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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Cycles of production and disruption: in conversation with Karen Kraven
Tuesday, March 23, 2021 | Beth Schellenberg

"Double Thread Stand" (2020),  powder coated steel, denim, cotton pocketing and cord,   photo credit Blaine Campbell


Karen Kraven and I shared a series of scattered connections over the course of several months, with COVID-19 creating setbacks and long pauses that stretched out our dialogue, punctuating a busy yet oppressively still fall. Over a zoom call in November we had an electric conversation about workism and productivity, themes present in Kraven’s work and, of course, in our own lives. Kraven’s work, which revolves around cycles of production and disruption, feels incredibly prescient in this interminable “moment” of isolation, societal disruption and the increasingly obvious malaise created by rampant materialism and capitalist ideology. 

Drawing on fashion, sports, and industry, Kraven’s exhibitions delicately undo and recreate mutable impressions of bodies, highlighting their absence and instability. In Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah (2014) a series of fanciful hats fit for the royal pate of Queen Elizabeth II herself rest jauntily on hat stands made of salt licks (the type strewn across pastures for grazing animals, large colourful blocks) and metal pipe. Dust Against Dust’s (2019) fabric sculptures gesture towards garments, and are rendered precisely in jewel-toned taffetas with carefully hemmed edges. Other exhibitions feature nets draped haphazardly and rough denim fraying, textile compositions that maintain a jagged harmony, falling just shy of cacophony. This work is not prescriptive, rather it is open, literally coming apart at the seams. 

Kraven spent time in the film industry working in set decoration and props, and her exhibitions bear cinematic or theatrical traces, casting the gallery goer as an unwitting protagonist. Her work centralises the experience of the viewer, destabilizing, with a tender and humourous hand, the performative function of sartorial objects, and thereby of the body itself. 



In the studio, I ask myself often about the importance of the physical process. The hours spent lifting, shuffling, moving, shopping, schlepping, hunching, bending, crouching, holding, waiting, kneeling, climbing, clamping, carrying, etc. How are these efforts measured?”



You work primarily in sculpture/textiles and photography. What drew you to these mediums? 

I think a lot about the film theory concept of doubling: the production of a mental object, the real(s) and the imagined. In film, doubling is a contrast between two (or more) characters, who really are two (or more) versions of themselves. This doubling produces a comparison between the real and the represented. 

In the case of photography, there is implied sequential order or time differential between one photo and the next, and in the case of my work, a photo is sometimes a stand-in for a body and then that body is doubled, creating another stand-in of itself. The interplay between sculpture and photo further adds to these representations. 

This layering of photography and textiles also has a lot to do with surface and the permeability of its boundaries, like a bodiless skin. 

Your process seems very meticulous. Does your work (both the physical process and final product) on the deconstructed garments subvert or interrupt the value typically ascribed to menial labour? 

For me, this meticulousness is not at all about striving for perfection, but is a method of connecting with my body, through repetition and through physical contact with the material. 

In the studio, I ask myself often about the importance of the physical process. The hours spent lifting, shuffling, moving, shopping, schlepping, hunching, bending, crouching, holding, waiting, kneeling, climbing, clamping, carrying, etc. How are these efforts measured? And how can they appear in the work? 

Are the hours an artist spends in the studio more valuable after they have suffered burnout? Or depression? Or loss? Or is it simply because time is worth more in these impatient times. 


"Lull & Pause" (2020),  Mulberry Kozo Paper, inkjet print and bronze pins,  photo credit Guy L'Heureux


As you literally go through the motions of learning to sew a specific article of clothing do you feel connected to the people who labour to create the clothes we wear every day, or are you striving to highlight a disconnect between people and the clothes we tend to take for granted? 

I feel a connection to my ancestors who made clothing and to the worker’s who continue this labour. But, it’s a problem to get too romantic about connecting manual labour with artistic practice, I think.  

In Zadie Smith’s recent book reflecting on the early days of the pandemic, Intimations, she writes; “Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit”. She continues her musings with “Do we know how to stop? Those of us from puritan cultures feel ‘work must be done,’ …I carved out meaning by creating artificial deprivations within time, the kind usually provided for people by the real limitations of their real jobs.” 

In thinking about these distinctions, between a real job and art, I’m not directly thinking about the traditional concept of ‘women’s work’ (sewing, cooking, cleaning, etc.) but also including ideas of unpaid work, things like caring, learning and worrying. I’ve been noticing the space and stuff and time around my work more and more lately.

Can you tell me more about the distinctions between a “real job” and art? Are there intersections between the two, like when you are writing grants or pursuing economic opportunities via your art practice? 

For me, artistic pursuit is simultaneously precarious and entrepreneurial. I cobble together earnings with the priority of staying flexible with my time. When I used to work in film (possibly a real job?) my thoughts were consumed by the constant, emergency-like pace. There was always something to do or to prove. Thinking can be a valuable use of time and so can not-thinking. 

