Making time: (per)forming reparative craft

Text from my symposium presentation, as part of my masters.

Introduction

My name is leves and my presentation today is titled

Making time: (per)forming reparative craft

As a textile artist, my practice involves weaving on a TC-1 Digital hand-Jacquard loom. Please share and handle the samples and explore their textures and errors. Each weft thread, interlocking with the black warp, marks my labour, throwing the shuttle, pressing the peddle, and beating it down thousands of times. The time I have spent besides my loom is woven into these very fabrics. Guided by touch, transported by rhythm and monotony, only half a mind on the task at hand.

Through the process of writing this thesis, I intend to navigate the ways unities are constructed, and how, through practices of hand making, more convivial relations can be crafted, to give texture to the social and to allow us to make time. Using Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theorisations on texture, affect and reparative reading, I bring them together into a practice of reparative craft.

Texture, affect and reparative craft

In her book, Touching Feeling, Sedgwick outlines the conceptual frameworks behind the title of the book: texture and affect, touching and feeling.

“To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it?” (13eve)

For Sedgwick, texture is intrinsically interactive. This approach to perception being indebted to post-war cybernetics and systems theory. Touch makes nonsense out of divisions between agency and passivity, and to touch is also to do so in the knowledge that others have done so before, even if it’s just in the making of the textured object. So there is a relation to labour here and the class stratifications of fabrication.

There is texture that is dense with information about how it came into being, and other textures that are smooth and glossy which defiantly or even invisibly block or refuse such information, but they never lack texture. But texture can have what Sedgwick terms a “narrative-performative density”, an “ineffaceable historicity”, a fetishism occurring for example in exoticism, “of the palpable and highly acquirable textural record of the cheap, precious work of many foreign hands in the light of many damaged foreign eyes.” (15) Sedgwick’s touch is not romanticised or distanced from the real world effects of what she speaks of.

Texture is not isolated to a single sense. Senses beyond and including the visual and the haptic are involved in the perception of texture. Texture across different senses also needs to be thought across different scales, and that no matter the scale, one bump on a surface, or even three, won’t typically constitute texture. It requires many, as texture is an array of perceptual data that can include repetition. It looks to what motivates performativity and performance, and to what individual and collective effects are mobilised. To touch in the affective turn is to encounter; to be open, responsive, active, rather than solidifying dead objects of knowledge in the epistemological tradition.

Sedgwick proposes that texture and affect, touching and feeling, belong together. Affect gives us the motivation to satisfy biological drives, but the object of affect, typically understood through their capture in our emotional states, is not proper to the affect in the way breathing air is proper to the biological drive to breathe. For example, what gives you joy may not give me joy, but we still both encounter it.

Using Sedgwick’s perceptual frameworks of texture beside affect, my paper will tend to textile practices across rhythms of labour, artistic production and performance in order to attend to the senses that each animates, the moods that motivate, and the reparative crafts that can be undertaken, embracing the error, surprise, debris and abundance that affects each of these works. To learn the many ways such practices allow selves and communities to extract sustenance from the “objects of a culture – even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.” (150-151)

How did all this debris get here?

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Much of the debris of modern life comes down to two things: accelerated and racialised production. The fashion industry introduced the concept of obsolescence with its seasonal items. The power loom which drove the Industrial Revolution fascinated Marx and Engels, whilst witnessing the jacquard loom gripped the imagination of Ada Lovelace.

Moving from the loom to modern computing, cyberfeminist theorist Sadie Plant takes up the convergence of woman and machine in cybernetic discourse.

Weaving has always been at the forefront of machinic development. The weaver, throwing the shuttle carrying the weft thread, is integrated into the machinery and its rhythms. Even in its most basic form it is a complex process, weaving together one or several threads into an integrated cloth.

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The punch card system of early jacquard looms “was an unprecedented simulation of memory”, (52) an early migration of control from weaver to machinery. A black square on graph paper would become a hole in the punch card, which would lift the warp thread. It is this function that captured the imagination of Ada Lovelace, pouring her ideas into the footnotes of a translation. Her work, initially marginalised by patriarchal history, later influenced the development of modern computing. “Never within the body of the text, women have nevertheless woven their influence between the lines.” (63-64) Now, a pixel on the screen is one intersection of warp and weft, a black pixel performing the lift.

