Site-specific art (the genealogy of location)

Burrafirth, May 2018

Site-specific,  Site-oriented, site-determined,  site-conscious, site-responsive or site-related or just plain trespassing?

Bressay August 2019

I’m devouring a book in order to understand more of my own creative practice and where it sits within a contemporary art dialogue.

I describe my practice in a way that can be at best defined as an autoethnographic and at worst a romanticised prose on the process of what it felt like for me to either create the piece or to reach the moment of a site specific-piece’s conception in the form of a photograph or written blog.  I touch on both autoethnographic and romanticism.  But, I do know that I am utterly driven to make this work. Out of this comes research on writing ethnography.

Every living day, I reside in a headspace of creative connection and now, the only thing I want to do is get back to a book in order to theoretically understand more about how to locate my creative practice (site-specific art / site-oriented art).   It’s a way of life, of thinking and feeling.

Hamnavoe – December 2017

Instead of just ‘doing’ the work, I’m decoding it in order to situate it within a contemporary art context, therefore, to give it and me meaning within the title of Site-specific art.

On any given day, I would answer the question, “What is my creative practice about?”  in a different way.  That is because I respond to and in the moment. My answer often depends on where I am within it.  If I’m knitting, learning new technology to create that knit, listening to women tell their oral history of Shetland knit culture, laser cutting – actually digitally cutting them, walking the landscape, hand block printing, hand knitting lace, looking at the details of the details, using and learning InDesign or Illustrator, practice based research,  journeying to an isolated place to reach that true deep point of my yearning that opens up stories that I either find or make and HERE lies the crux of it, it’s an interdisciplinary creative practice, the core of which is unchanging. The core of my work is what I am now theoretically locating within the context of Contemporary Visual Art.

On a base line physical making process, I feel an absolute connection to place, do not do any harm to the location, take nothing, damage nothing, in order to create something. I’ve created relationships between self and an inanimate derelict buildings so deeply embedded within my creative thought process, that I return again and again, as if to a friend. I begin to really know that place and it lets me in – opens up to me, as if a person.  But now I critically ask, is being in this place to create art, a place whereby I am self-serving in order to unrightfully claim the authority to make up the stories by framing an image in a place that belongs to someone else, to address one of the issues that drives me (women’s domestic craft) under the banner of artist? Well? Am I?

Over the years, have I earned entry to that place?

Today, I am able to say that my work is primarily about the intersection between cultural location (of a found place that I have connected to through revisiting, learning of the people who lived there, which has a cultural, historical, visible meaning and that I have, over time, fallen in love with it) and the materiality of my creative practice (sometimes knit, laser cut, print) which addresses the politics of women’s domestic craft of knitting. (skilled, undervalued, underpaid, gendered work to support an income)

The intersection is the very sharp piercing moment that I ‘feel’ viscerally connected, at an unscheduled moment, where my creative materiality becomes part of the site and to remove the work would be to destroy it – In one term – Site-specific Art – a distillation of time, place and experience.

Mostly, I record that moment, sometimes, I just feel it.

True, the moment of coming to that point is visceral (for me) and could be justified by a lengthy dialogue on how it felt and how I had made the work to get to that point and how I had built up a relationship with an inanimate derelict building, but to what real meaning does this end? Resonance?

I am understanding how do we give value to work – and questioning what is the currency of this value?

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections and belonging. 

The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015.  The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone.  The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children.  It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.

march 2017

Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of the build. 

For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace design.  This wallpaper has been a couple of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design.   Material process and practice led research has always been the core of the development of my art practice.  I have long questioned – is it craft or art and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic craft of knitting and narratives of those women.  

The world is speedily changing and what can we say through art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and feel.

Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house.  As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit.   I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was.   It felt like meeting an old friend.  Returning to make work here is not a safe option.  It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’.   I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person.  I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.

On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper, paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own personal journey to this point.  

I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process.   A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see.  My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.

