Reeling in the Years: Film, Video, Textile, Time

Film: Video: Textile: Time

Time-based media (film and video) and textiles look, on first inspection, to have little in common. But explain this: Lace fragments are cast leading roles in a recent animation. Black quilts, stitched with the most delicate traces of white light, reject the standard proportions of the bed they have comfortably covered for centuries to adopt, instead, those of the cinema screen. Film, rather than cloth, is sewn with needle and thread, then projected large. And testimonies exposing the ongoing use of sweatshop labour are concealed (to preserve the speakers anonymity?) behind a knitted screen of plain and purl pixels. If the similarities between textiles and time-based media seemed insignificant in the past, they are not intending to stay that way. Artists are treating film and video as they would a piece of cloth, piercing, stitching, binding, patching – both literally and virtually – their newfound materials. Others are recognising that the production, care and consumption of textiles chart time in a manner that can be understood as yet another version of time-based media. We have seen a pronounced increase in the use of film and video in textile art for some years now, but what these recent explorations suggest is that the dialogue has not been a one-way conversation.

Exploration of the relationship between textiles, film and video is not new. Steve Beck’s Video Weavings (1973-1976), for instance, borrow their title from the resemblance they hold to woven cloth, but are in fact examples of some of the earliest video synthesizers. “Spiritual technology,” is how Beck coined this early work. While the project is easy to dismiss today as a flashback to 70s disco, it is important to remember that even as Beck was creating his technological landmark, the pervasive influence of the textile was not far away. “The idea for Video Weavings,” Beck explained at the time, “is to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor the links between the most modern electronic visual display systems, and the ancient art of weaving, through the common connection of the matrix.”

While Beck was busy exploring the new ways technology could simulate textiles, filmmakers such as Annabel Nicolson were interrogating the very material of film. In her 1973 performance “Reel Time” Nicolson ran one loop of film (depicting herself sewing) through both a sewing machine and film projector, to create a pierced and torn image that slowly disintegrated in front of the audience. Film critics have noted that the “gendered machines” used in the performance suggest an inherent tension between the sewing machine’s associations with female domestic labour and the film projector’s associations with the male world of technology. Critic Felicity Sparrow, for example, sees Nicolson’s use of the sewing machine as “both a familiar household object and a potent symbol of women’s hidden labour in the home and in sweatshops.” Sparrow situates the projector very much outside this world, in the arena in which Nicolson did not comfortably belong: “By contrast the film projector, traditionally hidden above and behind cinema spectators in a closed-off box and operated by male projectionists, symbolises a vast male-dominated entertainment industry.”

Nicolson did not see her agenda in such black and white terms, but does concede that the sewing machine represented a familiar and unthreatening object in her studio, one that sat in stark contrast to the “endless frustrations with film and with equipment and things not turning out how I hoped.” “The idea of putting the film through the sewing machine,” she explains, “stopped it [film] being so intimidating.” The New York-based artist Sabrina Gschwandtner’s interest in a “sensual dimension to time” inspired her to revisit Nicolson’s “Reel Time” some three decades later and create her own “Sewn Performance.” Composed of two projected images, the left hand image shows the artist’s hand methodically feeding strips of Super-8 film into the projector. The right hand image reveals the reason behind this laborious performance: Gschwandtner’s sewn, painted and cut film creates a collage of tactile images.

This approach to film making is, at least in part, defined by the craft ethos of mending and recycling: “I had a collection of slides that had been taken to document a film loop,” she explains of “Phototactic Behavior” and “a lot of the slides were blurry or incomplete, so I created a new piece from the rejected slides.” Using a sewing machine, she stitched into the slides, which when projected caused “the pattern of the thread and the holes left by the sewing needle to become the foreground imagery. The fan of the slide projector blows the thread which causes an unusual kind of animation, and the projector’s automatic focus struggles to focus on the thread which hangs in front of and behind the slides.” This disruption of the projector’s natural inclination is suggested in the work’s title, in which phototactic can be defined as the movement of an organism or cell toward or away from a source of light. Here the light being that of the projector and the object the frustrated machine attempting to project and focus on the textile.

In “Crochet Film” Gschwandtner adopts an even more literal connection between textile and film. For the site-specific installation at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City, New York, Gschwandtner shot eighty feet of 16mm film, precisely twice the length of the gallery (or one continuous loop) in which she records herself crocheting eighty feet of wool. The two were exhibited side by side in the gallery’s elongated space with the film’s projected image of her labour a distant square at the end of the tunnel. It is in works such as these that we begin to see how the sequential nature of weaving, knitting or crochet, whether by machine or by hand, can bear an uncanny resemblance to the time-based worlds of film and video.

The UK-based artist Nicola Niasmith also investigates hand and machine production through video, often creating abstracted sequences that are as beguiling as they are tedious. Niasmith determines that, “all tools can be classified as prosthetics and as such can be discussed along comparable lines. As additions to the body, the needle is no different from the computer on a basic level.” Naismith’s thinking bears some resemblance to Nicolson’s early work but focuses on the question of production (by both hand and machine) of pedestrian objects such as the white shirt. Videos such as “Finger Collars” and “Triptych” abstract the familiar, while taking the viewer on a journey that demands as much patience as is displayed by the invisible maker of Naismith’s contradictory objects. Both Naismith and Gschwandtner suggest a striking similarity in the manner in which film and craft mark time. At the very least, these explorations show that time intensive hand making can be made real to a broader audience through the use of film or video. But they also question the fine line between futile, redundant labour and methodical, productive outcomes.

