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Reading Textiles from the South
Leire Vergara.
catalogo: TEXTILES Open Letter

 

Reading Textiles from the South: A Detour from the Background to the Foreground
 
Leire Vergara
 
 
                                   
 
I
 
How can we interpret the materiality of textiles from a contemporary perspective? In other words, how can we read the particularity of the abstract syntax that emerges from the formal structural crossing of weft and warp from a contemporary artistic context that seems no longer preoccupied with the limitations established by a specific media or discipline? These questions came to me after having a conversation on the phone with Spanish textile artist Teresa Lanceta and hearing her claimed “the freedom of textiles is marked in fact by their strict structure”[1]. These words stuck in my mind, making me wonder about textiles’ own specificity, the determination that resides in their given structure and the formal legacy that they have left behind capable of influencing contemporary artistic concerns.
 
Teresa Lanceta’s claim for freedom within textiles structural milieu seems to imply a double reflection, one that refers to the restrictions that determine the weaving process and the other the performativity implicit within that making. This implies to conceive the materiality of textiles in respect to certain temporality, that is, to understand that textiles involve a time base procedure. Lanceta calls this temporality “the time of the loom”[2] to refer to a prolonged temporality that sustains weaving and does not fit within the capitalist organization of our contemporary life. Therefore, to reflect about the materiality of textiles implies not only being attentive to their structural conditions, but also enquiring about the processes and contexts from where they are conformed, in other words the “social lives” that occur in them. This text proposes reading textiles from the perspective of the south as a short of invocation of that discarded prolonged temporality of weaving, a time snatched from the hands of the artisan by global economy.
 
The practice of Teresa Lanceta and the Paris based Argentinean artist Alejandra Riera could help us to outline an alternative itinerary through some remaining textile traces, discarded images, patterns, subjects and contexts. In this sense, I intend to give importance to the footprints, marks and traces that textiles have left within hegemonic classifications. My proposal stands for offering a detour that doesn’t aim to recover or reconstitute the fragmented parts, but tries to reflect on what actually remains within them.
 
The structural regime of textiles serves Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to define two distinct spaces, the smooth and striated space and two different regimes of perception, the haptic[3] and the optical. In fact the authors propose to define the striated space through a series of characteristics of a piece of textile. They describe them as follows: First, it is constituted by two kinds of parallel elements; in the simplest case, there are vertical and horizontal elements, and the two intertwine, intersect perpendicularly. Second, the two kinds of elements have different functions; one is fixed, the other mobile, passing above and beneath the fixed (…) Third, (…) the fabric can be infinite in length but not in width, which is determined by the frame of the warp. Finally, (…) it seems necessarily to have a top and a bottom; even when the warp yarn and woof yarn are exactly the same nature, number and density (…)”.  As oppose to this, the authors suggest that a piece of felt constitutes the anti-fabric, the smooth space. They say: it implies no separation of threads, no intertwining, only an entanglement of fibers by fulling. (…) it has neither top nor bottom nor center; it does not assign fixed and mobile elements but rather distributes a continuous variation. The authors bring this distinction between the striated and the smooth space to the regime of vision placing the smooth as the object of a close vision par excellence and consequently as the element of a haptic[4] space and the striated as the one of a more distant vision, pertaining thus to the optical space”[5].  Following their proposition, both regimes approach perception differently, the smooth space of the close vision is that one which does not bother about horizon and background, limits or perspective, form nor centre, while the striated space needs the long-distance vision in order to conform itself against a background. Even though Deleuze and Guattari consider these two regimes distinct from one another, they put the stress on the fact that a striated space may contain or produce smooth spaces and viceversa.
 
Within Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between the striated optical space and the smooth haptic one, textiles are considered as an example of a striated space in which forms and motifs would emerge against a background context. In fact, following their argument, this background seems to be part of the striation. This proposition makes me wonder about the relationship between background and foreground not just in textiles, but also in photography. Should we then consider the background as a white page in which one writes or weaves or quite the contrary as Deleuze and Guattari suggest as an intricate element of the striation of textiles? Does the inclusion, exclusion, delimitation or expansion of this background affect a textile composition? And finally what role has the background against the foreground played within the modern methodologies of displaying and classifying of textiles? I would like to reflect upon these questions through some works of Lanceta and Riera.
 
