When I Grow Up

Everyday I watch the news. Choking back tears. Staying informed. My faith in humanity hangs by a very fine thread. With this thread I try, in my own small way, to stitch the world back together. To mend the holes that hatred and ignorance have torn in the fabric of our society.

Luckily I am not alone.

Artists and crafts people all over the world are taking up needle & thread as a consious political act. Each prick of the fabric a provocation. Each thread a voice heard. Each stitch a proposal for change. Each knot binding us all together. This movement has reached a tipping point, it has momentum and its called ‘Craftivism‘.

This year writer and maker Betsy Greer published a book called “Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism” – an anthology that shares the work of some of the most inspiring and prolific craftivists from around the globe, in their own words. I read it in one sitting and I can finally, for the first time in my life, feel confident in answering that question adults torment us with from the time we can talk: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Answer: A Craftivist!

Now, before have the time to say that “being a craftivist is not a responsible, realistic or viable career choice” I want to take the opportunity to share a few of the gems that really caught my eye in Greer’s book, quotes which will surely be touchstones for me going forward with my artistic practice and in my PhD research on quilting as a socially engaged practice.

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“In Activism, we convince ourselves that our voice isn’t loud enough, our words aren’t important, no one will listen, people will judge… we do ourselves and others a disservice when we convince ourselves not to create and not to speak up. By holding back, we deny ourselves the opportunity to express something personal, absurd, funny, or moving. We deny others the opportunity to understand us better, to laugh, to be moved, to be inspired.” – Kim Werker

“All over the world, activists take a stand against moral injustice and social inadequacies. The very nature of fighting for justice can lead to aggression and tense situations, and artwork can bring powerful, positive messages to the community, but when craft gets involved, it seems to soften the blow so the message is both more heartfelt and quick-witted.” – Inga hamilton

“The very essence of craftivism lies in creating something that gets people to ask questions; we invite others to join a conversation about the social and political intent of our creations. Unlike more traditional forms of activism, which can be polarising, there is a back-and-forth in craftivism. As Craftivists, we foment dialogue and thus help the world become a better place, albeit on a smaller scale…” – Betsy Greer

“Traditional forms of political activism can be overwhelming, and for many people they’re simply not feasable. The fentility and familiarity of [craft] transforms political power into something more manageable.” – Jamie ‘Mr.X Stitch’ Chalmers

“Its the easiest thing in the world to create art that shocks, but [craftivism] tries to touch your heart.” – Inga Hamilton

“The gender bias [of craft] adds to its success as a political medium; one cannot help but feel kindness towards the [work], as though they had been created by a senior matriarch. Therefore, when the [work] contains a message of anger, activism, or social commentary, the impact is much greater than expected.” – Jamie ‘Mr.X Stitch’ Chalmers

“Whether expressed in craft or words, in art or on picket signs, our voice is the most powerful tool we have to effect change in ourselves and others.” – Kim Werker

“The creation of things by hand leads to a better understanding of democracy, because it reminds us that we have power.” – Betsy Greer

“…art and creativity keeps us all sane and humane. It is the most powerful tool we have to bring about positive change and social equality in society. I learned that facilitating creativity has the power to change the course of an individual’s life and massively improve their sense of worth within their own community.” – Carrie Reichardt

“Craft has the power to take down the walls we’ve spent our lives building between each other.” – Faythe Levine

“It’s amazing how together we feel when we let our guard down and talk about the struggles we have – because everyone has creative struggles, and these kinds of struggles aren’t very dissimilar to the struggles we feel when we consider speaking up about change in any area of life, whether for ourselves or on behalf of others.” – Kim Werker

“People who craft together manage to find common ground, even when it seems at first that they have nothing in common. They may come from different religions or be different ages, but crafting creates a shared dialogue between them.” – Leanne Prain

“crafters… reflect on the message they create, allowing the slowness and meditative processes of stitching to draw them into deeper contemplation of the content,” – Jamie ‘Mr.X Stitch’ Chalmers

“You are not going to take the time to stitch a text that you don’t believe in, and by stitiching it you really take ownership of the words you are creating in fabric.” – Sarah Corbett

“The fact that I make art means that I am changing the world. All of us are world changers in every little thing we do…” – Lauren O’Farrell

IMG_1215.JPG – This little guy is the work of Lauren O’Farrell, I adore him!

You can buy your very own copy of “Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism” HERE

Now get crafting!

Practice + Repetition = Clarity

There are two things that I’m going to continue to write about and revisit over and over again in this blog, they are: 1) Socially Engaged Art/ Participatory Practice and 2) Practice as Research. This entry will be no different.

