The exhibition as process (1): people, planning, pieces

Let’s talk about Stitched Voices as a process. In this blog post and the three following ones, we will discuss

  • the planning process, that is, how we came together as a team and how we decided what the contents of Stitched Voices should be;
  • the essential role of collaborations and connections with a range of people in the planning process and, more importantly, in what Stitched Voices became: a collective decentralised project involving like-minded people who care about the suffering of others and the state of the world;
  • what happened at the opening, during the exhibition and throughout the broad events programme that made Stitched Voices into so much more than just a display of exhibits;
  • and finally the question of what makes an exhibition a “success” or somehow “good”.

We hope that some of this may be useful, if you are planning to contribute to, or set up, an exhibition yourself – and if you have already done so, we would love to hear about your experiences, good and bad, your doubts and questions, your thoughts and ideas. Let’s talk!

Berit: The planning process of Stitched Voices was not straightforward and involved a great deal of trust and good faith. Telling you that it took 18 months of planning may give you already an idea of the type of process it involved. The contents of the exhibition, e.g., evolved organically over a longer period of time, meaning that at the outset and during a large part of the process it was not at all clear what the final “product” would look like. This meant that we had to trust Roberta Bacic’s experience in curating Conflict Textiles, while she had to trust us to get the funding, venue and events programme in place. The people at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where the exhibition would be located and who contributed to the financing, had to trust both us as commissioning team and Roberta as curator that an exhibition would be in existence by the agreed date, but since they had only worked with one member of our team before on sporadic occasions, this also involved a great deal of good faith and careful commitment. In this sense, we are really grateful to acting curators Eve Ropek and Jill Piercy, and especially to Visual Arts Manager Steffan Jones-Hughes and his team, for making these leaps of faith that allowed Stitched Voices to happen.

Christine: Actually, this last aspect turned out to be a catch-22 within our process: As long as we had not yet secured funding, we could not confirm to Aberystwyth Arts Centre that the exhibition would definitely take place; yet as long as we could not confirm that there would definitely be an exhibition at a certain date, it was almost impossible to apply for external funding. This caused a lot of stress for all of us.

Berit: The actual planning process started with me activating my contact with Roberta and asking whether she would be interested in organising an exhibition in Aberystwyth. To my delight she was. The reason why I became interested in commissioning an exhibition of conflict textiles at this point was that over the previous years I had developed a strong research interest in different ways of knowing about conflict and peacebuilding interventions. This research includes a thematically broad range of projects on expert knowledge by transnational think tanks, local knowledge of civilians living in conflict zones in Myanmar, politicians’ own information gathering during on-site visits in war and intervention zones, the role of myth and narrative in international politics and in IR, and a number of smaller projects – but which despite their diversity revolve around the question of how policy-relevant knowledge on conflicts and post-conflict societies is produced and used, and how different forms of conflict knowledge can be studied. In the course of this work, it dawned on me that “voices” and “knowledge archives” such as the conflict textiles of Roberta’s collection hardly figured among sources deemed relevant in assessing conflict knowledge. I felt it was time to change that.

Knowing from the experience of a colleague in Hamburg how much work the planning and implementation of the exhibition would entail (see ÜberlebensKunst), I knew that I would have to look for keen collaborators willing to share both the workload and the enjoyment of seeing the exhibition materialise. The team members I had in mind seemed like a ‘natural fit’ for this task. Christine works on a genealogy of transitional justice’s contemporary idea that building peace and finding truth about past violence are intrinsically linked. With a majority of the Conflict Textiles pieces speaking to and calling for justice in situations of violence and oppression caused by armed conflict and/or dictatorship, there seemed to be an obvious link. Dani’s work concerns sites and practices of memoralisation of the victims and disappeared in the current Mexican “drug war”. Her intimate knowledge of and links with the Embroidering for Peace movement would prove to be a central contribution to the content of the exhibition and to its nature as process. Lydia’s research is on gender-based violence and post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, using a feminist perspective to engage with the topic. She also has an interest in the 1980s peace movement in the UK, which helped bringing not only a gender angle, but also a “local” perspective into the exhibition.

