Recrafting Futures: Feminist Practices of Material Engagement
Arts, Crafts, Affects: Documenting HerStories and Worldbuilding, public seminar at Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn, November 25-26, 2022
There are many ways to present an artwork to the public and sometimes, as in the case of research-driven practices, an exhibition is a limited that can often present only the brief, final effect of the many processes and collaborations that go into creating the work. Art—however research-based, relational, dematerialized, participatory, or ephemeral it might be—usually functions within institutional frameworks that require it to be “shown” in order to be shared. In contrast, practices associated with craft relate to a different tradition of sharing, especially when craft is “valued not as commodity but as an experience,”(Jenni Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2016), p. 57.) as a way of doing and learning together. As part of everyday life, handicraft can be both a therapeutic practice of reconnecting with oneself and a refined tool of connecting with others.
These aspects of craft were foremost concerns discussed as part of the public seminar “Arts, Crafts, Affects: Documenting HerStories and Worldbuilding,” organized by art historians Margaret Tali and Ulrike Gerhardt at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn in November 2022.(Ulrike Gerhardt and Margaret Tali’s “Introduction” to the seminar available at https://echogonewrong.com/public-seminar-arts-crafts-affects-documenting-herstories-and-worldbuilding-at-estonian-academy-of-arts/.) Although the craft framework might have served as a perfect script for a thematic feminist exhibition, the project instead took the form of a public seminar and a workshop during which the return of craft aesthetics and techniques in contemporary feminist art was discussed through the practices of three contemporary artists who pursue very different strategies of integrating craft techniques into their artistic work: Mare Tralla (based between London and Tallinn), Katrin Mayer (Düsseldorf/Berlin), and #FramedinBelarus (Rufina Bazlova and Sofia Tocar, based in Prague), a collaborative craftivist project. Despite their differences, these artists’ practices share a connection to activism, and they can all be characterized as allies supporting various marginalized groups.
Considering that hard distinctions between arts and crafts are historically conditioned, the seminar problematized a particular form of this juxtaposition, namely the strategic use of craft techniques in feminist art. The organizers did not refer to the general “arts versus crafts” debate, but to the discourse of “implementing crafts in the institution of art,”(I refer to the chapter by Johanna Rosenqvist, “Implementing Craft in the Institution of Art,” in Zandra Ahl and Päivi Ernkvist, eds., Crafted Form: Continuation, Praxis and Reflection (Hägersten: Constructive Craft & Dialogue , 2008).) focusing on its feminist genealogies: artists using craft techniques to perform feminist critiques of culture, and artists employing crafts in art as a reference to what are considered “female techniques” or “female materials.”
The organizers, Tali and Gerhardt, facilitated a meeting between the artists and the public, encouraging the audience to actively participate in the discussion: the artists both took questions and asked the audience questions about their own motivations for participating in the seminar, and their individual interests in the issue of craft and arts entanglements. One of the symptomatic reactions came from an art student who attended the seminar to better understand the relationship between her grandmother’s way of working and her own. She wanted to know if her grandmother’s irrepressible urge to do handicrafts was related to her own interest in making art. The organizers directed the public’s attention to the feminist reading of craft understood as an embodied tactile way of documenting gendered experiences, and as a channel of alternative and transcultural communication. They also pointed out the aspect of ancestral traditions, skills, and historical knowledges transmitted cross-generationally among women through craft practices, describing craft as a both a form of daily resistance and a form of embodied herstory.(Gerhardt and Tali, “Introduction.”)
Aside from placing craft within an explicitly feminist framework, Tali and Gerhardt posed a series of questions centered on the possibilities of craft in relation to queer utopianism, drawing connections to the optimistic future of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia.(See José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, first published in 2009 in New York by New York University Press.) They advanced a working hypothesis that craft offers possibilities for alternative world-building, emphasizing the handicraft capacity “to raise new questions about international solidarity, acts of resistance and mental health,” and formulated the following questions: “What kinds of affects do these techniques and materials channel and carry? How do they allow us to document and connect different feminist struggles, and bring together contemporary and historical resistances?”(Gerhardt and Tali, “Introduction.”) Before I turn to the answers that were offered in the seminar through the presentation of the three artistic positions mentioned above, it is worth briefly addressing the proposed framework—i.e. the relationship between craft and feminist art and feminist art history.
Why “Craft and Feminism,” Still?