The political commentary that quietly runs through Naismith’s work is also tackled in “Knitoscope Testimonies” created by the American group microRevolt. Here footage is recorded of individuals speaking out against sweatshop labour, but with each speaker’s face translated into a “needlepoint animation.” The video begins with a provocative statement by microRevolt’s Cat Mazza: “It is important for people to understand that the crisis we are facing today in terms of sweat shop labour, as part of the global market place, is nothing new. It is just a twenty-first century version of what has happened before under different economic circumstances and different historic circumstances in the nineteenth century.” As each speaker becomes more animated and impassioned about their subject, the grid of ‘stitches’ depicting each face changes colour. Ironically, this abstraction alludes to our nightly news footage, where the identity of individuals is often obscured for their own protection. As well as the clear connection microRevolt establishes with sweatshop labour and textile production, “Knitoscope Testimonies” seems to suggest that speaking the truth, regardless of the subject, can be a dangerous proposition.

For centuries the production of textiles has been tied to what has been coined “women’s work”. The American artist Anna Von Mertens revisits the icon of “women’s work”: the handmade quilt. Previously, Von Mertens was careful to control the display of her hand stitched and hand dyed quilts, often using platforms near the floor that suggested, but did not perfectly replicate, the proportions of a bed. In her new series, “As the Stars Go By”, she has turned to the wall and uses proportions that suggest those of a commercial film screen. “I use the format of the movie screen because it highlights the viewer as a spectator of an historical event,” she explains, “but it simultaneously places the viewer in the perspective of a participant in that event, as each piece documents the actual stars seen from a specific moment in history.” While Hollywood may entertain itself with the saccharine narratives of escapism, Von Mertens explores “violent moments in America’s history that have had a deep psychological impact on the nation.” She stitches the pattern of the stars in the night’s sky at such pivotal moments as “8:45 am to 10:28 am, September 11, 2001 (above New York City looking towards Boston)” and “5:30 am to sunrise, December 16, 1944 (above the Ardennes looking east).”

“The works have the proportions of a movie screen,” she explains of this new series and are “intended as representations of historical events through the removed lens of observation.” Rather than the superficial concerns of the entertainment industry, Von Mertens sees the lenses she is creating as “a literal vista, a window into a world.” To date, the series also includes references to the Massacre at Wounded Knee (“misleadingly termed the last ‘armed’ conflict with Native Americans), the one-day Battle of Antietam during the Civil War (“the day the most Americans – 23,000 – have died”) and the first sighting of land at 2 am off the coast of the Bahamas by Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492 (“particularly relevant as stars were a key navigational tool for Columbus’s voyage, yet this moment also signifies a major shift in the fate of the American continent”). “The work is intended to act on many levels,” Von Mertens concludes: “as memorial, as an actual vantage from a specific moment in history, but ultimately I am simply documenting an impassive natural cycle that is oblivious to the violence below.”

Christopher Pearson, a graduate of the Royal College of Art’s Communication Art & Design course, is yet another example of an artist who draws inspiration from both traditional textile practices and time-based media. Pearson, who has coined himself a “digital craftsman”, has appropriated such iconic patterns and William Morris’ 1887 wallpaper design Willow Boughes, to create an animation that could be seen as both homage to Morris and a slightly subversive update. Amongst Morris’ gently rolling foliage new narratives now appear: a spider diligently weaves its web, rats scurry back and forth and a humming bird flits into view. In collaboration with the Glasgow-based print company Timorous Beasties, Pearson has also created an animated version of the dark Glasgow Toile, as well as injecting narrative into “Hickory Landscape” a historical wallpaper that now includes grazing horses that jump out of their paddocks, bucolic white washed barns that grow to sky-scraper proportions and the odd UFO. The pace of these animations is subtle, catching the corner of one’s eye rather than hitting you in the face. As Pearson explains, his desire is in part to capture the “feeling of wallpaper in your grandmother’s house” through new technologies that allow for literal movement across the pattern surface.

The American artist Anne Wilson is well known for “Topologies”, her painstakingly assembled sculptures fashioned from deconstructed lace. Wilson’s more recent work, “Errant Behaviors” animates these lace fragments into what looks to be a choreographed dance, complete with a bespoke musical score. Wilson sees the creation of lace and animation as strikingly similar: “The frame by frame hand construction of animation is very much like the structural development of lace – a structure that accumulates part by part over time through sequences of motions with the potential to replicate and expand infinitely.” “Errant Behaviors” is projected onto two screens in a continuous loop. Here the textile, which we so often experience on an intimate scale, looms large. We are faced with the prospect of threads only slightly shorter than ourselves, piles of what once were delicate now monumental in their structure. The time they chart is not the time of their own production but rather the diverse rhythms of the narratives the textile so easily records and contains. They are somber and ecstatic, unnerving and curiously natural.

Clio Padovani’s “Own Time” was the first video to be included in the British Crafts Council’s Textile Collection, a gesture that speaks volumes about the current relationship of textile art to film and video. In her poetic explorations of textile and video yet another example of textile narration forging strong ties with time-based media is apparent. Like Wilson, the content is illusive rather than didactic. Her moving images rely on associations the viewer must draw between elements that provide rhythm, texture and the possibility of material or at least conceptual repair. The futility in attempting to define Padovani’s work as belonging to one discipline or another is perhaps the strongest thread which draws the exploration of the relationship between textiles and time-based media together. From this diverse group of artists, their oeuvre, if it must be defined at all, can be found in the expressive breadth between the textures and rhythms of the textile and the moving image. Thus far, the conversation has been far from one-sided. Only time will reveal how this curious narrative will continue to unfold.

Selvedge magazine (2007: 58-61)