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Ocular Centric and Haptic Experience: Does the way we view quilt art affect our understanding of it?

Penelope Allen

Submitted to Hereford College of Arts In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degrees of BA (Hons) Contemporary Applied Arts Validated by the University of Wales

Full word count: 8396 Edited word count: 6343


Contents List of illustrations……………………………………………………………………………………………………………3 Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….4 Chapter 1: The Changing Status of Quilts…………………………………………………………………………6 Chapter 2: From Harlow to Haptic, applying cultural theory to quilts……………………………..14 Chapter 3: Theory in practice………………………………………………………………………………………… 19 Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….27 Appendix 1………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………29 Appendix 2………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………32 Bibliography…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….34


List of Illustrations Figure 1. 18th Century quilted costume, ‘Quilts 1700-2010’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010 Figure 2. Grayson Perry, Right to Life [detail] 1993 Figure 3. Tracey Emin, Hotel International, 1993 Figure 4. Harry Harlow’s surrogate monkey mothers, 1966 Figure 5. Entrance to ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010 Figure 6. The Festival of Quilts, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, 2012 Figure 7. Quilt labels, The Festival of Quilts 2012, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, 2012 Figure 8. Penny Allen, Called Control, 2012, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, 2012 Figure 9. Penny Allen, Called Control, 2012, point66, Hereford, 2012 Figure 10. Grey and white quilt, Hereford, 2012 Figure 11. Unknown, Karma, 2012, The Festival of Quilts 2012 Figure 12. Mrs M E Shepherd, Bedcover, ‘Quilts 1700-2010’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010 Figure 13. Karina Thompson, 60 Beats a Minute. Made in the Middle, Birmingham:MAC, 2012 Figure 14. Interaction Station, Made in the Middle, Birmingham:MAC, 2012


Introduction “Whether they lie on our beds and are intended to be held and used, or they hang in the walls of galleries and museums and we feel them with our imaginations only, quilts are tactile objects that invite us to touch them and to understand them through touch� (Shaw, 2009:5) There are many different ways to experience textiles. They are ever present in our day to day lives as functional items, such as clothes and home wares, which we encounter unconsciously almost constantly. This study will investigate the way in which we interact with textiles, specifically quilts, in exhibitions, and how this affects our understanding of the pieces. It will look at the opposing experiences of a wholly visual interaction, which can be referred to as an ocular centric experience, versus touching the textiles, which can be referred to as a haptic experience. My own creative practice is centred on quilting and I explore the tension present when creating functional objects which are then displayed in a way that prohibits their functionality. This is a concept I have sometimes struggled with as the instinct to experience textiles through touch is a powerful one. I was first drawn to quilting by the stories which are supposedly central to the creation of these objects, attracted by this tangible and subtle expression of a personal history. Once I began quilting myself I quickly learnt that I was very interested in how people interact with quilts and how this interaction changes the intended meaning of the piece. From a visual and intellectual exercise in placement of colour and shape to a physical interaction between a person and the cloth, from a memory captured in cloth to a representation of a personal history that you can physically immerse yourself in. This study will look at the traditional forms of quilt exhibition and how this impacted their acceptance as Fine Art objects. It will then explore our physical relationship with textiles by examining the innately haptic and more academic ocular centric experience of textiles. This will be


achieved through a review of the current theories and case studies of several significant quilt exhibitions.


Chapter 1: The Changing Status of Quilts The technique of quilting, the process of sewing together multiple layers of fabric to provide warmth, structure, and decoration, has been dated back to ancient times. The development of quilting as we now know it, decorative coverings (usually for beds or seating) grew in popularity during the 17th Century in the UK, but very few pre 18th Century quilts survive. Though written references to quilts do exist “before 1700s, interpreting what they mean is made complicated by inconsistent terminology� (Browne, 2010:25). The repurposing of textiles was common and is a key reason few quilts, as we would currently recognise them, still exist. We can see this in an example of a mid 18th Century costume (fig.1) which is made from what is believed to have originally been a quilt. The craft enjoyed sustained interest in the UK throughout the 18th and 19th Century however it is in America where it was established most firmly. The majority of critical study and popular culture references to quilting is still American in origin today.

Fig. 1 18th Century quilted costume


Quilting is a craft which has a strong narrative tradition. Sue Pritchard, curator of the successful Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) exhibition ‘Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’, reflects that: “Quilts are passed through the generations….some are accompanied by oral histories and personal narratives; over the years names and dates become confused and stories embellished. Yet the potency of the voice from the past is sometimes more powerful than the evidence revealed by close examination of the textiles” (Pritchard, 2010:5) This potency of myth can be observed in many examples, notably the Underground Railroad quilt myths which will be explored later in this chapter. Quilting is not alone in the crafts tradition in having a mythology; the idea of the noble craftsman, working in harmony with the materials he uses fuelled by artistic passion and not the need to turn a profit, is one which is still used by makers today when selling their goods. There is a romantic notion that quilts are made by communities of women through the tradition of a ‘quilting bee’. The idea is that a group worked together to create a piece which would entail many hours spent exchanging stories, views and ideas. In some respects it feels that the myths which surround quilting give a level of nostalgia and romanticism which is translated into the critique of quilts and quilting. I will examine whether this approach is a consequence of the way in which we experience quilts as objects.


