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Entries in material culture (127)

Wednesday
May092018

the material culture of cladding

Grenfell Tower cladding damage after the fire of 14 June 2017Grenfell Tower technical facts and political speculations: designed and built in 1967 in concrete.  A marginal amount of insulation on the inside walls.  Despite the valorous critical re-evaluation of Britain’s extensive postwar brutalist movement, housing towers such as Grenfell looked old and ugly.  What was revealed in the weeks after the fire was the diverse and rich life contained between its old and ugly concrete floors and walls — not the tight old London working class communities that had gone through the Blitz and who until Windrush and the empire coming home were white and deeply rooted in London as a place.  No, Grenfell 2017 was hugely diverse: the new London which because of the numbers of 1960s council towers still has economic diversity built into its heart.

Grenfell Tower, designed in 1967 by Nigel Whitbread for Clifford Wearden Associates, built 1972-4 before the addition of insulated aluminum claddingNonetheless, Grenfell flats were cold, its architecture a failed socialist model: some new clothes were needed.  This is where a discussion of the material culture of architecture becomes relevant.  The 1967 architecture was straight-up modernism: concrete was exposed, fire was contained within concrete units which all had fresh air, long views and floor-by-floor communities of similar economic circumstance, in theory.  Come 50 years later, the model and the architecture has long been discredited.  Its facelift solution was two-fold: increase insulation and make it look glossier by covering the outside with gleaming silvery aluminium insulated panels.

Grenfell Tower renovation, 2012-16, Studio E Architects.It is these panels which are the material expression of a cultural appreciation of architectural style; not architecture, but the look of architecture.  That these panels were a cheapjack product is another consequence of ideological change where government is less responsible for the care of its citizens than in the postwar era, therefore there is less money allotted to housing, social welfare or community support.  It is concerned, however, with appearance.  Things must look successful, not crumbling, to attract investment.  Council towers all over Britain have been newly clad in insulated panels, many of which fail fire tests.

This is what material culture is: a sense of ourselves through the materiality of our choices.  It isn’t about art, or architecture, or practices deemed progressive, or even conservative in the sense of conserving what one has.  It is about both inadvertent and conscious practices that establish stature and identity, for better or worse.

Monday
Apr232018

cane riot shields, India

CRPF hold shields as Kashmiri protestors throw stones during protest in old city Srinagar. 'Top LeT militant Abu Dujana killed in Pulwana encounter', The Hindu , August 1, 2017

A clear example of a weak system used in the hardest of tasks, riot response by police. India has access to polycarbonate shields, but its police forces are often cash-strapped, thus this more historic and local version — not bullet-proof, but effective against rocks, sticks, bottles, the weapons of equally cash-strapped rioters and protesters. 

The incident above was reported as an encounter in Pulwama district of Kashmir where security forces were engaged in a counter-militancy operation during which a Pakistani LeT commander was killed.  The report in The Hindu includes this paragraph:  'The official said that over 100 “miscreants” started pelting stones at security forces involved in the anti-militancy operation in Hakripora area of Pulwama. He said the security forces used tear smoke shells, pellets and fired few live rounds to disperse the stone-pelting protestors.'

The escalation of the technology of combat: how much of disorder in the streets is actually about harm, and how much is about the theatre of protest?  When it becomes asymmetrical, where either bullets are fired at bamboo screens, or bullets are fired from behind polycarbonate and kevlar shields at unshielded fighters throwing stones, power resides with the effectiveness of weaponry against protection from such weapons.

If the bamboo screens are effective in Srinagar, clearly the police have judged quite finely the kinds of missiles coming towards them.  They'd probably like more impermeable shields, but in the case of police, rather than armies engaged in wars of invasion, they also probably do not want a bloodbath in their community.  Kevlar shields would encourage kevlar-piercing bullets, not just stones.

This is all quite far from the asymmetry of suicide bombers, cell phone triggers and chemical weapons — the combination of technology and purpose.  We are told such methods are spread by social media: instructions,  ideology and justification, thus if and where bamboo shields are still in use, the conflict is not modern, is not technological, but is as old as Kashmir itself.

There is a difference between policing and war: the police maintain order with something like the preventative strategies of an arms race, each side held in detente by their co-refusal to escalate to outright war and consequent annihilation.  The bamboo woven shield is carried with the trust that the opposition, whatever it might be, will use ammunition proportionate to the strength of the shield.  And vice versa, that the protesters expect the conflict to be at the level of stones, not guns.  When either side breaks that trust, the social contract is broken, and as we have seen with the recent escalations of civil warfare whether in the US or Syria, it is no longer about keeping order but about killing.

Saturday
Nov112017

the poppies blow

a Haig Poppy from Lady Haig's Poppy Factory, London, founded in 1926.

