Tuesday, 31 January 2012

bark, luxurious bark...

Presenting some ideas from my new book Practical Basketry Techniques to students at the London College of Fashion last week reminded me of my enthusiasm for two things: plaiting and stripping bark. The two complement each other beautifully, as bark makes an ideal material for plaiting. It’s been used the world over to make containers of all types, as well as clothes, shoes and hand bags. Strip the bark in spring or early summer when the trees are full of sap, then plait or weave then and there, or allow it to dry and soak to soften before using.

I attended this fantastic bark-stripping workshop with the weaver Maggie Smith (not the actress) last summer and now I’m hooked. Problem is we got so enthusiastic about the stripping we never get round to the plaiting. We tried stripping birch, sycamore, willow, dogwood, poplar, chestnut and a few other species. Since then I’ve stripped more sycamore, as well as elder bark, courtesy of my local municipal gardeners. I’ve been meaning to use the bark for ages now, and must do so before the stripping season starts again, else I know, I’ll get distracted again.

After talking with the students, I may have found the perfect opportunity. They are currently working on a project designing luxury goods, with the possibility of using fine leather. I suggested using bark as an alternative. There is such a range of textures, grains and colours, and the potential of sourcing the bark locally which fits their brief very well. Bark might possibly not last as long as fine leather (depending of course on what is designed and how it is treated), but then again, what is more precious than something that doesn’t last. That is real luxury! In any case, you only to have to wait until the following spring to make yourself another item if need be. This is slow and fast fashion combined, perfect!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

basketry on the go

Putting art into practice, I'm just back from giving a talk at Kingston University to students in the design and architecture faculty. They are working on an exciting new project on creative resourcing with a partner in Zimbabwe, focusing on basketry.

After talking about a number of my past projects that led me to consider basketry, and subsequently got me involved in co-authoring Practical Basketry Techniques due out next month, I introduced the student to various techniques in basketry.

Many images later (and with a very dry mouth) we had a Q&A, which is always the most interesting part. When asked what tools are required for basketry, I was immediately reminded why I took to the craft: you need little else than a cutting implement, and that's it! As far materials go, you can use pretty much anything that surrounds you and is flexible, whether natural or man-made. Actually, thinking of 'assemblage' which relies on other ways of joining elements together than weaving, materials don't even need to be flexible. I love that economy and simplicity!

The issue of tradition vs. innovation also came up, as it always does with craft matters. My take on this is that you can 'tweak' traditions and appropriate techniques to have your objects serve new functions and contexts, while celebrating traditions at the same time. This is what keeps craft alive.

The discussion then moved on to the economics of basketry. Its perceived market value can often diminish due to the materials used being cheap and readily available, irrespective of the expertise, skill and time that has gone into the production of items. But as one of the students rightly pointed out, their value should not be measured simply in terms of money, but also social capital: this ancient craft connects us with our environment and the vernacular, and has the power to build communities and provide 'tools for living'. David Gauntlett is right when he says 'making is connecting'.

The nature of the students' project in Zimbabwe means a sustainable 'make it local' ethic is key, considering the provenance of the materials used. Good basketry has often been described as a harmonious balance between form, technique and material. Location might be added to this. Basketry techniques have been developed over millennia in accordance to the nature and behaviour of local materials when they are woven or assembled. But trade and the introduction of non-indigenous plants, with resulting hybridisation of basketry techniques, means locality is about other places too.

This talk gave me plenty of food for thought for my lecture at the London College of Fashion this coming Friday, when I will be talking to students on a sustainable fashion course, and all going well, sow the seeds for a project later in the year working with the department on a basketry and dye garden. More on this in future posts. Don't go anywhere...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

stitch / script

If choreography is designing ideas, emotions or narratives through movement, what of the objects created as a result of these movements? The installation Stairwell Suite (see previous post) at Siobhan Davies is made up of string held by dancers as they moved up and down the spiral staircase at the studios. The web like structure is the intermeshing of traces describing their movements. Can this be seen as a notation of the dance, or a physical translation of the ideas communicated through it? This is the question I’ve asked myself and invite the viewer to reflect upon when encountering the installation and accompanying film which features selected moments of the performance.

An insight to answer this question lies in the wall piece Stitching Score #1 (top 2 images) installed on the first floor. The piece consists of a 200+ meter long string of fabric, produced during Stitching Revolutions, an interactive project at Alexandra Palace, London, in 2010. This involved six people operating overlocking machines that cut and stitched the clothing together simultaneously. Arranged in a daisy chain formation, a silent conversation was had between the stitchers as fabric was fed from one machine to the next. The fabric, installed in horizontal lines, is shown as a record of the making activity and prompts the viewer to read these as a piece of notation, with its own unique grammar and symbols made up of stitch, thread and cloth. Not such a strange idea given the word ‘text’ comes from the latin textere, meaning ‘to weave’, and the word ‘line’ comes from linea, meaning a thread made from flax. Quoting Tim Ingold once again from Lines: A brief History - ‘if ‘line’ began as a thread rather than a trace, so did ‘text’ begin as a meshwork of interwoven threads rather than of inscribed traces’. This knowledge sheds a new understanding on both Stitching Score #1 and Stairwell Suite.

