Textile Travels

Travelling is what many of us do this time of year. It’s a period to relax and fill those depleted sources of energy. We can of course also use the time to reflect on our lives, to imagine how to improve them – and what action might be needed to achieve that. And why not combine things and reflect on travel itself?

Let’s start with a quirky novelette written by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the favourite author for generations of Americans and best known for his historical romance The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

In the Autobiography (1843) it’s a Pocket Handkerchief that travels through contemporary society. The object’s “clairvoyance” or “magnetic induction” enables it to know the thoughts and feelings of the humans in its neighbourhood. The handkerchief tells its own story and comments on events in France and America. We learn about its time growing in the Normandy flax fields and all the actions that result in high quality linen, including embroidery and lace embellishment. Because the author makes it travel across the Atlantic ocean, he can use the handkerchief as a lens to compare the manners of the old and new worlds.

Cooper in a pensive, probably gloomy mood (New York).

Cooper was essentially preoccupied with social stability. He also believed society had to grow through three stages: after the frontier stage America had now entered the second stage where “the struggles for place” became so predominant that people abandoned important principles such as equality and good fellowship in favour of the influence of “mere money”. Rather than evolving towards the third stage of ordered society Cooper feared that America was being taken over by self-interest. Chaos and the destruction of liberty might ensue. 

Hence the scathing satire in which an exquisite handkerchief is paid a pittance in revolutionary Paris but creates “a general buzz” at a New York party where the nouveaux riches gawk over “the first hundred-dollar pocket handkerchief that had then appeared in their circles; and had I been a Polish count, with two sets of moustaches, I could not have been more flattered and ‘entertained’.”

The handkerchief serves well as a symbol of the changing social conditions, especially in America. Cooper condemns the effects of early consumerism and its selfish struggle for social status: he considers the increasingly materialistic climate detrimental to sounder values such as harmonious social relations and civic engagement.  

With its Atlantic travels the handkerchief also enables the author to consider both sides of the economic spectrum and equally condemn the capitalist exploitation of the workers: “Those who live on the frivolities of mankind, or, what is the same thing, their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder – the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative. This is true where men are employed, but much truer in the case of females.”

In short, through the narrative voice of a handkerchief we see the ideal of an ordered society being disrupted by the globalizing of production, distribution and consumption.  

Considered as the first ‘commodity novel’, the Autobiography may well be the precursor of what is called commodity historiography. In order to offer a different perspective on world history, historians have been using the focal point of a single commodity, such as sugar and coal, to explore the origins and the vicissitudes of globalization.

A fine example is Empire of Cotton (2015) by the Harvard historian Sven Beckert. He argues that cotton is the first real globalizer in the sense that its commercialization made the world in which we live today.

Beckert makes at least three important arguments. First, the global network of cotton growers, harvesters, spinners, weavers, merchants and manufacturers was the first grand act of economic globalization in the history of the world. The very idea of the global marketplace is the result of the enduring demand for cotton.

Second, violence is an intrinsic part of the early capitalist development which Beckert therefore renames “war capitalism”. This also means that from the start there was no question of so-called “free enterprise”: the capitalist system received powerful support from the modern states – with the building of the necessary infrastructure (canals, railways, etc.), military practices, secure financial instruments (credit, insurance), and a legal framework (e.g. intellectual property). In sum, capitalism is, as the historian puts it, “joined at the hip” with state power.

Third, the increasingly global character of capitalism depends on the continuously growing prolitarization of countrysides around the world. Subsistence communities, with a variety of crops and local exchange systems, are increasingly replaced with wage labour in monocultures. This entails an immense loss in diversity, in terms of both ecosystems and local cultures. People lose their productive independence and are at the same time reduced, however imperfect the circumstances are, to become global consumers.

We use cotton every day. But how many Western consumers would recognize this as a cotton field?
Or know that this plant seemingly overwhelmed by snow is in fact a cotton flower?

Already between 1000 and 1700 cotton was the most important productive sector. Today around 350 million people across the globe are involved in its manufacturing industry.

In between lies a relatively short period in which the British East India Company bought fine cotton textiles in India, that were sold in Africa in exchange for slaves, who then were transported to the Western hemisphere to work on the American sugar and cotton fields to supply the European markets.

Cotton was thus at the core of the Atlantic trade triangle. When by the end of the 18th century British technological innovations enabled domestic production, slave labour was no longer essential to the further development of capitalism and was replaced with wage labour. Today there are virtually no regions left that do not participate, however imperfectly, in the global system. The continuing quest for ever cheaper sources of materials and labour also embodies disturbing inequality.

The power of Beckert’s account is above all that it raises our awareness. Textile has always travelled. And the particular and changing nature of its travels reveals a lot about how the world we live in came into being. Also, the global economy is not a recent creation. And its development is not a natural but a politically promoted process. It’s thus not because contemporary large corporations have emancipated from the state, that there is no alternative. For the state has to a large extent voluntarily withdrawn from the economic sphere. And that is no natural process either: as with the support of early capitalism, it’s the result of political and ideological choices. This also implies there are alternatives – if there is political will. For our own part of the world it seems likely that an alternative stance to political economy will be developed within the European Union, rather than the individual nation states.

At a more individual level Beckert strengthens recent awareness for the circumstances in which textiles (and other consumer goods) are produced. Fast fashion relies on labour conditions that don’t vary much from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The advantage of this so-called information age is that we know of the often deplorable lives of the wage labourers who enable our consumer behaviour. Add to this a heightened awareness for the ecological consequences of both those productive conditions and the global textile travels – and there may be room for individual agency.

To make that room more visible, and enlarge it, is at the core of the work of the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. She’s one of those designers who’s not so much interested in products but in processes: she researches the raw materials, people and techniques involved in the various stages of production. Striking is that she doesn’t talk explicitly about sustainability. According to Meindertsma it’s transparency that will lead to “better products”. She wants to foster more respect and care: if people know “the story” behind a product, they will connect with it and value it differently – which will also make them different consumers.

The flax ‘rotting’ on its lot (Flevopolder, Gz 59-West) as part of the intricate harvesting process.

When Meindertsma was commissioned to work with a traditional rope maker, she tried for a year and a half to discover where his raw materials came from. Flabbergasted that she couldn’t find any answers, she redefined the entire project: in close collaboration with one of the few remaining flax farmers she documented the process of flax production in the Netherlands from start to finish. Eventually she had the chance to buy the lot’s harvest – and to her own hilarity ended up with over 10 tons of flax. 

Part of it has become the raw material for beautiful, unbleached damask table linen. And Meindertsma remains close to her mission of transparency. Her designs themselves make sense: they’re based on the plant, the layout of the actual field and segments of the complex harvesting process.

Here’s a designer at work who uses design to explain something that she considers important. She doesn’t lecture people. But she offers a different way of looking at things, of asking relevant questions. Why for instance are some producers so reluctant to reveal the origin of their raw materials? What is the sense (and the cost) of making textile travel around the globe? And will making the productive processes visible change our interpretation of consumption and thus our sense of agency?

Texture, the Museum of Flax and River Lys in Kortrijk, West Flanders, is a delightful example of how deep respect for craftsmanship, regional textile traditions and entrepreneurship can be combined with innovative technological displays and awareness of the contemporary visitor’s interests and expectations. In TEXLAB the museum offers its history and collection as inspiration for new creations.

The Linen Thread Company’s building, now home to Texture, was turned into a dovecote in the early years of the First World War.

Meindertsma’s project for TEXLAB beautifully links the history of the museum building with her own interest in travelling textiles. In 1914-15 hundreds of travel pigeons were locked up in the building by the German occupier out of fear that they would transfer delicate information.

 

Meindertsma returned 200 pigeons to the museum, in tufted linen this time, manufactured with her own flax by one of the last yarn spinners left in Flanders, filled with flax seeds and sewn together by Texture’s volunteers.

And the designer pursued the travel theme further: below the pigeon wall the global travels of different linen variants are visualized, for instance from Belgium to China and back again. 


 

 

 

 

 

Meindertsma explores the possibility of “transparent” products. But wonders herself whether such production, in bulk and at affordable prices, is feasible. She continues to hope that telling the story behind consumer products can make a difference. But her sense of urgency seems to grow. In her recent installation for the inaugurating exhibition of the renewed London Design Museum, Meindertsma presented colourful heaps of fibre originating from 1000 discarded woollen jumpers, thus visualizing the senselessness of throwaway fashion. 

In conclusion then, textile travels can accompany us towards higher awareness. We may want to think about the origin and history of the raw materials of products that often, almost thoughlessly, get thrown away. We may want to think about our own consumer behaviour and how to align that more with the good life, both for ourselves and for the “operatives”, both male and female. James Fenimore Cooper, Sven Beckert and Christien Meindertsma each narrow our focus to a single object or raw material and offer it as a lens to see more clearly the global scale of consumer products and its implications. All three are critical of contemporary practices, the underlying system and its guiding principles. It would be nonsensical to expect from them quick and or easy solutions. They do demonstrate that disruption and globalization are man-made phenomena that are susceptible to human agency, collective and individual. They also confirm the omnipresence of textiles and their connection not just to commerce but to politics and culture as well. And to urgent underlying issues that reflect the state of the world.

Make Haste Slowly

We all have a relationship with time. A difficult relationship, mostly. To inspire us to think differently or at least with more differentiation about time, there is (among others) the Dutch philosopher Joke J. Hermsen. Recently Hermsen supplemented her time-work with an excellent essay entitled Melancholia of the Unrest (accompanying the Dutch Month of Philosophy 2017) and with Kairos Castle, a delightful exhibition at the Castle of Gaasbeek, near Brussels.

 

In Greek mythology Chronos is the god of the practical, measurable (clock) time, of which we never have enough (or so we think). His grandson Kairos is much less known and according to Hermsen the god who deserves our attention, now more than ever. Kairos is the god of “the opportune moment”: if we are sufficiently open to him, Kairos can break the clock time for us and create a different experience of time. This “Kairotic moment” is a sort of interval, “in between” time (the term is Hannah Arendts’, one of Hermsen’s philosophical heroes), that holds unexpected insights and new possibilities.

