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Future Scenarios of the Presence by Karolina Janulevičiūtė & Kasia Zofia Górniak: Designer’s Labour, Specifics of Site, Value of Process

While I am thinking about the points of contact between contemporary art, design, theory and industry, Karolina Janulevičiūtė and Kasia Zofia Górniak are preparing for their exhibition Ir Aprangos Planas / and Wardrobe Planning at Atletika gallery in Vilnius, which is about to start in just five minutes (2020.10.17 – 30). I am also reminded about the opening by a social-media notification which intervenes directly into the fabric of this written text. “A part of the exhibition’s activities will also be broadcasted online (live),” reads the notification, while in the context of Karolina’s and Kasia’s work I am reflecting upon The Toaster Project (2010) by Thomas Thwaites. With this project Thwaites set out to replicate a mass-produced toaster, which he had bought at a store for five pounds. While creating his own version of such a device in a pre-industrial fashion using raw materials, he individually extracted them in nature, processed them at home (for instance, by melting iron in his oven), and bit by bit, component by component, designed and produced a functional toaster(!). Here, I am thinking about the silk which Karolina dyes and paints while extracting natural plant-pigments, as well as Kasia’s ‘chance-based’ design practice, which involves elements of choreography, improvisation and the performative body, which actively interacts with Kasia’s textile works. Thwaites’s toaster (which later went on to become a book, countless online-articles and over a TEDx talk) has been assigned to the Speculative Design movement by various design theorists (including M. Malpass, PhD, amongst others). The goal of a ‘speculating’ designer is to project alternative design consumption scenarios, and to research the possibilities of design use (within the objects themselves) beyond the traditional frame of the design-discipline (i.e. in contemporary art, technology and others). While Karolina and Kasia are preparing for their continuous performance in Atletika – I am thinking slowly about the ‘speculative’ character of the contemporary fashion industry itself (the upcoming seasons’ trends are always forecasted in advance, yet programmed to last for only a couple of months, thus clearly indicating their own ‘expiration date’, that matches the short period of a ‘fashion-season’), as opposed to the conceptual, interdisciplinary, research-based creative strategies of these two young fashion artists. So, which instruments of contemporary art and design are they ‘speculating’ with, in their work? What are their own ‘future scenarios for the presence’[1] [1], and – most importantly – why?

Alberta Vengrytė: Karolina, Kasia, please tell me more about how you two started collaborating – what circumstances or shared-views have determined the format of your upcoming show in Atletika? As far as I know, you plan not only to present a collection of fashion garments that will have been created during the course of the exhibition but also to involve the audiences in continuous performative workshops, where you will be sharing the background of your artistic research and educating the visitors on the theoretical context of your ideas. How does theoretical and practical knowledge function in your collaboration? What are your creative principles of accruing and applying the different skills being applied in this project?  

Karolina Janulevičiūtė: We met when I enrolled at Aalto University, in Finland, which Kasia also similarly graduated from. When she was looking for a person to participate in the performance A Seamstress Constructs a Garment performance, she offered me this role. I was curious and I wanted to infuse myself into the academic fashion field, which was developing a similar audience as the participants attending the State of Fashion Colloquium event where the piece was performed. During the performance on the stage where the conference reports were being read, I was sewing two clothing items. The noise produced by a sewing machine, as well as the methodical action of making a garment, became a certain “background” to those well-structured academic presentations, concerning various directions of the [design] industry and its ‘presence points’: Towards what kind of sustainability is the cycle of fashion being guided? What is the new luxury?

My very simple and direct relation towards sewing, which, as a process, I truly enjoy, led me to want to study fashion. I have always valued those very processes of making, perhaps sometimes even more than the artistic expression in fashion itself, or the practical decisions in the process of designing. At the moment, I am somewhere between all of these things. My studies helped me a lot in building up a certain understanding of the fashion phenomena – a raft of theoretical articles on the subject – which I’ve managed to place in my library while selecting topics, which I hope will lead me towards further research and finding some answers. But also the rhetorical questions that are constantly arising in my practice… How do you fulfil a fashion garment and comprehend its symbolical value as a tool for communication based on your practical knowledge of sewing and constructing; how to enable its pre-history? How do creatives dissociate all of these contexts from the piece and one another, and embed the piece in their own authentic narrative? All of this is currently present in Atletika gallery (in Vilnius), where Kasia and I are making clothes for ourselves. In the line from creation to consumption, ‘we’ and the ‘clothing’ are equivalent to the process.

