Crafty prepping

Sera Waters, Survivalist Sampler, 2019-20, cotton, glow-in-the-dark thread, found materials on repurposed linen. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery
Sera Waters, Survivalist Sampler, 2019–20, cotton, glow-in-the-dark thread, found materials on repurposed linen. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery

An apocalyptic future, which seemed millennia away or even fictional in the 1980s of my childhood, is arriving. Generations of abuse and neglect in Australia, as well as other parts of the world, have built up into a crescendo of bushfires, dust storms, floods, drought, heatwaves, hail, hot blobs, melting glaciers, global trash and a thousand other variations to mark out this period, our period, finger‑pointedly known as the Anthropocene. Scientific researchers, First Nations peoples and the rational alike warned that the speeding‑up of mass production and resource grabbing, driven by the greedy and power-hungry over the last two centuries, would have dire consequences. Alongside the accelerated and overwhelming spread of information, time now feels increasingly fleeting, vulnerably finite and out of pace with maintainable or even tolerable rhythms. These perceptions, supported by mounting evidence, have convinced an increasing number of citizens, including artists, that we cannot sustain this rapidity and have only a small window of time to shift pace—a decade or so, if that.

I have been grappling for years with how to carefully practice art on Aboriginal country overrun by colonialism and consumerism. It is clear now that radical change is required, as is truth-telling. Survival has recently and realistically been downscaled to mean only remnants of the rich ecologies we have been privileged to live alongside. Species are crossed out every day. Long-term survival means less humans; for the short-term it demands transforming comfortably unsustainable lifestyles by downsizing and adopting minimalist strategies and helpful technologies en masse. The pressure of saving the Earth is consistently placed upon individuals as consumers and producers, but the truth is that under global capitalism survival requires rethinking outdated economic, political and social systems, also implicating the structures and usefulness of art.

In his 2017 essay, “Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy,” sustainability academic Jem Bendell writes with the premise that societal collapse is no longer preventable but inevitable. For climate change research, this position was both ground-breaking and provocative in its intention to break through denial and activate readers to assess their lives and work choices to use what little time they have left meaningfully. I have weighed up the shortcomings of being an artist when pragmatic life-saving skills are essential to aiding and mitigating forthcoming emergencies. And in the wake of recent disasters I appreciate even more how creative skills and thinking meaningfully contribute real-life solutions. Such strategies and progressive thinking alone will not ensure survival, but if the generous and practical outpouring from the arts sector during Australia’s 2020 bushfires is an indication, the arts are not only an economic boon to fundraising, but a galvanising, caring and adaptable way of going forward together.

Bendell mentions the power of creativity at the end of his essay when setting out a framework for how to begin deeply adapting. This framework relies upon three key strategies: resilience, relinquishment and restoration. These methods he states are not useful in the face of a “complex predicament beyond our control”[1] but are pertinent to propelling individual thinking, fostering community conversations, and for survival planning such as what is to be prioritised and actualised ready for when infrastructure breaks down: temporarily, as it did with the bushfires in Mallacoota, or more permanently as he says will inevitably occur in the near‑term. His research‑based predictions have become frighteningly fitting for what is disturbingly and dismally apparent; that what has transpired ecologically has not transpired politically. Until our elected leaders act with urgency, we are obliged to depend upon communities, friends, neighbours, local groups, organisations and families to plan and adapt to the new circumstances for ourselves.

Sera Waters, Cultiv(n)ation, 2018, wool, hessian and found textiles. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery
Sera Waters, Cultiv(n)ation, 2018, wool, hessian and found textiles. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery

While it is crucial to continue implementing Bendell’s first two frameworks by building psychological and structural resilience, as well as relinquishing the excessive acquisition and stockpiling of material goods, and other destructive modes of living, notably the overuse of plastic. It is through his third framework of restoration that artists, crafters and other creative producers richly contribute. Restoration means backtracking to resurrect former slower ways of existing before our reliance on fossil fuels, mass production and consumption and the disposable lifestyle and throw‑away culture took hold. Restoration infers remembering and relearning ancestral knowledge carried along by generations of families who lived a more located existence in nature, in rhythm with the setting of the sun and seasonal shifts. But restoration cannot be wholesale. For the last five generations my ancestors have been settler colonisers upon Kaurna and Booandik Country, causing irrevocable damage to land and culture.

