Circular Podcast with Lauren Chang
How does conservation differ from repair? How is it similar? How have the tenets and ideas of best practice with conservation changed over time?
On today’s episode, I’m talking to Lauren Chang, a textile specialist, who spins, dyes, weaves, and writes about textiles on her website interstitial-spaces.com. She holds a B.A. in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University and an MA in Textile Conservation from the Textile Conservation Centre in the United Kingdom. Lauren worked as a textile conservator at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.
I’m Katie Treggiden, and this is Circular: a podcast exploring the intersections of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers, and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear “take make waste” model of production and consumption and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about repair.
I think our relationship with the world has become somewhat transactional, somewhat disposable, and I think manufacturing has moved us in that direction, but I don’t really think you get very far by lecturing people or shaking a finger. So, I want people to experience what I experienced at NMAI, and I want people to experience what I, what I feel or sense that the farmers I work with are experiencing. It’s so much better to have that ‘aha’ moment yourself. But then it’s sort of like what Professor Giles says, which is you have to unpack that emotional response. So you unpack that emotional response and you can help people understand that you, this beautiful five, this beautiful hat, this beautiful shawl you have, is a result of my relationships with these fibre producers who are working so hard to create this fibre and doing all these amazing side things like regenerative agriculture, etc.
I met Lauren Chang for the first time when I interviewed her for my 2018 book ‘Weaving – Contemporary Makers on the Loom’ published by Luteum. I asked her to give me some feedback on the chapter intros, and she was brave enough to be very honest. She kindly came to London to take part in a panel event for the book launch at the Tate Modern.
And she’s been someone I trust for honest informed advice ever since. Lauren is a textile specialist. She spins, dyes and weaves as well as writing about textiles on her website, interstitial-spaces.com. She holds a BA in art and archaeology from Princeton University and an MA in Textile Conservation from the Textile Conservation Centre in the United Kingdom. Lauren has worked as a textile conservator at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian Institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She trained in weave structures with Milton Sonday and through the International Centre for the Study of Ancient Textiles in Leon, France. Today, Lauren focuses on making cloths and balances her academic training with her relationships within the fibre and maker communities, her work centres around natural materials and the shepherdesses and farmers who produce them.
Her work and writing have been featured in Spin Off magazine, published by Interweave Press and in November 2017, she presented a couple of projects, Cloth Cultures, Future Legacies of Dorothy K. Burnham, and a conference at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.
GUEST INTERVIEW PART 1
KT: Lauren, thank you so much for joining me. I would love to start right at the beginning and ask you a little bit about how repair and mending and fixing showed up in your childhood and early life if indeed they did.
LC: Thanks for inviting me to be here Katie. Let’s see… Really, there was no way that mending and repair showed up in my childhood. I’m the youngest of four. So, I actually, maybe tangentially related would be hand me downs, sort of like paper stuffed in the toes of my soccer shoes kind of thing.
I did learn to knit when I was seven and I made this terrible scarf that my oldest brother who was in boarding school actually wore and just to let you know how things were in my family, I made a baby sweater for my sister, like decades later and my mother said I was finally getting the hang of knitting. And then the first, the first day I showed up to sort of interview for my first pre-program like before graduate school, textile conservation interview at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was wearing my mother’s hand me down 1980s coat. I could see the shoulder pads, like in my peripheral vision and as I was leaving the door of my house, my apartment, the hem fell out and I stapled it. So just really…
KT: With an office stapler? Like a…
LC: Yeah, like an office stapler.
LC: It was a tweed coat, so I was like. She saw it, she knew, like they knew.
KT: So, mending and repair was not part of your childhood at all.
LC: No, not at all.
KT: That’s fascinating. I think you’re perhaps the first or second person on the podcast who said that which is interesting. So, you are a first generation Chinese American. How do you think attitudes to repair differ between Chinese culture and American cultures?
LC: Yes, I’m actually from a family of immigrants. And I, again, I hate disappointing you at two questions in a row, but I’m not sure that I would know. I grew up in a community where we were pretty much one of maybe four Asian families. So, I didn’t have a lot of connection with Asian families outside of my own. Also, my grandmother would be horrified if I was teaching anything about Chinese culture or saying anything about Chinese culture.
I’m American born! But I, I have like two really, I have two really strong memories about her from my mother and then one really poignant conversation with her that really informed my professional life. And the, the conversation that informed my professional life is that, she went to Greece and she called me up when she got back. And she said, Lauren, why is everything over there broken? And of course, she’s talking about the ruins, like the Parthenon and things like that. And she said in China, we would never leave it like that. And, you know, fast forward to maybe a few years later, and I had my first trip to China, and I was in the Forbidden City and that’s quite restored.