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Plant proposes that weaving, as the art and science of software, has been “perhaps less of a contribution to civilisation than its terminal decline.” Plant speaks of the loom as being a fatal innovation, fatal to a patriarchal notion of history, defined here as the self-narrating story of man’s drive for domination, and his attempt to deny and transcend what he understands as nature. “A passage from carnal passions to self-control; a journey from the strange fluidities of the material to the self-identification of the soul.” (57-58)

Material relations have typically only been celebrated when they can be exploited, creating constructed unities. Labouring communities bear the brunt of this. By bringing Lisa Nakamura’s text Indigenous Circuits into dialogue with Sadie Plant’s work, we see how the hands that create these glossy objects of modern computing in discourses celebrating “nimble fingers”, is not only a gendered discourse, but a deeply racialised one.

Regarding gender, in the 1800s, the shift from the cottage industries to the factory floor was said to disrupt the natural rhythm of women, because “it is weaving by which woman is known” (57). Again, the essentialised “natural” is only reiterated when it can be dominated or exploited, even when ultimately it is constructed.

In Britain, the 1980s witnessed the collapse of cotton cloth manufacturing and Pakistani workers were being encouraged to labour in its failing weaving mills, yet, following deindustrialisation, labour was outsourced, overseas, often to where the workers had been recruited from. Across the Atlantic in Silicon Valley, Nakamura writes that in the 80s “electronic assembly had not just become women’s work, but women of color’s work.” (920)

Settler colonialist practices in the US marketed the traditional weaving skills of Navajo women as ideal for making circuit boards. This racialisation of the labour of Navajo women by a company called Fairchild was used in early electronics manufacturing. Fairchild’s claims to the Navajo women’s aptitude at making circuit boards drew on “existing ideas of Indians as creative cultural hand workers” (921), the brochure celebrating the idea that the women “produced circuits as part of the “reproductive” labor of expressing Navajo culture, rather than merely for wages.” (921) Although the workers were able to extract sustenance from the company that built factories in the reservations, the demand for it to be an affective labour romanticises the perceived transition from “traditional artisanal cultural work to industrial wage labor.” (928)

This is one of those strange examples in which traditionalist and non-traditionalist discourses converge, in their exploitative and exploited demands. The hands that touched this rug and this circuit board, these images taken from the brochure, are bound to a constructed unity put into the service of capital. The brazen fetishism and subsequent marketing of traditional craft shocked me, disrupting the utopian image of cyberfeminism’s weaving women, with the future at their nimble fingertips, with a different cosmology.

Abundance in the debris of history

Julia Bryan-Wilson writes in her book, Fray: Art and Textile Politics, that “even when practiced in the present, textiles are envisioned as perpetually drawn back to history.” (26fray)

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Bay area artist Angela Hennessy is interested in blackness as a colour, a metaphor, and an identity. She negotiates her experience of her body through her materials, presencing the black body, focusing on black (social) death and mourning practices. For Hennessy, each material has its own cultural biography. Her 2007 piece, Blacklets: a speck of soot or dirt, began as an etymological investigation into slang terms for black women. Black velvet, also associated with Victorian-era mourning, was one of the entries. She conjoins black velvet with a term from the 1800s for coal dust, invoking the management of black matter and black bodies.

Velvet is the product of an intricate process of double weaving in which the looped fibres are cut to form the soft surface. Hennessy unravels the velvet between her fingers, teasing warp from weft, disarticulating filament from nap, appearing as hair mixed with dust and other debris. These fibres drift, actively inhabiting the white space of the gallery, resonating with Glenn Ligon’s use of Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Hennessy emphasises that these raced, gendered, and classed materials are sites of plenitude rather than deficit.

Édouard Glissant uses the poetics of weaving throughout his text ‘For Opacity’, writing that “in Relation the whole is not the finality of its parts.” With Hennessy’s piece, we see that by trying to reduce the fabric to its parts, we see that it is indeed, irreducible. Hennessy states during an interview that whilst unravelling the velvet, she considered the psychological state of unravelling, and how we never really let ourselves be undone.

Weaving has long been a poetic measure of time. In Greek mythology, Penelope weaves in the day and unravels her work at night in order to disrupt the assumed course of finding a new suitor in the wake of losing her husband. A colleague in the weaving workshop said that through the story of Penelope, it is thought that men spend their time, divesting it in a consumer relation, whereas women visualise their time, and that when she dies, you see her time in her weaving.

