaborative work with institutions lent a positive and attractive aspect to their practice, in spite of a darker side to the sisters’ therapeutic narratives. More recent examples could be Anthony Gormley’s clay works, ‘Field’ or Ai Wei Wei’s porcelain Sunflower Seeds, shown to popular acclaim at Tate Modern Turbine Hall and recently the subject of a purchase for the collection. The idea of community draws in viewers of such projects, not only as viewers of the artists’ work but as interpreters of the social construction that produced the work. The imaginative elaboration of this wider nexus of productivity may even be encouraged in documentation within the exhibition, as with this year’s exhibition of Alighiero e Boetti’s embroideries, Mappa Mundi, at Tate Modern.

Such histories of working collaboration may never be perfect. This was clear in the exhibition, also this year, at the Courtauld Institute, of ‘Working Papers’ drawings by Donald Judd which formed part of the history of his interactions with the professional metal workers who fabricated his sculptures. Judd’s historic example demonstrates the importance of understand the specific relation of the individual artist to collective productive practices. Craft’s relation to art-work offers opportunities to consider such issues, including contracts and conditions of employment, as questions to be made transparent within Fine Art. But the more general concern about this strategic and at times didactic approach to presenting craft in the art gallery is that art galleries contain their own historic narratives, and craft’s positive ethos within these contexts may not leave sufficient space for the viewer to consider such issues but supply ideological and methodological suggestions with too immediately positive certainty: the therapeutic relation in the case of the Hohenbuchlers exhibition ‘We Knitted Braids for Her’; creating projects that enhance local communities in Gormley’s widely toured exhibition of clay figurines; or engaging with positive aspects of volunteering in Maria Nepomuceno’s work currently on view at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate,

Nepomuceno’s work is a case in point. Publicity about this exhibition suggests the beauty of the traditional Latin American craft techniques this artist employs: ‘woven forms made of rope and straw, along with beads and other objects, often in fiesta-bright hues, resonate on a fundamental level’. This presents a happy, mythic picture, both inclusive, ‘from the genetic to the cosmological’, and spiritualised, emphasising symbolic interest in spiral systems and natural rhythms. These works tend to support a primitivising Western anthropological account of the communities and work-histories of Latin America. Nepomuceno’s textile structures also resonate with forms and practices developed in historic feminist works relevant to celebration of the generosity of histories of women’s domestic textile labour reminiscent of the quilting groups of North American women in the nineteen-sixties, in the way a collective, the Maria Nepomuceno study group of volunteers and craftspeople, continues to extend textile productivity during the course of the exhibition, out of the museum and into the sea.

The gallery text invites the viewer to relax with Nepomuceno’s work ‘whether spreading across the floor, rising up or suspended like hammocks, the works’ relationship to the body is key’. The cultural relevance of craft and body may be strong but should be treated with caution. An apolitical benevolence in small scale art-world models of production may give permissions in wider but not unrelated contexts. The question ‘who is the artist or the maker’ can imply hierarchies, and opportunities for understanding the internal dynamics of craft and art collaborations be lost.

Joan Key’s article for 5.2 Readymade or Handmade is available for download.

Welcome to the Table

"To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it…"
Hannah Arendt The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 52

Creative Commons license for Project Dinner Table sourced from flickr

Creative Commons license for Project Dinner Table sourced from flickr

The Journal of Modern Craft is pleased to announce an open Table for craft writers, curators and makers. This is an online network for posting information, opinions, photos, web links to be shared by the global craft community. To join the Table…

– Go to the home page at
– Click the link for ‘Create an account’ on the top right of the sidebar (or login with Facebook if you prefer)
– Create a profile with a user name (lowercase without spaces) , details about yourself and image
– Respond to the authentication email
– Read the welcome message to learn how you can contribute to the Table

Please, have a seat!

Artists covenants

While reading the original article dealing with virtual guilds, it reminded me of the “Artist’s Covenant” that we follow here in our extremely busy working studio. We have almost 20 artists working out of this space, most as resident artists. We also just admitted our 4000th student in 9 years. This is an extremely active artist collective.

The over-riding philosophy in this space is the “Artist’s Covenant”. This is an intrinsic agreement by all artists utilizing our space. No one is admitted without buying into it. In our case the covenant is as follows. “A Rising Tide Floats All Boats”.

To become a member here you must first agree to be happy for everyone’s success, not just your own. This fosters a positive air in the work environment. Jointly, each artist agrees to not only look out for his or her own opportunities, but also to promote the other artists in the covenant.

If there is an article being written about you, can you mention another of the studio artists? If you have a museum show, can a piece or two be a collaboration with another studio artist? If a show comes along, can you let others know in the collective if their work is appropriate? If a collector comes and buys one of your pieces, can you then show them around the studio and introduce them to others work?

None of these things costs the original artist anything. He/she still has the press, still has the museum show, still has the sale, etc. They simply have increased someone else’s opportunities.

The reason for doing this is simple. As each of the artist become progressively more successful, the opportunities ascribed to the entire collective also increases in number and stature. Eventually, all begin to move up the art world ladder. The difference is that no one has to do it as well. They are surrounded by support.

Many covenants have been used historically, such as the groups surrounded Georgia O’Keefe and Marcel Duchamp. Alfred Stieglitz circle would gather those artists who felt “abandoned” by the mainstream art world. One of those was his future wife Georgia O’Keefe. He would then meet as a group and decide how to promote them selves while still remaining true to their art. He eventually opened a gallery where they formed an allegiance with European artists such as Kandinsky. We take these artists successes for granted these days, forgetting that they were once “outsider” artists.

In the 1920’s there was also the Surrealist movement (both in New York and in Paris)…with such illustrious members as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali . They were very savvy in that part of their collective was made up of several critics and writers. What began as a collection of artists without a following became a movement, which influences art to this day.

To stay completely positive towards all others successes when we ourselves are not moving forward is tougher than it may seem. Without these unwritten contracts, artists can fall too easily into a solitary guarding of personal turf.

The benefits to this approach are immediately evident in the feel of the working studio…..where all things are possible and the sky’s the limit. The long term is the accelerated success of most of its members. Few could have predicted the future successes of the Stieglitz Circle or the Surrealists. Where artists feel strongly enough about their work, it will only be a matter of time till they find an audience for their work.