I mean, quite brilliantly coloured and completely restored. And I remember thinking, oh my God, this is really intact, like restored. So, we kind of have like the two opposite ends of the spectrum. And then I remember from my mother, her telling me about my grandmother, that they were a rather important family in China. And so, during the war, my grandmother had to host Western dignitaries. So, my mother was telling me there was nowhere to get dresses during the war and she would make these beautiful dresses and she remembers one in particular that was beaded with a top hat and gloves, so like all over. And then my mom also says that she remembers as a kid, that she would, my grandma would unpick sweaters, like the seams and then my mom would remember, it’s like having to unravel them and scan them up. And then my grandmother boiling them to knit a new sweater. And it makes me think of like, that’s not thrift, that’s not the environment, that’s war, there’s no choice. There’s nowhere else to go. And it also made me think of like, there’s an element of dignity there, right? So, you don’t, she had to show up in a beautiful dress, like a cocktail or evening, evening dress. And so, it couldn’t just be something you threw together. And there’s also this idea of innovation and creativity, where you take one material, and you don’t just reinvent the same thing. It was always a different sweater it was an opportunity to make something new and to do something different.
And my grandmother was super, super creative and has incredible design sense. I think my mother got that from her too. And then there’s also that element always of care, right? She wants her, to make something lovely for her daughter.
KT: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting what you mentioned about the kind of mending coming from the environment, poverty or the war. And I think when I’ve spoken to people in sort of different cultures and from different family backgrounds, thinking back across the podcast episodes I’ve recorded, those things have happened at different points in time and in different generations. So, by the time we get to the people I’m interviewing, those things have either been lost because they were too many generations behind, or actually they’ve just about made it. And my auntie is just about old enough to remember ‘make do and mend’ during the second world war in the UK. And when I spoke to her about darning and she sort of said, you know, gosh, I’d never wear a darned item out of the house. Those are for housework and gardening. And I’d feel very sorry for someone if they were wearing a darned item.
So, for her, there was very much this sort of wartime poverty association still, but I think that’s certainly changing in Europe. You know, there’s a, there’s a big sort of visible mending trend now almost. Is that something you’re seeing in the states as well?
LC: Oh, visible mending is very, I think it’s kind of not to sound flippant, but I think it’s all the rage. I really, you know, between doing your jeans and sort of the overstate jean and darning your knitting, but I feel like, I feel like, I, the patchwork repairs, something I see much more in the states.
KT: Yeah, I was going to say there’s a, there’s a big heritage of quilting, isn’t there in the states? And that’s a form of mending and repair and reuse.
Is that something, is that something you were aware…
LC: Yeah originally, right, scraps and needlework…
KT: …of growing up sort of amongst your friends and contemporaries, no?
LC: No. I mean, I think sports growing up, like I did a lot of sports and my goal was to be an orthopaedic surgeon because when I got through my training, all my sports heroes would need me like this is, you know, a typical 9, 10, 11-year-olds dream. I just, I was not, I, I,I’m, I’m remembering now that I had my piano teacher, who was also a friend of the family, gave me for my birthday, sewing lessons. And it was like these cut-out owl shapes. And we’ve made these pillows and I distinctly remember being incredibly disinterested in that.
KT: I love it.
So, you studied archaeology and then textile conservation. So how did you go from disinterested child via archaeology to textile conservation? Tell us what happened.
LC: There’s the theme in these questions and you’ll see them. And, and, and I’ll just say upfront, I’m the youngest of four, but…
KT: This is your excuse for everything that follows, is it?
LC: This is the excuse for everything that follows.
So I took a class in every department at Princeton, except economics. I was interested in everything. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I knew, I had taken some art history at boarding school, and we had taken a trip to Europe. I love art, but then, my oldest brother that was going to Princeton had told me I had to take this class with this amazing professor in Classical Archaeology.
And I never read the myths. Like I said, I, I, one time I said, this poor Hermes everyone makes him go here and there. He just has to go everywhere for people. And the same professor said, ‘messenger of the gods, Miss Chang, winged feet, Miss Chang’. And so, I took his class and I fell in love with the way he asked us to think.
And I do remember him saying to us, or maybe it was in a precept. I don’t, I don’t remember. I do remember him saying, ‘you know, everyone has an emotional reaction to art and then our job is to do the, do, delve deeper and figure out the cultural, you know, political look at the literature, find the context, find out the why and the how, and, and contextualize and place that’. And he said the other flip side of that is you have to be able to communicate that, like, it doesn’t help if you just keep it to yourself. And so that’s kind of stuck with me. And then also, I did my thesis with him and the thesis that I, period, that I concentrated on was that point in Hellenistic art, where suddenly to express two conflicting things, you don’t need two figures. So, you don’t need like the conqueror and the vanquished. You have within a single sculpture or a single depiction of a figure, both of those elements.