After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.

leave no trace

Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal.  What is this work – is it Art? Textile art? Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories?  I’m trying to understand it in a way in which textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific art in order to tell a story.

Who Owns words once they are spoken

Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.

I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included.  Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development.   The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.

In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls.  It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me –  very focused.  Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me.  I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.

My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place.   Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place.  I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.

I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:

  • Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create fine lace and of their ancestors. 
  • Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst, research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have started to do)
  • Make site specific work using photography as a platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
  • to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner) to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.

I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.

This was an ambitious aim in 10 days.  I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst.  36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.

I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff,  but Unst is a different land.

The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone.   I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt.  I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting,  I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.  

The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay.  Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs.  This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.

In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’.   This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further. 

After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts.  This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways  R&D grant in 2018. 

Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s still so much to learn and research and find out and make.  I’m always just at the beginning of something new but there is so much more.

These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.

from Shetland to Sheffield Institute of Arts

Dear Gentle Reader,

In your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of cut paper or printed ink.   

This place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.

I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return.  The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.

Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.

The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m glad to have met you.

Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.

textile, knitting or art?

Knitting, Art or just textiles?

Under a week after handing over this commissioned piece of knitting, I have had time to reflect.  I have a window of time to reconsider what I have made and why and what happened during the making and designing process and the outcome of what seems to some, to just be a knitted pullover.

The idea for this hand-knitted piece actually came from my thinking son because I was questioning the time involved in knitting and designing one off pieces. He suggested for me to consider intricately knitting something that I loved and to log every hour and minute spent making it.  This type of time is not commercial time but entirely creative, without speed, without a target.  So, to make a knitted piece in this way, with this idea behind it was the initiation that made it a project or a work of art; not just knitting and certainly not textiles.

A constant driving question of any maker is what is the value of time spent. I question time and the value of an hour of my time because, at 55 years old I may be running out of hours and what do I want to do with my one precious hour? is my hour of more value than, say, a 23 year old who, statistically, has more hours left to live than me.  If we knew how many hours left, what would we do with those hours? Knit?  

So, the act of writing, logging and recognising time spent whilst making became an underlying, fundamental principal of this knitted piece. I did not lie about time, did not hide time spent in the making process, did not adjust hours to fit ‘within time’ or an acceptable amount of time judged by others to take to knit this item and I did not exaggerate either.  I was wholly honest.

During the process there was no brief, or contract or even a binding conversation with the person who may or may not buy it, I made a Fair Isle pullover with a woman in mind.  A woman who I know respects hand-made items, understands art and creativity and supports makers.  And, I know that time is precious to her.  Of course, in the end, it is wearable. Win, win.

There was no design brief or discussion or demands or expectations.

Carte blanche. 

There was also no discussion of money due to the fact that this was not my driving force for the knitted project.  Notice, that this knitting has been called many things – a project, a hand-knitted piece, a piece of art but never just knitting or textiles. 

This whole project was a thought process – thinking about design, experimentation, research in practice, 2 years in an MA to research knitted lace, colours, heritage, Shetland-inspired memories, traditional patterns, blending colours, making mistakes and undoing mistakes, patterns I’ve previously knitted and why I wanted to weave those things into each stitch.   How can you sell that?  In a story? To a believer?  It’s an investment of time and detail.

In brief, the underlying principle was to create a work of art which encompassed understanding and mastery of the craft of knitting, which I have done for over 40 years now. To the untrained eye, this knitted piece is ‘textiles’ or ‘just knitting’ but,  to the thinking mind it is not.

So, I started. And unstarted. Designed and redesigned and felt my way through many, many, many hours of knitting.  Each hour was logged and sometimes what I was thinking, what I was feeling and my understanding of developing certain areas of the piece.  The work went everywhere with me and I knitted every day over 4 months. Yes, 4 months – sometimes at night watching things on iplayer. It went to café’s, babysitting, to Sheffield Institute of arts and on train journeys and to different cities but always I stayed true to the principle of logging the hours and to making every loop perfect.  I began to want to hold the work and get back to it.  It became a piece of wellbeing.