Fig. 2 ‘Right to Life’, Grayson Perry (1993) [detail]

Today there is a large body of quilts which have a political or social agenda. In some cases this is very explicit such as in ‘Right To Life’ by Grayson Perry (fig. 2) which explores issues of abortion through strong graphic imagery, or issues can be more subtly implied through the use of colours and symbols; however in this study I will not be examining the semiotics of these quilts. Focussing instead on the way in which quilts are displayed and interacted with and how this affects our experience of them. By examining the history of quilts and their display we can explore how this has developed and impacted the way quilts are observed, interacted with, and evaluated. In 2010 the V&A held its first dedicated quilt show. It was the most successful show the museum had undertaken and opened with huge advance sales. The curator of the show writes “Quilt exhibitions draw thousands of pounds in revenue. Yet the intimate nature of the experience that quilts represent sets them apart...their [artistic] importance instead being relegated to that of family heirlooms or souvenir” (Pritchard, 2010:5). This tension between a public display and experience versus the intimacy of their function is an important one. To appreciate the subtlety of this dichotomy we must 8

first examine the public way in which quilts have been displayed. The success of the V&A exhibition demonstrated the big changes that have taken place in terms of critical appreciation of quilts and their importance historically and artistically. Forty years earlier in 1971 the Witney Museum in New York held an exhibition of quilts called ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’. This exhibition was the first time in which quilts had been shown in a modern art gallery, curated for their aesthetic values alone and displayed in a visually coherent but non chronological manner. Prior to this exhibition the majority of quilts were exhibited in county shows, if quilts were shown in museums and galleries it was as folk art. The position of quilts in the 1970s was a world away from the value which had been placed on these items before the 20th Century. Contrary to popular mythology quilts are not the remit of pioneer women making their way across America “pieced from frugally hoarded scraps…but elegant decorative bedcovers crafted by upper-class women…fabric was in short supply and the idea of using precious cloth to make bed coverings was out of the question.”(Shaw, 2009:20) The craft was a status symbol in America, just as embroidery was “a perfect proof of gentility, providing concrete evidence that a man was able to support a leisured woman” (Parker & Pollock, 1981:61). The social importance which was put on a young woman’s needlecraft skills is not reflected in the way quilts were then used and experienced. It seems that once a woman was married these quilts were then used, transforming their function from a sign of social standing to being used within a home to care and comfort, before finally being handed down through generations transforming once more, this time into family heirlooms. As the symbols for social status evolved and changed, the importance of quilts had diminished to the point where their value was no longer recognised outside of the world of the makers. They had become part of the pioneer mythology of early America. The curator of ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’ Jonathan Holstein reflected that his personal memories of quilts were limited; “At the beginning of 1968 I could not have raised many quilt images from my memory….[they


were]childhood notions about the American past” (Holstein,1991:14). In the late 1960s Holstein and Gail Van De Hoff, both involved in the New York Fine Art world, started to collect antique quilts. As their collection grew they began to draw comparisons between the abstract expressionist paintings they saw in New York and the antique quilts they collected on their travels around America. These connections became so pronounced that the basis for an exhibition to explore these connections developed. A theme which appears repeatedly in Holstein’s own account of the curation process was the need to challenge the traditional approach to quilts. He had to distance potential gallery directors from their preconceptions of quilts by presenting them in a purely aesthetic way. By removing any trace of the physical interaction with these textiles Holstein was able to transform them from utilitarian items with all the presuppositions of folk art and apply the contemporary ethos of the abstract expressionist movement to these artefacts. Sociologist Karin E. Peterson, whose research explores cultural hierarchy and gender, notes that: “[photography] allowed for Holstein, in particular, to look at quilts in a way that framed them, in isolation with no context. As a photographer with experience in shooting paintings for New York art galleries, he was accustomed to envisioning objects from a variety of angles and removing himself physically from direct contact with the object” (Peterson, 2011:107). The exhibition caused upset amongst quilt scholars of the time as the status quo within the world of quilting had been disregarded. Holstein reports that “They hated some of the quilts, which represented everything the traditional rules of the craft told them to avoid: sloppy work and assembly” (Holstein, 1991:57) Traditional interpretation of quilts put heavy focus on the skill included in their construction as well as the socio-political context in which they had been made. Skill and technique is still the way in which the majority of quilts are judged. Technique is something which has a defined set of criteria against which a diverse range of work can be judged. The current