Employing crafting techniques in artistic practice is not explicitly a feminist strategy. For instance, Jenny Sorkin notes successful male ceramists like Ron Nagle, Ken Price, and Adrian Saxe “who worked in a postmodern idiom making content-rich work driven by an interest in visual jokes, sexual innuendo, slick surfaces, and high-low dichotomies.”(Sorkin, p. 46.) Nevertheless, Sorkin emphasizes that craft was feminized for most of the 20th century and through craft women’s traditional social roles such as healers, caregivers, teachers, and reformers were re-inscribed.(Sorkin, p. 19.) She also points to the gendered aspects of the technique’s problematic reception: craft’s dismissal “as an applied art rather than a conceptually rigorous practice,” argues Sorkin, “intersects with a fundamental resistance to recognizing this marginalization as gendered.”(Sorkin, p. 19.) For these reasons, feminist art history—understood as “non-teleological historicism that works for [the] ephemeral, the minor, and the secondary”(Sorkin, p. 46.)—remains preoccupied with unpacking historical and contemporary relations between craft and art. It continues working against structural marginalization of historically gender-specific forms of cultural production, including many crafts. In other words—as Estonian feminist art historian Katrin Kivimaa succinctly put it during the panel discussion—one should not forget that for centuries, transculturally, craft was the only tool women had to produce material culture.
For the same reasons, Western Second Wave feminist artists approached the craft as a topic and source of critical artistic language. They used craft techniques and references as a strategy to reveal and actively dismiss the binary male-art versus female-craft, or to promote the themes of women’s specific experiences. Crafts utilized in feminist art relate to the recognition of women’s invisible work, the reproductive work that sustains society. Thus, the presence of craft tells “a story about invisible hands, (…) a story about endless work,”(Faith Wilding, in a performative lecture “Duration Performance: The Economy of Feminized Maintenance Work” executed on May 19, 1998 at Ars Electronica Centre, Linz, Austria. About this work see for instance Amelia Jones “Faith Wilding and the Enfleshing of Painting,” n.paradoxa 10 (1999), https://www.ktpress.co.uk/pdf/nparadoxaissue10_Amelia-Jones_16-29.pdf?) most obvious in canonical works like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79).
Less recognized in mainstream art historical narratives, works by artists from former socialist Europe also incorporated craft into their artistic work as a critique of modernism, thus also critiquing the masculine and supposedly universal figure of an artist and reflecting on gender-specific aspects of everyday life.
Agata Jakubowska refers to the general situation of women artists in socialist Poland arguing that although “State policy certainly favored women’s artistic work in this period, another issue is how they [women] were received in the artistic environment. Studies on individual artists show that they were advised not to study sculpture or painting, but suggested ceramics, glass, or artistic fabric.”(Agata Jakubowska, Sztuka i emancypacja kobiet w socjalistycznej Polsce. Przypadek Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś [Art and the Emancipation of Women in Socialist Poland: The Case of Maria Pinińska-Bereś], (Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego: Warszawa 2022), p. 27.)The positive “side effect” of this push towards certain applied arts was that women artists successfully reinvented of them, as in the case of textile art by Jagoda Buić, Magdalena Abakanowicz, or Ewa Pachucka, who created monumental fiber art installations and tapestries.
The reasons artists in the West embraced craft in the essentialist and non-essentialist projects of the 1970s and 80s have already been discussed in detail, such as in Rozicka Parker’s classic publication.(Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, originally published in London by Women’s Press, in 1984.) The emancipatory work of women artists using craft to deconstruct the modernist purity of art in socialist Europe has also been the subject of many analyses.(Agata Jakubowska summarizes current research on feminist art in socialist Europe and writes about the need to verify the paradigm. It is worth citing Jakubowska’s entire argument about narratives on the relationship between women’s art created in Eastern Europe and feminist discourses. She argues that research into feminist art in socialist Europe “should lead us to the analysis of local discourses regarding the emancipation of women, which was the “natural” environment for represented women artists. Feminist concepts emerging in the United States and Western Europe were just one of the elements that eventually emerged and entered into a dialogue with processes taking place locally. This requires a marked shift in epistemological practice – to bring into focus all those expressions and activities that were not only controlled but often inspired by authorities of the socialist state and to regard them as equally important elements of the emancipatory process as bottom-up activities.” Jakubowska, p. 12.) Some artists, for example, sought to subvert a state-monopolized “folk-based” national culture in artistic projects using traditional craftsmanship.(See for instance the dissertation by Rebeca Bell, Questions of Craft: Making for the State in Socialist Czechoslovakia (Royal College of Art, 2019). https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/4061/1/FINAL%20VERSION2_REBECCA%20BELL_FINAL%20PHD%20THESIS_JUN%202019.pdf) Ultimately, the multiple meanings of feminist art projects dealing with these specific material forms and techniques today, transnationally, remains open. Even if artists working in formerly socialist regions resort to the craft for the same reasons as their predecessors, we must ask how it functions in a differently structured field of struggle—“in the age of surveillance capitalism and diaspora,” as the seminar organizers put it.
