The intertwining roles of art, research and communication are often behind the intentions for many art residencies and projects. But what puzzles me, is the tiny number of opportunities or requests for arts practitioners to raise public awareness of environmental issues, and to communicate or create conversation about solutions in this area.
Instead, I keep coming across art projects and initiatives that are abstract, removed from visibility and open conversation, due to access restrictions or use of jargon and trend-based graphics/art vacuum imagery, that appeals only to those who are trained in graphics theory.
So, I’m feeling a bit let down by the arts and cultural institutions and funders. Where is the visible, emotive, responsive, clever art that reacts to environmental issues.
With my personal interest and work history of communicating the importance of a more sustainable and ethical fashion/textiles industry, I found the current art installation ‘The Secret Garden’ by Ian Berry interesting.
The installation was made using denim offcuts and deadstock – particularly denim donated by the Cone Mills White Oak factory in North Carolina – the last remaining selvedge denim factory in The US. The factory closed on 31st December last year. No more sovereign selvedge denim for America. A legend has died.
With it, numerous jobs. And with it too, the chance for low fuel-mile ‘Made in America’ cotton denim, that also feeds the US economy.
The history and future of fabric and fashion production in the current environmental and economic climate are worth widespread consideration. Most of us wear clothes, even if we don’t consider ourselves to care about style or fashion.
To me, art is the best ‘test site’ for communication about important issues, because the stakes are remarkably low compared to those in farming (if we’re thinking about cotton and other fibre crops), fabric and garment production and sales industries. With art we can test public perception and gauge and inform opinions, needs and wants of people.
Art can be used to formulate and develop social and environment design models too; It’s a test site for ideas and considerations, but without the huge amounts of money and the 12-year long contracts that happens in production.
Visual art can also get away with saying more, by saying nothing specific at all! Art produced in a free manner, in a free world, maintains peoples’ ability to speak ro relate truths, usually outside of bureaucratic or corporate restrictions, about industries in relation to workers rights and the environment. And art does the same for many other issues.
For this reason I highly applaud art that gets people talking about things we need to know about.
And whilst some people may dislike the art, others love it and learn from it. The people who hate it will come to the knowledge elsewhere, another time. But art works as a learning instigator and conversation starter for a great many people.
The beauty of The Secret Garden installation is that it is on display in The Children’s Museum for Art, in New York. Children are key in the intended audience. Children are a great ‘tool’ – (horrible word to use, sorry) for activism. This is because they tug on their parents’ sleeves and ask ‘why’ and ‘what’ all the time. And that means the parents must find out, and explain or react. It’s a double learning curve. It’s fantastic.
When I posted about The Secret Garden on twitter, fashion activist Allie McConnell responded (which is great in itself – the art is clearly creating a talking point, regardless of what you think of it) and said she considered it to be a poor tribute to an important, historic textiles factory. While The Secret Garden installation may, to some, appear a little aesthetically twee in light of the sadness of the Cone Mills factory closure, I think it’s a great site for discussion and for making a case for longevity in the ways we receive important and topical information too. By this I mean that the moment of experiencing activist art – whether you like it or not – can have longevity and effect. For example; The kids that visit this installation, and their parents too will remember the day they spent there, maybe for years to come. Although many of them may forget the meaning behind the art, they could have told their friends about it when they first went, creating an infinite chain of knowledge.
I’ve been working on communicating the history and future of the denim industry, in relation to environmental and labour concerns, for a few years. My angle on denim comes from it’s presence as a cult item in many a subcultural scene. I’ve written pages and pages before about the ways in which the punk rock scene is sustainable – the dedication to a staple pair of jeans being just of the ways. The reverence for denim amongst denim fans keeps jeans and jean jackets in use for decades. The items become sacred, cared for, passed down.
So when Allie and I had a discussion about the success (or not in Allie’s case) of The Secret Garden installation, and she mentioned she felt uncomfortable about Ian Berry’s use of flowers as a symbol in the installation, I was encouraged to finish my most recent denim-related artwork… as it contains very different symbolism.
Incidentally, I appreciate Ian’s use of flowers. They could be considered to be flowers of remembrance – although they are not laid solemnly at a grave. They instead communicate to me the serenity and staying power of a beautiful natural landscape; like the confidence and staying power of a beautiful pair of jean. The regenerative and restorative abilities of a garden system are a model framework for the future of the fashion and textiles industry.
Think of a seasonal cycle of a garden, or of compost; A natural ecosystem is the ultimate feedback/recycle/reuse system. This ideology and design approach – a circular design approach – should be applied to fashion collections and fibre crop cultivation.
Viktor and Rolf in fact are the most recent high profile fashion retailer to edge towards the circular economy model. Their recent collection RE:CYCLE reuses deadstock and remnants of fabric from their previous collections. This is of course practical waste reduction, but also adds a spin to the collection that may give the garments a longevity; they are more historical in fashion terms with this unique attribute.
So whether you like Ian Berry’s ‘The Secret Garden’ installation or not, your small friends may like it, and it has started at least one conversation between Allie and I, and we’re both active in spreading information in our local and wider communities, through business ventures, campaigns, or simply in conversation.
So thank you artists and designers who make visibly art that starts conversation and help people feel activated and knowledgable.
And funders – get funding.