Performing Craft


When we talk about performative work, the emphasis is finally way apart from the object as the site of meaning.  For crafts this can seem rather counter-intuitive.  But if we think of the word ‘crafts’ as a verb rather than as a noun, it becomes suddenly much easier to understand the type of crafts work that calls itself performative.

Performative craft actions seek to use craft to agitate for change in a society, a way of being.  This might be through dialogical or community-specific projects (as in the River and Cloth project mentioned several times on this site); through public interventions (such as those by KnittaPlease or a recent Mrs Smith public art work here in Plymouth); or through direct political statements (we have already seen knit-ins).  Often the idea of agency – concerned with who is doing crafts/actions, who serves to benefit from them, and in what way – is of primary concern in performative craft.  Spheres such as public dialogue, writing, and curation/exhibition are interrogated and occupied.

One of the facets of craft has always been ‘to take care’.  Craftsmanship is a way of being in the world that suggests care is being taken.  When we use the word craft as a verb (as Richard Sennett suggest we do in The Craftsman), we invoke this spirit of taking care.  Not that this always has to be a ‘touchy-feely’ kind of care:  sometimes the desire is to make noise, to make mischief, to undermine a perceived illness in society.  The care takes place in the conscious questioning of why one chooses to commit any act.  Because one can never foretell all the consequences of any action, the strategy ‘to try to do good’ is a risky one.  But when we take care we are trying to make sure that we are doing good.

Some artists refute the idea that one must try to change the world with art.  Some of these argue that it is not art’s place to change the world – that is not the job of art.  Some argue that all art changes the world for the better, just by being art.  Performative craft seeks a more direct interface with right action than these views.  Often this perspective returns to the idea of craft as resistant practice, and particularly evokes the slow movement, the idea of taking time as a challenge to the overweening pressure of speed invoked by the demands of industry and consumerism.  Of course, in this sense performative craft is aligned with craftivism or even with most self-aware DIY crafting.  But more often performative craft takes from the word performance the idea that these acts, craft as a verb, should take place in the public view and impinge on public consciousness.

Gestures of Resistance was an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2007 that took place over a number of weeks, with a series of artists each taking over the space (and thus in charge of the curation of the space) to produce a piece of performative work.  These artists includedBottom of Form Carole Lung (working as Frau Fiber), an “itinerant textile worker” who used a bicycle-powered sewing machine to sew some designer wet weather clothing; Mung Lar Lam, whose “Ironings” — making marks on cloth with a hot iron — reflected on labour, gender and class; and anti-sweatshop activist Cat Mazza created a sculpture from castoffs of Michelle Obama’s favourite clothing brands.


One big criticism of this kind of work is that it just “doesn’t look like art”.  When the action is framed within a museum or gallery people most often expect to see something which has been presented in a certain way; and often performative work has no real visual focus.


However the work of ceramicist Clare Twomey subverts even the subversive agenda of performative craft.  Her work is performative and relational; but also aesthetically beautiful.  One piece involved the making of a floor of very thin ceramic tiles which cracked when they were walked upon.  (Only) the first person into the gallery space had to choose whether to disturb the pristine white floor; all viewers participated in the destruction of it by the action of walking on it.  Another piece involved the creation of a thousand small ceramic birds (this is conjunction with Wedgewood) which were dotted around the space in one of the rooms at the V&A.  Viewers were invited to take a bird, until there were none left.


Apparently Twomey still gets little notes about where the birds are in the world and what they are doing.  This says a lot about how involved people are in that piece of work.