Teresa Lanceta started committing herself to a textile artistic practice against the predominance of other more established artistic forms and uses of media during the 1970s and 1980s in Spain. When she started weaving in the early 1970s, the artistic milieu that surrounded her was informed by the rich conceptual scene that was growing in the city of Barcelona. She started weaving stripes, without knowing how to weave properly, and sensing that the distance between what she tried to do and what other artists of her generation did differed significantly. The problem she had was not so much with the media of textiles, but with her own practice, that intuitively tried to interrupt a Western tradition within contemporary art that she felt was then taking the form of conceptual art[6]. In this respect, even though she was part of that artistic scene, her textiles didn’t fit into the form and content conceptual prescriptions, neither to the artistic regime of the performance, nor to the painting explosion arose in Spain during the 1980s and 1990s. As a female artist that was engage with what could be conceived as an anachronistic media, her motivations took her not just to develop a certain resistance to the existing contemporary artistic categories, but also to commit with those subaltern textile forms that Western contemporary art was leaving outside[7]. Consequently, her practice has developed through the last four decades out of a prolonged dedication with the given structural restrictions of weaving and the aspiration of learning the abstract language of an artisan media that has been generally spelt out from the central artistic concerns of contemporary art. 
 
The progression of her learning to weave in the early 1980s from horizontal stripes to diagonal forms brought her to a geometry composed by bands, triangles and rhombuses that prepared the ground for what was going to come later. In mid 1980s, when The Spanish immigration Law was becoming effective restricting the regular connections between The Maghreb and Spain, Lanceta started to continuously travel to Morocco in search of a weaving tradition that was still active. It was through her encounters with original pieces in bazaars that the artist felt her work should not only refer contextually to the textile tradition of the Middle Atlas, but that it should also study their own formal language. Since those early encounters, her work dedicated to this process of learning has been developed in three major projects: the first one entitled La alfombra roja (The Red Carpet) exhibited at Museu Tèxtil d’indumentària of Barcelona in 1989, the second one Tejidos marroquíes (Moroccan Textiles) at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid and at the Foundation Ona of Casablanca in 2000 and 2001 and the third one entitled La alfombra blanca (White Carpet) still in progress. The works of these series have come out of a formal close reading of original textile pieces such as capes, carpets or cushions. Her study started comprising simple motifs as for example stripes and parallels, that the artist weaved herself into a new piece enlarging however substantially the original elements. Her recreations reproduced fragments of nomad textiles pieces highlighting their abstract composition where random diagonal and parallel lines organized outside any central theme predominated outside any clear defined border[8]. She was interested in learning what was happening in every ornamental detail, putting the stress thus into the rich formal compositions of every little part of the original pieces. The result could remind to a zoom in made in photography, where an insignificant detail becomes the central object of the exposure. In this sense, Lanceta’s works reproduce details of the original pieces at the same time that the background gets also enlarged. This close up seems to highlight an intersection between Deleuze and Guattari’s striated and smooth conditions, applying in this case an haptic view over a striated space. Through this attentive scrutiny, Lanceta’s textiles examine the autonomous units that configured this abstract tradition, emphasizing thus how the women of the Middle Atlas region have established concepts such as asymmetry, the absence of a central theme, the relation between horizontal and vertical, the equal importance of the strips whether seen as an overall view or close-up in detail[9]. The formal examinations of her reproductions seems to give relevance to every detail that configured the formal grammar of the Middle Atlas textile tradition, displaying thus the formal logics of an art that happens beyond the Western artistic canons. This examination becomes evident in the foreground as a way to bring our attention to what we have within a close vision. The background in this case is an intricate part of the striated foreground.
 
