Crafting Futures: meaningful collaboration

This post is the fourth in my series about my Applied Arts Scotland / Crafting Futures residency, the work I’m developing as a consequence, and the impact of the experience on my practice. Here are links to parts one, two and three.

During the Crafting Futures residency, I was paired up with my collaboration partner Pilar Obeso Sanchez – a designer, curator and teacher currently based in Mexico City, whose work combines brings together traditional crafts and materials with a really contemporary aesthetic and edge, and whose practice interrogates some really urgent issues, such as migration.

Pilar and I found that we had an awful lot in common, from enjoying soap operas (yes, I introduced her to the Archers) to a love of printed and worn ephemera. And all our studio and mill visits around the Hebrides and Braemar gave us many opportunities to think through the similarities and differences between Scotland’s and Mexico’s sustainable making practices. For example, although materials (leather, wool and natural dyes) and some processes (spinning, weaving, carving, ) were actually very similar, there were many important differences to consider (for example, I was unaware of how in Mexico, the distinction between a designer and a maker is much more marked). It was important, too, for us to reflect upon the different cultural environments in which our practices were now situated. We lived in two countries whose histories had been shaped by empire and colonialism in very different ways; countries where several languages were spoken, and whose senses of themselves were powerfully underwritten and inflected by narratives of migration, diaspora, inequality. We reflected on our different physical environments too: while the population density of my part of rural Scotland is less than 40 people per square kilometre, Mexico City is at the other end of the population density scale with over 60,000 people per kilometre squared.

When the residency ended, under the working title “In My Shoes” Pilar, and I began to think about some practical ways which might help us to learn about each other’s very different individual landscapes, our particular places in the world. While Pilar introduced herself to knitting, and found out more about the elements of my life that had made me a maker (particularly my experience of stroke and disability), I began to learn Spanish, talked to Pilar about her family background, and found out more about the history of band weaving, whose common practice connects Northern European countries like Scotland with those in South America. I can safely say that the weaving has been much more successful than the Spanish language learning, though I did as part of this enterprise enjoy watching a large number of wonderful new-to-me films from Mexico, Spain, Chile and Argentina.

And though my linguistic skills have not improved as much as I’d have liked, my weaving has certainly come on apace. As I’ve written about previously here, with the expert help of Belinda Rose I was introduced to a wide range of tablet, plain weave and pick-up techniques for backstrap and inkle looms, and have now developed a keen interest in both the history of woven bands and their contemporary creative potential. Band weaving not only feature in the work I’m now developing with Pilar, but is beginning to play its own role in my creative practice.

While Pilar and I tried to learn more about each other from different sides of the world, the key to our collaboration has been writing each other weekly letters. This process has often reminded me quite strongly of the childish enjoyment of having a penpal in a distant country.

Certainly, corresponding with Pilar has often involved the simple pleasures of stamps, envelopes, packages with exciting contents and the writing of a familiar hand that has travelled half way across the globe right to one’s doorstep. But Pilar and I also sent our letters by email, and in that format we have found the freedom to discuss and share so many things. The incidental details of our lives have of course played their part, but our correspondence also rapidly became a stimulating conceptual exchange, with a firm focus on our shared aesthetics and ideas.

(Pilar’s pin-badge adorned denim jacket)

Both Pilar and I enjoy dressing up – as makers who are interested in fashion and design; as critical thinkers who are interested in ideas of performance, and as individuals who regard a sense of humour as integral to our creative lives. As our correspondence progressed, we noticed that we spent a lot of time talking about dressing up, and about masks and disguises, from what we were wearing for a celebratory occasion, to contemporary found art, to acts of creative resistance to biometric surveillance. Masked ritual features centrally in many different Mexican regional and religious traditions, and plays a role in Scotland’s folk traditions too, from Shetland’s Skeklers to South Queensferry’s Burryman.

(The Burryman)

Performance and ritual, display and disguise, shared aesthetics and traditions, comparative approaches and techniques – all of these things became part of my and Pilar’s collaborative process of learning about what made each other tick. And all of these things are now playing their own parts in the collaborative work we are currently developing – separate elements of one piece which together will comprise a Cadáver Exquisito / Exquisite Corpse.

(head moodboard)

Our Cadáver Exquisito will combine a range of pieces that we’ve designed and made, and which are intended to be worn on the human body, both separately and together. The pieces might be united in acts of performance and ritual, but, individually, the garments and accessories that make up our Cadáver might also form Pilar’s Mexico City streetwear, or be worn by me, as I walk my dogs in the hills around my rural home.

(top moodboard)

Our strange and curious creature, with its separate bodies, heads, and limbs that together form one performative being, is our way of addressing the idea of collaboration that’s at the heart of Crafting Futures: our way of enacting our process of carefully learning about one another, respecting and honouring our differences and similarities, celebrating a new friendship, and hopefully giving us (and those who see the work) something to laugh about.

(body moodboard)