Welcome to the final episode of Undisciplined for 2023. I’m excited to bring you an inspiring discussion from the annual Stockholm Craft Week, held in October in Stockholm. This year’s focus was on textiles, and Undisciplined hosted a half-day symposium featuring an exceptional group of artists and curators. The symposium’s central theme was “placeholder” — a metaphorical concept representing the unknown and the yet-to-be-defined, allowing participants to express their thoughts on topics like bi-cultural heritage, multidisciplinary practices, and the transformation of traditions.
The symposium began with Marcos Kueh, recipient of the Young Dutch Design Award 2023. As a Malaysian born and Amsterdam based textile, graphic, and visual artist, Marcos delivered a lecture on rediscovering his Malaysian identity. He discussed using various mediums, particularly Jacquard and digital weaving, to explore colonial narratives in contemporary life and how textiles can serve as storytelling tools.
Next, we heard from Pearla Pigao, a Norwegian artist who combines her skills in textiles, visual arts, and music to create interactive installations. Using textiles and water, Pearla’s work generates sounds and musical compositions, exploring the intersection of weaving and music. You can read more about Pigao’s work in the interview ‘In the Loop’ by Justine Nguyen.
Representing the local Swedish perspective, we welcomed IASPIS studio grant holder Sara Elggren. Sara’s exceptional work delves into the technology, coding, and interfaces of weaving, examining how these elements alter the experience of weaving — whether as an image, a system, free, or strictly ordered.
Finally, our panel moderator, Marcia Harvey Isaksson, founder of Stockholm-based Southnord — previously known as Fiberspace — joined us. Marcia, an artist interested in site-specific narratives and mixed media, from sculpture to performance, guided us through the panel discussion with her engaging voice and narrative style.
This project was delivered with financial support from Kulturrådet, Creative Industries Fund NL and organised in collaboration with IASPIS, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee´s International Programme for Visual and Applied Arts.
Marcia: Okay, thank you. Hi everyone. How are you doing? I’ll just start off by saying thank you to Marcos and to Pearla for your excellent presentations and for inviting us into your practices and your processes and the journeys that both of you have taken from the beginning. And as Veronika said, the theme of the evening is placeholder and we got a beautiful brief from Veronika talking about textiles that serve as a placeholder or a container to encapsulate the unknown and the yet to be defined and that it can be employed metaphorically to signify hidden or encoded information where the specific meanings may have been obscured due to different factors like colonialism or displacement or changing traditions or suppressed knowledge or other influences.
So I was thinking that we could start off some way in that realm talking about textiles as a placeholder. But before I put it as a question, I would like to just mention that I was browsing your website, Sara, and you have several texts on your website and I recommend if you want to go in and read them. But one of the texts is called ‘Är det verkligen ett språk?’/’Is it really a language?’ and it’s written by Sarah Walker. And in this text, she talks about this secret language that is encoded in the textile and that only maybe the initiated can read and how the weave goes between the concrete, the actual weave that you see and the mystical and the mythological and I think that ties in a little bit into both Marcos and Pearla, your practices. So I think I’d like to start by asking each of you how you view your work, like if you look beyond the actual fabric, what would you say your work is a placeholder for? Beyond what you’ve already explained today that it’s an interactive tool and you can play music on it or it’s got all these different symbols, patterns, messages.
What would you say it’s a placeholder for if you look beyond the fabric itself? Who wants to start? Do you want to start, Marcos?
Marcos: I think in my presentation I did discuss or I did touch upon it a bit about how, you know, when I’m doing textiles as a weaver, I’m still wondering as to how I can translate that sense of like understanding of the self and understanding of my ancestors about what gives it so much pride. There’s something I still struggle with because a lot of like the processes that I’m doing in the textiles is a very personal practice.
When I first see the textiles and what it means to me, it’s very different from how people would perceive it in that gallery setting, right? Like the pride that it brings to know that my culture is so complicated is something that maybe the people from the West might not totally understand. And that’s something that I’m still figuring out how to have conversations about. So in that sense, when you’re talking about all this magic, it’s kind of there, it’s underlying, but I just don’t know how to explain it. But I think until the day that I can kind of understand or explain it, the practice continues.
Marcia: Pearla, do you have any thoughts about what your works are a placeholder for beyond the what you visually see or what you physically experience?
Pearla: Yeah, I don’t know. If you just see my textiles, if you wouldn’t know what it was, because it’s kind of a way of building a textile that you do as well. But for me, it’s like this. I came into it a little bit like with an accident, just seeing how the different music could become a pattern. And kind of the code is like the binary system. And that’s also the code of the weave, the loom, and the program I work in and how everything is built. I think it’s a hard question, actually.
