into the fray

By Carolyn Bell Farrell


There is no present text in general, and there is not even a past present text, a text which is past as having been present. The text is not conceivable in an originary or modified form of presence. The unconscious text is already a weave of pure traces, differences in which meaning and force are united—a text nowhere present, consisting of archives which are always already transcriptions. Originary prints. Everything begins with reproduction.1 — Jacques Derrida


If we adapt the Derridean model of “textuality” as a framework for interpretation, we cast a broad net across the seemingly disparate artworks in fray. The nineteen artists in this exhibition employ a variety of media—from photography to sculpture—yet share a common aesthetic vocabulary, one that derives from the materials, processes and ornamental patterns associated with textile traditions. The word "text" shares the same etymological root as “textile,” “texture” and “tissue”—Latin word meaning to weave.2 Not limited to written documents, texts are symbolic expressions that assume innumerable forms. From our experiences, we construct and communicate meanings through the production, interpretation and articulation of texts. Engaged in a process of “weaving” together discourse and action, humankind generates identities, communities, ideologies, societies and cultures. Within the fabric of each text, we encounter accumulated sediments of meaning, often dormant or forgotten, yet already inscribed—textural strata of traces, and traces of traces, that are neither fully present nor absent.3 For the artists in fray, the history of textile practices operates as a set of preconditions, or inscriptions. Dipping into these archival reserves, the artists lift the traces of linguistic, cultural and aesthetic memories embodied in these collective histories. As the imprints and images pass through varying degrees of differentiation, distillation and interpretation, contemporary meanings are re-inscribed onto these pre-existing “texts.”

Hannah Claus employs contemporary technology to rework patterns derived from Victorian and Iroquois textiles. Overlaying culturally resonant images from her intertwined European and Mohawk ancestries, she explores issues around postcolonial identity. Claus's looped video projection, Repeat along the border, begins with a shadow cast by a pinpricked paper dress. The tiny holes delineate an under-beaded border pattern on this representation of Iroquois regalia. As the ground shifts, the projected pattern is superimposed onto surfaces ranging from period fabrics to natural vistas: a road, a field and the sky, where a luminous expanse of white beadwork envelops the surrounding clouds. Eventually descending to rest on the horizon, the imagery is returned to its origin: the language of the land. In a related piece, Quilt, soft lights flicker beneath a worn family blanket bearing a chevron pattern. When visitors approach the quilt, the sensor-triggered lights generate images that resemble pattern fragments. As the audience grows, the discrete motifs become more prominent, and multiple, eventually stringing together in sequence. A Haudenosaunee beadwork pattern emerges. Rather than an inflection of the surface, the patterned articulation is summoned from within, resonating like voices from a distant oral culture.

By contrast to the culturally-specific patterns in Claus's beadwork, Jeannie Thib approaches textile patterns as amalgams of influences embracing diverse cultures and epochs. Her large printed panels, Sub RosaCluster and Influx, reveal broad expanses of repeating ornamental designs, largely inspired by 19th century French tapestries. Scalloped borders frame these patterned fields. Reminiscent of stylized swag curtains, they recall art historical devices used to depict drapery. Within the black latticework pattern, the artist introduces schematic diagrams of viruses (polio, measles, HIV, etc.). Like the pattern itself, the viruses function as coded texts referencing another sign system. Camouflaged, these crystalline shapes mimic the motifs of the printed surface. Alternatively, they imitate gemstones, embroidery or other embellishments. Foreign bodies introduced into the language of pattern, their presence is both ominous and seductive. As they infiltrate the all-over patterned territories, the viruses infect and colonize the neutral ground of the host.4

Pattern is predicated on the grid, an ordered field of elements that repeats indefinitely. Like Thib's panel pieces, Sarah Stevenson's patterned installation disrupts the predictable aesthetic of symmetry and repetition. The multiple nylon stocking-covered cages inSmoke emulate glyphs lifted from a paisley pattern, yet the black curlicue shapes appear slightly irregular in form and placement. Teetering between figuration and abstraction, they resemble both stylized seedpods and casually rendered punctuation marks. Tenuously mounted on long, thin metal rods and placed in relative proximity, they form a loose black screen that floats in front of the white gallery wall. Admitting and conflating natural and cultural systems, Smoke evokes an order than is temporal, fluid and mutable, subject to disturbances and periodic fluctuation.

Memory is inscribed not only in the pattern but also in the materiality of the fabric, reflecting the indices of time, and registering its uses, stresses and exposure to the elements. While a sign of the material's fragility or impairment, this physical evidence of wear may prompt intervention, and consequent reconstruction or reparation. Working with recuperated elements, Cal Lane, June Clark and Susan Detwiler resurrect the latent histories and meanings these found materials hold, while reinvesting them with renewed significance.