Kasia Zofia Górniak: Karolina’s and my shared view comes in our value of making, and in both of us seeking alternative angles in our fashion design practices; something different to producing seasonal collections in high quantities. I am interested in the interplay between process and outcome and how this can contribute to an ethical [design-making] practice. This is where the idea of ‘performing’ a process in public came from.

Our project, and Wardrobe Planning is the second iteration and a certain progression from A Seamstress Constructs a Garment:  this time, both of us created garments for ourselves throughout the exhibition, with the public invited to enter, spend time with us, and leave as they pleased. It is the same idea in its different contexts; in the first iteration, the pieces were pre-designed and pre-cut, only the sewing was performed. In Atletika, we were able to expand on the parts of the process that we performed and exposed, to include pattern-cutting, prototyping and fabric screen printing, as well as the sewing and hand finishes. The design of the pieces was not entirely fixed beforehand as well, so, to some extent, the complete appearance of the garments became site-specific. They really took on the character of the gallery space, which was a lovely and unexpected element of the work. It made me think about its potential, as a design and production studio model: if each collection was executed in a unique space, tied to that space in its aesthetics, its materiality, and so on, rather than taking a “research trip” and gathering inspiration to apply to making a collection ‘in-house’, what if one really lived in a certain setting and built the work on the spot in there? I thought there could be something very valuable and special about that.

Last autumn, before I embarked on a residency at Outpost Gallery in Norwich (UK), Karolina shared some readings with me which she had gathered doing research for her masters’ thesis. One text, The Cleaved Garment: The Maker, The Wearer and the ‘Me and Not Me’ of Fashion Practice (2017) was by Ellen Sampson. Another text entitled Clothing Construction and Wardrobe Planning (1960) by Dora S. Lewis, was where we took our project’s title from. During the residency, I proceeded to dissect these alongside other publications and garment-making ephemera I had gathered from the local area. In and Wardrobe Planning, this theoretical knowledge is threaded throughout the processes and outcomes alongside other practical know-how. For example, fragmented lines from critical fashion theory sit alongside step-by-step instructions from garment construction manuals as textile prints for some of the pieces made. We try not to differentiate between what is background research and what is part of the performance and exhibition – everything is brought to the surface, made level.

AV: Earlier in our conversation, Karolina mentioned the Fashion Colloquium event in Arnhem (The Netherlands) being the origin of your current collaboration. Kasia, would you agree that the basis for your future collaborative work is structured particularly within that common experience? How do each of your individual creative narratives and interests inform the choice of the topics, problems, forms and subjects in your collaborative practice? In the time you spent in the Netherlands, it seems that the most important element of your performance was the political aspect of designer’s labour and the time dedicated by a designer to produce an object. Why was it important for you to highlight that? 

KZG: In the case of A Seamstress Constructs a Garment, we were more focused on highlighting the ‘maker’s labour’ over the ‘designer’s labour’, as well as expanding the maker’s agency into simultaneously being the designer and the consumer of the product, too. It was a very practical experiment in shifting the focus, which is normally on the final ready-made pieces, the designer’s or the brand’s ‘label’. We wanted to shift it to the making process and the maker involved “behind the scenes”. We were also exploring what a fashion designer can present as an ‘outcome’ in a climate, where material products are deemed less and less necessary.

KJ: Somehow naturally, we constantly share images and texts, which results in having all the ideas swiped on a shared ‘table’. Eventually, we sort them out into certain ‘topics’, ‘fields’, etc., which then become the grounds for our project; a certain artistic research, that we are analysing, up until that point, where all of this shared process manifests and is presented to an audience in the shape of our common contribution.  Being able to participate in A Seamstress Constructs a Garment so ‘directly’, particularly with the skills that I have (i.e. to sew on the stage, as a performer, rather than to present the final piece) was one of the best experiences. It pushed mine and Kasia’s shared interests forward into other continuous projects, such as and Wardrobe Planning.

AV: How would you describe your self-positioning as contemporary artists and fashion designers through your relation to the items that you create, as well as the ones mass-produced industrially? Are there principled differences between what you create and what you consume? How does your artistic practice – which extends the limitation of the traditional design industry – inform your choices as the participants of contemporary art and fashion markets?

KJ:  My relationship with the pieces I create is very intimate. I input a lot of care, time, physical closeness and resources into creating them. Of course, it is like that, because I know for sure how every one of those pieces came to life and how much of everything was required to make those pieces happen, in contrast with mass-produced products which we tend to value very abruptly and always just as a commodity. For quite some time now I have been purchasing fewer things, even less of which is new. However, I wear and consume plenty of my own-made garments, because I have the privilege to produce them whenever I want, from whatever I see fit, and the way I want them to be, in general. Playing this kind of ‘personal image game’ fills my everyday life with a certain naïvité, self-expression and joyfulness!