Mare Tralla: Craft as a Rebellion in Art
A comprehensive answer is provided by the performative artistic practice of Mare Tralla, who uses craft to challenge hierarchies of knowledge, emphasizing that she “learned to knit before she learned to read.”(Unless otherwise noted, all Mare Tralla quotes are from her presentation at the Tallinn seminar.) In the 1990s in post-Soviet Estonia, Tralla incorporated a role of “feminist pioneer” into her artistic practice in projects as This is How We Gave Birth to Estonian Feminism (1995). The installation was produced for the est.fem exhibition, one of the first feminist art exhibitions Estonia, and consisted of found-footage pornography juxtaposed with Tralla’s Soviet pioneer childhood diaries and photographs of Soviet working heroes.(For more about the work see https://www.tralla.net/gallery/how-we-gave-birth/.) The work commented on the transition from socialism to liberal capitalism and related it to the sexualization of female bodies.
In her confrontational practice, Tralla has been critically examining the gender-specific dimension of everyday life ever since, giving her a central position in feminist and queer art in Estonia.(See, for instance, Katrin Kivimaa, “Mare Tralla. Stories of a ‘Disgusting Girl’: Cyberfeminist and Trans/National, Techno-Laughter,” in Mare Tralla’s Art, in Andreas Trossek, ed., Artists of Estonia 3 (Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007, pp 16-25.) Here I want to focus on projects that respond to the idea of using craft as a means of dissent. The artist uses craft to undo the gendered hierarchies inscribed in culture, where craft is encoded as a sub-form of cultural production. Her engagement with craft can be understood as an ongoing performative embodied practice: the artist herself emphasizes that “when you work with craft, you use your own body.”
During the seminar, Tralla defined craft as a form of resistance against patriarchy, capitalism, and consumerism. For example, in the series of works Protected (2007-2014) the artist realized several street actions in European cities performativity that asked, “how much private space do we have and which private space is actually under observation?”(Mare Tralla, Protected, https://www.tralla.net/gallery/protected/.) She walked the streets equipped with a wearable self-monitoring system embedded in her clothing and hidden by oversized crocheted flowers. “Craft is really good because nobody pays attention to it,” at artist commented. It can be used to camouflage cameras that are not allowed in some public places. As such, it is not a means of social resistance, but—taking advantage of its marginal importance —a tool enabling invisible and private acts of resistance, by facilitating illegal behaviour such as recording, watching, and spying.
As Joan Wallach Scott argues, subordination is “never in the best interests of the protected, for they rule out real participation, denying agency and silencing those voices that might have something different to propose.”(Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 78.) In Protected, focusing on the political subject’s vulnerability, Tralla resisted subordination by questioning the conditions of public space in today’s surveillance society.
Her latest ongoing Market Project represents her most complex challenge to the existing political economy of art; she describes it as a project of “re-crafting capitalism.” Craft is associated not only with social but also with an economic function and use value. Therefore, consciously employed in art as a strategy, it offers possibilities of dis-identification with the forces of capital that mediate and are mediated by contemporary art.(Here, I follow Marina Vishmidt who—in her book on the speculative ontology of art—argues that “Art mediates and is mediated by the forces of speculative capital: its capacity to be speculative emerges in process of dis-identification, exacerbation and singularisation.” See: Marina Vishmidt, Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), p. x.)