Kairos is mostly represented with one lock of hair: attention and good timing are primordial to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. Which is why a sense of restfulness, awareness of oneself, openness to the world and a preparedness to wait are so important. These are not qualities contemporary society treasures: the exhibition offers a rare and delightful opportunity to practice.

The many layers of the Castle of Gaasbeek (building started 777 years ago!) make it a perfect location to experience time differently, to explore different layers of time.

Kairos Castle is Hermsen’s argument put into practice: let’s create more time for stillness, for reflection and consideration, for attention and concentration. And the exhibition makes this literal: you can of course choose to pass by unseen (among others) the five long videos – or you stop, sit and get drawn into a different world, a different time. And when you find yourself in that different time, you’ll experience an interval between looking and understanding. Perhaps art first alienates before there’s recognition. Perhaps you don’t even understand what you’re seeing: there’s a hitch, a faltering, a necessary delay of judgment. And it’s exactly that “in between” that accommodates new thoughts, forgotten memories perhaps, a different insight. The general idea is that artful suspension of clock time frees the mind, as if it empties itself of clutter and gets ready to think and feel differently.

Are we stuck in Chronos, or can we draw our own time? (Maarten Baas, Grandfather’s Clock)
Recognize the book from which this ‘Nouvelle croyance III’  (Georgia Russel) is made? Erasmus above would have approved of the initial alienation.
The empty harnass suggests space for new thoughts & action (Antony Gromley, DOMAIN XCV, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susanna Hertrich’s Chrono-Shredder.

Kairos Castle is meant to bring us into an intermezzo in the time regime of grandfather Chronos, so that we can practice opening up to the strong qualitative moment that inspires insight and or change. I’m happy to say it worked for me: time was “shredded” while I visited the exhibition. I had no idea of the clock time when I came out. And it was a great experience.

But in fact the exhibition represents only half of Hermsen’s argument: if we stop there, we’ve missed her point – for where is the action? Ideally, I would have come out of the castle and grabbed Kairos’ hair lock. To do what exactly? 

“Alles op sijnen tijd – Tout à temps”: Hermsen transposes this crucial adage from the Castle’s kitchen to society in general.

In fact, Gaasbeek Castle contains the ultimate answer: the adage “All in Time” on the kitchen chimney refers literally to the different layers of time. And that includes time for action – which must always be preceded by time for reflection. The point is thus not so much to escape time as to master it differently so that new things become possible. 

Here Hermsen aligns herself with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) who advocated Kairos to princes whose rashness or sloth could ruin nations. Note that time’s mastery concerns both quick and no action: at all times it’s a question of identifying the “tempus legitimum” with circumspection and sagacity. In Erasmus’ words this becomes “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”: select the right moment, take your time to consider carefully whether it is indeed the right moment – and only then act, courageously and swiftly. 

Yet the question remains: what does a philosopher, whose task is essentially to think about the good life, mean by action? Why is the part on agency so crucial to Hermsen’s argument?

Hermsen has often argued that the true Kairotic moment carries the promise of change. If all is well, it enables us to act when the time is right. But in her latest essay Hermsen examines the world and concludes (with many others of course) that all is not well. People are restless and people are melancholy. The philosopher shows great awareness for how this affects people individually but here she presents a collective viewpoint: Melancholia of the Unrest is Hermsen’s most political book so far.

There have been the elections in the United States, the Netherlands, France and, still to come, Germany. There’s the Brexit. There’s individualization, globalization, digitalization, climate change, economic and social disruption. There’re the humanitarian disasters whether in the context of migration, terrorist attacks or war and famine. I think we all agree that “times are a-changin”.

Hermsen isn’t satisfied though to ascertain what seems obvious. She presses us towards the poignant question of how we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to deal with things not going the way we expect them to, with disappointment and loss – with change.

And her own answer is disconcertingly simple: it’s neoliberal market thinking. It promotes far reaching levels of technocracy. It puts people under high pressure to perform and rejects ‘non productive’ behaviour, including suspension and nuance of judgment. It breaks down structures that in the past supported a sense of community and collective engagement. In sum, it assesses everything, all the time and exclusively, on its consumption value.

In such a system which additionally holds the individual responsible for virtually everything, qualities such as simple friendliness or a caring attitude crumble because they’re not market relevant – not to speak of more complex values such as solidarity or citizenship. We’ve all been reduced to “hyper consumers”. And who doesn’t know people who feel exhausted, alienated, emotionally and morally empty? These people also see no reason nor have the strength to imagine the future differently: this is yet another version of the TINA-syndrome. So people are scared. And fear further isolates them, heightens their feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and depression. Neoliberalism in short undermines resilience and the possibility of agency. 

Hermsen’s definition of the societal malaise is eeringly recognizable. Yet she takes her own role as agent seriously and points us towards a clarification. For if melancholy is the problem, it can be the solution too. If we stop navel-gazing into our own confused times, we discover that melancholy is part of the human condition. Even a child can experience melancholy. And often a sense of transience and dissatisfaction is a precondition to creativity. Other times and other cultures too can inspire us to turn melancholy into reflection and creative imagination, and when the time is right, into action.

There is in other words no need to fear melancholy itself. But we must find a more diverse, richer way of dealing with it. More specifically, Hermsen’s aim is to steer away from melancholy’s “pathological” version that pushes us collectively towards depression. It’s the “healthy” version that we need to strengthen. Slowing down doesn’t have the purpose of acting less but better. If we can create space for feelings of confusion and loss, we may learn to acknowledge them to ourselves and express them to others. We may even recognize them in others – and thus create a common ground in which feelings of connection, empathy and solidarity can grow. And if we can put our powers together we may find creative ways to turn change for the better. 

This is of course Kairos. What others call disruptive times, Hermsen sees as society reaching a tipping point. Hence the urgency of her argument. Hence her insistence on stimulating as many conditions as possible so that we are capable of grabbing the lock of hair – and live a better life.

The Babel confusions by Maarten Van Valckenborch (ca. 1600) & Dani Karavan, Haritz-Slit (2014) contrast with ‘Love’ by George Meertens (2010).

We need to do this collectively. For a society to draw power from critical times, it needs to steer away from confusion and fear and find a common language, values and ideals. It needs connecting stories. Perhaps above all it needs time – a different kind of time that enables us to think slowly before we undertake swift action. Hermsen believes that art can bring about Kairotic time. Because the temporary suspension of judgment, needed to appreciate art, can (also) inspire kindness and love and thus break through the neoliberal mechanisms. And so we are back to the power of art in Kairos Castle.

Hermsen also emphasizes the importance of education in order for society not to slither towards depression. Evidently rejecting the current priorities (here too) with utility and efficiency, she strongly advocates the so-called soft values – that will allow young people to build resilience and hold faith in agency in a world full of complexity, diversity and change. A possible third solution, which Hermsen mentions in passing, is travel as opposed to tourism.

I agree with most of Hermsen’s arguments. Of course it’s a good idea to incorporate the values of Kairos and more generally what in English is so beautifully called a liberal education in, for instance, the reforms being planned in the Flemish educational system. There can’t be too much counterweight to the utility thinking that continues to emphasize the direct match between education and the workplace. And forgets the common truth that two third of the present toddlers will have jobs that do not exist yet. We need to invest in the future, of course.

But it’s important to address the present as well – and seize the right moment for the greatest possible impact. The problem is that most people Hermsen wants to help, do not read her books, do not go to exhibitions like Kairos Castle and have already gone through the educational system – to no avail, apparently. So what to do? Should we give them up?

I suggest another ‘channel’ through which to reach a broad segment of the population, namely work. Many of the people who’re past the educational system are scared into feelings of emptiness and powerlessness because the forces of globalization and disruption seem too large for them. Depression is already the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 according to the World Health Organization. That sounds like the conditions for hasty action to me. But the omnipresent TINA-thinking offers no way out. And the current predominant political rhetoric makes large groups of people susceptible to polarization – which only increases their isolation and alienation.   

Yet there are alternatives. In an earlier post I pointed out that disruption can also employ the current transit phase of society to change things for the better. Organizations that are committed to social innovation focus on human needs and the power of communities. Often there is also a clear sense of urgency about bringing back meaning and dignity into work. More generally an alternative attitude towards work, whether in social or commercial enterprises, is one of the most promising paths towards a better life for many. As I summarized before, this includes trust, flexibility for individual talents, room for growth and agency.

Since I started looking into meaningful work, I’m astounded about how widespread its principles and benefits are known and acknowledged. The critical question then becomes why, despite some very successful examples – and the continuing rise of individual cases of depression and burn-out, there is so little agency. Perhaps Hermsen is right after all: perhaps we first need much, much more investment in the right conditions. I hope with her that Kairos’ time will arrive soon. Go and experience Kairos Castle, your time runs out on June 18!

May this blog’s invitation come from the only work (alas) that contains textile: Kairos Castle is expecting you (Pipilotti Rist, Expecting, 2001).

 

Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

Celebrate the Golden Speckles

Creativity is everywhere these days. Look at most job descriptions for instance and “creative” is part of the (long) list of the required competences. Alas, most people don’t consider themselves creative at all – and refrain from applying. In addition “creative” is appropriated by a very particular segment of the labour market which again distances many people. To give just one example: the Twitter account @creativeskills publicizes “jobs in the creative industry in Belgium” – which on closer inspection is restricted to web design and development (and similar jobs). If, in other words, you’re not an IT wizard, don’t bother.

This is a pity. People are too often discouraged to explore, let alone celebrate their creativity. Perhaps they weren’t very good at drawing or didn’t manage to crochet a straight oven lap in primary school. Perhaps they were never encouraged to try again. Sure, we can’t all be artistic geniuses but a creative speckle here and there, wouldn’t that enrich our lives? I believe virtually anyone can be creative – if they find a form of creative expression that really suits them. So let’s try and inspire you.

