Monday, May 29, 2017

Exploring Gender and Sexuality through Making

"Gender, Sexuality and the Sensory" was the title of an amazing one-day symposium recently held at the University of Kent. It asked what significance explorations of the sensory have for contemporary analysis of gender, sex and sexuality. Alongside a a line-up of brilliant speakers I offered a drop-in feminist craftivism workshop during registration and breaks. The idea was to allow people a hands-on sensory experience in exploring the symposium's main themes by making their very own feminist felt badge. I had provided a selection of templates of background shapes and gender themed motifs such as the letter Q for queer, the female sign, ovaries and elongated oval shapes which could be combined to form an abstract resemblance of a vagina. The base material was felt and people could use some mesh fabric, loads of different beads and pearls and of course lots of colourful thread to embellish their badges. 

The results were absolutely stunning!! Most people used the templates as a starting point for creating their own designs and I am truly impressed by the dedication and creativity people put into their pieces. I suggested that people should take needle and thread into the lecture theatre so they could continue working on their badges while listening to the presentations. Many reported afterwards that it actually helped them concentrate - something I've picked up a long time ago. Unfortunately, it's not yet something the academy has come to appreciate. Often, I don't dare to take out my sewing during a lecture because I feel that people would perceive it as extremely rude and as a sign of disinterest. I guess from now on, whenever I give a talk, I will make a habit of letting people know in the beginning that I don't mind if they engage in some kind of quiet creative activity while listening because I'm aware of the benefits.

Some recent scholarship has also come to appreciate practices of making as forms of meaning-making (Cvetkovich 2012, Gauntlett 2007 and 2011, Sedgewick 2003). During the act of making (a painting, a knitted hat, a clay bowl or a felt badge) materials, ideas or both are connected and turned into something new. The maker hereby inhabits a curious position; he or she not only connects the individual materials, but is also provided with the opportunity to connect with the materials themselves and his or her own physical presence in the world through a sensory and kinesthetic engagement with them (Gauntlett 2011). For instance, as the cool metal of the knitting needles rests against the skin of one’s hands, the regular and rhythmic motion of knitting provides a space for body and mind to rest and wander as well as an outlet for feelings of agitation and despair. As such, creative practices of making provide an opportunity to “maneuver the mind inside or around an impasse [as] forms of agency that can take the form of literal movement and are thus more e-motional or sensational or tactile” (Cvetkovich 2012: 21). 

One of the participants in the workshop expressed unease about which design to choose because she was worried about its implied message regarding gender and sexuality. A concern I can relate to as one naturally does not want to offend someone else or perhaps send "the wrong" message. But rather than looking at these badges as definitive statements about gender, sex and sexuality, they are, in fact, an invitation for conversation and a means to raise awareness. If asked by someone about your awesome flashy vagina badge, hopefully, this will provide an opportunity to engage someone in a meaningful conversation about gender, sex and sexuality and, for example, allow them to reflect on the constructedness of gender categories. In the spirit of the so-called 'Craftivist Movement', your felt badge is evidence of your dedication to interrogating gender and sexuality because you have invested skill, time, and effort in creating a handmade object that encourages critical engagement with the topic (Greer 2014). As such, making is not only about connecting materials, but also about bringing together ideas and people (Gauntlett 2011). 

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression : A Public Feeling. Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2012.
Gauntlett, David. Creative Explorations : New Approaches to Identities and Audiences. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
–--. Making Is Connecting : The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge : Polity, 2011.
Greer, Betsy. Ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press , 2003.  

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