Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Loop by Kirsty Darlaston

Tapestry2008 Conference paper By Kirsty Darlaston

This talk is a brief outline of my journey to the research that I am currently undertaking for my PhD at the South Australian School of Art. The research project is an investigation of some of the social and cultural meanings of textiles/crafts and making. As part of the research I am conducting a community tapestry project to gather data about textiles and making.

Currently, I have just finished stage 1 of this tapestry project, where I have been interviewing different cultural groups from around the City of Charles Sturt, in South Australia, about their textiles practices, memories and stories, using the notion of textiles as holders of social, cultural and personal stories. I have used the information gained in these interviews to design a tapestry based on the textiles of the many different cultural groups that make up the area. The City of Charles Sturt has the second largest amount of different cultural groups of any of the councils in Adelaide. I am planning to set up the loom in the Woodville library when I return to Adelaide.

I will just briefly explain the slides that accompany my talk today.

The slides that I am playing in the background are a mixture of three sets of images. The first set is from the community interviews that I have just finished; they feature photographs of people and their textiles. This set also includes slides of community interviews that I undertook as part of the Moonee Valley Tapestry Flag Project that I did in 2006, which I will refer to a bit later.

The second set of images is a series of basic textile units: stitches, loops and knots that I am using to illustrate the idea of the loop that will become clearer throughout this talk.

The final set are historical images, paintings, prints and photographs of people making textiles, these are the images of textiles/craft making that have been handed down us of what textile makers look like.

These images will just play in a loop as I speak.

To begin with I would like to give you a short history of my artistic practice and how it has lead to my current research. My PhD research brings together two areas of long-standing interest. In art school during my undergraduate degree I was interested in artworks that fore grounded interaction and the bodies of the viewer and maker, by both inviting and denying physical interaction. An example of this is my installation Descry, which included woven tapestry, parts of plants and Braille, enticing the viewers hand to touch, but at the same time prohibiting it through the placement of the work in a formal gallery setting.

My Masters thesis took this further through exploring the idea of the interactive loop-
This research looked at artists’ who make artwork using electronic medical visualising technologies such as ultrasound and scopic cameras, to explore new possibilities beyond the gaze model of viewing artwork. The gaze-model involves distancing the body from the artwork, privileging the more intellectually based sight and distance, over the proximity of the other senses. I was interested in more interactive ways of experiencing art, that weren’t predicated on the gazes’ subject/object relationship; ways that worked through these binaries and moved beyond them. The thesis looked at bodies interacting: the body of the artwork, interacting with the bodies of the artist and viewers.

This research developed a communicative model of interacting with art, which was based on both feminist theory and the work of theorists Deleuze and Guattari. Within this model subjects take on mutating shapes and meanings in relation to each other, they change and exchange, finding their forms through communication. It was here that I first explored the idea of the interactive loop, an idea used by cyber theorists to explain interaction between humans and machines. The interactive loop involves the loss of some of the subject’s own subjectivity in interactions, allowing space for the subject to become partially caught up in the logic of another. This has been observed by new media artist Louise Wilson, in her artworks that explored scientific experimentation; here she noted that over time experimental subjects are informed by the experiment and vice versa.

At the same time that I was doing this research I was working on a Commonwealth Games cultural project in the City of Moonee Valley, in Melbourne. This project, organised by the local council, was based on textiles as carriers of material histories and memories and involved interviewing many different social and cultural groups in the area about textiles objects that are meaningful to them. The objects that surfaced ranged from Eritrean painted goatskins, through to a Kiss fan jacket to Tuvalu woven headbands. A third of the slides showing behind me today are a selection of the people that I interviewed for the project, with their textile objects. All objects were photographed with their owners and their stories recorded.

I then bought together a core group from the local community to create a tapestry design. Using all of the information gathered and maps of the area to form collages, we designed a flag that featured a lyrical map of the area, with textiles motifs as the map marks. I then went on to weave this tapestry at the local library in Moonee Ponds. During this final stage at the loom, I was privileged to meet many more community members and hear their personal stories, in a more informal, conversational setting than the community interviews.

Over the long process of weaving the flag I became very interested the dialogues that I was having with the public at the loom and how my performance as a working weaver and community artist facilitated these conversations. As I wove I would explain the process that I had undergone with community members to come up with the design; as such I became a proxy voice for the community members that I had consulted with, imparting the importance of the textiles objects to them, retelling their stories, affirming their place on the map. The textile object is a universalising form that connected most people who entered the space and I heard many tales of textiles practices 'in the old country', tales of skills being passed on, tales tinged with the loss of old ways, cultural meanings and the waning of use of skills.

What I was finding was a complex concert at work on the stage of the loom; a performance that touched on the history of textiles, communities, culture and nostalgia, a process that unfolds in a new space and opens up the previously closed, intimate areas of making. I began to think that by allowing the community onto the stage of the making/weaving that I could be creating a new form of interacting with artwork that involved multiple stories and multiple makers.

This where these two potted histories converge, in interaction and in dialogue and in a loop of communication, which I will explain in more detail later. For my PhD research I am running a community tapestry project in a similar format to the Commonwealth Games project, but I will record the conversations that I have at the loom with the public and analyse them in relation to textiles/craft theory, performance theories and theories of interaction.

