Materiality and Process

Fabrication and Encounter: When Content is a Verb

The World is not what I think, but what I live through.  – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

In some artwork, the art object holds meaning through the process of fabrication, audience participation, and/or the activity that surrounds it rather than only holding meaning through the presentation of a final object. “In all these cases, the art object per se, what Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics calls “a dot on a line,” is subsidiary to the activity that surrounds it” (Owen, pg. 83).

The (art) object can be thought of as being a catalyst for continuing thoughts, histories, memories, associations, and connections rather than being a stand alone end in itself. The meaning of art is not established solely by the artist. The deemphasizing of the art object in favour of experience challenges modern societies practice of production and consumption. It can also induce a collaborative or social experience by collapsing “the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception (Claire Bishop Participation). “In the 1960’s and 1970’s, for instance, Fluxus artists not only involved the audience by extended the art experience to outside the gallery walls…” (Owens, 84).

This synthesis of ideas can be applied to craft objects, both traditional and contemporary as a new theoretical platform. “In contrast to the fetishism of technical virtuosity which sometimes engulfs this field, the content of many craft objects and practices today can be understood as investigations of interactivity, sensuality, material, culture, and/or process” (Owens, 84).

“(Modern) art was intended to prepare and announce a future world,” but that today “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities but to actually (provide) ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist” (Owens, p.85).

Mierle Ukeles – Maintenance Art

Roger Welch – Memory Map (1973)

Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger – Found and Lost Grotto for Saint Antonio (2006) – audience participation required to become fully realized.

Rirkrit Tiravanija

Interactivity becomes more and more attainable as new technology emerges and is implemented.

Artists: Vectorial Elevation by Raphael Lozano-Hemmer (used internet for participants to watch and control search lights).

Private encounter, according to critic Suzanne Ramljak can be just as powerful to large communal experiences. (Intimate Matters)


Alyssa Dee Krauss – jewelry sensed/perceived only by the wearer.

“The relationship between the object and the viewer (or wearer, in this case) is built around what Bourriaud calls the “transivity,” or the tangible properties of the objects that “introduce into the aesthetic arena that formal disorder which is inherent to dialogue” (Owens, 86). The act of eliminating the distance between the art object and the viewer allows for the possibility of a more ephemeral, personal, intimate, encounter.

Critic Polly Ullrich uses the term “aesthetic of immersion” to describe the tangible properties of art that extend the aesthetic experience to the viewer in ways the artist cannot predict, this experience is “an event of the body” (Owens, 86). (“requiring “the juxtaposition of our embodied selves and our corporeal world within a technological and scientific worldview that relies on decoherence and cybernization to explain and depict the material environment and human relationships” (Owen quoting Ullrich, 86).)

Artist Ann Hamilton brings the viewer back into contact with raw materials and the sensate to disrupt the loss of contact with the living world. (In the time of COVID19, isolation, and quarantine the loss of contact with the living world is heightened, contact with and reliance on the technological and cyber world is excessive. Physical contemplations) “In her essay on workmanship, Ullrich observes that “scholars and artists – even those in media that seem most dematerialized – are now working out a kind of integration of the visceral body and the cerebral mind that centuries of Western thought have attempted to deny” (Owens, 88).

Artist Robert Storr – Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind (2007)

The Process of Fabrication

Bourriaud’s “dot on a line” thesis applies not only to spectator participation but also to works wherein the process of fabrication or the interaction with the object is privileged over the finished object. “In these works, the content is not wholly fixed but occurs at least in large part – during production” (Owens, 88). Deconstructivist thought of the 1960’s is often cited as the starting point of process art however, there are many instances in the line of art history where it occurs. 2nd wave feminist artists often used process art as a way to critique the canon of Western Aesthetics. “As such, process art often advances concepts attendant to the body and senses, poses questions about the properties or origins of its materials or methods, and emphasizes change and transience in works that are not meant to endure” (Owens, 88).

