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cumbersome multiples exhibition
Museum of Contemporary Crafts
Tracy Schlapp and Daniel Duford of Cumbersome Multiples created the John Henry Project to uncover the connective tissue between events and lectures in the Portland area during 2014. We set up a temporary print shop in the back of lecture halls and theaters while artists, writers, and thinkers spoke. We distilled ideas through set type, printing broadsides in real time. The John Henry Project exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Crafts organizes a series of these prints around the ideas of building and making; public and private space; and personal stories told as witness to individual lives.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
(IS KILLING US)
Each time we build (or rebuild) a society, we think: This time we are going to get it right. We build out. We build up. We construct in concrete and metal, we plant acres of fields with a single crop, we dislocate entire populations of people and animals. Conventional wisdom maintains that nothing should disturb market forces. The building and the planting; the roads and the houses have more to do with capital than with human lives. Our artworks point to the importance of diversity. The human heart beats the machine every time. Epic poems warn against hubris and yet, we turn again and again to the shining silver toy that catches our eye. As a place, Portland is knee deep in fermentation. Simply put, we haven’t boomed. We are booming. Planners and thinkers and artists alike are interested in how we approach this growth. How we grow can be a more equitable and humane model beyond the Pacific Northwest. Each of the speakers we saw in their own way gave warnings and offered solutions.
Portland, Oregon is considered a hub in the current maker movement. And there’s a long history of making on this soggy bend in the Willamette River where it joins the larger Columbia. Portland is lush but not easy. It requires elbow grease and fortitude to make it through the damp winters. First Nations constructed sophisticated lives in this fecund land. Emigrant settlers inhabited the unfamiliar and tried to carve a life that in someway resembled home. Ancestral trees loomed large and provided first shelter and then, an entire logging economy as this territory was claimed by the United States. Racing forward to the present, we see the long-grain timber originally used to build warehouses refurbished to become the crowning jewel of contemporary loft spaces. This is a dynamic landscape of fabrication and making. It is not an accident that our city is attracting a wide range of “economic outsiders” — nimble small-scale makers alongside internet juggernauts are sharing market space. This is a place where one might better understand the work of a bicycle-component maker than the work of an investment banker.
The city is in flux, again. Bike, walk or drive through any sector of town and you are likely to see orange cones and often cranes. Blocks are razed and weeks later the skeletal structure of buildings are in place. Portland is an adolescent city. Ask any teenager, and they will admit growing hurts. It is exhausting, uncomfortable, and notably awkward. We tell distressed teenagers that it is OK, that they just need to be themselves. No wonder they look at us skeptically as they think: “Yeah, sure and who is that exactly?”
During a talk at the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, Portland artist Marie Watt described looking up at vertical high-rise apartments in Brooklyn, NY and seeing the long houses native to both her own Seneca nation and the indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest. An entire family clan could dwell in a single longhouse that extended deep into the dense cedar landscape. These Brooklyn “longhouses” of contemporary cityscapes are turned on their sides and contain unrelated clans. They poke into the sky instead of the forest. Simultaneously, she remembered the “skywalkers” — Mohawk Indian construction workers from the 1930s who fearlessly riveted steel on buildings and bridges throughout the Northeast US and Canada.
Through “Skywalking Longhouses” Watt reveals the very tension of contemporary cities. At once, we need to house much larger clans (though these tribes go by the names of multi-partnered law firms and major corporations) in a landscape that is short on land. Like the fearless Mohawk, contemporary city dwellers find themselves working above the tree line, though unlike the construction workers they are breathing canned air.
Susan Szenasy has made a career of thinking deeply about the ways we build cities and construct our living environments. She applies her love of history and her sophisticated eye to the designed world with a critical bias toward good sense. During her lecture to students at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s MFA in Applied Craft and Design, she describes travels through Dubai. Szenasy found herself transported through the landscape of gleaming modern architecture built for an inhospitable climate: “A petting zoo of high rise forms.” These silo-like buildings shooting into the sky act as a metaphor for how design is failing the planet. In another lecture, she simply stated that the built environment is killing us.
Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan’s thinking dovetails with Szenasy’s. While Szenasy trades in the language of industrial design and architecture, Nabhan is thinking about how the natural world feeds and supports human life, and how human life in turn must right that balance. He starts with the monarch butterfly and it’s reliance on the milkweed highway for migration. The farm is as much built environment as a city. Whether cityscape or farmscape, the climate is similarly altered by buildings and lack of trees. In this conversation, we speak of seeds as the building block of landscape. Seeds are elemental, not a metaphor, Nabhan says: “A coffee can of seeds fills 300 acres of land with food.”
The Nabhan and Szenasy lectures were attended by engaged and very specific audiences. Szenasy hosted primarily architects and in a second talk, she spoke with craft/design graduate students. Nabhan’s audience was filled with environmentalists and farmers. Imagine how interesting it would be to cross-pollinate these audiences.
Szenasy emphasizes the importance of local identity to distinguish communities. Local politics are places where we can effect change. And we need diversity to thrive (plant, economic, human). After all, an entire county is not healthy if it is all planted in soybeans, a neighborhood can’t thrive if it is only filled with coffee shops or an impoverished population. Communities need to recognize and embrace the authentic, the real.
Design Museum Portland hosted a four-person panel titled “Designing Better Neighborhoods” addressing the very challenges of building (and in many cases rebuilding) neighborhoods. The John Henry project was installed on the 16th floor of the Standard Insurance Building. On a dark, rainy autumn night we watched the thousands of car lights following the ribbon of bridges that cross the Willamette River. There below us was the flow of the city’s economic lifeblood. During the event, the evening commute was a constant glowing reminder of Portland’s growth. Moderator Randy Gragg began the conversation with this idea — our very survival is in the hands of our neighbors. Think of a three-day power outage. Who do you turn to first? Strong neighborhoods are the building blocks of a thriving city. CEO Mark Gerding applies a healthy marker to a home community — can one attend to the business of life within a 20-minute walk? We thought about our neighborhood, the very next night when walking out to trick or treat. Halloween could be considered a marker of a healthy neighborhood. Are kids from the neighborhood ringing the doorbell? Or are their parents choosing to drive to the mall or another neighborhood that seems safer? Halloween is a time to overcome the fear of neighbors that shadows our daily transactions.
Portland sits at an intersection. We have the tools in our hands for making our city more dynamic, more diverse, and inclusive. There is a city here that is authentic. We also know that we have made plenty of missteps (and there will be more ahead). After all, we still love the shiny thing. Peter Korn’s book Why We Make Things and Why it Matters drills into the very heart of making. It could stand as a manifesto for Portland. This place is intersected by a river, located in a fertile valley, connected to the waters of the Pacific. It has attracted makers because of its rich material resources. Like all other places, this place has an authentic self, filled with majesty, and mistakes. And yet, when you get to the making of community, we cannot forget the importance of how it is made. In the words of Korn: “You just can’t bullshit a chisel”.
PRIVATE LIVES IN PUBLIC SPACES
What is the affect of a single voice, one story told in the public square? Who listens and what action the listener takes with that knowledge is a hinge of democratic life. Oregon Humanities sponsored conversations that poked at these ideas through the eyes of a civil rights lawyer, a family studies historian, and a memoirist. The value we place on public trust (whether that public consists of traveling strangers, a massive corporation, or an occupying government) was woven through the talks of Heidi Boghosian, Stephanie Coontz and Cheryl Strayed. Who is following your footprints in the sand?
Heidi Boghosian reminds us that once you create a digital footprint you can’t take it back. Eyes silently touting our protection follow us from on high and from within our devices. The price is our democratic freedom. Most of us willingly participate because we prefer the convenience these digital steps for shopping, data collection, socializing and so forth. We assume that our participation is beyond reproach.
Cheryl Strayed participated in the world by foot through the Pacific Crest Trail leaving literary footprints for others to track. She experienced the walk (documented in her best-selling book Wild and in a film of the same name) as an opening up to the empathy and humanity of strangers. The book’s success has put a premium on Strayed’s own ability to be the anonymous wanderer. Strayed’s “radical sincerity” means that her readers are more intimate with her than she is with them.
