Cindy Baker at dc3 Art Projects, May 4 – June 16, 2018
Cindy Baker's Crash Pad at dc3 Art Projects in Edmonton skirts the edges of what is usually recognized as craft. The exhibition of drawings, a performable sculpture and its animation through a series of individual and two-person performances shares an attentive concern with craft for the material constraints of, and about, the body. These constraints are determined by the specific properties of the objects we use and the spaces we inhabit, as much as they are imposed by the ideals informing the design of the built environment and the social relations therein. The constraints are systemic, embedded in the architectural and social space organizing daily life; they are also personal, located deeply and intimately with specific bodies and specific capacities for response or refusal.
Baker is a visual and performance artist whose practice draws on art history and queer theory, fat advocacy, and disability theory. Her work is realized through simple gestures that turn the subjects of her enquiry askew. The effect is a pause: a momentary opening to reflect on the broader conditions of gender, sexuality, and the body she confronts with her work. Textiles and craft are deployed extensively throughout to evoke the everyday, the domestic, the sociality of queer communities, and the labour of production. Although this may suggest a now routine method of challenging the status of craft within the art world, Baker's approach isn't merely a dismissal of the institutional bias. She holds onto the “low” status of craft, exploiting it to expose the systems which produce and maintain the hierarchy in the first place. Craft theorist Lacey Jane Roberts aligns this technique with camp, and the tactic of overperforming a marginalized identity to reclaim and displace it from the power structures which enforce and restrict its social position.
All Things to All Men (and Women) is one example of how Baker displaces the body from an external identifying constraint, in this case the regiment of fashion. The installation of underwear strung from a line and tacked to the gallery wall contrasts the size and style of each garment in order to elicit the differences between the imagined bodies of the wearers. The conceptual representation of the absent bodies is made by setting the real material presence of the underwear in place as the objects of fetish, fantasy, or desire. Another example of a transgressive displacement is Pride Flag for Lesbians Who Stay Home with Their Cats. Made in collaboration with Megan Morman, the flag is a textile rendering of a cat symbol between two ♀s seated on a purple loveseat. They described the project as being for their community: “Ladies who prefer to stay at home with their cats.” In this case, the flag is a public envoy claiming a space in the public realm while signalling the interior spaces of lesbian domesticity. It also shrugs with the question: why bother going out when we could stay in with our cat?
In Crash Pad, Baker expands the critique made by these earlier projects of normative beauty and “compulsory heterosexuality” to consider what happens when a person is unable to meet, or deviates from, these standards. Expressed in terms of failure and the body's inability to perform, the installation and performance scheme frame an opportunity for viewers to sense their own bodies, how they work, or don't, and what they need for support.
Figure drawings of queer fat women show couples and groups getting ready for bed — undressing, taking medication, and putting mobility assistance devices away. The architectural context is removed from each drawing, the interior space of the women's bedrooms only indicated by the arrangement of furniture, potted plants, windows open to the night sky, and a few of those furry little friends. Comprising mainly people and objects, the drawings define figures that exceed the discrete physicality of individuals.They suggest the body is a dynamic, relational configuration of the things that furnish our surroundings and help us get through another day.
At the opposite end of the gallery, the crash pad itself sits on the floor in front of a wall of Toile de Jouy wallpaper made from scenes depicted in the drawings. The large, bed-like platform is modelled after a pill and blister pack, a reference to medication Baker took at one point. Its rounded base means it tilts and teeters whenever Baker moves on it. Her performances with the sculpture vary but basically involve being on the bed for prolonged periods. Crash Pad is a departure from the demonstration of physical endurance common to her previous performance projects, many of which left her needing extensive recuperation. Pragmatically, the low intensity performance responds to fluctuations in her health and can be performed at almost any time. Conceptually, and along the lines of Roberts' use of overperformance, Baker's presentation of her “disabled, or otherwise socially taboo body” at rest (not working) is an underperformance: a reclamation that recognizes the body's failings/failures and places them low to the ground in an action that shows the destabilizing effects between a person and her environment. The Crash Pad performance challenges the ethical valuation of working as a discriminatory ideal by undermining the very notion of what it means to work hard.
