Taking the Book Apart (2011)

Sarah Alford

About this exposition

The exposition opens up the artist’s investigations into the historical figure Ellen Gates Starr, co-founder of the Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, Midwest United States. Reflecting on the life and work of Gates Starr and on the artist’s own works inspired by these, a particular focus of the exposition is the link between artistic mark making and political practice. By way of close reading and research, the artist excavates Starr’s artistic practice and writing, to explore how artistic mark making informed by Starr’s praxis might come to shed some light on our contemporary situation. The exposition also reconsiders some of the politics at stake for the Arts and Craft movement.
typeresearch exposition
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 6 (last entry by Soren Kjorup - 21/11/2011 at 22:14)
anonymous 21/11/2011 at 16:51

The relationship between art and politics is important to sustain and develop critically and analytically through art and research into art practice. On this basis, the submission is a welcome addition. The review of historical art / socio-political influences on contemporary practice is also valuable; on this basis, the submission offers a correspondence of contemporary practice and social interaction with the now historically framed ambitions of the nineteenth-century Arts & Crafts Movement.


The drawback is that the discussion of Arts and Crafts ideals and ideology is quite limited. We are made aware in scant description, rather than analysis, of Morris’s social and moral tenets, but of Morris himself as also a writer of fiction, eloquent bookbinder and typographer we learn little; the emphasis is on TJ Cobden Sanderson, the link as teacher of Miss Ellis Gates Starr (1860-1935), Chicago-based binder and founder of the city’s first social settlement in 1899, who is the central focus of the research.The more enticing comparative discourse, therefore, is between the Chicago story of Ellis and a contemporary visual interpretation by the author/artist with her own interactive project. Also as artefacts, Alford’s book works are of interest as they deconstruct and critique the standard composition of a book and draw our attention to the material effects of word and image, 2D and 3D, which the book as sculptural object can offer.


Deliberately ‘collaged’ layout of text and image, presumably to ‘layer’ the historical and contemporary multi-disciplinary material and make a parallel between the navigation of a storyline and the literal navigation through the article and its visuals. Written with clarity and feeling.


The visual impact and purpose of Alford’s own artwork is interesting in relation to her engagement as a contemporary female artist / activist with the story of an historic female artist / activist. However, it is preferable to view it as that and not an academic treatise on the legacy of Arts & Crafts ideals, either political or artistic.

Maarit Mäkelä 21/11/2011 at 22:00

The exposition is an interesting account of the ideas and related trains of thoughts that led to a certain artistic expression in the borderline between contemporary art, craft and design. This intersection is at the moment in an interesting stage as the field of design — including design interventions, design activism and critical design — is looking how to utilise the power of art to contribute to diverse practices related to social issues. The exposition can also be seen part of the (skill required) craft field under the title contemporary craft — the field which is at the moment ‘recuperating’.


In the case of Alford’s own work, the quality of the final creative outcomes is variable. The Bibliography Raincoat with its additional account, is the work which attracts the most, both aesthetically and philosophically. The installation Flocking is an interesting side-project following the idea. The Strike Intervention is also an interesting piece, although some parts of it, e.g. picket line and letter, remain dubious in their quality.


This exposition reveals the link between the sources (of inspiration and related information) and the creative outcomes. Therefore, the most meaningful thing in this project is the creative process, which is captured and made visible.


Having the historical base, i.e. the work and figure of Ellen Gates Starr, the exposition can be seen as interplay between history, artistic mark making and political practice. By close reading and researching this particular historical context, the artist builds her way towards Starr’s socially related practice(s). In this journey, the author uses literature sources, which are mainly related to Starr’s historical doing.


As such, the exposition is a bit fragmented… The author should consider carefully, when the information (whether textual or pictorial) is really needed. When it is significant, she should argue clearly, why it is an important part of her ‘story’. In other words, the exposition can contain different sources but it should be constructed in a way, that the different sources support one ‘story’.

Eva Kernbauer 21/11/2011 at 22:03

The essay is original and well researched. It is accompanied by drawings and photographs, resulting in a finely tuned combination of various sources of information and levels of reflection.


The subject is both intellectually and methodically interesting and includes material of considerable artistic potential. While Ellen Gates Starr is a well-known figure of cultural and political history, the details presented in the essay point to a serious and extensive engagement with the topic and allow an original access to her work.


However, the most interesting feature of the exposition seems to me the indirect establishment of parallels between Gates Starr’s socially engaged work and understanding of craftsmanship and the author’s own artistic practice. These parallels are not directly presented as arguments, but instead emerge in the course of the essay, as Gates Starr’s social and political work is aligned to contemporary modes of artistic practice, as an instance of what the author terms ‘activating historical politics within contemporary situations’. Thus, the exposition allows for an interesting reassessment of the understanding of historical and contemporary forms of political engagement, as well as of craftsmanship as political and artistic practice.