One can only think that the British and the British Empire side, while officially victorious in the Great War, was left grievously wounded and stunned.  It took eight years before the Poppy Fund was established, more for the cenotaphs.  War is clearly not a zero-sum game; everyone is damaged, everything is set back, everyone mourns. 

Tuesday
Jun202017

sniper camo

Turkish sniper captured during the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI

Lightweight BDU Ghillie Suit $ 269.99 at Ghillie Suit DepotAnd on it goes. 

I sense a fashion moment coming on.

Monday
Jun192017

camouflage for mummers

Nigel Goldsmith, photography www.nigelgoldsmith.co.uk. The history of the Marshfield Mummers goes back more than two hundred years. The Mummers themselves are played by men local to the area, their identity is concealed by a costume made from torn strips of newspaper and cloth.

This is a case of ‘looks like, but is not like’.  The morphology of camouflage, at root about invisibility or confusing identity, shoots off in many directions sometimes to arrive at the same solution.  The centuries-old  English tradition of mummering is a Christmas event where men don costumes to mask their identity and perform plays or dances for food and drink.  It is not unlike Hallowe’en trick or treating – the extraction of goodies from people who normally wouldn’t give you the time of day – in England it was about class: villagers targetting the big house, for whom most of them worked but about which they were unable to express any feelings.  In disguise one can say and do anything: the true subversive purpose of carnival.

In England mummering appears to be safely encapsulated in the world of folk tradition, re-enactments of old, defunct practices.  In Newfoundland, it never went away. With various degrees of lewdness, men dress up as women with pillow cases on their heads to disguise their identity and travel about in gangs extracting food and drink from householders.  

The Marshfield Mummers, in the Cotswalds, make their costumes out of newspaper and have a parade and a performance on Boxing Day.  Originally a play was performed throughout the twelve days of Christmas, but this practice died out in the 1880s.  It was resurrected in 1930, just before the last of the aged mummers took their knowledge of the play with them.  In this particular village the play was revived and disguise used newspapers; the mummers were known as The Old Time Paperboys.  Mummering pre-dates newspaper; at the beginning of the Depression in the 1930s newspaper might have been the most accessible material to make a costume out of; soon newspapers will be a rare and eccentric fabric for costume-making.

 

North Waltham Mummers, Hampshire, c. 1949 (Photographer: Douglas Dickins)There are several layers here: the original nineteenth-century practice, the revival practice from the 1930s, and how it has evolved, or not, to today.  When does something become folkloric, rather than folk?  This question arises with any folk revival. It was asked in the 1960s when folk songs swept through universities of middle-class soon-to-be professionals.  Bob Dylan moved on, Woody Guthrie didn’t. The rise of the kind of recent populism we are seeing is based on iconic folk traditions: the coal miner, the family farm, the factory worker as un-evolved specimens of a better time.  In the 1960s folk music looked to the Depression, to depressed Appalachia, to earlier struggles, so hopeless that all one could do is to sing to lighten a heavy load.  None of these iconic moments appear to be prosperous: that doesn’t make folk memory, rather it is hardship that is valourised in the revivals.

Mummering was performed by men with almost no means using high holidays such as Christmas to get a bit extra.  That it was entertaining at the same time was a kind of insurance that relations between those who have and those without will not tip over into revolution.  Folk songs were full of coded messages under the cover of entertainment. If the messages weren’t for you (underground railway instructions for example) you didn’t see them.  There is subversion, always, in folk practice, something that folk revivals cannot capture.

Sunday
Jun182017

the ghili suit of the Iranian Army

Camouflaged Iranian Army soldiers march during a parade in Tehran. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

This remarkable image from the Army Day Parade in Teheran on April 18th, and many more like it spread around the web, shows a particular kind of Iranian Army camouflage called a ghili suit.  It appears to come in a range of colours, from white to charcoal, and clearly acts much like the dazzle camouflage on WWI ships where the shape of the body (of the ship, or the soldier) is rendered diffuse, directionless, completely indistinct. This seems quite different from the flat camouflage patterns of western armies which rely on colour and a general blurriness within the clear outline of the body.  

Checking on the history of the ghili suit, it is well known in hunting circles, originally made of burlap and used by ghillies to catch poachers. British snipers wore them in WWI. The Iranian Army wear their suits with gaiters, as do Highland marching pipe bands, another curious reference to some sort of Edwardian Hibernia.

Further checking reveals a great number of war games sites with instructions on how to make your own ghillie (the northern European term; ghili, the Persian spellilng) suit, such as this one:


From GhillieTreff.de, clearly a ghillie enthusiast whose aim is total invisibilityEasy to mock, as do many of the sites that show the Iranian ghili suits on parade, but it is war, in Iran, not a war game.  This is extreme garb, so environmentally sensitive to shadow and light, shrubs and glare – a sensitivity upon which one’s life depends.  This isn’t a uniform proclaiming identity, rather its absence. 

Saturday
Mar112017

Annie Oakley

A wistful Buffalo Bill Cody, circa 1890, a couple of years after he had gone to England to visit Queen Victoria.