Marcia: It’s not easy. I’m thinking that when I first encountered your work, it was in a photograph and the presentation and you showed me some of your video clips. And it was really a mindbender to try and understand how does this actually work?
How is the technology kind of took over? So when I first encountered it physically, then there was this magic and this mystical alchemic thing that happened in the room and in contact with the work. And it kind of opened another door that is not available. And so maybe that question is wrongly put, because maybe that door is within each person, within myself, that I experience your work and your work internally.
But Sara, not everyone here maybe knows your practice, but you are a hand loom weaver. And you work quite when you first encounter your work, it’s quite minimalistic. It’s a lot of structure and texture and intricate bindings and very subtle. You always have to look at it in the, what do you call it, the side light to get the richness of it at times. And you work a lot with natural fibers, linens and things. And I’m thinking that these textiles also hold, like I mentioned in the beginning, these secret codes, the secret language. But do they hold more, are there more layers and secrets behind that people might not grasp at first glance?
Sara: Yes, I think so. I mean, to talk about a secret language, it’s quite complex. But I think, and this question about what it holds, it’s such a philosophical question, because what does anything hold? What does a body hold? And in the end, is it about some kind of energy that the world is made of? I mean, it’s, and then you can talk about the cultural, what it holds culturally. And then maybe you can go into, okay, how has weaving been holding specific data throughout the times and through specific places and cultures? And I think in my work, I look very much towards the notation, which is the code that weaving has been written through. And that is what you work with as well. But we work with it in, in various ways. And it’s not about, I think, deciphering or unlocking any specific information or story, but rather, it is, I think, it is a placeholder for, for energy or for knowledge, but not specific knowledge or, yeah.
Marcia: And while you’re saying that, it makes me think of your work as an archive in a way as well, that it’s not just a placeholder, but a space of collection, because of all the layers that you put into your, not just the patterns, but the words, the images, the symbols, all pointing to both an old tradition, but also very contemporary matters that are brought up right now. And so I think that maybe the placeholder or the function is a bad word in this setting, but the work that the work can do in the world is very different depending on how you’re looking at it, right?
So I’m from a colonised country just like you. So when I see your work, I see so much more maybe than someone else would who’s not reading the work in that way. And we were having an interesting discussion about, you know, how, how secret are these symbols or how, who, who, who can decipher it and who knows and who doesn’t. So I wanted to ask all of you actually, like when you’re making your work, do you have a specific person in mind? Are you sending this letter, this message, this work to your fellow countrymen or to the Western world where you are working and are employed? Are you sending it specifically to anyone who wants to interact with it?
Or do you have someone in mind, as the dancers and the musicians, it’s like, and when you’re sitting at your loom, who are the receivers of the work in your mind when you’re in the studio?
Marcos: Well, at least for me, it’s interesting that you have that sentiment because that’s, that’s something that I also always think about, you know, the reason why I felt like it was also necessary for me to take autonomy to kind of start archiving my patterns. It’s also like, all my patterns have been archived by my colonizers. And there’s a different type of dynamic when the people from Malaysia does their own archive, because then you have the autonomy to kind of say like, this is what I am, instead of like, oh, this is what people think I am, right? And I feel like there was so much focus on how people see us. We forget that we are also, we should also have this space to kind of develop how we see ourselves. And this is something that maybe a lot of people from outside our culture would not kind of understand. And I don’t think that it is always my place to have that conversation with them, because I think the conversations I would have with like, people from the colonized would be very different from the conversations that I have with the audience in Amsterdam, for example. But that’s also what is really interesting about doing works like this, that you should have multiple entry points. It’s not about exclusion, but it’s about diversifying the conversations that specific conversations happen with specific audiences and specific conversations don’t need to happen with specific audiences. And I think that’s how at least at this moment I’m trying to frame my work. But in this room, if you can see what I see, then that’s something going on. And I kind of like that. Yeah.
Pearla: Well, as I said in my presentation, my work is very physical, it’s something you should come and see and be a part of, because if it’s nobody there, it won’t work. You won’t have any sound. So, and I think a beautiful part of making art is also that I have my reason for making it, but I don’t want to, that anybody else should be pressured to feel the same. So, I make my art for everybody. I think abstract art can and also sound performance and these, they have the ability to find something inside you beyond words, just like the experience.
Marcia: Yeah. It makes me think of something else I read on that takes that you were tired of words. And that you put the narratives into the work. So, who do you have in mind when you’re weaving? If you have anyone at all, maybe you’re just making the works through your own satisfaction.