Their knowledge of farming, gardening and clearing land was ill-suited to a climate so different from Europe. Restoration is reliant upon local knowledge: knowledge that has been practiced and refined for generations in response to specific environmental conditions, species, challenges and events. Recent bushfires have shown, once again, the expertise and effectiveness of Aboriginal Cultural Burning, like that undertaken by Koori Country Firesticks, who use cool fire to maintain Country, preserve and protect wildlife, and prevent uncontrollable fire.[2] Place-specific knowledge is unequivocally essential, but recent events have highlighted how globally shared craft skills can be applied to the production of koala mittens, stand-in joey pouches, or temporary bird nests. Restoration, in my way of thinking, can be drawn from a considered uniting of expert ancestral knowledge with the vast know‑how humans share reaching back to pre-industrial, small-scale and slower-paced living.

This rallying for restoration unashamedly contains some nostalgic yearning, as repercussions in response to modern progress extensively analysed by Svetlana Boym in her reflections upon time. Not only is this a yearning for slower times, of childhood or an imagined yesteryear, but also “for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete.”[3] In the tune of Bendell, Boym outlines a type of nostalgia she calls “restorative”[4] but warns of its backward-looking, nationalistic and Utopian leanings that resurface in times of distress. Keeping this warning in mind, thinking forwards by looking backwards also requires foraging for abandoned, untrodden or aborted pathways that got in the way of “progress.”

Ben Tarnoff proposes such action in his 2019 essay “To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution.” This essay traces the carbon footprint of rapid digitisation and global data collection to invoke the horror of the fact that by 2030 data storage clouds will consume as much energy as the entire nation of Japan.[5] While green energy helps, Tarnoff prioritises the discussion of relinquishment and warns of the dangers of an indiscriminate “digital enclosure,” propelling the interests of global commerce as mechanisms of profit, control and surveillance that are largely detrimental to community wellbeing.  Restoration urges this re-evaluation of unnecessary carbon-hungry technologies with the emphasis upon resurrecting what they have displaced.

The Luddites, a group of nineteenth century English textile workers, radically and destructively protested the uptake of machinery in the cotton and woollen industries and resultant ousting of handmade labour. While “Luddite” is most-often used as a term of derision, and of small-mindedness, the failed rebellion of the original Luddites pre-empted what has come to fruition generations on: fast‑fashion, textiles as a leading world pollutant, slave labour conditions, loss of skill and the deterioration of handmade textile traditions that sustained lives and livelihoods for generations. These conditions underscore what is sometimes referred to as our “post-traditional culture”.[6] To lose traditions is to lose integral ancestral inheritances which house the journey of human ingenuity. Ethicist Hugh LaFollette describes how “we inherit (and then refine) habits from our ancestors who inherited (and refined) habits from their ancestors.”[7]

Sera Waters, Sampler for a Colonised Land, 2019, cotton on linen. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery
Sera Waters, Sampler for a Colonised Land, 2019, cotton on linen. Photo: Grant Hancock. Courtesy Hugo Michell Gallery

As many skills have become displaced by new technologies, as has been the case for numerous textile traditions, we not only begin to forget honed hand skills but, I fear, lose other benefits too. One example surrounds the commercial spread of the Singer sewing machine, promoted as being compatible with textile traditions across the globe and also heralded for freeing women from hours of tedious domestic chores.[8] These life-altering benefits displaced others, such as the companionability and community-building of hand-stitching with relatives, neighbours and friends undermined by the machine’s immovability. But this humble machine, already many steps removed from ancient traditions of collectively weaving cloth with fellow villagers, was nothing compared to how far removed we are today from the production of most of our clothing made in factories.

The value of cloth has been thoroughly diminished by its cheap ubiquity, with the knowledge of practical stitching lost to many. For over two centuries we have lived with little direct appreciation of the time, skill and knowledge embedded in textile traditions, letting such precious knowledge slip beyond our grasp. There are many gains to bringing back hand-based textile traditions. Other than the obvious outcomes of producing essential clothing and comforts in our lives with less carbon footprint, textiles bring other benefits too. Some of these are performed traditions to remember ancestral gestures through our bodies. They reawaken memories of existence prior to the era of machines, screens and mass production, and the associated memories of how to work together differently, with nature, materiality and each other.