This has been a week or so, here, of the physical and cultural landscapes of the American southwest, long before malls and freeways, snowbirds, wetbacks and ICE.  The West was a powerful image, for those of us in the west who didn't entirely see it as those in the East might have – fenceless, lawless, full of saguaro cactus and mesas.  Rather those of us in the west north saw it as something our grandparents and parents did.  They knew the flowers, the grasses, the winters, the colourful characters.  Allegedly my great-grandmother had an affair with Robert Service; one grandfather, an executive with Imperial Tobacco in Edmonton, had joined a travelling circus at 13, the other grandfather lived briefly near Olds in a chicken coop, with his school tie, violin and dancing pumps as an apprentice gentleman farmer: these were real, not myth.  

At the same time we were awash with the mythology of the American West as it came through popular culture and that increased to a tsunami after WWII.  For example, there was a tv program for kids about Annie Oakley who had worked for Buffalo Bill, Civil War veteran, Indian hunter, showman, huckster.  In Grade One I got  an Annie Oakley lunch kit.  My brother three years later got a Roy Rogers lunch kit which he promptly lost, for which I don't blame him, it had Dale Evans on it, who was such a drip. 

Annie Oakley, sharpshooter, a little proto-feminist.  In the tv program her sidekick was Tagg, a kid, a boy; her horse was beautiful.  We all drew horses as little girls, before we moved onto ballerinas, leaving the wild west behind.  However, Annie Oakley was a far more exotic model for very little girls than, say, Anne of Green Gables, a book which I could not read at all.  For Annie Oakley there were no rules; for Anne Shirley it was all about fighting the rules that cramped her style.  It made no sense to me.

The west is different from the east; it is another country.

Aladdin Industries Annie Oakley lunch kit, 1955. This one was on Ebay and sold for $350. The cream edges were pressed like leather, and the sides had a belt of bullets running around them.

Tuesday
Mar222016

Nadia Myre: owning the Indian Act

From Art Mûr: Indian Act speaks of the realities of colonisation – the effects of contact, and its often-broken and untranslated contracts. The piece consists of all 56 pages of the Federal Government’s Indian Act mounted on stroud cloth and sewn over with red and white glass beads. Each word is replaced with white beads sewn into the document; the red beads replace the negative space.

Nadia Myre, Indian Act, 1999-2002. Glass beads, stroud cloth, thread and downloaded copies of the text of the Indian Act (chapters 1 to 5, comprising 56 pages) amended in 1985.

Handwork as a political act: each bead is threaded and strung, attached by the hands of hundreds of volunteers who worked on this project, each page calculated and beaded.  And under it, printouts of a downloadable version of the Indian Act, produced by computer and printer, infinitely replicable, which was, of course, its problem – its replicability in the minds of not just bureaucrats in Ottawa, but in every school system in the country, in every mind of every petty administrator, policeman and worthy.  Did any of them actually read the text, the way the artists beading over it must have?  The speed of reading, or scanning versus looking at every letter, every word, every loaded space between each word, each paragraph, choosing a red bead or a white one: this project was an intensely political process and act – truly an Indian act. 

Nadia Myre, Algonquin, intensely beautiful and significant work.

Monday
Mar212016

Wearing Our Identity; measured in spoons

Widow's amauti. Eastern Arctic, Inuit: Nunatsiarmiut, 1890-1897. Sealskin, seal fur, glass beads, silver?, lead, brass, pewter?, spoons, coins, wool braid, linen? thread. © McCord Museum M5836 This is a widow's amauti. It has a small, flat baby pouch just below the hood in the back, indicating the widow's former role as a child-bearer (from birth until about two years of age, Inuit babies are carried in an amaut under the mother's hood). In the early 1800s, non-Aboriginal explorers, whalers and traders began providing the Inuit with an array of trade goods, including dyed cloth, coins, metal utensils and glass beads.

Robert Everett-Green has reviewed, briefly but succinctly in the Globe & Mail, the current McCord Museum exhibition, Wearing Our Identity curated by Guislaine Lemay.  Nadia Myre, Algonquin artist in residence at the McCord, has chosen pieces from McCord’s collection plus new work by a range of aboriginal artists.  Everett-Green raises the issue of appropriation in such an exhibition, referring to the amauti, above, which has a line of pewter spoons attached to the front and pennies sewn on the back, pointing out that while the term appropriation is applied to Victorian middle-class ladies doing Indian beadwork patterns from The Ladies Home Journal, it does not apply to the widow in Baffin Island sewing spoons on her amauti.  It is a question of power, he posits. 

Victorian middle-class women were denied much participation in an outside life but they were allowed to do crafts – watercolours, needlework, and there were magazines that gave them instructions (impossible as Myre demonstrates).  Although they had more power than any aboriginal woman had, or has in the main even today, the Inuit widow had more freedom to make her own elaborations on her own parka.  