As an artist, like many of my peers, I am grappling with a set of challenges and ideas that feel as if they are encroaching not only on my autonomy as an artist but on the way I and others understand art and its role in society. Recognising that:

“Art does not stand apart from history by any means, least of all its own; but intrinsic to its identity is the principle of freedom with regard to that history. Any prediction in advance of what it will (or should) do is alien to it, and equally, any attempt to fully account for it, whether through the apparatus of criticism or that of the market is doomed to be incomplete. It is the part of our culture where we allow ourselves to think otherwise.” 1

I fear that perhaps the most significant of these attempts to ‘account for art’ is its commercialisation and commodification, its reduction to a form of mere entertainment. This disturbing shift seems to be rendering even the most shocking, revolutionary or obscene artworks as impotent, harmless or easily contained. As artists we often have grandiose ideas about how our work can challenge hegemony and power or disrupt social, political, economic and even ecological systems. However, at the same time we continue to use the measures of success set by the neo-liberal capitalist regime in which we live: money, fame, prestige and acceptance into mainstream galleries and museums who themselves are bound by conservative funding structures, aggressive business models and upper class patrons. The strange bedfellows, artists and capitalists, have effectively reduced art to a spectacle.

As a way to better understand and explore this challenge of how art can break free from the negative impacts of the market I have gone back several steps in order to explore the question: What roles does art plays in society? Not in an attempt to define or assign art with a set role as I don’t agree that art has some kind of essentialist form or function, rather this focus on the many roles art play in society is an attempt to to understand and articulate what role I would like my artwork to play.

Art is many things to many people, but the kind of art that I’m most interested in making is known as Participatory Practice or Socially Engaged Art (Bishop/Kester). As I understand it socially engaged art (henceforth reffered to as SEA) is the kind of art that plays in the gaps and silences between binaries, destabilising dichotomies and continuing a tradition of pushing the boundaries of what art is as well as what it art does. Arguably SEA has been around in one form or another since very early in the 20th Century and has been happening right around the globe. It is an incredibly diverse practice in its methods, approaches and intent. Generally speaking SEA concerns itself with the tensions between/and the challenges of:
– authorship, audience and participation
– consumerism and the commercialisation of art
– the production of useful art vrs. The fight against its reduction to a utilitarian tool
– Aesthetics and new materialism; the ephemeral and the call for documentation
– the collective/collaborative and the individual
– democracy and dissensus; the gallery and art in public spaces
– addressing current world issues and the historical trajectory of the Avant Guard
– the space between art and life
– the “third term” , the ‘so what?’ 2
So, in other words, seemingly everything. However the common thread and that is people and their relationships, whether they are relationships between people or between people and ideals, or people and the material world.

Alongside my interest in SEA I am also keenly interested in the role of art as a reseach methodology, or what is otherwise known as Practice as Research (which is why I have taken on a practice-led PhD). Practice as Research (henceforth PaR) is the proposition that artistic practice can be viewed as the “production of knowledge or philosophy in action… artistic research demonstrates that knowledge is derived from doing and from the senses.” 3 Or in other words that there is an inherent logic to art (and in my case craft), a methodology that can be applied in the world in order to make significant contributions to knowledge which are generative, unique and extend the frontiers of research. As described by Robin Nelson in his book:

“PaR describes what practitioner-researchers do, [it] captures the nuances and subtleties of their research processes and accurately reflects the process to research funding bodies. Above all it asserts the primacy of practice and insists that because creative practice is both on-going and persistent; practitioner-researchers do not merely ‘think’ their way through or out of a problem, but rather they ‘practice’ to a resolution.” 4

This process of practicing towards a resolution can also be described as an iterative inductive method of research.

This paragraph really resonates with me and helps me to articulate why for me PaR was the logical choice; this notion of the ‘practitioner-researcher’ very accurately describes how I think and feel about my practice. For me making art is a process of being and interacting with the world around me, it is how I process information as well as my inner thoughts. It is a two-way dialogue between my inner thoughts, feelings and ideas and the materiality and autonomy of the material world. An interaction that also extends to the theoretical, philosophical and political forces operating in the world around me. Furthermore, I really resonate with the idea that in the case of a PaR methodology ‘knowledge’ follows after, is secondary to, the practice – or rather emerges out of that practice.