In the exchanges at the loom in previous projects there is often someone’s hand reaching out to almost caress the tapestry. Although not quite touching, it is as if the people are actually touching; there is an ‘aura’ of warmth, connection and knowledge in the gesture. The hand often belongs to someone who has made textiles themselves, or someone who may have memories of a family member weaving, sewing or making.

I have been thinking of this gesture as a figure in the way that Roland Barthes uses the word figure in the introduction of A Lovers Discourse. “These fragments of discourse can be called figures. The word is to be understood, not in the rhetorical sense, but rather in its gymnastic or choreographic acceptation… the body’s gesture caught in action and not contemplated in repose…[1]” The figure of the arm reaching out to touch the tapestry is a text that can be read as expressing cultural, personal and social meanings and relationships.

The figure of the arm is not disembodied or without context. The arm is firmly embedded in an interactive relationship that I define as a loop. Within the loop are the body of the weaver/researcher; the bodies of the public (represented by the person who is reaching out to touch the tapestry); the body of the tapestry, in the process of being woven; and the context of the local library. I have recontextualised the idea of the loop from cyber theorist Sadie Plant’s who discusses the “cybernetic loop” in the writing of William Gibson:
“watching kids playing video games in the arcades and realizing there is a cybernetic loop which gets established between the player and the game and it is no longer simply a unilateral one-way process of looking at an image. What were thought of as subject and object become wrapped in what Deleuze and Guattari would call a complex assemblage.[2]
The relationship that Plant discusses here is no longer that of viewer and viewed, but shifts to an interactional relationship, where the subject becomes both viewer and viewed. This shift moves from a linear relationship to a more circular non-hierarchic formation that allows for a freer flow of energy between the points that form it. The loop does not privilege any one point more than any other. Textiles, as you all know, are often made of a series of loops, all interacting to form a cloth.

The responses from the public, as I was weaving the Moonee Valley Tapestry seemed to fit into two categories- firstly there was a sense of awe for the skills, from those who had little or no experience with making. Secondly, there was the complicit response of having been inside the concentrated space of creation. The responses can be divided by the markers of outside, the position of the viewer and inside , the position of the viewed.

My research uses Autoethnography as an “… approach that recognizes the interwoven-ness of objects, texts, imagers and technologies in peoples’ everyday lives and identities. It aims not to simply ‘study’ peoples’ social practices or to read cultural objects and performances as if they were texts, but to explore how types of material, intangible, spoken, performed narratives and discourses are interwoven with and made meaningful in relation to social relationships, practices and individual experiences.[3]” The voices of the community will become part of the research text, intertwined with readings, and theories, in a model similar to that used by Luce Giard in her Doing-cooking[4] research. Giard conducted a series of interviews, which she uses for the goal of hearing women’s voices: “Their sole intention was to hear women speak: to talk about the very activity that is generally accorded no attention. Thus we can learn from them, and them alone, how they represent their role and ability, if they take an interest in their savoir faire, and what pride they take in finding a personal way to fulfill an imposed task.[5]” Textile/craft practice, like cooking, is a marginalized practice and one aim of the research project is to give voice to public thoughts and experiences of textiles/craft.

Deleuze and Guattari posit a nomadic art or an aesthetic model of interacting with art that closes the gap between historical gaze and the closer, perhaps blurred space that they call the fold. Their model involves close range viewing and a haptic method of interacting with art, where the senses become confused and our attention shifts from the framed formal borders of the cloth’s pattern into the malleable fold or drape of the textiles. I would re-write this as shifting from the final monolithic product to the intimate space of making, from the cloth to the individual loops that connect and interact to make the cloth. Here the hand reaching to almost touch tapestry resurfaces, with partially made tapestry allowing a closeness that complete sealed artworks may not. The figure of the hand is joined by the woman touching her heart as she speaks of forty years of making; she is joined by the woman, who with a roll of the eyes, counts on her fingers the number of items that she hand-made for her dowry in Bosnia; they are connected to the man who smooths the cloth of his kamiz as he talks about the heat in his home country; all of these bodies are joined by the body of the weaver moving slowly along the span of the tapestry.

The process of this research will create many loops, all of which have equal value and equal opportunity to proliferate as the written thesis. The written document of the thesis will exist as one loop in a cloth of many. To research using a generative model is to allow for a research that will not draw definite conclusions or find answers; a research that is open-ended, that continues to grow rhizomatically, through the interpretations and stories told by all involved. This is an open ended research, as it will be shaped by the data collected; it is also an open ended project as it involves the stories of many people and proliferates itself through these stories across many networks of connection.

[1] Barthes, R. (1977). A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. London, Penguin Group, p.3-4
[2] Plant, S, Quoting Gibson, W. (1996) “Coming into Contact”, Mellick A. Touch. Sydney, Artspace Visual Arts Centre Ltd, p.34
[3] Pink, S. Op. Cit. p.6
[4] Giard L, “Doing-Cooking”, de Certeau, M; Giard, L; Mayol, P. (1998) Living and Cooking, The Practice of Everyday Life, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, p.149
[5] Ibid

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