I’m preparing to defend my thesis proposal and was sent some questions to prepare for because I tend to go full on fight-or-flight during the q&a portion of presentations. I am panicking about this question I think the most:
What are you bringing that’s new to the conversation?
This is the scariest question I have ever heard. It is about as terrifying as “Why should we hire you?” on the Hierarchy of Awful Questions. I want to crawl into a hole and wait it out.
Okay, two questions. The other:
How do you make the body of work have visual impact, how do you capture and keep the audiences’ attention?
I’ve been feeling more and more that aesthetics is a really outdated term when it comes to art. It almost doesn’t matter what it looks like. How do I answer this? I can’t read the audience’s mind. There’s a crabby teenager in the back of my mind, shouting, “Who cares if the audience likes it? Whatever, man, whatever.”
I think writing/talking about work that mostly doesn’t exist yet is even harder than writing/talking about work I’ve just made. You know when you’re too close to something to know what it is? Of course I’ve also been having nightmares about this, including one where one of the presentation attendees said something incredibly awful and then flew out the window in a cape.
Where do you make your work? I found this great ”studio tour” where different artists talk about their spaces. I guess I don’t need anything fancy to make work in. I found that link thinking about workspaces, and after hearing “I never see you in the studio anymore,” from colleagues. Sometimes I feel like a bad artist because I just can’t get into the routine of making work in a separate studio. When I went to ACAD, I would come to the Fibre studio not necessarily to make work, which I could do anywhere, but to get my social fix, unless I was actively dyeing, printing or weaving something. Our fibre studio probably had about 15 people in it at the time, and it was a great place to bounce ideas off each other and pretend to work(which often led to real work), so I often would come in anyway. When I participated in the Contextural residency, even though the studio was the same, I didn’t end up coming in to work very often because there were far fewer people around. In the three month residency (which I did twice), I probably came in about seven days each, to do specific dyeing or printing.
A conscious decision in my practice has been to veer away from equipment or space-specific processes so that I don’t have to find special space or equipment after school, and I often make things very cheaply because I don’t make a lot of money. My work is usually small, or if it is larger, it is made up of smaller components, and cloth is forgiving and can fit into small spaces. After I graduated, we had our living room split between a living space and working space, which was perfectly fine while I wasn’t in school. My new apartment has a sun room where I’ve got my desk, which is even better for leaving a bit of a mess and forgetting about it till next time.I can pull out my sewing machine if I need it, but most of my stuff has been at my studio because I’ve felt guilty about working at home.
My working style is generally to work on something for awhile, then take a break and do something else, like maybe water the plants or turn the laundry over, then come back to it. This is perfect for time-intensive processes like embroidery or rug-hooking, combined with a short attention span. During bouts of insomnia, I can keep working well into the night and don’t have to worry about walking to the bus in the dark.
My studio at the university is often a place where I store things and have my meetings, but I have been going there even less since the semester ended, because I’ve been doing so much research and writing for my thesis proposal and summer course. Even during the year, our program is so small that there is almost never somebody there when I am, and I guess I figure I’d rather save the cash on bus tickets than go to another building to do something I could do at home, (although you can’t see anybody if you don’t go at all). Since I got my studio, I’ve tried tricking myself into coming in by leaving materials I need there instead of at home – it doesn’t work. When I do come in, I often put more and more stuff on the walls, feeling guilty for not having any ideas, and feeling the pressure of having paid bus fair for nothing. I’m realizing that when my supplies are within reach at home, I can force myself to sit down and work on something, even if I don’t want to at first, or even just give making a few minutes of my time. Usually that gets me over the productivity bump enough that I can get working. My favourite quote is by David Rakoff, “The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.” Working at home seems to take out some of the fear of making something.
I’m currently waffling on switching studios when the current second years graduate. I can get a slightly larger space, and what’s more, I will have to start clean, which might help me figure out a specific purpose for each space, rather than straddling two spaces for the same task. It’s really annoying to have the thing I need half an hour away in a drawer. We have an exhibition at the end of the summer, and I will want somewhere to figure that stuff out. A staging area sounds pretty enticing.
It’s weird. If I get back into dyeing I’ll probably need a different kind of space with a big sink and stove, etc, but right now, I just need somewhere to stitch, cut, glue and paint tiny drawings.
