In the final critique of my final work in this second-to-final semester of graduate studies, I could see that there was going to be trouble.
From the start, there was the trouble of actually getting a full view of this sprawling, chaotic, twisted mass of deconstructed jeans. It required everyone to stand around the perimeter of the low-lit white-cube gallery, in a circle, facing in, looking down at this problem child.
There was the troubling of its position: Why not on the wall or hung from the ceiling? Since it’s sprawled out on the floor, does it invite being walked on?
There was the troubling of method: Why the knotting and weaving and braiding? Why the obvious waistbands and labels? Why spend all this time and labour? Why not just a pile of denim strips?
And there was the troubling over concept: Is it too obvious? Too simple? Too many signifiers? Not enough points of entry? Or too many? Is it art or craft? Who is this talking to? And to what end?
And those are just my questions.
I question everything, especially as I work, with my hands, intuitively. But my first line of questioning is directed at the material itself. What do you want from me? (Or, to borrow from my then-eight-year-old nephew, in an inexplicable situation: What are we even doing here?)
As much as I could have sat and gazed at the striated piles of folded jeans collected, machine-washed and line-dried by my mother and hauled to my studio by my others, now those jeans demanded more of me.
Seams, the index of the work by mainly women in foreign factories, needed to be exposed, so I cut them away from the yardage, bound them up in my own hand-stitching into tight, potent fast-fashion/slow-craft units. For what? For now, just for today: my daily reminder not to overthink or force solutions.
The labels and tags required daylighting, too, and the more collisions the better between fonts and texts and all that those brands try to stand for.
That left the denim textile, the fabric of this whole fraught, toxic industry. Shucked from their constraints of style and function, I ripped them into strips and watched them fall from my cutting table into heaps on the floor like tidepools.
As much as I love the immersive works of minimalist textile installations, more would be more here. I would be mining all my own making methods and circulating them into this circles-within-circles piece, in allegiance with all of those who work with their hands for a living or for the love of material. Or both.
Like most makers I know, I love the challenge of constraining the work to some specific rules of material engagement so I limited mine to a single material, a knotting/binding additive process and two tools: scissors and sewing needle (well, three, if you count my hands).
I intrinsically start from the centre in an almost innate process learned over a lifetime, from macramé plant-hangers (1970s) to braided rugs (1990s) to crocheted giant doilies (2000s) created to cover and protect in the public sphere.
The work begins with a gathering of material-energy into a tight nucleus of force (I’ve been mixing up issues of astrophysics and making over the last year) and spreads outward, finding pattern then breaking that pattern toward new horizons. It’s a process of allowing the material to ebb then roil up again into forces that break into near disintegration, a rhythm that keeps me in the swim of things. As it flows outward into small tsunamis, then eddies, I feel an oceanic, topographic, geologic personality wash over this thing.
And this definitely wants to be a thing, not an immersive installation. This is an object that requires some finishing, a symphony of soundwaves that started with a bang but wants to end in a hum, in the round. It is a rug you can’t walk on, borne of Seismic Rug that emerged while I was confined to the floor with sciatica, watching footage of the horror of the 2011 Japan Tsunami flood in.
It is a resurgence of that making, and that fear of that flood and of the oncoming higher waters, but also the resurgence of my ability to grab hold of physically-challenging handwork after falling on the low-tide foreshore this summer and breaking my ‘good’ arm in two places. I cast aside those fears of not being able to make/do from the cast-offs of this unsustainable era of human history.
Resurge feels right for the piece formerly known as the Monster that raises issues from the ground up, this fuzzy menace.
Back when I was still transitioning from workaday newspaper editor to mainly work-for-free artist I applied for a Nexus card.
"Whaddaya you do for a living?" asks the clerk in her American drawl, without looking at me.
When I get this question I always wish there was an easy answer, some simple keystroke like in the relationship status options on Facebook.
"It's complicated," I say. She sighs.
I start in about how I was a journalist but then quit to go into full-time Fine Arts studies, then after graduation I got a studio and am now developing an art practice and doing work for upcoming projects... and stop as her eyes fall to half-mast. We go back and forth for a while like this when she announces: "I'm gonna put you down as housewife."
Even though I've always been self-supporting I decide not to waste my breath defending my non-conforming life choices. But really, I'm using the best skills I have to be a contributing member of society and I'm grateful to be a part of the ever-expanding, borderless community of crafters, craftivists and visual artists, all connected beyond language by hand-making for peace of mind and social, political connection.
Craft creates wellness, it brings humanity during turbulent times, it breaks down hierarchies and is the connecting thread between those who make for personal, tactile pleasure or for use and those who make art for art's sake. Craft is as at home in the home as it is on Etsy or in the white-cube gallery. It has footholds in ancient practices and the avant-garde. It complicates categorization and won't be fenced in (or out).