The New Artisans celebrate the “handmade-with-love ethos” of products that are “tangible extensions of someone else’s being”. The editor, Olivier Dupon, explicitly presents artisanship as a path to reconnect with humanity. And he further connects it with the politically charged debate on local supply versus remote manufacturing. The wide variety of creative expressions in these two volumes (and I hope encore is to come!), testifies to the huge resurgence of handmade craft: from quirky ceramics and glass-blown sculptures over felted portraits of beloved pets and exuberant textile art, to delicate faïence still lives and so much more. All the featured “artisans” use craft techniques rather than mass-production methods to create one-of-a-kind objects that are very covetable indeed. Dupon dedicates his book

     “to all those who are making a positive difference in the world today. It cannot be stressed enough that artisans, by making objects with love […] are slowly but surely reversing the trend of generic mass-consumption. Let us all put our party hats on. It is time to celebrate!”

Celebratory the books feel indeed: they not only widen our view of what ‘creative’ might be, they exude the love of craft. And connect it, mostly indirectly, to the good life. The featured artisans share their own process of making, the materials and techniques involved and their sources of inspiration. They also present an alternative way of living: they respectfully connect with traditions and re-shape them, they appropriate old materials to create innovative objects, and they very personally relate to those objects so that the latter embody the ideas of human connection and sustainability. Such encounters, even only on paper, are heart warming. I can very much recommend the experience. And hope for you too it re-kindles the creative speckles you had forgotten about.

Meet Mister Finch: toadstools, a stag beetle and a giant hare, spider and swan, all in
fabric, inhabit his fairytale world. And moths, larger than life. This is delightful.

 

 

 

 

My personal favorite is Mister Finch who, like all the other artisans, is featured over four pages in the second volume. This is barely an appetizer, fortunately Mister Finch presented his Fairytale World in a book himself. The Leeds-based artist works alone, without formal education in arts or textiles. But he is constantly triggered by what he calls “fabrics’ potential”. Making things is very important to him, especially when he can integrate “hunted objects”: “the lost, found and forgotten”. He consciously uses recycled materials not only as an ethical statement, but also in order to add authenticity and charm. Because in essence Mister Finch sees himself as a storyteller. And he makes “storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten …”

I’m not sure what it says about me but of those storytelling creatures the ones that stand out for me are the spiders, the moths and the butterflies.

Anyone still doubting the power of flowers?

 

Certainly not all those who are expected here!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s obvious that Mister Finch cherishes his creatures with great affection. Not unlike those of Louise Bourgeois, his spiders are made of tapestry and they are caring, to the point that they’ll be mother (what a delightful expression that is!) and pour you a comforting cup of tea.

Moths are seldom someone’s favorite creature. And certain kinds gorge themselves with our beloved fabrics. But Mister Finch sews them beautiful tapestry wings, makes them larger than life and humanizes them with added objects that trigger the imagination.

Dreaming of Cinderella or the 
ideal adornment for my stacked books.
Mister Finch doesn’t seem to be sure. 

 

 

 

 

 

The butterflies are equally delightful. They have tapestry wings or fly on simple cotton, dyed with tea or coffee and a dash of colour. When they fly together, they compose a poetic rainbow. And we are made to believe that the butterfly on the right will pick up the paint brush any second now.

 

Recently even more humanized creatures have come into being. It seems that Mister Finch wants indeed to inspire us to live in a fairytale world. Dressing up animals is something he does since childhood. He doesn’t seem to have been discouraged, or he managed later on to reconnect with his creative streak. He certainly hasn’t abandoned his childlike imagination: “I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.”

This cutie will inspire us to have soft dreams,
while his brothers discuss what must be done. 
The rabbit threesome is already on the move.

 

 

Bert, Arthur & Charles wonder whether an inspiring speech from the soap box would get the work done faster. Or at least more enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is storytelling of an awesome level. Imagine having one of these creatures at home. And waking up at night, listening to whether they’ve started on the housework yet – I’d like that ;-). More generally, I believe craftsmanship has a particular contribution to make to the good life. In previous posts I’ve begun to explain what that might be – and of course there is much more to add. But it’s important not to forget the practice of craftsmanship – and inspire further exploring.

I find the practice of artists like Mister Finch very inspiring. And I like the idea of telling stories through recycled materials. I recognize Mister Finch’s pleasure in hunting down suitable bits and pieces. That hunt is very much part of the process for me. It’s an excercise in opening up my imagination to what can be transformed and being aware of the potential of what others have discarded. Especially when things are damaged, they speak of former lives that reverberate in the new hand-made object.

The scarf used to belong to the seller’s mother. She only wanted to depart with it when she heard I was going to transform it into a craft object.

With the work of Mister Finch in my mind I went in search of textured fabric. Not so much the tapestry he so often works with but something with a pattern that would transform under the technique of felting I intended to explore further.
I found this delightful but seriously damaged mousseline scarf – which suited just my purposes.

 

Watch the pattern disappear under the 
the merino wool, and how it then re-emerges, contracted, blueified,
with the golden stitches stunningly standing out.

 

 

 

 

The next steps: design the overall shape,
construct the butterfly’s legs, 
& sew the underside of the wings.

 

 

 

 

And here it is, my very own butterfly.

I made it for a dear friend. Cobalt blue is our shared colour. The butterfly tells the story of the metamorphoses our lives were stumbling through at that time. And it very much reverberates the hope – which I now happily extend to you – that each of us would be able to spread out our wings towards a celebratory future full of golden speckles.

Alternative Creationism (2)

Don’t spend your energy on something you can’t change anyway. That was the good advice of Ignaas Devisch in the previous installment of this blog. The question is who decides what can’t be changed – and on what grounds. TINA (There Is No Alternative) is often an authoritative argument determined to squash the alternatives – that are therefore implicitly very extant indeed. This to be sure is not what Devisch is up to: because of his unusual argument on restlessness, it’s perfectly understandable that his focus is the modern individual. Yet the question remains what happens when one considers the collective level, the origins and effects of restlessness on society. There are, of course, many effects but let’s restrict them for now to the sphere of work.

We know what the effects are: lots of negative stress, growing number of burnouts, many unhappily working people, struggling businesses. There is a lot of debate about this. But there seem to be two standard answers: individual responsibility and collective resignation. It very much feels as if we, as a society, have resigned ourselves to the fact that working conditions are tough. Alas, there’s little we can do about this: there is no alternative – apart from continuously intensifying the burden of individual responsibility. In the current Belgian debate there’s little hesitation to point to people who ‘dare’ to use time credit to travel or to use training money to follow a course on flower arranging or learning Spanish. Both options are no longer available. Or to make it more personal: it’s all very well to advocate alternative creationism as an individual choice but there is only so much crafting an individual can do. If “the infrastructure of society” is geared towards “bad work”, the individual effort often feels meaningless.

I borrow the quoted phrases from a study on Why We Work. Its author is the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (whom Devisch mentions with another interesting book on The Paradox of Choice). Schwartz focuses on the negative effects of modern freedom on the work floor – and what we, collectively, can do about them. Schwartz challenges the deep-seated belief that people work only to get paid. He argues that this stark view of human nature has turned into the dominant ideology which not only realizes a self-fulfilling prophecy but also organizes “the infrastructure of society” in such a way that turning things round may become very difficult indeed.

To understand this complex argument it’s important to stress the difference between the exact and the social sciences. To put it simply, the cosmos doesn’t change when some scientist makes wrong assumptions or executes his experiment wrongly. Ideas about individuals and society do have the power to affect their subjects in the sense we encountered earlier: man is an unfinished project. Far more than Devisch, Schwartz emphasizes the fact that we are to a large extent what society expects from us. Applied to work: if one expects us to be unengaged, then we may start to behave that way. And before long become disengaged. 

A negative view on human nature cannot lead to positive work 

Schwartz identifies the negative view on humans, intrinsically lazy and disinterested, as the ultimate culprit of work misery. And he argues it’s wrong. His own positive argument is in a sense the collective translation of Devisch’s immoderation: in the same way that individuals enjoy action and engagement, society as a whole cherishes the idea of progress. Yet the work related mistrust has become ideological – a TINA assumption that is never questioned. Schwartz cites an intriguing study which established that people recognize in themselves intrinsic motivations to work – but not in others: they’re in it for the money. You may want to check this with yourself: probably you yourself search for and expect meaningfulness in your own job – but you’ve accepted the sad viewpoint that most people can’t? Because we must be realistic? Because ‘menial’ jobs also need to be done? And there’s no way they can be meaningful?

How work becomes meaningful

Schwartz names (among others) Luke, a Yale University Hospital cleaner who finds fulfillment in his supposedly menial job because he’s internalized the mission of his workplace, namely caring for people. There are many people like Luke, who have intrinsic motivations for wanting to do a good job. In other words: the job is not (only) instrumental (to get a paycheck), it’s considered important and worthwhile for reasons that lie within the job itself. And of course this makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working (and thinking about work).

The good news is that virtually any job can provide meaning when there is a measure of autonomy, flexibility, variety and skill development, when there is space to learn and grow and, especially, when there is a sense that one contributes to the well-being of others, however small. Schwartz refers to caretakers, workers on a factory floor, phone solicitors and hairdressers to drive down the point that there is no need to think that only the happy few could hope for meaningful work. To my delight I discovered that what Luke and others are doing has been called job crafting. The American organizational behaviorist Amy Wrzesniewski saw that people often redesign jobs so that they foster purpose and thus work satisfaction. She also defines ways in which organizations can actively take on this role. The important conclusion is that virtually all jobs can be organized in a way that affects positively both the workers and, obviously not unimportant, the performance of the organization. In other words, there are alternative ways to work.

The vicious circle of bad work

The bad news is that the “infrastructure of society”, that is, the collective structures mostly go the other way – and there is no reason to believe that they will correct themselves “naturally”. More concretely, Schwartz points to the two standard methods for managing supposedly disinterested workers: material incentives and close monitoring of work that has been routinized. The striking conclusion is that both tools have negative effects on work engagement and satisfaction.