judging criteria for the Quilters Guild of the British Isles (Appendix 1) list all of the areas that quilts are judged against. Within the category ‘Design’ there is only one section which encourages the idea of originality suggesting that still within this kind of exhibition context demonstrable skill is everything. Whilst it is easy to understand the consternation at the disregard for supposed standards of skill in the 1971 Whitney exhibition the impact of the lack of socio-political context is less clear. Context had been an integral element of quilt history as items were passed down a matrilineal heritage along with family stories. The power of these histories cannot be underestimated in relation to quilts. We can see the power of narrative in quilts by looking at the case of the Underground Railroad quilts. In 1999 ‘Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad’ was published exploring the idea of a secret code hidden within 19th Century quilts. It claims “quilts with secret coded designs that were ostensibly hung on porches or clotheslines to signal to slaves on the run” (Shaw, 2009:108). Quilt scholars and historians have categorically disproved the claims in the book “not least of which is the fact that some of the quilt patterns supposedly employed as signals were not made until well after the civil war” (Shaw, 2009:108). This idea took such great hold in the American psyche that years later, despite the categorical debunking of the myth this “recently invented tale....enshrined in a metastasizing library of children’s books and teacher’s lesson plans” (Shaw, 2009:108) remains. Perhaps this romantic notion speaks to the ideals of quilting as a quiet subversion of the social norms of the time, taking them out of their domestic context and utilising them for social change. The idea of taking items out of context is an important one in exploring the idea of quilts as Fine Art and their display as such. Generally viewed as domestic items created by women to provide warmth and decoration, despite the evidence discussed earlier which refutes this idealised vision, the elevation of quilts from decorative arts to Fine Art has been dependent on this removal of functional consideration. Holstein’s hanging of quilts flat on the wall and not on bed shaped boxes, as was


traditional, means that the link between a quilt’s function as a bed covering and its aesthetic design was challenged. As the medium of quilting has been gradually accepted as a Fine Art practice the gallery setting has allowed artists to use this new platform to subvert the traditionally domestic setting of quilting to their creative advantage. One notable artist who explores the tension between quilts as Fine Art and their traditional function is Tracey Emin. Emin has created many fabric works yet they are the least critically examined aspects of her practice. Pritchard suggests that “The memories evoked by Emin’s use of old and stained textiles, each with its visible trace of a life lived, are perhaps one of the most evocative aspects of her work” (Pritchard, 2010:132).

Fig 3 ‘Hotel International’ Tracey Emin (1993)

As can be seen in ‘Hotel International’ (fig.3) her appliquéd blankets are naive in their construction but can be seen to make clear reference to the time when a woman’s worth and contribution could be judged by her competency with a needle and thread; “Emin’s sewing works, works traditionally


understood as the female makings of the home now become the falsely reassuring, soft vehicles for contrasting the hardened steel contents of her stories- with which she gives us a sophisticated artistic mugging” (Brown,1998:17). When ‘Hotel International’ was first exhibited “Emin appeared in bed covered by ‘Hotel International’ reclaiming both the origin and the function of the work, but also toying with the tension between private and public space” (Pritchard, 2010:133). By debuting the piece in this manner Emin draws the viewers’ attention to this aspect of the debate, directing them to engage with the wider issues that surround the transformation of functional items to Fine Art objects. By ‘elevating’ quilts to the status of Fine Art the primary function shifted from tactile, comforting, and useable to theoretical, abstracted ideas. At this point there becomes a visible divide between quilts as Quilt Art (quilts constructed to be functional, but which are displayed as wall hangings for their visual qualities) and Fine Art objects where the concept of a quilt is used as a means by which to communicate an idea.


Chapter 2: From Harlow to Haptic, applying cultural theory to quilts While quilts have undergone an elevation in status and are now more readily accepted as Fine Art objects there is a large quilting community who create and display quilts in a very different way. These are quilts made with a focus on aesthetic and function in equal measure. When we look at these quilts which framework should we use to judge them against if we wish to move away from a focus purely concerned with craftsmanship? In this chapter I will explore the alternatives to what can be seen as the established ocular centric approach and the challenges this presents by exploring the value of a haptic centric experience. To explore this idea fully it will also be necessary to look at the peculiar relationship humans have with textiles and the theories on how these are formed. Textiles scholarship as a discreet critical framework is a relatively recent field which belies the extremely long history of textile production and art. Textile scholar Victoria Mitchell suggests this lack of scholarship is in part due to the ‘privileging of words and the ocular centrism of western culture [that] can mask some of the sensibilities conveyed through textile practice’ (Mitchell, 2012:5). Mitchell is referring to the difficulty in communicating the physical or haptic qualities of textiles through words or images. Haptic refers to the sense of touch deriving from the Greek haptesthai; to grasp, to touch. It is a word commonly used in textile construction and scholarship and typically describes the more three dimensional experience of touch within textiles. We can associate the haptic qualities with the weight, drape and structure of fabric. Touch is a sense experience which is difficult to define through words or images but is also key to the way humans interact with the world. This is can be evidenced through the concerted efforts which have been given to the creation of haptic feedback devices for use in online and virtual realities. These devices communicate through touch the audio/visual stimulation of a virtual reality for example computer game controllers that vibrate to indicate speed and motion. The aim of these devices is to create a more immersive experience for the game players. The key to this total immersion seems to be in the non-imaginative experiences that are achieved through touch.


