Weaving DNA in conversation
22 May 2020
A conversation between Claire Anderson and Hanna Dis Whitehead (Weaving DNA Hybrids), who will be exhibiting at San Mei in October 2020, and San Mei Associate Curator, Ludovica Penelope Bulciolu.
Ludovica Penelope Bulciolu: Claire, you are a textile designer and educator, working between Scotland and London; Hanna, you are a product designer, based in Iceland. How did you start working together on Weaving DNAs? Can you talk about how the first project went?
Claire Anderson: At the end of 2013 I was living in Glasgow during the lead up to the Scottish Independence Referendum where there were a lot of people feeling increasingly disenfranchised with the Westminster government and were looking to the Nordic countries and Iceland as alternative models. I had an idea for a while to develop a project looking at shared craft traditions and heritages between Scotland and Iceland, the landscapes looked so similar from photos and films. I knew Hanna’s work from magazines and design blogs, I loved her graduating project from the Design Academy – it was very inspiring – and asked her if she would be interested in working with me via email. The project idea was vague at the time and I had no idea if she would even reply but she did and we have been working together on and off since then.
We developed the project together via Skype and Messenger and we met in person for the first time in September 2014 when I visited Iceland with Tian Khee Siong.
Hanna Dis Whitehead: I thought it was an interesting idea. I checked out Claire´s website and saw some interesting futuristic things and somehow my gut feeling told me to go for it. The first project was a lot of fun, it was a kind of visual dialog, every time Claire sent me a picture of something it inspired me to respond to it with my own work.
L: How do you choose the resources you decide to work with? And how do you go about finding the material in Hornafjörður and why here?
C: Hanna lives and works in the Hornafjörður region with her family and knows the area and its resources well. For example, it was brilliant being able to gather grasses from the town of Höfn take them back to the studio and work with these along with the other materials which we already had including the Icelandic wool offcuts from Ístex, the Icelandic wool company. Ístex has supported our project since 2015 and had supplied us with waste and offcuts of wool from their spinning factory. The offcuts were made up of a combination of handknitting yarn from Icelandic wool: Plötulopi, Álafosslopi, Bulkylopi, LéttlopI and Einband. Icelandic sheep are unique, and as such, so is their yarn. The breed has evolved in isolation as a result of being separated from other breeds for centuries, in addition, exposure to the sub-Arctic climate has produced wool with two distinctive fibres. The first, soft, insulating fibres which are found close to the body are called ‘þel’; the second are long, water-repellent fibres which are found on the surface called ‘tog’. We responded directly to the materials, and deliberately eschewed the intended application of knit, through manipulation, deconstruction, knotting and stitch. We acknowledge the strong traditions of wool in Nordic and Scottish textile practice and have let the nature of the materials determine their application.
H: We also got some offcuts from fishing nets from the fish net makers in Höfn. Making fishnets and fixing them is a very interesting craft - they actually produce almost no waste, they use their materials very well. Atlantic fish leather- a sustainable fish skin tannery in the north of Iceland also provided us with some fish leather. Fish leather has been used for a long time in Iceland as a material. For example for shoes, it is waterproof, thin, flexible and very strong.
L: What are the social implications of new material and their narratives? How are these old/new ways of creating objects tightly linked with Climate Change?
C: Although informed by, our processes sit outside traditional Scottish and Nordic textile craft frameworks, being strongly influenced by ad hoc strategies. In applying this as a principle of design to textile crafts, improvisation has taken place, for example with traditional materials substituted for more readily available everyday materials e.g. the grasses which we gathered. The implications of this ad hoc approach to the portrayal of our cultural, historical and geographical roots is intentionally subversive, for instance, an abstract reappropriation of materials outside traditional craft frameworks raises questions around sustainability. For example, how can we optimise underused and undervalued resources?
H: I think it is interesting what you can use as a material in your local area. South East Iceland was and is, even, still a very isolated area- in the old days because you had to cross glaciers and rivers to get here and now because the roads close quite often over the wintertime because of the sometimes extreme weather conditions.
L: Can you talk about your exhibition at National Museum of Iceland, in 2015? Was Tian Khee already part of the collaboration?
C&H: Tian Khee Siong has been part of the collaboration since 2014 when he started documenting the project. His photographs have been an important part of the development of our collaboration.
For our first public exhibition at the National Museum of Iceland we speculated on the visual identity of a futuristic Nordic-Scottish tribe; the protagonist of our tribe was ‘Normcore Tribesman'. ‘Normcore’ is a unisex fashion trend defined by New York trend agency K-Hole in 2013: ‘Normcore doesn't want the freedom to become someone…’; ‘Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity that opt into sameness.’
The exhibition’s exploration of a new visual identity was designed with the intention of promoting audience interaction. Digital prints of the works (photos taken by Tian), on transparent silk organza, were displayed parallel to constructed textiles. Audience members could try on the pieces and become part of the speculative tribe. The first Weaving DNA exhibition was successful in presenting a multivalent identity and social media platforms (e.g. Instagram, Facebook) enabled audiences to share online and accessing further audiences.
L: Do you collaborate with local communities in the locations where you extract the material from?
C&H: In March 2020 we had planned to run workshops with local children in collaboration with The Cultural Center of Hornafjörður however due to the Covid-19 pandemic these workshops had to be postponed as well as an accompanying work in progress exhibition. We hope to run the workshops either later this year or next year with perhaps even a distance learning element so I can take part from London. The work in progress exhibition has been able to go ahead this May. Hanna has set up some of the work we developed in the library of the Cultural Centre of Hornafjörður, so we can have feedback from local audiences. Ha, not sure what they will make of it all!