Bruce Metcalfe’s “Replacing the Myth of Modernism”, written in 1993, and Jorunn Veiteberg’s “Hybrid Practice: A Craft Intervention in a Contemporary Art Arena”, written in 2004, together make an interesting contrast between craft as (attempted) modernist practice and craft as conceptual art practice.
Both Metcalfe and Veiteberg touch on the results of the Modernist aestheticiztion of the art object and what it means for craft. Metcalfe first defines the parameters for craft: made by hand, references to pre-mass production traditions, medium-specificity, use/functionality and being defined by its past. “Thus, craft is a series of limitations suggested by tradition.(5)” Metcalfe accuses craft practitioners of this eara, such as Harvey Littleton, who made geometric, non-functional glass works in the 1960s, of trying to be something they’re not by deliberately making non-functional work to compete with Modernism, stripping the effective aspects out of both craft and Modernism. Metcalfe’s thesis is that craft cannot and should not try to ape Modern art, and should instead stay in the realm of what it does best – functional, well made work1. He discusses the impossibility of craft fitting in with Kant’s “disinterestedness” principle, popular during the Modernist period, where aesthetic formalism dictated that there should be no content to art aside from a purely visual and in-the-moment experience. My favourite quote along these lines is, “A few diehard Modernists continue to insist that one can look at a Pollock painting and forget how famous he was, how expensive the painting is, and how the artist once pissed into Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace [...] Such monumental forgetting isn’t credible. (17)”
While Modernism has ended, art still clings to the privileges its framework provides and make work that fits within that frame of reference. While in the preface for this piece, Metcalfe concedes that some of his remarks may be dated2, he still argues that craft should stay with its traditional definitions to excel instead of attempting to conform to Modernist standards. Jorunn Veiteberg posits that while craft does not fit with modernism, it does have a place in conceptual art, while not necessarily being definable.
In “Hybrid Practice”, Jorunn Veiteberg discusses the possibility of conceptual craft, using the example of ceramist Carol McNicoll’s recent exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall in 2001 as an example. She begins by stating, “One of the preconceptions with which craft is encumbered is that it belongs in the domestic rather than the artistic sphere.“ This is the main problem critics have with McNicoll’s exhibition. A negative review of the show complained that the work did not properly fill the gallery space and rather was “swallowed” by it. Vieteberg counters this argument with these questions: What does this exhibition tell us about potential strategies for craft? And what kind of art is craft?
McNicoll makes the gallery environment seem more domestic by adding patterned wallpapers and furniture, giving the work a historical or traditional context3. She incorporates kitsch and low-culture imagery in her work with transfers, clever because of craft’s traditional subordination. The dissolve of barriers shows craft’s “conceptual investment,” traditionally reserved for the fine arts and threatens traditional categories. The function or idea of function in the objects reminds us of their historical use.
When we see craft we are always reminded of its history, tied to labour, domesticity and protest. Craft can fit somewhere in the realm of conceptuality, as Veiteberg suggests, however, the first iteration of conceptual art completely eschewed aesthetics in favour of text and ideas, in defiance of Modernist formalism. While conceptual art claims to not allow for the “object”, conceptual craft could include both aesthetic and conceptual experience. Craft contains many more qualities than visual aesthetics: texture, form, process, and the motor memory of process the viewer might experience all inherent in craft practices. This places craft in between conceptuality and the object. Veiteberg describes this perfectly by quoting Sarat Maharaj, “…taking textile art as his starting point, has made ‘undecidable’ the key word for understanding today’s practice. The ‘undecidable’ is ‘something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another. Belongs to both, we might say, by not belonging to either’(5)”
To answer Veiteberg’s original question, What kind of art is craft? Where Metcalfe would argue that craft should not step into the realm of art, conceptual crafters seem to have no problem stepping into this realm, although formalist critiques still persist. It is not quite possible for craft to fit neatly into a category such as modern or conceptual art – formalism is purely aesthetic, conceptualism is purely conceptual – but craft can be an in-between, or something “undecidable”. Reading these essays brings up a few questions. Why is it that painting and sculpture, with their rich traditions, remain separated from craft and its traditions, even through postmodernism? ”Art” has a history of hand-making, craftsmanship and material, which seems to have been abandoned in the 20th and 21st centuries. I think when one brings it up this way, it is clear that the hierarchies and privilege enjoyed by fine artists isn’t based in reality. Craft has the ability to move beyond old labels towards something that combines conceptuality with the crafted object. I think Jorunn Veiteberg addresses Metcalfe’s concerns and pulls craft into the realm of the undecidable, which can certainly function outside of the domestic sphere.