Mitchell asserts it is the ‘ocular centrism of western culture’ which devalues interpretation through haptic interaction. Ocular centrism is the favouring of visual communication over other sensory information. Jerwood textile prize winner Maxine Bristow writes: “Within the hierarchy of the senses and corresponding privileging of sight, visuality has tended to be the prevailing paradigm with subsequent and far reaching consequences for the development of western culture….the visual is inextricably bound up with notions of objective truth, seemingly providing the necessary, reliable evidence through which we come to know ourselves” (Bristow, 2012:45). The idea that seeing is believing is one which permeates western culture, philosophy and religious discourse, questioning the validity of experience which cannot be confirmed and ratified through independent observation. Within the Fine Art world experience of most art work is ocular centric. Galleries and museums are structured in such a way that only allows visitors to view work either by displaying items beneath glass, or on the wall and cordoned off to prevent touching. This imposed ocular centric viewing manner controls the way that a person interacts with artworks which in turn informs that way in which art is created. This presents a particular problem for artists working in mediums, or creating objects, which are intended to be touched and used. The importance of touch in human development was famously explored by developmental psychologist Harry Harlow in his experiments with Rhesus monkeys in the 1960s. Harlow was investigating the prevailing belief of the time that physical affection between a parent and a child was a luxury and not a necessary part of their development. To explore this idea infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and placed in cages with two artificial surrogate mothers, one made of wire with a feeding bottle attached, the other wrapped in terry towelling (fig. 4). The baby monkeys spent all of their time with the towelling mother even to the detriment of their own need for food, choosing the comfort of touch rather than the uncomfortable sustenance that was offered by the wire mother; “No animal spent more than an hour or two in any 24 on the 15

wire model. It was obvious that the infants needed the comfort they received from contact with something soft” (Davenport, 1992:52). In this and later experiments Harlow proved that the desire for comfort through touch was a basic developmental need.

Fig. 4 Harlow’s ‘surrogate’ mothers (1966)

We can extrapolate this basic need for comfort through touch and apply it to our understanding of quilts to explore why it is so challenging experiencing them in a purely ocular centric manner. “Quilts also connect us to the most basic of our senses, touch – the first and most direct way we communicate with each other, as parent and child; as partners in love, life and marriage; and as caregivers in sickness and age” (Shaw, 2009:4). In his work on fetish the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud posits that the significance of our relationship with textiles originates in early childhood: “due to their natural proximity to the primary object of the child’s desire. They are the man made surfaces that envelope the idealised maternal body. Fabric occupies the interstices between the needy flesh of the infant and the nurturing flesh on which it depends’ (Hamlyn, 2012:18).


Developing on this idea the theory explores a fetishism which grows from the use of fabric as a covering to distinguish the physical difference between men and women. It is through Freud’s theory in conjunction with Harlow’s evidence on the connection between touch and development which demonstrates merit in the idea that it is at this early stage that we develop an association with touch and nurture that informs our later interactions with textiles. It is the curtailing of this instinct through the prevailing ocular centric display method that creates a void which is often filled with narrative as an alternative to haptic experience. Having established the origin of the importance of touch and interaction in our experience of textiles how then should quilt scholars and academics working on textiles in general integrate this experiential aspect of work into their theses? Though very little textile theory is concerned with haptic ideas, textiles have formed an important part of more wide reaching cultural theory. The exploration of textiles has formed a key element of feminist art theory since its inception. Feminist scholars utilised the secondary status of craft as ‘low art’ and have used examinations of this status alongside the way the art is created and judged as a way to explore the place of women in a patriarchal society. Quilt scholar Radka Donnell sees the Freudian interpretation of cloth and fetish as key in understanding the status given to quilts. She interprets his theory as “Cloth covers up the unacceptable fact….of women’s anatomical difference. Therefore, for men, cloth emerges as something ‘low.’ Because of its negative connotations men consider cloth to be degradable and degrading…..It is thereby taken into service as a barrier” (Donnell, 1990:21). Examinations of quilts and embroidery as a “distinctive form of art that was potentially richer than the relationship of making, using and reception usual in ‘High Art’”(Jefferies, 2001:58)by feminist art critics of the 1970s such as Pollock and Parker prompted a theoretical dialectic which is still relevant today. The initial application of feminist art theory to textiles in this way inspired a generation of female Fine Artists to explore the ‘gentle arts’ and engage with a


gender debate they were involved in by choosing these materials. We can see examples of this discourse in the work of Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and other eminent female artists. Whilst the relationship between gender and textiles is a wide reaching and relevant debate it focuses on the maker and how they fit into a wider socio-political background. It does not focus on the textiles which have been created and their inherent properties. It is this lack of framework and associated language which leads to textiles being assessed against a pre-existing ocular centric system therefore discounting the haptic qualities of the work. This may be due in large part to the difficulties in creating language which would suitably describe the experience of textiles. We have such a wealth of visually associated metaphors in our language that trying to escape a visual interpretation of objects is a difficult task. In the same way that it is almost impossible to describe taste or smell without reference to other previously experienced sensations, so too it is challenging to describe textiles without referring to their qualities in relation to other things. One way in which scholars have attempted to create an alternative critical framework to examine textiles in is by reflecting the properties of the creation of these items in the construction of the criticism. The recently published ‘The Textile Reader’ has embraced this hybrid approach. In her introduction editor Jessica Hemmings asserts that her approach is ‘as concerned with how we write about textiles as it is interested in what we write about textiles’ (Hemmings, 2012:unpaginated). While Hemmings is identifying an alternative to that which we see in more established cultural studies, she is not the first editor to take this approach to textile criticism. In her 1990 book ‘Quilts As Women’s Art: a Quilt Poetics’ Radka Donnell’s writing is described on the jacket as ‘informed by the practice of quilt making itself. She pieces together prose, poetry, pictures, ideas and stories into a lyrical whole’ (Donnell, 1990:unpaginated). It is a jarring experience to jump from a traditional piece of academic writing to a poem and back again, however the information which is communicated by each method is arguably equally valid. The use of more literary devices allows the author to explore the less easily definable aspects of their experience of textiles. It is the same as having the context of


