Lacey Jane Roberts & Sophie Horton

Guerrilla Tactics & Feats of Negotiation:
Knitted Installations by Lacey Jane Roberts & Sophie Horton

Based on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Lacey Jane Roberts and Sophie Horton both deploy knitting to create installations of striking scale. And both, because of the site-specific nature of their practices, commit considerable amounts of production time to projects with relatively short installation lives. Thus, the photographs that record their work act as far more than mere document. They are the primary medium through which the majority of us will know work that a lucky few were able to view in person. Curiously there is one other similarity shared by Roberts and Horton’s work and that is the use of knitting as a medium of protest.

American artist Lacey Jane Roberts, in her current artist’s statement, describes a desire to “reclaim the mastery of craft to create an alternative set of tools that could potentially dismantle ‘the master’s house’.” The latter is both a reference to, and inversion of, the Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde’s comment that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” first published in Sister/Outsider in 1984. Roberts and Horton have, in a number of projects, used knitting as a tool to critique both boundaries and institutions that have neglected to see the textile for its potential as a powerful mode of communication. Along the way, they have tasked the textile, and knitting in particular, to comment on the world around us.

Roberts was writing her application for graduate studies at the California College of the Arts and Crafts [now CCA] when the institution announced its decision to remove the word craft from its title. Undeterred, Roberts arrived at CAA in the autumn of 2004 to begin an MFA in Textiles, followed by MA in Visual and Critical Studies. She re-installed & Crafts in knitted acrylic yarn stretched over Plexiglas letters in April of 2005. “I didn’t think I would be allowed to keep it up,” she recalls. The work was installed in the early morning of MFA Open Studios when Roberts “knew there would be a lot of traffic. But I always thought someone would take it down.” In fact Roberts admits she hoped someone else would take it down, because she never considered how she was going to pry away the industrial glue she has used when putting it up. In the final event, the work remained in situ for one week, far longer than Roberts had ever anticipated, before the college removed its un-commissioned signage, added “the” and unveiled its new nomenclature: The California College of the Arts.

In the final months of her studies at CCA, Roberts installed We couldn't get in. We couldn't get out (2006-7) in Clarion Alley sited the Mission District of San Francisco using guerrilla tactics (no permission obtained for installation) – a bold move considering the amount of time invested in its creation. During the one day it was installed in the alley, the work blocked traffic and resident’s driveways, although Roberts observed, “all of the residents seemed to enjoy the installation and none of them protested the blockade.” Realisation of We couldn't get in. We couldn't get out required no less than one year of making, during which Roberts “moved into her studio” to sustain the required production hours. A vintage Barbie knitting machine from the 1970s purchased on eBay was used to create the knitting, placing production in an ambiguous space between hand and machine. While the Barbie toy has proven a durable workhorse, Roberts admits that the system is “unreliable and drops stitches all the time” because the mechanics are rudimentary enough to require “constant use of your hands”. Six weeks after its first installation in Clarion Alley, the work was exhibited as part of Roberts MFA exhibition at CCA.

The Master’s Tools (decay goes both ways) (2008) is the second work in Roberts’ fence series and presents a far more deconstructed boundary in a silver rayon yarn. Where We couldn’t get in. We couldn’t get out overwhelms in both scale and vibrancy of colour, The Master’s Tools (decay goes both ways) offers more tangled and disturbing associations of the fence lines in combat zones, or urban sites of decay. “The reason I work with craft and textiles is because of my theoretical interests,” explains Roberts who studied literature as an undergraduate student. “Textiles are so rich and interesting in issues about gender and class and I am interested in translating these theoretical issues into practice.” Knitting fences of yarn presents us with some timely questions about the flexibility of boundaries (from the national to the personal) that enclose us today. And the fact that Roberts constructs each and every stitch in their creation only increases the commentary they offer on America’s invisible but vital workforce who pour through the country’s visible, but nonetheless porous, national boundaries.

British artist Sophie Horton has created a number of large-scale knitted installations in recent years, often as part of focused artist residencies, which pass critical comment on their site. As a student of Goldsmiths College, University of London, Horton admitted to finding the study of textiles “too domestic” and instead chose sculpture, completing a B.A. (Hons) in Sculpture and then an M.A. in Fine Art in 1985. (It is interesting to note that both Roberts’ and Horton’s educations took place within studio programs known, at the time of their studies, for theoretical rigor.) Early work after completing her studies explored material role reversal, often working with textiles and concrete.

In 2004, Horton installed three interventions on the landscape of Cove Park in Scotland where she was artist in residence. Each installation focused on the outer boundaries of the property, which are adjacent to land owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Installed in a bucolic field, Live Wire used acrylic yarn in what Horton refers to as “romantic colours” drawn from the flower blossoms in the field. Small stitches of knitting produced on a manual domestic knitting machine were used to create long thin pieces of fabric then sewn onto the existing wire fence. The seductive palette and delicacy of the work shares similarities with Roberts’ We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out, perhaps most overtly through the introduction of beauty to barriers that are otherwise an eyesore (chain link fence) or quite literally a pain (single strand electric fence).

During the same residency Horton also installed the bright red Cordon, which ran along the shared boundary line shared with the MOD. While the rural site of the residency suggested peace and quiet, its proximity to the military-owned land also meant regular disturbances from ammunition fire and loudspeaker announcements. Absent from our photographic record of the work is the shimmer caused by the Lurex content in the yarn that Horton has explained Cordon presented in the sunlight. This reflective quality is suggestive of police tape used to mark an area out of bounds while investigating a case, ironically here a community of artists. The final installation in this series, Early Warning, sits vertically rather than horizontally on the landscape in a gesture Horton describes as “not decorative, but instead a mark that stands out on the landscape like a [harsh] LED light.”

In April 2005, on a residency at the University of Illinois, Bloomington-Normal in Illinois, Horton installed the crocheted acrylic wool Eye Candy. In the same month Roberts’ installed & Crafts, Horton’s Eye Candy appeared on campus to highlight the neglected concrete façade of the sculpture department, a neighbour to the construction site for a new Business Design Centre. The distinctive colour for the project was inspired by a number of events that occurred during Horton’s residency from the puce blossoms of the local crab apple trees to the vivid colours of a gay rights march that occurred on campus. The presence of colour and craft was also meant to pass comment on what Horton saw to be the male stronghold of a traditional and old-fashioned sculpture department. While Roberts turned to a toy-knitting machine for production assistance, Horton embraced the assistance of a mainly male group of sculpture students who she taught to crochet in order to assist on the project. Her project introduced unfamiliar materials and techniques to the student’s vocabulary and engaged their efforts in a critique of the department’s values at the time.

To install & Crafts Roberts borrowed a ladder from an amiable security guard and asked for help from a friend. Horton admits that the installation of Eye Candy was initially “a feat of negotiation with the powers that be”; potentially provoked not only by the height of the work, but also the meaning it carried. Interestingly, Horton’s installations at Cove Park in the previous year had resulted in regular visits from an MOD representative who kept on eye on the work she created for the boundary shared between Cove Park and the military. Textiles, of course, have played their part in numerous protests, perhaps in British memory the most well known being the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp protests of the 1980s. But Roberts and Horton use their work to also pass comment on the very materials they have chosen to use. What and where do we expect knitting to communicate? How can we introduce different ways of thinking about material and craft? Horton and Roberts provide two inspiring examples that challenge the status quo.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2009: 22-27)

image: Lacey Jane Roberts "We Could Not Get In. We Could Not Get Out." (2006-7)