For several years, Tralla has produced handmade decorative and functional products and sold them in one of the London’s markets. Crafts as associated with labor and industry is opposed to fine or visual arts traditions that are connected to creativity and conceptually rigorous practices. Katja Praznik writes about several strategies to demystify the assertion that art is not work,(Katja Praznik, Art Work: Invisible Labour and the Legacy of Yugoslav Socialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).) and one of them is to embrace use value over symbolic value (which is characteristic of craft production). For Tralla, re-crafting capitalism means—in this case—working against the false economy of art, and embracing art as work. She defines her market project as both wage labor—described by Marina Vishimidt as the “constitutive other” of art(Vishmidt, p. xi.)—and a long-time artistic research and documentation project. Tralla indeed does not deal with artiness – she makes crocheted flowers and huts. Her critical approach functions as an infrastructure-level operation, appropriating the economic function of craft and its use value allows her, paradoxically, to escape the system of capital.
At the same time, she makes visible the gender-specific hierarchy of reproductive and productive labor. An important part of her infrastructural critique is her emphasis on “working from home,” a traditional place of women’s invisible labor and an alternative channel of arts/crafts knowledge transfer. As Jenny Sorkin points out, for centuries the craft was the only practice where women could exercise the role of authority as masters and teachers—but Tralla instead mobilizes the history of crafts as a pastime, as art made at home. She argues that craft itself is “slow and humble” and refers to the notion of the “modest artist.”
Tralla defines craft as a rebellion in art, noting the significance of its “shabby and not polished” aesthetics. She does not make works of art, but rather objects that are nothing special. They don’t take up space, nor do they offer aesthetic or intellectual affections—instead, they offer something practical and sustainable. In fact, one of the crucial elements of Tralla’s market practice is ecological ethics, which means practicing craft as an environmentally conscious choice and working in a way that minimizes her carbon footprint. This is—as the artist argues —the only action that “a person can take against the climate catastrophe.” This silent and almost invisible form of resistance relies on persistence and repetition.
Katrin Mayer: Performative Retelling
Katrin Mayer, a German artist based in Berlin, exercises a different form of humble art in her research-based practice. She uses many media, including performance and installation, and she avoids the production of unsustainable material objects. Instead she focuses on material storytelling and feminist rewriting of histories of resistance. Through her interventions in architectural settings, Mayer takes stock of what has been already made visible and intervenes with ephemeral and temporary gestures. Working with art institutions, she focuses on tracing forgotten or marginalized histories, including paying close attention to the craft traditions and theoretical reflections of female protagonists.
At the seminar, she presented two different projects realized for art institutions, in which she applied a strategy of working with existing material, related to the gendered history of the textile industry. Similar to Tralla, her strategies are built on an artistic eco-ethic and the need not to overproduce.
In her project Screens (2014) for the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, the artist researched both the local history of the feminized textile industry in Bielefeld and the architectural history of the building, particularly its interior design. At the same time, she proposed a performative critique of the gendered hierarchy of architecture and textiles. Designed by American architect Philip Johnson, the Kunsthalle building was constructed between 1966 and 1968. Its interior design was characterized by free-standing screens covered with locally produced linen and inspired by Annie Albers’ writings on textiles in architecture, in which Albers examined craft as an architectural element. Mayer commissioned 10 linen fabrics from the last existing manufactory in Bielefeld (now closed) and placed them in the gallery space. Her installation consisted literally of screens, white curtains that covered the walls covered with linen making this element of interior architecture visible through repetition. Mayer also placed commissioned fabrics in the gallery’s permanent collection, thereby commemorating both the local textile industry and Annie Albers’ unrecognized role in the building design concept.
Another gentle intervention took place at Ludow Street in New York in 2014. In the early 20th century, Ludlow Street was in the heart of the Lower East Side’s Garment District. Mayer’s research focused on the issues of labour strikes, women’s workplace culture, the founding of the first women’s union, and the emancipatory politics and fantasies inscribed in women’s clothing. She deciphered them by analyzing textiles as documents of past emancipatory practices that could convey information about social aspirations, ambitions, and the feelings of past generations of female workers.
Her project Rose Fortune, which reintroduced female protagonists of local labor history, consisted of an installation of 40 thrift store blouses and enlarged murals centered on the transformation of the color pink—through copying and repeating—into its faded variations, examining the processes of layering and copying color that are characteristic of gender-specific work in the textile industry.
Mayer’s time- and site-specific interventions are not based on the reintroduction of manual techniques and craft into artistic work, but are operations on an epistemic level, focusing on producing knowledge about craft work. The artist’s conceptual framework is fully embedded in textile-related imagery—she speaks of weaving stories and emphasizes the flexibility of a fabric—as something that can be folded, shaped and reshaped, and assembled, much like stories she wishes to tell.