a narrative when viewing quilts in an exhibition. The change in style forces the reader/viewer to interact with a different part of their experience, an imagined one, a technique which is utilised in contemporary quilt exhibitions.


Chapter 3: Theory in practice As a quilt maker the work I create is tactile and three dimensional, but for this work to be exhibited in a gallery setting it would be denied those haptic qualities. Displaying textiles in a contemporary gallery setting would involve hanging them, lighting them and ordinarily discouraging anything but a visual appreciation of them. In this chapter I am going to compare my primary experiences of different exhibitions of quilts and how presentation and use of contextual language affected these experiences.

Fig. 5 entrance to V&A Quilts 1700-2010

In 2010 the V&A mounted its first quilt exhibition ‘Quilts 1700- 2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’. It was large and incredibly popular with over 8,000 advance tickets sold. The curation and presentation of the quilts was very different to that of ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’ exhibition, here quilts were displayed in a variety of ways (fig. 5). Some were shown traditionally on bed shaped boxes, others were wall mounted and there were also several installation quilts which the viewer walked around and through. Each year the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles hosts an international quilt exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham called ‘The Festival of Quilts’ (FOQ). There are competition quilts and curated exhibitions of the work of noted quilt artists. Unlike at the V&A all the work is wall mounted (fig. 8). The majority of the space is taken up with competition quilts which are organised by size and 20

category entered. Touching of the quilts is strictly forbidden, a rule which is enforced by stewards. But as scholar Peter Collingwood writes “A piece of cloth is only half experienced unless it is handled” (Shaw, 2009:29).

Fig. 6 Festival of Quilts 2012 open exhibition

These two exhibitions both exemplify traditional ocular centric methods of displaying textiles. At the V&A the quilts were grouped in four thematic sections, all exhibits were accompanied by information panels giving the provenance of the quilts (where known) and other relevant information. The overarching theme of the exhibition was exploring the ‘Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’ present in the objects and the curation reflected this focus on narrative within quilting. At FOQ quilts were also grouped thematically by category entered but had no contextual information apart from an entry number and a title (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 Exhibit label, Festival of Quilts 2012


When entering a quilt for FOQ makers must complete an application form which includes dimensions, a title for the piece and a short statement which is included in the catalogue. Quilts are then grouped based solely on the dimensions submitted. As no curation takes place to create visual harmony, as was the primary concern in ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’, and no information is provided to create context on subject matter or theme, as is the case at the V&A 2010 exhibition, it leads to a very jarring visual experience for the viewer.

Fig. 8 ‘Called Control’, (2012) displayed at FOQ 2012

As a participant in the FOQ 2012 my own white whole cloth piece ‘Called Control’, based on a detailed grid pattern, was displayed next to a colourful nature inspired wall hanging and several smaller brightly coloured quilts (fig. 8). The disparity in visual style, size and technique detrimentally affected the presentation of each piece. The lichen piece looked gaudy next to the starkness of the white quilt, and in turn the subtleties of the white quilt were overshadowed by the bright pink hearts in the opposing bay. Unable to mentally group the quilts with any coherence I observed many visitors falling back on a basic form of interpretation of each piece, touch – a practice which was quickly halted by the formidable white gloved stewards.


Fig. 9 ‘Called Control’, (2012) on display at point66 show in Hereford 2012

While it can be argued the urge to touch the exhibits at FOQ helps viewers appreciate items out of context it is also useful to compare the reaction ‘Called Control’ received when displayed in a more traditional gallery setting (fig. 9). In June 2012 the quilt appeared in a group show, where it was displayed on a white wall. Despite no signage or insistence that work should not be handled all of the visitors to the gallery engaged with the work in a purely ocular centric way. This may have been due either to the setting or the monochromatic nature of the work. While the use of white in a whole cloth quilts is traditional once the piece was hung in a contemporary applied arts setting this choice of colour took on a different dialectic. Viewers referred to the purity and control it communicated to them. A later revised interpretation of this same piece (fig. 10) was hung in a studio and viewers were specifically asked to interact with it. It took a great deal of persuasion for people to touch it, despite their reports of an overwhelming desire to do so. Once this quilt was placed on the back of a chair viewers were much more relaxed in interacting with it - enjoying the texture created by the quilting pattern, the drape, the weight and comfort it provided. This


demonstrates that the action of hanging a quilt on a wall moved its function from being one of comfort and warmth to being a purely decorative artistic statement.

