To Patchwork an Archive
text by Marie Ilse Bourlanges – contribution to SISU publication, March 2020
In June 2019, Elena Khurtova and I presented our artistic and teaching practice during the SISU Symposium in Tallinn. To do so, we developed a performative and spatial presentation, combining our own projects with our vast teaching photo archive, looking back at nine years of material experimentations with architecture students of several academies in The Netherlands.
Our cell phones were cluttered with pictures of material experimentations conducted by our students, over a period of several years, in various educational institutions. Works of others we carefully accumulated, in waiting to become a meaningful collection.
Plaster crumbles. Colourful stains. Clay imprints. Indigo dips. Dirty hands.
Naive and playful – often first – encounters with basic materials of predilection, earthly and powdery, liquid slip, white mountains, interwoven plexus, mix to transform. Close-up archive of textures and faces of slightly confused students. Unique. Repeat.
The methodology we propose as teachers aims to stimulate the spontaneity of gestures, direct micro-expressions, the forming of a material alphabet. A’s and B’s and Z’s, gathered together at the end of each session to form a loud unstructured poem, a collection of signs. Not yet a sentence but already a library.
In 2009, Elena and I started our collaboration with an acquired knowledge and common attraction to ceramics and textiles, and slowly established our practice as a duo. Our approach was based on experiments and dialogue, ‘a play between the two’. During our common study in architectural design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, we had noticed a certain easiness and creative flow when assisting each other on respective projects, which became the foundation of our collaborative practice. In retrospect, it is also clear that we were both incarnated products of the Rietveld approach, where we learned to celebrate autonomy, merge disciplines, trust intuition and enable conceptual reflection.
In recent developments, we explore further the paradox between transformation and its inherent loss, in a format that varies from large-scale transient installations and performances. We position our practice at the intersection between formal and conceptual, where materiality and temporality play an essential role. Equally fascinated by the conceptual and narrative qualities of materials, we meticulously investigate the resilience of earth, the memory of porcelain, the erotic charge of clay and the textual quality of textile. Non-fired clay is explicitly chosen for its overlooked yet extraordinary capacity for infinite renewal: unlike ceramics, which once fired becomes preserved forever, non-fired clay (or raw clay) has the potential to always return to its original form. This duality in temporality is at the core of our approach, and especially meaningful in our investigation with archives.
Most importantly, we are friends.
In our teaching practice, we invite architecture students to dive into our fascination for materiality. We develop a procedure that aims at reaching a balance between intuitive experimentation and an analytical approach, while acquiring a full comprehension of the processes. We usually start a course with a very applied series of exercises, learning basic principles of working with plaster, dyeing pigments, textile and clay. In those classes, everything produced is equally valid, the test and its residue, the centre and the periphery. Through discussion and precise observation we try to understand what phenomena formed the physical outcome of each experiment. Doing so, we slowly pull out connecting strings between technique (from techne – ‘doing’) and conceptual thinking.
A cloak of invisibility
I often think of teaching as an invisible part of our artistic practice, hidden yet significant. In that way, teaching shares similarities with artistic research, which – and we can disagree on this – I believe has the potential to become ‘work’ when structured as an external prospect. This underlying thought motivated us to include exposure and unfolding processes as an inherent part of our teaching methodology.
Over the years, student exhibitions became our teaching signature with academies like Rietveld and KABK (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten / Royal Academy of Arts of The Hague); a way to trigger a tangible outcome from each course and a way to create memorable bonds among the students. Moreover, placing works in a different context to the academy, enables dialogue with the (exhibition) space and with the development of the other classmates. It finalises and reflects all at once, which constitutes a valuable step in the learning process. Opening up to any public comes with its proper share of documentation, both as an event and as works, and usually benefits all parties involved – the students, their teachers, the academy, the exhibition space. It is an enjoyable spectacle of learning and teaching.