KT: Oooh, I like that.
LC: You can, feel, you can see, you can sense it. You see it reflected in the literature of the time and philosophy of time.
And so that’s kind of where I think I get started to have this idea of opposite and conflicting ideas occupying, occupying in this case, the same physical space. And so that’s stuck with me and he’s, you know, luckily, I’ve had him in my life intermittently over the years, so it’s been very nice. So that was kind of how I ended up in archaeology because I just liked the way he made us or asked us to think.
KT: I think that’s so important and something that is, you know, for all the talk of having to think for yourself, at undergraduate level, I don’t think I ever really was challenged to think in that way until I did my masters and the incredible course leader, program leader, that I studied under Claire Omani had this expression of sitting in the discomfort of not knowing. And it was the first time I’d ever had to do that.
You know, I, I was lucky that I’ve always picked up concepts fairly quickly and would move fairly quickly from a question to an answer. And it was only when I, when I studied my masters, that I was forced to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and not understanding and nuance and complexity. And I think that, in itself, I mean, obviously, everything that I learned factually and the methodologies and all that stuff I learned were incredibly valuable, but I think that was perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I took from my masters.
LC: I think that it’s, you know, I remember learning the Greek concept of Hubris and I think it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s that idea of, right, that if you, as soon as you start to think, you know, everything, it was very simplistic. It’s not a classical definition, like knock it down, right? And I, it’s so funny because sitting in the discomfort of not knowing might’ve been like the tag phrase of the day since I got your questions to this moment now. But it’s like, I think that it’s, that it’s kind of the, for me, it’s, it’s feeling more like the ebb and flow of energy and learning. So, like, which is really nice because it’s made me think about like expertise and mastery-over versus mastery-with. And what’s really nice is if you never get to, you can never get to the final point of knowing everything.
But as soon as you get to know something, there’s always something more. So, you’re always going to be uncomfortable.
KT: Wisest is she who knows what she does not know, right?
LC: Exactly! And just, you know, collapses with exhaustion at the end of her life, right?
KT: So how did you go from archaeology to textile conservation?
LC: Okay, so then my older sister… There’s a theme?
Well, my mother basically said you’re interested in so many things, just throw everything into a hat, pick something out. She was kind of just like, and she basically, it wasn’t so much frustration as she had the knowledge to know it’s going to change over time. When it feels really dire, when you’re young to have a career and an identity, she was like, you’re just going to change. But my sister who had been studying in London had, had spent some time with portfold, had seen this Textile Conservation Centre, who was just like, oh, you know, you like art and you like science. I think this could be really good for you. And so, then I inquired at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and showed up in my, you know. Actually, I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Paper Conservator introduced me to the Piccolo Conservator, but I remember sitting down and just loving everything they asked me to do. So, I, unstitched. So, I had to do a sampler and learn how to stitch. And I was like, ‘this is great!’ and then I had to sit for hours and like pick cut stitches out of a rather famous bed cover. I didn’t know it at the time, or anything. So, I just sat there. And it turned out there were like 5,000 stitches. I didn’t pick off 5,000, but you just sit there for hours, and you pick the stitches out and you put them on like some tape put on the back of your hand, so they don’t go everywhere and I thought, this is fantastic! So, then I went down this rabbit hole of like learning the hands-on art, like the studio arts and so 3d design and drawing, painting, and learning all the textile techniques, teaching myself to spin and taking a weaving course. And I think, I think I always kind of wanted a hand skill but was really shy because they didn’t think I had any hand skills.
And I thought that was something you had innately. And then…
KT: It’s funny how we do that with creativity. Nobody, nobody says, oh, I don’t have a language, so there’s no point in me learning one. People go out and learn them.
LC: So, I knew I couldn’t draw, and I still can’t draw. But I took this, I took this painting class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
And I had this great teacher and the first, like everyone there’s a painter, right? This is life drawing, right? So just like he goes, he says, we’re going to do some croquis. I don’t know what a croquis is.
KT: I don’t know what a croquis was. What’s a croquis?
LC: So like these, these quick sketches where you get like the gesture of a body, the body is really hard. So, I sat there and he watched me for like, you know, they would change, you know, quick changes of poses and I, it was blank, blank. So, this is back one day, and he was like, bring a Walkman, bring, like, you need to like, get out of yourself.
So, he did this and he walked me through a lot of things. And then I learned skills and made a painting that looked like, and, but it’s hysterical because at one point he, he brought in a book, he brought in like this big monograph and it’s really thick and it just come out and he said, Lauren, I want you to spend the first half an hour just leaping through this.