II
 
The idea of understanding contemplation as a tactile appropriation was introduced as a modern concern derived from the implementation of the newest technological apparatuses of perception. Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction shows an interest for the haptic and tactile dimension of perception abstracted from the urge of holding an object at a very close range by the practice of photography and cinema. He refers back to the work of Viennese scholars Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff in order to gain conclusions from their studies on the organization of perception in late Roman times. However, Benjamin puts the stress in the historical conditions of perception, highlighting the fact that its forms and methodologies respond to the particularities of every historical context. In this respect, Benjamin uses visual references to situate the understanding of perception in modern times, referring thus to certain imagery composed for example of close-up photographed images of daily objects or full shots, snapshots or slow motion filmic takes of actors that look directly to the camera in replacement of the audience[10].
 
Similar concerns towards photographing objects and subjects occurred within modern ethnography. The image An Indian Woman With Franz Boas And George Hunt Holding up A Blanket pertaining to the Boas Collection at the American Museum of Natural History can help us to understand the dilemma of using photography at a close range to examine indigenous folkloric gestures. This visual document seems pertinent in the context of reading textiles from the south, in the sense that the folkloric action, registered for scientific scrutiny, concerns weaving. The photograph shows in fact an Indian woman native from the Kwakiutl tribe participating in the preparation of a folkloric staging in front of the camera. As part of the performance, she is spinning, while rocking a crib with a string that she has tied to her feet. This scene that happens at the foreground of the image contrasts although with the scene at the background, where ethnographer Franz Boas and his Kwakiutl native long-term assistant hold up a blanket in order to avoid any external interference and frame the action performed in front of them. Both constructed mise-en-scènes, one, staged after some preparations at the front for the demands of scientific inspection, and the other, impulsively arranged at the superfluous background for sustaining the whole staging, help us to reflect on the modern ethnographic methodologies of representing weaving[11] within a hierarchical division between these two levels of representation: the foreground and the background of a photograph.
 
I learned about this image through the experience of working with Paris-based Argentinean artist Alejandra Riera on her recent installation at Laboratorio 987 at Musac, Spain. The image appropriated and altered by Alejandra Riera and Andreas Maria Fohr was part of a work in collaboration entitled Fiction poétiquethat was initially showed in La Triennale, Intense Proximity of 2012. This work was again reconfigured for the installation entitled Partial Views at Musac that gathered in addition other works and elements that all together conformed a critical display in which exhibit the film-document Enquête sur le/notre dehors (Valence-le-Haut) < 2007 - … >[12]. The film-document was developed through a long process of exchange between the artist and the inhabitants of the stigmatic neighbourhood of Fontbarlettes in Valance, resulting in the production of an image of collective thought and a publication about the idea of inhabiting and the very act of producing and signing something in common. The exhibiting dispositif at Musac allowed screening the film for the first time within an art institution[13] at the same time that it functioned as an ensemble of exercises that critically reflected about the limitations of presenting a work of art of such kind inside a contemporary art museum. Boas’ image was printed for this occasion as a large-scale off-set copy accompanying the projection of a non-audible and non-visible[14] version of the same film-document and other materials that try to emphasize the imposition of power towards the subaltern within the representation regime of the museum display. If we focus on Boas image appropriated by Riera and Fohr, we can understand their critique towards the control executed by museum protocols of displaying non-western forms of culture. In fact, the image appears altered through an inverted game: the main scene, the Indian woman representing indigenous culture framed by the blanket at the back, was cut out with photoshop and replaced by a white empty gap that consequently brought forward the men in the background. Riera and Forh’s manipulation of Boas’ image brings attention to the boundary division between background and foreground, unconscious and truth, theatricality and objectivity within the hegemonic methods of representing indigenous cultural practices. In the image, the practice of weaving appears suspended between both regimes, avoiding thus any other reference that helps to locate it, allowing then a clean modern classification of it within the indigenous/primitive culture category. This simple alteration helps us to reflect on some modern ethnographic methodologies of representing indigenous culture within the context of modern institutions such as academies and the museums.
 