Intuitively we think that material incentives, such as wages, bonuses, extralegal advantages, contribute to work positivity. Research has shown the opposite. The main reason is that money is an external motivation, one which lies outside the actual job at hand. And when people are encouraged to attach great importance to external factors, whatever intrinsic motivation they may have had is undermined. In short, the money always wins. And the people involved, the workers but also the employers, the clients, the patients, the customers, loose.

Close job monitoring on the other hand requires an extra layer of managers whose own job mainly consists of controlling others. And they do so in relation to jobs that are increasingly routinized on the basis of detailed scripts that leave no room for variety or individual initiative. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how all involved draw very little satisfaction from their work.

Yet both methods, material incentives and increasing control, continue to gain importance – and thus strengthen the infrastructure of society, the structures that are difficult to change anyway. They also create a vicious circle of increasingly lower engagement and a dwindling sense of purpose and meaningfulness. Illustrating the rising application of these methods with examples in education, law and medicine, Schwartz argues that good work thus turns into bad work. And all this largely as a result of the mistaken assumption that workers don’t want to do a good job! 

We see the results of bad work all around us. We all know people who experience their job as monotonous and meaningless. Perhaps we experience it so ourselves. Much in Devisch’s way Schwartz points to individual responsibility but he forcefully emphasizes the limits of that approach. If the environment is inhospitable to meaningful work, as Schwartz demonstrates it often is, a collective effort is needed to combat the dominant ideology and replace it with an alternative view both on human nature and our notion of efficiency. 

Economic democracy

The amazing thing is: the alternatives already exist – successfully. Recently I heard an interview on the Flemish radio with the Dutch entrepreneur Allard Droste whose building company functions “without leaders”. There are no meetings, the salaries are good but not excessive. The 50 workers can each make decisions and place orders, for large sums of money. The interviewer couldn’t contain his incredulity and posed what was meant to be the ultimate question to destroy the naivety: “But what if the wrong decision is taken?” The reply was swift – and so very much to the point: “Well, it goes wrong in other companies, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does. Frequently. And we all know it. So why is there so little effort to try the alternatives? 

In The Seven-Day Weekend Brazilian Semco’s CEO Richardo Semler shows how the Way Work Works can be Changed. He summarizes his innovative management method with reference to its fundamentally decentralized and participatory style. The starting point is the current economic disruption, no naivety here!, and “the need – the absolute necessity – to give up control”. The only alternative according to Semler, his own TINA, is trust. The principle is very simple: everyone makes difficult and complex decisions every day in their daily, personal lives. So why would the professional sphere be the only one in which people cannot be trusted? Notice how the foundational viewpoint is positive – and how different that is from what we’re used to.

The “Seven-Day Weekend” refers to the goal of creating the circumstances in which “workers [can] be men and women in full”: “No-one […] can endure leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work.”  In other words, consider workers as human beings and aim to contribute to their living a more integrated life. By avoiding conventional business practices including formal structures, Semco encourages workers to explore their own talents and interests and seek personal challenges before trying to meet the company’s goals. Yet because these goals are so explicitly and repeatedly communicated and debated, the match happens almost organically and translates “naturally into profit and growth.” Semler insists that: 

“On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things.”

Semco is a very profitable, expanding business. Its principles have been adapted at schools, hospitals, police departments, companies large and small around the world. The emphasis on trust is the foundation of the fundamentally different view on human nature Schwartz insists on. And it seems so simple: trust in people at work creates a “virtuous circle” that includes individual autonomy, skill development, profitability and above all purposefulness and meaning. Good work in short.

Meanwhile in Belgium

I’m sad to say little of the above can be heard in the current Belgian debate. The Bill on Flexible, Workable Work of Federal minister Kris Peeters, has just been voted. And it’s pretty obvious that the implicit founding assumption is a very negative view on human nature – that needs to be controlled and externally incentivized. It reinforces in other words the infrastructure of society in a way that puts even more obstacles to changing work for the better. Unwittingly the ideology is given free rein to continue its negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Bill refers time and again to more flexibility and ‘external’ measures such as the ability to “save up” working hours. There’s not a single measure that refers to intrinsic motivation – or how to insert that concept into the work practice. One of the union representatives in the debate rejects more autonomy on the grounds that people will work simply harder and longer. His solution to work less is presented as TINA: only 34% of employees of 40 or older can imagine “coping” with their job until retirement age. Note the resignation towards ‘bad work’. In reply the CEO’s of the most important employers’ organizations present their own TINA: “The solution is not to work less but more” (sic). They remain entirely within a quantitative framework which has nothing to do with Schwartz’s suggestion of a collective turnaround. “And does it still need to be said”, the responsibility for stress and burn-outs lays “only in part” in the work sphere, it’s (also) “overloaded personal activity calendars”. Note the negative view on human nature: the individual is not to be trusted with his personal choices, so how can you expect us to trust them in the professional sphere? The solution, so the CEO’s claim, is the employers’ current engagement towards a “competence driven employment strategy” – as if any employer in the past would consciously have employed someone who wasn’t competent.

But as Schwartz and Semler have taught us, that’s not the point. What we should be aiming for, is a work definition driven by individual satisfaction and meaningfulness. We need in other words a match between the values of the worker and the organization. For the latter one of the goals will be profit, obviously, but one may hope that it aims to do so with a contribution, however small, to the well-being of those involved – and that it is capable and willing of communicating this contribution to its employees. People look for meaningfulness – and that can be found virtually anywhere, if we are prepared to make the effort, not only to see it but also to make it explicit. The purpose of work then should be at the centre: make it a shared subject of debate and responsibility between management and workers – and start from there. 

Perhaps it’s not too late. Belgium has a strong tradition of social consultation and much remains to be negotiated about the Bill. The so-called Social Partners must become aware of the negative foundation of all their debating and negotiating. If they can change that, if they can collectively decide to replace the resignation with a more positive notion of human nature, they can break the vicious circle. Let’s be optimistic and put it more positively:

Let’s all cultivate our garden.
The final sentence of ‘Candide’ carries the message of my box installation on hope.

The phrase is from Voltaire who used it to conclude his harsh critique on 18th-century French society. Some have suggested it’s an argument for withdrawal from the world: as the case is helpless, give up. With alternative creationism I argue differently: we collectively have the urgent responsibility to turn things around and create an alternative, flourishing “garden” – that is indeed our own, of all of us. In many cases and certainly in the case of work, alternative creationism must be collective. It will be alternative because it’s founded on a radically different, more optimistic and trusting viewpoint on human nature. And it will be creationist because this is a question of collectively creating an equally radically different, meaningful concept and practice of work. As mentioned before, the process of creating understood as craftsmanship refers to the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. And the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire was one of the spokesmen, believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work that will generate genuine satisfaction. There is in other words an intelligent crafts(wo)man in each of us. With Schwartz I argue that faith still makes sense – if we as a society choose to act upon it.

My installation visualizes new beginnings: new leaves on an old tree, lace to let the light through and glasses to see more clearly.  
This person (by the Flemish artist Michaël Borremans)  is turned away in contemplation. A serious effort is needed to change things.

 

 

The door handle and the watering can are very much in the foreground: the time to change is now.

Alternative Creationism (1)

It’s my firm belief that creation is a wonder. Rest assured that I’m not into alternatives as propagated on the other side of the ocean these days. Nor indeed in the customary interpretation of the title’s noun. It’s human creation that interests me, and more specifically in the alternative sense of what its contribution to the good life might be.

This is an existential exploration, as illustrated by Bill Watterson’s delightful character Calvin:

@Bill Watterson

The question of why we do what we do is also the central query of an intriguing book that has just won the Dutch prize of the Best Spiritual Book 2017– and which I hope will receive an English translation. In Restlessness the Ghent based ethicist and philosopher Ignaas Devisch advocates an immoderate life to be understood as a life of desire, passion and creativity. His argument is intriguing for at least two reasons. One is that the author very explicitly challenges the manifold calls to slow down, be it in food, science or living. Second, he does so with an extensive historic reconstruction of the societal presence of restlessness –  which is not recent at all!

Restlessness belongs fundamentally to modernity.

Aware that this is an unfamiliar statement, Devisch spends most of his book elaborating it. This leaves a mere ten percent of the book explicitly devoted to the praise of the immoderate life, as we’ll see later. But first the historian in me delights in stressing the unusualness of the argument, even more so because Devisch transcends the often stark division of the so-called Dark Ages and Modern Times on the grounds that the late Middle Ages prepared that modernity in fundamental ways – including the arrival of restlessness.

Of course it’s tricky to pinpoint the birth year of a concept such as restlessness, but if one year deserves the ‘honour’, it must be 1348. With the outbreak of the Black Death a torrent of angst ran over Europe and undermined the Christian ideals of heavenly awards for the toils of this earthly life. If death can be so horrible and sudden, better make the best of this life – now. This is the beginning of the end for the medieval worldview. And the beginning of the modern project that, from the start, included the desire to live here and now. How topical that sounds!

Devisch gives the 17th-century French philosopher, theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal a central role in his exposé. Probably his most famous expression is that “man cannot sit in a quiet room alone”. This is the boredom Calvin refers to. But Pascal’s interpretation is actually much more bleak. Pascal understood the modern race against time as a secularized version of our inability to deal with the inescapable, death. In the expression “get the most out of life while you can”, we would stress the first part, probably even leave the second unmentioned. For Pascal the escapist movement away from death was essential and essentially modern. A central theme in his Pensées (published after his death in 1669) is divertissement: modern man diverts himself – in order not to face the terrible reality of life.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

This is indeed not a very attractive position. No wonder that man wants to stay busy. Pascal stresses the existential objective of diversion. Devisch rather emphasizes that almost inadvertently that diversion gave rise to human agency. And both make the point that modernity is thus equal to movement and freedom.