So, everyone’s painting and I’m leaping through this. And he goes, what do you notice? It was done chronologically. ‘You know, he really wasn’t very good at the start’. That’s right, it took him years! You’ve got time! So, it was, yeah, I learned that, like, there’s a real difference between talent and skill. Yeah, right. Which was…
KT: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s really important. It breaks my heart when people say I’m just not creative.
LC: It’s okay. You can enjoy things you’re not good at that was like a super, really good lesson to learn.
KT: Yes. I read a really interesting article, which if I can find it, I will pop up in the show notes, in the Guardian recently about how people aren’t allowed to have hobbies anymore. We have to have a side hustle. So, unless you’re good enough at something that you can sell it, you’re somehow not allowed just to enjoy doing it for the pleasure of it and that, that is a real loss.
But I want to talk to you about textile conservation because you worked for many years in some of the most respected museums in the world. And conservation is, of course, a type of repair,
but it differs in some significant ways from the sorts of domestic repairs that we might do at home. So, I’d love you just to dig into, kind of some, those differences for our listeners.
LC: So, conservation is quite a rigorous and practical and theoretical discipline. So practically speaking, there’s specifics, like when you’re stitching, you always move your needle, or you place your pins through the interstices of the textile. So, the spaces between the works are less, like, you never split breath. So that’s practically speaking, maybe quite different. There’re also really stringent parameters around like, the materials you select. So, they don’t cause damage just by sitting next to you or how they age and the grade. There are also kinds of philosophical differences and part of it is the, you don’t often choose what you repair.
So for example, if you, perhaps, if you work in it and a museum it’s usually exhibition driven, so… Right, pieces. You might be consulted for the choice of them looking at the condition, but the selection is usually made by curatorial staff. And if you’re in private conservator, you kind of get what the client brings to you. So, you also don’t make, you know, often unilateral decisions about the treatment.
You might do a condition report and a traditional treatment proposal, but that proposal is discussed by the stakeholders. And perhaps that’s the curator, perhaps that’s the client, perhaps like in the case of, if you’re working somewhere like the National Museum of the American Indian, we worked with community consultants from the communities. And so, it’s, it’s just weighed in approves. You’re not acting unilaterally.
And then you also document what you do. So, both with images and texts and you document, not just what you did and what you used, but you document why you chose those methods and why you chose those materials. So, it’s, it’s a, there’s this element of accountability. There’s this element of thinking about the objects, future life and someone who might come in when you’re gone and be able to understand where this piece picks up.
KT: And aside from that documentation, we touched on the sorts of current trends for visible mending, but conservation is often invisible and reversible.
LC: I think I’ll do the invisible first because it’s yes and no. Okay. So yes, in that conservation treatment should be in service of the object. So, for example, if you have a dress that has tears and breaks in it and cannot be put on, say a dress form or a mannequin, we might repair it so that it can be seen as worn. So, there you’re working with stabilizing and you’re making it readable as a dress. KT: So, you would still be able to see the damage?
LC: Yes. And you kind of don’t want to, you don’t want the damage to be distracting, but you want them to see, is this dress, but in no way, would I, would I be embellishing the dress or with a, I would be picking a, they call it sympathetic materials and colours so that, that’s, you want to blend it. You don’t want it to be the thing, first thing people notice. And if you have something like, like resist-dyed mordant printed textile from India with a big scene of like a tree in the middle and the flowers and the birds on the sides to say the bottom corner where the bird is completely, you know, torn, you know, you’d work to kind of bring all those tears together and make, make that image readable. But I probably wouldn’t go in and like, put in extra parts of the bird, like
LC: It’s kind of
LC: What is, what is there. And then the visible part is that under close examination or under,
with analytical, whatever, somehow my hand needs to be distinguishable.
LC: The documentation helps with that, but you want to make sure that no one ever makes mistakes, what say, what I would do is as part of the original dress or something like that.
KT: Right. Yeah, that’s an important distinction. And that is partly because at some point someone might want to undo what you’ve done and redo it with a more contemporary method.
LC: Right. Or say, oh my God, they had polyester back then? This can’t be this date, that sort of thing.
KT: Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s fascinating.
AD BREAK INTRO
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GUEST INTERVIEW PART 2
KT: And so how have some of those tenants and ideas of best practices changed over time?
LC: I think there’s, there’s, there’s three. So, there’s a lot that goes back and forth. And again, I haven’t been in conservatory in a long time, but these are things that were really at the forefront, sort of when I was working in conservation, I still think they’re kind of meaty conversations now. And the first one is kind of the idea of restoration versus conservation.
