Quilting as a methodology for participatory art-making and research
My story begins with my Grandmother, artist Dawn Fitzpatrick, who in the early 1970’s developed her own unique style of appliqué quilt making which she used to create painted wall hangings. She coined the term “cloth art” to describe this way of working and retrospectively it is possible to say that she was one of the pioneering artists working with textiles this way (that is with a blatant disregard for the strict traditions and techniques of quilting coupled with a painterly, figurative, mixed media approach). I’ve brought one of her pieces from her Jerusalem series to show you because you really need to see and touch these works in person to appreciate them – or rather to connect with them.
Dawn’s work was political, topical and largely misunderstood by those both on the Art and the Craft sides of the battle line which at the time she was working (early 70’s till the mid 90’s) were still deeply entrenched… Crossing them was certainly no place for a woman! And that isn’t even bringing into the conversation her attempt to facilitated a collaborative project in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian women – a project that we would now see as a worthy (and still relevant) socially engaged art project but which at the time made no sense to funding bodies such as the Australian council for the Arts or the NSW Arts Grants for Women whom she looked to for support. Apparently one woman who interviewed her as part of the application process for these grants asked her sarcastically whether she was trying to win the Nobel peace prize!
Anyway, to me her work resonates strongly with the work of other feminist artists playing with the medium of quilting during the 80’s such as:
– Suzanne Lacy with her socially engaged performance work “The Crystal Quilt” (1985-1987) which explored the experience of aging, and specifically how aging women are represented in media and public opinion.
– Miriam Schapiro “who, as a leader of the Feminist art program at CalArts, who turned to an expressly decorative style that incorporated materials and processes such as fabric appliqué.” (Adamson, 2007, 31)
– Judy Chicago who alongside her famous work “The Dinner Party” also called for the submission of small, triangular quilts honouring women of the quilt maker’s choice in a work called the “ International Quilting Bee 1980”
Coming back to me and my PhD research.
Firstly, I want to clarify that quilting is actually not a medium that I’ve worked in before starting this PhD, but it was the obvious choice for me going into this project – in fact it is a medium that has literally been staring me in the face my whole life (growing up my grandmothers work hung in every room of our house) meanwhile I’ve been jumping from one medium to another trying to find the one that ‘speaks’ to me. In all honesty this lack of experience with my chosen medium has left me feeling a little behind the rest of my cohort who all have established arts-practices. However, it also gives me a unique opportunity to really allow my practice to evolve hand in hand with my theoretical explorations, each feeding into one other, and to document my learnings as my practice develops.
Pablo Helguera in his book on Education for Socially Engaged Art identified that many art students, myself included, find the “prevailing cult of the individual artist” and the “capitalist market infrastructure of the art world” uncomfortable. He also wrote that many art students attracted to socially engaged art-making often find themselves wondering whether it would be “more useful to abandon art altogether and instead become professional community organizers, activists, politicians, ethnographers, or sociologists.” Which is, in fact precisely what I did – after graduating with a BA and 1st class Hons I moved straight into the non-profit sector and becoming a community development worker first with a small arts organisation that ran arts and music programs for young people with disabilities and then with the state peak for volunteering in Qld, where I coordinated a state-wide capacity building program for community leaders in disaster affected communities. I did so because I felt the work I was doing there (workshop delivery, grant writing, natural disaster resilience building etc.) felt more useful, hands-on and meaningful than just making Art. However, after four years of exploring innovation and best-practice in the non-profit sector it struck me that much of the work I most admired incorporated the arts as a strategy for engagement, facilitating social exchange and communicating ideas. So, I decided go back to my own practice and do a PhD in order to research and develop a way of working that would bring together my artistic practice with my professional practice as a community development worker.
So, “What is my research question?” “How is my art research?” and “What is my unique contribution to knowledge going to be?” I hear you all scream silently inside your skulls.
Well, I (somewhat reluctantly) apologise and admit that I don’t know yet. However, I can say that it certainly has something to do with:
– Sarah Pink’s work around sensory and visual ethnography,
– The interesting paradox in Tania Bruguera’s idea of “Art Utile” as articulated by Ellen Feiss, a subject which is also touched on in John Carey’s book “What good are the arts?”
