At The Border
As I sit in a rural US state, reflecting on North American craft, it seems impossible to ignore the strip of cleared land that separates Montana from Alberta. The Canadian–US border bisects North America in a crooked meander, marked by highways, border crossings, and bridges. In between these, the ample geographic mass of North America runs wild, leaving large swathes of forest and farmland straddling an arbitrary and invisible line. To demarcate the border in these “in-between” spaces, the Canadian and US governments agreed to a six-metre clearing, a barren stripe devoid of trees that spans North America.
“Border” has become a fearful buzzword, like drone or refugee, one that immediately fills conversations with complexity and controversy. Beyond the physical, borders constitute the ideological and figurative “edges” of disciplines, ideas, and theories. The borders of craft have been traditionally established around skillful handmaking of functional goods in the medium of fibre, glass, wood, metal, or ceramic. In my previous article for Studio, “Why I’m done defining craft” (Fall/Winter 2018–19), I rejected these traditional borders, though I’m hardly the first. This is not to say that borders aren’t valuable, or that an open-ended non-definition necessitates a “boundless” field. Rather, the borders of craft allow for critical investigation of work that can transgress established boundaries, mingle with different spheres, or shift the border entirely. I look to the border of craft on a much smaller scale, more interested in the points that connect the edges than the field inside. Consider this essay a checkpoint or a back road, just one of the many points of entry into this diverse set of makers, practices, and results.
I was first attracted to Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s critique of institutional craft within a broader feminist practice. Dion Fletcher’s work often focuses on communication: between herself as an artistic performer and her audience; between her chosen materials and her body; between her position as an “Indigenous feminist body with a neurodiverse mind” and the rigid colonialism of the English language and its embodied norms.
Using “porcupine quills, Wampum belts, and menstrual blood” while working within traditional craft media like textiles, Dion Fletcher’s practice constitutes a shifting border at the edge of craft. This checkpoint is radical and activist, “underground” in a larger craft narrative. Dion Fletcher articulates a craft that is unmoored from viewer expectations, using an embodied knowledge of material to confront both craft’s white supremacy and the Western landscape at large. In her 2017 work, Own Your Cervix, Dion Fletcher pairs embroidery and quillwork, Native and European iconography, and installation and participation to create an immersive experience that reflects on the marginalization of both women’s and Indigenous people’s labour in the artistic canon, as well as a larger conversation about access to reproductive health.
Craft criticism can no longer call either feminist or Indigenous perspectives “new,” but Dion Fletcher’s use of craft materials and practices offers a novel reconsideration of the performance of craft and the potency of such an impulse when reflecting on marginalized groups. First, Dion Fletcher’s performances (like her 2015 video work Testing) make visible the complexities of bodies that have been marginalized. In both video and object installation, Dion Fletcher’s work says, “Watch me make…” confronting the viewer’s expectations of who does the making of craft, and what kinds of objects are produced. In Colonial Comfort, Dion Fletcher embroiders a large, opulent, white couch with menstrual blood stains, and then outlines them with porcupine quills, immediately shifting the passive role of a functional couch to an active, hostile one, a piece of craft aggressively engaged with its potential user.
In Testing, Dion Fletcher further shifts craft from the museological preservation and exhibition of objects to the “doing” of craft. Here, craft is verb, as the artist viscerally uses her body as material and subject, repeatedly pricking her finger (a historically “female” affliction connected to spinning and sewing) with quills and placing them between her clamped lips. Commenting on the colonial violence of “blood quantums,” Testing renders Dion Fletcher both the embroidery and embroiderer, acting craft upon her own body. Rather than a craft that is static, object-based and functional, Dion Fletcher’s practice shifts craft’s border to the embodied, engaged and performative.
Other performative craftworks, like “Walking With Our Sisters,” rely upon the collective labour of a group of participants rather than on the artist performing the labour themselves—Christi Belcourt in this case. While the finished object is striking, with 1,810 pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) plus 118 pairs of children’s vamps on exhibition, the true potency in the piece relies on the collective effort of hundreds of individuals who created and donated.
If collaborative practice (like quilting circles) constitutes one border of craft practice, individual mastery constitutes another. Matt Lambert, a Detroit-based artist with Ontario roots, uses expertly crafted and kinetic jewelry to build upon craft practices such as silversmithing, leather working, embroidery and woven rug restoration. Considering the jewelry-wearer to be a collaborator, however, Lambert expands the context of his work to queer the body politic of a cisgendered, white North America. In both Lambert’s and Belcourt’s work, performance becomes the site of care, concern, and labour, as participants channel their rage and worry into repetitive crafting and expressive use.
This focus on the performative is not about a desire to descend into the “identity politics” of craft, which is often tokenizing, but to make visible the importance of “the body” within contemporary craft discourse, particularly those of marginalized peoples. The performative impulse resituates craft’s boundaries to the potentiality of the body rather than the object. Craft becomes a matter of becoming, of embodiment, a manifestation of a “doing” rather than a “done.” As artists like Dion Fletcher and Belcourt continue to use craft as a method of communication and a basis for action, viewers and critics must contend with the possibility of a walking, talking craft, one that resists marginalization, neat description, and tidy encasement.