Sifting dry dirt from a construction site through an elaborate lace tablecloth, Cal Lane produces a negative image resembling an ornamental carpet on the gallery floor. Subtle disturbances distort the pattern's uniformity: the pooling of earth at the “carpet” edges, the ridges of dirt caused by overlapping planes, and the lingering imprints of inquisitive visitors in the gallery space. The fugitive tracery of the pattern calls attention to the “carpet's” transitory nature. On an immediate level, this ephemeral piece is constituted by trace, as if revealing the accumulation of dirt under a lifted carpet. On a metaphorical level, it suggests the figurative expression of sweeping things under a rug. Addressing the hierarchy of value associated with gendered work, Lane's use of construction debris subverts the cultural connotations of lace as feminine, domestic, bringing it into the traditional space of the masculine, and more dominant, discourses.

Gathering detritus from the American highways, June Clark re-assembles these vestigial traces on an unprimed canvas, the distressed pattern recalling the stars and stripes of the American flag. Clark's rendering of this iconic image no longer communicates the steadfast ideals and principles to which American society pledges its daily allegiance. Marked by intervals, gaps and omissions, the stability and integrity of its constitution is diminished. The rusted fragments of automobile wreckage that comprise this symbol convey and embody decay. The artist's transcription of the American flag is more than an impassive, over-the-border commentary on the disintegrating social fabric of the United States. For Clark, a native New Yorker, Dirge is a personal lament for her homeland and the erosion of the values that shaped her identity.

Susan Detwiler's practice is informed by her daily experiences of living in rural Southwestern Ontario. To produce squirrelraccoon and rabbit, her series of “animal skins,” the artist worked directly with the bodies of animals she retrieved from local roadsides. Sewing a second skin of wool over each corpse, she creates a “soft cast.” Like discarded socks strewn on the gallery floor, the soft sculptures are deflated, emptied of details, the surface features obscured, as if the bodies were turned inside out. Yet, clues to each creature's character survive in this transfiguration, discerned by the generalized shape and colouration. When Detwiler removes the woolen casts from the carcasses, tangible evidence of blood and fur also transfer from these hosts, the visceral traces and corporeal memories recorded onto the new forms.


The boundary between the inside and the outside, just as much as between self and other and subject and object, must not be regarded as a limit to be transgressed, so much as boundary to be traversed boundaries are only produced in the process of passage: boundaries do not so much define the routes of passage; it is movement that defines and constitutes boundaries. These boundaries, consequently, are more porous and less fixed and rigid than is commonly understood, for there is already an infection by one side of the border of the other; there is a becoming otherwise of each of the terms thus bounded.5 — Elizabeth Grosz


By definition, to “fray” is to cause to separate into loose threads or fibres at the edges or along the outside by friction or wear; to wear holes by rubbing or chafing; to unravel or become worn, particularly at the edges. Fray also denotes disturbance, conflict, a brawl.6 Operating at the periphery of textile practices, the artists in fray engage, resist, and subvert the tenets governing textile traditions. Loosening the restraints of convention, their aesthetic gestures contest a sure divide between public and private, outside and inside, presence and absence, known and unknown. The boundaries that lead towards classification and territorialization, and that circumscribe our habitual frames of reference, are both challenged and reproduced.

Susan Schelle's photographic prints, wolf bluffshoal bayriversidenaiscout and murray, depict domestic panoramas framed by images of commercially reproduced Oriental carpets. The carpet replicas reveal a hybrid of cultural traces, while eliciting a cultural memory that echoes of wealth, privilege and status. By contrast to the rigour and formality of the decorative carpet border, the interior snap-shots are informal, revealing the clutter of daily life and the texture of the moment. The evidence of activities left unfinished, of neglect and abandonment, prevail—the presence of someone or something now absent. The co-existence of different orders and temporal sensibilities in a single work induce disjunctions that transform the familiar into the unfamiliar, disparities accentuated by the artist's use of different cameras, film and photographic perspectives.

Making herself vulnerable in the presence of strangers, Rachel Echenberg introduces intimate gestures into social environments. Exposing the vulnerability of the human body, her outdoor performances are often realized over an extended duration. Shot at Lahie Park in Montreal during a snowstorm, Blanket (snow) documents the artist as she walks to a park bench where she lies down for several hours. The falling snow eventually covers her entire body. In this video footage, Echenberg negotiates the simultaneity of public and private, exterior and interior, calm and anxiety, comfort and distress, while underscoring the dire conditions endured by the indigent in the absence of a social blanket.

Hand-sewn from fake fur and feathers, Therese Bolliger's enormous “boa” operates as a trace of a performance, and as a gesture in space. While indicative of a moment in time, the form itself is not static; the coiled, 177 foot-long “boa” can be easily reconfigured, possessing an inherent capacity for change. Simultaneously seductive and repulsive, Furfeather oscillates between an alluring feminine garment, casually discarded on the floor, and a shed animal skin. Obfuscating the boundaries between abstraction and representation, natural and artificial, its ambiguous status circumvents the closure of ready classification, inhabiting instead a “zone of indeterminacy.”

Engaging processes of unmaking and remaking, the artists in fray dismantle existing images and objects, while imaginatively reweaving the constitutive threads of convention. In each work, two textural strata are interwoven: one that adheres to tradition, and one that escapes it, establishing the parameters for this deconstructive strategy. Through their affective and conceptual transformations of existing texts, new articulations are produced. The resulting text becomes a woven “field of forces: heterogeneous, differential, open..."7 subject to perpetual production, reproduction and transformation.

