An invented nostalgia

Stating in his preface to The Art of the Novel that the world of theories is not his world, Kundera approaches the polyphonous nature of fiction as a practitioner.[1] He explains that ‘in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognisable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza? Where does the self begin and end: You see: Not wonder at the immeasurable infinity of the soul; rather, wonder at the uncertain nature of the self and its identity.’[2] Not using words as material, but stuff, David Clarke allows salt to grow on silver vessels, to change the silver and to ultimately transform the vessel’s identity. The object, while embodying a change of identity towards the unrecognisable, can be seen simultaneously as past, present and future.

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

He says ‘The conservativeness of the discipline really pushes me to become more creative, challenging and playful. It is essential to keep this discipline alive and forward thinking. Combining other materials such as salt and lead has been important to really attack the silver physically.’[3]

Rather than relating to abstract thought both the writer and the maker express their interest in the action, in the situation itself. They assert that in creative engagement reflection changes essence, it becomes part of the realm of play and of hypothesis.

Artistic works, informed by abstract ideas, are not in themselves the illustrations of those ideas. ‘Imagination’ Kundera says, ‘which, freed from the control of reason and from concern for verisimilitude, ventures into landscapes inaccessible to rational thought. The dream is only the model for the sort of imagination that I consider the greatest discovery of modern art’.[4] Rather than creating a fusion of dream and reality, Kundera uses what he calls ‘polyphonetic confrontation’, novelistic counterpoint to unite philosophy, narrative and dream within the ordered unity of his stories.

A perfect example to illustrate this is Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia.



The image[5] I use here is the last screen-shot from the film, an exquisitely crafted scene that re-values utopian dreams and their failure, melancholically examining the decay, detritus and diffident survivals of historical modernity – a metaphor of loss and an attempt to visualise utopian nostalgia.

Palimpsest of creation, form, narrative, disintegration and re-integration stand in stark contrast to Modernism’s ideal of the purified form and autonomous object. They allow forms of the past to emerge and to coexist, sometimes as fragments or ruins, alongside a riot of other references (including those of modernism), while searching for a new sense of identity and meaning – like I saw emerging from the layered cosmos of ornamentation in this stunningly impressive graffiti from Metelkova in Ljubljana, Slovenia by an unknown artist.[6]



[1] Kundera, M. (1986) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[2] Kundera, M. (1986: 28) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press


[4] Kundera, M. (1986: 83) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[5] The strange line in the middle of the image is because I had to scan the image from a book – so much for the usefulness of the web…

[6] Metelkova is an internationally renowned alternative culture community in the centre of Slovenia’s capital. A self-declared ‘Autonomous Culture Zone,’ Metelkova Mesto occupies the former ‘Fourth of July’ military barracks originally commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian army back in 1882 and completed in 1911. The space consists of seven buildings and 12,500m2 – making it a sort of city within a city – comprising a former prison, several clubs, live music spaces, art galleries and artist studios.

Utopian resistance

Traditional craft: manufactured nostalgia or grass-roots resistance? implies a methodological dichotomy, which I find frustrating. I can see the point that for the purpose of historical dissemination ‘traditional, with modern form’ (like, for example, in the title of Nicolette Makovicky’s essay in the last issue of Journal of Modern Crafts), is it modern or not, modern or post-modern or any other box, can be useful. But I do not think that creative practitioners care very much, they always practice in the present. Their studios are full of visual ephemera from across cultures and times; they do not read like historians, they read as artists, responding to currents that might be wildly dissimilar, contradictory even – they meander with intent.