1. This could almost be a hard-line stance for the sake of argument, especially because Metcalfe mentions feminist art several times, which has often utilized craft seamlessly in an art realm.
2. One issue I had with the Neocraft anthology is that most of the essays aren’t necessarily about contemporary craft. The ones that do venture this way only discuss digital technologies, which I doubt is the only way to make contemporary work.
3. While this is often an effective display methodology, I don’t think that craft should have to go overboard in making the gallery suitable for the work, turning a fine arts space into an anthropological display. The viewer should be able to see the work and understand its historical context, especially if craft is something in-between.
If you’d like to read the pdfs:
melinda topilko and I are working on a little project… More to come.
This is about an hour long, but this talk by Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell about their Feminist Art Gallery is really excellent.
Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch – Craft Hard, Die Free: Radical Curatorial Strategies for Craftivism in Unruly Contexts
The Politics of Craft: A Roundtable – Julia Bryan-Wilson, Liz Collins, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Cat Mazza and Allison Smith
“Craft can be a moving target.” – Julia Bryan-Wilson
“Craft Hard, Die Free” and “The Politics of Craft: A Roundtable” are two articles that explore related but opposite sides of the coin of political craft. Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch discuss how curating this work should be approached through a brief survey of hybrid political craft practices, and illustrate it most successfully with locally-based work that they have written about or curated. Wednesday Lupypciiw’s handicraft workshops show collaborative and community practice. Participants in her CAMPER project learned hobbycraft techniques, not necessarily in “good taste”. This invited the viewer/participant to “reconsider the esthetic, social, tactile, and visual potential of these materials.” (pg 613) In 2006, Black curated a craftivist exhibition at the artist-run centre, Stride, entitled Super String. In this show, more traditional craft works were combined with work about identity and other often politicized topics, as well as a large banner made by the Revolutionary Knitting Circle, taken out of its protest context but shown with similar work, thus removing the hierarchy between them. Black and Burisch explain that political work must be curated in a radical way, and that nontraditional spaces like zines, websites, protests and workshops can be alternative venues for these works. The rise of “craftivism” changes emphasis from the craft object to “…reconsiderations of crafts(wo)manship, performativity, mindfulness, tacit knowledge, skill sharing, DIY, anti-capitalism and activism.” (pg 610) Black and Burisch emphasize the careful consideration of the context of the work and the context of the institution.
“The Politics of Craft: A Roundtable” is a discussion between four artists and one art historian on their connections between craft and politics. They discuss their varying practices and different topics that fit therein, but the main thesis is that craft can and should be political, that its “function” is to generate a dialogue. They discuss the way that craft is accessible to political work and its connection to radical ideas and feminism (pg 628). The most interesting comments in the roundtable centered around these artists’ experience working with institutions to make their work happen. Sabrina Gschwantner’s Wartime Knitting Circle proved a popular piece at the Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design. In contrast, Cat Mazza’s crowd-made Nike blanket was excluded because it “…looks too ‘funky’ among the other work.” It was replaced by documentation, possibly so that it could be more difficult to scrutinize (pg 623). Perhaps the museum’s concern with aesthetics could be rectified if they considered work by both its process and its product, rather than one or the other. Mazza argues that the museum missed the point of the afghan/banner as political act, continuing to evaluate it for signs of traditional “high” craft, like production value and craftsmanship. “The show was about radical and subversive artworks using knitting or lace, and while the piece fit into their title, it didn’t fit into their aesthetic.” I would tend to agree, because the connections to hobby craft are what make knitting/crochet an easy activity to extend to the political realm, and the point of the piece was not to make an heirloom object. Burisch and Black’s approach to curating craftivist works would ameliorate this gap, because the craftivist emphasis is less on aesthetics and more on the process and craft’s potential for political aim. Showing the Revolutionary Knitting Circle’s Peace Knits banner is an excellent parallel to this type of work and the gallery.