With the religious frame of the afterlife shattered, and all the normative structures that came with it, emptiness arises – which can, Pascal would say must, be filled again. At a collective level, this explains why progress is so central to modernity, although Devisch hardly elaborates on this (I’ll turn to this in the next installment of this blog). At an individual level, modern man (and of course I always mean “woman” as well) is free to do what he wants – to be whom he wants to be. This is why modern man is essentially individualistic: there is no more fixed identity, it’s up to him to make something of his life. Modern man has become an agent.

And with the agency comes the restlessness: there’re choices to be made, not once but time and again. There’re always opportunities to better oneself, to move up in the world. There’s the drive to be or more accurately to become someone. Living in the secular modern world is a permanent undertaking, a project. Put like that, it’s also clear the work is never done. There’s no point where I can say: I’ve reached my destiny, I’m me now.

This lightbox was a Christmas present. I hadn’t yet read Devisch’s book but the question I composed is appropriately modern and thus restless.

With some exaggeration, Calvin’s thoughts shown earlier summarize one of Pascal’s key arguments: boredom originates from the emptiness of modern life – and both are expelled with creation. Or again, modern humans craft themselves. And as any craftsperson knows, perfection is never reached. Perhaps one is content with the outcome for a little while, but even while planning a new (stage in the) project it’s clear that the skills need further tuning to do better. There’s no upper limit, it’s never (good) enough. And so one becomes restless – again.

If, in short, restlessness is so very much part of what it means to be a modern human being, there’s no escaping it. Devisch actually argues that the question is put wrongly. In essence he challenges the negative connotations of restlessness: since when is a life in balance desirable? Pascal would say: do you actually want to spend your life alone in a quiet room? Or in Calvin’s words: do you really want to be bored? Of course not. We like activities and interaction, we search for things to look forward to and to strife for. We like to be busy and make progress.

As restlessness has been with us for over six centuries, it’ll probably last (at least) our lifetime. Devisch advises to stop fighting what you cannot change. Better still, recognize restlessness for what it really is, namely the crucial factor for an interesting and creative life. In management books this would be called “positive stress”. What would our lives be if we stopped moving? If we had no further desire to better things and or ourselves? So the argument finally turns positive: give in to your desire to get out of the room, go and do things, live life to the full. In brief, Devisch advocates the immoderate life:

Embrace your restlessness!

With the full story of its centrality to modern life, we now understand restlessness is positive energy that is available to us. The real question then becomes: what will we do with it? Devisch concludes with the adagium of a passionate life: “engage your restlessness for things that make life meaningful, whatever that may mean”.

Here we reach the weakness of the book. It’s obvious that Devisch doesn’t want to dictate how we should live. That indeed would go against his own argument of modern freedom and the virtually endless choices that entails. Yet difficult questions remain. Such as: how free are we really? Don’t many people feel, not mobile as supposedly inherent in modernity, but its very opposite, namely stuck? And how many of us experience their life as “meaningful”? Do many not continue to suffer from the emptiness of modern life Pascal was obsessed with? How many can say that they fight off Calvin’s boredom with a good life? How many feel in existential control over their lives’ ‘project’, rather than lost? Devisch admits that restlessness does become a problem (think: time pressure, loss of control, negative stress) when people don’t experience the meaning of their actions anymore. His suggestion is to find “ways to stand less restlessly ‘in the mobility’.” But what if you don’t know how to do that?

Devisch has chosen to concentrate on the individual level. And that’s of course legitimate. As historian I’m delighted with his rephrasing of “nothing new under the sun” that brings a much needed sense of nuance and relativity into the current debate. The strength of his book is that it opens an alternative perspective for each of us: we understand better why we, as individuals, are restless – and how that can be a good thing. But, alas, and as most of us experience at least sometimes, it often isn’t.

My own argument for alternative creationism has two components. In my next post I will explore the collective level which Devisch hardly addresses. My hunch is that problematic restlessness has less to do with a misperception of our individual drive than with the collective implications of the modern project. More specifically, the sense of being lost and stuck is often connected with the conditions of work. Devisch points a few times to the continuing need critically to evaluate the consequences of competition and time pressure on the labour market. He also refers to the current discussion about “workable work”, including the difficult realization of “meaningful” work, but he doesn’t elaborate. I aim to show that alternative perspectives can also re-insert meaningfulness in work. But first I unashamedly advocate craftsmanship as an individual choice to craft the good life.

‘Making’ is an undervalued source of wonder and joy. I maintain it’s also a meaningful way “to stand more firmly in the mobility of modern life”. It requires sitting (or standing) in a quiet room alone and to engage one’s energy towards something meaningful. You’re in control over what you decide to make – and the range of possibilities is virtually endless. Yet you’re also happy to be challenged and to be lost in the flow for that’s part of the fun. This is creationism because of its focus on creating. It’s alternative in the sense that that creating is considered to be an end in itself. Although there usually is a ‘creation’, a ‘product’ if you want, the process of getting there is not (essentially) instrumental. And that’s why the combination contributes to the good life.

Craftsmanship is about energy. It’s about connecting mind and body, so that you can grow towards a more integrated human being. It’s about exploring your imaginations and intuitions and searching for corresponding forms of self-expression. The experience itself creates a space in which you can discover meaning, as Calvin has put it. That focused space enables living in the present. And it is filled with kairos that allows us to remain in Pascal’s room.

Yet the skills that are thus developed, such as practicing patience, engagement and perseverance, exercising autonomy, judgement and agency, achieving a level of expertise or mastery, also craft a personality that stands more firmly outside that room – about which of course there is much more to be said, and that’s a promise.

 

January Blues

Blue Monday has come and gone, yet the January Blues will still be with us for another ten days or indeed longer. Wondering what to do about this, it struck me that each component of that set phrase carries a ‘two-faced’ meaning (at least).

Take January, derived from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transition, time, doorways, passages and endings. The traditional portrayal is a man with literally two faces: he sees both past and future. Janus is thus about time – and how we deal with it. In January we seem to hang somewhere in between. The parties are over, there are no big festivities in sight and Spring (light!) seems a long long way away. Interestingly, the gates of the Janus Temple in Rome were closed only during peacetime, which was very rare: the common practice was open doors meaning war and conflict. We have not had a peaceful year, yet Janus has closed it. And opened another, must we expect (more) conflict? Or put differently, ‘something’ has ended, do we trust it will be followed by a new beginning? And what might that entail?

Janus flask, 1st century AD (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
An interesting modern Janus. I’m not sure though what the hole might signify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a similar vein, the other component of the phrase, blue is equally ambiguous. As most of us, the French historian Pastoureau and the French-American artist Bourgeois associate the colour with rest and peace. Yet blue clearly also evokes melancholia and dissatisfaction with the way things – we – are. How can it ‘work’ both ways?

In On Being Blue the American philosopher and writer William Gass defines blue as ‘the color of the interior life’. And we all know that interior life isn’t always as restful as it could be. Gass’ inquiry itself is not very calm. I must admit the booklet rather unnerved me as I didn’t get a grip on what it was trying to say or do. I started reading it a number of time – and put it away in frustration. Learning a little more about Gass himself helped. He’s usually associated with American Postmodernism and he conducts experiments at the level of a sentence itself: he’s for instance much more interested in the sound than in the meaning of the words. And because he finds readers overall too hung up on content his euphonic style aims to free them from the linear conventions of narrative. No wonder I was flabbergasted! It’s nice of Gass though to define this different way of experiencing the beauty of language (in his collection of essays A Temple of Texts) in textile terms:

The act of reading [is the act] of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s done.

In fact the colour is almost a pretext for the listomaniac Gass who demonstrates, repeatedly, how a small word of four letters can delight us with so many shades, tones, flavours, meanings, connotations and expressions. On Being Blue is above all a inquiring reflection on language – and the melancholia it provokes. 

Melancholia is also very much present in Bluets by the American writer Maggie Nelson. Here again is a little booklet that testifies to the love of blue and combines it with the loss of love and (bodily but also mental) health. Again it does not associate blue with being restful or at peace. Nelson also seems to have something with lists and challenging ‘ordinary’ narrative: her ‘story’ is made up out of numbered paragraphs, the function of which is not immediately obvious. And she too seems to be weaving: personal feelings, experiences, anecdotes and thoughts add up to a quest into obsession and the (im)possibility of human connection.

Both Gass and Nelson offer wonderful lists of expressions in English that contain the word blue. And they are many, certainly compared to Dutch – are we to think of Dutch speakers as less interested in ‘the interior life’? To leave something blue blue (iets blauw blauw laten) for instance means to leave something for what it is, obviously not a good start for a quest of any kind. And to run a little blue (een blauwtje lopen) is to be rejected in love – a failure in connection that most likely will cause the blues. There is only one common expression that surprisingly has a totally different meaning in either language: in Dutch a ‘blue Monday’ stands for ‘a short time’. What’s even more intriguing is that blauw used to have the figurative meaning of ‘insignificant, null, of little value’. Among a number of assumptions about this etymology, my preferred one is the so-called wool-colouring hypothetis.

Display of indigo materials in the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent.

In the textile regions of the Low Countries the wool dyers were a powerful guild. And thus introduced their interpretation of dying with indigo into the Dutch language. The laborious indigo process takes various stages. First the wool is soaked into a yellow looking dye. It’s only when the wool is hung up to dry and thus exposed to the oxygen in the air that the colour turns blue. Traditionally the soaking was done on Saturdays, the drying on Mondays. On a blue Monday then the wool dyers couldn’t work: the day was thus ‘of no significance’. Or rest – that isn’t valued.

Summarizing where all of this has got us, both January and blue carry a multitude of meanings and associations which together form an altogether ambivalent mixture. Perhaps that in itself is the current attraction of the phrase: we ourselves feel ambivalent. Especially in a month that is still defined by endings, we’re uncertain and reluctant to contribute to the creation of new beginnings. And it seems we’re not very good at dealing with uncertainty and risk. 