One of the most salient things I learned, long ago during my postcolonial education, was in the reading of Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, the back history of Jane Eyre through the lens of the other: the ones without power, the women, the fragile and the dangerous.  It is Antoinette Crosby’s nurse, Christophine, who says to Mr Rochester, newly arrived to take blind possession of a wife, a plantation and all its inhabitants, you know some things, I know other things – I paraphrase wildly, but the gist is that power doesn’t know everything, it actually doesn’t know anything other than itself; while the putatively powerless know a hell of a lot about the world, their environment, their culture, relationships of power – their survival depends upon this knowledge when brute force isn’t an option.

Yes, whether something is appropriation or adoption is a matter of power: the powerful take, those with a different kind of awareness incorporate the signs and materials at hand, whether they be trade goods or baseball caps: the original meaning of such materials is subverted by a different set of codes, inaccessible to power: it is the development of a decolonising language.

Thursday
Mar172016

Métis dog coats

Miep von Sydow: IditarodFor some reason I find this picture hysterically funny – the laugh for today – amid all the allegations of abuse to have the dogs tethered and running day after day.  Dogs like to work, to do the things they are bred for.  If you leave them just lying around being ‘natural’ they get grumpy and yappy.  They make their own work projects such as sending off the mailgirl every day.  

Whatever, I came across this picture while looking for this year’s very chic team all wearing hot pink boots as they tore across Alaska:

DeeDee Jonrowe leaves the Huslia checkpoint during the 2015 Iditarod. Jonrowe, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, is a legend of the sport. She has run the Iditarod 35 times, with 16 top-ten finishes. Photo: Katie OrlinskyDogs, dressed for the weather, have a long history.

This was painted by Peter Rindisbacher  in the 1820's in the Red River area. The three dogs pulling the sleigh are covered in small beaded red blankets with yellow accents. They have sets of bells around their necks and additional bells sticking out above their collars in a colourful display. Again, this image is from the brilliant Portage La Loche website. Click on the image to go to the page about Métis dog blankets.These coats are very beautiful:

Dog blanket, Western Subarctic. Aboriginal: Dene, Slavey 1900-1915. Velvet, canvas cloth, cotton bias tape, wool yarn, glass beads, metal beads, sinew, cotton cloth, cotton ribbon, hide, 51 x 55 cm. © McCord Museum ME966X.111.3

The coat for warmth and the flare, tall and tasselled, attached to the neckband of the harness along with bells for visibility perhaps. The pictures give little hint of being caught in a blizzard white-out.  

Wednesday
Mar162016

The Red River Coat

Red River Coat, Markette Inc. 1940-1950, 20th century. Wool. © McCord Museum M2000.49.1Two directions from yesterday’s post about the Red River Coat: one is the embroidered hide coat of elegant ‘european’ (as described by the museums) form, the other is an early to mid-twentieth century garment (above), mostly for children in Ontario and Quebec, called the Red River coat: something like a pea jacket, lined in red and tied with a red sash that could also be used as a muffler – a manufactured version of the 20cm wide, 3m long Métis sash, an all-purpose finger-woven band used to hold blanket capotes closed; wrapped around the middle they strengthened voyageur’s backs; they were wide enough to carry things in, to use as tourniquets, towels and tumplines.  (The links in this post take one to a most diverse collection of webpages, from Leonard Cohen circa 1945 to Paul Kane's painting of John Lefroy in 1845)

below: this is Robert Kennicott in 1862 visiting Portage La Loche. He was an American naturalist, clearly gone native, as they say: his coat is plain wool, the sash is magnificent, his toque striped, his trousers tied and tasselled, his moccassins no doubt beautiful.

Robert Kennicott, visiting card, 1872We have this documentation because Kennicott had himself photographed in his full costume grand nord – he must have been delighted with it. The web page from Portage La Loche that this photograph comes from is dense with interesting research on the Métis sash – beautiful images from paintings to photos.

How the blanketty Red River coat became a navy wool coat for wealthy little Montreal children in the 1940s might indicate something of the transformation of complex cultural and environmental garments into something cute, something that children are allowed to wear because they are small and defenceless: they can undermine the power and cultural meanings of, for example, the peoples represented by Louis Riel, still a divisive political figure in Canada, 130 years after his death. 