Sara: I think I don’t have as someone particular, but while I work since I see the work so much as engaging with past lives and past energies that has been put into the notation that I use. So, it is a dialogue in a way and then of course a dialogue forward as well and out. So, there is some kind of spiritual perspective, but also maybe a biological perspective that I believe. I mean, we are all vibrations and we are vibrating. So, it is a constant interplay between us and working with weaving is putting your own energy through this particular tools and machinery and construction and mathematical sequences into an object and this object will resonate with whatever is around it somehow due to how energy was put into it.
So, I mean, it’s an interaction of course.
Marcia: And that brings me to something else that I wanted to talk about a little bit this because I weave performatively. So, I like make weaving contraptions. It’s not always a loom loom, but and I use my body to wake the the warp sometimes and constantly trying to think of new ways of making it difficult to know, but just different ways like being like a wandering weaver and but so and and I’ve thought many times about this relationship between the loom and the body and the limitations and possibilities that the loom gives to the weaving and you all weave quite differently. We were talking about it earlier that you know you’re on a on a on a hand loom and you use a TC2, but you know there’s a lot of physical work involved in that and you also use a TC2, but you also use the industrial jacquard loom and they’ve got the different challenges and limitations and possibilities. I was wondering if you could just expand a little bit about how how you work with or against or technology and this extra extended body. Yeah, because you can’t weave just by yourself you need these tools and how you ended up selecting this particular way of working to do the work that you do.
Marcos: That’s a complicated question because I mean my practice I am also a producer as in like I produce for other artists or fashion designers right and I used to be a freelance producer that means that I also work with different types of factories and because I work with so many different types of like machines you have to kind of like get to know the machines. Some machines function very differently, some machines warps are different and the types of yarns that like is very different so it’s almost like knowing a person by spending time with it. When I’m teaching the loom as well I also try to talk to my students about like some thoughts I have when I’m like you know dealing with like weaving as a craft where all you’re doing in weaving is just like managing tensions you know I used to also work for like the student council and I can see the relations about how you can like use the weaving as an analogy to kind of manage tensions in like communities. If the tension is too loose you get really weak fabrics but if the tension is too high then the fabric starts to break so you’re managing like for example if you’re working in a TC2 loom with like 30 000 yarns you’re managing 30 000 singular tensions and when you’re working on an industrial loom that expands but you have like technicians mechanics and also the machines to help you but the fundamental thinking of like what it means to be a weaver still stays and that’s really fascinating about the craft and also like you know this language that we share as weavers that I feel like people outside of the industry might not always understand.
Pearla: Well I have this extremely love-hate relationship to weaving because I think it’s really hard it’s physically hard when I weave I say okay now this is my production period and then I really have my jogging shoes and almost do it like a you know a training session or something and I also have to have like a really strict plan and I really like I don’t go home before I have had so and so many uh ‘inslag’ I don’t know the yeah widths and also when I have finished one two works I’m just I need a vacation afterwards because I really put myself into it uh physically and but when I come in to weaving and get like this uh kind of rhythm to it and like you stay there and you have your head is thinking of other stuff and and you’re fixing all this small stuff and yeah then I like weaving but for me it’s like to be honest mostly a struggle so for me it’s good to have other processes as well like making like going out in nature and doing my field recordings and yeah so I can switch it up and I think that’s why also I love weaving because it’s things I can go in and out of constantly.
Sara: Yeah I can only agree I also think it is about relations and about struggle because it’s a connection to another being which is a material being that’s so it is alive in many senses and then you You also of course work with the limitations of the technique, and I’ve worked with also the TC2 and the industrial looms, and it’s different challenges. For me, the hand loom is interesting also because it is more limited, and maybe also because of the material of the loom that it has a history, and I mean, it’s often used before, so it comes with another kind of history. But me too, I move between media, so I don’t only do weaving, but also, which is talking about placeholder, I think sometimes you can also place some of the energy or the data from weaving into another media to, in a way, come closer to it. You can see it from another point of view. It can be photography or text or sound, and some things will reveal themselves, I think.
Marcia: It’s really like, I get you about the struggle, and I think that’s why I don’t weave like big long weaves that take a long time, but it makes me wonder why you stick with it anyway, because I’m thinking that maybe, would there be other ways to do the work? Could it be, I don’t know, knitted, painted, I don’t know, like, what is it about the actual weaving quality that makes you stick with it anyway, despite all the challenges and the struggle?
