Monthly Archives: September 2015

Contemporary basketmakers

Baskets have a natural ability both to occupy and contain space, with an interplay between inside and outside. Traditionally they were made in response to a need: to separate, to contain, to protect, to transport. Traditionally, baskets were also made from the natural materials the basketmaker had to hand – local woods, vegetations, plants. The materials of the maker’s place became the materials of the techniques used and developed.

This history is one of the main reasons I think exploring a range of basketry techniques is so suited to my project proposal. The weaving allows you to make your own fabric, which makes your own surfaces.

I have been looking into the work of some contemporary basket makes, pulling out those who I find resonate with my aesthetic, techniques or concept. Here are a few of the best I have come across so far.

John Garrett

“Beyond its utilitarian functions of holding, storing and serving, the basket is a decorative object, a status symbol and a ceremonial object.  I draw on these abundant traditions in making my work”

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Rachel Max

“My work investigates the relationships between interior and exterior spaces, especially hidden, secret spaces, and the intrigues or barriers that are often created.”

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Stella Harding 

Stella Harding j Piece 1

Lorraine Gilmore

LGa

It hasn’t escaped my attention that all of these examples are really strong with their use of line and all have an interesting tension between space and surface. Twisting, wrapping, open weaves – all allowing the inside space and outside space to flow between each other.

What is place and space?

Place and space, two terms used so commonly and casually by most people, are remarkably challenging concepts to define. Space tends to be thought of in the abstract, an infinite, continuous expanse – from the vastness of the cosmos to the depths of the mental space in which we think. Place on the other hand, is bounded and local. It is defined by a human narrative and experience; it is a material demonstration of some social practice, or a memory of such, which marks it out from other spaces. It is a place to which we feel we belong.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first scholars to discuss the understanding of space through meaning and action, rather than strictly in structural terms. He argued that space has no meaning apart from practice – actions which interact to define and reinforce cultural knowledge and social behaviours. This system of generating dispositions, habitus, “constitutes and is constituted by actors’ movements though space” (Bourdieu 1984). This in turn means that the interpretation of space can not be fixed, as it is the social practices of the actors within the space who provide the spatial meaning.

Also on this line of thinking, Henri Lefebvre in the Production of Space (1991), proposed that space is socially produced, rather than being a pre-existing volume or environment. He described a tripartite division between material space (that which is experienced through our primary sense perceptions via human practices), the representation of space (spaces as we conceive them through language, maps, diagrams, concepts or codes), and spaces of representation (space as lived – physically, affectively, emotionally through imagination, dreams, fears).

David Harvey, whose social critique builds on the same Marxist theory as Lefebvre, offers a more comprehensive framework to define space, using Lefebvre’s tripartite division as one dimension, and offers a second dimension of another three co-existing definitions of space and time (Harvey 2005). First, absolute space and time, a mathematical reference location which identifies the individuality and uniqueness of every person, thing and process that has ever, or will ever exist. This is the space of Newtonian Mechanics and Euclidean spaces – with all events measurable and predictable. The second definition is of relative space, where space and time cannot be understood separately – the space-time of relativistic physics, and non-Euclidean geometries. These are the spaces of process and motion (a journey, an exchange of information), where what is observed varies according to what is relativised and by whom. All forms of measurement (including observation itself) depend upon the frame of reference of the observer. The third and final definition is relational space, where meaning is attached to space through interaction and memory. Space and time are internalised within matter and process, in other words, the process itself produces its own space and time.

Harvey goes on to ask, “how do can we understand things, events and processes in terms of the relational spacetime they produce?”. Harvey offers that any event, thing or process cannot be solely understood by what exist at a single point in space and time. An object may be understood to crystallise out of a field of flows into “an event”. The object is formed of everything within that field of flows from all past, present and future events. Identify becomes multiple and indeterminate and direct measurement impossible. Influences flow from everywhere to everywhere else.

This conjecture is based upon the writings of British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead rejected the idea that an object has a single, simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, he concluded that all objects should be understood as fields which have both a spatial and temporal extension. He surmised that the ‘absolute’ point in space-time that we can conceive is in fact a simplified abstraction, arrived at as a limit of a series of volumes (like an infinite series of nested Russian dolls). “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world” (Whitehead 1925, p114). Whitehead elaborates this line of thinking by concluding that it is process, rather than substance, that is the most fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world.

At the core of Whitehead’s metaphysics are many ideas which are contrary to the traditional view of material substance. In Western scientific cosmology, matter is a senseless, purposeless material which follows a fixed set of reactions when acted upon by external relations, which do not emerge from the nature of its being. According to Whitehead, the recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is essential for anyone wanting to develop a comprehensive account of nature. “Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events. The result is that nature is no longer thought to be simply atoms in the void, but instead a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process”. (As quoted in Irvine 2015).