Yet already in 1986 (1992) Ulrich Beck defined the Risk Society as a new stage of modernization in a way that matches our experiences: society’s characteristics, its power structures, its knowledge and authority norms, its definition of identity have changed – are changing. What is distinct about this stage of modernity is that the risks are the product of the modernization process itself, that is, they are man-induced. According to Beck risk society is thus characterized by an absence, namely the impossibility of attributing the hazards externally. That means that (most of the) risks we’re facing depend on human decisions and are thus politically reflexive. The awareness of the ecological problems for instance is illustrated by the now common concepts of sustainability and the precautionary principle.

It seems that Beck mainly wanted to warn against risk management as an exercise in bureaucratic rationality or technocracy, including the contempt for the public perception of risk. This is a powerful plea against both TINA (There Is No Alternative) and downplaying the anxieties of ‘ordinary’ people who, because modern risk is spread unevenly, have reason to fear it. This is written more than thirty years ago! But we don’t appear to have done much with Beck’s analysis. 

And it begs the question what is to be done now. If it were up to me I would argue for more reflexivity, for more people involved in that reflexive exercise and thus being equipped to partake. In Flanders the reform of secondary schooling is very hot right now but I’m not sure it includes the tools we’re talking about here. I fear we forget too often that ‘school’ is derived from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’. And surely leisure must be blue according to the common association of the word: it requires a certain peace at the level of the interior life, so that being open to new experiences and learning new things become possible (again).

Reflexivity requires time and space. It requires the revaluation of rest. And it requires resilience, in the first place to be able to stand in ‘the heat’ of uncertainty, to feel and live it fully – before taking action of any kind. Of course I believe that ‘making’ in the earlier named sense of aspiring craftsmanship, flow and kairos can induce a good climate for ‘enlightened’ reflection. 

To stay within the theme: blue weaving in what is actually a knitting pattern
& linear felt lines – to return to a more restful narrative?

 

 

 

 

 

Here I would like to suggest another path which, of course, many others have favoured far more eloquently, including the English writer Jeanette Winterson: turn to beauty! This is for once no advice to do something but to be. Accept that we live at a critical conjuncture, don’t resist it but wallow in it so to speak. We don’t need more instant opinions or immediate debates. We need space to be and wonder, stillness to reflect and define better the quest of the good life. When we are touched by beauty, we are ‘null’ and ‘insignificant’ in terms of of economic utility – and that’s the point. Let’s create more space outside productivity and consumerism and thus bolster our sometimes fragile human nature. Think of it as a temporary respite that allows restocking on energy. In Winterson’s words:

Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield,

and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out.

Put differently, art can sooth us and thus strengthen our resilience – which we’ll need when it does become time to act. I’m very much looking forward to Kairos Castle at Gaasbeek near Brussels: conceptualized by the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen I expect the exhibition to refer to her argument for restful space, in order e.g. by art to become spirited again. But the exhibition opens only in Spring. I also know visiting a concert or an exhibition isn’t always possible and it generally involves doing a number of things. So what to do about our January Blues?

Perhaps it doesn’t always need to be arduous. We are talking about a temporary shield after all. It can take different shapes at different times, as long as it replenishes us in terms of wondering inquiry and energy. Wouldn’t simply listening to or looking at beauty do the trick right now?
Years ago I experienced great flow compiling a handmade booklet with (to me) beautiful blue images. Nobody ever saw it.

The ambivalence of being & wanting blue.
Composing the collages was fun
yet the eye has remained very blue indeed.

 

 

 

 

But low and behold, our ‘modern’ times have created not only man-induced risks but also marvelous ways of summoning sources of inspiration and joy – and the ability to share them. I happily put you on your way with my textile discography and three citations from my Pinterest board Feeling Blue.

Don’t leave the January Blues (here by Natalie 
Foss) blue blue, go for an inspiring & spirited quest for
beauty & don’t forget to wrap yourself kindly.

 

Courage Is Not Beyond Us

So here it is: the New Year. How new does it feel so far? Is it possible that a little disappointment creeps up on you because it isn’t all that different? Because actually, deep down, you knew it would be like this? Well, perhaps it doesn’t need to be – if we don’t expect an entirely new life because a rather accidental number has changed. If we are a little more creative about what to expect from ourselves and others. A little more kind than usual, that too. 

Trying to be kind to myself, I decided to read a (for me) new book whose title intrigued me. It’s about Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting, not exactly a combination of words you would expect. As so often, it’s the accompanying volume to an exhibition, this time in the Museum of Arts & Design in New York in 2007 – thank God for the invention of the book!

The adjectives in the title do not call for a revolution or throwing ‘old’ things out. On the contrary, the exhibition and the book advance the exploration of the vitality and potentiality in existing phenomena, in particular craft techniques and materials. They call for disruption, in the sense of shedding prejudices and presuppositions in order to innovate with respect of what remains valuable. That sounds like a good attitude to me for the New Year! 

The Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting exhibition and its accompanying publication assume the value of handcraft as a cultural and political practice as granted. They also assume that what has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’ has been revalued sufficiently as to no longer needing particular emphasis. I very much doubt whether either assumption is valid. Beyond a very specific incrowd, high level artists and those who in the broadest sense surround them, there is very little cultural let alone political appreciation of what crafts (or indeed art) may contribute to contemporary debates about, say, mass production and consumption versus sustainability, gender equality or indeed the definition of the good life in global times. 

All such suggestions are, of course, present in Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting but the emphasis lies very much with the overthrowing of a status quo which engages the incrowd itself. Knitting here is understood as the creation of structures from a single continuous yarn, lace as interlocking structures in patterns that permit light to pass through them. It’s obvious that these are far more fluid and generous definitions than what we’re used to – and that’s the point. The people involved here will not bow to hierarchies and value systems that have fragmented the world of aesthetic and functional objects for so long: they bring together art, craft, design and technology and rather than focusing on the supposed differences, they emphasize their common ground. The point is to put forward and to demonstrate a much broader and more inclusive definition of art. This is important, in itself ànd for broader reference. To the latter I shall return shortly, for now let me show you my idiosyncratic selection of its results in terms of artistic practice.

In her Time Signatures the American artist Barbara Zucker examines the aging process – something which we all (have to) subject to. Starting from the complex patterns of her own face and that of others, she magnifies them to the point of abstraction in works that are deliberately made of ‘aggressive’ materials such as aluminium or steel. Zucker thus transforms lace, once the symbol of fragile beauty, into an exemplifier of our univeral nature.

The Canadian Cal Lane transforms mundane objects, often of an industrial nature such as spades, wheelbarrows or steel beams. Quintessentially masculine objects, once relied upon for their durability, strength and function, become delicate, decorative skeletons. Their thus attributed beauty and fragility are a comment on stereotypical notions of gender, productiveness and commodification.

The Dutch artist Niels van Eijk learnt traditional lace-making techniques from his 85-year-old neighbour. He applied them to the fabrication of lamps without bulb: the fiber optic cable he uses breaks at every knot, which is how it emanates light. Ironically his lamps look very much like some old-fashioned crocheted construction which only under close scrutiny betrays its radical adaptation of the tradition.


      And then my absolute favourite: the American artist Janet Echelman who brings the traditionally private practice of lace-making very much into the public sphere. And she does so unabashedly: the sheer magnitude of her sculptures does everything to emphasize their intricacy and delicacy. The images of She Changes (Porto, 2005) show how exciting roundabout-art can be: fiber and the effects of wind currents resist the often fixed and imposing nature of art and stress instead fluidity, transition and transformation. 

I chose intuitively. And I discover with you that these four artists work with lace: structures that let through the light. They do so in unusual ways and with unusual materials – and that’s where the subversiveness comes in. Conventional expectations are disrupted in order to present work that is more open, more inclusive.

This is courageous work in a world that seems to close down, to define the ‘incrowd’ in ways that won’t give chances to ‘outsiders’ or newcomers to participate. The irony that it’s essentially domestic crafts that break open established hierarchies and categories adds to the sense of subversiveness. The quality of the work is so high that its practitioners could easily have stayed within their own safe incrowd and be applauded there. Yet they’ve ventured out, out of an inner conviction I presume that other things are possible, that traditions can be challenged in a way that is innovative ànd respectful. This is a rather unusual illustration of the thesis of the English historian Eric Hobsbawn that traditions are invented in the sense that they are part of a community, that they serve goals of communication, shared aspirations and the search for collective meaning – which are in themselves not ‘natural’ or indeed fixed.

And so what perhaps at first seemed like an interesting but nevertheless ‘unworldly’ artistic initiative, may serve as an inspiration to be radical and subversive in our very own lives. Perhaps it’s time not to focus on the darkness of the so-called cultural or identity struggle but go against the fragmentation of the public space and let in the light. Perhaps it’s time to examine the vitality and potentiality of our traditions, respect them but innovate them nonetheless. Perhaps it’s time to recognize Peter Frankopan’s lesson that we need a broader viewpoint on globalization, including more constructive attitudes which may set us on the path of disruptive renewal. This (also) is not a call to revolution, it’s trying to impact from the inside. We’re all part of society after all, so why wouldn’t it be possible for each of us, in our own ‘incrowd’ meetings, to be courageous, to challenge prejudices and presumptions and put forward broader, more inclusive definitions that emphasize the common ground and thus impact on our collective lives?

Courage seems like an old-fashioned term, or rather its current interpretation seems more often than not to go in the direction of being hard, in terms of Europe’s safety for instance or the safeguarding of Western privileges ànd bowing to the anger of ordinary people who are essentially afraid. It’s no use to dismiss them out of hand and think ‘we’ know better. I for one don’t. I’m out of a job right now and it’s not at all obvious to keep emotional, financial and social anxiety at bay. But becoming harder on other people isn’t going to help me either. More generally, it must be possible to acknowledge anxiety and anger and yet determine that next to those powerful emotions can stand courage. That’s subversive for it goes against the current lack of nuance in the public debate. It’s also radical to attest to conflicting emotions and make a conscious decision to make one of them – and not the others – the touchstone of one’s actions. 

