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A Movement in Museums and on the Street — and Filled It
NEW YORK TIMES/BAY CITIZEN

July 8, 2010

Observant locals may have noticed a quirky phenomenon lately: poles supporting traffic signs and streetlights that have been encased in brightly colored knitted covers, like dogs in winter sweaters.

The work of various urban graffiti knitting groups from around the Bay Area, these “yarn bombings” are meant to playfully criticize the soullessness of our cities and make the impersonal streets seem slightly more approachable.

Like the slow food, inner-city farm and indie publishing movements currently sweeping the region, the crafts-as-activism, or “craftivism,” scene is a response to consumer culture. In part, it expresses a desire among many residents to return to a simpler way of life.

The growing do-it-yourself movement has prompted museums to think more about the politics of craft. Two current exhibitions in San Francisco explore ways in which crafts are helping to shape and reflect activist sensibilities.

At the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, “We They, We They,” the show of the Bay Area artist Clare Rojas, explores the realm of domestic politics through brightly painted floor-to-ceiling wooden panels (or “wall-quilts”). The panels depict a mixture of homespun patterning, two-dimensional human figures and oblique household interiors. With their fastidious lines and sense of spaciousness bordering on sparseness, the images are strikingly contemporary.

At the same time, the patchwork construction of the panels (the artist cut up and rearranged paintings created for a former exhibition to fit the walls of the gallery) and the use of traditional Midwestern quilting motifs powerfully evoke old-fashioned community living. The artist’s references to craft culture subtly yet passionately draw out the connection between the isolation of people today — particularly women —and the more neighborly way of life associated with previous eras.

“Historically, quilting circles provided a way for women to talk together,” Ms. Rojas said. “They were a platform for politics.”

At the other end of the crafts spectrum, an exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts explores the increasingly blurred boundaries between mass-produced objects and some people’s desire for handmade or unique items.

Curated by Yves Behar, the Bay Area-based designer, TechnoCRAFT is inspired by computer hacking. Just as hackers craft new technology solutions by manipulating off-the-shelf software products, TechnoCRAFT features such works as a chopped up and reassembled set of standard-issue IKEA shelves that have been “hacked” by designers or consumers to create one-of-a-kind pieces.

Many of the artifacts on display suggest a veneer of individuality brought about by the crafting process.

The “Do Hit” chair designed by the Dutch design firm Droog does not look like anything you would want to sit in. The consumer must first use a sledgehammer to bash a stainless steel cube into a usable shape before he or she can comfortably lounge.

The same concept governs the Israeli design company Studio Kahn’s “Fragile” salt and pepper shaker. To use the ceramic shakers, which come in one piece, requires snapping the object in two at its narrowest point.

As a result of the end user’s creative input, no two “Do Hit” chairs or “Fragile” shaker sets look alike. But both items tend to reinforce our dependence on consumer culture, however, because they rely on the success of that culture in order to exist.

At the same time, objects like the “Eames Hack Highchair,” which transforms a piece of furniture by the renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames into an infant’s highchair fail to venture beyond what Andy Warhol, with his manipulations of celebrity portraits, demonstrated decades ago about craftsmanship in the age of mechanical production.

The Bay Area has long played an important role in developing this country’s craft culture.

“In the big boom in crafts following World War II, it was one of the major centers for the whole nation,” said Janet Koplos, the co-author of “Makers: A History of American Studio Craft” (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

The legacy continues. The Bay Area is home to such artists as Ruth Laskey and Stephanie Syjuco, who regularly reference and work in craft media and numerous craft-oriented museums, including the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles and the , San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design in addition to the Museum of Craft and Folk Arts. The latter institution hosts the monthly “Craft Bar,” where on the first Thursday of every month around 200 people gather to work on personal handicrafts while socializing over drinks. And in May, over 85,000 people attended the Bay Area Maker Faire, the annual festival of do-it-yourself art, craft and science that was founded in San Mateo in 2006.

For many people, joining a knitting circle or visiting a boutique that offers handmade felt bracelets will always be more about the simple pleasure of making and possessing a hand-crafted object than about making a political statement. But as do-it-yourself culture continues to spread, “craftivism” could become as potent a social movement as urban farming.

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