4 dominant ways in which process art functions can be identified:

  1. “First, the process can be a form of aesthetic discovery evident in the result, as in the action paintings of Jackson Pollock or the poured color canvases of Morris Louis, which are as much about the novel and physical process as they are about the final image” (Owens, 88).
  2.  “Second, the process can also be set in motion by the artist who allows the art to occur over time, as in works by Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy. Works intended to evolve or disintegrate” (Owens, 89).
  3. “In a third take on how the process of fabrication is significant to the artist’s intent, the process of making and the material from which it is made may be crucial to the content and meaning of the work, as evidenced by Rosmarie Trockel and Tom Joyce who elect materials and methods that are replete with association” (Owens, 89).
  4. “Finally, the art may emerge from the process of performing the work”

Critic and artist Kathleen Whitney has identified another view about process art, the “art of the difficult” which combines concept and process, “fetishism of effort” (Owens quoting Whitney, 89). The unique aspect of this certain type of art is that it has no ending. “Because it is not generated from a basic compositional strategy that considers or creates the conditions for completion, the work can be extended into infinity” (Owens, 89). Whitney also comments that the interpretation of the work is changed by each encounter and is therefore open-ended. “Craft practices in particular lend themselves to this interpretation” (Owen, 90). Not all artists positioned the “art of the difficult” are also associated with craft practices and materials. Artists who deliberately take on the act of fabrication for themselves, “are grounded in similar conceptual positions based in process” believing that the substance of the work is formed through fabrication (Owens, 90).

Artists: Been Finneran Red Oval (2008) and Piper Shepard Chambers (2002)

Craft and Process

Historically, the craft world has promoted the idea that the meaning of the work is formed through fabrication, materials, use, traditional craft methods, and social and cultural history. “In addition, many craft artists and crossover artists consider the tactile or sensual aspects of their work to be integral to their intent, as well as to the social relationships that this quality spawns” (Owens, 92). Concern for the experience and the process of experience by individuals and audiences should be acknowledged in craft art theory in the same way that it has been acknowledged in environmental, performance, installation, and electronic art theory. “….it is possible for contemporary craft practices to uniquely subvert our assumptions about class, time, and value” (Owens, 92).

Exhibition: Labor of Love Marcia Tucker (1996) New Museum of Contemporary Art

In the 1990’s a number of artists challenged the expectations of the art world through adoption of craft practice “to examine social, personal, political, and cultural content” (Owens, 93). (see Blog post “Bringing Past Ideas/Writings Forward to the Present Work” for my writing on the use of craft in art through second and third wave feminism as well as Personal is Political).

Artists: Ken Price, Anne Wilson, Marin Puryear, Michael Lucero, Lynda Benglis (considered by Ownes as established crossover artists)

Elaine Reicheck Shari Urquhart, Bill Davenport (then emerging artists)

A number of students and young artists also took up craft, craftlike techniques, and materials using them ironically. (part of third wave feminism). “While many did so without knowing their craft world antecedents, they were driven to respond to a postmodern cultural environment flush with global influences, a material environment teeming with consumer debris, and a general environment that was becoming increasingly divorced from direct experience because of the ubiquity of technology in everyday life” (Owens, 93).

“Works that emphasize “the real” by favoring viewer participation and other physical experiences found in either the process of fabrication or encounter also reflect a postmodern psychological stance: our disorientation and doubt. Like worry beads, spontaneous memorials, or Madame Defarge knitting her way through the French Revolution, these works represent our physical ways of working though the uncertainty that we live with, especially since the events of September 11, 2001. In the self-conscious acts of touching, marking, assembling, repeating, stitching, or meditating, the mind and body are interiorized. These are grounded, physical responses to an unstable environment rather than assertions of ideological prowess” (Owens, 95) (long quote but I think this nicely touches on how I and many others are feeling and working now through the disorientation of COVID19/unstable governments/riots and protesting, although I disagree that all the responses are negate of “assertions of ideological prowess”).


Material and the Promise of Immaterial – Ingrid Bachmann

“The rhetoric around digital technologies is infused with the utopian promises of deliverance and progress – the promise of another frontier, an original uncharted space, virgin territory, a clean slate, another chance to “get it right” (Bachmann, 24). Conceptualizations of the future are built on past constructions. The frontier rhetoric has been applied to cyberspace as the new, and possibly only, frontier left. (Explorations of space have not provided the promised futuristic utopia). Bachmann strongly states “The frontier myth is an enduring one and its adoption into the rhetoric of the digital sphere has serious implications – myths of transcendence and separation between the mind and body, nature and culture, have a long and complicated history and their unacknowledged passage into cyberspace is a disturbing one” (24). Unacknowledged? Bachmann writes this in 1998, just off the top of my head I know Haraway wrote The Cyborg Manifesto in 1985. She goes on to say “…the fundamental contradictions of our time….namely, the contradiction between the material and physical conditions of our daily lives and the promise of immateriality or transcendence advanced by the rhetoric around emerging digital and televirtual technologies” (24). This sentence peaked my interest when I think of creating wearables out of domestic materials. Am I collapsing the above stated contradiction by using materials that reference daily lives and our physical existence or am I emphasizing the contradiction with the limitations/restrictions of the wearables?(making one more acutely aware of their physical existence?).