However, Bryan-Wilson builds on the historicity of textiles, saying “past and present collapse when histories erupt in the now. With its anachronistic collisions and unspooling into the future, craft time can intersect with queer time […] looping back between past and present and veering into imagined futures.” (262fray) Queer time is established through its difference from conventional imperatives of time, and, to quote Jack Halberstam, “queer uses of time and space develop… in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction.” Queerness itself being “an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices.”

Diedrick Brackens, a Los Angeles based queer fibre artist, makes “issues of impermanence, decoration and rehabilitation” central to his work. Like history itself, his work is always a composite creation, a self-conscious construction that carries with it the debris of history and desire, a literal piecing together of histories that remain present today, in a queer collapse of time. Brackens says that the process of handweaving cotton is a small way to pay tribute to those who came before him, and worked with the material under very different circumstances. The black figures are woven in using an extra weft yarn. You can see on the reverse of the fabric that the white figure is woven into the structure of the fabric, but the black figures are woven across the surface, the black figures are not integral to the structure of the cloth. He weaves his time.

Brackens remixes the textile techniques of his heritage, working with an adapted form of kente cloth, a West African process of strip weaving traditionally done by men, whilst women spin and dye the yarns. Brackens’ adapted kente cloth is a practice of reparative craft, guided by the question: “‘what would it mean for queer people to be working intimately with the cultural symbols on the continent?’ to literally be a part of the fabric of the system trying desperately to deny their existence” (58queerthreads) Brackens literally has a practice that extracts creative sustenance from a culture that desires his erasure, the type of reparative practice which Sedgwick encourages us to learn from.

Both Hennessy and Brackens are undertaking a reparative practice, with different strategies – whether mourning or navigating one’s own affective and material embodiment, to improvising and assembling new histories that demands fresh engagement to embrace working beside such errors. Inciting and mobilising both individual and collective effects.

Making time: to (per)form reparative craft

Fred Moten writes in his book, In The Break, that “For Caribbean man, the word is first and foremost sound. Noise is essential to speech. Din is discourse… Since speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. […] This is how the dispossessed man organized his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise.” (7)

Forty knitters, with contact microphones attached to each needle, create a patter of metallic, digital rain in Oreet Ashery’s performance piece titled Passing Through Metal. Eighty channels of the clacking of needles, amplifying the sonic element of something instantly recognisable but rarely focused on. Ashery speaks of how each knitter has their own rhythm, which you can hear as part of the collective noise, or isolate an individual’s knitting rhythm.

The knitters are in concert with a death metal band, or sludge and doom metal if you want to be niche. Speaking on the genre, she says the lyrics are full of doom and sludge, yet contain hope in human activity that is maybe quiet but can be amplified. On her website, Ashery picks out lyrics from one of the performed songs, ‘A Line In the Sand’

“death before me

debris behind me

the end is getting closer

will we manage?”

For Ashery, there is the relation to death and its technologies, but also to potential communities, which she (per)forms, as well as political loss. The reference to death even built into the architecture of the performance space, a fake floor tilted skywards, towards the heavens.

There is a queer revelry and resistance to the piece, under Ashery’s influence, but the band find this relation difficult. This shyly convivial collective of knitters don’t respond to them, knitting long black cables, like those used to plug in their guitars. They had been told to ignore everything and just knit – even when the singer is screaming in their faces.

The production of these survivors yarns is fundamental. Ashery attends to people’s experiences of knitting as a methodical activity that can pull people out of depression, that offers hope, and focusing on the fact that it can often be something you do for somebody else. Knitting someone a hat for example. The hope contained in the amplification of reparative human activity.

Craft time is the time of the handmade, refined by the wisdom and knowledge of the collective, but still marked by error, folding and unravelling. Handmaking becomes a method for extending, or dragging out, time while remaining insistently present. Like Penelope, who weaves in the day and unravels her work at night, she makes use of craft time to disrupt her assumed course.

In her text Prognosis Time, Jasbir Puar writes that convivial “encounters are rarely comfortable mergers but rather entail forms of eventness that could potentially unravel oneself but just as quickly be recuperated through a restablised self.” (169)

To conclude, craft time is a way of making time. The handmade compels a generative turn to the material. The handmade is a methodological orientation, and in order to make a body social there are durational patterns. I want to explore craft time, queer time, and prognosis time, as they intersect through the textures of the handmade, queerness and ability. Textiles has an affective futurity, encountering and forming new bodies, textured objects, and ways of making time.