So, conservation is kind of this idea that you can serve what’s in front of you right now. You don’t bring it back to, whatever, former glory and restoration is that you would restore it to some earlier incarnation. But I’d like to point out that conserving at the point at which an object is when it comes before you is still a choice of a point in time. It’s conservation, it’s mitigation. We can’t just freeze. Things are just going to, you’re fighting entropy. So, things are just going to keep going. And, but it is a choice to stop there. And I think there are times when things get restored, you know, if something has been modified and modified and modified and modified and no longer represents this part of its life, you might go back and restore it to its more historically significant or culturally relevant period. So, it’s not, there’s very little, that’s black and white, the other tenant is kind of the one you mentioned, which is reversible. And I think the conversation there has been kind of reversible versus reinterpreted. So, when you’re talking about stitching, you can take the stitching out.
But if you’re talking about cleaning, you’re never going to put the dirt back in. So reversible, and I think we’ve kind of moved towards the idea of conservator dependent, move towards the idea of reinterpreted, which means that the future as new scholarship, as new ideas, as new people come in, you’ve preserved the ability for the object to be interpreted. And I also, it’s also interesting to me, that reversible seems to be a word that relates to physical properties. Whereas re-interpretable to me has a link to ideas of story narrative, which kind of leads us to the last set of tenants that I think are always thorny. And that’s the conservation of tangible versus intangible heritage. And there are written, you know, national, international community, and conservation communities that is about preserving intangible heritage versus tangible heritage. But there is a lot of discussion about how that really works. And I was trying to think of an example because I think theoretically speaking, it’s a little murky, but even when you’re in, it’s murky and my memory isn’t perfect here, but for an open exam, the open exam in grad school, we were each given an object and we had to like under these exam conditions, you look at the condition report and analysis, and then come out with a treatment plan. And I got a bathrobe that was thought to be Jeremy Bentham’s bathrobe. Right. And there’s a lot of like, I think that was fairly conclusive, contextual evidence, but not physical, right physical evidence.
And it was this printed cotton, you know, like a Previs coloured cotton with little, tiny flower prints and then a more dense flower print around the edges. Very typical at the time. And it was super yellow with acidity and had these patches of brown staining and without lowering the acidity in the cotton, the fibres was, just started to disintegrate. So, they already have the loss of physicality.
But the brief also stated that there was some idea that the brown stains might be Bentham’s blood. And this was right in the heyday of DNA testing. I think they had just found Lincoln’s blood at the Chicago History Museum. And there’s, a DNA analysis, could tell us if this is definitively associated with that. But to do that analysis would mean that I would have to, like, cut out this like a big square of the bathrobe.
LC: And, and in my mind, it could be chocolate, right? Like, we didn’t know. So, there’s this idea that you would, to save the whole bathrobe. I would have to, to lower acidity, the best treatment is to do it, put it in a wet cleaning. But if I put it in the wet clean to save the whole bathroom, I might wash away the blood evidence. And then we don’t want to wash away the blood evidence because that’s Jeremy Bentham on the bathrobe. So, it’s that tension of, do you do you?
LC: Which takes precedence?
KT: And I guess, do you then say, okay, I’m going to cut out the bit to send it off for DNA testing or I’m going to leave it and wait 50 years until they just need a tiny thread for the DNA testing?
It’s those questions as well. Isn’t it?
LC: That’s what I kind of, that’s the, that’s the question I brought up in it and it was, I think, I think my examiners were unsatisfied with my waffling.
KT: I think that’s fair. So, let’s talk about some of the power dynamics, at play, because the people orchestrating the conservation, the people deciding what gets conserved and what doesn’t and how, are usually dominant cultures, right. Whereas the objects being conserved may or may not come from those same cultures.
LC: Yep. That can often be the case. And I think that the best way for me to address this question is through my own personal experiences. And just as a caveat, this is with the 15 to 20 years of hindsight. So, I want to go back to kind of where I sort of laid the groundwork, talking about my grandmother and her being concerned about everything in Greece being broken, but it reminded me of a conversation in graduate school. My conservation course ran in tandem with a museum studies course. So, this was a class where we had both sets of students in it. And we were on the topic of the linear progress in history. And I remember raising my hand and saying, well, what if you believe time is cyclical or circular? And I gave the example of a lamp and it’s the last lamp on earth. And we don’t have the materials or technology to make the missing piece that will make it work. So, the only way to make it work is to make this like pink plastic plug. And it really got into this lively discussion with people who are like, no, don’t do it. You cannot put anything foreign in here, foreign objects in here. And other people like, well if it doesn’t work, doesn’t work. So, let’s make it work. So really bringing up ideas of authenticity and the primacy of materials. And so then from there, we fast forward to my time at the National Museum of the American Indian.
I’ve done some projects on Western conservation efforts in China. And I was interested in seeing how a federal institution might work with native communities. It was my first fellowship after school. So, I was a newly minted conservator equipped with the science, the handling skills, the know-how to preserve all cultural heritage and solely by virtue of that education, I had the privilege to go into storage, to handle materials, to study the objects up close. And I don’t think I had realised it at the time, but I had, in some ways become a gatekeeper. Each fellow had a research project, and I continued my exploration of intangible heritage. So, I was looking at a collection of dance regalia from Northern California. This dance regalia is quite stunning. It’s got these hide rat skirts and these aprons and tops and everything is heavily embellished with shells and beads.
