Tactile Tactics: Yarn Installations in Public Urban Spaces Or/ Ariadne’s Employment

This piece is from a presentation given in 2013, and part of a series of writings about tactical practices using urban public spaces.


Cracks in the city street

Tactile Tactics: Yarn Installations in Public Urban Spaces Or/ Ariadne’s Employment

What I would like to present today is some strands of the research I have been exploring with regards to the practices of using thread and yarn materials in urban public spaces.

Over the past ten years these yarn practices have become a popular cultural phenomenon in cities across the world, known through various terms such as yarnbombing, yarnstorming, guerrilla knitting, graffiti knitting; and under wider umbrella terms such as craftivism and street art.

To start off I want to give a brief tour of some of the examples of these contemporary practices to give some context to the aesthetic diversity and geographic diversity by which these installations are practiced.These installations can be found on public structures such as trees and statues, bikes and buses, fences railings, telephone boxes and build facades.Indeed, any forms which are encountered in the urban environment. These practices can be found ranging from naïve wrappings to sophisticated architectural forms.

While I believe they represent a very recent phenomena in terms of popularity, public knitting installations should not be viewed as new practices, but can be seen within a historical perspective of appropriating textiles and materials in the public sphere. A history which connects with folk crafts but more particularly with a history of women and textiles explored by theorists like Roszika Parker in her pivotal work ‘The Subversive Stitch’.

Greenham Common 'Embrace the Base' Protest, December 1980
Greenham Common ‘Embrace the Base’ Protest, December 1980

Many visual tropes can be drawn between these contemporary practices and political feminist movements from the Suffragettes, to the Fiber Art movements in the 1960s, and the occupation of Greenham Common in the 1980s. Although these practices have a long history, it is only with recent cultures of photography and documentation, that have visually archived  these activities, that they have been brought together and in which can one can frame them as something cultural cohesive.

Throughout this talk I will refer to these installations as ‘yarn practices’, not only to prevent a narrowed and periodised view on these actions; but also in order to explore them, not as defined mere artefacts, but as relational praxes. They reveal an engagement not only between the practitioner and the city space, but also between the installation itself and the viewer encountering them.

As I’ve suggested in the title of this talk; I would like to define this practices by what I’ve termed ‘Tactile Tactics’; taking Michel De Certeau’s definition of tactics as the re-appropriation of strategies which command the environments of the everyday.

In this presentation I wish to deal with these two terms ‘Tactics’ and ‘Tactility’; in the first half exploring the way in which we can examine these installations as Spatial Practices; and then to consider the way in which the materiality of these forms are implicit in the way in which they disrupt the boundaries of the public and the private.

1.      Tactics:

First, I wish to return to De Certeau’s definition of the term Tactics, and the way in which he draws on the act of walking as a specific and political tactic of reclaiming the street. While his dialectical terms ‘Tactics’ and ‘Strategies’ can be seen as a reaction to Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Power’; Tactics in particular, is responding to a theoretical heritage from Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists in the 1960s and early 70s, who were examining the city as a unfixed and practiced space.

What I would like to suggest is that these yarn practices are fundamentally connected to the act of moving through the city, both for the practitioner and the observer who encounters it. But further than this, they are a tactical response to the urban environment and an expression of the experience of being within it.

Indeed, I would like to suggest that they are part of the practice of psychogeography, which has been broadly defined as ‘playful strategies for exploring cities […] that take pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolt them into a new awareness of the urban landscape’. A practice inherently related to the act of walking, to derive and the historic character of the male flâneur.

But while the Debordian Situationists saw derive, and the act of getting lost in the city, as a political gesture; these yarn installations reveal a very different form of derive which is worth considering.

If we look back to the Unitary Urbanist movement which pre-figured the Situationists in the 1950s; and in particular to its founding manifesto, ‘Form of a New Urbanism’ written by Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953, a narrative of derive emerges which has perhaps been neglected.

In this essay Chtcheglov brings attention to the labyrinth in the Jardin de Plantes in Paris, on which a sign reads ‘Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth’, and in doing so he presents the figure of Ariadne as the playful heroine of subversion. In Greek Mythology it was Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan King, who directed Theseus through the seemingly impossibly labyrinth of the Minotaur using a ball of yarn. The tactile tactics of Ariadne’s yarn, subverting the masculine strategies of the labyrinth. Indeed it is Ariadne with her yarn who becomes a symbol of location within the urban landscape; using her yarn as a mapping tool which, if we extent the metaphor, becomes emblematic of the geographer’s string.

The figure of Ariadne is an interesting symbol when considering a contemporary form of derive, particularly as it relates to the recent history of psychogeography in London. In the last couple of decades writers like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have reframed psychogeography as a practice of reclaiming forgotten narratives of urban space. Moving away from the Situationists, their practice is based not with the production of a new space, but with experience and recording of their environment. As Will Self puts it, as ‘a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix’.

