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.

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.

Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book 😉

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist. She seems to explore any medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works! The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit (2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the fabric works below, all Untitled (2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

totem2
Remember the pastel colours, they return later 😉

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

lullaby-boek
The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours ànd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also some reference to the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’.  There I readlb-boek2 that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all! Alas I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile.   

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself: “All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

clothes1
Blue Days (1996)
clothes2
Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
Femme-Maison 2001
Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

rood-hoofd
Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.” Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel Pastoureau which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

The Waiting Hours 2007
The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
red-cell 1994
One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? 😉

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as the usage of her own clothes, gives body to the universal. As Novesky puts it: “Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis. In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage, to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

geel-web-moeder

geel-web-2005
Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing (left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again. The reference is very much deliberate: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007) Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer. 

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection. 

The spider enters Bs work 1947)
The first appearance (1947)
spin-london 2007
Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning: one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

spin-tapiss5-2003
in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
Spider 1997
In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself: “Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

pink-days
An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
pastel4 2002
pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
pastel2
completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider 2007
Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked. Spider (2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother. The drama of the separation, from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois: “Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-careThis is the essence of mindfulnessAnd I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

loslaten-geheel2

 

The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

img_6160
The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
loslaten-rechts
a holder to fix rainpipes,
loslaten-hand2
and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can be our own spider and through the process of reparation, weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile. 

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence handschoen.

loslaten-hand

bart6

loslaten-tekst2

You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.

The Enlightening Flow of Craft

When I was ten, I was determined to learn lacemaking. I can’t remember where I got this from, I knew no one who made lace. At a guess I must have gotten intrigued at one of the many exhibitions to which our parents took us. I was delighted to discover this was a craft that could actually be learnt. And my mother found an elderly lady in her native village who was prepared to teach a singleminded girl. These were the seventies, with a revival of interest in traditional crafts. Alas, the setting was the putting on display of people exercising these crafts in distinctly artificial settings.

IMG_0489
The shawl was distinctly not traditional but crocheted by a family friend – and my favourite for years.

An obligatory part was the ‘dressing up’ in what were supposed to be authentic clothes. Initially I made very traditional lace too, think trimmings to embellish a posh handkerchief – not very exciting for a ten-year-old. But apparently I enjoyed it, so much so that I made a clay self-portrait of which, amazingly, the head and the lacemaking cushion survive up to this day!

IMG_0507

 

 

 

 

 

Later I followed lessons closer to homeIMG_0460 and there the emphasis was on applying the traditional methods in more contemporary 
designs. I have very little evidence of this, as most of what I made, I gave away to anyone who happened to have cause for celebration. Surprisingly, I didn’t think then to document my lacey efforts for a future blog 😉 

I haven’t made lace in years, I have no idea whether I could still do it. Is it like riding a bike, something one never unlearns? I continue to find lace appealing though and I can rarely resist it, when I come upon it at a car boot sale for instance. I have old lace and new, very fine and rather rough, and, of course, in a variety of colours, sizes and patterns. I find it comes in handy when a skirt found in a secondhand shop is lovely – but not quite long enough to my liking. More generally  I can certainly recommend it as an easy addition to achieve that je-ne-sais-quoi with your outfit!

022_20

IMG_4687I also continue to include lace in my craft projects, whether it’s in jewelry,
mittens and shawls,
or home decoration.

016_14
These felted angels which I presented at a crafts’ fair around Christmas, happily flew off, intent to spread joy elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the process has been slow, I’m delighted that crafts are finally shedding their old-fashioned aura (including the silly clothes!) and are being incorporated into a creative context which treasures craftsmanship  and sees it as a source for, why not, innovation. In the Netherlands there is the Crafts Council which aims for just such a upgrading, with for instance Dutch Darlings, a competition to create innovative and sustainable souvenirs based on Dutch craft expertise. The Bruges based NGO tapis plein is recognised by the Flemish Commission of Unesco as the expert centre for participatory heritage and examines (among others) how cultural habits and practices from the past can affect present society. The current focus is with ‘intangible’ heritage and the resulting publication A Future for Crafts brings together an impressive anthology of Flemish craftspeople, techniques, practices and inspirational quotes which demonstrate the contemporary strength of crafts.

For me it was reading Richard Sennett‘s The Craftsman which alerted me to the powerful effect crafts can have on one’s life. Sennett writes in detail about the grounding of skill in physical practice. Sennett2He identifies three basic abilities as the foundation of craftsmanship: the ability to localize, to question, and to open up. This is about ‘focal attention’, about remaining curious and being open to shift habits & prejudices in the tradition of the Enlightenment. When the brain deploys these various capabilities, it processes in parallel visual, aural, tactile, and language-symbol information. This in itself offers attractive perspectives of creativity, supported by the most recent neurological findings about many, strong circuit connections in the brain. Sennett also praises slow craft time as it allows for the appropriation of skills and carries the promise of evolution and growth. Moreover it encourages reflection, imagination – and thus innovation. Surely these are all talents that the contemporary ‘skills society’ seeks?