While there was much overlap in the two articles, I felt as though the roundtable tried to cover too many topics, from labour to aesthetics. This could have been divided into more than one discussion. “Craft Hard, Die Free” could have included more plans for future writings and projects (although I will note that I can’t get enough of their writing in general). I enjoyed how the articles discussed political craft that extends beyond yarn bombing. The inclusivity of their curation was refreshing, as critics have always looked to divide work into the most finicky of categories. While the term “craftivism” doesn’t seem to be used very much anymore (searches don’t come up with anything written after 2009), Black and Burisch’s description of the possible emphases on process rather than final product are very current. Perhaps craft is moving too fast to discuss it in real time. From both pieces it becomes clear that craft was almost made for hybrid practices, especially in the sphere of textile and hobbycraft because of its connections with real life and community. It is refreshing to see these practices cover both a variety of topics and the seamless integration of craft and other media (in this case, most often, performance and community making) and how they are discussed seriously and without much fuss. I enjoy that craft is almost seen here as meant for a hybrid practice, and would be interested in more writings that discuss these connections.
More: Super String in Stride Gallery’s archive.
I seemed to have gotten over that whole existential crisis on my use of text earlier this year.
It’s too bad it’s been raining all day, I couldn’t get a great photo because it’s so dark in here.
This is really enjoyable to work on, but I’m not sure how much I’ll enjoy cutting out backing triangles, stitching and then turning them all.
Glenn Adamson’s anthology, The Craft Reader, is a behemoth. Though filled with a variety of opinions and time periods, it is thoughtfully assembled and includes excerpts which affirm and contrast each other.
Two excerpts from the section of The Craft Reader entitled Craft in Action, Tanya Harrod’s alternate art history, written in 2002, and Lucy Lippard’s treatise on hobby art, written in 1977, go together quite fittingly as critiques of institutions and structural hierarchies of art and craft. Because this excerpt is a condensation of a longer book, I will focus on a few key points of her text. Harrod’s critique is centred on the presentation of art history, what is included and excluded. She suggests that when crafts are included they become a large part of artists’ ouvres and show the whole picture of connections and ideas. Many artists have “crossed the boundaries” into the craft world, making functional pottery, designing and making home decor items in the tradition of William Morris, but their retrospectives exclude this work. One modern redux of a 1910 exhibition at the Tate actually left out ceramic works from the original exhibition, making no mention of them whatsoever. The Tate’s mandate excludes craft, leaving it to institutions that would display craft historically, rather than in a fine art context (Harrod 513). Harrod specifically mentions the creation of ceramics by Matisse and Derain, whose processes and physicality helped them develop aesthetics in their more well known painted work. Gaugin, Picasso, and others made pottery as well. By the 1950s, artists’ forays into craft were theoretically derailed by the writings of Clement Greenberg, who suggested that painting was the more noble profession and “rarely goes with furniture,” causing the abstract expressionists of the time to avoid craft (Harrod 514). Many modernist women, such as Margaret Trahern and Frances Richard, trained as painters but ventured into craft (stained glass and embroidery, respectively), as the field was more welcoming to women. Because their works were made out of “inappropriate and highly specific materials,” domestic and made by women, they were largely ignored (Harrod 518).
Lippard comes at the hierarchy slightly differently. Here she discusses hobby craft books, which often include instructions for making things from recycled objects, as well as easy materials for a housewife to obtain – bottlecaps, flowers made from feathers or dried plants, for example (Lippard 484). Different types of hobby craft appeal to different demographics, based on the concept of “good taste” and class structures. These activities are appropriate for their positions as housewives and supporters of their husbands and families as unobtrusive activities. Lippard argues that these instructional leaflets and books appeal to women because they are already marginalized by the art world on basis of quality and derivitiveness, even though many high art objects meeting these criteria can be found in galleries. Lippard argues that these particularly affect women’s art,” and adds that when a man tries a hobby craft, it is often elevated to “high” art or craft (Lippard 486). Though written in 1977, Lippard’s essay does not feel dated1. Perhaps this is due to the unwavering definitions of art practices and art institutions’ desire that the hierarchies within them remain. This is unfortunate, but is worth questioning and fighting against2. In the craft field itself, there are definite boundaries between tasteful and distasteful or kitschy crafts and materials. Studio crafts are often valued higher than domestic or home crafts, for example.
