Thinking about process and practice.


I do this all the time.

I sit down and say to myself,

"The ideas of “process” and “practice” are really on my mind. I should get serious and write about it."

So I sit down and start off with a classic topic paragraph worthy of someone with an MFA and a decent amount of reading under my belt:

“I have been thinking about the practice of work with "practice" being a step beyond "process." For the purpose of this post, "process" is the internal monologue that goes with the making of work. "Practice" takes "process" farther into a routine or a ritual of doing.”

Then I get excited because this idea goes back years. I’m thinking about feminist art history, especially on the West Coast. Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Anna Halprin…Oh, and then Carolee Schneeman on the East Coast. But wait a minute. Then there are all the photographers (Cindy Sherman!!!!) and the designers (Barbara Kruger!). They had a huge impact and it could be said that the immediacy of photography and agitprop-based work was maybe not so process-oriented. But the actions behind the photography…Sherman’s self-portraits in character, the crafting processes behind the final results of Woman House…Agitprop was clearly a response to negate the ghettoization of “woman’s work.” 

Then I realize. I don’t have enough information. That is often why nothing gets done around here. I’m never one to just make a statement without something to back it up, so I get stuck trying to recall footnotes from twenty years ago. 

Lucy Lippard is who I am thinking about. (I no longer have her book, and it’s not available from our library, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.)

Meanwhile I am still sitting here writing conversationally, trying to write a serious article, when I laugh at myself and realize that that is exactly what I am writing about. I'll explain further...

Let's go back to the ongoing conversation in the 80s and 90s about the transformation of the material into the conceptual, which is what Lippard tracked in her book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. The increasing value and the possibly ironic heft of the conceptual was, after all, what convinced me to change my study focus from painting to sculpture and from sculpture to “New Genres,” whatever that is. Then Umberto Eco wrote his marvelous book, The Open Work, in 1989 about the way that interactivity had become a performative process that broke open the structure of narrative. Suddenly it seemed okay to turn art into something so ephemeral that the documentation suddenly became more important than the thing itself because the art wasn’t so much the made thing as it was the interchange between the maker, the object and the viewer. (Check out Foucault, of course.) 

Anyway, back to thinking about how feminism changed the way artists approach their work, this time in a more specific and focused way. (Yes, the personal is political, the performance of identity reveals the fuzzy line between nature and nurture, etc…now let’s move on.) 

Female time is about waiting and interruptions. It’s about sitting there while the baby is napping for a spare few hours, before the older child gets picked up from school. It’s not enough time and not predictable enough so that a woman can actually hold down a job, keep a career going, or to finish all the housework. Washing dishes or vacuuming will wake the baby. A woman's focus is too divided to spend hours doing desk work for anyone, including herself. 

There may have a big pile of old sheets that would make a good rag rug, or mending, or knitting. Or maybe there are drawers to organize, dinners to plan and floors to clean. 

It’s quiet. The baby wakes up and needs to nurse. Now she works with only one arm free and someone trying to get her attention. It takes a lot of skill and there's no manual. Mothers of twins deserve medals.

The tasks are meant to be finished at some point, but more importantly they are there to mark time, to feather the nest. Each feather represents a collection of seconds, minutes, thoughts, ideas. A knitted sock is a map of what was on the knitter's mind while she turned the heel. I know a knitter who labels each of her pieces with the names of television programs that she watched while making them. 

Motherhood is the most banal, abject, and at the same time, the most elevated and even sacred activity that I have, personally, ever done. It is the original “work-in-progress” that is never finished. It is the ultimate “process” art. *

If the endless, time-counting activities of motherhood is feminist process, then what is “practice?” I would argue that building a ritual or a routine out of one or multiple processes is what makes a “practice.” A “practice” can, potentially, be anything. Motherhood takes a great deal of discipline, and when done right, becomes a practice that grows healthy and happy children into mature adults, and mothers into older women who have a life’s work behind them. 

We, as mothers, as process-doers and practicers, don’t make the work. We make the container that holds the work. The work makes itself. Somewhere back in the 60s and 70s, there were suddenly lots of female-made art that looked like and acted like containers. Mothers need lots of them, whether they hold yesterday’s leftovers or piles of sketches that go back seven years. I can’t presume to make any assumptions as to whether women are genetically predisposed to make containers or whether it’s just something we have on our minds because that’s what women have to do every day. My mother once told me that women make work that reflects the function of our wombs, which is a saying rather than a confirmed fact. I do know that a lot of art that I have made are things that hold other things and I have seen lots of made objects by women that function as containers - clothes, bags, sculptures, films that are more than the sums of their parts. We make matryoshka dolls out of our lives, worlds within worlds. Each sock holds hundreds of stitches that, in turn, hold a child’s foot as she grows. When it is taken off, the sock documents that once the child’s foot was that small. It has a small worn spot where the ball of her foot was where she pressed repeatedly onto the ground when she ran. Then there’s the question as to whether the art is the sock, or whether it’s the invisible relationship between the sock, the worn spot, the maker and the child who may now be an adult years later. Perhaps the art asks questions about the spaces in between all of these elements. The practice is what gets us there. The process is the building block. 

A practice is a daily activity that draws the boundaries of space and time in order to hold a process. The process is the making of the map that documents life or time or ideas. Each practice is different. The sum total of a practice is possibly a life, or a history. Or perhaps it’s just another question.

*(Another topic for a later date is that men are not without process and practice, and in 2017 they are also more likely to be the "lead parent" than in previous times. I am interested in how men approach this kind of work, whether it is "lead parenting" or finding ways to create their practices and lifes' work.)

©2017 by Jennifer Gwirtz, all rights reserved.