The public square where the story is told, or whispered or gossiped is no neutral zone. We take our privacy for granted at our peril. Stephanie Coontz’s study of marriage shows the myriad ways that our ideas are shaped by social forces. The romance myth that occupies thousands of romantic comedies, television shows, and bodice rippers is a social construction. While the accepted idea of romantic love is held up as the ideal of individual freedom, Coontz says the romance myth has deformed the idea of a good relationship. Marriage, that most personal of choices, is a provisional contract. Marriage is a luxury good now. We conceive of intimate relationships as the most private of human activity in a democratic society. But those contracts and relationships are judged, parsed, and controlled by a host of social beliefs about gender, race, and sexuality. What’s done in the privacy of one’s own home is a matter for the public square. As Heidi Boghosian reminds us, our choices are different if we think other people are watching.
The tensions between inside and outside, public and private, watcher and watched is further exasperated by nationality. Who is an alien and who is not becomes a question of sanctioned language. A member of the Muskogee nation, Joy Harjo recognizes that English is a trade language. As exiles on their native soil, the many indigenous nations of North America adopt English for their economic transactions and as a costume to blend in. As Harjo points out, native languages are tools of resistance. A secret code. A homecoming. A mother tongue.
“All who resist are the custodians of democracy,” says Heidi Boghosian. “We vote with our mouths,” says Gary Nabhan. He was referring to the choices we make in the market everyday. We have the power to affect change for a more sustainable food system. But he is right we vote with our mouths. We vote with common and ancestral tongues. Our ability to speak determines how we hold the public square.
The chinks in the walls of privacy and democracy were pointed out, illuminated through the various lectures. Each audience was specific to the speaker. We rarely saw an audience member repeat throughout the year. However, when we overlay the concerns of each speaker a Venn diagram emerged mapping our public space. While social forces act upon us we have the ability to act upon the public sphere. The call to act consciously came from Heidi Boghosian to Gary Nabhan to Susan Szenasy.
The surveillance apparatus may seem monolithic but there are things we can do. Boghosian suggests first we become indignant. Step two, we make it more difficult for corporate and government agencies to obtain our personal information. “Why do you need my social security number?” is an apt question for anyone. Nabhan sees agribusiness’s seemingly insurmountable façade as made of straw. Collectively, we as citizens can change how food is grown and who benefits (not multi-nationals but farmers, communities, and pollinators). Szenasy calls to architects and designers to consider the true shape of human lives for their buildings. Political leaders and industrialists trot out economic mandates as if from on high. They use everything from national to fiscal security as excuses for the squeezing out of human dignity from the public sphere. A tentative plan emerges, a formula for maintaining a vibrant democratic society.
“We need presentists who will make the future, not popcorn futurists,” says Stephanie Coontz. Current institutions of power assume an inevitable future gliding out of contemporary economic and political situations. In a recent acceptance speech for The National Book Awards, Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine rights of kings.” All of these speakers call for the change to come from the ground up. Coontz noted the incredible gains made in the past few years in gay marriage. The gains came from the couples and their families who had the audacity to hold their ground. The personal lives of so many became the seeds for grass roots resistance. How do you crack paved over earth? With rainwater and weeds. Soon dominant structures fall to shards. The “presentist” is the patient tender of grass seeds.
All of these lectures were testament to the power of the public speaker. TED talks are slick deals — all PowerPoint and headsets. Even the most interesting TED speakers get reduced to a quickly consumed au jus. That is not the case for the lectures we attended. These speakers commanded engaged audiences of living citizens. Face to face question and answer sessions opened up live dialogues. Cheryl Strayed conversed with Adam Davis of Oregon Humanities at a packed Alberta Rose Theater. Readers of Strayed’s memoir find a model for themselves. “I am not a literary construction,” says Strayed in the flesh and blood. Those listening had the chance to interact with the creator of the words that so inspired them. To physically hear a speaker without the polish of production and the intermediary of a screen becomes a human experience. That human experience reminds us that we all have a voice. The Internet is a powerful tool for disseminating diverse voices to far-flung locales. That same power has the potential for censorship and alienation. The very ancient act of listening creates an intimacy of ideas.