Craft’s history is not always as idyllic, unalienated, or sustainable as some would have us believe. Far from it. Craft actively traffics in extraction economies, exploited labour and bottomless consumption, while its practitioners attempt sustainability, unalienated and fair labour practices, and ethical commercialism.
One such artist, Tsēmā Igharas, has paid close attention to her position as a member of the Tahltan nation, particularly in relation to the active mining for jade, obsidian, and other extracted materials on Tahltan land. In Khohk’ātskets’mā (2016), Igharas created Riot Rock Rattles by casting fist-sized rocks in rawhide, copper, and clay (all extracted materials) and filling them with soil, beads, and copper from Canadian pennies. These raucous rattles were handed out for participants to shake, loudly, accompanied by a sound piece featuring the sounds of water, sewing machines and drums. In accordance with Igharas’ practice of Potlatch Methodology, participants were traded beads (also made from pennies) for their participation and asked permission beforehand. The trading of goods and verbal exchange of consent set this apart from many artistic performances, and underscored the artist’s criticality of extraction policies and practices.
In an upcoming piece, Igharas will collaborate with two friends, one that she met at Speculative Energy Futures (a collaborative, multi-year research-creation project), and one who works in the Alberta Tar Sands. Igharas is careful to present both as collaborators, and is hyper-aware of her exchanges with them. Igharas realizes that craft cannot exist within a vacuum, and that it participates in a number of economies—material, financial, emotional. Rather than merely exhibiting finished objects without context, Igharas carefully mines the context of craft: the relationships, the chain of production, the politics of access.
With her collaborators, Igharas was able to acquire raw bitumen and core samples; the latter she photographed and then reprinted on satin to then be used in a quilt. While this project on its own—a quilt printed with a raw bitumen pattern from the Alberta Tar Pits—already presents a new border in craft, one conscious of its environment and considerate of its resources, Igharas has also pushed the limits of her practice further by building her own sewing machine to audibly play the sounds of the tar pits, moving water, and a drum beat whenever her feet touch the treadle. Igharas titled the piece, Kontsets∙i e˙na∙eneslus which means “An echo, I am Sewing."
Igharas’ retrofitting of her own tools, to be used in future performances, resituates the visible crafting body as both necessarily seen and available for instruction. After her performance Sinuosity (2018) with Jeneen Frei Njootli, where the two performers used their own hair as craft material, braiding themselves together with rope and flagging tape, Igharas realized that her favourite performances were ones where she was making or teaching. In this way, even her workshops have become performances, where participants rely on physical cues from the performer-teacher. Still, she says, “while workshops have become a great way to explore Potlatch Methodology in practice, I’m careful about mining the participants, mining their knowledge, questions, and even sense of wonder.”
Igharas’ ongoing practice questions the politics of access for both students and artists. In her 2017–18 piece Ejinda: Push It!, Igharas stretched and tanned a moose hide, using only materials available to her from the hardware store including ice scrapers and crowbars. Now the artist has returned to the tools of her grandparents, a “perfect” caribou bone hide scraper. Rather than focus on the use of the tool (tanning), Igharas now turns a craft-like focus to the tool itself, carefully scanning and plotting it, replicating and considering it. While traditional casting might happen in bronze or ceramic, Igharas challenged herself to 3D scan and print the bone scraper in a variety of plastics and sizes. One set she’ll use as earrings; another set were cast in resin, then dipped in dye she had made for dyeing caribou hair.
What exists in the barren stretch of mere metres of border that cleaves countries apart? In a literal sense, the border is constituted of soil and land that has been cleared of timber and rocks, earth both managed and exploited for ideological and practical purposes. This is the earth, the material of our borders - creative and political.
In 2018, Argentine visual artist and educator, Dana Prieto, made a tiered, delicate black bowl with soil contaminated by Bajo de la Alumbrera mine in Belen, Argentina entitled 1:10000 Bajo la Alumbrera, its form modeled after the elevations of the mine. Commenting on the exploitative Canadian mining practices in the global South, Prieto’s bowl is contaminated (like the land it comes from) with arsenic, cadmium, mercury and sulphuric acids. These bowls read as luxury objects, with exquisite finishes and handcrafted wooden cases and Prietro will send them to the CEO and Corporate Social Responsibility executives of Yamana Gold and Goldcorp, both companies currently operating the Bajo la Alumbrera mine. Like Igharas, Prietro’s work in a traditional craft medium (ceramics) operates at the edge of a new border for craft, a holistic practice in which artists consider not only the sustainability of their own practice, but the interconnectedness of their practice with larger worlds, resulting in works that are ongoing, collaborative, performative, and unconventional.
From the maker’s perspective, borders enact rich zones of interrogation, transgression, migration and movement. Rather than position craft as antithetical to new media, performance, taboo, exploitative economies and global politics, Canadian artists are expanding the field to meet these borders and stretch them further. While craft’s material interrogation can be navel-gazey, Igharas’ hide scraping crow bar and cacophonic sewing machine, and Dion Fletcher's menstrual blood stained textiles, critically engage the tactile reality of craft’s new borderlands.
These borders appeared stark and solid just a few years ago and are now made fuzzy and nebulous by artists bumping elbows and collaborating at the edges of the discipline.Here, craft can meet and expand, move and negotiate borders; something that seems radical in this political climate. We'll have to rely on the resilience of artists and their practices to guide and (re)connect us with this shifting terrain.
This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Studio Magazine