However, in examining the history of psychogeography, what becomes clear that even in recent years it has been primarily dominated by men and male narratives of the city. In his recent book on Psychogeography, Will Self has referred to this lack of women, suggesting in a tongue-in-cheek way, that this is because women are less interested in ‘orientation’. Of course I strongly disagree with this, but more fundamentally I think this is a problem of definition rather than interest.

To consider an example: the central publication of the London Psychogeography in the 1990s; ‘Transgression: A Journal of Urban Exploration’, includes only one woman published over all four issues, the Canadian artist Jean Macrae. But what is interesting is not her gender, but the very different way in which she suggests exploring and interacting with the urban space which is tactile rather than merely textual.

In her article, a piece of site-writing, Macrae describes her practice of derive around her home city of Vancouver, and her knitted responses to the urban environment as she walks. As she says;

“I am in the process of fabricating a map; selective and authored, a gendered and specific occupation. [..] (I) pull out my needles and cotton, my mapping instruments.”

As Macrae suggests in a later interview, her act of derive is not the ‘male’ derive of the situationists; a means of getting lost; but a ‘coping strategy’ a way of navigating what she calls ‘geographies of fear’. Her work can be seen more closely as a tactic of being found; of having presence in the face of absence or familiarity; a reaction I would suggest against the post-modern city.

Macrae’s work is both personal and political, not only a playful interaction with the city space but a disruption of the narratives which dominate ways of exploring and encountering the urban terrain. I am not suggesting that all practitioners of these yarn installations are working with actively feminist intentions, or indeed that they are always women, but as tactics; they have often been employed to engage with feminist dialogues and radical political agendas. Indeed, from my research I know that a number of women involved in these enacting yarn installations are also active participants in other contemporary movements such as ‘Reclaim the Night’ and the recent ‘Slut Marches’, both of which sought to provide a women’s voice and to subvert the dominant narratives imposed on women in public.

‘OLEK’ knitted figures in New York City

With reference to this, I would like to draw particular attention to the artist OLEK, whose use of knitted fabrics makes potent references to patriarchy, to women’s sexuality and radical expression. Her works have become renowned for her particular use of pink and purple camouflage, subverting the masculine associations normally made with these patterns, and literally taking over symbolic objects in the street, recasting them with a new meaning. Shown all over the world, in public spaces and private galleries, OLEK’s work stems from a very radical side of these knitted practices which is strongly connected with queer and gender politics; and which sees the aesthetics of craft as itself a site of reclamation, and assertion of a radical female identity in the public space.

As I have sought to argue, these yarn practices are inherently spatial practices. While traditional considerations of spatial theory have often neglected textiles and material modes of practice; there is significant history of employing metaphors of textiles within conceptualisations of space. Indeed, the early 1960s, Asger Jorn, a prominent figure in the experimental COBRA movement and a founding member of the Situationist Internationale; presented his vision of situology, not simply on political grounds but also geometrical ones. In his essay ‘Open Creation and Its Enemies’ he presents the symbol of the Knot as spatial representation of the situation and indeed the experience of the labyrinth itself. As Jorn puts it, the knot becomes the space of interaction and intrinsic experience, one which requires you to be present within it to understand it. Indeed, as the contemporary critic Mackenzie Wark has suggested, ‘learning to tie a knot is like the art of derive’. And really, what is the craft of knitting or crochet, but a rhythmic spatial practice of skilful knot making. A repetitive act of encounter; based on interaction and presence.

2. Tactility

To turn now to the materiality of these yarn practices; I would like to argue that is the very tactility of these installations which is fundamental to the way in which they engage with the urban environment.

One of the questions I have been examining is the way in which these installations subvert the traditional boundaries between the private and domestic spheres, most associated with knitting and textile crafts; and the public space. As the domestic space has been fundamentally associated as the place of women, this is an inherently political dialectic, providing a tactile montage which Walter Benjamin has suggested would ‘jolt the collective into a political awakening’.

The symbolic ‘homeliness’ is a central aesthetic facet of these installations; and a reason why I believe these practices have been generally ignored by cultural critics and academic in comparison to other forms of street art. As these yarn practices wrap themselves around public forms and monuments, I would argue they provide a symbolic softening of the public space. Indeed, many of the words used by the media and in publications on these activities have described them with words like ‘comforting’ and ‘nurturing’; which suggest to extent an association with the maternal body.

To consider Freud’s notion of the uncanny, and more recently theorists like Antony Vidler who have examined the uncanny in relation to architecture; this blurring of the boundaries of public and private suggests a desire to fill a void, an absence within the public, which these yarn installations are reacting to. Holes which these practices are attempting to knit together.

