Writing After Stitching: An Artist's Talk on September 10, 2015
The Project Space Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi
Since beginning a stitching practice in 2010 I have written about stitching many times from the perspective of a writer going into this seemingly new territory. My essays toward a textile poetics have mostly been for an audience of writers intrigued by disciplinary boundary crossing, myself included. I could problematize the idea of that boundary—I could give the talk that argues for the no-difference between stitching and writing.
But this week I thought it might be interesting to accept and approach the boundary from a different direction. For this talk, I invert the tendency to talk about stitching as new territory. Instead, I’m thinking about returning to the land of writing with new information—as if writing is the new territory when for me, autobiographically, it is more like a homeland.
Here are five propositions on what stitching has taught me about writing, and I’ve made this booklet because some of these thoughts, I realize, are a kind of poetics, and therefore more like sky-writing than artist-talk anecdote, so that if you want to revisit them in print, you can—
[Walking toward and standing in front of "Dashes" 2015, laster print, compiled from the artist's notebooks 2001-2015]
Stitching, too slow to be a record of thought, made me realize how much writing resists materialization. A word or word group is always haunted by “beyond” and “impermanence” and “prayer.” Despite the book as object, the imprint of text, the shape of letters, writing is that which cannot be materialized but needs to be said. Language poets talk often of the materiality of words and in the last decade I have followed their thought pathways as far as I could. I think I have arrived at a basic difference: text’s resistance to materialization or disregard for object-status will always put it in productive opposition to textile. Though they both share the root “to weave, to make” the word seems to insist on slipping out of the weave.
[Standing in front of "Reading Penury by Myung Mi Kim" 2014, video, book from artist's library, running time: 25 minutes 58 seconds]
That said, writerly attempts to strip narrative away—to strip away, as Myung Mi Kim would say, the notion of comprehensive knowledge—and to treat words as objects are exciting precisely because of this impossibility. To zero in on words as resonant entities without the scaffolding of exposition and explanation, as in Kim’s book Penury, creates intense vibration. Stitching has brought me back toward a desire for language that vibrates without literal strings. Yet even the sparsest arrangement of words on a page comes with associative strings attached.
[Walking toward and standing in front of "LABOR" 2011-2015, hand-embroidery, unbleached muslin stiffened with gel medium, interior house paint and acrylic on plywood, book by artist (Nightboat 2014) and book display from artist's library, photographs on found book pages, laster print with custom-made stamp on found book page]
Writing removed of gestures toward comprehensive knowledge is not necessarily abstract, minimalist, affect-less, or a-political writing. A word group stripped of context takes on its surroundings perhaps very well. For example, in 2008 and again last spring I went to NYU’s Bobst library and into the Wagner labor archive there in order to research and think about US radical history and the word “class.” Do the words
LABOR VEIL STRUGGLE CENSOR
mean something else as stitched words presented here?
I thought that minimalism was the domain of the visual, leaving words behind, something to achieve when you are done with the troubles of the world. I thought this even though I had written many pages arguing against the split between text and image. Now I see more clearly that the span of language possibility is wide, though experimental literature is woefully under-read just when it may be the kind of literature we need most. Can exploring the bare intensities of language bring us back from the brink?
[Standing in front of "Threads/Threads" 1997 & 2007, alterned old Estonian book, collage, paper, thread, photographs, photocopies, edition of one, and book by artist (Futurepoem 2007)]
This week my students, in their close readings of poet and artist Cecilia Vicuna, reminded me of a fundamental characteristic of string: connection. Working with thread returns me to my first book—a book entitled Threads—a project borne of a desire not necessarily to write a book, but to tell a story without the need for art supplies and studio space. The notebook as studio. I began there and with the fragile, threadbare connection between my father and me, refugee and home, an American family and Estonian-ness, the idea of safety and the intergenerational echoes of the violence of war. If it has been generative to study semiotics and the impossibility of stable meanings over the years, stitching and cloth reminds me that language is for connections, storytelling, wholeness, and repair.
[Standing in front of "Last Book" 2015, compiled from the artist's notebooks 2001-2015, printed and bound in Abu Dhabi, 500 copies stacked in columns and displayed]
Working with thread is slow. An embroidery emerges at a painfully incremental pace. I can hardly believe I do it. After working this way for years I made a book very quickly this June. I gathered fragments from fifteen years of notebooks, transcribed and arranged the word groups on pages, made a pdf, and sent it to Desco in the Tourist Club Area to have 500 copies made. Years of slow stitching brought me to the quick possibilities of a book—quick, that is, if I didn’t wait for a careful composition scheme, a publisher, the literary marketplace, blurbs, editors, designers. Maybe stitching’s slowness invites me into the ranks of the writer who doesn’t deliberate, the un-self-conscious author, the anonymous craftsperson who sits and slowly stitches or rattles off a quick poem, and in an act of both the letting go and reinforcing the ties that bind, makes and gives it away.