If we were to name one single aspect that made organising Stitched Voices a very special and rewarding experience, it would certainly be the many wonderful people we connected and collaborated with and who contributed with their own creations to the exhibition. Meet some of them in this post.
Dani: We had the majority of the pieces for the exhibition sorted by just less than a year before the exhibition opened, so once that was done we had time to make broader connections and collaborations with people and for us as a team to work on the events programme. We knew we wanted to organise film screenings, being in the Arts Centre with a cinema in the same building, but didn’t know how to do it. So I had the idea of contacting the annual Wales One World (WOW) film festival, which normally comes to Aberystwyth around March. I emailed the festival director, David Gillam, and was surprised to quickly receive a really positive response from him. He could see the connections to stories of resistance we were trying to create a space for, and enjoyed having a theme to programme a stream of films around. We met and were in regular contact, and together came up with the programme of eleven films, which made up the Voices of Resistance stream in the festival, with Q&A sessions and discussions to compliment the films from contacts of ours across the University and wider community. Amazingly David and the Arts Centre were able to work around our time frame and moved WOW to coincide with the opening and first week of the exhibition, so we combined launch events and the first week closely.
Berit: And then there was also the very productive collaboration with Damian…
Dani: Yes, one other collaborator that is really worth mentioning is Damian Gorman, a Northern Irish poet and writer who lives close to Aberystwyth. I had seen an event he was speaking at publicised and saw his background in responding to conflict, particularly to the Troubles, so we met for a coffee and I explained the exhibition to him. Again something clicked, and he understood right away what we were trying to do but also immediately saw ways he could contribute and respond. He met the rest of the team and we showed him the textiles, and after we had secured some funding we could take Damian up on his offer of writing a poem for the exhibition. What he felt he could contribute and what he wanted his piece of writing to do, was to carry people out of the exhibition with a sense of a way forward. From his years of experience with creative responses to conflict, he could see and feel how powerful the textiles were, but was concerned that an exhibition such as this could disturb and bring up emotions in people, but then leave them like that. He wanted to help guide those emotions to a positive place. So Damian wrote “Human Threads” (see photo). But then came decisions about how we wanted to incorporate it in the gallery, and we felt it was important that the poem could be taken by people for free, and contained somehow all the elements of touch, materiality, and the connection to other people’s hands that the textiles hold. We decided to print 400 copies of the poem on thin card, and between us embroidered a small amount of stitching onto each one, around a word, underlining a sentence, perhaps a pattern. The majority by far, however, were embroidered by contacts of Damian’s who meet weekly in a local women’s sewing group The Gog Sewers, and members of his ‘People’s Stories‘ writing group.
Berit: Liv Williams, a research assistant at the Centre for the International Politics of Knowledge at Aberystwyth, also recorded a video of Damian reciting the poem, which was on loop amongst other videos in the exhibition and available to a wider audience on our Facebook site, where it was watched more than 2,400 times. And the poem was read by Welsh storyteller Peter Stevenson at our exhibition launch event.
Christine: Damian did even more: together with Eileen Harrisson, a PhD student in the Aberystwyth School of Arts, Damian organised an evening of poetry and song specifically about their experiences of the Troubles. Eileen is another example of someone locally based who we met through the process of our exhibition and who, over time, became very involved with the project. The pieces she is creating for her PhD address the Troubles and her technique combines embroidery with print and drawing; the resulting artworks are collages in which the stitching, in fact, resembles the stroke of a pencil and is recognizably hers. Eileen participated in almost all of the events we organized.
Lydia: One other collaboration which certainly deserves mention is with Thalia and Ian Campbell. Thalia and Ian are both peace activists and banner makers who lived in Borth near Aberystwyth for much of their life. This was one of the most successful ‘finds’ of the local element of Stitched Voices. I had the feeling when discussing protest textiles in Aberystwyth, especially in the early stages of the exhibition, that all roads lead to Thalia. When Berit and I went to visit Thalia and Ian at their home in South Wales, we found that they had a wealth of textiles and stories to accompany them! “The Peace Ribbon” and “It’s No Computer Game!” were both really great contributions to the exhibition, and I was really glad we were able to get Thalia to Aberystwyth to share some of her stories of her activism over the years.
Dani: But despite the successful collaboration with Aberystwyth Arts Centre, WOW film festival, Damian Gorman and others, should we also mention our failures?
Christine: I would definitely mention the failures. It is probably accurate to say that for everyone who is now involved in the exhibition, we have another person or institution, who we tried but failed to get on board.
Dani: And what about our efforts at finding a “Welsh connection” in general? This didn’t come together as easily as Roberta’s work and the Mexican contribution.