Making and their makers form an essential humanizing force more encompassing and enduring than even advanced capitalism but there's no way to show that value on a Nexus form.
I reject that line of questioning. And I am not married to a house.
When I see the debate raging around women wearing the hajib (head scarf) or niqab (cloth covering the face) in Canada, I think about the male gaze.
The latest controversy surrounds the woman who was reportedly told to remove her hajib in a Quebec courtroom last month -- by a female judge, for the record -- but it's another example of denying women's personal boundaries.
The court order that she remove this square of fabric so connected to her identity and religion and expose herself in the public sphere reminds me of the long history of the male gaze evident throughout the corridors of the world's most prestigious art museums. It is there in the countless images of nude women created by white heterosexual male artist-geniuses, for the perspective of an implied white, heterosexual male audience. It is the why for the Guerrilla Girls protest movement that began with women donning gorilla masks in 1985 and taking on the Museum of Modern Art's status quo.
When the male gaze is reversed -- when a woman can watch, unwatched -- it is at the very least disconcerting in this culture that values women for their appearance. Whether she is covered by a gorilla mask or a niqab, she induces a quiet horror for the status quo, sparking debate. Our society is hardly the voice of reason when it comes to female oppression; not when a woman in a niqab shopping at Whole Foods may incite more controversy than any number of women in the same aisle who've altered their bodies through toxin injections or the surgeon's scalpel.
The issue, whether we're talking priceless portraits or shifting demographic landscapes, is freedom of choice.
While our male-dominated courts and all levels of government wrestle with appropriate women's garments, three women tell it like it is from their point of view -- under the veil or in defiance of it -- on CBC Radio's The Current here.
One of the biggest lessons learned from a career in newspaper journalism was, surprisingly, the difference between decoration and design. It began when I built up basic layout skills using paper dummies, reduction wheel, metal pica-pole (also good for gouging into office drywall when it was all Just. Not. Working), non-repo pen and something my favourite production foreman coined 'The Yandleometer' — a sort of parallax-viewfinder deal I improvised.
When I finally got the gist of that, we were required to give up the physical tools and wrestle with clumsy emerging computer design programs. But this wasn't the big lesson part; that came when I truly understood that laying out a compelling page of stories and photos was function first, form second. And if that form included a bunch of clip-art snowflakes or needless drop shadows, those had to go. The scanning eye needs white space over decoration.
Good design requires a good editor, but too much editing can kill the soul of the visual field, whether that's a newspaper double-spread (I'm dusting off all the ol' industry relic terms here) or a building.
The editor likes her windows clean of pouffy valances and floors free of scatter-rug litter, but she doesn't want her voice to echo in her interior space, either. There's a fine line between the functional beauty of the spare Bauhaus-based International Style and objects that are designed primarily to optimize mass-production.
The residual of a near-dead layout skill is that I'm constantly second-guessing structures and spaces with a specific line of questions: Too much? Too little? How much is design and how much is decoration?
I see this image of the astonishing staircase at the Les Haras brasserie in Strasbourg, designed by Jouin Manku Studios, and I wonder, is all that strapping structural? If not, what would it look like with the superfluous strapping removed?
But, in the end, is less really more?
At first glance this Gulf Island community building is something out of a Bavarian folktale, more in line with the Volkisch movement that celebrates the hand of the craftsperson.
Yet that decorative shingling is sound design in the rainforest vicinity, and uses locally-sourced renewable materials. The two planks flanking the window are structural components, too. Above all, the design of the shingling hold the function of reflecting the mountainous region rising out of the sea, and the kind of creative activity that will take place at this new arts centre, while the planks are twin silhouettes of the tree trunk they came from.
The 19th Century English artist/designer/social activist William Morris would have loved it. He would have appreciated this collaborative work that integrates architecture with art and in so doing eliminates any boundary between form and function.
It's a happy, slightly chaotic dwelling-object, quite the opposite of the Bauhaus "minimal dwelling" ideal, but would it benefit from an editing?
No freakin' way.
This just uploaded... Six and a half minutes devoted to that question I get a lot:
"What's up with the doilies?"
(Video courtesy of Terry Fox Theatre's PechaKucha program. More info on the entertaining, informative and globally-popular PechaKucha format here.)
I'm writing this as the radio airs a live report of gunfire. The French police have just killed the two brothers who hunted down particular editorial workers at the satirical Paris magazine two days ago, murdering 12.
A bloodbath over hand-drawn images is over (for now), while the global reaction is unfolding in drawings.
The call has been sent - and heard - far and wide: Defend free speech by publishing the triggering images of Mohammed, and by taking up the pen or pencil in a massive freedom of expression effort. (Some early responses by cartoonists can be seen here.)
