Tucked into the ninth floor of the Sharp Building, the Fiber and Material Studies Department looks more like a chemistry lab, with its state-of-the-art equipment, machinery, dyes and emulsions, than it does a women’s knitting circle. Though it incorporates aspects of fashion, print, sculpture, and craft, the department offers courses rich with the history of culture, labor, economics, and gender. Classes with titles like “Time, Material, and the Everyday,” “Propaganda and Decoration” and “Hardcore Repeat,” don’t exactly sound like what you’d be able to find at your neighborhood craft store. A class called “0’s and 1’s: Digital Jacquard Weaving,” attracts students from all over the school who share an interest in computation combined with mathematical learning in relation to the tactility of the hand. SAIC is one of the only schools in the world to have such a loom. I recently sat down with Department Chairs Ann Wilson and Joan Livingstone for a peek into the seams and inner workings of the Department.
Jenn Swann: Fiber arts often suggest interactions, either by wearing a garment or inhabiting a material environment, and I was wondering how interaction plays a part in your work or comments on the material itself.
Joan Livingstone: Our department is Fiber and Material Studies, and that’s different from the fashion department, which really does talk about things that are worn on the body. I think the history of fiber is partly about things that can be worn, but the history that we work from is far more extensive in terms of cloth that is woven for all sorts of purposes other than just being put on the body … Cloth has been used for a lot of millennia as a nomadic architecture, and it’s used as a revival now with all sorts of membranes that are being stretched over architectural structures. It’s really a pliable material that can be made small or large and can be addressed in many different uses, so I think that the idea of collaboration and interactivity is very critical to the whole history of textiles. Usually, making a textile is a collective activity. Either they have to work together and somebody has to make the yarn, so there’s a whole growing and spinning activity, somebody has to dye the color, and that’s another group of people usually, and other people weave or do other kinds of structural processes to it and that frequently can involve quite a large community of people. Inherently in the making of cloth there is some sort of collective activity but then I think also the way we are working [within the department] we are very interested in taking that idea and extending it to a practice amongst contemporary artists and students.
Anne Wilson: We see also textile as a dominant medium in contemporary art. There are so many artists that use it in a conceptual way. Yinka Shonibare comes to mind. There’s a new book that we’re getting on his work that reveals the histories of the economics and labor of trade cloth, and how that intersects with African American identities. I think unlike maybe 30 years ago where textile/fiber was not as much brought into the sphere of contemporary art discourse, I think it is very prominent and in the center at this point.
JS: Anne, a lot of the promotional materials I was reading about your performative installation Walking the Weft at Rhona Hoffman Gallery last January commented on the integration of different meditative practices around the world and different international styles of weaving. It seems that the department at SAIC also integrates and celebrates international practices of fiber-making.
AW: When [Joan and I] first came to teach, we both taught because textile art history wasn’t part of the art history curriculum. Bob Loescher, who was a wonderful esteemed professor at that time, asked us if we would take on that role of teaching textile art history, which we did for a time. Now we have Nancy Feldman, who teaches world textile history next semester, and some aspect of textile history every semester through the art history department, and Shannon Stratton, who teaches Contemporary Critical Issues in Fiber and Material Studies every semester. I feel we have the studio and the theory and the art history parts now actually firmly in place, which is really exciting.
JL: What’s interesting also about thinking about the history of textiles and its place in culture, is that it has a different history than say painting or sculpture. It’s something that was an essential practice for people all over the world in every walk of life. People sometimes say, ‘what came first—the ceramic bowl or the mat that you sit on?’ [Fiber-based objects] were made partly as utilitarian functional things as well as ritualistic cultural objects, and so that notion of this cross-cultural identity comes to us here in a different way than we might study painting or sculpture. I think that we want to respect that entire tradition somehow within the department, and yet, see how that makes sense in terms of our own contemporary practice.
JS: Another association that people make with the Fibers and Material Studies Dept is with women and the feminist movement. Do you feel that’s a positive association?
AW: I think it’s one of several important foundational influences to the creation of the department. I would position feminism alongside multiculturalism with the international art fabric movement of the late 60s with artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz from Poland and Olga De Amaral from Bogota, Columbia, and many artists from the United States, and then the contemporary art use of fabric and thread by artists like Eva Hesse and Robert Morris, who use slashed felts and Robert Rauschenberg and Christo and Oldenburg. I think there is this confluence of histories, one of which was feminism, that were all really important to our identity at this point of time, and really important to our history.
JL: In some ways, what the feminist theory allowed to happen was a deconstruction of the old, a very western-driven patriarchal view of what is art, and so that has impact in all sorts of fields. It was really important to allow people working through what had traditionally been called craft, or a sort of domestic way of making things, to allow that to surface and have critical and conceptual weight and currency in the conversation around art. I think it was really fundamental, and then I think in the field and our department there have been waves of intense investigation into what feminist theory meant in terms of the history of cloth and domestic sites and women’s work, and it’s also allowed all sorts of other things to open up, say the relationship to labor, which is only a varied part of what feminist theory talks about. Or the notion of something that’s soft versus something that’s hard having value, even from the formal to the conceptual, it has allowed all sorts of other experiences to be explored in fibers.
Joan Livingstone is the co-editor of The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production, published by SAIC and MIT Press.
The Fiber and Material Studies will host a Public Lecture Series in Spring 2009 called From Trash to Spectacle: Materiality in Contemporary Art Production. Speakers will include Glenn Adamson, Kathryn Hixson, Shannon Stratton, and Shinique Smith.