Pearla: For me, it’s a part of my process and concept. So, when I learned the loom, I saw that it had this kind of way of building itself that was very similar to how I made music, my own music, and that’s why I started translating into this material. It also said earlier how you can use your body against that material to actually make it sound. So, for me, I think I keep on doing it because maybe because it’s a childish thing, because I like to be a little mean to myself. (laughs) But I mean, yeah, I think it’s not so, it’s a fun to do things that aren’t easy.
Marcia: I loved one thing you brought up in your lecture about this feedback loop that, you first you found the patterns in the music, and then you wove them, and then you started to analyze the patterns, and then you started to compose the textile based on the sounds that you actually wanted, and this like re-iteration and coming back. And I wanted to ask you, Marcos, because your compositions are like super bombastic and lots of layers and lots of color and lots of a lot of things happening. So, I was wondering how do you have any feedback loops, or how do you build this multi-layered world up? And did you ever, because when I was, when you were presenting that you had the two tigers that were separated, and then suddenly, I don’t know, you probably did a lot of stuff in between, but there was this jump to these new works. And I’m just wondering about how you ended up there with that journey in between. Was it a feedback loop? Was it like a linear journey to where you are now aesthetically?
Marcos: I think a lot of the feedback comes from day to day. When you’re experiencing true life as a Southeast Asian as well, from the comments I get, from the work that I do, and there’s always moments where you feel like, hey, why is it like this or why is it like that? And you’re trying to figure it out. And the more you practice the work, the more incidents happen. And the more incidents happen, and it kind of like also kind of reacts to contemporary incidents. For example, if let’s say right now, Me Too Movement happened, or Black Lives Matter happened, inclusion that obviously happened, it kind of also informs my practice as well. And when you’re putting it out there, maybe when by the time it reaches like two years, the topic might not be interesting anymore. But then in that moment, as a person who is holding on to this narrative, like what do I say then? So it’s always this constant, the evolution is not this process where I have a five year plan on. It’s really about how your observing culture, responding to culture, observing culture, responding to culture. Maybe one day my culture would be like healed or solved. Then we can move on to another topic, but I don’t know how long that’s going to take.
Marcia: Maybe not in our lifetimes, I don’t think. I think it’s a deep deep wound that colonialism has left on the world, the entire world. So we can keep doing some work towards repair, but I don’t know if we’ll see it in our lifetime. But I’m a pesimist in a way sometimes. Are you an optimist?
Marcos: Maybe I’m not so much of an optimist, but it responds to the previous questions of why I weave. I weave because I’m curious about what my ancestors were thinking when they were weaving. And if you really think about this craft, this has been one of the most ancient crafts in the world. When I’m on that loom, I’m connected to every single weaver in the world who has existed. And you’re like, what are they thinking? And that’s how I practice as I mentioned in my presentation as well. It’s like there’s a different type of thinking when you are describing weaving as an academic and when you’re engaged in the craft, because the thinking is very different. Like the engagement when you think about your ancestors, when you weave, you’re like, they are not dumb. That is crazy. My ancestors are smart.
Marcia: Okay, let me see what I wanted. There was this interesting question that came up from the audience about capitalism and collectors. And a lot of talk after the seminar about the money side of the craft industry or branch or I don’t know what to call it. But I was wondering because I don’t know about you guys, but I make because I must. I just, I do it. But at the same time, we have bills to pay and we have rent and all of that. And so I wanted to find out how you are navigating the making and the living of the making. And if you have a strategy or just curious about that side of things.
Marcos: Is it more like a conceptual question or a practical question?
Marcia: Both, because maybe you have decided that your art practice has got nothing to do with what you live off in the capitalistic system. You know, you might have something a day job to take care of that. And then you make and you create or you have managed to put it together. I don’t know. That’s why I’m curious.
Marcos: I mean, on the practical side, I am working with a gallery in Amsterdam. So I mean, I’m one year into my career, so I’m still observing. I’m attending art fairs. I’m seeing how people respond to my artwork, but also generally I’m also observing what the artwork is about. Because I mean, the artwork functions very differently than whatever people would be functioning outside of the artwork in such a weird place. Won’t go too deep onto it. But I do think that, you know, when I’m creating artworks or weaves as a contemporary weaver, so I don’t think that I’m functioning outside of the capitalistic system. I feel like the questions and navigations has always also been about how do I actually work within the system? Like, where do I place myself in the system? How do I still navigate it, you know, like without compromising too much of my values? And also when my works are in the field and I have no control about how much it’s been priced or where it’s been gone, maybe the work that I can only do is just to kind of reflect and understand and describe. Because in the system that I’m in, I have no control over the system.
