Knitting in New Plymouth: some news from our participatory art scene

Knitting as art, but not as Granny knew itI was at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth over the weekend and stumbled on a wonderful peace of interactive soft sculpture.

Walking up the stairs to the first floor I was faced with a small scene. Against a white wall sits a chic white leather sofa. On it innocuously sits a pile of white knitting, a white paper bag filled with skeins of wool (white of course), and two pairs of wooden needles of different sizes. In front of this tableau is a coffee table with some information but, at least at first, it’s not needed. You know what you’re supposed to do. You sit down and you knit.

It turns out that each of the pair of needles is attached to the opposing end of a single scarf. It’s the “Khata Scarf”, a participatory artwork by Yin Xiuzhen, part of the Gallery’s exhibition China in Four Seasons: Song Dong + Yin Xiuzhen, showing until the 12 of September.

I managed to knit off a row (or purl? – probably some of both) before looking deeper into the project. People (and it looks like a lot of people) have contributed to a single fairly outrageous object that will, on the 21st of August, be auctioned off to contribute to a charity of the artist’s choice. I’m curious to see who will buy it. At about nine metres (so far), it’s too long for most homes, and not a beautiful piece in the classic sense of the word. But it’s got great provenance, contributed by knitters, men and women, some very young (judging by the handwriting in the guest book) from all over the world: Germany, France, the UK, Singapore, Australia, China.

Untitled participatory art, Brett Cook, 2006. Mixed media.

What I love most about this is that it’s a shared kinaesthetic experience with strangers, all working on a single project. The goal of the project, in fact, is not as important as the creative drive – the act of making something. It’s not even something you will keep. This is art that is focused not as much on the relationship between object and viewer, as it is on the relationship between people, where the work itself takes a back seat.

Participatory art is not a new phenomenon. In a performance context, it reaches back as far as 1957, with the “happening” of  Allan Kaprow. Fifty years later it seems to be a phenomenon that’s still gathering momentum, rather having been established as a common practice.

The examples that do exist are notable for their diversity. They include  a large graffito coordinated by Brett Cook (aka Dizney) in 2006 in San Francisco’s White Walls Gallery

In 2007 in Connecticut, USA, Puerto Rico–born artist Victor Pacheco developed The Avocado Tree Project that encouraged people to grow and contribute avocado trees to an installation. The message behind it was in equal parts activism, environmental awareness in an urban setting and public food production. Activism is a common theme throughout much of participatory art.

The Avocado Tree Project, Victor Pacheco 2007. Avocado seeds, plastic cups, tooth picks, water.

San Francisco has been an important centre for particpatory art since the 1960s, perhaps abetted by it proximity to Silicon Valley. Last year San Franciscos’s Museum of Modern Art The Art of Participation, 1950 to Now, explored strategies and situations in which the public have taken a collaborative role in the art-making process. One important web-based work was communimage, a project by Swiss artist Johannes Gees, going continuously since 1999.

Visitors to the communimage website are invited to upload pictures onto a grid system, along with some basic information. (It helps if you speak German.) The result is an enormous mosaic of images in different styles, ranging from sweet to vulgar.

New Zealand has not had many forays into participatory art, so it’s exciting to hear news of the first annual Wild and Sneaky Art Festival (WASA!) in Nelson this October, encouraging attendees to become artists, and turning the CBD into a living art gallery. Conceptualised by business advisor Nickola Blunt, tourism advisor and trainer Craig Wilson and author/artist Alison Rae, it promises to be important internationally as a model of participation, as well as heaps of fun.

Dr Eric DorfmanDr Eric Dorfman is a Wellington-based author of popular natural history books, short fiction, articles and documentary scripts. His critically acclaimed book Melting Point (Penguin 2008) explores New Zealand’s responses to the issue of climate change. He is also Director of Eklektus Inc., a collective that produces strategic and visitor experience services to the international cultural sector, and a Teaching Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Museum and Heritage Studies.

Twitter: @eklektusinc