Courage is not an easy emotion. It’s also something most people don’t even aspire to – because too high reaching, too unattainable. I disagree. I think we can all in our own ‘small’ ways be courageous and thus contribute to the debate about what the good life might be. This debate is too rarely explicit. But if we start by acknowledging that we’re all human and thus very much fallible, couldn’t we mean more for each other, in terms of kindness, encouragement and the emphasis rather than on differences, on our collective universal nature?  In a box installation I tried to visualize courage and its constituents in our own lives.

I see courage as red. It’s a testimony to its strength – if we are prepared to take a radical and subversive stance, of which the degree doesn’t need to be exaggerated.

Courage to me starts with awareness: making an effort to see, hence the emphatic eyes in the installation. The open arms of the Vredeseilanden– figure very much refer to the attitude of an open heart and mind of my previous post. Perhaps courage is above all a generic attitude of trust, giving up the illusion that all vicissitudes of life can be controlled and working instead towards more resilience. It’s about taking risks, in defiance of broken dreams, going up those stairs and occuping your space, with or without allies. It’s not necessarily grand, it’s about persevering and trying to speak with your own voice. All this doesn’t (necessarily) imply a lonely struggle: learning what toolkit may be available and spreading that knowledge can be very much part of the process. And to me, this doesn’t come as a surprise, the toolkit definitely includes inspiring books. 

A doll’s eye mechanism symbolizes awareness,
however tiny, stairs are there to be climbed, a chair to be claimed,
the capsules of the false locust (Robinia Pseudoacicia) represent the loops of life one sometimes has to negotiate, the tiny speaker says it isn’t about making noice
but speaking with your own voice,
& books may be helpful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would happen if each of us, in the very simple ways that present themselves in our ‘ordinary’ lives, were prepared to challenge stereotypes and conventional expectations? If we made a conscious decision to emphasize our common ground? Couldn’t a broader and more inclusive definition of humankind and citizenship energize the debate about the good life? Wouldn’t the New Year then become new after all? 

 

On the broken shard stands a tiny light bulb, hoping for a small but ‘radical  & subversive’ portion of Enlightenment.

 

 

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says … ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

This Is (Not) A Fairy Tale

We all grow up with fairy tales. It is in the nature of things that our young selves do not notice all that they entail. So it’s fun to return to them in later years – and discover the many layers they contain. 

Secrets d’Étoffes (Fabrics’ Secrets) is a delightful book dedicated to spread the word that fabrics are everywhere, thus also in the stories we hear in our earliest years. And ‘we’ can be taken quite literally: storyteller Anne Lascoux and textile specialist Claude Fauque collected 24 fairy tales from around the world that have at their centre fabrics in all their variety. Interestingly it’s not just raw materials, specific fabrics or clothing, it’s also the skills involved and the quality of craftsmanship that are crucial to the plot of these stories. It seems a pity that the origin of the tales – Europe, Rwanda, Brazil, China, … – is only mentioned in the table of content. But undoubtedly the authors want to emphasize the universality of the ‘secret’ of omnipresent and powerful fabrics. 

Charlotte Gastaut’s illustrations add to the book’s delight.

 

In the collection’s version of Little Red Riding Hood it isn’t so much the hood that takes centre stage, but the girl’s knowledge that it’s washing day. In her escape from the wolf she hurls herself into the sheets of the laundry women – and is saved by floating away on the river. The wolf attempts to do the same but the women pull the sheet from beneath him and he drowns.

 

When the new bride of Bluebeard finds her unfortunate predecessors, she immediately notices that they wear extremely sumptuous dresses. When Bluebeard plans to kill again, she manages to delay his action by appealing to his vanity. She claims she needs more time to complete her attire to perfection. And so he grants her three more hours for stitching. Finally it’s her father who manages to kill first.

My favourite of the collection is the fairy tale which tells the story of How Man Learnt to Spin and Weave. In this Brazilian tale humans have no idea what to do with the raw cotton they collect from the fields. It’s the spider which has the craftsmanship to make it into thread – and generously invites to do it for them. She also introduces them to a great many tools such as needles and bobbins to enable the transfer of her skills. This is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned work of Louise Bourgeois who insisted on the spider as symbol of learning. The tale goes on to bring onto the scene a hurried woman (even in the time that the animals spoke!) who returns early, sees her basket empty and the spider chewing her cotton. Soon the rumour spreads: the spider is a thief! Hurt to the core by the injust accusation the spider decides to leave the country for good. But on her way she stops the first woman she meets and teaches her the craft of spinning and weaving. Again as with Bourgeois, the spider repairs by letting go!

I happily leave the further exploration of these gems to you but the message of Fauque and Lascoux is clear: fabrics are omnipresent in fairy tales in the same way that they are in real life. And they are powerful. In case you’re not convinced yet, what is the tale of The New Clothes of the Emperor (which isn’t actually included in this volume) other than an attempt to escape textile power?

Who certainly makes no attempt to escape textile power, is Colleen Hill who curated a delightful exhibition on Fairy Tale Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and wrote the accompanying book. In view of her expertise, it’s not surprising that Hill starts off with the question of why fairy tales are so important to high fashion. Yet she ends up exploring the relationship the other way round: why are fabrics so important to fairy tales?

The starting point here is not so much, as with Fauque and Lascoux, that many fairy tales include fabrics, but that their relationship has largely been ignored by fashion historians and theorists, folkorists and fairy tale scholars alike. Hill’s book thus fills a gap that has long been filled in the case of film, fine art and design. Besides a comprehensive introduction to the topic, the book offers a series of essays on thirteen fairy tales. After a short summary of the plot, Hill draws out the sartorial references in different versions of the tales and shows their interpretations, both by mostly late 19th, early 20th-century illustrators and by her own selection of existing garments.

In fact, the question of why fairy tales are important to high fashion, is easily answered. In our highly technological, globalized times, according to Hill, they evoke the magical, the utopian. Tales offer an escape from lives that are fraught with anxiety and stress. And fashion designers exploit the accompanying alienation by telling stories that draw on a language we all know. That is, visually at least.

In Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale the prince is surprised that Sleeping Beauty wears old-fashioned clothes, “like his grandmother”. This makes sense when you remember that she has slept for a hundred years before he kisses her awake but no one, hearing or reading the tale, notices. We are all enchanted by the story and by her royal attire. 

The references to Little Red Riding Hood seem the most straightforward. And the most often used, whether in (high) fashion, advertisements or magazine editorials. They’re easily understood, even when there’s no more hood or when the colour is distinctly different. 

The reference is exaggerated in this design by Comme des Garçons (2015)
Here the emphasis is on the dress, the hood has become a mere accessory. Dolce & Gabbana (2014)
Even in yellow, we understand. By Kirsty Mitchell
Here you wànt to attract the wolves! Max Factor advertisement for ‘Riding Hood Red’ lipstick (1954)

 

Cinderella is the tale that most centers on sartorial display, at least in Charles Perrault’s version of it. Whereas fairy tales usually offer little information beyond what’s needed for the plot or for the character’s portrayal as good or bad, Cinderella contains numerous descriptions of dress that are notably detailed. Perrault’s knowledge of the court of Versailles (he lived from 1628 to 1703) and his own fabric sensibility account for this. It would be interesting to discover to which extent this detail is also present in earlier versions of the tale, the earliest extant version being transcribed in China in the 9th century!

Yet taking into account Perrault’s short, poetic moral at the end of Cinderella (as at the end of all his tales), there is a strong suggestion that we have firmly incorporated the visual language of the fairy tales – but have lost sight of its moral pendant which is related to the second question Hill attempts to address.

“Beautiful ladies, it’s kindness more than dress; That wins a man’s heart with greater success.”  (Charles Perrault)

The question as to why fabrics are so important to fairy tales, Hill answers with reference to the power of transformation: fashion is a marker of identity and a vehicle of self-expression. She concludes that fashion is a powerful agent of metamorphosis: “In real life, as in fairy tales, a change in the way we dress can act as a means to reinvent and reimagine the self. We truly can fashion our happily ever after.”

This is too simple though. I’m the first to concede my love of clothing. More generally, women and perhaps increasingly men understand textile power. And as full-blown postmodernists, who do no longer accept a single identity, we gladly embrace the notion that màny vehicles are necessary 😉

But the fairy tale teachings of modesty, humility and subservience – mostly to (young) women of course, are rarely acknowledged. In the original version, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her idleness: leasurely wandering through the wood, she gives the wolf all the time he needs to eat her grandmother and set up the scene for the next meal. And she can’t save herself. Bluebeard’s wife puts her life in danger by being curious – and she must submit to the action of the men in the story. Cinderella is kind but that doesn’t alleviate her precarious circumstances, let alone procure a suitable husband: the prince only sees her in magically conjured up, magnificent garments. 

In fact it’s strange that so many little girls want to be a princess: they set themselves up to be restrained, physically as in the sleep of Sleeping Beauty or drawn into social arrangements that are pre-existing and strictly normative. Fairy tales warn against the vices of self-determination, pride in one’s own talents and desire. They often contain boundaries not to be crossed or places where one shouldn’t go. And those are defined by someone else. The desires to be fulfilled are not one’s own. And the ‘happily after’, or the definition of what the good life might be, is not made by the often female protagonists.

We ignore in other words the moral messages of the original fairy tales. Which is not to say that subliminally they don’t communicate anymore. Or that their validity is beyond questioning. And that’s why it’s equally important to visualize the message that this life is not a fairy tale.

I made this box installation at a time of great frustration and anger. I felt restrained in many ways, not heard nor recognised in my expertise or sensibilities. The definition of the good life seemed far from my reach.

The original horse is set in bronze by the Flemish sculptor Rik Poot.
Staircase after a fire by the Flemish photographer Karin Borghouts.
A rusted saw and a part of a sanding machine, rough and abrasive.

The colours are powerful and aggressive. The images are mostly bleak, the animals not friendly.