This idea of absence is one which has been considered by the contemporary film maker, Patrick Keiller, who is a key figure in contemporary psychogeography. In his series of films on London in the early 1990s, he used the figure of Robinson Crusoe to suggest London as ‘a place of shipwreck and the vision of Protestant isolation’. Indeed, it is Robinson, the neurotic contemporary Flaneur, who falls victim to depression and paranoia as he becomes increasingly obsessed by the enforced secrecy which separates him from his urban environment.

Returning to Jean Macrae, and her term ‘geographies of fear’, it is this anxiety and alienation of the urban environment which this term would suggest her practice, and these wider yarn practices, are responding to.

To highlight a recent example of how this has been cultural manifested; earlier this year a police force in Leicestershire employed artists to make knitted characters to install in parks and public areas in the city, as an attempt to reduce crime. In statements they suggest that the these pieces would psychologically make these public spaces appear more friendly, and by extension make them more populated and reduce the chance of criminal activity.  Though they received a backlash against this apparent wasting of public money, this suggests the way in which these ideas are not only acted on, but culturally accepted.

It is interesting here to draw a comparison to traditional graffiti and street art, which often has an antagonistic relationship to the authorities. In contrast these yarn practices are commonly accepted by the police, and in this case actively encouraged. Part of this non-antagonistic relationship must be that these installations are only temporary, and leave very little or no lasting damage to the structures they encompass. But it could also be because of the feminine association inherent their material craft, which are seen as playful rather than destructive, existing in a different ethical framework to tagging which seeks to leave a more permanent mark on a territory.

This presents an interesting paradox because, because while practitioners like OLEK do not intend to be polite of mollifying in their installations, questions should be asked about how much these installations actually have an impact on the social fabric? To what extent they can be considered more ‘comforting’ than ‘transformative’.

Indeed, it could be argued that the impact of these practices is not the installations themselves, which are quickly dismantled; but through technologies of recording these activities, particularly in the growing cultures of street photography, by which these works are archived and disseminated through online communities and blogs. Though their inherent tactility is an integral to their reception and affect on the site, their cultural importance has been defined by these two dimensional records of the pieces as historic objects.

A recent collective, who I will discuss quickly, is ‘Knit the City’ based in London; who make considerable use of virtual social networks to create and publicise their activities. In 2009 their installation ‘Oranges and Lemons’, which created a knitted tour of the city of London, installing yarnstorms referring to different verses of the medieval children’s nursery rhyme on the city churches; which went hand-in-hand with coverage of the tour on social media. As the central figure of the group, Lauren O’Farrell, known by the pseudonym ‘WhoDunKnit’ suggests, the re-narration of the space which their knitted tour created, was given an extended virtual life and meaning through these online interactions.

In his discussions of craft Walter Benjamin draws a natural connection between crafts and oral traditions; suggesting the craftsman as storyteller, and drawing a comparison to the figure of the journeyman. In many cultures the weaver or spinner has been the symbol of the narrator; both spinning the yarn, and recording them as historical narratives; but also unpicking them along the way. In a continual process of mending, and re-crafting the narrative.

For Benjamin, the practice of craft is comparable to the allegorical or epic literary forms; existing in a different temporal framework to the modern novel or short story. Indeed, it is a point worth drawing attention to that the inherent slowness and effort required to make these installations is what makes them so dialectically opposed to the functional aesthetic of the public space.

As Benjamin argues, while technological advances have made hand craft essentially redundant as a practical necessity; crafts as hobbies remain a popular part of contemporary culture, especially recently with the revival of knitting and wider trends of DIY. While the critic Lucy Lippard suggests a nostalgic facet to the popularity of craft, one connected to a utopian idealisation of past community; I would argue that these forms of craft have continued and thrived through the accessibility of these materials and more fundamentally because of a desire to make connections; between the threads themselves, and with the process of making; with the everyday spaces of encounter in the urban environment, and with other craft practitioners as an inherently social activity.

So, before I tie myself in knots, I want to draw together some of the threads which I have been arguing.

The first is my placing of these installations as relational spatial practices, and from an anthropological perspective, as material dialogues which reveal a lot about the way in which people engage and re-craft the contemporary city space.

From the term ‘tactile tactics’ I suggest these installations can be seen tactics of subversion by which the hegemonic narratives of the street are being played out, and re-narrated. Indeed, to be political, they can be associated with a particularly feminine reading of space, which counters the flâneur’s desire to be lost in the crowd. To fill the void presented by the absence of a coherent or active public space. In reaction to this, yarn practitioners represent the counter figure of Ariadne with her yarn, playfully interacting with in the city space and inviting the observer to a new awareness of the urban space and their own place within it.

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