KZG: The way I consume aligns with the way I create; I wouldn’t put any products out there that I would not be okay with consuming myself. I buy from designers whom I know and like, or ‘obscure’ ones whom I discover and when I can afford it. Other times I shop second-hand or don’t buy anything at all. I can’t remember the last time I bought something from H&M, for example. Furthermore, I wouldn’t buy a second-hand H&M item, which, actually, reflects a greater problem: those are the garments most likely to be thrown away and remain unwanted on the rails of the second-hand shops. In my approach to design, I am trying not to be guided necessarily by what is ‘easy’ for a consumer to wear or desire. Plenty of these kinds of clothes exist already. I want to challenge people with the work I put out there, and at the same time challenge myself to take risks and trust the concepts that I come up with!

AV: Do you possibly have an articulated standpoint for where design ends and art begins? Is it important for you to understand yourselves as creators from one field, or the other? In the context of your collaborative practices, where do craft (as in design-making), specialist knowledge, as well as theoretical knowledge and knowledge of the industry stand? Let’s assume, that a fashion-designed object, contextually exhibited in a show, and an item of clothing worn by a visitor exploring that show function differently – in your opinion, what influences that? 

KJ: I still don’t know where design begins… Since I was led into the field of fashion design by my strong wish to create, the question of ‘design’, for me, has always remained in the shape of a question mark. It is something that interests me, and what I was educated in, however, I have been having some trouble associating myself with it for quite a while now. I perceive the very function of a clothing item as an object through the potential impact of the ‘attention’ and ‘sight’ dedicated to it. I am also motivated by how a garment catches our ‘sight’ – not necessarily worn on a body, not indispensably on a clothes-hanger, but the one which has fallen, become shape-less yet sculptural, full of depth, however, empty.

KZG: I think design products are more easily reproducible than art objects and have functionality or utility at their core. I think primarily as a ‘designer’, rather than an ‘artist’, mostly because my education is in design and so the functional aspect has a big role in my conceptual thinking. But it is also important for there to be a ‘critical aspect’ instilled or embedded in the pieces, sometimes more subtly, and other times quite directly. There are times when I will release a product while also being aware that it will not necessarily sell well, but it is important to my overall concept, and that takes priority.

KJ: Having these disparate views while collaborating on a project, perhaps we challenge each other, too.

AV: Karolina, could you please extend my previous question for the both of you, while reflecting upon your recent fashion-installation Prunes & Snails (which is still present at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius) in this year’s JCDecaux prize exhibition (The Words I Have, 2020.09.24-11.22, curated by Milda Dainovskytė, Vytenis Burokas)?

KJ: With this installation, I wanted to draw the visitor’s attention to the value of materiality in a fashion garment exhibited. I wanted visitors to experience and reflect upon what relationship between clothes and their bodies – which they are touching while exploring the show at the Contemporary Art Centre – is established, somewhat detaching them from their everyday consumption habits. Since the opening of this show, I have been hearing feedback from the audience, whom – being intrigued and curious, driven by a kind of desire to explore the installation’s elements by a tactile engagement – still could not dare to touch them.  In such cases a problem is formulated, and that, I believe, is truly purposeful for any kind of further research into the topic, as well as reflecting this very work: why is it so simple and ‘unregistered’ for one’s fingers to travel through a rail of clothes in a store, yet when wanting to acquaint ourselves with some visually-attractive objects hanging in a gallery space we feel shy? I understand that prevalent ‘do not touch’ policy in museums and galleries may somewhat dictate such a rule – perhaps, some ‘extra’ communication and an obvious permit are needed, in such case. However, at the same time, as the author of this work I am positively intrigued by such a keen relation towards the installation, therefore, it was also my aim that the visitors wish to touch, to feel and to get to know my work through all these senses would be driven by an authentic curiosity, rather than an obvious textual reference placed next to the installation.

AV: It seems to me that both of you are integrating forms of fashion-design into the field of contemporary performance more and more actively, or, perhaps it’s that the interrelated theories and practices of performative and participatory art are informing the critical discourses of the objects you are creating. Kasia, since 2018 you have been developing a multi-media project named I Once Made a Performance; as far as I know, your masters’ thesis (defended in 2017) was also being positioned in the theoretical discourse of ‘research-through-practice’, synonymously referred to as “the constructive design research”. On the other hand, Karolina, I am remembering the costumes which you created for the performances of other artists such as Anni Puolakka or Antanas Lučiūnas between 2019 and 2020, despite not actively participating in those performances yourself.

