Monday, 24 June 2019

Public - You & Me: Conversation with Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to)



Photos: Glen Stoker


Glasgow-based artist and designer Kate Owens delivered Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) at AirSpace Gallery as part of Public - You & Me last weekend. On Saturday, members of the public were invited to block print onto fabric by walking or dancing through the gallery space. Beginning with a short introduction to Kate's practice, participants were asked to design patterns on the base of wooden sandals - made, quite simply, with a slab of plywood secured to the foot with two elastic straps. Books about Sonia Delaunay and Textile Design helped to inform the patterns created, before they were inked up by pressing each sandal onto a felt ink-pad. Step by step, participants printed their designs onto fabric, following Kate's advice on how best to move across the space — with some amendments as each participant learnt (and unlearnt) ways of walking, printing, balancing and dancing.

Kate was commissioned by Public - You & Me to create soft furnishings for the space, to compliment the furniture made with Plane Structure. Sheets of printed fabric were cut into sections and paired with blocks of colour to create curtains and cushions — all in a single day. Here, Kate speaks about her experiences with print and reflects upon the workshop at AirSpace Gallery.


How did your practice develop into a participatory print process?


Kate Owens: I think about my practice including a participatory print process as part of a wider way of working. With participatory projects I’m mainly setting up situations with a potential for creative output and then retrospectively analysing the event to see where the work lies. I try to document the event, recording video and audio and also keep hold of some physical material from the process. It’s then about presenting elements that hold something of the spirit of that event. 

In the past I’ve transcribed audio recording during workshops into scripts which are then used to create performance work like Why Don’t You Put Eyes In Those Holes (2016.) I’ve also created works by assembling all the leftover material from a participatory event as a textile hanging Trying To Cut Out A Heart (2016.)

The particular block printing process I proposed for the workshop at Airspace Gallery came from a method I developed in the studio in 2017, where I realised I could use my wooden sandals as print blocks and walk a design across a length of fabric. It seemed so efficient and exciting because it brought two activities together — dance and printing. I use dance in a loose sense, but I’ve always had an interest in dance and probably spend more money seeing dance performances than I do exhibitions. 

The act of inking and printing a repeat motif is intrinsically rhythmic and requires carefully planned and controlled movement — so in my head these two creative practices were already linked. As I’ve said before I’m sort of pre-programmed to always be doing two things at once — it’s been my method of economic survival and through that I’ve realised it actually helps me to think creatively.




Have you worked with dancers before?

KO: I printed myself using print-block shoes to make a number of textile works and continue to do so in my studio practice. I’ve opened it out as a way of working with other people — initially with a group of dance students for the worThe Shadow of Your Shadow in 2018 for a project in North London, responding to a recently closed textile factory. For this project I taught the group of dancers a short choreography which allowed them to print and move the ink pad across the fabric, using their body weight to transfer the ink. 

I was interested to see how dancers would incorporate their own movements into the process. This whole project was conceived as a live performance so the only collaborative part was how the dancers used their own bodies whilst carrying out the rehearsed printing process. Bringing music into the equation encouraged the dancers to think about the printing process as dance and created a consistent rhythm which gives momentum to the performance. 




What do you most enjoy about working collaboratively with the public?

KO: The unexpected! I rarely get time to experiment so (quite selfishly) I enjoy watching and learning through other peoples experiments. I sort of think about the idea of the workshop in terms of ‘workshopping’ in the pre-performance theatre sense, where a small group riff on an idea exploring its potential, before formalising it into a public performance. When a participatory event works like this, it’s magic!

If any, what challenges have you faced in using this 'less traditional’ method of printing - as well as working in a participatory way? 

KO: So many! At first I was like, this is such an efficient method of printing! Why isn’t everyone doing it like this? Then, I tried getting more consistent prints and making it work on a variety of flooring with a variety of people, with a variety of abilities and found so many difficulties. I’ve worked out a method that I use in my studio by looking at lots of traditional block printing books and tweaking the many variables from the surface you print on to the surface of the ink pad, the viscosity of ink, materials used to make the print block sandal or the fabric for printing on. 

I’ve also found ‘flocking ma blocks’ makes for a much better print but is a bit of a faff and needs to be re-done every three metres or so. With workshops or participatory printing I have to adapt it each time depending on budget, floor surface, age or abilities of participants. I learn more each time I do it. With regards to this particular workshop in Stoke, I was pleased that we developed some new choreography and printing methods through using a wall —  very good for those who need a bit of help with balance. 

Often, your workshops, which are performative, are accompanied by music and audio tracks. For you, why is it important to have a cross-disciplinary practice?

KO: I always find categories of practice problematic even 'cross-disciplinary’ (it’s a mouthful, slightly off-putting and non-specific). I studied painting but didn’t make any paintings, and then did an MA in sculpture where I did lots of printing. Now I mainly make textiles, performance and curtains but essentially I just have a creative practice and always try to be open and outward looking so if music or another element seems right then I include it. For recent performances and participatory block printing workshops, I’ve specifically introduced music to encourage individuals to (almost subconsciously) be aware of rhythm and body movement or dance and essentially find joy in the making process.




For Public You & Me, we commissioned you to make soft furnishings for the Gallery from the prints created during the workshop. How did this differ from your usual process of making work?

KO: Really different to any other commission I’ve had and I’m still trying to work out what happened and what I did…?? I’d usually be invited to do an exhibition or a workshop or both as a related project. I occasionally get invited to propose a workshop with no specific remit and I try to use these opportunities as starting points for new work or to continue on from a previous project. So I am used to dancing a blurry line between education and practice. 

This was different because I was asked to specifically make soft furnishings. Having made textile-based work for the past four to five years I’ve recently started using the fabrics I print to make more functional objects out of the gallery space such as curtains, lampshades, cushions. In a way I’ve found exhibition making a bit deflating as you focus on making work and preserving it for showing in a very specific context. When it’s not on show in a (generally) neutral space, it’s packed up and protected and only lived with by the (very few) collectors of my work. 

The curtains, cushions etc that I've been making aren’t kept sterile, guarded by invigilators: they bump into life— on sofas, in kitchens, captured in casual photography as part of life's context. They are part of the daily conversation. I hope that’s how the textiles made during the workshop will be encountered in Airspace Gallery, now that they’ve been formed into furnishings. They are a bit more self-contained as objects, meaning they are robust and less dependent on context than my previous artworks. In a way I don’t have to worry about them surviving out in the world and I can let go a bit.


Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) took place on Saturday 15 June at AirSpace Gallery. You can see the outcome of Kate's workshop at AirSpace until 28 June.

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