Susan White, 2011

Reflections on Idle Hands, taken from a talk given at MMoCA’s panel discussion on

Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture

Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery

     The performance aspect of Idle Hands was one I’d been thinking of for years: a crazy idea of me just sitting in a chair and crocheting the chain stitch over and over. Making nothing, utter nonsense. Too simple, embarrassing really. But the more I delved into discovering this piece, it has proved to be my most complex work to date. Its title refers to the old adage that has many versions, idle hands being the work of the devil, or the devil’s playthings or tools. Of course I have a hard time having idle hands these days as well.

     It seemed an appropriate title for a piece that would be surrounded by works from the Victorian times. The act of crochet came about as a way for me to process the loss of my family’s oldest generation and deal with, as I age, my greater awareness of the passing of my time as well. I’m working with my great-aunt Louise’s old cotton thread balls, her scissors and crochet hooks that are still in her cigar box. On the table beside me is her mother’s late-1800s book of women’s fancywork, including some handwritten notes and crochet samples. Also present is my first hair receiver, completed before I even knew of this Victorian practice: a jar filled with my hair collected over the 7 years I was in Boston, a time when I was feeling quite contained myself. While I intended this performance to pay tribute to my own family of makers, I did not realize that it would unite me so well with all the makers in this show, and audience, that I’d be keeping company with.

     My hope with this performance was to highlight the process of making with no product or end result in sight. Like Allan Kaprow’s book, Essays on the Blurring of Life and Art, I felt like this was my spin, on the Blurring of Making Something and Making Nothing. This is also my "Waiting for Godot" piece. Except for the moments when I’d finish one ball of thread and connect it to a new one, (which no one ever witnessed) nothing really different happens, like life at times. Because it had seemed to give people such pause, I bothered Martha Glowacki for a larger label in hopes to communicate more of my thoughts to viewers. It read, “Meditatively marking time, I work over and over a simple chain stitch, the base stitch for all crochet. The potential for something made falls off my lap on to the floor, unformed. As society continues to place such high value on product, making nothing sparks questions about the nonsense of the actions and the sanity of the actor. Yet ironically, making nothing feels compelling. There is power in action; it spawns new ideas and creates a contemplative space where there is potential for something greater than product.”

     And this is what happened. Often I would leave the sitting and hurry to write, my head full of 5 different ideas. I began to look forward to the scheduled hour to escape the “real” world, don my outfit, and change into a different me. Existing within the timeless space of the piece was transformative – I became a removed observer, overhearing viewer’s responses while my own thoughts floated around in my mind. After the show ended, I was left with a folder full of notes I’d scribbled down on loose paper, in journals, and on the backs of cards, that comprise two main areas of contemplation: what I learned from doing this specific performance, and what I learned about performance in general.

     The creative process, and life itself, is full of moments where one feels to be jumping blindly into a deep hole, unsure of where and how the landing will be. Performance work requires this be done in public instead of the privacy of a studio. While my original intentions felt fairly clear, I truly had no clue how it would unfold over the 7 weeks. Ironically, in hindsight, it was the process of the performance that was the unknown. What was known was that I wanted to put forth a character who was to represent both the potential of making and a blurring of time; she was not to sit idle, completely engaged in her work, not her audience.

     Yet, all this got messy on opening night when I had to excuse myself through the crowd and sit down in the empty chair and start working. People were surrounding me, interested in what I was doing. The questions poured out, and I felt stuck as to my response. Pretending to be mute didn’t last long, for the questions continued. The opening reception included demonstrations in an adjoining room, how to do shell work, beading, and even crochet, where questions as to process were expected. Crossing the threshold into the gallery, there I sat. “What are you making?” was the main question. To this I’d whisper, “nothing really.” Not satisfied with that answer, they continued. “What is the significance of the hair?” one woman asked, a great question which I’d love to talk about, but this wasn’t the place and time. To her I replied honestly, stupidly, that I was trying “not to engage.” Dumbfounded, she backed off. Didn’t anyone know what performance art was, I asked myself? Surely interruptions like this don’t happen in bigger cities? “Did you make your shirt as well?” This one I’d try to ignore, yet they’d tap me on my knee as if I needed prompting. “No”, I’d respond, turning my eyes downward. But I was left feeling rude and confused. Putting people off wasn’t my intention. How was I going to resolve this for myself while staying true to my original goals of the piece?

     This became a constant question for myself throughout the first half of the exhibition. Idle Hands was only my second foray into performance art, my first being a collaborative three-hour impromptu installation/performance that had little chance of audience participation. However, now things were different. The extremes seemed to prevail: people either completely avoided me or just started chatting. Very few people quietly observed. Since visual art usually involves images and objects that allow for a sense of remove between the audience and the viewer, it’s possible that most people are not comfortable with a person being in a work. The lines blur with performance, and that comfortable distance is gone. But what could I do to offer help to people who wanted to understand the piece a bit more?

     The most obvious step to take was with the label change. It announced Idle Hands as a performance piece, noting times I would be present, and included specific quotes from my statement. But before the new label was in place, I found myself slipping out of character as questions were asked to explain bits and pieces to those interested. In hindsight, this was the bridge that allowed for dialogue and exchange to occur, for as I became more confident about defining this piece, open-ended conversations began between the audience and me.

Consequently, halfway through the exhibition my approach changed. A new character developed, and she was committed to trying out a four-step plan to interact, or not, with the public. This, I felt, would be the truest way to allow the creative process to continue to unfold. Not wanting to infringe upon anyone’s experience of my work, I would first remain silent, deeply involved in my continuous chain. Secondly, if someone was lingering, I would look up and smile, acknowledging his or her presence. From here it would go either two ways. I would look back down and keep working, providing them the personal space to choose to stay longer with the installation or move on. Or, they might immediately ask me a question, upon which I would answer, waiting to see how dialogue might ensue. Proceeding from there, I let the viewer guide our interaction, yet, by turning questions back towards them, Idle Hands developed into something I had not predicted: an exchange of personal stories and honest emotions connected to handmade objects and the act of making. And this felt right.

     If I gave anything to the viewer, and I think I did, what they gave to me was a sweet moment of shared time and experiences. Soon, I became a depository of family history, stories similar to my own, familiar yet wonderfully unique. They were about “my mother or my grandmother,” the cherished objects left behind, and the rich memories that accompanied the skills passed down through generations. Explanations were given as to how theses valuable objects are kept visible within their own home, as familes become mini-curators and caretakers of handmade objects and processes. These objects and skills, retaining a strong presence today, were the connection to a time gone by. It became clear to me that this act of making linked generations, simultaneously imbuing the products with personal value derived from the emotions felt towards the maker. The true meaning behind the term, “Handmade Meaning,” seems to lie at the intersection where the objects and skills meet the personal context of family history.

     I am sold on this rich exchange with one’s audience that can come from performance work. Like music and dance, it is an art made to experience at the moment of now, an art about the making of itself, and directly tied to the audience’s response. I am left with an interest in dissolving the divide between artist and audience. Beyond Kaprow, this remains a current topic for critical writing, more involved than my personal reflections. While there is much research for me to catch up on, I would like to keep conducting my own: I am curious to see how the development of a performance can be directly affected by the culture of a town or city, Madison being full of kind, persistent, curiously-intellectual question askers. Could I make performance art truly blend with life, immerse it and not separate it? How would it be to take these acts of making directly out into the public, with little or no regard for creating a “stage” on which to perform? I am eager to find new materials and actions that speak to the parallel between art and life. So I end with saying, “Thank you Madison,” for without you I would not have been left with such rich thoughts for future work– I truly appreciate how it takes a city to make art.