Boas’ image gives some accounts of the ongoing discussions taking place at the time within the field of ethnography, in particular, concerning how to exhibit objects and rituals within ethnographic collections at museums. The debate was a reflection of the disagreements between the speculations of the main anthropological theories, (cultural evolutionism, racial determinism, geographic determinism, European dissemination, etc). Franz Boas positioned himself on the border between an anthropology interested for the search of general theories concerning the evolution of culture and civilization and the emergence of a new anthropology oriented towards the intensive analysis of specific cultural groups through long-time sojourns on site, the learning of the native language and the theoretical understanding of culture as an integrative process of different elements[15]. In fact, some of Boas’ early critiques of the evolutionist methodology had to do with the classifications that were already taking place in museums regarding cultural artefacts. In the context of ethnographic museums, the objects and rituals coming from indigenous cultures were divided in families, genres, and types as if they were natural events and exempt of any social contextualization[16]. The alternative proposal of Boas had to do with displaying cultural objects in relation to their own context of origin. Besides, he also believed that the order had to respect the existing contact and communication between different tribes and native groups. However, the image portraying an Indian weaver shows a contradiction that happens within the background. The image apparently exhibited during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago organized for the commemoration of the discovery of the Americas responded to the desire to represent their remaining native cultures. The picture tries to hide with not too much success the truly modern background context in which the staging is happening. Boas brings forward the image to the foreground, entering thus into the logics of the close range vision, a smooth space that emerges out of no background, a way of looking that discards the background because in this case distracts and breaks the scientific staging.
 
 
III
 
 
The textile practice of Teresa Lanceta poses an interesting relationship between the original Middle Atlas textile pieces and her reproductions within the context of the exhibition. In these regards, her textiles are always hanged close to the original Moroccan handiras (capes), cushions and carpets evidencing the artistic operation that occurs between them. She aims to share with the spectator what has happened within her learning process, that is, how she formally repeats, copies and interprets some parts of the abstract compositions. However, her artistic strategy of appropriation does not necessarily employ repetition as a way of deconstructing the relations between the original and the copy, but as a mode of creating a new event, that is, the act of making visible the artistic value within the traditional patterns. Therefore, her aspirations of bringing attention to the complexities of some parts of the original pieces do not delimit themselves to the structural limitations of the given framework of the weft and warp, but on the contrary tries to go beyond these ones in order to have an impact on the logics of displaying textiles within the context of an art exhibition. With the determination of these particular rules for hanging the recreations always spatially close to the original pieces, her work invites us to reflect critically on how to exhibit textiles in a contemporary artistic context. In other words, her concerns with the display enquire about the supposedly neutral background of the white cube. In this sense, she wonders about the established modern mechanisms of indexing, classifying and exhibiting textiles within the West, speculating thus about the friction produced when the striated surface of the original and appropriated textiles pieces stand against the smooth space of the white walls of the exhibition room. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari call forth the nomad textile tradition of the Maghreb for introducing the possible interferences between the striated and the smooth space. They say: the weaving of the nomad indexes clothing and the house itself to the space of the outside, to the open smooth space in which the body moves[17]. The director of the Tiskiwin Museum of Marrakech, Bert Flint talks of the jaima, the dwelling of the nomadic tribes of the Middle Atlas, in similar terms. In his essay Two Notes on the Textile Tradition of the Atlas Region in Morocco and the Work of Teresa Lanceta he defines its characteristics: The jaima is made entirely of textiles; the roof, walls and floor. Almost all the members of the family take part in making it[18]. This helps us to understand that the striation of this textile tradition does not happen just at the level of the material, but also at the level of a collective organization. The traditional Middle Atlas textiles challenge the position of the author giving account of other processes of collective artistic production. This is something that gets dissolved and dismissed once it enters the smooth spaces of Western inspection and that Teresa aims to highlight formally through her close range recreations. With this strategy, the spectator’s look can be detained in the formal autonomous organization of the details, in other words, in the particular unruly ways of organizing the motifs without a central theme or a border by the purely nomadic tradition. However, Lanceta’s works do not expect a simple contemplation, her textile practice aims to shake our imagination for the creation of new forms of exhibiting that dissolve former violent modes of archiving or discarding textiles from Western collections.
 
Through the form of a detour from the background to the foreground, this text has tried possible responses to a set of questions that urged me through the study of the textile works of Teresa Lanceta. However, during the process of writing, some questions called others, the work of an artist invoked the practice of another and the striated topography of some of her textiles couldn’t be read without the reference to the textile traditional of the Middle Atlas. And in a similar way, this indirect route is proposed to hopefully produce other new deviations.
 
