Emily Winter

Making Things, Thinking Things


ISSUE 21 | RAW MATERIALS | OCT 2012

Some background: I spent 6 weeks this summer weaving cloths for Andrea Zittel’s installation at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in Manhattan. The show is called Fluid Panel State and consists of various permutations on the form of the panel. This includes, but is not limited to, woven blankets, ponchos, and sleeping sacks, billboard-style paintings, and a large floorplan carpet. I worked on three sets of woven pieces: the Sleep Sacks, the A-Z Series I blankets, and the A-Z Series II blankets. For all three pieces, the materials, dimensions, and density of the cloths were predetermined.

For the Series I and II blankets, there was some space for the weaver to influence the final form of the cloth. In the Series I blankets, the striping patterns were decided by the length of the weaving session. For example, I would begin by weaving a black stripe. When I left the loom (to answer the phone, eat lunch, go to the bathroom, stretch), I would switch to a gold stripe when I returned. Each new day started with a different shade of gold. The final cloth can be read as a timeline of sorts, recording both the number of days it took the weaver to make the cloth, but also of the duration of the weaver’s sessions. The Series II blankets had a sequence of instructions (begin weaving a black stripe, switch to a yellow stripe, weave a black stripe which touches the left side of the cloth but not the right, switch back to yellow, etc.). All the cloths produced from these instructions had the same structure, but the dimensions of and relationships between the different elements varied from piece to piece. I had done some, but not much, of this type of commission work previously. I began weaving in the summer of 2010. The nature of the A-Z pieces, as well as the enormous amount of time I spent sitting in front of the loom this summer, helped me to clarify some of own concerns about weaving as a practice.

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I have been thinking lately about people and machines—primarily about the ways in which people become like machines. Specifically, I have been thinking about the artist/technician spectrum. Even more specifically, I have been thinking about the ways in which I, as a weaver, oscillate between those two poles, and the ways in which I engage in both creative production and mindless repetition. When weaving a cloth, I start by planning it out. I wind a warp (measure the threads that will be stretched on the loom), I dress the loom (tie all those threads onto the loom in a particular order), and then I weave the cloth (passing the weft thread through the warp threads). I make decisions, then I follow through on them. Sometimes, the act of weaving is quite boring. I have already thought through the cloth in order to select materials, wind the warp, and dress the loom—weaving feels like an afterthought. There is a time of concentrated creative work (the planning) followed by the execution of that plan (the weaving). The nature of weaving, then, feeds into a ruptured understanding of the artist/technician relationship.

One characteristic of the skilled technician is the ability to produce items of a certain quality consistently over time. Lewis Mumford in Art and Technics, describes very well one possible relationship between maker, machine, and creativity:

The fact that the handicraft worker is master of the process, so long as he respects the nature of his materials, was a great satisfaction and a support of personal dignity. The other reward of craftsmanship in many branches of art and technics was that the worker could pass, with further technical skill, from the operational to the expressive parts of his job. Through acquiring skills in technics, he became licensed, as it were, to practice art. At that stage, the machine itself makes a contribution to creative release (63).
I am interested in that process of gaining sufficient technical skill and in what it feels like to mechanize your body in the pursuit of consistent production. I know that in that last sentence above, Mumford is referring to the inanimate machine (the loom, the pottery wheel, the saw, the typewriter) as contributing to expressive work. The body, however, becomes like a machine in that instance as well. The craftsperson’s body is one machine working in concert with its companion machines.

Looking at Anne Wilson’s Wind-Up: Walking the Warp helped crystallize what has been troubling me about the place of repetition in craftsmanship. In her piece, and her writing about it, there is much discussion around the meditative aspects of walking. The process of winding a warp becomes a group performance, calling up questions of visibility, precision, and ultimately, meditation. Her research includes an entire section highlighting the relationships between walking, thinking, and meditation. When reading about the piece, however, I found that something in the discourse kept falling flat. Repetition can certainly create the conditions for introspection and meditation. But it also leads to mechanization. Time-motion study, the practice of filming a worker completing a task in the effort to consolidate movement and tool use, originated at the end of the 19th century in the context of expanding American manufacturing industries. The guiding principles of scientific management (efficiency, standardization of practices, elimination of waste, and the transfer of knowledge from workers to machines/managers) have maintained their relevance and have moved beyond the factory into the home, the office, and the craftsperson’s studio—thus pointing towards mechanization as the dominant mode of experience. I realize, then, that I am far more interested in the ways in which repetition leads to mechanization, than the ways in which it leads to meditation.

In the process of bringing your body towards the machine state (through practice, production, repetition), human limits are reached fairly quickly. Sure, after weaving one or two of the A-Z blankets, I became much faster. I figured out how to maintain better tension, I figured out where to place the shuttle so as to save time while changing sheds, I stopped breaking so many threads. Once these motion-study type questions are sorted out, the making-pace becomes primarily a question of focus.

Increasing efficiency is all well and good, but it only takes you so far. The person performing the task has to be able to stay engaged in it. When working on the time-based stripes, I started playing games with myself—what I started thinking of as a playful discipline. I would define a weaving session not by the event of leaving the bench, but rather by a break in focus. If, for example, a warp thread broke and I was able to stand up from the bench and fix the thread, moving quickly and deliberately, thinking of nothing but the loom and the cloth, I would consider the session continuous when I returned to the bench.

In one instance, I left the studio, went upstairs to grab a tool, and returned downstairs in one weaving session. In those few non-weaving minutes, I was able to stay focused on the cloth I was making and actively push out any competing thoughts. When I returned to the loom, I continued with the same color. I had not broken my engagement with the piece or the process, so that whole sequence of events and movements counted as one continuous weaving session.

Typically, I engage in this sort of trickery in an effort to shake my own tendencies towards judgment, comparison, and calibration of my own work. It’s a game of tricking myself into immersion through repetition, trying not to check how deeply engaged I am, trying to blind myself to the knowledge that I am anything separate from the materials before me. However, in the case of the AZ panels, I pulled these tricks out in order to keep up with a tight production schedule. So instead of tricking myself into immersion for the sake of creativity or expression or surprise, I was doing it to produce. I was, it seemed, turning myself into a machine.

This realization led me to revisit Sol Lewitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art:

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.

In this formulation, then, I am the perfunctory one. I am part of the machine that is producing the art. While there is some space for me to make compositional decisions, the rules of the game are set, and I am carrying out somebody else’s instructions. My unease with this is certainly at least partly a question of ego—I am reluctant to let my own individuality be subsumed by another’s project. But part of the discomfort relates precisely to a characterization of the maker as an executioner—carrying with it associations of an unthinking, mechanical technician.

This distinction between being a maker of things and a thinker of thoughts presents itself to me as natural, inevitable. It appears that it has been, is, and always will be a governing principle of social life—a division of labor, so to speak, dividing intellectual from manual work. I know that this division is neither as rigid nor as entrenched as all that. This, I suppose, is at least partly the core of what I am concerned with lately: how to dismantle that division (on a personal level), to understand where it comes from (on a broader cultural/historical level), and to find a way to live and make between those two poles (back to the personal level).