Aleksander Komarov

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Technik (2012-2013), by Vincent Vulsma and Elisa van Joolen, Christel Vesters

Jun 13, 2018

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

Technik (2012-2013)

The collaborative artwork Technik (2012-2013), by Vincent Vulsma and

Elisa van Joolen, brings together different representations of the Native

American Navajo textile design, and unravels different stories around

appropriation and re-appropriation in different cultural contexts and

industries. Curator Christel Vesters talks to its creators.

Technik (2012-13), Elisa van Joolen and Vincent Vulsma

Technik (2012-13), Elisa van Joolen and Vincent Vulsma

Technik consists of four different pieces of textile: a handmade Navajo Indian

weaving from the 1890s; a Pendleton remake of an Indian trade blanket from the

1910s; a mass-produced Ikea rug from the 2010s and a knitted sweater from the

2012/13 collection of German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm. Although each

piece of fabric originates from a different era and context, they are all connected by

one design: a so-called ‘Navajo’ pattern, consisting of intricate geometrical shapes

in bright colours, mainly yellow, red, black and white.

The original design and subsequent appropriation and re-appropriation of this

pattern forms the leitmotiv in Van Joolen and Vulsma’s installation. Draped over

four commercial clothing rails, the textiles tell the story of how a pattern survives

different generations and travels from one cultural context to another. But Technik

is not only about the ‘survival of form’, it also testifies to significant shifts in our

modes of production and inter-related changes in the socio-economic make-up of

our societies.

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

Technik (2012-13), Elisa van Joolen and Vincent Vulsma

Elisa van Joolen and Vincent Vulsma In essence this work comes out of our

shared interest in cultural appropriation. There are many recent examples of

‘exotic’ patterns that have undergone revivals in Western fashion and design.

However, in the summer of 2012, we saw representations of the Navajo pattern in

New York design stores, such as Urban Outfitters and Opening Ceremony, and

decided to take this as our focus.

When we investigated the origins of this motif, we came across the story of the

original Pendleton trade blanket, and the ambiguous role of the Pendleton Company

in the dissemination of the Navajo design. Around 1895 the first Pendleton woollen

mill opened in Oregon, and soon the company started producing Indian ‘trade

blankets’, produced for the purposes of trade with the Native American Indians. The

intricate patterns and vivid colours used by local and south-western Native

Americans inspired the designs for these blankets, as well as clothing. In 2009, to

celebrate its centenary, Pendleton worked closely with contemporary textile

designers to reissue some of its historical Indian blanket designs.

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

The appropriation of Native American patterns is not uncommon in fashion and

design. In a way, the company has spurred a greater familiarity and popularity with

the Native American tradition of textile crafts. But there is also a lesser-known, and

perhaps less honourable side to this story; Pendleton was one of those 19thcentury

businesses that greatly benefited from the contentious restrictions imposed

on Native American communities across the United States. For centuries the

different tribes had produced and traded their hand-woven woollen blankets. They

herded their sheep, harvested the wool, spun it, then dyed it to create their

blankets. But as colonisation spread, more and more Native Americans were forced

to leave their land, losing their herds and their income. Ironically, the Pendleton

Indian trade blankets owe their name to the fact that they were traded (back) to

Native Americans who were no longer able to produce the textiles that were

originally their own.

Christel Vesters The original Navajo weaving, as well as the Pendleton remake,

are testimonies of a story where cultural appropriation and the migration of form

resulted in new designs. They are also an example of a kind of cultural

appropriation that is inextricably linked with colonisation, and which has

ramifications that extend far beyond the formal or aesthetic. In that sense Technik

can be read as a post-colonial critique.

Vincent Vulsma Yes, this was one of the things we discovered when we searched

for more background information on the Pendleton trade blanket, and yes, it is one

of the ingredients in the work, but for us, the work is more than a post-colonial

critique per se.

Christel Vesters The two blankets also testify to a shift in production method;

from handmade to machine made – a shift that, according to Marxist theory,

represents another form of appropriation, namely that of human labour, and which

introduces the age of industrialisation. Could we ‘read’ the other two pieces of

textile in the same way?