Bachmann is intent on investigating the rhetoric around textile and computer technologies, “Why is weaving considered antiquated, artisanal, slow, gendered female? Conversely, why are computers considered fast, new, state of the art, virtual, gendered male?” I’ve often spoke about using textile, craft, soft, tactile materials in the wearables as a contrast to the sleek, hard, metal, plastic microcontrollers and electronic components. Central to Bachmann’s paper is that textiles are a technology but that in contemporary culture they are scripted with separate values and attributes. As evidence Bachmann cites a Wired Magazine Ad from for an internet provider, “Let’s just say you won’t find me on the knitting newsgroup.” – the ad was positioning knitting as an unsexy, unhip activity, not taken up by the younger techno-savvy babes. Further to the attributes given to textiles listed above, the production of textile as a practice is usually thought of as done from home, separate from ‘real’ economics. How has the status of textile practices/production been so removed from the significant role they played in the industrial and digital revolution? “This romantic vision of textiles is further undermined by the global scale of contemporary industrial textile production and the ongoing and enduring presence of sweatshops in the first and developing worlds” (Bachmann, 25). Some of the first industries to be mechanized was weaving and spinning, impacting social, cultural and economic functions. “As Karl Marx wrote, “The handloom give you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (Bachmann quoting Marx, 26). In the nineteenth century, a localized workforce was desirable as it allowed for easier managerial discipline and control, the working conditions of textile workers was heinous. The electronic industry ran a similar course for workers of Third World countries. It is interesting to note, in the developed worlds, computers have had the opposite effect on populations, people have somewhat dispersed now that internet and telephone lines reach further and further, some workers can chose where they wish to work from.

The Jacquard loom, textile technology, “Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s system of pattern punch cards to store and process information for his automated loom were translated into the first computer punch cards” (Bachmann, 27). Weaving mirrors computer programming so why is the image of a weaver so diametrically opposite to computer hackers?

Artist: Gwen Zierdt’s The Unabomber Manifesto hand woven textile contains vertical blocks that represent eight-bit binary numbers corresponding to the text used to store in computer memory then converted into weaving. “The Unabomber Manifesto offers a striking contrast between the speed of digital telemedia against the slowness of hand production. They very visible labour of hand weaving is contrasted with the invisible labour of digital technologies, and points as well to the invisibility of the labourers who create textile goods and those who assemble computer goods” (Bachmann, 28). (There is also an invisible labour linked to data tracking, and because the health and fitness tracking apps are usually directed toward female use (linked to neoliberalism), this labour is gendered.) There is a common thread through origin and labour force linking these fields.

“Textiles have a very long tradition as a carrier of social and cultural messages: the Bayeux Tapestry, produced in the eleventh century, narrates the tale of the Norman Conquest; in the tales of Ovid, Penelope and Philomela tell their often horrific stories through hand-woven cloth; and the contemporary Names Quilt documents the deaths from AIDS. Laurie Anderson has suggested that, “technology today is the campfire around which we tell our stories.” (Bachmann, 31-32).

“Textiles are characterized by their haptic qualities and strong visual and tactile presence. The haptic quality of textiles reminds us of our own material origins and the often problematic physical conditions of our daily lives. This tactility and materiality appears to be in direct opposition to the almost antiseptic sterility of the design of computer hardware” (Bachmann, 32-33). …….”For what factors determine that textile looms are fabricated in natural woods and not in stainless steel? Conversely, what factors determine that computer hardware is fabricated in heavy duty grey or black plastic melamine rather than in wood?” (Bachmann, 33). These options are most likely chosen because of the associations we have with them. I would suggest, in this specific moment in time, materials capable of antiseptic sterility are desirable over those with haptic qualities and tactile presence especially in the public sphere.


Bachmann, Ingrid. “Material and the Promise of Immaterial.” Material Matters (1998): 23-34.

Owen, Paula. “Fabrication and Encounter: When Content is a Verb.” Extra/ordinary: Craft and contemporary art (2011): 83-96.