If we question what is the space of an immaterial object (such as an experience, a thought or memory), then it is seemingly impossible to offer a concrete, material answer. There is no absolute point in space and time to reference, nor any way to quantify and measure the space relative to something else. The ideas of relational space offer a way to describe the immaterial. We must consider all of the things, events, processes and social practices that have produced this specific place in spacetime.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Harvey, David. 2005. “Spacetime and the World”, in Cosmopolitanism & Geographies of Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, pp 135-165

Irvine, Andrew David, “Alfred North Whitehead”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/whitehead/>.

Lefebvre, Henri, 1991. The Production of Space, trans Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

One for the rook, one for the crow

One of the things I have started to realise about last year’s array of experiments is how much I have struggled to really understand the materials. Not from a practical point of view (I have been able to functionally use them), but more in finding a medium which speaks of what I think it does. In my quilting work, you used cotton because that’s what you do. Even in art quilting, materials are nearly always used because of their aesthetics or textile qualities and nothing more. Few ask why we use fabric in the first place. If you consider the supply chain, woven cotton cloth is a long way down from it’s pure raw materials. Now this isn’t an issue in itself – but if you begin your making with cotton, you inherit the associations that come with it: the history of production, female craft traditions and so on.

For my current research project, this discussion so many layers down the production process is a distraction from my concept. I think I saw this even back in the Spring term, when I started the experiments with making silk paper and spinning maps (See this post: Making my own Fabric), even though the approach was still a bit random as to what materials I picked to use. I knew I wanted my own fabric / my own fibres.

So where does that bring me to now?  Well, I am looking at materials which “are having the right conversation” with my project context. I’ve already experimented with steel wires (which although processed, they are still essentially a raw material), old maps – which come with a complex but relevant context. I like both of these, but since there is a little unit 1 time left to experiment, I thought I would look a little beyond them…after all, the symbology using old maps to represent place is a little obvious. A first order solution as you might say!

This brings me back to a very interesting place – natural fibres again. My proposal and essay (which is coming along nicely) have been looking at the concepts of locality and universality, and keeps coming back to the idea of local materials and what that means. So I have come back to an old idea using a rather interesting natural fibre: corn

A brief diversion…………………………………………………………….

Brief history of the corn dolly

The most famous use of the craft of corn weaving is undoubtedly the corn dolly. When early man exchanged the nomadic life as a hunter-gatherer for a settled, farming community based existence, they believed that that the success of labour on the land was highly dependent on various deities who would oversee the cycles and fruitfulness of the crops. To this end, various rituals would be held to propitiate his gods: this is true of civilisations all over the world, particularly where cereal crops are concerned. Wheat is one of the first cereals known to have been domesticated, and archaeological records suggest that this first occurred in the regions known as the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, and the Nile Delta.

So even into comparatively modern times, wherever cereal crops are grown, the underlying legend of a Corn Spirit or Goddess of the harvest still remained: it was thought that the Corn Spirit retreated before the oncoming reapers at harvest time, taking refuge in the last of the standing corn. The last sheaf would be cut and made into a receptacle in which the Spirit could rest during the winter. This was the corn dolly (or cailleach or corn maiden depending on where you live!). In the spring, the corn dolly, along with the corn spirit contained within it, would be returned to the fields and ploughed back into the soil with the new planting. By giving the Corn Spirit a home during the dark winter months, it was hoped to ensure that the forthcoming crop would be a bounteous one and bring blessings and prosperity to the local community.

Most of the evidence for this ritual activity comes from anthropologists, including the infamous James George Frazer who wrote the well known work The Golden Bough. A lot of scholars note the gloss which Frazer used in romanticising England’s pagan history. However true the long history of the harvest fertility rituals, by the time we reached the 19th / 20th century, a corn dolly was generally said to be ‘for luck’. Any deeper significance was long forgotten. Irrespective of this is it is ancient worldwide tradition. Due to the fact the dolly was generally only kept for the winer, you generally don’t see corn dollies in museums and the like. There are some hanging in churches decades old – apparently Martinho Church has a corn dolly from 1897 hanging there still.

With the changes in harvesting methods as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the craft was almost completely lost in Europe by the mid-1900s. From about the 1960s, the craft saw a revival, although mostly for tourist souvenirs.

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For weaving you need to use a hollow stemmed straw, which you only get from a specific variety of corn. I managed to find a local craftswoman who offers this beautiful stuff: Maris Widgeon wheat, a winter variety planted last October, and harvested this summer.

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I rather like the ritual associations (obviously) but don’t want to make that the focus of using it. I want to use this as an example of a material which sits ambiguously in the local / universal box. Most cultures on earth have some grain harvest tradition, making this type of material practically universal in its reach and importance to society. However, the growing and use of the grain is the epitome of locality – grown, harvested, ground and baked into bread – surely one of the most fundamental acts that we had in this country?

For the moment, I’m playing to see what the material can do – looking at different basket forms and weaving techniques to see what has potential. These were my first experiments:

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