Fig. 10 Grey and White quilt (2012)

It can be argued that visual coherence and thematic grouping would have provided a more easily assimilated viewing experience at FOQ, however there would still have been a large proportion of traditional designs and executions that did not engage the viewer. In direct contrast to this the same patterns and techniques were displayed at Quilts 1700-2010 and elicited an entirely different experience from viewers.

Fig. 11 ‘Karma’ FOQ 2012

Fig. 12 Antique bedcover Quilts 1700-2010

Displayed at FOQ, ‘Karma’ (fig. 11) is a contemporary whole cloth quilt technically well executed and traditional in style. It was presented like all other entries at FOQ with a number and title. There was no contextual information provided. In contrast the antique whole cloth bedcover (fig. 12) from the 24

‘Making a Living’ section of the V&A exhibition was enhanced by the inclusion of the information that it was made as a wedding gift for a marriage which never happened. This short piece of narrative was enough to transform the piece from being a good example of technical skill, as is the case with ‘Karma’, to an engaging piece of personal history. This particular example was accompanied by a written history of the maker (transcribed in full in Appendix 2) which draws the viewer into the item, metaphorically wrapping them up in the romance of the history which is part of this artefact. Mitchell writes of this phenomenon that “It is in this gap, between use and sight, that words can function as a form of closure” (Mitchell, 2012:5). In this example it is this transformative power of words which helps transport the viewer from a passive ocular centric experience to interact with the work on an imaginative level. This enhanced engagement facilitated through narrative supports the change in critical framework for textiles as posited by Hemmings and Donnell.

Fig. 13 ‘60 beats a minute’ (2012)

Both the V&A and FOQ exhibitions utilised a traditional ocular centric approach to display however there are also contemporary exhibitions taking place that are finding ways to include the valuable haptic experience of work in their display. One recent example of this is ‘Made in the Middle’ (2012), an exhibition of contemporary craft which presents a survey of work by new and emerging


practitioners every three years. This exhibition covered a wide range of craft from the Midlands and as such included work from a broad spectrum of disciplines including textile wall hangings (fig. 13). The work was all displayed in a traditional way relevant to the particular discipline i.e. wall mounted 2D work, or 3D work shown on plinths and shelves. In addition it crucially also included an ‘interaction station’, a dedicated area for handling samples of the various types of work in the exhibition (fig. 14). Visitors were encouraged to handle and interact with these artefacts allowing them to experience them in a haptic way. This interactive element is akin to the now familiar trend in educational museology where a focus on interaction with the exhibits has become a major part of the experience. This approach of providing samples worked well within this exhibition context though could present its own set of problems for quilt artists whose medium does not necessitate thorough and repeated sampling in the same way that ceramics or metalwork requires. As such, participating makers would need to recreate work on a smaller scale to provide examples for inclusion on these interaction stations if these became more common modes of display.

Fig. 14 ‘interaction station’ at Made in the Middle 2012 exhibition


Conclusion The way we view quilt art has a very clear impact on our understanding of it. The traditional ocular centric approaches, which prevail in the Fine Art world, mean that viewers are unable to engage with a haptic experience of the work. The need to construct a different approach to critical framework and exhibition of textiles has become apparent through the investigation of this research. There are new and interesting approaches being taken in critical theory with the integration of fiction and non traditional approaches to academic scholarship. What has become clear to me through this work is not only the need for an expanded framework, which takes into consideration the haptic and interactive qualities of textiles, but also to consider why this is so important to me. As a quilt maker I spend the majority of my time in physical contact with the materials I work with. From the cutting to the final quilting, once I start making a design, that physical interaction is key to the development of the piece. Once completed I want viewers to experience some of the connection to the piece that I had while making it, an experience that can only be fully achieved through touch. Within ‘Called Control’ there were voids of unstitched areas in contrast to the rest of the densely stitched piece. Visually these voids created a broken rhythm, disrupting the rigid structure of the rest of the piece however touch conveyed a new element to the experience. The gentle softness of the material in the voids transformed them from disruptive to calming, allowing the viewer a blank space to appreciate the nature of the materials used. Though the focus of this study has not been on the feminist discourse surrounding the use of textiles, this has been an unavoidable aspect of my reflections on this research for my own practice. By choosing to work with traditional techniques and materials I find myself exploring some of the debates which Emin engages with. In the same way that I have had to consider the feminist arguments which surround my use of textiles, I also have had to explore the boundaries I challenge by encouraging interaction with my work in this way. Throughout my research I have learnt that there is no current framework which suits the way I wish my work to be experienced. The sphere of


contemporary craft and the importance of function within these objects is one which, like the haptic qualities of textiles, must be removed when they are being seen in a traditional ocular centric setting. It is this idea which most firmly shows me that what is needed is a new haptic centric approach. Attempts at a haptic centric framework have started to be made in the work of Hemmings and Donnell. Through their blend of academic writing, prose and poetry they demonstrate that by accessing the imaginative areas of the brain one is able to evoke the sensation of haptic interaction by creating associations with imagined or previous experience. This use of narrative becomes a useful bridge to help translate the experience of interacting with textiles when they are viewed in a purely ocular centric way. I am not proposing that textiles should only be exhibited in a haptic friendly way rather than in a traditional ocular centric setting such as a gallery. This would most likely mean that quilts would lose the cultural and artistic value which was gained through the success of exhibitions such as the 1971 Whitney exhibition and which is continued to this day with prestigious showcases such as ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ at the V&A. Instead I propose we can build on this established acceptance by integrating the importance of haptic interaction in the critical framework and then translating this into exhibitions through the inclusion of successful innovations such as the ‘interaction station’ as seen at Made in the Middle.