The submission is of considerable merit in its reflection on the practice of artistic research, as it links the practices of the historical figure of Ellen Gates Starr to the practices engaged in by the author and thus ‘activates’ its object of research.


In its present combination of research in cultural history and poetic / essayistic presentation, (the exposition) appears as a model of contemporary artistic research, pointing to an interesting and well-known historical figure, highlighting contemporary relevance and presenting related artworks. This in itself is a recommendation, but points to typical pitfalls of contemporary artistic research projects which may lead to a hardening or condensation into a specific artistic style.


However, the submission stands out among similar projects in its potential to critically reassess forms of artistic practice, as the subject of Ellen Gates Starr’s political and social practice reflects on contemporary understanding of artistic practice.

Otto von Busch 21/11/2011 at 22:07

The author merges theory and practice in a persuasive manner, intersecting craft, intervention/performance with historical research and activism. This approach is refreshing and much needed in the field of craft research and the author’s practice and interpretations help frame the politics of craft in an interdisciplinary way.


Politically engaged craft and popular ‘craftivism’ is a field which needs to highlight its roots, so the author’s endeavour is important and points a vista for further research. The outcomes show results which will contribute to the field. However, the exposition and writing would be improved by some wider references and discussion concerning the notions of craft and politics within both the Socialist camp as well as Arts and Crafts movement and the heritage of craft politics in general, especially since some of their agendas were conflicting. Ruskin and Morris (being shortly mentioned), Kropotkin and A.R. Orage (to name some important voices of the time) had taken very different stances concerning a socialism of craftsmen vs socialism of proletarian workers, which deeply affected their perspectives on the role of craft in socialist utopianism. Several texts in The Journal of Modern Craft and Journal of Design History, as well as some of the texts in Glenn Adamson’s The Craft Reader touch upon this and references to that research could vastly contribute to the author’s discussion.


The research could be strengthened by a wider reference to previous research, both from the academic disciplines of art/craft historians and history of ideas and politics (as mentioned earlier), but also by addressing artistic practices and interventions which have been dealing with similar issues. Just as any academic research needs to be situated within a tradition of research, also the author’s artistic research would benefit from such contextualization.


Navigating the exposition and following the tracks is a pleasure. The layers of images and text give appropriate form to the work. The well-written text and mix of historical documents, interventions, patterns, and artwork adds to the reader’s journey through the work.

Johan Oberg 21/11/2011 at 22:10

This exposition has a general artistic relevance through the strategy / poetics it employs to connect artistic effort to socio-political practice by actualizing strategies of the past. In this sense it is embedded in a Chicago activist tradition and it is relevant for the discussion of art and politics globally today. It is also relevant for the contemporary discussion about crafts, materiality and conceptuality. Last but not least it shows in nude so to say, what the relationship to history may be in material based and conceptually oriented artistic research.


There is a clear intention here to show art as research, and thus to try to comply with the JAR idea. It is difficult though to understand whether this is being done in a satisfying way from an ‘academic’ point of view, as references to previous research are scarce. Thus, is the light shed on the Art & Craft Movement ‘new’ in a scientific sense? Probably not. Instead, the research questions are translated into an artistic context which is visually, emotionally and politically strong, and suggestive. Alford indirectly shows how EGS' practice and some themes from Ruskin and Morris inform her own practice, as we can perceive it, in the making. And one could refer to Marx here — who is an indirect reference, and say that artistic research in this sense is more about changing the world, through active ‘mark making’, than about explaining it. In spite of the obvious difficulties in rendering textile art and fiber art — and ‘sensuous knowledge’ in general in digital media, Alford’s (re)composition of EGS’ prose, text documents, documentary and documenting photos and the way she handles specific symbols — printed matter, marks, pigeons etc. — is convincing as a specific, artistic way of thinking, reasoning, arguing about history, genre, art, politics and about the way of the world. Her relation to history is thus an embodied, dialogical one.


The summum of this practice is to be found in one of the re-presented works of Alford in this exposition The Bibliography Raincoat (2008), which is also Alford’s strongest dialogical and creative reply to Ellen Gates Starr’s dictum, and the title of the exposition: Taking the Book Apart. In this sense Alford’s exposition is as much research as art as it is art as research.

Soren Kjorup 21/11/2011 at 22:14

The submission has a very interesting theme (for me: introducing Ellen Gates Starr) and it tells us about a great amount of work in both getting to know Ellen Gates Starr, and the use of her work, opinions etc. as a stepping stone for artistic production.


The submission, however, only gives a little taste of both the traditional research part of Sarah Alford’s work and of her artistic contribution.


I liked reading and looking at this submission, but it is not a heavy contribution. A little taste of something that might be developed: both when it comes to what more might be told about Ellen Gates Starr (and the early Arts and Crafts Movement in the USA), and when it comes to presenting the creative work. If we were talking about movies, I would say that this is a good trailer that makes us interested in getting more.

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