Friday
Mar042016

Métis trappers' tents

Métis Crossing campground: trappers' wall tents

From Assiniboine tipis website: Wall tents are rugged four-sided shelters, much like a small cabin, with a peaked roof that slopes down to four canvas walls. The military began using wall tents as early as the 18th century. Then again, during the civil war, wall tents were used extensively. They were popular as army hospitals. Two large wall tents, fourteen feet squared, would be stacked end to end to form a medical ward for wounded. Later, tents continued to be used by hunters, trappers and gold prospectors throughout the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Even today, the wall tent is in high demand. The tents are used for shelter by the US Army in Iraq. They are popular for use in refuge camps. Nomadic peoples have also taken advantage of the rugged construction and comfort of the modern wall tent.aha, David Fortin has sent this link: Métis Crossing, Kalyna Country, Canada’s Largest Ecomuseum.  Not built yet, but planned.  It is in Smoky Lake, on the Victoria Trail which runs on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River, next to Victoria Settlement, an Alberta provincial historic site.  This promises to be a living museum, so far the website shows camping, a rodeo, new zip lines, giant mushrooms by the highway, a grain elevator museum and the historic Eldorena Ukrainian church.  I love this little website, it is the prairies as I know it; rather than Edmonton and Calgary, this is rural Alberta in all its cultural mix.  
From its website:
Extending east and northeast from Edmonton, the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum is one of the most historic places in Alberta. Follow our rivers and roads to experience a millennia of aboriginal culture, a landscape traversed by the great explorers and fur traders, prior to the homesteading era and the coming of the railroad. Kalyna Country is Alberta’s multi-cultural capital. Kalyna Country contains Canada’s largest Ukrainian settlement; some of Alberta’s largest concentrations of French, Cree, Metis and Romanian settlement; Alberta’s only Irish settlement, plus German, Scandinavian, British and other slavic cultures. All of these groups, together have combined to give Kalyna Country a distinct flavour that sets the region apart from other rural areas of Alberta.

This is métis, not the people, but as a Canadian response to our diversity and our fundamental métissage where evolutionary indigeneity meets the shock of the newcomer, gets over the shock either militarily or resignedly, and starts to talk, to share, to borrow. 

Take the discussion of the Métis trapper wall tent: the tent poles were probably the same as tipi poles, the canvas was a trade good, used for both tipis and tents: one looks like a cone – the shape derived by poles alone, tied at the top, the other like a house – structural walls and a water-shedding roof, however in the wall tent the walls are not structural, the roof is a continuous skin that becomes a wall, the structure is external: completely different logic informs the shape of the wall tent.  Whatever, it is efficient, well-honed over centuries of use, and still in use today, viz. the Northern Trappers Alliance camp set up on Saskatchewan Highway 955 in a 2014 blockade of tar sands and uranium exploration companies.

The wall tent is métis architecture as the tipi is not.  Métissage borrows and adapts – a form of innovation, but quicker than the slow evolution of what we consider originary building forms such as the tipi. 

Thursday
Mar032016

Métis architecture

Métis Farmstead Buildings – See Burley, David, Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon. 1992. Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity: an archaeological, architectural, and historical study. Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press. Used with permission by David Burley.

David Fortin is in an RAIC 2016 session, speaking about Métis architecture, his widely-funded research project at Laurentian University.  He is studying Métis and their design sensibility: how they build – his webpage banner shows the curved edge of a Cardinal building.  Pointing out that there is not universal agreement on who is considered Métis and there is little material architectural culture that points directly to a Métis architecture, Fortin’s project is framed as ‘a discussion about weaving together Métis history with contemporary topics linked to culture and identity’.

I’m going to do some summarising here from an essay on Fortin’s website because it is interesting how he has started this project.  He sees three conditions of Metis design: ‘1) a distinct responsiveness to the landscape, 2) an emphasis on egalitarian space, and 3) an informal approach to design’.  Informality refers to  ‘flexibility, adaptability, and imprintability’.  His process is to study what material culture there is, in the manner of Henry Glassie who read historical legacies of building details, mapping them to migration, emigration and immigration.  

I first discovered Glassie in the mid-1980s with his Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. I was teaching in the Eastern United States at the time; Glassie was my guide to the folklore and folk traditions of building. I amassed a huge archive of log construction that in my experience culminated with cabins built in the Smokey Mountains out of ancient poplars where a slice through the trunk might be 4’ wide: a wall took just two boards, and they were still jointed like a regular log cabin corner would be.  There is method, and there is material: whatever the method and however old it is, the material bends it to fit.  This is what is so exciting about vernacular building: its utterly expeditious adaptability.

At the same time, and here Glassie wasn’t a guide, I recorded the reconstructed villages of aboriginal peoples throughout the eastern States.  The US is good with this sort of thing: there are reconstructions galore, pamphlets and books that range from oral histories to academic research – I mean there were then, not sure about now.  Canada not so good at this sort of thing: reserves and Nations are more private, more defensive. One wonders if there is some kind of political obstruction to examining aboriginal material culture. Fortin cites Burley’s Structural Considerations of Métis Ethnicity: An Archaeological, Architectural, and Historical Study.  This was published by the University of South Dakota Press in 1992: why wasn’t it published in Canada?  Why isn’t it in every bookstore rather than on Google books with an unmarked cover?