But what happens before the ‘exposition’ is necessarily protected, as if covered by a cloak of invisibility. As teachers who believe in the process more than the outcome, this sounds quite paradoxical. What happens in the classroom might not be visible in terms of exposure, but it is the actual work. Somehow preserving its invisibility is crucial to the trust between teacher and student, protects the exchange of ideas, frictions or breakthroughs, and sometimes authorships. It is the part of teaching that allows me to grow and keep my mind in reactive yet absorptive sharpness. Under the cloak of invisibility, both is given and received. I often thought, wouldn’t it be great to lift the corners and celebrate what is underneath one day?
By the copy machine
In June 2010, I completed my first teaching course at the Academie van Bouwkunst (Academy of Architecture) in Amsterdam. Still a novice and so thrilled by the experience of sharing my material fascination with a small group of excited students, I decided to archive the process and outcome of the course as a small publication. In an analogue manner, I cut and taped all the registration images and blended them into a coherent layout on the black-and-white photocopy machine at the academy. A fellow teacher passed by, and after I explained what I was doing – showing possibly a bit too much pride and joy – she hit me back with this reply: ‘This is what everybody does when they start teaching. Believe me you won’t do it again [slight sarcastic laughter]!’
Imbued with bitterness, this demotivating phrase has followed me over the years.
In 2014, Elena and I guided architectural design students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie to develop the exhibition Anticipated Decay at the deService Garage project space in Amsterdam. We got the opportunity to produce a publication for the exhibition. Choosing for a cover made of a large sheet of sandpaper and deliberately obliterating the content of images by cutting out crucial informations, three students of the graphic design department expressed their own rendition and vision of Anticipated Decay in this autonomous publication. Interestingly, this publication embraces the desire to record and give permanence to the short-lived temporality of student experimentations, while potentially being a decaying tool on one’s bookshelf.
For the 2019 experimental SISU Symposium in Tallinn we decided to give a presentation reflecting our teaching approach with materials, but also questioning the need to archive our development in teaching over the years. This invitation was an opportunity for us to gather and look back as a pause before moving forward. For some time already we were aware of the large quantity of images, photographs, snapshots, documentations that had been piling up in our hard drives. They kept on popping up through timelines of unsorted personal pictures, or if sometimes we were thorough enough to archive a finishing course, its documentation would vanish in a dedicated digital folder. To start we gathered our separate archives into one folder. Categories were defined, coupled to a linear time-based structure. Searching back was a very pleasant process, highlighted by many memories. Fun. Surprises. Repetition. Another grey day at the Rietveld. Young faces. Happy hands. Serious looks. Sometimes overcompensating youthfulness. Many haircuts.
Our ambition for the presentation was to temporarily give body to this invisible archive. To unfold – even for a very short moment. We ended up printing xxxx images as black-and-white A4’s. Packed in two separate volumes, perfectly fitted in our hand luggage. A printed archive has a volume and a weight; this is important to consider when travelling nowadays.
We arrived at the symposium venue almost at presentation time. A big hangar where the student energy was buzzing with hands-on workshops. The allocated lecture space was large but slightly cramped with a collection of vintage sofas, which we swiftly moved towards the outside of the room, creating our stage on the rough dusty concrete floor.
A quick refresh.
We laid the xxxx pictures on the floor. The presentation was deliberately unrehearsed, to leave space for unexpected associations between the visual documents. Printed in categories, the images beautifully mingled as they touched the ground. Meaningful clusters opened up to serendipities. Connections created horizontally.
Our stage. Walking through the maze of images, shuffling new connections. Being present in a collage. Inscribing ourselves in the archive. Walking through the stitches that hold the temporary fabric together.
Being two. In dialogue.
Folding back the pages. Into two separate volumes.
The travelling needle
A few years ago, I attended a book launch for a photography publication. The lecturer spoke at length about the format of the book, as it allows you to turn pages after pages, sequence after sequence. I was quickly annoyed at the self-indulgent evidence of such observations. Yet her words stuck with me. A book, two pages framed in dialogue, bound together in a fold, by glue or stitches.
