Let 'em Eat Cake

Let 'em Eat Cake

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Sally Curcio, Eye Candy, 2005

"I believe the simple act of making something, anything, with your hands is a quiet political ripple in a world dominated by mass production… and people choosing to make something themselves will turn those small ripples into giant waves.''-Faythe Levine

When Wynter Whiteside, an independent curator, was doing research for an exhibition on visual indulgence and consumption, she found a lot of appropriate artwork on Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade items. Her show "Sugarcraft," on view at Kasia Kay Art Projects in Chicago (June 27 – August 9), ended up resembling an indie craft fair-with plenty of plush, the requisite amount of glitter, some tactile assemblages, a few clay miniatures and a general sense of cute overload. (Heidi Kenney's fabric cake, crying because a slice has been cut and soon would be departing? Too cute, indeed!) Like any good craft fair, the show also offered homemade baked goods in the form of free cupcakes that surround Whiteside's own paintings. And, as with an indie craft fair, the ways in which some works for sale touched on ideas of consumption might have left its patrons with a treacly or bitter aftertaste.

Though indie craft is often considered by those outside it to be a countercultural response to mass production and hyperconsumerism, many long-standing DIYers feel that craft fairs are now, for better or worse, a hybrid mix of straightforward commercialism and viable counterculture practice. While some fairs charge high entry fees, take money from corporate sponsors and are so glutted with silk-screened T-shirts that they resemble Urban Outfitters, other fairs go out of their way to state that profit is not their main motivation. The DIY Trunk Show in Chicago, for example, has a "Craftifesto" that reads, in part: "Craft is political. We're not just trying to sell stuff. We're trying to change the world. We want everyone to rethink corporate culture and consumerism."

DIY makers, an ever-growing population of professional, part-time and hobbyist artists, crafters and designers, have a range of intentions. Some, like "Sugarcraft" artist Kenney, describe the goal of their work as simply to make people smile. Kenney wants "to remind people a little of their own childhood, when we all thought it was possible that objects had feelings and thoughts." Though from this statement it could be extrapolated that creating something that's valued for its uniqueness in a cultural landscape dominated by mass-produced goods could be seen as subversive, Kenney herself says she has no political intentions.

Many artists, however, drawn to craft by the creative freedom it offers, are increasingly concerned about the ways in which their work circulates in the marketplace. Megan Whitmarsh, a Los Angeles artist who made a living for several years selling hand-embroidered goods at fairs and boutiques, initially felt guilty about making things she couldn't afford to buy. "I spoke to my mom about it; she's a Quaker who lives very simply and I really look up to her," she explains. "I thought she would say yes, you are making things for the elite, but instead she told me it was OK to make money for something I spent a lot of time on. She said it's not that we shouldn't have nice things, it's that we shouldn't have as many things. I decided I could participate in the model of making things intensely, with consideration, and making things that will last."

Some makers have consciously chosen to tackle this conundrum head-on, subtly embedding a commodity-culture critique into their subject matter. Connie Richards, an Illinois artist whose work in "Sugarcraft" includes an embroidery with paint on fabric titled Candy Is Dandy But Sex Doesn't Rot Your Teeth, says that her work "is not political, but has a feminist bent." She makes artwork about the objectified portrayal of women in advertisements and says, "While I want to give the viewer a feeling that something about it is unacceptable, I also want my work to be visually pleasing."

Faythe Levine, whose highly anticipated documentary Handmade Nation: the Rise of DIY Art, Craft, and Design is slated for a 2009 release, describes how political subject matter at craft fairs ranges from "loud" to "less loud": "There are makers who include political themes in the name of their business or taglines, as well as make objects that express a political viewpoint with the imagery or text. Then there are the people who are less loud about it and work exclusively with recycled materials, donate a percentage of their profit to a cause or only work with organic products."

Garth Johnson, a ceramist and prominent craft blogger, thinks that the indie craft world is "completely about community, not politics. It's about a lifestyle that is political but in a fairly apolitical way. I think a lot of people involved in craft-fair craft are good at making things. They wanted to make some extra money, and then they met other crafty people, and got involved in a self-feeding community-they kind of got sucked into the community. Something that wasn't a political statement becomes political in that the people are all relying on each other to create something sort of off the grid."

Any act of making-off the grid, on it, professional or hobbyist-some think, has political power. As Levine puts it, "I believe the simple act of making something, anything, with your hands is a quiet political ripple in a world dominated by mass production, consumerism and commercialism, and that people choosing to make something themselves will turn those small ripples into giant waves. The power of doing something yourself is contagious."

It's hard to estimate the number of people who have been inspired by the DIY movement to actually make things for themselves and what effect, if any, their activity has had on mass production. As Cat Mazza, an artist and founder of microRevolt, a project that investigates unfair labor practices, explains, "The rise of DIY craft practices that began to take shape early this century has reached a new phase of market sustainability. If DIY crafting began as a response to mass production and consumption, it now appears that the trend has soaked the spectrum of fringe to mainstream: craft blogs, knit-a-longs, social networks, 'zines and magazines, virtual economies, online and cable DIY shows, etc. It's not clear that this activity has harmed the mass production some makers were initially responding to, though DIY craft culture has introduced some exciting new microeconomies."

It's clear, though, that the popularity of DIY goods has meant growing pains and even skepticism for some DIY vendors. "I have reservations about Etsy," says the artist and DIY business operator Stephanie Syjuco (pronounced see-WHOO-koh). "The emphasis on commerce, as opposed to ethics, is taking over now." Syjuco has proposed an alternate business model with her Anti-Factory project, wherein she sews, sells and distributes handmade cloth-ing, all from recycled fabrics as a completely one-person operation. It "will never expand beyond a single person's ability to produce and sell an object, which flies in the face of any successful business model today," she writes in her blog, The Autonomous Manufacturing Zone. Declaring that DIY seems to be "starting to get close to normal factory-like production," she explains that, "in some cases, you're pumping out these things and acting like a machine. What's the difference between doing that and sending it out to people in China? The action and end result are the same." Whitmarsh, for her part, quit the indie craft world when she found herself producing goods without the intentionality that first drew her to her craft: "I quit because I was making things over and over, and I wanted to make things out of inspiration. It felt like a factory." She now makes a living selling her work in fine art contexts.

For some, DIY remains a practice centered on community dialogue, not products. Tracy Candido, an independent curator and master's candidate at New York University's Visual Culture/Theory program, said that her renegade bakery project, Sweet Tooth of the Tiger, places primary importance on social transaction. Playing on a nostalgia for simpler times, her bake sales take place at small-scale gatherings like art openings and baseball games, where people are invited to eat sugar, get happy and interact. "When you discuss things with somebody, you break out of reductive perspectives on issues-you gain new info on art, on politics. Dialogue is a way to create denaturalized, non-reductive perspectives on knowing your world and your community better so you can work for your community in a more productive way. I want to pit ideas against each other in order to break boundaries with tradition. To me, that's what DIY is. It's new ways to do things." Working with a continued investment in breaking boundaries-even those it has helped establish-DIY craft might be able to economically sustain itself and its radical politics.