There is a a lot of research on the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Glenbow museum has vast Blackfoot collections, but I’ve always found it a bit of a struggle to discover any sort of delight in walking around glass cases of the real thing, compared to walking around a reconstructed village that presents a holistic synthesis of construction, fabrics, food, pots, where the horses were, how big the fires were, how were pieces of wood joined together (pins? sinew? hide? trade nails? gravity?).  I realise such things are necessarily incomplete, we don’t know much about the unrecorded, but we can start to think, to hazard, to speculate based on human nature, how things might have worked –– this is the basis of scholarly pursuit. It shouldn't however, be just the preserve of the museum and the academy.

Friday
Feb262016

rubber boots

Canadian rubber boots

Canadian rubber boots, not at all fashionable, red-soled, fat legs, lined with cotton knit, been around forever.  Worn with grey socks with a white top and a red line.  And GWGs (founded 1911 in Edmonton, closed in 2004 assailed by the fashion jean market).

GWG button, ca 1930
So much is about war: rubber boots in the trenches, GWG supplying 25,000 pieces of clothing per week to the Commonwealth forces of WWII.  Fashion aside, having to supply millions of garments for the two world wars must have ramped up production unbelievably quickly.  GWG replaced men with women, doubled its work force and built a second factory. After the war GWG went back to workwear – coveralls, jeans, jackets – but also gradually tilting into the fashion market: my first pair of jeans were GWG because it was all we could get, but even then they were not as desirable as Levi’s or Lee jeans bought across the border.  The Guess Who wore GWGs, which sort of summed it up.

Rubber boots with red soles are still staples in fishing and logging,  The rest of us, if you want boots that do not weigh a ton, are now sold Hunter boots, the British wellingtons, originally green rubbers taller than our boots, with buckles at the side, now more often found in pvc fashion colour knock-offs, hot pink, plaid and such, but with the important white and red rectangular label glued to the front top.  By such nuances are ye known.  

Am I working up to some sort of thought on nativism and the new vernacular?  There are stores that cater to originals in a cult of the unfashionable but authenticKent of Inglewood is a local example: axes, straight razors and Geo F Trumper shaving soap in wooden bowls: ‘the brush, the razor, the axe’ is their tag line.  The axe.  Not sure I get it but it is all about being manly I think. 

Viberg work socks, Viberg, Victoria BC since 1931

Thursday
Feb252016

waterproofs

a riding mac

God people are clever.  Mackintoshes, waterproof raincoats, done originally in 1824 by dissolving rubber in naphtha to liquidise it and putting it between two layers of fabric, done evidently by the Aztecs (not the naphtha, they just used latex).  It’s all very chemical, the processing of rubber so it doesn’t smell, or melt or harden.  When you think that before this one relied on the natural oils in thick wool to repel water, and I suppose leather capes, the mackintosh must have felt featherweight in comparison.  

I had a short cream riding mac once, like the one above with the leg straps and everything, foolishly gave it away and now find they are £420.  I should have cleaned mine with a raw potato and soaked the red ballpoint mark on the sleeve out with milk.

Got a waxed jacket for living in Duncan’s Cove, south of Halifax, where waves bash the rocks and are quite drenching.  Originally it was sails that were waxed, to make them more efficient against wind; fish oils, then linseed oil on lighter canvas reduced the weight of the sails in the overall tonnage of the ship, allowing it to go faster.  We are speaking of the mid-nineteenth century here.  Linseed oil turns yellow: fishermen’s slickers are yellow by tradition, but originally by linseed oil.  In the 1920s cotton started to be impregnated with petroleum-based materials: paraffin mainly, then cupro-ammonia – the solution used to produce Bemberg and cupro rayon.  Not until the 2000s was cupro-ammonia replaced by a hydrocarbon wax, which is what Barbour gives you a little can of when you buy a jacket.  It looks like vaseline and when you use it to touch up the wear where the waxing has worn off gives you a horrible greasy jacket you can’t hang up next to anything else.  The dark olive green of the Barbour comes from the copper in the cupro-ammonia.

It is very warm, this waxed jacket, and has that hunting and fishing look that flags a certain segment of the British class system and its wannabes. But it is very warm and quite useful in a Calgary winter.  I like things that you never have to buy again because they never, ever wear out and have zero relation to the fashion industry.  Well that’s not quite true, they float in and out of desirability.

a Barbour, well worn and resembling something primeval, lichenous, beaten about by life in the elements. Gore-Tex: now that is made of Teflon.

Tuesday
Feb232016

fixing things

How to clean a Mackintosh. Gallaher's cigarette card No 35 of the How to do it series. It is surprising how much a cut raw potato can do, from cleaning oil paintings to your muddy mac.  These ‘how to do it’ cards are wildly inventive, a combination of old remedies such as taking salt stains from brown (?) shoes with washing soda dissolved in milk – milk is very useful for a lot of problems evidently; it dissolves ink even – to mending broken china with molten alum, whatever that is.  I expect this set of cards is the collected wisdom of the butler, the maid of all work and the housekeeper — it is all about fixing things with much ingenuity and common materials.
 