I became fascinated by thinking about how one colour sat next to another and where the pattern had come from and what memories the knitting drew on. I undid anything that I was not totally, absolutely happy with and the happiness came in the detail which fed back to the process of thinking.  The whole process took on a journey of its own.

The result is like a tightly woven carpet.

I am partly embarrassed about the hours I spent on this knitted piece and partly in awe of how much time I spent dedicated to something that a knitter would do in under half the time.  But, that knitting, from a pattern would be ‘just knitting’.  This piece came from scratch – from an idea and a bundle of over 50 colours of Shetland yarn.

On bank holiday Monday – the jewel-coloured surprise was ceremoniously and fittingly handed over

Creative practice, process and place.

Studio Space – SIA

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been developing my creative practice whilst being privileged to have access to the facilities at Sheffield Institute of Arts (SIA) – I am one of the Artists in Residence on the 2019, AA2A programme.  Until this morning, I was here, working with resources, talking with students, pushing my own creative practice boundaries and experimenting with my work.  Then, last week, I presented my creative practice and process to the Extended Foundation students and on Tuesday, I’ll present to the MA, Design Students, on the Level 1, here at the Old Head Post Office (SIA), which gives me the opportunity to give back, in some small way.

This place, this old Head Post Office, is quite magical. You can feel it in the fabric of the tiled walls, the mosaic floors and sash windows. Being here makes me feel free.

But, I learn every time I’m within its walls – by learning new techniques, asking questions, seeing what the Students are creating, learning through osmosis and by reflecting and being patient until finally, my practice has turned a corner.  This is maybe how the universe works. Time, experimenting, patience, reflection and energy = creativity  

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been laser cutting and laser engraving – something I wasn’t allowed to do myself at NTU because all cutting went through the one technician. At Sheffield Hallam, students and staff alike learn to use the laser cutting machines themselves, of which there are 6 here at SIA and more at Sheaf. 

When I get the chance to spend time with a new technique, the more I learn about process and in turn, the more I take chances and become adventurous and experimental with new ideas and outputs. At SIA, I’ve learned to laser cut. I still don’t know how to do everything and not I’m without mistakes which I build on, but I can cut and engrave what I visualise quite well. It takes time.  I’m on two hours a day, two days a week.

When I first started at SIA, I wondered how my work, which is inspired by the Heritage Shetland knitted lace industry, its tradition and the knitters themselves, could actually fit within the urban setting of a city in Yorkshire. Four months after starting at SIA I’ve developed a piece of work that is both portable and in keeping with place.  I’ve learnt through time.

This place of Sheffield is so far removed from that place of Shetland.

To me, there initially seemed to be no possible link for my creative practice and its links with knitting and Shetland because the work seemed to have been dragged out of context by the two places being geographically hundreds of miles apart.   But this morning, loaded with printing ink, roller, John Lewis bread board, rags and my hand-made, 15x17cm, rubber printing block that I made using my CAD lace knit designs, I have hand printed my tessellating Bird’s Eye pattern across the stairwell wall by the MA Studio.

The result is a happy one.  Hand printing on the wall made my heart race because I realised what I can do with this idea.  The printing block is portable, it’s accessible, it’s easy to set up and it works.

I can print on any flat wall, any place, any time.  This morning’s printing was a stepping stone to see how well I could make the tessellating pattern match, if it would work on a wall, does it need to be perfect, I love the imperfect walls of Shetland – so it can be patchy, how would I go round corners, what would it look like in a large block of space,  how long would it take and if it could be possible to take the printing block to Shetland to print across the walls of a derelict croft house that I have fallen in love with and have revisited over a number of times since 2015.

And, the answer is yes.

New art, new project. I’m heading for Shetland in May / June and know exactly the wall I will be printing on.

