As competing political voices reach election crescendo, could it be that artistic, home-spun forms of activism are more positive and quietly persuasive? Clare Bryden hails the rise of ‘Craftivism’ and explains how knitting can change the world.
On 15th October 2014, the evening before the Exeter Incinerator was inaugurated, a colleague and I launched a small art exhibition in a café gallery space located almost directly downwind of it.1
Our Particulart exhibition comprised 3D knitted representations of a series of particles that the Incinerator would inevitably emit, such as carbon dioxide, and that it should not emit, such as toxic dioxins, alongside a series of photographs commissioned from a local photographer.2
Our aims were to raise people’s awareness of the Incinerator’s potential impact on the environment and human health; and to encourage Devon County Council to ensure that it is operated properly to minimise the risk of harmful emissions, and to develop a coherent and transparent waste strategy.
The particle design followed the ball and stick model and the CPK colour scheme used in chemistry: for example carbon is black, oxygen is red, chlorine is green, and sulphur is yellow. The atoms were stuffed with those plastic bags that charities keep dropping through the letterbox, and the particles stiffened with coat hanger wire.
The materials used are not natural and beautiful; the yarn is manufactured from oil rather than natural fibres, and the plastic bags and wire are, well, plastic bags and wire. Yet most were preserved from destruction by incineration, and reused with a creative purpose.
A TACTILE JOURNEY
Knitting can reference the material relationship between human beings and things, the handmade, and the clothing which sits next to the skin and expresses our personalities. The particles are not useful, unlike woolly jumpers, socks or tea cosies. Yet crafted items do have a value that stretches to more than just their utilitarian function, and Particulart instead took the maker and the audience on a journey from data and scientific thought to the more tactile areas of the brain.
It is difficult not to hold a particle without squeezing the atoms, and visitors to the café often touched them as they hung on the walls. The knitted particles are homely, comfortable, approachable, innocent, and non-threatening. A 3D knitted representation of a dioxin is cuddly, unlike the toxic reality.3
Although the particles do represent the atomic and molecular building blocks of the universe, Particulart is an example of the art of ideas rather than the art that imitates the world. It primarily reflects on the culture and society in which we live, exploring the issues and effects of consumerism and accountability: the production and treatment of waste, the interactions between humans and rest of our environment, and the disjunct between science and culture.
RISE OF CRAFTIVISM
In its use of knitting as a medium, Particulart is also an example of ‘craftivism’. In 2003, the writer Betsy Greer coined this term as a combination of craft and activism, defining it as ‘a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite’.4
Traditional campaigning methods are often negative (‘Down with this sort of thing!’), confrontational, and occasionally destructive. As a positive force, craftivism is becoming increasing popular as a form of protest.
In knitting, my colleague and I had found a gentle way of creating an opening to share our message, and engage people in discussion. Together we could explore various ideas, and find that we had voices saying ‘we can do something’, and that we could be among those voices.
Alongside the words of Jesus and the prophets, scripture describes many extraordinary actions that are very similar to modern visual and performance art. For example, Mark places Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple within the context of his representational cursing of the fig tree that bears no fruit (Mark 11:11- 24). Jeremiah visits a potter, who reworks a spoiled vessel into another (Jeremiah 18:1-11). Ezekiel is told to shave his head and divide the hair into three parts, one to burn, one to strike with the sword, and one to scatter to the wind (Ezekiel 5:1-4).5 The prophet imagines a new reality, whereas the prevailing culture is interested only in implementation and sees imagination as a danger; ‘every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.’ 6
The non-threatening nature of craftivism makes it all the more subversive. Compare Banksy’s spray-paint hole in the Israeli wall giving on to an idyllic beach scene7 – biting humour, probably viewed by the authorities as vandalism, stark political message – with a cross-stitch representation8 – quirky, gentle humour, not ‘in your face’, stark political message. Craftivism has picked up the colourful mantle of the court jester, serving not simply to amuse but also retaining the ability to speak truth to power with impunity.9
Craftivism also epitomises two quotes which have become almost protest axioms: Margaret Mead ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ And Gandhi: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’
In ‘Pink M.24 Chaffee’, Marianne Joergensen wrapped a World War II combat tank in pink and hung a pompom from the gun, to protest against Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war.10 Volunteers from Denmark, the UK, US and across the world knitted thousands of squares. Working together to create an artwork that ridicules the tank effectively transfers power from ordnance to people, affirming a common resistance to war.
Wool Against Weapons brought thousands of people together to knit a pink scarf in protest against Government plans to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system.11 Hundreds were involved on 9 August 2014 (Nagasaki Day) when the full seven miles was stretched between the Atomic Weapons Establishment’s two sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield, and thousands later gathered to wrap part of the scarf round the Ministry of Defence. The scarf also boosted local groups, who displayed their contributions by local landmarks in advance; and further connections are being made through re-purposing it as blankets for humanitarian aid in the UK, Africa and Middle East. The organisers found that these vibrantly creative, local and community aspects of craftivism were vital to gaining news coverage of their actions.12
On a smaller scale, Particulart became a means of opening out the conversation and creating a community of interest in Exeter and on social media. There were interactions arising from both the exhibition and its making: between the maker and the made, between the particles and the photographs, between the exhibition and its audience, and hopefully between strangers.
At the unveiling of his Gift Horse on the Fourth Plinth in March, the artist Hans Haacke commented: ‘It is an invitation to make connections, but I would not like to give directions. I’m sure there will be a diversity of responses. That is not only true for this but any kind of art.’13 An experience of art arises not just from the object, but also from the conversation about the object.
When my colleague and I invited the Incinerator’s Liaison Committee to our launch, the conversation extended to the construction companies, their PR, and local councillors. This led to one of the most positive responses we had to the exhibition. One of the subcontractors told us they were used to attending ‘shouty’ aggressive protests, which did little beyond alienating them. Our gentle protest made him much more interested in engaging, and he liked the potential for educating the public.
Craftivism also has an important interior aspect; it can be a reflective action which changes the participant as much as it does the world. The making of Particulart required presence in the moment and attentiveness – there are no short cuts to knitting. At times, it became a contemplative practice, each stitch its own mantra. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue we were engaging with. While the act of assembling data and information about the particles increased my knowledge, the act of making led me into a deeper care and concern, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and respond to the exhibition.
Engaging with Particulart required as much slowness as the making of it, and an independent café, where time is slowed and the audience is relaxed, is the ideal location for a serendipitous encounter. As one surprised visitor commented: ‘I was drinking my tea, when I noticed a knitted particle on the table, then I realised I was surrounded by organic chemistry.’ Perhaps in subsequent conversation and reflection, the message sunk in and was digested and will be long-lasting.
For it is sustainable, long-term thinking that is what is needed now, both as the message of protest, and unfortunately also as the timescale of protest. My own concern for the environment has at times occasionally dwindled to almost nothing. Continued extravert negativity is wearing to campaigners and audience alike, and the history of protest is littered with burned out activists. The practice of craftivism provides a combination of interiority and creativity, connections and relationships which is a vital source of energy and encouragement for protesters, and hope for all.
5 For more examples of symbolic actions, see Isaiah 20, Jeremiah 13, 19, 27-28, 43, 51; Ezekiel 2-4; Hosea 1.
6 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, 1978.
9 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, Cambridge University Press, 11 Aug 2005, available at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lP6o8VPZgogC.
12 Personal communication from Kate Hudson of CND.