I used to take all this to heart, this kind of mending and fixing, renewing and caring.  Always there were the stories of elderly blind ladies who could mend smashed teacups by feel.  It was very hard.  Everything I have is mended, badly.  Many things that seem so simple in the drawings and the 80-90 words of masterfully concise text are terribly difficult to actually do well.  Maybe if you’d done something a hundred times, and knew what it all felt like, it would work.  I’m not sure we know how to do anything much, with our hands, any more.  

How to clean a clock is a classic: put some cotton batten soaked in coal oil in the innards: the fumes will loosen any dust and it will fall off the mechanism.  Really?  How was this discovered?  Thomas Barrow looks after all the clocks at Downton – I suppose he knows about this.

Thursday
Oct222015

Gordon Matta-Clark: Splitting, 1974

 

Gordon Matta-Clark Splitting (detail) 1974 322 Humphrey Street, Englewood, New Jersey courtesy of David Zwirner, NY and the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

Gordon Matta-Clark had such a brief career, but what he did was so influential.  For Splitting, 1974, he took an abandoned house and cut a channel through it as if with a cheese cutter.  The house didn't fall down although the attack on its structural integrity would have been drastic if it hadn't then been subsequently demolished.  Splitting actually refers to the set of photographs Matta-Clark made of the rooms slashed by light from the narrowly sliced outside wall.  

One doesn't cut through a woodframe house as if it was a piece of cheese.  It took a chain saw to cut each roof shingle, sheathing board, beam, joist, floorboard, lathe, plaster wall, plumbing pipe, window frame, chimney breast, stair tread and riser.  The thought is conceptual, the act is laborious.  

His beautiful film:

Splitting By Gordon Matta-Clark from GM Clark on Vimeo.

Matta-Clark's work is generally seen as 'a critique of bourgeois American culture' which makes little sense to me now.  It seems what he was doing was classic modernist sculptural technique, in the way David Smith assembled and welded steel sheets and then sometimes cut the piece in half and rearranged it.  My source for this is an ancient film I once saw on his working methods where he was working with steel the way the rest of us were working with cardboard.  The difference between working with mild steel and walls of a building is perhaps financial: abandoned houses and warehouses were available the way wrecked cars were for John Chamberlain.  But because both these materials fall into the category of detritus, or found materials, or salvage, their history leads to a set of particular and peculiar narrative arcs for the sculpture made from them.  


Peter Eisenman, House VI, Cornwall, Connecticut, 1975. photograph NJITPeter Eisenman's House VI of 1975, just one year after Splitting, famously had a glazed slit in the bedroom from ceiling to wall to floor.  At the time it was discussed as an illustration of the wilfulness of the architect, forcing his clients to sleep in twin beds to preserve the slipping planes of the design process that at one (arbitrary) point stopped, was built and occupied.  Although Eisenman's slice out of three planes of the room appropriates Matta-Clark's slice out of a house in New Jersey, it comes from completely different reasoning.  

Here is a video by Steve Trefois and Laurent Arnoldi on House VI, if one has the patience.

Peter Eisenman - House VI Steve Trefois - Laurent Arnoldi from AlICe lab on Vimeo.

 

Monday
Oct122015

John Chamberlain: HAWKFLIESAGAIN, 2010

John Chamberlain, HAWKFLIESAGAIN, 2010. Painted and chrome-plated steel, 270 x 311 x 221 cm. Artwork Copyright John Chamberlain. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery, photo by Mike Bruce

I'm wondering if there isn't an over-reliance on narrative in much of sculpture today.  Hirschhorn's 2015 In-Between spells out a narrative of building collapse: what it might look like, were it to happen.  As such it doesn't really look like buildings in collapse, which fall apart along structural lines unless helped by a lot of semtex.  However, it is the narrative that is important.  Jeremy Deller's 2009 It Is What It Is, has a more journalistic narrative: the bombed car is a bombed car, importantly from a specific time and place.

As a correlative, I find myself thinking of John Chamberlain's crushed car sculptures of the 1960s which, in his own words, had no weighty narratives attached, he only said they were about detritus, as that is what they were made from: 'individual pieces that are divorced from their material past' which have certain aesthetic qualities – colour, shape, shine, rust, but little 'historical indexical meaning' (these notes from a review by Anne Blood on Chamberlain's 2011 show at the Gagosian, London, the same year that he died).