PaR has evolved out of a higher education context, emerging from within the artistic academic community – particularly at a PhD level – and is therefor shaped and bound by the limits of these institution. It is an approach that tries to extend the limits of what can be understood as ‘research’ and as ‘knowledge’ and aims to have artistic research and artistic knowledge valued equally to other disciplines and methodologies PaR “…is an acceptance that knowledge is not fixed and absolute.”5 and really pushes what kinds of ‘knowledges’ are accepted by the institution. While PaR recognises that research in some form is a part of all artistic practices it ultimatly requires “the rigours of sustained academic research [which] are driven by a desire to address a problem, find things out, establish new insights” .6

Whilst PaR is in part an attempt to ensure financial viability and sustainability as well as a recognition for the contribution that art brings to these institutions and to society, it is also a direct challenge to the very fundamentals of what PhD is and what it requires, such as the basic assumption that a PhD should begin with a well defined ‘research question’ and finish with data being used to point to some sort of resolution or answer. Instead PaR typically focusses on a research inquiry which “affords substantial insights rather than coming to such definite conclusions as to constitute ‘answers’.” 7 Personally, I much prefer the idea of a research inquiry to a research question. I feel that the ‘problem-solution’ dichotomy is not an appropriate approach for working in social contexts; that society is infinitely complex and diverse and that any attempt to presume to identify and define a ‘problem/question’ let alone extract some kind of ‘solution’ or find an ‘answer’ – in fact I feel the act of doing so is often more harmful than useful. The adaptive challenges faced by communities do not require technical fixes, they require long term support with the experimentation, co-creation and implementation of alternate ways of doing and being. As such, I didn’t go into a Practice as Research PhD with a focus on Socially Engaged Art in order to ‘fix’ anyone, or any community. I want my work to be accessible and I would like my practice and the outcome of my work to be humble. I do not want to make grandiose claims about the impacts of my work, or the findings of my research. I am not driven by the ideas of progressivism or the agenda’s of social reformers. What I do aspire to achieve is a practice that is revealing about its subject, engaging of its audiences, sensual and seductive in its materiality and subtle in its socio-economic-political positioning. Like a good film, I hope that my practice will be able to capture people’s attention, moves them emotionally and entices them to reflect about their ‘being in the world’ – giving them an invitation to reconsider or reimagine their current realities.

References:
1 Adamson, G. Thinking Through Craft, 2007, p9
2 Ranciere, J. – Emancipated Spectator introduces the “third term” solution, which is echoed in substance in Aesthetics and its Discontents,
3 Barrett, E and Bolt, B. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry, 2010, p1
4 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p8
5 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p39
6 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p3
7 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p30

Walter Benjamin – The work of Art & the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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I have slowly been working my way through a cannon of texts… today I read Walter Benjamin’s The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and below is an assemblages of quotes from that text which stood out to me on first reading – a patchwork of ideas if you like, from which I will now take a few steps back in order to contemplate how the come together as a whole.

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.

Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.

[However] Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.

[Yet] Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis-à-vis technical reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction… Secondly, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced… And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.
By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. bAnd in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements… Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.

To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.

The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.

It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.

This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty…

..for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.
But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century.
Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.

The decisive reason for this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce… The moment these responses become manifest they control each other.

One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.

In the decline of middle-class society, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct.

The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.

Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate.The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.

The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.

Its selfalienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

 

If you want to go through this paper the full text can be found here

Sad But True

“Western democracies are only the political facades of economic power. A facade with colours, banners, endless debates about sacrosanct democracy. We live in an era where we can discuss everything. With one exception: Democracy. She is there, an acquired dogma. Don’t touch, like a museum display. Elections have become the representation of an absurd comedy, shameful, where the participation of the citizen is very weak, and in which the governments represent the political commissionaires of economic power”

(Saramago, in Saramago & Jacob, 2006, p.144)

Translated by Erik Swyngedouw in Interrogating post-democratization: Reclaiming egalitarian political spaces published in Political Geography, 2011
www.elsevier.com/locate/polgeo

Marxism2014 -The Trouble With Utopia

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This Easter long weekend I attended a 4 day conference titled Marxism2014, this conference is an annual event hosted at Melbourne University’s Parkville campus by the Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist organisation with a somewhat notorious reputation.

Having only just moved to Melbourne, I decided to attend this conference because for a long time I have been frustrated with Australian politics but to date I have not in any organised or formal way made any attempts to become politically active. I consider myself to be a left-wing humanist and a social democrat and so I saw this conference as an opportunity to explore and test my political ideas and values against those of my left-wing peers.

I found this event really challenging both in positive and negative ways which I have tried to articulate in a reflection piece titled “The Trouble With Utopia”. You can read this reflection by clicking on this link:  Marxism2014-final and for those of you who do read it, I am really interested in your thoughts so please leave a comment or alternately you can write to me.