I visited the gallery on an afternoon when Baker performed with dancer Brian Webb. Both were nude and appeared to be dozing in and out of sleep when I came in. Baker, tilted backwards on the crash pad and covered by a duvet comforter with the same toile pattern as the wallpaper, held her foot in a gentle stretch. Webb was beside her on the floor lying on a grey felt mat. When he noticed me he whispered “We have guests.” What felt like an invitation to share the space relieved and announced the prospect of voyeuristic objectification, a tension typical of Baker’s work. The portion of the performance I saw consisted of slow movements and incidental posing akin to life models. Webb sat on the floor, leaned against the wall or walked nude around the gallery. Baker's face flushed red from the being upside down for so long. The crash pad wobbled the whole time. The two performers’ work of subtle improvisational and reciprocal gestures resulted in scenes similar to those pictured on the wallpaper and duvet cover.
When I suggest that Baker's work and craft have a common interest in what constrains the body, I have in mind a variety of limitations and pressures bodies encounter when coming up against their particular spatial situation. For instance, the emotional, energetic and physical abilities of the body limit a person's capacity to act out into the world. Although these limits can be extended or surpassed with objects, tools and other technologies (like medication), the constraints remain prescient reminders of human frailty and potential. Similarly, how the body is changed by the provisional use of objects prompts questions about the extent of the body’s form, and just where exactly it is separate from the tools it uses and the environments it lives in. Bodies become inextricable from their material and social context, as shown in Baker’s drawings and performances, when objects are considered integral to a person’s ability. Lastly, the economy and built environment direct movement, structure routine and put people in proximity with one another. ‘Successful’ navigation of these conditions requires a body to perform according to the forces they exert, to either conform or labour in compliance. Refusing to comply is also an option.
What does all this have to do with craft? The drawings, wobbly bed thing, duvet and wallpaper furnish an interior enlivened by Baker's performances. This is a space of instability, of comfort and of queer support. The thresholds are embodied by Baker and her co-performers, delimited beneath the soft covers and in front of the wallpaper background.
There is a straightforward connection between interiors, and the attention craft gives to the formal and utilitarian aspects of objects and the roles they play in our lives. But, for me, what lies at the overlap of Crash Pad and the materials, techniques, and social practices that compose craft, is a critical redress of function (how things work) and decoration (the spatial and symbolic effects of objects). Baker's approach to material and visual culture sets performance amongst objects and images as a way to consider how bodies, objects and other people all come together in the spaces they live. These relationships produce the social and economic systems implicated in Baker's work. Resting—not working—is a short step from being broken. And being broken is another short step from being non-functional. Refusing normative utility by placing a broken, non-functional body at rest is a failure—a failure enacted to reveal the configurations of these systems, and the pressures they apply to bodies in their midst.
A tactic of underperformance marks more than the simple dichotomy between functional and non-functional forms. It opens up the logic of function for reconsideration and illuminates the ideals of success and productivity underlying the ethos of utility. It shows the force objects have to shape and move the body, and becomes a way to reclaim and redirect those movements with critical sensitivity toward creating the material and social spaces we inhabit.
 Lacey Jane Roberts, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 246.
 “Pride Flag for Lesbians Who Stay Home With Their Cats,” accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.populust.ca/cinde/wp/tag/flag
 “Compulsory heterosexuality” is a term elaborated by Sarah Ahmed to describe how the naturalization of heterosexual desired is enforced by social institutions such as the family. Of interest in this case is how these institutions organize public and private space to encourage their reproduction while prohibiting other forms of love, sexual and social contact. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 84-87.
 “Cindy Baker, Crash Pad,” dc3 Art Projects, accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.dc3artprojects.com/cindy-baker-crash-pad
This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2018-19 issue of Studio Magazine