I periodically exhibit stitched, knotted and woven fabric pieces such as the Knitting Pieces or Garland series that result from similar communal making endeavours. With each install, the fabric is inevitably transformed and reveals new textures and surfaces as the weaving is further intermeshed or stretched out. The pieces have no fixed form or shape and chance determines to a large part their final appearance. Their narrative is thus constantly transformed, though ultimately these can only refer to the objects themselves, which the viewer interprets based on their own relationships to materials and processes. The work means nothing outside the perception of the object itself and, as with most text, meaning is often read between the lines.

On Friday 24th there will be a late night public stitching and weaving event at the exhibition. Click here for details. Lost property items left at the dance studios will be stitched on overlocking machines by members of the public, and weaving will take place in the stairwell, adding yet more content to the scripts and scores already displayed in the exhibition.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

weave is a dance

Since starting with the interactive pieces I’ve mentioned in the previous post, 16 Knitting Pieces and 22 Garland installations have now been made in 9 different countries, across 3 different continents. Several thousand people have been involved in the creation of these works, exchanging tips, stories and experiences about making. All good! However, the odd thing is that I am not privy to any of these conversations, or very few of them at least. I facilitate them, but I am not a witness to them. I’ve never been particularly interested recording, filming or photographing the process as the installations are made. I do keep the fabric produced as a document and record of the activity and these are exhibited at a later stage, usually in the context of a new piece being created. This happened with my exhibition at the Centro Colombo Americano in Bogota in 2010, as well as nEUclear reactions at the CAB in Burgos in 2006, which then travelled to National Gallery in Prague for the Biennial in 2007. What has increasingly interested me with these works are the movements and gestures ‘performed’ by the stitchers as they go about their creative task. What I want to focus on is not just the object, nor the process, but the actions and movements required for the creation of the work.

An opportunity to investigate this presented itself when Helen Carnac asked me to contribute a piece for the touring exhibition Taking Time: Craft and the Slow Revolution in 2009. I planned to start the making of Garland #21 included in the exhibition using a group of dancers as human bobbins. The dance stood as an invitation for visitors to add to the stitching over the course of the exhibition. Working with dancer/choreographer Cheryl McChesney Jones on this, we looked at stitching patterns and dance notation, and relied on the dancers for their input in creating the final choreographic sequences. This then led me a couple of years later to devise Stairwell Suite for my current exhibition Drawn to motion, woven in space, stitched over time at Siobhan Davies Studios in London. Stairwell Suite is an installation resulting from a performance by three dancers. I worked with Laura Glaser to develop the piece by using the stairwell at the studios and its distinctive vertical metal framework to weave on – see pictures above. This collaboration allowed me to interpret stitching patterns into a set of movements performed by the dancers to create a spiralling web-like structure while travelling up and down the staircase. Bobbin lace and finger crochet techniques were used to do this. The work was informed by Stairwell Weave-In at the Dovecot Studios, and Intelligent Trouble’s intervention at Kings College during the Festival of Materials and Making organised by the Institute of Making last October. The performance and resulting installation at Siobhan Davies Studios was an opportunity for me and the viewers to reflect on weaving and stitching processes, the relationship between object and action, and the silent negotiation between dancers, space and the materials, captured in dance.

The piece was performed at the studios this last Thursday January 12th, and will be again on February 17th, followed by a discussion between myself, Professor Patricia Lyons and dance artist Laura Glaser.

The images above illustrate Stairwell Weave-In at the Dovecot Studios, and Intelligent Trouble’s installation at Kings College. A film of the performance at Siobhan Davies will be uploaded on this blog shortly. For preview of exhibition click here.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

cross it this way, and that way, and pass it on…

Anything can be made out of anything, and in a limitless number of ways. ‘Stuff’ is what draws a lot of people to art, and how it is all put together. To get them engaged with it, have them make something - making is inclusive, making is empowering.

A good number of projects of mine have relied on participation for this reason. I’ve created spaces where the public are invited to make collectively. My involvement with the knitting collective Cast Off, and the Craft Rocks event at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2003, led me to conceive the ongoing Knitting Pieces and Garlands series of works. Whether stitching a circle or weaving an installation, these activities prompt social interaction and communication through the doing – looking, thinking, making, exchanging. Ideas about craft and the social and cultural histories relating to it, as well as art in general, are passed around between participants. If art is about communication, let’s make!