Lippard and Harrod together might suggest that the boundaries between art and craft are largely manufactured and discriminate based on gender and class. Hierarchies of art and craft remain because they benefit the privileged few who run institutions and the artists who fit neatly into the categories within them. Harrod’s essay was slightly difficult to read, being that it was condensed from a larger piece of writing. It would have also been more interesting to read about the woman artists using craft techniques in the modernist period, but this was subsumed by discussion of the old masters, which almost read as an attempt at proof of hierarchies in which old masters were not even exempt. This contradicts Lippard’s hypothesis that when men participate in hobby crafts, they elevate it in some way. I would tend to agree with Lippard based on personal observation, but since these are things that happen in my local craft communities, I won’t go into specifics. While Harrod includes craft in the historical narrative, she does not attempt to question other hierarchies and boundaries. Lippard, on the other hand, suggests that most of these are manufactured and to be questioned.
1Though hobby books like “Feather Flowers and Arrangements” could be replaced in a rewrite with Pinterest and its endless links to tutorials, mostly for “low class” pursuits and DIY home decorating.
2For a slight update on Lippard’s opinions, this interview with Joe Lewis of Fibre Quarterly is quite informative.
Harrod, Tanya. “House-Trained Objects: Notes Towards Writing an Alternative History of Modern Art.” The Craft Reader. Ed. Glenn Adamson. Oxford: Berg, 2010. 512-524. Print.
Lippard, Lucy. “Making Something From Nothing (Toward a Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”.” The Craft Reader. Ed. Glenn Adamson. Oxford: Berg, 2010. 483-490. Print.
I have been feeling stuck. So stuck. To make matters worse, my anxious mind is going a mile a minute trying to justify my feelings. It’s an automatic machine that way. It likes to sour things. I have had an amazing response on Tumblr to my work since my interview with Poesie Grenadine. It’s heartening and wonderful. But my mind wonders, why does it seem that people can relate to this body of work but not anything I have made since?1 I made that stuff two years ago, and haven’t stopped making stuff. Paranoia sets in. What if I will never make anything that people can relate to ever again? Am I the proverbial one hit wonder?
Is it consistency? I have been working so hard on that, but sometimes I just can’t force myself. I get terrified that I’ll never be able to make anything else ever again. I’m afraid to be consistent because maybe I’m consistently making something bad. Then I wondered, what do they (viewers, professors, etc) want from me? That is the opposite of a helpful question. A more helpful one, which I will get back to, is what would I be making if I wasn’t in grad school right now?
Sometimes when I get desperate, I look things up on google, even though this technique always brings useless ehow articles on “How to be an artist” or “How to get over artist’s block”(Step 1. Paint! Oh dear.) This time, though, I found this wonderful post on Friendly Anarchist: Artist’s Consistency versus Kicking Ass: On Avoiding a Consistent Body of Work. Here’s the quote that got me:
Of course, the reasons for ignoring the critics are the same as they were before the internet: Trying to be consistent all the time can be to your creativity what’s a tin of bug spray to a cockroach. Fatally killing deadly lethal, that is. Photographer Guy Tal describes the implications of accommodating to the critic’s requirements on his weblog: “A sad consequence of […] narrow-minded criticism is that many would-be multi-talented artists end up crippling their own creative avenues under the dictum that they need “more focus”.”
No wonder I feel stuck! I am trying so hard to please everyone but me, and that freezes my practice, because I don’t want to “waste my time” making something that won’t be successful. That’s when I took the reigns again, told my brain where to go (I do this sometimes, talk to it like it’s some schoolyard bully) and ran into my studio. After glueing some things to other things and doodling a bit, I got back to that question. What would I be making if I wasn’t in grad school? Probably wall-based stitched works, which are what I really enjoy making. So, I decided to make something I’ve always wanted to make, bunting. I don’t care that other people have made bunting. I don’t care if it will please anyone. Whenever a question comes up, I tell my brain where to go. Better to make lots of stuff and pare it down later than to overthink it and make one thing that you’re hoping so hard that people like. Screw that. So I got cutting. 52 triangles later, I was able to start stitching.
This is perfect because my routine lately is readings punctuated by naps or mindless tv. I can do this while I’m watching a movie or something, and I’m so used to having something to do with my hands, that it’s felt weird to just sit down. I don’t want to spoil the text yet, since I’ve just stated the lettering.
Ironically, I’m pretty sure what I end up making when I’m less worried about consistency is more consistent than otherwise.
1 I know this isn’t quite true, but my mind likes to exaggerate when it wants me to feel bad.