We don’t normally make a lot of connection between textiles and digital film technology. Yet their natural symbiosis intriguingly comes to life in “Punctures: Textiles in Digital and Material Time,” through July 3 at Space Gallery.
The show originated at the Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center in Buffalo, New York. It was organized by Ekrem Serdar, a Turkish-born former film programmer, who connects these threads in his statement:
“From the Lumière brothers taking the intermittent motion of a sewing machine to create the cinematograph, to the punched cards of the Jacquard loom forming the basis of modern calculation, and the role of sewing and gendered work in jobs like editing and dye in film production, textile production remains an essential, but insufficiently unrecognized, formal and social influence on the media arts.
Some of the works on display have more literal connections that are easy for the viewer to understand. For example, activist artist Betty Yu has created several videos that document her family’s exploitation as Chinese immigrants forced to work for next to nothing in New York’s sweatshops. The videos are part of a larger installation that occupies the window of Space and wraps around a corner to a perpendicular wall to the left as you enter the gallery.
The installation’s videos and artifacts are disturbing both for the stories those close to him tell about working conditions and pay, and because they make it clear that this is not a thing of the past but, for many many contemporary Chinese immigrants, a clear and present reality.
Trump’s demonization of the Chinese people and the anti-Asian violence it continues to instigate is just a modern echo of the many historical humiliations those close to Yu have faced. There are T-shirts printed with copies of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to restrict immigration to appease white paranoia about Chinese workers taking their jobs (absurd at first glance since only 0.002% of the population in 1882 was Chinese). A wallet filled with official documents that family members were required to carry with them to prove their immigration status and allegiance to America. Other ephemera document the founding of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance to fight discrimination.
Sabrina Gschwandtner contributes a “video quilt” called “Hands at Work”. The screen is populated by a grid of triangles on which are projected excerpts from 16mm and 35mm archive films of women performing various tasks related to textile production and manual labor: weaving straw, weaving weaving, rolling fabric rolls, sewing, knitting, trapunto stitching, threading a needle and so on. These appear in triangles that are interspersed with solid color triangles, with the grid configuration changing regularly throughout the loop of the video.
The work is not politically charged like Yu’s installation is – at least not on the surface. Yet, considering the dangerous and poorly ventilated factory conditions in which many of these women worked, as well as the implications of textile technologies such as repetitive motion disorder, the piece takes on a certain omen.
As the end credits roll, the colorful triangles are filled with handicrafts, such as real quilts. It made me wish Gschwandtner had started this at the beginning and continued it throughout the film rather than using solid colors. This element not only adds to the visual richness of the piece, but also gives it a deeper resonance by acknowledging the beauty of what women have produced over time.
At the center of the gallery and imposing a large sculptural presence is Eniola Dawodu’s ‘Iran Si Iran’, which means ‘from generation to generation’, although the wall text does not say in which language. Artist and costume designer, Dawodu pays homage to African textiles and the women who have created them for centuries. The piece, suspended from the ceiling, is made of synthetic hair fibers woven in collaboration with Wolof hairdressers in Dakar, Senegal, and Majak weavers in an area of the city called Fass Canal 4.
Placed below is a simple wooden stool where spectators are encouraged to sit. I strongly recommend doing this, because suddenly the sculpture becomes a kind of huge ceremonial headdress. The feeling I had as I sat on the stool, my head brushing against the woven fibers, was one of powerful transmission. It was as if I could somehow connect through time to the awesome spirit of these weavers. I don’t know what the digital connection of the film is in this room, if there is one. But it didn’t really matter as I sat there, goosebumps spreading over my skin and shivers racing up my spine.
The link with digital film seems evident in “La Noche de las Especies” by Cecilia Vicuña. It is, after all, a video projected onto a wall in a dark space at the back of the gallery. But for those who are unfamiliar with the work of this artist, it is the textile link that will be unfathomable. Vicuña is a Chilean poet and multidisciplinary artist whose work, in the words of art historian Roberto Tejada, “is in essence ‘a way of remembering’. ”
For Vicuña, words are vehicles for giving voice to what has been forgotten or remains unsaid. Moreover, she sees a connection between the word and the yarn. For years she made this explicit in her explorations of the quipu, an ancient Incan system of recording information by tying different types of knots in different colored threads. Words and quipu are therefore the two languages which manifest what is not manifested. Hence an implicit, but not apparent, link between digital film and manual fiber work.
The “species” started out as graphite drawings made up of words that were then digitized and turned into video animations resembling plankton and microscopic sea life. The letters slowly float across the screen, but their varying font sizes and ways of moving in and out of frame compel us to wait patiently to reveal the phrases they spell: “Hilos vivos” (living sons),” Suelo submarine” (sea floor), “Vivos alviento” (living in the wind), “Pelo sensor y discos anemonas” (referring to the sensory hairs of sea anemones), “Membranas nictititantes” (nictitating membranes that protect the internal eye, like those we see in fish or birds). In this way, the video seems to evoke the creation of life, which, according to the theory of evolutionists, originated with aquatic microorganisms that emerged from deep-sea hydrothermal vents. With this in mind, the experience of the 60-minute video becomes a moving and meditative origin story.
There are also other works: a video and a “trans-fashion” garment by Charlie Best that challenge the binary vision of sexuality conveyed by the media. A memorable clip shows a woman impersonating Charlie Chaplin over whom we hear a conversation about same-sex attraction from the movie “Victor Victoria.”
“All I Say Is True” features elements of a performance by Oglala Lakota artist Suzanne Kite. We wish the videos here were actually of the performance piece itself, which involved the recitation of a poem about various inhumanities perpetrated against Native Americans, while the videos here were projected onto Kite as she danced in the exposed dress. It’s a lot to ask the viewer to put all these elements – dress, poem, videos – together in their head. As with any exhibition of concept art, of course, doing it justice requires a lot more time than the half-hour slots you have to set aside for viewing.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]