Sabrina Gschwandtner’s artwork isn’t exactly fashion, but her exploration into the relationship we have with objects—and particularly textile-based objects—illuminates the ways in which concrete materials so often act as valuable story-bearers in our lives. “The themes are exploring the meaning and uses of textiles for social expression,” said Gschwandtner. “The history of this material culture, and thinking about what that history means today. Other themes have had to do with war, feminism, aging technology and tactility, and the relationship between what we can touch and what we can’t touch.”
Though her work spans a broad range across medium and content, her use of film and craft are often central to each piece. In the recent alt_quilts exhibit at The American Museum of Folk Art, six “film quilts” made by Gschwandtner over the last five years were on display. The show also included work by two other contemporary artists, shown alongside more traditional quilts from the museum’s permanent collection: “By purposefully reusing experiential elements with relevance to their own lives and times,” wrote Stacy C. Hollander, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions, “they exploit the tension inherent in historical quilts between function and significance.”
To create the quilts, Gschwandtner literally weaves together footage from a number of films, some of which she acquired and some that she shot herself; among them is a piece titled “Camouflage,” which incorporates footage she received from the archives at The Museum at FIT. “The focus with the film quilts has been not just to think about what these images of women making textiles that people have worn mean today, but also to think about the medium of quilting,” said Gschwandtner. “There’s so much you can do with that medium, and the patterns are infinitely variable.”
TACK editor Caroline Hartmann visited Gschwandtner at her Chelsea studio to learn more about the artist’s work, and how she uses a material language to decode our social histories. (Scroll down to see the complete slideshow.)
How long have you been making quilts sewn from film strips?
I’ve been making film quilts since 2009, and I’ve used different traditional quilt patterns, like variations on Log Cabin squares. The first piece I made was a string quilt design, which is when quilters use long, thin fabric scraps left over from other projects to make something that looks like a lot of strings sewn together. And then after I kind of got comfortable with the technique of sewing film, I was able to start experimenting with more elaborate patterns and became interested in color variations.
Had you always known how to sew?
Yeah, I learned a lot of crafts from my mother when I was growing up, and got interested in them again in college.
The idea of quilting with the film came out of wanting to memorialize it, and have people look at it again now; but it also relates to thoughts and discoveries I’d had about the relationships between textiles and filmmaking.
Well, I’d been synthesizing filmmaking and various textile activities—crocheting, knitting, sewing, embroidery—for a number of years, and when I received this box of films in 2009 from a friend who’s a film archivist, Andrew Lampert, I watched the film and felt that they needed to be memorialized in some way, and I wanted people to be able to see them again. I felt sad that this kind of treasure trove of material about women’s work—and women’s work with textiles specifically, because the films were all about textiles for clothing, for decoration, for artistic expression—I felt like it was a valuable archive, and I wanted to show it again. So the idea of quilting with the film came out of wanting to memorialize it, the way quilts often memorialize people’s clothing, and have people look at it again now; but it also relates to thoughts and discoveries I’d had about the relationships between textiles and filmmaking.
In the early days of Hollywood, in the thirties, women were hired to edit films because they had experience sewing. And then there’s also this fact about how the Lumière brothers invented a dual camera and projector (it’s often credited as the first film camera—that’s sort of debated, but it was definitely one of the first in the late 1800s), and they modeled it after the newly invented sewing machine.
Really? I never knew that!
Yeah, the mechanism on their camera allowed for film to move through the camera with brief stops, during which an image was either created (if they were using it as a camera) or projected (if they were using it as a projector). That’s adapted from the sewing machine and the way that you can move fabric through a sewing machine with brief, regular stops, during which the needle goes into the fabric.
The other thing is that I’ve always kind of thought of film as a textile, because it takes 24 still frames of film to make one second of a moving image, so you have all this repeating imagery; and if you look at it, it really resembles a textile pattern. That’s another way I think of film as having this relationship to textiles, so all of that came together.
Tell me a little more about the actual footage you used in these pieces.
My friend Andrew, who’s the archivist at Anthology Film Archives, called me and said, “Hey, I have some films for you.”
And this is the footage that originally came from The Museum at FIT?
Yes, FIT got rid of the films that they used to let teachers check out and show in their classes. They called Andy and said, “We’re getting rid of these films, do you know what we can do with them? We’d like for them to go somewhere instead of having to throw them away.” And he said, “Bring them to me, and I’ll look through them.” Anthology has a permanent collection of films, so he kept some of them and gave the rest away to artists and filmmakers. So I went to Anthology, picked up a box of films from him, came back and watched them.