Appendix 1 Explanation of the Judging Form and Criteria There are two main systems of judging in use around the world, the Point System and the Elimination System. The system used by the judges at The Festival of Quilts is a combination of the two systems. The quilts are judged hanging in their categories. The form is designed to be used, as qualified judge Linda Seward expressed, as the next best thing to speaking directly to the quiltmaker about her quilt. The form comes in slightly different formats to cover the Student, Schools and Young Quilter/Young Embroiderer Categories. The form used for the main categories is broken into two parts – Design and Construction, each section being further broken down into smaller detail. The idea behind the form was two-fold. One was to help the judges make quick accurate evaluations given the short amount of time available to them on each quilt, and the other was to pass on to the quiltmaker as much useful information as possible. The judges do not know the name of the quiltmaker, but do have access to the inspiration and design source if needed. Design Fulfils Category / Theme Rules – basically are the quilts the right size for their category and have the quilts fulfilled any other special competition or theme guidelines. Also, have the quilts been entered into the right category – this is mainly to do with Group and, from next year (2006), Two Person categories, although this could apply to any other category – Traditional, Pictorial, etc. Visual Impact – all about the ‘wow’ factor. Are you bowled over with the colours? Does the design, however subtle, make a statement? Does it draw you in for a closer look? Do you stand in awe of the workmanship?


Originality / Content - how original is the design or technique used? Is it a commercial pattern, a kit or in the style of a well-known quiltmaker? Was it made in a workshop? This is where it is helpful for the judges to have access to the quiltmaker’s statements. Is there integrity of content? Composition - Is it balanced, harmonious and unified? Or is it lob-sided or disjointed – a collection of unconnected parts? Is it a ‘safe’ setting / design or has the quiltmaker been innovative / adventurous and made an exciting or interesting quilt? Are the parts of the whole in proportion to each other? Choice and Suitability of Materials – there are so many choices out there today, but not all work in all situations and with every technique. Any material is acceptable, what is judged is the success of its use in each situation. Border Design and / or Edge Treatments – Not all quilts have borders – some don’t need them and, indeed, are better off without them. Quilt edges come in a variety of styles nowadays from the traditional binding to frayed. How well has the binding been applied? If the quiltmaker used the square binding method how neat were the corners? If the binding was mitred, how well was that handled? If there was wadding, did it fill the binding? How neatly was the binding sewn down on the back? Whatever edge treatment was used, how well did it fit into the design and has the quilt been enhanced by its use? Quilting Design – A very important part of the quilt adding texture in the form of light and shadow. Has the quilting design been carefully thought through to add something more to the quilt top design? Are there areas that would benefit from more or less quilting? Presentation – Hangs well, Clean, Seam Allowances – This is all about wavy edges, removing quilt markings, cat and dog hairs, cigarette smoke smells, blood stains and the like – yes, we have seen it all. Are any seam allowances ‘shadowing’ through (where they shouldn’t) because of a thin fabric – could the seams have been ironed in a different direction to overcome this? Have intersections in


the piecing where there are many layers coming together, been handled to lie as flat as possible avoiding some distortion of the quilt? And lastly, how neat and tidy is the back of the quilt – are there threads hanging? Does the bobbin thread colour tone in with the backing fabric? Is the backing laying flat or is it puckered and pleated? One thing to take into consideration is how you pack your quilt to get it to a show. It is best practice to fold your quilt with wrong sides together (to avoid a deep crease occurring on the front), the more horizontal folds the better (allows the weight of the quilt to ease the creases out when hanging), and to pack the folds as much as possible to avoid deep creases. It is better to have a bigger box than necessary and allow plenty of room – after all, space in the box costs nothing to post. Construction Piecing – how well matched are seams at intersections? Do the pieces lay flat or are there pleats and folds? Are curved seams smooth when they should be, straight seams straight? Are sashing and borders of equal width and parallel along their length? Do blocks line up when they should? Are inset corners well handled? Is the stitching tension good? Is the thread colour appropriate? Appliqué – How well have the pieces been appliquéd? Are the curves smooth, points sharp and inside corners handled well? Has the thread been matched to the fabric colour? Are there enough stitches to hold the pieces down well and are the stitches as invisible as possible? If decorative stitches have been used, how even are they, are they in scale and are they appropriate to the style? Choice and Execution of Techniques – There should always be a design reason for the inclusion of a technique. Filling a quilt with as many techniques as possible doesn’t usually work unless it is a sampler of techniques. Just as trying out a difficult new technique on a piece submitted for judging is not advisable unless you have executed it well. Each situation will be judged for the part it plays in the design as a whole and whether it is relevant and plays an important part in the design.