However, over my adult life, these sculptures have had a zillion narratives and meanings projected on to them; even Anne Blood sees them as 'works formed like a piece of jazz improvisation, the separate pieces meeting like notes in the air, striking harmonics and chords – atonal or harmonious – but ultimately coming together into a pleasing whole' – a projected narrative of working methods, which may or may not be true.  For decades Chamberlain's sculptures were said to 'represent' the excesses of American throwaway culture, its love of big cars, speed, freeways and accidents.  They were, at one time, included in the Pop Art canon, because they used the products of American consumer culture.  They have occupied a subsection of American Arte Povera, because they investigate found materials and re-present them in a way that makes the commonplace a thing of marvel.  The archive of his works at Marfa's Chinati Foundation almost automatically enters the sculptures as land art: assemblages of stuff picked up in the landscape of dead cadillacs. But even at Marfa Chamberlain's works share space with Dan Flavin's neon tubes and Donald Judd's chrome-plated steel boxes, all industrial processes together, in various stages of assembly and decay.

After all these decades (four) can it be that a sculpture is simply the end product of its means of production (from which it derives its deep description) and not a production projecting a meaning, a lesson, a story, a parable?

Tuesday
Sep012015

the freestep

Freestep bicycle

Having ridden a bike from the age of six, I've had in total four beloved bicycles in my whole life ending up with a quivering azure racehorse of a 10-speed that simply has a fit at each pebble in the road. I love it dearly. In this column I have written about bamboo bikes, ash bikes, carbon fibre frames, build-your-own bikes – it is a huge field: bicycles, bicycle lanes in cities, street bikes, bike-shares, bike couriers, bike paths, and the variety of bikes themselves is seemingly endless.  A long way from having to choose either a CCM or a Raleigh.  

This one, the Freestep, comes they say from the skateboard world. Well, only in the shape of the non-pedals really. Instead of pedalling, one pumps the boards as on a step-master thing (clearly out of my depth here).  No seat, you will notice. You stand and pump your way along, and in the process get very very fit.  

This model, above, has a nice fat retro frame, all gentle curves and cream enamel.  It is a curious blend of soft 1950s styling and 2010s auto-mobility here – we seem to want autonomous travel, without rules, just to be able to get about under our own steam seemingly without tradition, except for a sweet nostalgia that companies such as Best Made, or Labour and Wait promote.  It is a feeling that things were better once, that you could trust things when they were more solid, more straightforward, more utilitarian. Does this feeling exist in direct inverse proportion to how much time our minds spend in the virtual, ephemeral, complex world of our devices, while our bodies sit inert, in thrall to a preoccupied brain?  And somewhere after a long day at the screen face, we would like to take our clunky childhood bike and tool around the neighbourhood?

 

Tuesday
Feb032015

Theaster Gates: Migration Rickshaws, 2012

Theaster Gates. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping, Building and Playing, 2013. White Cube

Relatively speaking, not a lot out there on Theaster Gates, given how multivalent and ubiquitous his practice is. Urban design and community-building play a large part, as does a fairly conventional art practice such as the Civil Tapestry series.  He is described on his website as a Chicago-based artist who has 'developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.' And wikipedia states he is 'an American Social Practice Installation artist' [wikipedia's caps].

Gates is perhaps someone who has done a lot of things: urban planning, construction, ceramics, installations and performances not unconnected to church performance.  He bought half a street in south Chicago and turned it into a community arts corridor: he has a project, he points this project to many processes and ways of making his project visible.  

The rickshaws are, like a shoe shine series, objects made from found materials: the social reference to the shoe shine stand is perhaps clearer than the rickshaw in terms of American black history, but the rickshaws are wheeled vehicles that carry the tools and materials for new lives.  The materials are embedded with old lives and old wrongs.  The form is generally two stair stringers with things stacked on top, a wagon wheel at the far end.  Similar carts figure in fleeing refugee images the world over.  In isolating the cart from all context, i.e. it has become a sculpture in a gallery, the form assumes a universality in the way that Joseph Beuys' sleds and stacks of felt, so personal and autobiographical, become a synecdoche for all cases of individual survival – if not felt and fat, then leaves, or snow, or hay, or cardboard.  Gates' Migration Rickshaws are both literally and figuratively vehicles that carry a load: it is the load that becomes didactic. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping and Building, Migration Rickshaw for German Living, Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, Rickshaw for Hardware.  What is it that makes a life?  

I realise that the current term for found stuff you make art out of is re-purposed materials – discarded things whose new purpose seems to be art.  I'm not sure this is effective re-purposing, again it seems didactic: nothing is waste, nothing is too humble to be re-used.  There is a vintage, early-twentieth century look to these rickshaws that makes them so much more romantic than a steel shopping cart full of plastic bags and bottles, the more usual urban migration rickshaw these days. One could actually build something with Gates' rickshaw loads; bottles and plastic are simply articles whose only destination is molecular reorganisation at an industrial scale. There is perhaps a recovery project here, a pre-civil rights movement recovery when 'freedom' implied an individual sense of destiny and dignity, not the freedom to be shot by a neighbourhood watch idiot because you are wearing a hoodie.  

Theaster Gates. Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, 2012 55 1/2 x 96 7/8 x 29 1/8 in. Desk drawers, wood and wheels