As much as I am deeply offended by some of the cartoons printed in Charlie Hebdo (like this one of the naked young woman with her burqa up her ass, in line with the magazine's support of banning women's right to choose) I will defend all extremists' right to draw and publish extremist drawings. Respecting the right of all dissenting voices is part of a (still mythical) free and open society that nurtures rational thought and behaviour. The world witnessed the alternative on Wednesday morning.
Here in Vancouver, former Province editorial cartoonist Bob Krieger took to the drawing board hours after the news of the murders of his fellow cartoonists and others.
But you won't find this one-panel in the local newspaper anymore; the last Province cartoonist was let go in 2013, the way cartoonists have been unloaded all over the country by their corporate media owners.
Surely it was simply a cost-saving measure, but the result is a pitiful amount of visual commentary, and a corporate curbing of free speech.
This week the Province (owned by Postmedia which also owns the only other paid daily newspaper in this town) ran a guest column on the topic of the need for cartoonists' freedom of expression by Aislin (Terry Mosher) of the Montreal Gazette. That one voice ran in other Postmedia outlets including the Regina Leader-Post, Windsor Star and a whole whack of online news aggregators. And nothing against Aislin, but I miss our own, Vancouver-based critical drawings as we try to absorb the unfathomable. But as Krieger told The Tyee after he was shown the door, "corporate media is way too controlling and they don't want as much of a variety of opinion as newspapers should have."
Yet suddenly Canada's corporate media can't get enough visual commentaries, and entire pages have been dedicated to the drawings, sometimes in full colour - a dream to many cartoonists. But look closer at the spread in yesterday's National Post (also owned by Postmedia) and it's clear that less than half of the cartoonists are actually employed by newspapers.
You can see the irony here. Freedom of expression: Yes! ... unless there's more money in clickbait that has no relevance to local readership.
Cartoonists are compelled to make art, to share their expression freely. The papers aren't paying like they used to but the people are clearly paying attention, via social media retweets, hits, and followers. There's a lot of value in that.
It's astounding that the penny has not yet dropped.
The war in the woods is heating up again. Except it's not the people against forestry giants MacMillan-Bloedel or Fletcher Challenge; on this day it's Kinder Morgan.
Oil-pipeline officials are doing their best to try to shape protestors at Burnaby Mountain these past weeks as a small group of environmentalist wackos. Meanwhile, the movement is growing. And so is the art.
Marshall McLuhan said, "Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it." And that's what I think about when I see this work by Ian Reid Nusi. Yup, that would be an oil tanker in that sea monster's mouth, carved in response to the prospect of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline moving tar sands diluted bitumen to the coast and onto tankers. (Artist interview clip below)
Environmental protests have shaped this province, and some important artworks have been a part of that.
It's in Ian Wallace's large-scale photo collage murals (reconfirmed as important works five years later in Canadian Art magazine).
His plywood patterns interrupt the protest images from the summer of 1993, the height of the fight to save Clayoquot Sound, the largest unlogged temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island. About 800 protestors were arrested and carted away, while Wallace created a whole new way of seeing art, protest and the role and position of the visual artist.
Wallace's artworks endure, and also serve as a reminder to those who view them in galleries that what multinational corporation spin-doctors would like to refer to as a green-y lunatic fringe is actually a large and diverse population of British Columbians who are willing to inconvenience themselves for the sake of protecting the oceans or the last of the great rainforests.
Toni Onley has been in there too. As part of the large protest to protect the Stein Valley from logging, he organized a plan to fly in well-established artists to the vital watershed area to paint their impressions, with sales going to help the campaign to save it from a plan for the Mitsubishi company to log the old growth for disposable chopsticks.
Onley, who died in 2004, recalled painting a watercolour in support of a Stein cultural centre while “Chief Perry Redon, the chairman of the Lilloet Tribal Council... beat his drum and sang to the four quarters. I was inspired and soon we had a watercolour for the Stein poster….”
Many paintings of the beauty of the protested areas of the Stein, the Carmanah Valley, Clayoquot Sound helped fund the continuing protest, and today form important collections and are captured in coffee table books like Carmanah: Artistic Visions of an Ancient Rainforest.
But there's nothing like a compelling photograph to bring the stark reality of the protest home.
T.J. Watt's photo of Ken Wu, the Ancient Forest Alliance’s executive director, sits atop a massive red cedar stump in the Upper Walbran Valley on Vancouver Island. The photo earns its place as an important visual of the struggle to retain a small portion of the natural environment, but its place is also determined by this image that is forceful in its subject of scale and a unique moment in time.
The Kinder Morgan survey crew has to be out of Burnaby Mountain in a few days, but the protests against the transport of a dirty, risky diluted bitumen in lieu of real government investment in clean energy sources has just begun.
It's there on the faces of the growing protestors, and in the art that's growing along with it. And sometimes, as in this surrealist portrait by Shawn Hunt, it's in the faces in the art.
