Medi(t)ation: Stitching Time

For the past few years I have been trying to think mediation, to move through or delve into the concept that is at the root of remediation and premediation, to think about what kind of action or event or thing mediation is—to understand what kind of work mediation performs.  My basic assumption or starting point is the idea that mediation should not, as it has in the history of Western thought, be considered as a secondary event or action, but rather as primary.  Mediation as primary then needs to be thought not as something that comes between two agents or objects or subjects that are already given, but as that which constitutes objects, agents, or events, as that out of which or through which or by means of which individual objects or entities emerge—mediation as a kind of individuation.  This mediation is also, as Latour reminds us, a form of translation, an action that transforms that which is mediated into something different from what it was, as an action that produces change.  This is not to deny that there are agents, objects, entitites, but rather to insist that they are themselves mediations, that is, that they themselves are transformations or translations of other objects, agents, forces, flows, and so forth and that it is only as they continue to be translated or mediated (at however slow a pace or long a scale, as say a piece of granitic gneiss or an ongoing event of erosion like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River) that they continue to exist.

One way I am now beginning to think mediation is through the process of medi(t)ation, most specifically through the process of mindful breathing that is at the core of so much meditation.  For breathing is a wonderful example of the primacy of mediation, as well as the way in which mediation functions as translation. Is breathing a function of life or is life a function of breathing?  Both seem true—or they seem inseparable.  But it certainly seems to be the case that without breath there is no life.  But leaving that question aside for a moment, we can still see how breath functions as mediation in an interesting way, as a living organism’s mediation/translation between its individual life and the world within or among which it lives, moves, acts, feels, etc.  In breathing the body is itself a medium, which is involved with coming between the in-breath and the out-breath, the inhale and the exhale. One breathes in “air”; it is then taken into the blood, the circulation system, through the lungs; one exhales “air.”  But the air that is exhaled is different from the air that is inhaled; it has been mediated by the body, translated from oxygen to carbon-dioxide.  Meditation as mindful breathing is in this sense a becoming aware of mediation, a coming aware of the body as medium, of one of the many different ways that the body is a medium, and of the ways, therefore, that mediation is life, is primary, not a dependent, secondary concept.

In becoming aware of one’s breathing, however, one also becomes aware of the fragility of the living body and of the way it is knitted or stitched together by one’s breaths (and other bodily functions necessary for human mediation to continue).  For in attending to one’s breaths one comes to understand that breathing in and out is not a continuous, unbroken process, but rather that it is dependent upon the break, the shift in modality from inhaling to exhaling.  In attending to these breaks, these transitions or mediations from gathering breath into one’s lungs and bloodstream and then expelling it through one’s nose and mouth, it becomes clear that breaths are and must be stitched together in order for life to exist.  Put differently, breathing is a kind of  “stitching time,” to allude to the title of Erin Manning’s magical installation for the 2012 Sidney Biennale, on the top floor of a deserted building on Cockatoo Island.

Manning describes “Folds to Infinity,” the larger project of which “Stitching Time” is one manifestation as follows:

Folds to Infinity (2008–ongoing) features a textile collection made up of serged pieces of fabric, cut to the shape of hundreds of pattern pieces that connect through magnets, buttons and buttonholes to create constellations both architectural and wearable. The collection is presented in site-conditioned installations whose purpose is to rethink the relationship between fabric, the body and the environment. Participants are invited to explore how collective practices of folding-in, to create clothing, and folding-out, to create architectural environments, can provide a springboard for re-experiencing what a body can do. The emphasis on collective expression is always interwoven with an emphasis on re-examining the role time plays in creative encounters. Folds to Infinity is a slow piece that has evolved over many years through sewing circles in Canada, Australia and Finland. These sewing circles are weekly gatherings that have, over the years, become central to the art practice. They are not simply a preparation for the dissemination of the work – they are the ongoing genesis of a relational practice.

Although not explicitly concerned either with breathing or with mediation, the installation “Stitching Time” suggests to me precisely the workings of both.  The installation is made up of thousands of pieces of fabric, cut to the shape of the patterns that, stitched together, make the clothing that our bodies wear almost without any real a-wear-ness of their composition.  These pattern pieces are folded and draped and hung and gathered together with magnets and buttons and thread on a topology of netting that links the installation to the ship-mending history of Cockatoo Island. While one might suggest that these pattern pieces are the given primary materials which then are mediated by the artist, atomistic building blocks that precede the act of relation or mediation, this would be to overlook the fact that the pieces themselves have been stitched together in sewing circles by people whose embodied breathings in and out have themselves stitched together their bodily actions of folding and cutting and sewing. That is, these elements are themselves produced through the embodied, collective, technical mediation of the sewing circles themselves, which are also a part of a heterogeneous fabric of human and nonhuman mediation, the assemblage that Folds to Infinity stitches together.

Indeed the installation stitches together moments of mediation. By folding and linking these pieces of fabric both inward to make clothing to drape or swaddle individual bodies and outward to create an architectural environment that works to drape or swaddle the installation space so that multiple bodies can gather and disperse, circulate and rest, “Stitching Time” becomes itself a mediation of breathing, allowing visitors to enter, move, stop, and experience their own bodies and then exhaling them as they leave the installation space. Indeed temporality, like relation, is key to the mediation that “Stitching Time” performs.  Lit only by the changing natural light, the installation is far from static.  Shapes and colors change almost by the moment, remediating the architecture of the space to produce new and infinite relations among netting, fabric, and bodies.

“Stitching Time” achieves something like the aim of art that Henry David Thoreau sets out in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  By folding and stitching together fabrics, bodies, and space, “Stitching Time” does not simply “make a few objects beautiful,” but presents an installation of exquisite beauty that “paints the very atmosphere and medium through which we look,” live, and move—what Thoreau calls “the highest of the arts.”

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About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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One Response to Medi(t)ation: Stitching Time

  1. Erin Manning says:

    This is so beautiful, Richard. And I have been thinking about breathing – about how my autistic friend and collaborator DJ Savarese calls us (so-called neurotypicals) “easy breathers” when “we” are anything but…

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