Fashion, Art and Sustainability: RawTag at the Raw Catalyst Exhibition 1/08/2015

Next to the big space of the Ruskin Gallery (Cambridge) a little alley takes the visitor to a strange place. At first sight, it looks like a class room, but the blinds are down and it is dark. Side by side, the desks and chairs are closely located; and on the tables there are shadows of sewing machines making garments for us to wear. The rhythmic sounds of the machines pervades through the room. Behind the machines, there is a wardrobe and a mirror: a sort of “boutique”; and the visitor is encouraged to try, to touch and to feel the materials and fabrics, and in this way, also to learn about their origin, manufacture and materials.

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But it is when the visitor approaches the screen, that the story is revealed:  in the video, a young lady discovers that there are two stories linked to her favorite garment. It is her beautiful scarf, its design of geometrical tradition, worn on a fresh evening at the sea side; love is in the air and she and her fiance are talking about their relationship; the conversation is soft and the stars are shining, the future looks promising!  But the same scarf has also its own story… for starts, it is made of viscose, a type of fiber made of wood pulp and treated with harsh chemicals; it was made in China, in one of the anonymous factories that make our “cheap clothes” possible at a high environmental and human cost. This is shocking, specially when compared with the romantic memories woven into this garment…

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So, what is her response to these contradictory stories?…

What would be yours?

The presentation of RawTag -work in progress- at the RAW CATALYST exhibition, involved a multi-media installation inviting the audiences to question and play with one of our most favorite items: our clothes! Responding to the invitation of the Cambridge Sustainability Residency to reflect about the notion of RAW, RawTag aims at linking the “raw materials” and “raw emotions” woven into our favorite garments. It starts by evoking memories and emotions linked to a particular garment and to question about where that garment comes from. The reactions can be diverse: guilt, shock, surprise, anger, wonder, outrage or empowerment, but never neutral!  And that’s what we got in this exhibition!

Indeed, this has been the result of a serendipitous encounter between me and eco-artist Carmen Lamberti at the Royal Opera House-Bridge event: Culture Change in February 2015, where artists were invited to reflect about our role in the future of the planet. We started talking and thinking of doing things together when the invitation to apply for the Cambridge Sustainability Residency emerged. We then thought about linking my work in education for sustainability with Carmen’s conceptual approaches. We were lucky, and our proposal was accepted! From then on, it has been an intense process of meetings, project management and playful yet serious conversations. At the beginning, the team was only us shaping, defining and rooting our proposal within contemporary artist practice while managing the myriad of activities for the project (ethical procedures, filming process, blogging, etc). Then we were joined by Romas Malevicius bringing his eclectic combination of talents: branding awareness, graphic design and his research on education for sustainability. And in a struck of luck, we invited Addy Chavez Garcia-Rendon, poly-artist, communicator, film-maker, performancer and educator to be part of the project.  We were also supported by an enthusiastic group of students who were taking the summer course on sustainable management: Timo Wieggers; Tugce Apak; Obaid Alghafli; Gerard Mir; Yaritza Bennett & Sayed Hashem Alalawi, who kindly shared their clothes and their stories and allowed us to film and create this work. Without them this project would not have been possible! This has been an explosive combination of talents, and the results of each of these contributions have made this project so powerful!

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During the last two weeks we have been immersed in the creative context of the Cambridge Sustainability Residency where a number of artists from all over the world come together to think, play and discuss what is our role in relation to pressing topics such as climate change, economic depletion, and social issues. The process, in my opinion, was both difficult and enhancing: there was a lot of inputs, created by the dynamism & diplomacy of Marina Velez in creating a number of conversations with scientists, artists, community stakeholders, etc., and the “digestion” of such issues through conversations, creativity, debate and few tears and laughter! The artists in the residency come from all walks of life and they have developed different practices and styles. It would be too long to explain who is who, but let me mention some of my favorites: Marco Raineri is a visual poet, his work is both spiritual and ephemeral, collecting traces of life, walking through decay and life. His installations: a mixture of found objects, photography and text, are simply inspiring!  Or perhaps the work of Laura Denning about water… that ubiquitous element making our planet and our bodies… in her work Laura floods our senses in “soundscapes”: mixtures of water musings, liquid songs and human voices narrating, interrogating or celebrating this amazing element!

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Carmen Lamberti enjoying the waterscapes of Laura Denning

Thanks to this diversity of artistic influences and traditions embodied in the residency, RawTag -as a concept and project-  was able to “grow” and ‘develop’, by exposing its foundations within a safe environment. Prior to the residency, we had done a lot of work in preparation, collecting material, reading, and creating a whole identity for the project -brand/logo & social media-. However, our style seemed to cause some tension in the group: perhaps, because we were a group within a group, and our work is rather odd, since it combines art practice with a “managerial” approach. Besides, we had some problems in joining in, as we were trying to juggle work, family and previous commitments, which made our participation a bit patchy at the beginning of the process. This troublesome starting, added to the constraints in resources: -time, gallery and studio space, chairs, screens, etc- made this process very challenging.  I must confess I had few moments of doubt and wondered whether or not it was worthwhile to continue. But both the team and the caring approach of Marina were overwhelming! In fact, when the air was cleared and we explained our project, we received so much help and support; the artists gave us lots of ideas, criticisms and possibilities, all of which were welcome, contested and digested to create what we finally did for this exhibition.

After several days of intense activity and stress, jives and panics, the big day arrived!  And it was magical: old and new friends came to see what was this “RawTag” project we have been talking about for months. For some, the theatrical atmosphere of dark lights and soft illumination was endearing; others tried the clothes admiring the supple fabrics only to realise the type of materials involved; few questioned the raw emotions of the video; some were confused with the RawTag “logo” and its intention of using “corporate” tactics to pursue a social agenda.

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On the other hand, the RawTag team was amazing! everybody was so committed and involved: Addy’s charm enticed people to visit our “sustainable boutique”; Romas in his RawTag T-shirt explained and shared his  knowledge of Life Cycle and supply chains; Carmen’s assertiveness  linked our project with contemporary art debates!  And me… well, I was very nervous! but the whole project was the opportunity to merge my two worlds: as artist and educator.  In reality, the project revealed that one of my major talents is to be able to bring people together, to provide context, vision, management and creativity in order to make dreams come real!

We had encouraging comments from artists and experts in the audience: Luz, a scientist from Seville was marveled with the idea of mixing art, education and fashion, and could see so much potential in challenging the “supply chain” not only for clothes, but other products like pharmaceuticals. My former classmate in the seminar on Aesthetics (MA Fine Arts), the artist Robert Good was a welcome surprise, as his work on the economic crisis in 2012 was actually inspiring for this installation too… I had a great conversation with scientists Sandra and Claudia from the Sainsbury Lab, who had prepared an amazing day revealing the many coincidences between artists and scientists. As a botanically inspired painter, I empathize with the need of being correct and accurate in our perception of things; likewise scientists develop a way of seeing that is direct and uncompromised. Will from the Chemistry Department at University of Cambridge, said something intriguing, his research is about chemical compounds and materials and how they are integrated to the cycle of renewal. Almost all materials can be recycled back and become energy and new materials…  But there are some materials that escape the loop, they are not recycled, producing an unbalance in the natural cycle of energy flow.

raw tag-1Photo by Marina Velez. Raw Catalyst 2015

All the comments and reactions were so encouraging!  Many wrote their feedback on my “stitched drawings” of sewing machines, responding with enthusiasm to the message of this exhibition:

“Now I know that! But do other people know?”

(which is actually the defining phrase of the in the video…)

now I know that

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