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Mexican handkerchiefs. Photo: Felix Cannadam Photography

Dani: One of the reasons I was so keen to be involved in the exhibition when Berit first showed me the programme of her previous exhibition in Hamburg, was that I saw an immediate connection with a project I knew was taking place in Mexico, in response to the “war on organised crime” or “war on drugs”. The project Bordando por la Paz (Embroidering for Peace) was taking place in various cities across Mexico and beyond, where groups of people sat in public plazas and embroidered the names of victims of the recent violence onto white handkerchiefs, those murdered in red, those disappeared in green, femicides in pink, a handkerchief for each victim. At that time I did not have personal contact with the embroiderers, but after an initial pilot fieldwork trip I had made some connections. And then during my longer fieldwork trip I became more involved in the project, embroidering with the group Fuentes Rojas in Mexico City weekly, and visiting the embroiderers in Puebla, Monterrey, New York, and Montreal. As I got to know the three groups in Mexico I told them about the exhibition we were organising, and they were all keen to be included. So once I returned to the UK and the details of the exhibition were becoming clearer, I took opportunities when people I knew and trusted were travelling between the UK and Mexico to bring the handkerchiefs for the exhibition over. This loan and involvement had to be based on trust and relationships; the embroiderers had had bad experiences with gallery and museum institutions before, encountering a lack of respect for the handkerchiefs, and so this was the way that felt best for it to be done.

In addition, over this period I had gotten to know the group London Mexico Solidarity, and in 2016 they happened to make an arpillera for an informal exhibition that occupied the British Museum, which connected the recent violence in Mexico, the Zapatista struggle, and environmental abuses focussing on the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Wonderfully they also saw value in Stitched Voices and decided to lend the arpillera, a decision which was hard to reach as they use it in actions and protests so not having access for several months is not easy, and for precisely the questions of what happens to a piece like theirs when it (formally) enters a gallery or museum space.

827_LMS aprillera DM lr
“We are seeds”, London Mexico Solidarity in collaboration with four other solidarity groups, UK, 2016. Photo: Diana More.

Christine: Roberta put a lot of thought into accommodating our research interests in the exhibition, both in our collaborative process and in the selection of pieces to be exhibited. In my case, the link between the questions I pursue in my doctoral project on official truth-seeking initiatives and the questions raised by the exhibition is not a straightforward one – rather, I tend to think of these two sets of questions as each other’s flipside. But even though the link is not as direct as in Dani’s case, the work on the exhibition and the research for my PhD turned out to complement each other. Roberta not only put me in touch with several people from her enormous network, she also included one arpillera in the exhibition that specifically spoke to my research topic, No a la impunidad (No to impunity).

01 photo by Colin Peck
“No a la impunidad / No to impunity”, anonymous, Chile, 1980s. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Lala & Austin Winkley, England. Photo: Tony Boyle.

One way of reading this arpillera today is as a reminder of how Chilean women, as part of their concrete, personal, political struggles, demanded truth, justice, and reconciliation long before these terms became claimed by international experts and reified in the international discourse of transitional justice. No a la impunidad, and the exhibition more generally, thus pose a challenge to what we take “truth” to mean. As scholar and practitioners of international post-conflict politics, we usually understand truth in terms of official testimonies, legal evidence, or the number of casualties, yet the exhibition urges us to consider the no less important truths that lie beyond such indicators and categories.[1] This is an argument I am also trying to construct, though from a different starting point, in my genealogy of official truth-seeking initiatives.

Lydia: I didn’t know all that much about the Chilean arpilleras before I joined the Stitched Voices team. However, I had spent a summer in Sarajevo talking to visual artists who used their practice to explore the post-conflict, post-socialist society in which they lived. For them, their art was a form of activism – they took over public spaces in order to reclaim public space for the public, and were in the middle of an archiving project of images of women who were part of the anti-fascist movement in Yugoslavia. Some of the artists that I met in Sarajevo, and some of the work that they introduced me to included elements of stitch. Many also sought to draw attention to women’s labour and domestic politics. Again, textile and stitch were dominant themes in this work. These meetings came to influence the way in which I saw feminist politics in BiH, and helped me understand better the forms that patriarchy seemed to take. It also instilled a curiosity about the relationship between women, labour and feminism, and how this was related to forms of artistic expression, including stitch. When I was approached to join the team, I jumped at the chance.