I only function within the system. So a lot of my fascination or like my thinking about my future practice is really about actually looking back into what has happened in my practice in the future. Because I think that describes, that gives a really, how we call this, grounded picture of what and why the society has chosen me specifically to be doing this work that I have no choice over. Right, I’m just doing my work. So yeah, those are very complicated questions that I can only run with and explain later on.
Marcia: What do you say, Pearla? You live in Norway. There’s a lot of public funding, different ways of working.
Pearla: Absolutely, and I’m very lucky because I am one of those few that have this work stipend from the state. And I actually had, now I have like a 10 year working grant.
Pearla: Thank you. So the problem with it is that I love having this opportunity to just do my work, like every day I can work. But it’s very hard to find a balance because I always feel like I owe somebody something. Having the state’s hand over me and need to, every year of course you have to give this report of what you’ve done and if you haven’t done enough, they can take it away. So it feels like I can never not work and I’m struggling to find a balance in my life to find a good balance between work and life. And family and all that stuff because so I think it’s I’m so lucky to have it. But then again, I also feel like I have to work for other artists as well, like do works in juries and political work to make it better for all artists that doesn’t have the grant. And that means that if working with my own work, working with like politically and also trying to find that balance by how much do I have to work for the state not to? Yeah, no, I think it’s super hard and yeah, and I haven’t found that balance yet. So, yeah.
Sara: Yeah, of course it’s compromises all the time and I’m super happy that I can live in a country where we have public grants and then also, of course, if you I mean, I live really cheap and that’s also a privilege in some way, but also a choice. And I also do a lot of collaborative works and teaching works and those kind of things to have many small ponds. I don’t really sell my work. It’s yeah, it happens, but that’s not the way to survive for me.
Marcia: Should we open up for the audience of this? Anyone who wants to jump in? Is the mic?
Veronika: Yeah, now it’s on one short one. We’re a bit over time, but yeah.
Audience: I love questions. Thank you so much for this. I think it’s been touched on a lot, but just thinking about our place and area and this being recorded in regards to like as an educator and a student. I think I’m not sure if it was your words Marcia, my share of the prompt you were given in this idea of the induction of a language that comes with craft. And if we were speaking to students, I because it’s been touched on by all of you, but what would you say to them in this? I constantly see this frustration of being so involved in that language and what does it mean to find access for an audience? And what are the kind of tools or like how do we distill that to speak to students about, you know, we can’t always access everybody, but there’s always that desire. So what would you maybe offer students in this perspective of gaining access to this, the general audience?
Marcos: I mean, the keyword for me is still like with the feedback loop. I think it’s important to at least for my practice, I think it’s important to do with this engaging with the public. I don’t I understand that not every artist wants to do that. But for me, as my personal practice, I do think that that is value in being able to engage with a public. Even if I’m functioning in the art fair, I’m still engaging in a certain type of public that I might not be familiar with in my day to day, for example, like millionaires. But there’s still like, you know, a public that I would like to also understand and also I would like to also want to hear from their perspective as well. What they think about my discourse and that for me is the meaningful part of doing art that it’s, you know, constantly wondering together with like, you know, people that I don’t know about big questions because I wonder about this big questions. And I feel very lonely wondering about this big question. But, you know, to be able to share questions with people, I think true craft is a meaningful, it’s a meaningful practice for me. And I would if let’s say I would have students, I would encourage them not to be too afraid to open themselves out to, to share, to share their perspective of craft, to share their craft to the public.
No matter if it’s in a public, like a capitalistic setting or something. But remember to always ask why, why is it so fascinating for people to like acquire this? Why is it so fascinating for, for this person to be so publicised? And I think from there you can kind of describe a bit of what we are as a society.
Marcia: Anyone else want to add to that? I think you quite, your work Pearla is very much towards the public and interaction with the public.
Pearla: Yeah, absolutely. But I’ve always just worked with what I think is interesting and kind of hope that if I think it’s interesting, others will think it’s interesting as well. So I can say that I have any like concrete tips to the students, just stick to your own ideas and work a lot and be open as you said for other people’s views and engage in discussions about your work.
Sara: When I talk to my students, I think we talk about weaving language as with any other language. So when you meet someone whose language you don’t speak, you can still try to find common, some common threads or you can use your body to approach or so meeting a woven object. You can also use your body and you can ask questions to the object or to the weaver. Similarly, how you would approach a person that you don’t know and you can, maybe you don’t click directly and so maybe it will take some time. That’s also valid.
Pearla: Use your intuition in meeting with other people and others’ art as well.
Veronika: I’m so sorry, but I will have to stop you there. Thank you so much. Thank you, Marcia, Marcos, Perla and Sara. This was wonderful. One round of applause, please. Thank you.