On my way up to the Crafting Protest talk at the New School, we passed a crowd of people waiting in line to get into the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building. I’ve always loved the Puck because it has a light up sidewalk, and I always associate it with Balthazar around the corner, with its ostentatious red curtains. Those curtains always make me feel like some sort of urchin peering inside to see where the bread is kept.
Which is my way of setting up the whole high/low, artist/artisan, museum/craft shop, studio/kitchen table, craft-economies-in-an-era-of-globalization discussion that the talk was about for me. In terms of “protest” content, though, Crafting Protest was sort of a dud. I was hoping to see more inherently political work, like Marianne Joergensen and Jerilea Zempel’s tank cosies, or like Gooseflesh’s rubbish vortex, or like the crochet coral reef project. This was politics in the sense of lefty art-makers doing and trying and thinking about political things, yes, but subtler politics in the sense of “queering the binaries” between all those slashes more than bringing about direct political change.
For me the most overtly political part of the discussion was at the end, when the audience asked about money – how do you get the funding to do this kind of stuff? Best answer goes to Liz Collins: Um, I have a job that supports me so I can do this other stuff that doesn’t make any money. Runner up to
(I think it was) Sabrina Gschwandtner Cat Mazza: Student loans.
Which brings me kind of backwardly to my new fascination with Allison Smith’s Notion Nanny project. Inspired by Victorian peddler dolls, Smith cast herself as the peddler, setting out to as an itinerant apprentice, seeking out all manner of traditional craft-makers to teach her the tricks to make things to add to Notion Nanny’s basket. Here’s the art-speak blurb from her site as to what it’s all about –
Distributing handbills “door-to-door” and making contacts through word-of-mouth, Smith, as Notion Nanny, seeks to engage self-described traditional makers in a dialogue about their relationship to political and social histories of making. Thus, the doll and her basket stand side-by-side with Smith’s own activity, offering up larger metaphors and questioning assumed “notions” about art and craft in contemporary life. As the re-imagined personification of a village character type, Notion Nanny tells the anthropological folktale of the contemporary artist, “post-studio,” peddling ideas and objects as well as crossing borders and advancing dialogue in a global art market.
I find all of this incredibly juicy – Allison is consciously navigating the artist/artisan slash as an interloper from the world of high art. Take this example: Allison gets a residency from the Wordsworth Trust and begins her Notion Nanny journey tromping through the Lakes District. She meets Owen Jones, the current “last in the line” of traditional swill basket makers. Owen has special permission to fence off a small area of the forest for his basket making, and he’s all about being a traditional maker instead of an artist. She’s an artist supported by her residency, and he’s an artisan quietly doing his thing in the country. They barter – Allison stacks wood for a day and Owen teaches her how to make a basket. Yum!