Use of embellishment or surface design – there are so many new ideas, new techniques and materials available to quiltmakers today. Whether it is beadwork, hand or machine embroidery, computer printing, painting, stencilling, screen-printing, etc., any use of these embellishments will be judged ontheir success in adding to the overall design of the quilt. Quilting Stitches – whether hand or machine, domestic or longarm, all quilting stitches should be even. Hand quilting stitches should show through to the back and be as even as on the top. Hand quilting stitches do not have to be small. Machine quilting stitch tension should be good, top and bottom (unless it is a deliberate feature). Quilting Lines and Curves - All straight quilting lines should be straight and all curved lines should be smooth curves, points should be sharp. The traditions of Kantha and Sashiko quilting should be adhered to in traditional interpretations, and allowances made for innovative use. Quilting Starts and Finishes – Hand quilting knots should not be visible on the top or the back of the quilt. Machine quilting starts and finishes should be neatly handled so that the thread is anchored and the stitches do not unravel. All thread ends should be neatly trimmed back or buried. Where one or more of these sections are not applicable to a quilt there is no disadvantage in rating the quilt as there are no points used in this system of judging. The section will be marked ‘N/A’ or left unmarked. Judge’s comments - All judges would like more time to write, but the aim is to convey positive encouragement where there is room for improvement and praise where it is due. The Festival organisers and judging organisers rely on the quiltmakers to be honest when they fill in their entry forms. The rules about what constitutes a group quilt, a two-person quilt, an amateur and a professional are all clearly set out in the Rules. If you have any doubt about any aspect of your entry please contact the organisers.


Appendix 2 Quilts 1700-2010 Catalogue excerpt


Bibliography Books ADAMSON G. (ed). 2007. Thinking through Craft. Kings Lynn:Berg BERRYMAN, J.C. et al. 1991. Developmental Psychology and You. London: Routledge BROWN, N., 2006. Tracey Emin. London: Tate Publishing BROWNE, C. 2010. Making and Using Quilts in Eighteenth-Century Britain. In PRITCHARD, S. (ed). 2010. Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. London: V&A Publishing, pp24-48 BRISTOW, M. Continuity of Touch – Textile as Silent Witness. In HEMMINGS J. (ed). 2012. The Textile Reader. London: Berg, pp.44-52 BUSZEK M.E. (ed). 2011. Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art. Durham: Duke University Press DAVENPORT, G.C. 1992. An Introduction to Child Development. London:CollinsEducational DONNELL, R. 1991. Quilts as Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics. Vancouver:Gallerie Publications HAMLYN, A. 2003. Freud, Fabric, Fetish. In HEMMINGS J. (ed). 2012. The Textile Reader. London: Berg, pp.14-26 HEMMINGS J. (ed). 2012. The Textile Reader. London: Berg HOLSTEIN J. 1991. Abstract Design in American Quilts biography of an exhibition. Kentucky:Kentucky Quilt project inc JAY M. 1994. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in twentieth-century French Thought. London: University of California Press Ltd MITCHELL, V. 1997. Textiles, Text and Techne. In HEMMINGS J. (ed). 2012. The Textile Reader. London: Berg, pp.5-13 PARKER, R & POLLOCK, G. 1981. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. London: Pandora PETERSON K. E. 2011. How the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: The Modern Eye and Quilt as Art Form. In BUSZEK M.E. (ed). 2011. Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art. Durham: Duke University Press, pp99-114


PRITCHARD, S. 2010. Negotiating Space: Fabric and the Feminine 1945-2010. In PRITCHARD, S. (ed). 2010. Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. London: V&A Publishing, pp 130-152 PRITCHARD, S. (ed). 2010. Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. London: V&A Publishing SHAW R. 1997. The Art Quilt. New York: Beaux Arts Editions SHAW R. 2009. American Quilts: The Democratic Art 1780 – 2007. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., INC TOBIN, J. 1999, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad’. New York: Random House

Articles Elsley J. 1995. Making Critical Connections in quilt scholarship Uncoverings vol. 16 p229-243

Webpages UNKNOWN. 2012. Quilters Guild of the British Isles Explanation of Judging Form and Criteria [www] (accessed 17 January 2013) UNKNOWN. 2012. Made in the Middle project summary [www] (accessed 1 February 2013) UNKNOWN. 2010. V&A Quilts, Patchwork and Quilting [www] (Accessed 20 November 2012)

Exhibitions GROUP SHOW. 20th March – 4th July 2010. Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. London: Victoria and Albert Museum


GROUP SHOW. 16th-19th August 2012. Festival of Quilts 2012. Birmingham: National Exhibition Centre (NEC) GROUP SHOW. 11th February – 15th April 2012. Made in the Middle. Birmingham: MAC


Penelope Allen dissertation  

Ocular Centric and Haptic Experience: Does the way we view quilt art affect our understanding of it?

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