Christine: I think this partially overlaps with our “failures”. Perhaps one could say that what started out quite conceptually – as what, in our planning, was foreseen for the “Welsh angle” of our exhibition – turned out to be, and very concretely so, a “local connection” which has a Welsh angle to it, but is not limited to this angle. Our initial rationale for trying to incorporate a strong and explicit Welsh angle into our exhibition was to forge a link between various imagined local audiences (our students and colleagues; local artists, craft makers and activists; “people from town”) and the “international” themes of the exhibition. We also hoped that such a link would make our exhibition more attractive to external funders. As our work continued, and especially from the start of the exhibition and the events program onwards, what became of this Welsh angle is, to me at least, one of the most enjoyable aspects of our collective work, namely getting to know and establishing connections with so many politically and/or artistically active people in Aberystwyth and Mid-Wales who I otherwise would never have met. I came to Aberystwyth as a perhaps typical academic nomad, and the exhibition has completely changed this. Thinking about this now, perhaps the overlap with our “failures” is quite obviously so – precisely because we knew so little about the many local contexts we could connect ourselves to, many of my attempts to reach out to these contexts had to fail.
Lydia: Drawing in local connections was something that was important to us from the beginning, and something that Roberta had spoken with us about when we first met as “the team”. It was my impression that it was Roberta’s experience that this would happen quite organically through our process of organising. The framing of our “local” connection as the “Welsh” element, I think, emerged from some of our early conversations with Aberystwyth Arts Centre. When we initially presented them with the idea for the exhibition we mainly talked about the textiles from Latin America. They emphasised their curatorial policy of exhibitions having a Welsh, or at least a UK connection. Incorporating the Welsh element led us to think about some of the Welsh protest and resistance contexts that we knew of, such as the Welsh language protests and the miners’ strikes. We visited the Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter and advertised in the local press. Many of these attempts to make Welsh connections didn’t result in finding pieces to include in our exhibition, but I did feel like I learnt a lot through this process, particularly in terms of the history of art, craft, and textile in Ceredigion.
Upon reflection, I wonder if this framing was a bit limiting in itself? A conversation I had with Helena from Honno (a Welsh women’s press), revealed that many of the women she had been in contact with and who had been active in protest and banner-making were not “Welsh” but had moved here more recently, some had also moved from Wales to other parts of the UK. I think some of our failures to include the Welsh elements may have also been due to the restrictions of this frame. Our local connections actually occupied multiple identities, each with their own connections to Ceredigion and Wales.
Berit: One last aspect of connecting and collaborating I would like to mention is the importance of creating materials and sites that will make the exhibition and its accompanying events known to people. We followed both a classic print material path as well as a social media route to let our potential visitors and participants know about Stitched Voices and everything organised around it.
In terms of print materials, we opted for a folded brochure which included a big poster on the one side and information about the exhibition on the other, and which we used both for advertising and as something visitors could take home from the gallery. We did not have the funding for a classic gallery guide (that is, a brochure listing all pieces in the exhibition, ideally with photos), so this seemed to be the second-best option. Something else that visitors could take home were four postcards showing a selection of exhibition pieces. In order to advertise our programme, we also created a bookmark with a picture of a textile detail on the front and the list of events on the back. The nice thing about a bookmark is that, unlike a flyer, it can have a life beyond the dates printed on its back. In creating these print materials, we had help from a graphic designer (Patricia Moffett) and the print services at our university. It should be mentioned that designing and printing professional materials is a very time-consuming process, not least because the materials should not only be functional but also capture the spirit of the exhibition, but it was definitely worth it. Other advertising materials – like the posters you can see above – are creations of our team’s or our collaborators’ own making, and we almost developed something like a passion for making posters and flyers to advertise single events.
Setting up a Facebook site and a Twitter account for the exhibition was relatively easy, and once we got into the habit of advertising events and reporting about them afterwards through these media, it was an easy task to do. This way social media became an integral part of the exhibition, not so much to have meaningful conversations, but to organise the events and sites in which such conversations could take place. Now that the exhibition is over they are also a record/archive of everything we have done and continue to be the public face of Stitched Voices, where we connect to other people and projects and inform about any follow-up activities. Maybe you want to have a look? Here are the links: https://www.facebook.com/StitchedVoices/ and https://twitter.com/StitchedVoices.
What are your experiences with collaborations in organising exhibitions and events? Would you agree that it is the people who make the exhibition (to paraphrase the title of one of our exhibits, “The People make the city“)?
Featured image (top of this post): “Hay Golpe de Estado | There is a Coup d’Etat”, Chile, 1989. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance, Professor Masaaki Takahashi, Japan. Photo: Martin Melaugh