Artist Chaco Kato, who alongside Dylan Martorell is a founding member of Slow Art Collective, creates collaborative and participatory knotting, weaving and functional architecture experiences. She has noticed that something happens to participants crafting together, acknowledging that “the experience, of knotting and weaving, weaves relationships between people, between environment, between time, through the rope, physically and metaphysically.”[9] Of a group of women, residents from other countries who worked side by side at the Melton Library in Dandenong Arts Centre, she recalls: “people start to share about their life, about their home country, about their childhood memories, their art practice.

Slow Art Collective, Archi-Loom W, City of Wollongong, 2018. Photo: Slow Art Collective
Slow Art Collective, Archi-Loom W, City of Wollongong, 2018. Photo: Slow Art Collective

I strongly believe that happened because there was a craft in front of them. The weaving activities weaved their consciousness. I do not think it would have happened so magically if they were just sitting at the table with afternoon tea.” She says a “comfortable, happy hormone” is released when we become engrossed in a repetitive creative activity and barriers come down. Most movingly she recounts feedback from a group of school children who conveyed that “they have never been so close … never had a chance to chat so deeply … [as] when they were weaving next to each other.” Kato was stunned, given they had spent six years together at school. In sharing practical low-fi textile and craft techniques with participants, Kato and the Slow Art Collective restore alternative, unhurried, ancient rhythms, which foster connections we may have unwittingly and literally lost touch with.  

Another reason why artists such as Kato prioritise slower- and touch-based traditions is to reshape neoliberalist expectations of the art system that are at odds with eco-conscious practices. Earlier in her career Kato found she was unfulfilled by the “closed, tight and rigid” commercial art system of showing work to a select audience before sending it back to storage. “I felt I was missing something very important”, she says. Her practice with line and string grew because she craved alternative interactions with materials, more risky experimental processes, and environments where she could respond to her surroundings. Working slowly in response to place, she discovered “more subtle seasons, like the temperature, humidity, wind, sound, smell and sunlight during the time [of a project]”, and the effect these have on people’s interactions and outcomes.

Kato craved working with people—with participants for whom she redefines art as small acts with everyday materials, and with numerous like-minded fellow artists who have worked collaboratively with Slow Art Collective over the last decade. All of these shifts have grown out of Kato’s core concepts of impermanency, her “zero storage, zero waste” motto, and the Japanese philosophy of “mottainai” which wastes nothing by reusing, repurposing or donating leftover materials from each iteration to the next.

Slow Art Collective, Archi-Loom W, City of Wollongong, 2018. Photo: Slow Art Collective
Slow Art Collective, Archi-Loom W, City of Wollongong, 2018. Photo: Slow Art Collective

Artist Rebecca Mayo also challenges these pressures to stay busy, continually producing, selling and consuming more, which fall especially upon artists to make work, exhibit constantly and stay visible as a cultural producer. Instead she balances how her “modes of production fit within an ethic of care”[10] and imbues this into slow and considered making with materials collected over many years.

Although both Kato and Mayo do not consider themselves specialist craft or textile artists, in their creative adaptation they are both reinforcing these traditions as practical skills useful to usher in a differently paced future. Kato, professionally trained in art but a self-taught knotter, considers craft and textile techniques as tools “born from necessity.” As she states, “Knotting is so simple and so basic. It is spread out [across] many different cultures: Japan has a lot of different knotting for special high-end decoration for certain celebrations, at the same time local fisherman use similar knots.”

Mayo, a trained printmaker, marries this with her childhood love of sewing, cloth and textiles, adding that “it is definitely the histories carried in these processes that are important, conceptually, as well indicating a form of resistance against the contemporary pace (of travel, work expectations, consumption).” Embedded in the ancient technology of textiles are practical answers about how to survive in slower ways. Even in worst‑case, long-term survival scenarios, essential skills for living include practical knots for nets and shelter, weaving to create protection or cloth, stitching bags and clothing as well as mending and more. It has been to our detriment that macramé, crochet, sewing one’s own clothes, plant-dyeing and many types of embroidery have been derided as nostalgic, superseded and denigrated craft traditions.

Mayo’s exhibition It’s in the Bag at CAVES (Melbourne) for the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 CLIMEART festival used hand-dyed fabric stitched in the pattern of single-use plastic shopping bags. The bags, she says, are remarkably strong, made to be used again and again in continuing workshops and experiences. Overall Mayo sees her practice as more sociable than collaborative, working in shared spaces and making alongside others as a way of setting up experiences. Her exhibition included artist-led walks where participants carried the bags dyed with plant matter that she had collected from walks near the Danube in Krems, Austria, into the Melbourne city streets to collect rubbish. Piles of rubbish, no doubt consisting of some shipped from as far as Europe, grew disconcertingly in the gallery space.