I prefer a different methodological engagement when I am in need of ordered structures and an understanding that makes sense, however fraudulent and in flux. Aesthetic experience, in my view, is constituted within the hermeneutic continuity of human existence and can therefore only be appropriately discussed in this wider framework.[i] Categorisations like craft, design and art are rendered useless when considered as being characterised as intuition, indeed as a world-view, Weltanschauung – literally an intuition of the world. This does not simply mean that creative practice justifies its own claim to truth over and against scientific knowledge, insofar as the free play of imagination tends towards ‘knowledge in general’. It also means that the “inner intuition” in play here brings the world – and not just the objects in it – to intuition.[ii]

Gadamer stipulates that hermeneutics are to be understood in a comprehensive way, including all of art and its discourse. Like every other piece of text artistic work needs to be understood within such a context.[iii] Ricoeur concurs when he is saying ‘to imagination is attributed the faculty of moving easily from one experience to another if their difference is slight or gradual, and thus of transforming diversity into identity.’[iv] With regards to the meaning of creativity he points out that there can be no praxis, which is not already symbolically structured in some way. Human action is always figured in signs, interpreted in terms of cultural traditions and norms. Our narrative fictions are then added to this primary interpretation of figuration in human action; so that narrative is a redefining of what is already defined, a reinterpretation of what is already interpreted. The referent of narration, namely human action, is never raw or immediate reality but an action, which has been symbolised and re-symbolised over and over again. Thus narration serves to displace anterior symbolisation onto a new plane, integrating or exploring them as the case may be.[v]

The work I have chosen to exemplify the necessity of such a shift in theoretical and critical dissemination is W(E)AVE by Elana Herzog and Michael Schumacher, made in 2006.



The work consists of deconstructed woven fabrics such as found bedspreads and carpets, all bringing different traces of histories of origin, use and aesthetic qualities into the work. The material work is interlaced with woven discrete audio events, comprised of sound waves and sound recordings of the making process.

The accompanying text from The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum,[vi] where the work was exhibited, tells us that ‘Herzog will transform the gallery in which the exhibition will be presented with a series of newly constructed walls. These walls, and those that line the gallery’s perimeter, incorporate reinforced gypsum panels, which, when exhibited, are installed flush with the surrounding walls.  Found textiles are attached to these panels using thousands of metal staples. Parts of the fabric and the staples are then removed, and sometimes reapplied, leaving a residue of shredded fabric and perforated wall surface in some areas, and densely-stapled and built-up areas elsewhere. The structure of the image is thus generated directly from the weave of the fabric. The progressively dematerialised image, articulated by metal staples and fabric residue, seems to be simultaneously emerging from and disappearing into the wall. During the period when Herzog was working on many of the panels included in the exhibition, Schumacher visited her studio with his recording equipment. The sounds that Schumacher captured include Herzog stapling, sweeping, and drilling, in addition to her dog Tanner chewing on a piece of wood. Back in his studio, Schumacher incorporated elements from these sounds with synthesized sounds, such as sine tones, and more traditional instrumentation, including piano, cello, and violin. Processed in his computer using Max/MSP software, the sound was organized into eleven discrete channels, in what Schumacher describes as a grid metaphor. Presented on eleven speakers dispersed throughout the space, the composition will evoke a “grid” or weave of audio experience unfolding through time.’

What I find important in the work itself, and in the text that frames the work, is that both describe the action that generated the work, a ‘presentness’ of making, the fantasticated[vii] image of crafted intuition.

[i] Gadamer, H.G. (1960: 169-171) Aesthetische und hermeneutische Folgerungen: Rekonstruktion und Integration als hermeneutische Aufgaben, in Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen: Niemeyer

[ii] Gadamer, H.G. (1986: 164) Appendix: Intuition and vividness, in The Relevance of the Beautiful and other Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[iii] Gadamer, H.G. (1960: 169) Aesthetische und hermeneutische Folgerungen: Rekonstruktion und Integration als hermeneutische Aufgaben, in Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen: Niemeyer

[iv] Ricoeur, P. (1992: 127) Personal Identity and Narrative Identity, in Oneself as Another, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

[v] Ricoeur, P. (1991: 469) The Creativity of Language, in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, Valdes, M. J. (ed.), Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf


[vii] I borrowed this beautiful word from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses

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.