Almost all of the speakers have written books with an avid readership. Portland is nothing if not a book town. Large corporations, such as Amazon are the primary distribution system for eBooks. During a round table discussion with designer Chip Kidd and cartoonist Chris Ware at Literary Arts, Ware described reading on a Kindle as “Skypeing with the dead”. Kidd and Ware advocate unequivocally for physical books. On any given day Powell’s Books on Burnside is bursting with readers, browsers, Looky-loos and thinkers. Patricia No of Publication Studio describes making a social space for books to live. Part of that social space is the author lecture. Hearing the writer in person completes the cycle. It is in books and lectures where the private thoughts of the writer and the public discourse of the audience enliven the public square.
SONGS FOR TRAIL, VOICE, AND BLANKETS
In the 1980s, Lewis & Clark College professor Vern Rutsala told his poetry students, that there is always a better word. To a 20-year-old this seems daunting. In middle age, it is reassuring. Language is fluid. Ideas are most interesting when they rub into the nooks of other ideas; finding meaning or finding opposition. This is the very fiber of the John Henry impulse. When we choose an idea for a broadside, we begin with the speaker’s words. Between the space of the words and the concrete printing of the broadside is chance. The ideas manifest in that space. Unlike a keyboard, the type case of antique wooden letters often doesn’t contain all of the letters we need to make the word or the phrase. Gathering strength from Rutsala’s declaration, we work with fluid motion. Hands above the Ouija board type case, we feel for the better combination of letters to find the words; to construct the ideas; and to make them concrete with dark grey ink on a crisp white sheet.
Writers and artists find majesty in small places and they throw themselves into majestic places to rediscover that fine grain of sand. Vision is the operative word here. Artist Marie Watt transforms humble blankets into monuments, Cheryl Strayed recounts stories from a deeply personal place to enlighten readers and Joy Harjo weaves language, music, and activism into poetry. They each labor to translate stories into form so that we might glimpse that grain of truth for ourselves.
When we learned of Rutsala’s death on April 2, 2014, John Henry made a studio print in his honor. We excerpted a line from his poem Billie Holiday, from The Moment’s Equation (Ashland Poetry Press, 2004). “The Beauty in the Bones” illuminates the very structure of design, whether we are walking through a built space or looking at a winter treescape stripped of leaves. There is a harsh beauty. Or would Rutsala ask that we choose a better word?
Joy Harjo thinks in beautiful. Her voice mixes with the jazz song of her alto sax fluidly so that the listener might let go of categorical distinctions and biases. Biases, such as the line between poet and musician or the assumptions that a dominant culture expects of native culture. Put bluntly, Harjo states: “People want their Indians Wild.” Tired stereotypes complete with face paint and feathers spring to mind. But, what if taken further this wilderness really represents a desire to escape broken patterns? What if we want to rethink modern corporate clans in the interest of reorganizing a better way of life? What if city apartment buildings took on the life-form of the Longhouse?
Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (which had an award-winning run in Ashland, Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during 2014) playfully weaves European-based fairy tales together in Act 1 as the characters travel into the woods to satisfy their wishes. In Act 2, Sondheim uncovers “once upon at time. . . later”. The characters are forced back into the wild where they find the Giant’s wife thundering through the landscape avenging her husband’s murder. Revenge, adultery, murder, sacrifice in the woods. . . characters are torn apart and tossed into the air to land in different roles with alternate endings. In the final moving scene, the witch sings to us the new moral: “Careful, the things you say, children will listen.”
At the beginning of her hero’s journey Cheryl Strayed tattoos herself with a mustang, changes her last name and enters the world by foot. This world is wild. Strayed was broken and lost at the beginning of her journey. In mourning for her mother and mired in a bad marriage she leapt into the unknown. Eventually she was christened the “Queen of the PCT” (Pacific Crest Trail) getting to know some fellow travelers only through trail registers. Just as Strayed felt herself disappearing, she reinvented herself through the scrawled mark on the trail. Cumbersome Multiples stresses that you should love your mark. Strayed’s mark led her out of the wild into herself. Now her story leads countless others onto the trail.