A patchwork is a piece of textile made by stitching together incongruous pieces of cloth of diverse origin merged to create a coherent image or pattern. Even though I never found the generally crafty visual language of patchworks appealing, I believe the system of its construction is noteworthy. Patchwork functions as the horizontal gathering of fragments from different sources of fabric, its stitching merging each separation into a continuous surface. Pieces of diverse temporalities entering into a horizontal dialogue. Patchwork is inherently linked to the quilting tradition, and quilting is inherently collaborative; it is often an intergenerational process where members of a community/family actively collect and assemble the various pieces of textile over an extended period of time. Moreover, quilting is often liminal, marking an important turning point in an individual or communal history.
Our presentation at SISU was a preliminary sketch giving body to our teaching practice. Unfolding our archive was a glimpse overseeing at once what we had developed in the shadows over the years. Looking back it would be fair to say it provided spacious and performative qualities but lacked precision in the connections created between the images, as the quantity of images and the scale created a vivid background effect more than triggering a new constellation of possibilities between the gathered visual material.
If the archive is a fabric of documents subjectively patched together, then I would like to look further and closer at the hidden space of the connections. Teaching and collaborating influences the creative process in ways my mind doesn’t always comprehend or acknowledge, it lies in the shadow, in the upside-down. The seam, both connector and divider, is in essence a form of dialogue. A seam’s function is to attach two pieces of cloth together. To do so, a needle pierces the edges of both surfaces, and by travelling back and forth on each side of the two pieces of cloth, a connection is created; thread holding it together. A seam is strong, and seemingly permanent, but it can still tear when subject to force. Connecting separate elements, with or without any additive help, always bears a paradox of strength and vulnerability.
I pieced together this disparate text, patching memories and preliminary thoughts. In the context of this contribution for SISU-LINE I tried to analyse and question the impulse of documenting and archiving practices of teaching based on equal exchanges between parties. In doing so, I attempted to look at teaching and collaborating as hidden processes of influences, as if covered by a cloak of invisibility. I inspected further the mechanisms of inspiration in juxtaposition as if looking at the back of a patchwork and inspecting its seams and stitches. A conclusion seems necessary, but for now I would just like to throw back the concealing cloth and stare at the distance towards new exciting moments of connection.
In the process of articulating thoughts on education and archiving, I am thankful to have encountered the thesis of Zoë Dankert on Alberto Burri’s Grande Cretto, in which she develops her own methodology ‘from patching to patchwork’, experiencing the artwork as unavoidably fragmented:
The proverb that the sum is bigger than its parts is emblematic for this thesis. However, before one is able to understand what the sum does or is, the separate pieces of which it is made up need to be disentangled only to reassemble them again in a new format. This is exactly the ‘from patching to patchwork’ methodology: from the conglomerative patching, the vertical layering of information, things or materials, bits and pieces are taken and laid out next to one another until they are reassembled again in the form of the patchwork. This form is never closed and new pieces are continuously added. The important thing is that it affords a bringing together of all these different parts without the imposition of a hierarchy. It is within the complexity of a joining of things horizontally that meaning is to be found.
1 Workshop week at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, April 2019.
2 Poster insert for Anticipated Decay: Towards a Grand Ruin.
3 Performance Shelf Life: Archive Event II, April 2019, Looiersgracht 60, Amsterdam.
Photo: Jessie Yingying Gong
4, 5 Publication Anticipated Decay. April 2014.
6 Screenshot of the structure of the digital photo archive.
7–10 Presentation during the SISU Symposium, June 2019, Tallinn. Photo: Kairi Rand
Khurtova & Bourlanges is an Amsterdam-based artist duo who work with in-situ installations and sculptural investigations that conceive the work as a process. Equally fascinated by the conceptual and narrative qualities of materials, the duo often employ materials that overcome the gap between form and content whilst still maintaining their temporality and vulnerability. Since acquiring the archives of Jacques Bourlanges in 2014, the artists have actively implemented their artistic interference onto this gathered content, each time generating new meanings and making visible the mysterious ways in which the mind can work. Khurtova and Bourlanges met while studying architectural design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where they are both currently tutors. They also teach at the Royal Academy of the Arts in The Hague, lecture and curate in the fields of design and architecture.