As far as imparting knowledge about how to make things, the less said the better. Being told exactly how to handle tools and manipulate materials is a dangerous thing. I’m interested in the Knitting Pieces and Garland installations providing a space where participants can develop their own way of doing things and their relationship with materials and processes. Making is not simply about skill and technique, but about an approach and attitude in relation to these. With this freedom, each maker is more likely to develop his/her own individual way of making.

In the light of this it is odd I've been involved in working on a book such as Practical Basketry Techniques, where set procedures are demonstrated to achieve determine outcomes such as a platter, a multifunctional bowl and hat or a plant cloche. However, projects in the book are but an introduction to processes that aim to encourage readers to get inspired and develop creative ideas. I led a 3D weaving workshop with design students recently. I urged them to bring a range of materials, and following brief demonstrations, I got them to plait and so dome interlacing. Wonders were created in no time, and I like to think their outlook of weaving and how it relates to their practice has been changed forever. The best thing to do with your know how is to pass it on. You’ll be amazed what comes back your way. I myself got so much inspiration from the session. So here is some advise: cross it this way, and that way, and pass it on…

Saturday, 7 January 2012

stationery hacks: assembled baskets

There’s a flurry of activities at the studio at the moment as I am preparing for two new shows opening next week. One is at Siobhan Davies Studios (more info on this in my next post), the other a group exhibition of staff teaching on textiles and jewellery courses at Morley College. The college is a long established adult education centre near Waterloo. I have been teaching there for over ten year now, less than 10 days a year on average, but I love it. The age of my learners ranges from 18 to 80, and the breadth of experience amongst the group makes for the most interesting sessions.

The college has a gallery and it is in this space that I will be exhibiting. Their last show which I didn’t spend enough time at was on the influence of Cornelius Cardew, who taught an experimental music class at the college in the 60s, amongst a list of other illustrious figures such Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten.

My contribution to the exhibition will consist of three assembled baskets. Made out of pencils, felt tips and biros, each of these were constructed on a piece of A4 paper and have thus produced a drawing each, a record of their own creation. I will be exhibiting these alongside the baskets. I produced a similar piece last year that was included in the assembled basketry chapter of Practical Basketry Techniques (pg 140), and was inspiration for the two assembly projects illustrated in the book. Outcomes of these are posted below.

Monday, 2 January 2012

ad hoc doilies

The Crafts Council approached me the week before Xmas asking me to submit a piece for their collection. Rather than choose something I had already made, I thought I’d develop a new piece for them. Knowing they are interested in adding to their textile collection, I thought I’d make use of my knowledge of lace making and combine this with some assemblage processes using materials I have at hand at the studio. After a few days work, I ended up working out how to make doilies out of paper clips. Useless if used as they are meant to be - it will be the doily not the pot that will scratch the surface of your precious piece of furniture - they are simply to be appreciated for their aesthetic value…

To make these, I reinterpreted bobbin lace making technique to suit working with the clips - I've used a wooden board and nails instead of a pillow and pins to do this. Thinking about it now, I had in mind the work of Joep Verhoeven who I met during the Sydney Design Festival last August, when exhibiting in the Love Lace exhibition. Joep create architectural sized pieces using bobbin lace technique and wire much in the same way I have with hammer, nails and a jig. I love this misappropriation and reinvention with processes and materials. To understand something better, you often have to step away from it to take a fresher look at it, and in this way allow for innovation.

I relied on this strategy when working on the Hybrid Basketry project at Origin Craft Fair in 2009, which resulted in the commissioning of the Practical Basketry Techniques publication mentioned in an earlier post. Visitors at the fair were asked to deconstruct a basket in order to remake something, and in doing so, find something out about basketry and related techniques of making.

This ‘hybrid’ a approach to making, and the notion of re-using, appropriation, or even ‘hacking’, is nothing new of course. It has been a characteristic of design and art practice for 20 years at least. Designers such as Ron Arad and Jasper Morrison took up the ready made cause in the early 90s. Re-use and re-make ethics were promoted by Tom Dixon as well as Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker from Droog Design amongst many others. Choosing to re-use, whether out of necessity or not, teaches you to be resourceful. The theorist Charles Jencks coined the term ‘Adhocism’ in the 60s to describe “using an available system or dealing with and existing situation in a new way to solve a problem quickly and efficiently…a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are ready to hand”. I have a slight regret that this way of thinking was not featured more heavily in projects for the book mentioned above. No matter, the beauty of collaboration (co-authorship in this case) is the opportunity to find out something new and be surprised at the resulting outcome of your joint efforts.