Rebecca Mayo, Installation view, with collected rubbish at CAVES, Melbourne, for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE, 2019. Photo: Matthew Stanton
Rebecca Mayo, Installation view, with collected rubbish at CAVES, Melbourne, for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE, 2019. Photo: Matthew Stanton

As Mayo writes, they made a “point about how we bring nature inside to beautify our homes, but we don’t necessarily care for the environments outside in the same way.” These walks, she says, “offer a situation or experience where people might take a moment to think and feel through ideas in a new way. … Helping people take care, take time, is an act of resistance in our current political and social climate.” A strong part of Mayo’s resistance is her embrace of natural dyeing which materially enacts a slow form of care; both coming to know properties and potentialities of the biological systems we exist within, as well as keeping this alchemical ancient textile tradition in circulation.  

In my own art practice I too restore and perform ancestral textile traditions, in search of what can be learned and reinvented to meet the needs of today. When Bendell signals the downfall of infrastructure, I consider this from a textile perspective and ask what my art can do. If apocalyptic narratives have taught me anything it is that when systems break down digitised information evaporates and we may turn to information stored in other ways; in print publications, in each other’s expertise, and perhaps even in samplers. Historic Egyptian textile samplers survive from as long ago as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries,[11] outlasting their makers by hundreds of years. Like these samplers of the past, my survivalist sampler preserves information identifiable with this era, and is stitched daily and slowly pulling in useful tidbits from quickly unfolding news and events.

My aim, in this cacophony of information, is to stockpile useful knowledge about how to physically and psychologically begin the process of deep adaptation. It records, for example, the ingredients required to make a water filter, the usefulness of weeds, or the motivating example of Greta Thunberg’s appeal for immediate climate action. It also fulfills the role embroidered textile samplers played traditionally as a database of fundamental stitch techniques and patterns. When the power goes out we will rely upon these skills to mend, stitch, construct and invent. Survivalist Sampler marks the beginning of an ongoing project, both individual and collaborative, to consciously pool and share community-grown knowledge and practical know-how through the power of the stitch.

Writing against the backdrop of a burnt and smoke-hazed continent, like many, I am searching for ways past despair and denial. Frankly, many other conversations now seem irrelevant. Embracing the reality that societies consist of community-minded individuals with creative and adaptable abilities, reinvents the concept of inevitable societal collapse into one of an emerging culture of proactive collaboration and personal initiative. Sociable art and creativity is more important than ever as we upskill, restore traditions, repurpose and craftily prep for ways to go forward adapting towards an uncertain future.

Rebecca Mayo, Installation view (detail), with collected rubbish at CAVES, Melbourne, for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE, 2019. Photo: Matthew Stanton
Rebecca Mayo, Installation view (detail), with collected rubbish at CAVES, Melbourne, for ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE, 2019. Photo: Matthew Stanton

Footnotes

  1. ^ Jem Bendell, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”: https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf.
  2. ^ See the Koori Country Firesticks website
  3. ^ Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia”, Atlas of Transformation, tranzit: 2011: http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html.
  4. ^ See also Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  5. ^ Ben Tarnoff, “To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution”, The Guardian, 17 September 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/17/tech-climate-change-luddites-data.
  6. ^ Ben Highmore, Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday , Oxon: Routledge, 2011, p. 4.
  7. ^ Hugh LaFollette, “Pragmatic Ethic”, in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, (ed.) Hugh LaFollette, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p. 403.
  8. ^ Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An Orphaned Sewing Machine”, 2017, Harvard Magazine: https://harvardmagazine.com/2017/01/an-orphaned-sewing-machine
  9. ^ All quotes from Chaco Kato from email correspondence, January 2020.
  10. ^ All quotes from Rebecca Mayo from email correspondence, January 2020.
  11. ^ See Clare Browne and Jennifer Wearden, Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: V&A Publications, 2003, p. 7.

Sera Waters is an Adelaide‐based artist and writer living on Kaurna land. Her solo exhibition Domestic Arts is touring regional South Australia with Country Arts SA from 2020 until 2021. She is part of the collective SA artists for climate action and the #climatebadges initiative.

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