– The many tensions between the views of Claire Bishop and Grant Kester on the subject of participatory art (what makes for ‘good’ socially engaged art, how we preference and value the ethical v. the aesthetic, the politics of collaboration/authorship and audience)
– Pablo helguera’s work on socially engaged art
– Marcel Mauss’s writing on “The gift” (1925) as a way to explore how socially engaged art can subvert the power and influence of the Art Market and indeed perhaps even capitalism itself
– The performative nature of facilitation and the performative research paradigm as described by Brad Haseman in Barbara Bolt’s book ‘Practice as research’, as well as her book “Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism through the Arts”
– Glenn Adamson’s book on “thinking through Craft”
– Carol Becker on “The subversive Imagination” which explores artists, society and social responsibility, particularly in modern democracy’s
While exploring all of these ideas, I am trying to focus on ensuring my work is practice led and turning my attention first and foremost to my actual arts-practice. I am trying to understand the what are the unique opportunities an insights that are revealed when working with quilting as a socially engaged medium, and then to understanding: What is the artistic and aesthetic outcomes of these exchanges? How are these exchange experienced and understood by participants and audiences? And, How do these outcomes and impacts change when this practice is transposed to different site-specific situations? and perhaps these are in fact my research questions for now.
But, before I go any further…
We have finally come to the part where I explain why this quilt top quietly sitting on the desk here – in an effort to be truly practice led in everything I do and in order to help me with my explorations into this practice – I am hoping that at least some of you are willing to join me in an experiential experiment! I need at least 8 people who are willing to collaborate with me on this piece. You don’t need to have any particular skills to participate, it’s a very quick and straightforward activity – I will give you 2 very simple and clear instructions that should make this really easy.
Activity Part One – Instructions:
You are going to be drawing onto this quilt top with the fabric paint provided, but first of all I need you to
1) Look around the room and choose one person who you don’t know without them becoming aware of it (eg. Don’t point at them or tell them!)
2) Now, I want you to somehow document their face onto the this quilt top, you can draw or write your observations, but remember that you only have like 10min, I’m not expecting you to capture a likeness or event document the whole face, you can focus on one feature if you like… you can use the space however you like – draw as big or small as you want!
Okay, while you guys work on that, I’m just going to chat a little more about my work…
I’ve always been interested by the questions: “What is the responsibility of the artist to society? …What has been the role of artists within democratic societies? [And] Historically when have artists made an impact?” (Becker, 1994, xv). Perhaps I am typical of my generation, which according to Kester, have led a “dramatic growth of interest in collaborative, collective, and socially engaged practices” (Kester, 2013, XVIII) centred around notions of dialogic exchange “as an active, generative process that can help us speak and imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities, official discourse, and the perceived inevitability of partisan political conflict.” (Kester, 2013, 8)
I have a hunch that a research methodology developed around the medium of quilting has the potential to be extremely generative and provide a unique entry point for facilitating collaborations in and with community with outcomes that do not sacrifice aesthetics at the “alter of social change”(Bishop, 2012, 29).
Inherent to the craft of quilting is a way of working – a unique logic – that has been around for generations and has acted as a bridge between generations and cultures, connecting women (and men) through the act of: making, skills sharing, story telling, collaboration and through the act of passing down these quilts as treasures and heirlooms. Embedding these objects with an aura, a personal and emotional significance that I would argue is much more powerful than that of most artworks…
In a chapter on the Wunderkammer (vun-der-kam-mer) Helmut Luechenhausen (Le-chen-hausen) wrote about a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who:
“after interviewing 315 individuals in 82 families about the objects which were special to them, discovered that these objects (least among them were art) evolved meaning by context and association. He found that ‘visual values are created by social consensus, not perceptual stimulation. He concluded that: These patterns, and many of the others that emerged from the data suggested that (at least in our culture and in the present historical period) objects do not create order in the viewer’s mind by embodying principles of visual order; they do so by helping the viewer struggle for the ordering of his or her own experience” (Lueckenhausen, 1997, 36).
This quote really resonated with me and how I feel about my grandmothers quilts- they would be the thing I would take with me if my house was burning down, they are absolutly invaluable.