Much of your work gestures to the intersection of labour practices, feminism, and fashion/adornment - how do you determine what form best expresses your ideas? 

At this intersection is the body. 

The materiality of the body is unstable, its boundaries constantly moving and shifting. Through fragmented or unfinished references to a body, there is resistance to a whole or determined body. 

I’d say I’m more interested in the sartorial, rather than fashion, and to clothing as layering and adornment; a prolongation of the body that removes its outlines and suggests more than its shape to flirt with the imagined. My sculptures are fragmented, unravelling, disembodied garments that suggest possibilities of the wearer. 


"Hats" from the exhibition Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah (2014), taken by Karen Kraven. 


Your work contains numerous layers and seems to offer up endless associations, is this a reflection of the multitudes a person, “the wearer” can contain, and of how plastic/malleable humans are? Or does it relate more to the “possibilities” of how we perceive others, with the sartorial being an initial signifier? 

What I’m pointing to here is the subjectivity of the wearer (viewer), the possibilities of the body and its multitudes. Judith Butler argues that the body is a psychic and cultural practice that eludes fixed definitions. These works suggest a body but it is not clear how to wear them or whom they were intended for. 


More makes more makes more. It is an endless cycle and there is no incentive within this system to pay people living wages, to make workplaces safe or to create less waste.


Do you see your work relating to current economic and socio-political movements?

Sustainable fashion is sort of a buzz right now, and it’s in response to the exploitative conditions of the global fast-fashion industry that has been rampant since the 1980s. Recently, on the website of a local clothing brand, I saw a featured section titled “our factories”. But, as I scrolled through photos of unnamed workers in unnamed locations, it didn’t really give much information, just the illusion of transparency and ethics. Which part of clothing manufacturing is ethical? The farming? The milling? The dyeing? The cutting? The sewing? I’ve read that the average pair of jeans uses 1800 gallons of water in its production. 

With most clothing brands, the exploitative working conditions are seemingly a given, and brands do somersaults to spin their way out of nightmares like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some changes have been instigated since the disaster, such as company agreements, more unions and brand transparency, but nothing changes the corporation’s desire for profits and consumer’s desire for a cheap product. A $400 ethically made, wool sweater could easily last you 15 years, or you could buy a new $50 acrylic sweater every year for 15 years, which one is actually ‘cheaper’? And who has access to those choices?

Does our current culture of workism and frantic productivity inform your work, or are you more interested in the physical manifestations of labour itself (ie. the actual products of labour - a garment - vs the absurdity of work in a capitalist society)? Or both?

There is a lot that is unsustainable about productivity.

The inventor of the sewing machine was mobbed in the street, because people feared it would replace jobs through automation. But, what actually happened? It increased productivity, which increased production, which increased product, and decreased cost, which increased purchases, which increased demand. And the cycle continues. 

More makes more makes more. It is an endless cycle and there is no incentive within this system to pay people living wages, to make workplaces safe or to create less waste. 

There is a lot still that needs to be said about the importance of resistance and idleness. 

I’m curious about your ideas of idleness, and how it may (or may not) relate to, or be seen in, your work or practice.

I don’t mean the kind of idleness that is afforded at the expense of someone else’s labour. Idleness can be a form of negation, like a resistance against an overly fast pace or a pause in order to take a breath. Idleness can be a refusal to ‘always be working’ in toxic work environments that say they are like a family but don’t acknowledge emotional labour or the consequences that result from ‘always working.’ 

I recently listened to Paul Giamatti read Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville produced by the 92nd Street Y in NYC. If you haven’t ever read this, you should. 

What (if anything explicit or specific) would you like viewers of your work to take away?

I want the viewer to feel information in their body. 

It is paradoxical to ask you to expand on this, given that you are referencing a bodily knowledge or sensation rather than strictly intellectual “mind” information, but… can you expand on this?! 

Ok I’ll try. This idea came from thinking about a line in Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women; “What to do with the information that is feeling?” The context is a piece in the book called The Innocent Question? in which she writes about a friend who has a job as a telephone transcriptionist who has the problem of what to do when the person they are transcribing sobs. He puts sobs in parentheses. I think she is asking what form does this information take and where does it fit. I’m interested in finding these margins, citations and endnotes in a sculpture. And I’m interested in the viewer understanding these peripheries as ‘feelings’ rather than direct ‘meaning’.

The group exhibition I am currently in, in a closed Musée d’art Contemporain de Montreal, explores some concepts around embodied language; how language can be inscribed through mechanization, trauma, memory, translation or gesture. 

The above conversation was conducted by Beth Schellenberg, a writer and editor currently living on Treaty 1 Territory in Winnipeg, MB. Special thanks to Karen Kraven for her time and for sharing generously in this conversation. 

Cover Image: "Double Thread Stand" (2020),  powder coated steel, denim, cotton pocketing and cord,   photo credit Blaine Campbell