Berit: Early on in the process, Roberta travelled to Aberystwyth, bringing with her a number of pieces as examples for the wide range conflict textiles in her collection. Roberta’s visit was followed by a trip by Dani and I to Northern Ireland – to see conflict textiles in exhibition spaces in Derry; to meet Dr Karen Nickell, an academic at Ulster University in Belfast working on “Troubles textiles”, and Irene MacWilliam, a textile artist from Northern Ireland; and not least to select a number of core pieces for the exhibition. Roberta returned to Aberystwyth together with assistant curator Breege Doherty a second time, to discuss outstanding issues, see the exhibition venue and meet local artists the team had “discovered” in the meantime.

All these visits helped shape the narrative(s) – or curatorial line – of Stitched Voices. Since the exhibition tried to bring together a range of different types of textiles (arpilleras, quilts, handkerchiefs, banners) from different contexts (Chile, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Wales, Colombia, and others) and times (1970s to the present), deciding on a theme that would tie the exhibition pieces together became a main task and an ongoing one.

Dani: To appreciate different contexts and types of makers from which the Chilean arpilleras in the exhibition originate, for instance, Roberta proposes the concept of “four generations of arpilleras”.[2] First-generation arpilleras are those made by people who were directly affected by state violence and oppression in Chile during the time of the dictatorship; second-generation arpilleras comprise those made in solidarity with victims and their relatives at the time by people in Chile and around the world; third-generation arpilleras are pieces made by affected persons who reflect on the events they lived through in the hindsight; while forth-generation arpilleras refers to those made by people in new and different contexts, using the method as inspiration to respond to other issues.

 

 

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Christine: In addition to these differences concerning the arpilleras, the other textiles in the exhibition were made during different times, ranging from the peace protests in the USA and the UK during the 1980s (e.g., the Peace Ribbon, the Anti-Apartheid banner) to the ongoing present (apart from the Mexican handkerchiefs and the London-Mexico solidarity arpillera, these were textiles discussing the refugee crisis and migration more generally (On the ‘Good’ Side of the Fence 2 and The People Make the City), landmines (Landmines) and remote drone warfare (Digital Death and It’s No Computer Game).

Berit: The concept around which our discussion finally revolved was that of “resistance” – understood in a broad sense as resistance against violence, oppression and injustice, but also against forgetting, dominant narratives and loss of hope. The original title – Stitched Voices of Resistance – was ultimately shortened, however, to facilitate its use and because the notion of resistance became less importance as we started to appreciate each and every piece on its own terms and against the background of its individual story.

A last major planning task concerned funding. Although rather “low-key” as compared to exhibitions with renowned international artists in the centres of (international) politics, commissioning the exhibition and setting up an events programme nonetheless involved costs, including curating, administration, insurance and transport of pieces, advertising, travel and subsistence for curator(s) and speakers, and the like. We applied to two charities in Wales, but did not receive funding. In the end, Aberystwyth Arts Centre made a substantial financial contribution, while I mobilised some pots at the Department of International Politics and made use of my existing research money redirecting some of it to finance the bulk of the exhibition costs, with private savings as an emergency backup option (which fortunately I did not have to trigger).

Dani: I think though, this shows the level of support this sort of project receives, and how all of us (although particularly Berit) had to make personal commitments and take risks, including financial, to make it happen.


Do you have experiences with participating in, organising, or curating an exhibition that you would like to share? We would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts.


[1] On how arpilleras specifically challenge taken for granted understandings of what makes a record, a piece of evidence, and an archive, see Elsie Doolan (2016): “Textiles of Change: How Arpilleras can Expand Traditional Definitions of Records“, in: InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 12:1.

[2] Roberta has not yet put this concept into writing. However, Agosín (2007), Bacic (2013) and Doolan (2016, 2017) provide good introductions to the history of arpilleras:

Agosín, Marjorie 2007: Tapestries of hope, threads of love: the arpillera movement in Chile. Lanham, ML: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bacic, Roberta 2013: Arpilleras: Evolution and Revolution. Public Lecture, Friends of Te Papa, Main theatre, Te Papa Tonarewa, New Zealand. On file with the authors.

Doolan, Elsie 2016: Textiles of Change: How Arpilleras can Expand Traditional Definitions of Records, in: InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 12:1, available at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/80j818zz  (accessed 29 May 2017).

Doolan, Elsie 2017: Transnational Textiles: Arpilleras Across the Globe. Paper presented at the conference “Researching the Americas”, University College London, 11 May 11 2017. On file with the authors.

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