And so, when they are dancing and moving, they make this really incredible sound, but anything that moves often on weekends. So, then we as conservators would go in and stabilise it. But when you stabilise things, are you changing the sound? So, I was interested in the sound, but definitely from a materials perspective.
KT: Right. So, it’s that sort of trade-off between tangible and intangible heritage.
LC: And how they work together or don’t work together sometimes.
So, so I was looking mainly at Fuller and Karuk material, and I was fortunate to be able to work with Warren Bommelin who is a language-keeper, dance regalia specialist, basketry specialists, just the tradition bearer of the community and his wife, Lena, who is Karuk, incredibly knowledgeable and just a force of nature. They came, I think, to an artist residency. And so, then I would work with them as they, I would learn from them, work for them while they worked with their collection. And so literally a gatekeeper. So, you can imagine we’re in a room and it’s an institutional museum room with fold-out tables and their collection of the dance regalia is laid out flat on tables and it was really tense.
But I remember Warren saying, oh, these pieces haven’t been sung to or danced to in a really long time. And that’s why they’re in such bad shape right. Saying that. Yeah. And then he sang to them, and we started working with them. He started telling me about the history and how they were made and how they were used and how that relates to the contemporary traditions and the community.
And he moved the pieces as if they would be danced. And towards the end, they dressed me in his aunt’s regalia, which was such an honour, but also so incredibly moving. And I think these were all acts of preservation and care. And the power had really shifted because I only learned as much as they were willing to share. And they also brought up a lot of ideas about conservation for me, because it was clear that I could learn to care for the materials, the physical aspects of the dance regalia, but it was also clear that I could not care for them in a way that actually preserved them. So, raised the question of what is my role as a conservator, what is the best cure or best practice? What are we conserving and how do I fulfil my role in providing the best care for the collection?
KT: And that’s because you couldn’t sing to them or, or dance to them. You couldn’t do that part of the conservation, right?
LC: Right. There’s only one level in which I could provide care. So, then I went away, and I came back, and I was, the conservation league is offering an exhibition with 11 communities from the north Pacific coast. And one of the initial things we always did with communities gathered is handling restrictions.
So, who can handle what, what times? And so, one exhibition in the community that gets down there, their area was based on Shaman materials. Their exhibition was based on Shaman materials. And so, I thought I would gather a long list of handling restrictions. But when I went to the community curators and asked them about healing restrictions, they replied, ‘Honey, you don’t have the power’. And it was just a huge relief not to have the power.
KT: So, you haven’t got the sort of shamanistic power that they’ve got to bring those materials to life, that’s what they meant.
KT: Right. I cannot elicit any type of power. They are just objects in my hands. So just the physical, physical aspects. So then, the final example is with the Kwakwaka’wakw community, they, there’s a piece in the collection, a hand saw mask made by a very famous Kwakwaka’wakw artist named Mungo Martin, and that was collected by the museum in around 1950 and the Kwakwaka’wakw community curators wanted to include this in the exhibition, and these are the bird mask. So, it’s carbon wooden painted, carved wood and it’s painted, and this mask would sit on the dancer’s head. And it has this long beak that can be controlled by the dancer to make these snapping noises. And then the body of the dancer is concealed with strips in Cedar bark, found in Cedar bark which are by the very nature incredibly vulnerable to loss.
LC: So, this very famous mask had lost its Cedar bark. The feathers were bugging me, and it had a few repairs that community curators’ thought were not appropriate. So, they wanted it in the exhibition, but it would never be shown in its current condition. It would never be danced in that condition. And so, what they wanted to do a refurbishment or rejuvenation of the mask. And so, after much discussion, that’s what happened.
That’s what happened. And the community prepared the Cedar bark materials and then an artist from the community executed the actual refurbishment or rejuvenation and conservation’s role was to sort of document and observe and see what happens and supported what happened. So, this project for me was really an implementation of what I learned with the Bommelin’s was I couldn’t provide this care. I couldn’t do this preservation, but I also want to acknowledge that it was a really, it wasn’t an easy decision but it involved a lot of conversations. It brought up a lot of intense feelings. Would this be? A Mungo Martin mask? Who gets to decide that this is being done? And who gets to decide how it’s being done? And who gets to decide who’s doing it? And these were, brought up really strong feelings, not only within the museum but also within the community itself. But what I think is important is that having the messy discussions, asking these questions of who and how these decisions are made, puts this concept of stewardship into actual practice and moves us forward. So, it’s kind of that same idea of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. You don’t necessarily have a happy universal resolution but you have actual movement forward, you have to keep moving forward.