To me there is something really important happening here –something about how this medium able to really capture and represent people’s experiences and relationships, something about how a quilts transforms from a craft/art objects into a treasure – which makes me suspect that these object, or more specifically the way we relate to them, are incredibly powerful and therefore have great potential to provide the foundations for meaningful exchanges and for co-creating art.
I’m very conscious however that the baggage the medium of quilting brings is not all good – and that it a way of working that can easily dismissed as just craft, women’s work or simply as ’nice’ which could also be translated to mean ‘harmless’. In my quest to make socially engaged art that actually addresses issues of social justice I swing between desperately wanting to agree with Brugeuera’s idea that art can be something that transforms affect into effectiveness, where “art’s function is no longer to be a space for ‘signalling’ problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions.” (Bruguera, 2012, 2) And where artwork is understood and valued according the “usefulness of the work for the audience.”
To, on the other hand, being extremely sceptical of this prescriptive instrumentalisation of art… with Bishops’ warning ringing in my ears that for all the positive impacts of social participation in the arts
“As the cultural theorist Paola Merli has pointed out, none of these outcomes will change or even raise consciousness of the structural conditions of people’s daily existence. It will only help people to accept them.” (Bishop, 2012, 14)
Plus, I worry that as John Carey wrote:
“The assumption that the arts make people better is seldom accompanied by any serious consideration of what better people might be like.” (Carey 2005 p.103)
Finally, I agree with Bishop when she write that:
“Participatory art is not a privileged political medium, nor a ready-made solution to a society of the spectacle, but it is as uncertain and precarious as democracy itself; neither are legitimated in advance but need continually to be performed and tested in every specific context.” (Bishop, 2012, 284)
And perhaps this is really the best articulation of what I hope to do with my work: test and perform democracy through participatory practice; and to see if I can open up and facilitate:
“public spaces predicated on the multiplication of spheres of daily life where people can debate the meaning and consequences of public truths, inject a notion of moral responsibility into representational practices, and collectively struggle to change dominating relations of power.” (Becker, 1994, 204)
…In some kind of attempt to contribute to democracy’s ongoing existence and its potential to thrive and evolve despite our globalised neo-capitalist reality; While at the same time also being able to researching, learning and contributing in a ‘useful’ way to each site-specific context, each community, I work in AND of course lets not forget to make great art!
So where to now?
My next step is to start working on getting some real world projects up and running. I’m currently starting a conversation with Emerald Community House about the potential for developing a quilting-resilience program where we invite women living in high-risk areas (highly susceptible to bush fires) to take part in a disaster preparedness program “quilting bee” style which will see us making a collection of quilts to exhibit as part of the Emerald PAVE Festival – an annual festival which aims to “Build community stamina, creating strong working relationships that strengthen the community’s reflexes to respond to natural disaster adversities and challenges”. (http://www.emeraldcommunityhouse.org.au/pave-festival/) If it goes ahead this project would actually be the precise meeting point of my professional and artistic practices, bringing together everything I’ve learned to date and also brings us back in a nice loop to the beginning of my talk.
So perhaps that is enough about me – how are you guys going with you drawings?
Activity Part Two – Reflection:
Having done that it would be really useful for me if you could share something about that experience with us, what did you feel? What did you notice? How did it change your experience of this space? How did it change your relationship to other people in this space? How did you feel in relation to the material and physical process involved?
– Adamson, Glenn (2007) Thinking Through Craft, Bloomsbury London
– Becker, Carol (1994) The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility, Routledge: New York.
– Bishop, Claire (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso: Brooklyn.
– Bruguera, Tania (2012) Reflexions on Arte Útil: Useful Art, available online: http://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/592-0-Reflexions+on+Arte+til+Useful+Art.htm
– Carey, John (2005) What Good Are the Arts? London: Faber and Faber.
– Emerald Community House Pave Festival: http://www.emeraldcommunityhouse.org.au/pave-festival/)
– Helguera, Pablo (2011) Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Material and Techniques handbook. Jorge Pinto Books: New York.
– Helmut Lueckenhausen (1997) ‘Theoretical and Museological Perspectives’ in ‘Craft and Contemporary Theory’ Ed. Sue Rowley. NSW: Allen & Unwin.
– Kester, Grant. H (2013) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. University of California Press: Berkeley.