#FramedinBelarus : To Stitch, to Survive, to Challenge.
If Mayer’s projects are concerned with actualizing the past, the craftivist project #framed in Belarus derives its meaning from its situatedness in the potential future—it aims to transform both the present (of the participants) and the future of political prisoners and its addressees. The two primary members of the collective—the curator (Sofia Tocar) and the artist (Rufina Bazlova) —act as facilitators and disseminate their authorship across a network they generate. Their artistic production takes place in dialogue and material exchange with a broad and heterogeneous community of co-producers.
The project grew out of Rufina Bazlova artistic work, in which she used traditional embroidery methods to document the recent wave of anti-government protests in Belarus.(Important aspect of nonviolent protest was its gender dimension – protests were dominated by women who used symbolic colors (white) and gestures (giving flowers).) To commemorate the events, Bazlova produced a 7-meter fabric with the story of the protest told in traditional ornament. After the protests were crushed and opposition figures and citizens arrested, Bazlova and Tocar started #FramedinBelarus;: in this project, the story of each arrested member of the public is written on an individual piece of cloth, and the public is invited to participate in the joint work. Tocar and Bazlova created a website to communicate with potential collaborators and organize artistic workshops during which they familiarize participants with the situation in Belarus and the technique of embroidery sharing individual stories of political prisoners. The project launched in 2021 has until now commemorated 300 individual stories of resistance.(See https://framedinbelarus.net/.)
As Tocar and Bazlova pointed out at the seminar, the artisanal aspect of the project allows people to participate with their own embodied contribution, their own touch, to offer the prisoners their own time and simultaneously to heal themselves. On the one hand, the craft serves here as a means of documentation—which is supplemented by the narrative aspects of the ornament: participants create a factual but encoded chronicle of the resistance. On the other hand the project actively generates international solidarity by creating an infrastructure of protest and a link between three differently affected groups—citizens of Bialorus who are denied other means of protest, members of the diaspora (like Bazlova herself), and allies—people who join the cause to stitch (vyshivat) the story of the resistance that helps many of them survive (vyzivat). This form of dispersed resistance, which promotes connections, serves to challenge (vyzyvat) the political status quo from a transnational perspective. The project follows the Second Wave feminist tradition of using “a needle as a weapon” in conscious peace practices, but Tocar also emphasized its transcultural aspect by referring to practices of Chilean arpilleristas in her presentation.
While there are many avenues and traditions to critically appropriate and draw inspiration from craft in feminist art, the relationship between art and craft is reinvented and reinterpreted in every specific practice anew and this offers the possibility of subversion. As we—as participants—learned during the Tallinn seminar, craft traditions and aesthetics provide contemporary feminist artists with the tactics to interfere or at least manoeuvre within the existing institutional frameworks, both artistic and economic. It allows them to realize updated versions of embodied infrastructural (Tralla) and institutional critique (Mayer) as well as provide alternative forms of political self-organization between different and dispersed communities (#FramedinBelarus).
In her above-mentioned book on the history of modern American ceramics, Jenny Sorkin convincingly argued about the genre’s tradition “to serve community.” The seminar showed us that this tradition, once critically appropriated in art, can be expanded and adapted to contemporary transnational concerns.
In an effort to summarize the significance of the approaches presented by the artists as part of the Arts, Crafts, Affects seminar, we might turn to the idea of “weak resistance,” formulated by feminist philosopher Ewa Majewska. Majewska defines weak resistance as a new territory that “is still or ‘always already is’ common. […] This means it belongs to everyone, but it also means it is ordinary, not exceptional.”(Ewa Majewska, “Weak Resistance,” in Krisis 2 (2018), www.krisis.eu, pp. 167-168.) As a way to introduce useful, sustainable, and reliable objects and affects, craft as an element of contemporary art can be seen as a technique of weak resistance—be it in the case of the modest art of Tralla and Mayer, or as an alternative mode of soft political resistance as in the case of #FramedinBelarus.
If craft has remained outside of dominant frameworks of art production, a safe space for otherness throughout history, it can now be seen as a tool that offers concrete possibilities for otherness, for alternative but concrete worlds like those created through the practices of Tralla, Mayer, and #FramedinBelarus. Craft practices might help us to retrieve past moments of feminist resistance and—through collaborative engagement—pivot them together into feminist futures.