March 23, 2010

textile and text

Although I'm usually bitter about the long commute, I was lucky to be on the University of Manitoba campus yesterday. I was there for a class but it turned out that at the student gallery in University Centre, a friend of mine, Chantel Mierau, was having an opening for her thesis project. The project deals with memory: its embeddedness in language, the way its stored and processed. And it demonstrates this through the tedium of textile work.

Chantel's thesis begins with dozens of particular memories typed out onto index cards. Some are several lines long, while others consist of a few words; and some are mundane, while others are unsettling (the example that sticks out in my mind is "Oma was part of the Hitler youth"). She then processes these memories into binary code. This encoding is done for each memory and typed out onto small pieces of paper. She then knits the code in perl and knit variants with different yarns (apparently in the simplest knitted fabrics all of the stitches are knit or purl). These varients allow her to knit these encoded memories into pieces of fabric. Video becomes a crucial medium for the installation because the performative quality of the knitting, the working through of these memories, is what constitutes the memories themselves.

Part of what I love about this project is that the materiality of these memories cannot be separated from their linguistic pattern, nor can this encoded pattern be separated from the performance, the process, of knitting. The code is already present within convention, but requires some skill for it to become intelligible. Here, language becomes the condition of material possibility. This connection between language and fabric is nothing new. The Latin word textus comes from the verb "to weave" and as the medieval scholar Mary Carruthers points out,
it is in the institutionalizing of a story through memoria that textualizing occurs. Literary works become institutions as they weave a community together by providing it with shared experience and a certain kind of language, the language of stories that can be experienced over and over again through time. . . . Textus also means 'texture,' the layers of meaning that attach as a text is woven into and through the historical and institutional fabric of society. (The Book of Memory 14)
It is the burden of Carruther's work to show that premodern texts have a functional social purpose. Such texts are used primarily as devices that trigger a reader's recollection of memories stored in the mind. In this setting a book can only be considered "read" when it has been internalized; that is, a text becomes part of the reader in order for it to matter at all. Such practices enable a significant form of embodiment that modernity utterly rejects. In a documentary culture such as ours, books become objects of knowledge. And knowledge, in turn, become an object, a document, to possess and master. For the project I've been describing, memories (even those that we'd like to forget) are encountered and processed (another method of presentation in Chantel's thesis features the memories passing through a handcrank) in the act of knitting. In premodern reading practices, internalization (being read by the text) was synonomous with reading a text. And to some extent, something similar is going on in this project.

1 comment:

  1. Coding Memoirs as Knit and Purl stitches is an intriguing concept; Treating knitting as binary code merges the art of knitting with language. Exactly the type of exploration that i hope a Knitting Museum would foster. thanks to Joanna P McMann for tipping me off to the Manitoba Crafts Museum and Chantel's work.