 


[1]In conversation with the artist, May 2014.
[2] Teresa Lanceta interviewed by Nuria Enguita Mayo in Concreta Magazine nª2 autumn 2013.
[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari take the notion of the haptic from the work of Alois Riel, Wilhem Worringer and Henri Maldiney in order to challenge vision with tactility. For the authors, the notion of haptic does not refer to an opposition between the sense of vision and tactility, on the contrary it rather implies that the eye can employ itself a tactile function.
[4]Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari take the notion of the haptic from the work of Alois Riel, Wilhem Worringer and Henri Maldiney in order to challenge vision with tactility. For the authors, the notion of haptic does not refer to an opposition between the sense of vision and tactility, on the contrary it rather implies that the eye can employ itself a tactile function.
[5] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: ibid, p. 475.
[6] Teresa Lanceta in conversation with Laurence Rassel at the seminar of Textiles: Open Letter. Reading Textiles from The South. A Seminar on the Production of a Tactile Geography at Bulegoa z/b, Bilbao 23rd of November of 2013.
[7]In conversation with the artist, September 2014.
[8]According to the historian Bert Flint, this abstract composition has progressively changed due to the sedentary tendency of the nomads of the Middle Atlas, increasingly appearing motifs that are organized within a horizontal and vertical pattern around a central axis with stricter symmetries. (p. 21)
[9]Teresa Lanceta: Images of Morocco in La Alfombra Roja. Tejidos sobre el Medio Atlas Marroquí. Museu Tèxtil i D’Indumentaria, Barcelona, 1989, p. 32.
 
[10] It is interesting to read Benjamin’s ideas of the close range effect of photography and cinema in respect to his ideas about Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, in which he sees a contrary strategy. In What is Epic Theatre? He expresses it as follows: “The art of the epic theatre consists in producing astonishment rather than empathy, to put it succinctly: instead of identifying with the characters, the audience should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which they function”. In Walter Benjamin: What is Epic Theatre? Pimlico, Kent, Great Britain, 1999, p. 147.
[11]Weaving appears staged as an evocation, the Indian woman is spinning while takes care of a newly born, this two actions seems to have the same relevance for the eyes of the ethnographer.
[12]The film-document was started in 2007 when, noticing the “intense stigmatization” of the neighbourhood of Fontbarlettes in Valence, a group of inhabitants, some of whom belonged to the neighbourhood association Le Mat, decided to draw up together with Valerie Cudel, mediator of the contemporary art programme Noveaux Comanditares of the Fondation de France, a commission for Alejandra Riera to produce an artwork about the ways through which the residents of the neighbourhood make this place their own. Once the proposal was accepted, Alejandra Riera responded by extending the questions, which the group had defined for the specific framework of the neighbourhood, to a broader context, thus including other participants who were not initially convened, for the purpose and patiently transcending both the limits of the stigmatization itself and the politics of an institutional commission.
[13]It is important to mention that the display configured as a dialogue between Alejandra Riera and Andreas Maria Forh consisted of a series of arrangements within the exhibition space that follow a general rule: to avoid by any means to screen the film-document Enquête sur le/notre dehors directly on the walls of the museum.
[14]This was the only version of the film-document projected during La Triennale in Paris. The film in Fiction poétique shows the image of the beamer while it is projecting the original film-document. The resulting image is a close up view of the apparatus emitting the moving image that it is too small to be appreciated. There is no sound, as the speakers were not installed during the shooting of this version that has the same duration as the original film.
[15] Angel Martínez-Hernáez, El dibujante de límites: Franz Boas y la (im)posibilidad del concepto de cultura en antropología (Drawer of Boundaries: Franz Boas and the (im)possibility of the Concept of Culture in Anthropology. História, Cièncias, Saúde- Manguinhos, Rio de Janeiro. Vol. 18, n3, July/Spet. 2011, p. 862
[16] Angel Martínez-Hernáez, ibid, p. 867.
[17]Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: ibid, p. 476.
[18]Teresa Lanceta: Images of Morocco in La Alfombra Roja. Ibid, p. 21.