What about the content? What were they specifically about?
Most of them were short educational documentaries, and they were all great. They’re dated from the fifties to the eighties, and they get progressively feminist.
The narratives of the earlier films are often very straightforward—there’s a male narrator who’s telling you what you’re looking at and what it means, and often with a British voice. (You know, there was a film about why dresses were important for women to wear.) And then as you get to the films in the seventies—there was a film I received called The Enchanted Loom, and it uses textiles as a metaphor for the brain, which is a metaphor that a famous neuroscientist named Charles Sherrington came up with.
What did he consider the relationship between the two?
He talked about the brain awaking from a long night’s sleep to weave meaningful patterns, and he probably used the metaphor of the loom for the brain because that was one of the more advanced technologies at the time. So the film is about the brain, the science of the brain from the era of the seventies, but it’s very experimental and there’s a Pink Floyd soundtrack.
And I think the latest film was Quilts in Women’s Lives (1981). Quilts in Women’s Lives was a kind of groundbreaking documentary about female quilters. It’s a portrait of seven quilters, and the film is really incredible because it breaks from this traditional narrator telling you what you’re seeing, it’s just interviews with the women and they’re telling the camera in their own words about their work and what it means to them, and there are all these sub-themes in the film: about how they’ve lived their lives, or what pattern means to them, the idea of meditation or spirituality, mindfulness in their work. That was another interesting thing to me, to see how over time the form of the documentary really changed and developed.
How do you go about deciding what footage of your own to include in each piece?
In all the quilts I make, there’s a mix of decision about content and decision about color. For example, I did this piece at the Smithsonian called “Hula Hoop.” I did receive some footage that wasn’t marked and it didn’t have credits—my guess from looking at it was that it was a film to display a student’s fashion thesis collection. It was beautiful, I loved it; it moves in and out of people wearing clothing, and the camera dances around while they’re moving around in a really interesting way—such a special film. It had faded to this red, which made it in my mind even prettier. So I made this piece that combined this footage with footage I had shot of friends hula hooping. I had shot a test roll of people hula hooping for another project, and it had come out blue—probably because the film had been in my refrigerator or freezer for a long time! I’m not sure why it came out blue—but the camera movement was very similar to the camera movement in this FIT film. I wanted the piece to look kind of like a hula hoop, kind of like a pinwheel, so that’s where the design came from; and I wanted to pair those two films because the camera work was similar.
But then the piece “Camouflage,” which is the largest piece at the Folk Art Museum, mostly consists of two films. The first film is about the Bradford Dyeing Association, which is one of the oldest textile mills in the U.S., and it was a documentary that I got from FIT about the mill. It paints this happy portrait of textile workers and goes through what they do there and how the fabric is made; but what it doesn’t talk about is that the mill, which actually closed in 2011, was the largest supplier of camouflage to the U.S. military for a very long time. They also had a terrible record of environmental pollution and labor-law abuses. So I combined that (footage) with this very sweet children’s film—which I did not receive from FIT—that’s called Shadows Shadows Everywhere, and it teaches children how shadows are made.
So what was the relationship between those two films for you, and what did you want to convey with that quilt?
I wanted to address this idea of camouflage in different ways: There’s the idea of the literal camouflage that the mill was making, and there’s the idea that the documentary is kind of camouflaging what was actually happening at this mill. I thought the innocent children or playfulness would bring out the darker—you could say “shadowy” (she chuckles)—undertones of the film. And then, the film is in black and white, but because the film (strips are) kind of a greenish, darker color that look like camouflage, the piece itself—
Looks a bit like actual camouflage.
Yes, you have the sunshine area, and then you have the shadow area repeating, so it’s like you have these waves of sun that are then creating a shadow, and it has that effect.
What I really like about the quilts is that people can come and look at them and make up their own stories.
Explain how you’re producing these pieces, and sewing the film strips together.
I use a BERNINA sewing machine, I think it’s a 1008 that I’ve had forever—I do a little bit of work by hand, but it’s mostly done on a machine. I use cotton thread or nylon, it’s really polyamide thread—it’s like a polyester—which is the clear thread, but I’ll also use colors depending on the color palette I’m going for. And I just take two pieces of film and sew them together lengthwise, and, depending on what shape I need, I might sew a lot together to get big squares or triangles or rectangles. After I have enough of what you might call a fabric, I use traditional quilting tools—like a cutting mat and rotary cutter—to cut the shapes I need, and then I put them on a lightbox and tape them down; then I can play around with them until I get a whole composition I’m happy with.