This is the history of environmental struggle in this corner of the world, and part of the history of art, too.
I've been giving Instagram a lot of thought. And I've concluded that I'm exhausted.
I realize that Instagam can turn a small-town lady with a crafty idea into an international business success story, but that's quickly eclipsed by thoughts of more insidious, multinational business antics: top-level consumer marketers who court those Grammars' "Insta-fluence": Nike, Holiday Inn, Burberry. (More at this New York Times article.)
I think about how encouraging it is to have people following you in your creative endeavours, but then I think about the shared similarities among the top social-media savvy "micro-celebrities", our exploding narcissistic culture and the easy-pickins' exploitation for big-brand profit and almost-free fame.
I realize that Instagram can open a door for artists to the big wide sharing world and that by refusing to open that door runs the risk of a lifetime of professional obscurity. Indeed, "Instagram is custom made for the art world," says New York Observer opinion-writer/billionaire financier/art collector Adam Lindemann. But he then adds: "You get a quick flash of an image with virtually no text or explanation. There’s no need to read. It’s perfect for people with zero attention span, zero education and zero interest in learning about anything—perfect, in other words, for the art collectors of today. You could go so far as to say that the successful art of this current generation must be Instagramable to succeed, and if it doesn’t look good on Instagram, it ain’t working in this instant-gratification art world: goldfish have longer attention spans than ‘grammers."
I realize that it's free and with the help of such apps as Latergram, it's possible to keep the phone-pecking at a daily minimum, but I can't help thinking about these guys: the Instagram and Facebook engineers who recently moved all Instagram photos to Facebook's data centre, without any users the wiser, as reported by Wired.
I realize that this is a wee worried whisper in the hell-yeah storm of 200 million mostly female, mostly under-35 Instagrammers. And I realize that I may be overthinking the whole thing. I could be expanding my visual horizons, connecting with artists around the world, but instead I'm fixated on what becomes of the millions of bits of personal information being sucked into that data centre in Forest City, North Carolina (as suggested in the Wired article) every day, and how that data has been used and how it will be, soon enough.
Last year the FBI and the National Security Agency were handed over the ability to suck up people's photos, videos, emails and documents, after the largest businesses online allowed the agencies access to their servers. According to a ground-shaking Washington Post article last year, "The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden."
I think about Instagram and I think about what's monitored, what's censored (no pubes!), what's the next app to eclipse Instagram's success (Snapchat or Bolt?). I think about how all these social media apps contribute to the time-sucking attention to that little gadget that is now as much a part of the restaurant table as the cutlery and that has turned a busload of riders into something resembling group prayer. I think about how Rogers is a dealer, getting rich on its users' increasing dependency on data, more data.
Am I overthinking Instagram and the rest of the global social re-wiring? Yes, but I might not be thinking about it enough either.
The first time I saw a "dry landscape" Zen garden in one of the hundreds of temples in Kyoto, my brain sort of short-circuited.
This was the mid-'80s, and here was a Zen Buddhist priest meticulously raking the gravel against a lurid neon backdrop of sudden affluence and an alarming amount of consumer waste, often un-used and in its original packaging.
Now, of course, we get it. We have been seduced by the easy acquisition of stuff, then oppressed by all our stuff as the economy contracted (and nearly collapsed in the U.S.) We realized the two-car-garage life was not for us and now we spend a lot of time and angst trying to figure out how to part with our stuff. We have been hoodwinked by marketers who prey on and play up our inadequacies, even inventing a highly lucrative shopping 'holiday', Cyber-Monday.
There's an entire genre of art that reflects our dis-ease with all the stuff (see 10 visuals here) and painters have had to re-think their practice (of eking out a living) now that 'original' oil paintings sell at Winner's for $39.99, straight from Dafen Village, China.
What is emerging is a conversation about what really matters, which inevitably concludes with 'experiences.' It would be nice to think this shared revelation is rooted in our own free will, but really, the marketers have shot themselves in the collective foot. A rampant, speculative real estate
market has forced mortgage-choked folks into smaller quarters where there is just no room for more stuff. Car-ownership is being increasingly seen as a hangover from another marketing era and self-expression is no longer synonymous with the home-decor category. Expression is becoming a participatory practice, enhanced by that one burgeoning consumption category — the ubiquitous personal screen and all its accompanying non-object data packages, games and apps. Mobility-marketing promotes an era of impermanence. Photos are as fleeting as the gravel-raking or the daily rice-flower Kolam drawings of South Indian women (see video, at bottom) or the snowshoe-patterns created by Englishman Simon Beck (left).
Retail therapy is slowly being replaced by escape therapy. We balance rocks and create Calder-esque mobiles of driftwood. We take pictures, we post them on our blogs. We have amassed nothing but memories of that mindful, meditative moment of exploring the surface and mass of natural objects. We share them and are inspired by others' sharing.
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