Sennett relates his valuation of craftsmanship to Western history and its fault-lines between artist & craftsman, mind & matter, or theory & practice, with the latter part of the equations consistently being dealt a rough deal. Divergently Sennett presents craftsmanship as a practice of ‘the good life’ which stands in marked contrast to the values that are predominant in our world today. Most specifically, ‘craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, namely the desire to do a job well for its own sake‘ (my italics). Inherently (wo)man strives for quality: it’s an instinctive aspiration which generates genuine satisfaction. This is what Peter Korn, a reflective furniture craftsman, values when he explores ‘why we make things and why it matters’.korn As anyone knows who practices craft in any form, it brings about awareness and patience, it engages deeply and allows hope for progress. In short, it energizes to the point of creating flow as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined it. This is an ‘optimal experience’ of deep enjoyment and creativity, flowof total involvement in and connection with life. This is also what transforms our experience of time and which the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen identifies with the Greek god Kairos: sharpened by craftlike talents such as awareness and concentration,kairos it is precisely the quality of the moment which releases otherwise hidden possibilities. Time then feels benevolent because it’s fuller and more engaging. It also opens new perspectives of renewal and growth. 

Yet in reality people mostly experience the tyranny of time – which closes the potential of authenticity and creativity. And utility rules, which implies that for most people the consequences of their work are outside the work: their activity is merely a means to an end – which they may find difficult to connect with. There is a lot of talk about ‘workable work’, yet so many suffer from poor psychological health including burn-out. This then is what I consider to be the import of the renewed attention to crafts: if the recent re-interpretation includes, as it should, reflection upon the good life, we may indeed hope for ‘innovation’ whereby practices from the past can activate their powers to transform for the better our contemporary lives.

The Enlightenment believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work of some kind, that there is an intelligent crafts(wo)man in most of us. Sennett argues that that faith still makes sense – if we so choose. As an Enlightenment historian I find this argument very compelling. And I do experience flow and kairos in the making of the earlier mentioned box installations. To close the circle of this post, I hope to illustrate all this with an installation which includes lace. The matter of the installation is the result of craft practice, its ‘mind’ aims to focus attention towards one of the ingredients of the good life. 

teder 1

The ‘theme’ of this box installation is tenderness, with the quote reading:

teder 8
An appeal to be delicate & gentle.

 

It’s in your self-interest

to find a way to be very tender.

I made the installation at a time when I was not experiencing too much tenderness in my own life. Hence I wondered what that meant to me, which characteristics did I associate with tenderness, what would it look like if visualised? This required my ‘opening up’ to the dismal thought that perhaps it was present but I simply couldn’t see it? Hence I included the braille. Or was I myself being too prickly – hence the hazelnut husk-, therefore aloof to the power of tenderness? Further exploration revealed something distinctly fragile: tenderness exposes, it renders both the donor and the receiver vulnerable – which is a quality our world does not value very much. I visualized this with a beautiful porcelain schard which I found carelessly discarded in the street, the fragile skeleton of a Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) and an intent little girl in between. The longing for tenderness may be a trap, as if it were a cage which promises comfort but actually means closure away from life. In the right dose though and with the right intentions tenderness is sweet – also, notice the texture of the sugar stick! And it’s worth aspiring to, because of its potential to empower the people involved. The pearl and cristal hanger refer to the richess that tenderness can add to our lives.

IMG_0573
It may require craftsmanship to see & feel the power of tenderness,
IMG_0561
to appropriate its fragility & vulnerability,
IMG_0568
and to be fully open to its sweetness, worth & richess.

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, of course, tenderness is delicately soft, hence the central photo of a child’s lace dress. Obviously my visualisation is particular and not exhaustive: what would the intelligent crafts(wo)man in you add in the open space left in the middle?

teder 1IMG_9585

Hold Your Horses

I’ve always enjoyed putting things together. And create extra meaning that way.

I also read a lot. I’m usually reading four or five books at any one time. The great thing about such binge reading is that the books ‘feed’ each other, or rather that they feed me with connective thoughts, including intriguing questions on what life is all about. So I collect triggering quotes, which is just one illustration of me being a collector. But at a certain point in time, the question became: what to do with all those collections? Rather than letting them be, separately, as a fragmented illustration of some part of me, could I bring them together somehow? Or the other way round: could I engage those collections to imagine a more integrated version of myself?

I came up with what I call box installations. They are three dimensional visions of identification, a materialisation of what’s important and valuable to me, what I aspire to or what preoccupies my mind. The initial concept for a box installation, I’ve noticed now that this is turning into a series (I’ll show more in future posts), arrives ‘naturally’: gradually I become aware of its prominence in my thoughts and feelings. The making of is much more time consuming. It starts with moving objects about a lot: trying combinations of old boxes taken apart, brocante trinkets, finds from anywhere, quotes, photographs (preferably my own) and fabrics. And once I’m satisfied with the harmony between the concept and its material form, there remains the crucial challenge of making the entire construction stable. This involves not-to-be-seen constructions with anchoring stones, cardboard rears with folds in the right places, different types of glue to serve the variety of used materials, etc. 

horses
Horse box installation,

 

Making these box installations has become a great source of inspiration & joy. Not in the least because it’s also a great way to exercise my colour fundamentalism 😉

 

horses text2
quote by James L. Harter,
with blue felted horses to be held.
with blue needlefelted horses to be held.
hold your horses, keep your senses keen, seek your answers,    know your sources, remember all you’ve seen

I believe it’s important to honour the importance of (your) history and to remain curious about any questions that may dwell in your head. If you’ve kept your senses keen, you’ve seen a lot. And all that can inspire. But also remember to defer your judgment. The world will be so much warmer & more merciful for it. And don’t we all need that?