Bird’s Eye. Pop up, Site-specific, Interventionist Art.

Bird’s Eye.

Interventionist, Pop-up, Site-specific Renegade Art, or, Art placed to raise a smile, make a connection or engage?

Today, I did something either quite interesting, or quite stupid. I’m edging on the side of the former.

On the 14th floor, lightly taped to a window, in meeting room, in the Architecture department, in The Arts Tower, I left a Paper Laser cut of my knitting.  It’s an intervention between paper, view, light and viewer.

After creating digital laser cuts, to place in derelict croft house windows across Shetland, I find that I am now looking around at making site-specific work within the City that I live.  And questioning why, and what for and what does this really mean to me and to anyone else? Is it legal? Is it damage or intrusion? Is it pop-up fun? Is it harmless? What is the purpose? Should I or should I not?

On New Year’s Day, I purposely looked, from the car park, at the Arts Tower – having never been inside it, never used the Paternoster lift, never seen the view of our City from its heights and I considered that it seemed the perfect location to place my laser cut work in one of its windows. In a Site-specific, pop up intervention. For the work to stand as a chance to have a moment of exchange with a passer-by. To engage, in some way. I never want to, or will I damage or deface any location.  I want to interact with people in a positive, maybe a thought-provoking way.  My work requires the viewer to interact, if only briefly. 

To look up, look through it, look at it, take it down, tear it down, contact me, ignore me.  I don’t mind but in placing this laser cut in a window, in a room, in a building that I have never been in before – I wanted to touch some ONE in a small way, to intervene with a view unlooked at, through blinds half down and half up, to maybe touch someone, connect with someone – a positive intervention. This moment of connection is a gift, from me to you.

At first, we caught the Paternoster lift.  A completely new and exhilarating experience.  I, and my friend, were a little scared so we waited.  We waited to see how fast the lift moved, how many seconds we’d have to get in and then out whilst it was moving. We were a little scared to do something that scared us. So, we waited a little longer then went for it.

Riding up in the lift car was a short but completely mindful time.  I had packed my scarf away, held my bag tight and concentrated before stepping into the moving lift and it felt good to overcome being scared.  It was decided on ascending, that we’d get out on floor 15 because if we delayed getting out, there were still 2 more floors before we’d have to launch ourselves out. But at floor 13, we were too apprehensive of the exit so jumped out at floor 14.  I looked to my right and there it was –  A perfectly placed meeting room with a wall of windows, opening up to a wide vista and view across the city.

So many meeting rooms across the city are just used without consideration of where they are.  How many people looked out of those windows 14 floors up, amazed at the height from the floor the the view point, amazed to be in the sky overlooking the busy city? I don’t know. The blinds were up and down.  The location instinctively felt right as it had done in the past when placing site specific work. I unrolled my laser cut whereupon it was gently held open so as it would not roll into a tangled mess, and I taped it lightly at the corners, to the window pane to create an intervention between the outside and in, a breaking up of the view so that it now had to be looked at by peeping through knitted paper.  It’s a trial, it’s not bespoke but could be. If the room had laser cuts on the windows, and when the sun shone through, there would be knitted lace shadows across the table.  It’s a start.

This piece is not entirely finished.  When someone engages with it to look at the city landscape through it, this will be the moment of completion.

It’s harmless pop-up art that sits in one of the most iconic buildings in Sheffield, to open up an interaction between viewer, location, and art work, to intervene between view and seeing, to stop someone just for a moment and for them to wonder what it is and why it is there.

A moment of exchange.

We interact with our architecture.

We break the unseeing eye.

The work is called ‘Bird’s Eye’ for two reasons – the laser cut is developed from a simulation of my Lace knitting which is inspired by Shetland and the many lace designs created by generations of lace knitters going back to the 1800’s, who knitted to subsidise their family income.

This is a Shetland Bird’s Eye lace pattern and secondly, I called it Bird’s eye because, for no other reason than that – It’s a Bird’s Eye view