…Such a variety of experiences and collaborations from both of you (with both of you having been on both ‘sides’ of the ‘performative’ while initiating performative relationships between designed objects and design theory, as well as having delved into the production of performance-props) allows for an ‘evaluation’ of the presence of a costume, which, in this context, I see as being ‘between-and-betwixt’ the paradigm of the ‘performative’ itself. Would you extend this argument? 

…How do you perceive the political aspect of the items you produce…what an object, which ‘finds itself’ in the happening of an aesthetical ‘event’ should ‘perform’ or ‘transform’, and by what means? 

…How is the relationship of such a piece with its environment, producer and user transformed, if we were to compare the objects of conceptual and industrial design with the objects that function in temporal art-practices, such as performance? 

KZG:  I have always enjoyed the idea of a costume being made as part of the performance, or as the basis of the whole performance itself. I think there is something powerful in the ‘fluctuation of meaning and function’ in an object, when the context of its production changes, and when the role of consumer shifts to a member of the audience, and vice versa.

KJ:  When creating costumes for other artists’ projects, I see it as supplementing their artistic expression with my garments. On the other hand, when physically participating in a performative process (like we are now at Atletika), I see my position as the direct empowerment of the ‘maker’s skills’, a certain act of ‘exposing them in the process of making’ being performed itself, while paying attention to the expression of this act as somewhat revealing its ‘background’ as well.

AV: We are having this conversation while the Covid-19 pandemic continues around the world. Since the virus started spreading, countries have introduced restrictions that restrained the usual movement of people, transforming the way we interact with one another. Have you noticed any change in the design and contemporary art markets, or a change in the habits of people consuming the products generated for these markets? Has the pandemic had any effect on your collaboration with one another?

…Lately, countless newsletters and adds from fashion companies have been flooding us with e-mails in which one can find ‘curated’ selections of impressive tops and blouses, brightly-coloured sweaters, eye-catching accessories that are worn on the upper side of one’s body which should supposedly make you ‘stand out’ from your other colleagues who are in the same ‘zoom’ workday routine as you. Perhaps, the most ‘trending’ pants next autumn will be pyjama or lounge-wear inspired? ☺

…What influence do the most ‘burning topics’ from around the world (not necessarily the current state of a pandemic) have upon any structural changes in the design industry, as well as your own artistic directions? 

KJ: For a cycle moving with such speed such as the fashion industry moves, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic acted as a sort of ‘front brake’, which made the current goals, processes and micro-systems of the industry go way ‘overhead’. Many think such a shock was needed for something to change – for things to be re-evaluated and reconsidered. The ability to adapt, rethink and be flexible, together with the (self)renewal of the system, helped already started projects to continue. The presence only made it more ‘clear’ regarding ‘what’ and to ‘what extent’ was really purposeful.

I am happy that even though some of my planned projects were postponed, they were not cancelled, hence I still have the chance to contribute and collaborate. Perhaps, not so closely or as often as I would have liked to, but I can. Since we started preparing for and Wardrobe Planning already in December [2019], meeting each other in Helsinki and Tallinn, a big part of this project had already been planned. When the quarantine started, we simply decided to take a pause and agreed we would continue when things would get calmer and clearer. Yet, even now we did not know until the very last moment whether Kasia would be able to come to Vilnius or not, whether we would both be present at our show, but we are happy, as we managed to ‘open up’ the project to its visitors.  I am grateful to every one of those who came or watched our online broadcastings, and to those who found a way to stay in touch.

During the lockdown period, I was mostly craving some ‘normality’ so I was wearing a self-made apple-green sweater with holes which were my ‘pyjamas’, my ‘jumpsuit’, and the kind of ‘image pigment’ I described earlier in our conversation … These helped me overshadow the obscurity of plans and the anxiety deriving from such a situation!

KZG: It makes us think more locally, in terms of reverting to and utilising what resources and production facilities are locally available. I have always tended to ‘design away’ from the standardised sizing or gender options, and, I think, there could be a direction towards more customised, individualised garments (also, a reversion from industrialisation and globalisation, in a way)… It is an interesting notion of what happens to fashion when we don’t leave the house any more. Challenges and restrictions are always a good thing for creativity, I think!

[1] [2] According to socio-anthropologist Paul Rabinow, Speculative Design “makes visible what is still emerging, both by slowing down the present and accelerating it, and thus bringing us closer to the future of this presence” (in: Matthew Malpass’s doctoral dissertation: Contextualising Critical Design: Towards a Taxonomy of Critical Practice in Product Design, 2012).

Photo reportage from ‘And Wardrobe Planning’ by Karolina Janulevičiūtė and Kasia Gorniak at Atletika [3]