And I think that when things are made, we have to remember these things are made by people for people, and we are incredibly messy. We’re imperfect, we’re always changing. And so, I’m not sure why we would expect the process or the work to be any different.
KT: Yeah. And I think getting comfortable with that discomfort and, and kind of going into those messy conversations with an open mind is such an important part of this process. Isn’t it?
LC: Well, it’s funny, this is 15, 20 years ago, right? For me, and even you, us talking about it and you asking me these questions, like put me into a place of discomfort so that I have to sit with and figure out, I kind of had to wade through and figure out where the discomfort is. So, it’s because it’s an imperfect process that is still in evolution.
It’s not finished, I think.
KT: Now, you’ve now taken this deep material knowledge and all the context that comes with that, that you acquired and refined during your work as a conservator and sort of translated that to your creative practices as a spinner, a dyer and weaver. And of course, a very eloquent writer on all of those subjects. You collaborate really closely with farmers and shepherds to source the fibres for your yarns.
Why are those collaborations so important? So right at the origins of an object, why is it important to be in dialogue with the people who’ve produced those fibres?
LC: Well, I should start by saying that I love animals. So that’s the first thing. And I’m a materials geek. So, you always want to go to the source of the materials. And then this, the clinical answer is also, I, I remember listening to the audiobook of Dan Barbara’s, Their Plate. And he talks about like, his whole point is like the carrot that’s grown in the soil. That’s grown with, you know, with the care, care to the carrot, care to the farmer, care to the land. That’s also the care that tastes best.
LC: And I think you can translate that into just about anything that it is tended to, but the farm, like my relationship with farms, first of all, I kind of want to be, I had seen how museums, I kind of seen how narratives were made. Like I could see it on the other end on the like, after, like, if you look at like, you think of the biography of objects, you’re always popping in at some point in an object’s life. Yeah. And I had this opportunity to pop in at the beginning or somewhere near the beginning. And so that was really exciting to me because I hadn’t been at the beginning and from working with, you know, with the, with communities and at the National Museum of the American Indian, I really, I really found and discovered how much relational learning and you just learn so much more. So, you don’t have these transactional relationships. It’s kind of like when you were talking in your book about how people used to know their butcher and their baker and you know, you would get the better cuts and they would, it’s because you had a relationship. It was not just a transaction and, here I am, you know, it was not Amazon.
LC: So that’s kind of what I wanted with my, with the people who work with the fibres. And the other thing is when I started doing this, I was living in Chicago and farms were really far away.
Like it’s not small like on the coast, things are more tightly, but it is 300 miles. So, farmers and fibre producers, I like we’d have conversations, and they would send me a tweed. And so, we had to get to know each other. And then I would, I usually send a scan of hand spun or something made out of that tweed back to them.
And we would start having these conversations where they would. I remember the first time I got this, the farmer was like, Lauren, you finally get me, like someone finally gets my sheep. You get it. I love that. Then I just sent some, this year, a pair of mitts off to a farmer in New Hampshire. And she said, she said she opened it. And she had tears rolling down her eyes. And just, was like, I can’t believe this is my, this is my flock. And then I had another woman this year say, wait, this is my fibre? And I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that conversation. And I don’t know, it just starts the back and forth, which becomes a relationship, which reminds us of our interconnectedness to each other, which I just think can’t be a bad thing. And I don’t know, it’s just this idea of, of possibility. And I do think I listened to this. I felt very good because I listened to the podcast about How to Save the Planet. And… Did you listen to disaster preparedness?
KT: I don’t think I’ve heard that.
LC: There’s one part where the professor actually says, like they turn to a professor and they say, what’s the best thing you can do for disaster preparedness. They’ve gone through making a grow bag and everything. The professor says something like ‘bake muffins and take it to your neighbour’.
KT: Yes. I was at a conference once where it was just before Brexit, and we had to imagine a situation where it all gone horribly wrong, and nothing could be imported or exported out of the UK.
And so, each table at this conference was given a list of the resources they had. So, you might have like a bicycle and some water, but no food and the table next to you has got food and fuel, but no car and the table… And we had to, it was a really fun exercise. We had to basically kind of barter with the tables next to us to get what we needed. And every time you made a connection, you tied a piece of wool to a chair on that table and drew it over and tied it to a chair on your table. And by the end, there was this incredible web across this huge conference space. And everybody had got what they needed. And it was just this lovely idea that actually, with those relationships and with the community, we’ll all be okay. And I think there’s something really, really powerful in that.
So, you talk about the garments you make as physical embodiments of your relationships, the seasonality of materials and the research and handwork of your collective experience. Now we’ve started to get into that, but would you unpick that a little bit more for me?