Quilting, and craft in general, is so often considered antiquated or uninteresting now, even though these mediums have such a complex and expansive history. I’m curious what your thoughts are about interpreting and reworking these craft mediums in a contemporary art context, and what that says about craft—and specifically quilts—today.
For me, the foremost English-speaking theorist around craft is named Glenn Adamson—he just moved here to take the directorship of the Museum of Arts and Design, but prior to that he was at the Victoria and Albert Museum—and what he says in the introduction to one of his books is that craft is not a movement or a field, but a set of concerns implicated across a variety of media. I really like that interpretation of craft, because it gets away from this art-craft binary; and I especially like this idea in a post-postmodern visual environment and visual culture, where it’s very difficult to place things now.
There’s another writer and curator named Sarat Maharaj who has talked about textiles as something that’s sort of in between—he uses the word undecidable: something that seems to be able to be categorized as one thing, but actually crosses into the boundary of something else, so you can’t say it’s one thing or the other because it moves across many disciplines. I like that definition for my work, too, because I’m using the quilt patterns and various histories and understandings of what quilts are, but in fact the pieces aren’t quilts at all. Am I going to say they’re sculptures because they’re 3D? Am I going to say they’re paintings because they’re hung on walls? I’m not really sure what to call them, and I’m not very interested in defining that.
At the same time, I’m really interested in the multiplicity of meanings. (My degree was in semiotics, so everything I do comes from this critical perspective.) For me, each piece has a theme, there’s footage that I bring in for particular reasons and I’m making edits a lot like a filmmaker would, where I’m sewing two pieces together and it’s almost like a cut from one scene to another; but I don’t know if other people think of them that way. What I really like about the quilts is that people can come and look at them and make up their own stories.
That piece addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the wartime knitting projects that were going on at the time, and put them in the framework of historical wartime knitting projects in America. People could sit at a table and work on contemporary projects that were sent to groups like Stitch for Senate, which was an artist-run project by Cat Mazza that sent balaclavas to each U.S. senator asking them to end the war; or people could knit squares that were made into blankets, and the blankets were sent to soldiers recovering in hospitals in Germany; or they could make a pattern by an artist named Lisa Anne Auerbach called Body Count Mittens, where you knit in the day that you start the mittens and the number of U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians who have been killed by that date, and then you start another mitten—presumably a week or a month or however long later—and the number of people killed by that date, so you see a span of the number of deaths over the time that the mittens are made.
You could knit at this table where you were surrounded by photo-portrait blankets, which became popular around the time I made the piece. People were using them during the war to memorialize or honor their relative who was deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The companies would take that person’s official military portrait and pair it with the military seal, but I used it to make portrait blankets using photos of people—women really—who were knitting during WWI, WWII, Vietnam and today, to show the range of projects that people have knit during times of war. I placed them into categories of protest and support—either support for the war, or support for individuals but not the war—and then there was an example of knitting as a form of direct attack where women were hired in Britain to knit the covers of a certain kind of bomb that was called a sticky bomb. The knitted cozy would go over the glass flask that held the bomb inside, and then the soldier would dip the knitted part into adhesive and throw it; the adhesive would allow it to stick to its target before detonating.
The idea was to bring people together who were working on projects with different intentions so they could have discussions about the war.
To learn more, and to see other works by Gschwandtner’s, visit sabrinag.com.
Sabrina Gschwandtner is a New York City based visual artist. She has exhibited her work internationally, at institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum (2012), the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2011); Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (2010); Bucharest Biennale (2010); Gustavsbergs Konsthall, Sweden (2009); the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (2007); Contemporary Art Centre, Lithuania (2007); Socrates Sculpture Park, NY (2005), and SculptureCenter, NY (2004).
She has lectured at art schools, universities, and museums worldwide, including Harvard University; the Rhode Island School of Design; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London; Bergen National Academy of the Arts, Norway, and the Museum of World Culture, Sweden, among many others. She has done residencies at Wave Hill (2012), the International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS, 2009), the Museum of Arts and Design (2009), and the MacDowell Colony (2007 and 2004). She received a BA with honors in art/semiotics from Brown University (2000) and an MFA from Bard College (2008).
From 2002-7 she edited and published the ‘zine KnitKnit, which is now in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, and the Fine Arts Library, Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Her book “KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave” was released in 2007 and is distributed by Abrams. (Bio courtesy of the artist’s website, sabrinag.com.)