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coders, crafters & cooks

melinda rackham, craftivism, arnolfini, bristol

Melinda Rackham curates and writes on responsive, biological and wearable practices and networked, virtual and 3D environments, and is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University.

Milk Pixel, Robotics Lab, Craftivism Milk Pixel, Robotics Lab, Craftivism
photo courtesy the artists

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in our enthusiasm towards today’s iteration of the Gothic revivalist Arts and Crafts Movement. Although the original 19th century movement was largely a reaction to industrialisation—advocating traditional craftsmanship and economic reform—it also recognised the necessity for machines to carry out tedious, repetitive tasks. Inspired by John Ruskin’s writings it espoused the pleasure and intimacy of making, along with the moral imperative of art to better society. A century later one of its mutant off-spring is Craftivism, a term coined at a knitting circle in 2002 to describe the Political Activism meets Craft Practices movement.

Materially agnostic, the Craftivism event at Arnolfini in Bristol, perfectly captures the hand-made Zeitgeist. Artworks emerge from almost anything: textiles, cellophane, wood, bread dough, recycled clothing, string, YouTube videos and computer code. Skills and knowledge are shared in the gallery via knitting and knotting, mapping free urban food locations, and pure:dyne real time video and audio processing workshops. Information is replicated through a spectrum of technologies—from ye olde brass rubbings, post-it notes and photocopiers to a carefully crafted user-generated wiki containing extensive video documentation.

There is a direct relationship between the rise of DIY craft and the World Wide Web. Both date themselves from 1994, with the early days of art on the internet characterised by artists taking up the tools of technology to craft code: challenging museum hierarchies, reinventing distribution systems and building collaborative communities across the globe. It’s fitting then that one of the highlights of Craftivism is the inclusion of those pioneers of net art, JODI.

Over the 15 years they have been creating code art, the changing web has elicited an array of humorous and critical responses from JODI. In YouTube Records they again succeed splendidly in making us reconsider the familiar with an absurd conceptually and materially looped work. JODI take the audio tracks of YouTube videos of people singing about the Internet, usually in their bedrooms, and etch them onto vinyl records. The vinyl then becomes an artefact of performance, being videoed while playing on a turntable in the gallery.

In a parody of net celebrity, persona and identity, the video of the vinyl playing is then posted back to YouTube as a response to the original video. And so on...However JODI’s vinyl of someone covering someone else, covering something else is for sale. Work that copyright out!

Delving into another type of celebrity, Handmade Hero explores the culture of pro-wresting—a form of theatrical athleticism which originated in 19th-century carnival sideshows and music halls. As matches are choreographed with scripted outcomes, the wrestlers’ larger than life personas are vital for audience engagement.

Artist Rhiannon Chaloner has been working with Bristol-based wrestlers to design and construct their masked and costumed alter-egos. Strikingly similar to the way users approach their online identity and avatar personality construction, these wrestling personas are constructed from a mix of the purely fanciful with a reappropriation of the wrestler’s everyday identity. Handmade costumes, such as a magnificent cape of stitched together silk business ties, will adorn local wrestlers when they face off in Craftivism’s satellite wrestling matches in January.

Mandy McIntosh and the West Country Knotters sounds suspiciously like a good-time folk meets neo-punk band, however this former Kenzo knitwear designer and the West Country branch of the International Guild of Knot Tyers are seriously into macramé. No, don’t think of hideous 1970s hangings, but rather contemplate the sophistication of textile-making using ornamental knotting, as popularised by sailors decorating anything from knife handles to parts of ships.

McIntosh and the West Country Knotters’ joint project, Extended Family, is a social and play space within the gallery, with hanging macramé book cases stuffed full of McIntosh’s personal craft reference library which dates back to the 1970s; a macramé hammock and swing in which to relax or browse books; and a photocopier to enable gallery visitors to take patterns home. Again a subtle circularity emerges—the crafting circle uses the book patterns to build the objects that now hold them, at the same time creating a skill-sharing and resource platform, which in turn proliferates their production and distribution.

Craftivism could have felt a little preachy if it were not for its uncurated satellite event, UnCraftivism. Over the opening weekend, anyone could book a space in the Arnolfini building via a post-it note whiteboard schedule in the foyer. Surprisingly, or not, this thoroughly unpredictable, self-organising method produced some of the most engaging outcomes of the show, which are well video documented on the Wiki.

The local Dorkbot chapter (people doing strange things with electricity in the West of England) had a fun array of inventions to play with, including a lovingly crafted wood and copper mechanical eye prototype with natural looking eye movements that followed people as they moved around. I submitted myself to 20 minutes of green noise in a Ganzfeld Experiment that supposedly hacks the brain and cleanses the mind. As it didn’t induce the promised hallucinations, and I felt silly with ping pong balls taped to my eyes, I went searching for other sorts of stimulation.

Next stop was the Bristol Knowledge Unconference room, where talk of Knowledge from scientific and new-media perspectives accompanied by geeky nods was interspersed with poetry readings. Up the hall, in the Members Room, several artists spent the weekend hacking the building itself—constructing a scary giant cellophane string, paper and wool insect hive between bookshelves and furniture. I came back the following day to find the artists installed inside Touch me touch you, with just their fingertips emerging to entice the touch of passers-by.

Downstairs in the Auditorium I played my first game of Tambourelli, a musical variation of shuttlecock for two to four people played with a tambourine as a racquet. Flickering from across the room was Milk Pixel built by the Bristol Robotics Lab, an inspired re-use project incorporating LEDs into two-litre plastic milk bottles. The 64 bottle/pixel array continuously responded to sound performances and moving image in unexpected collaborations and improvisations.

Amidst this sometimes chaotic self-organising and generative environment the glorious ninth artwork Cultural_Capital provided conceptual stability as well as being delicious. Paralleling the use of bacteria and culture in that staple of life—traditional bread-making—Cultural_Capital is a touring artwork that acquires both bacteria and Bourdieuian value from its installations over a period of time.

For Craftivism the sour-dough starter was cared for by curators in the gallery, transforming over about a week into a mature sour-dough. It was then baked into bread and made into bruschettas which were appreciatively consumed at the openings. What could be better than art you can eat! Portions of the finished dough were distributed amongst guests who could use it all to make a single loaf, grow it for a continuous supply of bread dough or let it die. The curators retain a certain amount and the remaining starter is passed on to the curators at the next venue.

The strength of this work lies in its simplicity: designating a colony of living yeast and bacteria in a stable symbiotic relationship as a collectable work of art, and situating the curator as the carer of that lifeform which will die unless regularly fed. Cultural_Capital is still alive and has been installed and eaten continuously around Europe since it was launched in Cornwall in March 2009. Unfortunately you won’t taste Cultural_Capital here as the sour-dough starter cannot legally enter Australia due to our strict border protection regulations.

Crafitivism could have been mistaken for a warm and fuzzy Information Age Village Fair, espousing principles of commons, community and care with artists, curators and visitors actually talking to and working with each other. However beneath the artful surfaces, crafty textures and edible objects, subversive structures and essential networks were being cultivated around distribution, modification, customisation, skill-sharing, playfulness, risk, and intimacy. Here the individual is never the hero—rather in these places the pleasure is in the process.

Craftivism, Arnolfini, Bristol, UK, Dec 12, 2009-Feb 14, 2010

Melinda Rackham curates and writes on responsive, biological and wearable practices and networked, virtual and 3D environments, and is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University.

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 51

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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