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

Vincent and Elisa The Ikea rug is of Swedish design, mass-produced in Egypt, and

sold in stores worldwide – a very clear exponent of the global economy and

marketplace, in which a product can be designed in Sweden but produced in

countries like India, Bangladesh or in this case Egypt, places that have a very rich

textile tradition of their own. Now, anyone can own a Navajo-inspired carpet. The

knitted sweater by Bernhard Willhelm somehow represents the other end of the

spectrum – the high-end, where craft again has connotations with exclusivity, and

the pattern has acquired a different cultural and economic value.

Christel In your attempts to retrace the origin of this specific pattern and its

subsequent appearances in different production contexts, how important is its

‘actuality’ for you, and the way it was made? Or was it only about the pattern as a

bildmotiv?

(detail) Technik (2012-13), Elisa van Joolen and Vincent Vulsma

Elisa Both are equally important, I would say. Apart from its visual existence,

which internet makes it easy to trace, we wanted to know what these different

objects were made of, how heavy they were, their size, how they felt. That’s why

we started collecting the actual textiles. On a computer screen, everything receives

the same technical treatment and is on the same ‘visual’ plane. Material information

gets lost if you only use online sources or printed images. We were interested in the

‘real’ material information.

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

Vincent In our installation, the repetition of the pattern is obvious. In that sense it

refers to the copying of images that has become standard practice in our visual

culture today. But with this being the primary focus, all knowledge about materials

or techniques fades into the background. We could have just shown a collage of

pictures, narrating the story of the Navajo pattern, but we wanted to bring the

material translations of the pattern to the foreground.

Christel I agree, in many examples of research-oriented artworks, or other cultural

projects for that matter, which are primarily image-based, the actuality, the

objecthood of the source materials is often skipped over as being meaningful on a

discursive level. Can you say a bit more about why the actuality or realness of the

objects is so important?

Vincent Showing the real thing invites people to look closely and engage with the

objects, rather then perceiving them only as images. And when you look closer you

can see that the Pendleton design is actually quite different from the original

Navajo patterns, it is ‘inspired by’ rather then a copy. But over time Pendleton’s

Navajo-inspired patterns, originally designed for the Native Americans, became the

point of reference for what is now generally spoken of as ‘Navajo Indian patterns’ in

popular culture.

Christel This also brings up the discourse around the copy and the original, and the

different values that this paradigm has attached to it in different cultural and

disciplinary settings. In art history, the original is associated with authenticity, the

true source, and therefore valued more highly than the copy. Am I right in saying

that Technik evokes a sense of loss? A loss of authenticity through the process of

cultural appropriation? And with that, it offers a form of critique? A critique on the

process of appropriation of the cultural heritage of marginalised groups of people,

which was instigated by the Pendleton designers and ended with Ikea massproduced

carpets?

Touch / Trace, December 12, 2017 – Christel Vesters, Interview with Elisa van Joolen and Vincent

Vulsma, in: The Event of a Thread, ex.cat Dresden, 2017/18

Elisa We don’t want to establish a hierarchy between the four textiles, or say that

the traditional Navajo blanket is the only true original pattern. We are more

interested in how the same pattern is used by different people and emerges in

different contexts. This is why we chose not to include an explanation with the

work, but decided to display each item’s labels in a prominent way. If you look

closely you will find the dealer’s tag on the Navajo rug, or the label on the Ikea rug

giving information about the materials and where it was produced. So the viewer

can read the work in different ways: as a brand, as a type of textile, seeing

similarities and differences. By including labels, we draw attention to the materials

and their origins, but also to the contextual displacement of each item, giving the

viewer a gentle push in different directions.

Technik unfolded

At first sight, Technik tells the story of the migration of a popular textile pattern,

the Indian Navajo design, from its historical beginnings to its appropriation in

different cultural contexts and industries. But this reading conveys only half the

story: Technik is not only about the technique of appropriation, be it in fashion and

crafts or in our contemporary use and re-use of images – and all the values we

attach to them. Neither is it about the development from handmade to machine

production – and all the social, cultural and economical ramifications that come with

that. The installation further draws our attention to the techniques of display and

paired with that, techniques of viewing.

Selecting these four pieces of textile, and putting them on display together, is in

itself an act of appropriation and displacement, although not without reference to

their previous cultural and artistic contexts. The bringing together of hitherto

separate pieces, assembling them into a new piece creates a new pattern, and

thereby a new narrative.

[Christel Vesters, May 2017]