Yet the installation also contains elements of hope and agency. The crinoline (historically an instrument of restraint) is cushioned by the skin (in Dutch: the skirt) of a red union – symbol of a multilayered identity that awaits (self)exploration. The strip of luxurious red fabric enhances the silk caterpillar which is the creator of fine raw materials that count on an imaginative mind, skills and purposefulness. The bright red tape-measure can now only be used by the seamstress herself. What she measures and with what system or principles of measurement, is her choice. And the coat hanger holds the promise that whatever she may create will act as an agent of metamorphosis. So that life may indeed become good.

 

 

 

The quote may not seem very inviting. But it’s above all an appeal to withstand alluring visual promises that carry a implicit, doubtful message of princess-hood. Being a human being, a woman for that matter, is a moral mission. One which deserves serious consideration and dedication. And a possibility to meet on grounds of equal agency.

The Invitation of the City

Donald Trump called Brussels “a hellhole” and Belgium “a beautiful city”. Twice wrong, Mr Presidential Candidate.

Of course there are problems in Brussels, as there are everywhere. But it is a beautiful city. Blaming the lack of assimilation of the Muslim population as Trump did, is miscasting the issue. Essentially this is about the fate of multiculturalism for us all, or to put it more simply: how do we see the contemporary city and how does – can it relate to the good life?  

Overall Flemish people prefer to live in a village or in suburbia. Historically this was stimulated by the 19th-century governments which were predominantly catholic and which feared the socialist influences of the city: they supported more rural communities with initiatives such as cheap train tickets. Flanders thus has a tradition of commuting to work and of living a long distance from it (as far as that is possible in Belgium). Hence significant traffic problems which seem to worsen every month. More broadly the so-called ribbon development (a textile reference by the way) causes problems which will only increase in the near future: it tests the environment obviously but also public services that are already strained such as the post, buses and energy distribution. The Flemish Master Builder Leo Van Broeck therefore calls for a ‘condensation’ of our living together.

Perhaps what’s needed above all is that Flemish people get to love the city. Many of them work in Brussels but they commute in and out: they don’t know the city very well. Maybe they got lost once too often, both literally and linguistically, with Dutch being rarely spoken. Or perhaps they associate it with the complicated politics of Belgium and more generally, with problems that are seen as typically urban. Brussels is decidedly multicultural. And that unmistakenly adds to the unease. After the terrorist attacks of March 22 Brussels held an international campaign  #CallBrussels to convince foreign tourists to come to the capital of Europe. Why not organise such a campaign for the Flemish as well?

I was/am lucky: my family often went to Brussels and I associate it with culture, history and art, with good food, fun and discovering interesting and exciting things. Brussels is a great place for exploration. So let me try and share some of my enthousiasm with you. I’m leaving out the standard tourist attractions, delightful though they are. It’s both a humble and a more ambitious tour I’m suggesting. Ambitious because I hope to show how the city invites us to reflect upon some of the components of the good urban life, humble because it’s based on what I encountered on an ‘ordinary’ day in Brussels in terms of colours and fabrics. The day was not so ordinary though: I spent my recent birthday in Brussels ;-).

I found the city most welcoming to my purposes: already at my arrival in the Central Station of Brussels, enormous socks (introducing ‘Atelier Veritas’ of the eponymous chain which sells among others craft materials) promised me a rich textile harvest.

img_1040
By the way, the men in green (right) were part of yet another day of action against
img_1041
the government plans about ‘adaptable’ work which I mentioned in my last post.
img_1050
The city supported my festive mood.

The day was truly festive: I followed a rich trail of secondhand and vintage shops where I found a few really nice pieces to add to my wardrobe and to start dreaming up new box installations and other craft projects. I also visited the Vossenplein, literally the Square of the Fox but in French called the Place du Jeu de balle. This is part of the charm of Brussels: why use literal translations when with two appelations you can refer to the complexity of history? In this case it was the metal factory Usine du Renard that is reflected in the Dutch name, the square that came in its place was reserved au jeu et à la récréation (to games and recreation) and included a trail for kaatsen or jeu de balle, a ball game which resembles the Basque pelota.  

vossenplein4vossenplein3Every day the Vossenplein holds a market which is a delight for treasure hunters like me, with all sorts of objects and trinkets, it seems you can find anything in any material you may want. Some patience and persistence are necessary for there is little order in the amazing offer. And haggling is part of the fun! 

 

img_1063
Textile work in an art gallery close to the Vossenplein.
img_1052
Street art, emphasised by the contrasting colour of street machinery.
img_1059
A yarn bobbin used to set off beautiful jewelry.

I also enjoyed being surprised by textiles and colour virtually around every corner. 

 

Even on the street floor colour is omnipresent, like in these tiles which I found all over the city. They must be part of a series, inserted in the streets as part of a particular project? I don’t know but they’re fun.

img_1054img_1066img_1062img_1068

 

 

 

street-craftNear the Vossenplein I found an intriguing book on Street Craft. On a terrace nearby I started leafing through the book and realised I had given myself a great birthday present! Just before my coffee break I had taken photographs of glass containers which featured historical figures in elaborate attire: were they meant to promote selective waste disposal? And then I discovered in the book a similar project in Berlin which aims to embellish ugly everyday objects in order to make people smile.

img_1055img_1056

img_1185
Metalheads (2007) by Mentalgassi, a Berlin collective which regards the city as its playing ground.

 

 

 

 


img_1086I found another historical figure, in a window of a building for rent. Is it really the case that people find such images attractive to the point that they can be encouraged to take action? How intriguing!      

I was now set on finding more examples of urban (textile) art which according to the book aims to reinvent the public space. The environment is very much part of the creations that want to embellish the city at the same time as engaging the community of ‘ordinary’ passers by into claiming that public space.

Street craft invites curiosity and engagement.

What to think of this car for instance? It seemed it was parked in its drab Brussels street, simply to add wonder and fun to it.

img_1075
Indeed, why not use the back of a car to add colour to the street?
img_1074
Of course the front seats can’t stay behind. And the crown on the work:
img_1072
a dashboard full of animals & flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

To my delight I also came across urban crochet. This type of street craft, often called yarnbombing, covers buildings, trees, bike racks, statues and much more in crochet or knitting. It’s guerilla action primarily aimed at eliciting a smile from the unexpecting passer by. The creations are by definition temporary: they endure the effects of wind and rain.

img_1042
Yarnbombing
img_1044
in Brussels.

And they depend on the goodwill of the public to extend their ephemeral existence for as long as possible. Yarnbombing is a new phenomenon that arose in the new millenium. And it can be found everywhere.

 

img_0899
Crocheted circles on the bridge of 
img_0900
the Amsterdam Eye.
sayeg-bus-london
The yarnbombing of this bus in London took Knitta Please 4 days and a tón of yarn.

 

 

 

 

ishknits-sculpture3
a street sculpture by Ishknits in Oakland.
helsinki
Steps in Helsinki and

Yarnbombing is fun. It transforms existing street furniture into colourful statements that indeed make you smile.  But there’s much more to it. Not surprisingly the creators of textile street craft are mostly women, extending their traditionally intimate sphere into the streets. Often working in collectives such as Knitta Please, Craftivist Collective or Ishknits, these women reinterprete domestic techniques by playing with subject, context and proportions. And the reinterpretation is often gender inspired. Not only has street art, long dominated by graffiti, tended to be very male, the public space itself carries a masculine culture. To encourage people then to reconsider their daily environment is to open the possibility of reinterpreting its gender stereotypes. And much broader, street art invites us to reimagine a more inclusive public and community life.

The street art of women such as Olek or Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective wants to contribute to the public debate. The visual impact and the immediate character of their creations encourage the public to think, to question, to participate. The Polish born, New York based artist Olek wants to bring colour and life, energy and surprise to the public space. But she immediately acknowledges that for many, especially living in the city, life is not easy. With the old fashioned crochet technique she often uses she represents both the complexity and the interconnectedness of modern times. And she insists on strong public messages about large political themes such as the bank crisis, climate change or the condition of freedom. By thus ‘invading’ the public space she hopes to get people out of their comfort zone into a more activist stance.

olek-still-proud3
‘I’m Still Proud to Say What I Do for a Living’.
olek-underwater-bombs2
A yarn call for environmental awareness.
olek-freedom
‘There is no such thing as part freedom’.

 

Liverpool based Sarah Corbett also addresses the ambiguities of modern life. She wants “to make people stronger and to encourage them to use their talents and possibilities to become part of the solution rather than of the problem.” It’s safe to assume that she defines “the problem” rather differently from Donald Trump. But it’s equally city related and it includes the many forms of social injustice – or the question of the quality of collective life. Corbett uses cross-stitch because in true craft tradition, she likes the fact that it gives her time to think. And what she thinks about is what people may need to feel more at home in the city. Her suggestions, spread throughout the city in the form of gentle cross-stitched messages, focus on agency: it’s passively undergoing change that hurts people and makes them feel like a refugee in their own city. Corbett wants to reach out to people and empower them to help change the world, one stitch at the time. 

Corbett shows how craft can be the tool for positive activism: because it’s naturally slow and quiet, it allows the crafter to reflect deeply upon the issues he or she wants to address. And when craftivism shows itself in the city, it invites conversation. Passers by often respond spontaneously: they feel the invitation is safe and respectful. And it works! Lots of people feel empowered and they join in, whether it’s through stitching themselves or spreading the messages via social media. Corbett now trains people into “gentle activism” that is encouraging and hopeful. At the heart of Craftivism is the belief that even humble actions can be transformative. The transformation will be slow, in the way that crafting is. Yet as the confidence in our own agency grows stronger, it can more effectively affect the public world that is indeed complex.

Or how an exploratory tour through Brussels sparks reflection upon what the good (urban) life may consist of. And what it may require from us. I can’t wait to see an explosion of craft messages in all our streets. 

corbett-refugee

corbett-change2corbett-change3

 

 

 

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.