Millie Chen's site-specific installation—with its exuberant and intentionally awkward title, Happy & Love—reveals the current perspectives of youth culture in Mainland China in the wake of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Double-hung curtains sewn from synthetic fabric purchased in a local Chongqing market transform a windowed corridor in the Textile Museum. Found texts transferred onto these diaphanous drapes temper the romantic ambience. Transcribed from Chinese with English translations, the texts cite excerpts from graffiti, text messaging, karaoke and other pop-culture sources, revealing disparate cultural influences, shifting styles and changing attitudes. A corollary of China's unprecedented economic advancements, they reflect the more ominous, and unstable, undercurrents of society in response to this evolving commerce. Chen's project ultimately generates a transitional space, an illuminated passageway, which communicates the veiled murmurings of ambivalence beneath a façade of defiant optimism.

Nadia Myre, an artist of Algonquin heritage, also explores issues of language, desire, identity, and reclamation. Myre's Indian Act comprises 56 pages, Chapters One to Five, of the Indian Act, beaded over by hundreds of bead workers, male and female, in a collaborative activity. The words are lazy-stitched over with red and white seed beads, the colours alluding to racial differentiation and discrimination. A literal reading of the document that legalized the definition of Indian, and the colonial oppression it represents, is not only subverted but silenced. Myre's obliteration of the words is an act of political defiance and a symbolic statement of self-definition. It is also a communal act of reclamation—spiritual, cultural and linguistic—a gesture that affirms the authority of oral tradition in the authentication of culture and the preservation of cultural identity.

Unraveling a sisal rope, David Merritt employs this material, and its attendant physical memory, to generate new forms. Produced by a gestural amassing of lines, his intimately-scaled “thought bubble” seems to float in the gallery space, suspended from the ceiling by single threads of sisal fibre. The apparent genesis of the image, an undifferentiated scribble, gives way to a discrete cursive text that conveys the phrase “you were made for me,” after a Sam Cooke song title. Equally invested with the potential to generate order or to dissipate into chaos, Merritt's “doodle” approaches the limits of language, and textuality, precariously situated between unformed utterance and articulated voice.8


A crack has opened in habit, a 'zone of indeterminacy' is glimpsed in the hyphen between the stimulus and the response. Thought consists in widening this gap, filling it fuller and fuller with potential responses, to the point that, confronted with a particular stimulus, the body's reaction cannot be predicated. Thought-in-becoming is less a willful act than an undoing: the nonaction of suspending established stimulus-response circuits to create a zone where chance and change may intervene.9 — Brian Massumi


The Derridean model of textuality proposes a tightly interwoven space of intense codings: “There is nothing outside the text. [l n'y a pas de hors-texte].”10 Inviting an infusion of thoughts and imaginings, the contemporary palimpsests in fray are characterized by an openness that both engages and problematicizes the categorical confines of traditional textile practice. While forming part of a continuum of cultural expressions, their artistic gestures have become liberated from this closely-knit territory of inscriptions, and the constraints of a fixed identity or purpose.11 Many of the artworks in this exhibition reflect alternative systems of order—systems that deviate from cultural norms to embrace natural phenomena, the contingent, incidence, and change itself. Admitting the flux of external forces—forces that generate innumerable internal connections, variations, affiliations and interminglings—they engage and reflect a dynamic process of becoming.

1 Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 211.
2 Derrida refers to textuality as a fabric of grafts or tissu de greffes, deriving from the Latin definition of text: texo texere texui textum [to weave; to twine together, plait; to put together, construct, build]; of speech and writing, [to compose]. textilis -e [woven ,textile, plaited]. N. as subst. [a woven fabric, piece of cloth]. See: University of Notre Dame, Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid,
3 In Of Grammatology, Derrida observes: “A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact.” Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) 102. 
4 In Crime and Ornament, Jacques Daniels observes, “The production of an ornamental body is the production of a reproduction. Production is driven by a prior form or image that is instilled with value and then consumed.” Jacques Daniels, “O: the apparatus” in Crime and Ornament: The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, eds. Bernie Miller and Melony Ward (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2002) 152.
5 Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001) 64.
6 Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1988) 375.
7 Jacques Derrida, “Racism's Last Word” (1985) in Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985): 290-299. In this essay, Derrida writes: “The text is always a field of forces: heterogeneous, differential, open...” 
8 Gilles Deleuze notes: “It is when the language system overstrains itself that it begins to stutter, to murmur, or to mumble, then the entire language reaches the limit that sketches the outside and confronts silence.” Gilles Deleuze, “He Stuttered” in Gilles Deleuze and the Theatre of Philosophy, eds. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski (New York: Routledge, 1994) 28.
9 Brian Massumi, A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations From Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 99.
10 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 158.
11 Grosz states: “Thought confronts us necessarily from the outside, from outside the concepts we already know, from outside the subjectivities we already are, from outside the material reality we already know.” Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, 60. 

© March 2007, Carolyn Bell Farrell