Marie Watt describes herself as part-cowboy and part-Indian, a reference to her Wyoming-born German-Scots father and Seneca (Iroquois) mother. Living in between distinct identities gives Watt a nuanced viewpoint. She can extend belonging and empathy to a wide range of people. Strayed, Harjo, and Watt all had to tell their own stories because off-the-shelf identities available to them as women and artists didn’t quite fit. As Stephanie Coontz notes, “people expect to organize their lives around averages.”
As such, averages represent almost no one. Backfence PDX, hosts a Russian roulette-style storytelling competition to tease out “an anything but average” story. The wheel turns, a theme is chosen, and a storyteller has 5 minutes to organize him or herself before performing in front of an audience. These stories cut deeply into the personal experience with painful recognition of fears and flaws and innocence lost. The winner in August, Daria Eliuk began her heartbreaking and funny tale with the flippant, “I self-medicate with boys.” She unfurls a story set in a now defunct Portland haunt, Quality Pie (once located on NW 23rd & Northrup). The story ends with a would-be sexual assault thwarted by a huge drag queen who tells the assailant, “Little man I’m more woman than you’ll ever have.” The Backfence PDX audience plays along with cheers and laughter, and finally they chose the evening’s winning storyteller.
Internet culture believes that it represents a diversity of voices that can howl and sing and find an audience. In practice the voices become stretched and shrill, the texture scraped off by the cacophony of advertisements, trollery, and anxious banality. The voice needs an ear and the ear needs a body. Marie Watt’s storytelling has the varied texture of the blankets she uses for sculpture. It won’t do to see the artwork online. Each blanket has a story to tell. The story comes from its history and the story is transmitted through the scratchy wool or worn patches.
In May, Watt was collecting blankets at the Tacoma Art Museum to comprise a monumental work now installed outside of the museum’s new wing. A teary-eyed woman handed over the handmade, much loved blanket of her childhood with a note to describe it. Is it possible for scraps of quilted satin to exist in a space beyond well-loved? Later in Seattle, Marie was honored with an exquisite quilt made by a man’s great, great grandmother and handed down through generations. Marie honors these quiet stories in stacks of blankets, which are gathered, archived, folded, stacked and then, bronzed. The piece called Blanket Stories: Transportation Object, Generous Ones, Trek rises into the sky, an 18-foot X holding up the museum’s outside wall. Tacoma Art Museum Chief Curator Rock Hushka says: “The sum of these stories proves how we share a common humanity. They reveal that a simple household item offers comfort, protection, and security across all human categories — race, class, gender, occupation, age.”
Joy Harjo’s saxophone echoing through the PNCA Commons gave a new texture and rhythm to her words. Cheryl Strayed’s story stands solitary like the hiking boot that adorns the cover of her memoir. Watt’s blanket stories like the imperfect impressions of the Line-O-Scribe record the spoken words of lecturers or the quiet stories of lives lived, blankets made, loved in, worn in and worn out.
Magic exists in the space between words, as they are spoken, as they are heard and in the white space between letterforms found in John Henry’s janky print-shop set-up. The press and type often stopped audience members in their tracks. Why such a cumbersome set-up when we all carry around little electronic silver miracles in our pockets and purses? Just a few quick finger taps and the message is disseminated around the globe (or to those with access and those who care to look).
Pulling a print is labor. Finding dark letters in dim lecture halls, rolling ink and making the print. Is that D backwards? Do it again. In the end, the tweet is fleeting. Stored as it might be in an energy hungry cloud facility it’s only as good as the program that can read it. The print may be seen by just a few but it exists in the world. You can hold it in your hands. Printing presses have always been a tool for the spreading of ideas. Prints are democratic. Just as the Cloud that holds all of our digital footprints, complaints and dreams sucks power from the grid in heavy metal facilities, ideas live in our bones and muscles. Fingers remain inky.
“John Henry opens his mouth —
I can tell you your future too — wan’ hear it?
Most don’t and fine by me ain’t got nothing
but time now nohow. Hands been full since day
one: swinging. Swinging — was I born with it?”
A print collective led by artists Tracy Schlapp and Daniel Duford, Cumbersome Multiples collaborates with artists and writers to create limited-edition multiples.
www.cumbersomemultiples.com | @johnhenrytweets