LC: Oh gosh. It’s so much easier to write it, it’s much harder to explain it.
I think my goal, and I’m just starting to understand this. Cause I think it is a process, is trying to help repair people’s experiences with the physical world. I think our relationship with the physical world has become somewhat transactional, somewhat disposable. And I think manufacturing has moved us in that direction, but I don’t really think you get very far by lecturing people or shaking a finger.
So, I want people to experience what I experienced at NMAI, and I want people to experience what I, what I feel or sense, that the farmers I work with are experiencing. It’s so much better to have that ‘aha’ moment yourself. But then it’s sort of like what (professor Giles? 49.18) says, which is you have to unpack that emotional response. So, if you unpack that emotional response and you can help people understand that you, this beautiful fibre, this beautiful hat, this beautiful shawl you have, is a result of my relationships with these fibre producers who are working so hard to create this fibre and doing all these amazing side things like regenerative agriculture etcetera. And also help them understand you’re never going to get the same thing twice because this fleece only exists this year. These dye plants are only in the soil this year. And to understand this, the transients, the seasonality is very important. And then this last, the research and the research and handwork part is this. I have hand skills and I, they, need to be in service of something outside the studio. And this is how I feel. I kind of, can be the go-between to translate the raw materials into this object, which then can possibly have this transformative experience for people ideally. But then the one part that, the collective experience part I thought for so long, was just my experience with collections and working with people.
And it’s just been in the last 18 months. And I’m really lucky. This is where the third sibling comes in. My brother, Derek is a professor of Asian-American studies in History at Cornell and with everything that’s gone on in the last 18 months, we’ve had these family Zooms, which has been a really nice side thing of the horribleness of COVID. He’s helped me really understand and unpack like my collective experience, like with my family, with being the children of immigrants, of growing up without a community, a real Asian community, with not really being, you know, one too much of one thing or too little of another he’s also helped us, me understand what is systemic racism. There’re so many words out there. And I honestly needed to understand the history, to understand the framework, to sit in the discomfort of, but from not knowing from like what you say with, with the many techniques to know the forward and the backward and the sides of a topic. And so that part is actually for the first time this year, I’m feeling like I’m in the middle of it, of this kind of design process where I feel like perhaps the next step that comes out, I hope with the harvest moon festival, which would coincide with what would have been my grandmother’s birthday, that the designs will, the designs will actually fill in that last part of a collective experience that’s way more personal.
KT: So yes, that sounds incredible. I look forward to seeing that. So how do you feel that opinions towards mending and repairing are changing?
I think with conversations like you’re leading, and people are having, I think there’s that sitting in the comfort that we’ve been talking about. I think that sometimes we’re at that point where you have a little bit of information and there’s a point in conservation where you learn everything, right? You learn your different techniques and everything, but you realize that no action is neutral, right? So, you do one thing and that causes up these other problems. You do another thing; it causes another problem. But you still have to move ahead. And I think that mending and repair is in, can be in the deeper conversations in that moment of, I want to do this because of this reason, maybe it’s to be thrifty or to be the speckle of the environment. But I’m learning that my actions have all these different repercussions, but it doesn’t mean we just stop. And so, I think that’s how I think that’s where the conversation is. I feel like that’s where the conversation is going. And I think it’s really important because, if you sit in the complexity of this discomfort. I think you understand the frameworks that lead us to this point. And with all the talk about dismantling frameworks, it’s important to understand how they’re made to dismantle them. But I think it’s even more important to understand how they were created. So, you can create frameworks that might, might attempt to do a better job.
LC: So, I, and I think that mending has started a lot of those conversations.
KT: What do you think the future holds? Are you hopeful?
LC: For mending? I hope it stays beyond the fad and fashion of what it is now.
LC: Yeah. I think I just hope it stays beyond the fad and fashion that it is now, and people continue to do… And I, I hope that, you know, there is that concern like it’s really, I’m mending a pair of socks from some socks for a friend. And it was really hard for me to do that. I was in that paralysis moment because I couldn’t do a perfect invisible repair – conservator talking – and then I was like, wait, I don’t have to do this. I can do visible mending. And I was like, no, I can’t do visible mending, this is really hard. And so, I, I hope that it becomes that the conversations around the mending and the wading through the murkiness and being comfortable in discomfort and knowing the complexities is the important part and how you mend is not necessarily.
KT: Yes. Yes. I think that’s so important. Brilliant. What a note to end on, thank you so much, Lauren. And that’s been absolutely brilliant. Amazing.
LC: Thank you for having me.
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This episode was produced by Sasha Huff, so thank you to Sasha, to October Communications for marketing and moral support, to Sugru for their sponsorship, and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to Circular with Katie Treggiden.
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