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Manchester School of Art hosts the Textiles and Place biannual conference with the opening of ‘Growing House’

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Manchester School of Art hosts the 2023 British Textiles and Place conference and celebrates the launch of new ‘Growing House’ exhibition.

The 2023 Textile and Place Conference returned to Manchester this week, hosted by the Manchester School of Art in partnership with the British Textile Biennial.

The event hosted a range of speakers, workshops, and panels exploring the future of textiles, environmental challenges, regenerative acts, and collaboration and community forms of making in the industry.

The conference also marked the opening of the ‘Growing House’ exhibition, an international collaborative art project involving artists from China School of Arts and the Manchester School of Art.

‘Growing House’ made its debut in the ‘Being Theoria’ exhibition at the Hangzhou Triennial of Fibre Art in 2022 and is now reconstructed in Manchester School of Art’s Vertical Gallery.

The cross-cultural project is the result of a partnership between the China Academy of Art and Manchester School of Art and is led by artist Zhixian Zhu, supported by the British Council and ESEA Contemporary. 

It involves a collaborative team of artists and directed by Professor Assadour Markarov and curated by lecturer, Kate Egan. With each installation, the project expands by involving new co-collaborators and evolving forms, fostering a growing network of young artists. This particular iteration of ‘Growing House’ intersects with the Textile and Place conference.

The concept of ‘growing houses’ is a poetic response or an antidote to the complexities of living now, with a response to slowing down textile processes and recycling materials.

Amber Yearsley, a recent graduate from the Textiles in Practice course who worked on ‘Growing Houses’ said: “As a fibre artist myself, this was something I was passionate about.”

Photography: Amber Yearsley @amberlilystudio with her ‘Growing House’ wall hanging

Fellow contributing artist Anna Louise Bulloch, used thread and scrap fabrics to develop a virtual phygital environment situated in the metaverse. Bulloch said: “The use of photogrammetry technology to transfer my physical work to the VR world has allowed me to immerse myself in my embroidery, turning it into a virtual environment rather than a physical stand-alone piece of sewing.

“The outcome of the project is a mixed-media textile installation, which we have now brought to Manchester Met. It’s great to collaborate again using the pieces from ‘Growing House’, while also including some of my recent artworks.”

The British Textile Biennial programme was presented against the backdrop of the historic and industrial infrastructure of Lancashire. The textile history is rooted in the city’s cotton manufacturing industry, and although it is no longer tethered in that way, they seek to educate young designers, makers, and artists to consider that legacy through a forward-thinking lens.

Professor of Textiles at Manchester School of Art, Alice Kettle opened the conference and discussed how this partnership emphasises the richness of collaboration.

She also commented on the importance of the contemporary narrative that is connected to the north-west of England with its enduring global links.

“Today we question the regenerative potential of textiles as both a material and a practice. We are exploring how textiles are taken from the ground and returned to it,” she said. “We will question how textiles can act as a medium for challenging exploitative nostalgic narratives and contributing to a more resilient culture.”

The conference also featured discussions on the power of textiles in preserving heritage, driving social change, and building strong communities. Each speaker explored the potential textiles have in shaping the future and reimagining the past.

A panel discussion at the conference. Photography: Emma Abram

Laurie Peake, artistic director of the British Textile Biennial, discussed how the biennial tries to tell the story of fast fashion and its relation to historic Lancashire, formally the cradle of the industrial revolution and built on its appetite for fast fashion.

Peake explained mass production of textiles started in the 17th and 18th centuries when the British Government commandeered the skills and processes of fine cotton manufactures from Bengal and India. This became one small element of a story of global oppression in building the British Empire.

Peake also discussed how peasant farmers on the Penne moors would spin and weave the wool from the sheep they tended and the flax they grew: “They had that intimate relationship with the land, and it was absolutely sustainable. Their making wasn’t damaging the planet.”

The conference also acknowledged that we are at the peak of fast fashion consumption. Peake explained that we are continuing to dump waste in the global south while using the same trade routes from building the empire that commandeered the same skills and processes to build our textiles industry. All of this could not have been possible without the slave trade.

Through our consumption, we are still exploiting the same trade routes for the people that manufacture very cheap products on the same continents that were exploited historically.

British womenswear designer and art historian, Dr Christine Checinska spoke about the making of textiles as regenerative acts and how internal and external landscapes weave together to suggest that another world is possible.

Checinska made a powerful statement about honouring cloth so you can then honour the landscape as well as yourself, reflecting on the power of cloth and its historical challenges. This was followed up by a panel of curators who discussed the exploration and understanding of indigenous practices and diasporic communities.

Dr. Christine Checinska speaking at the conference. Photography: Emma Abram

Artist and educator Sam Meech introduced ‘FABRICATIONS’, a video examining the displacement of South Asian knitting firms from Crusader Mill in Manchester that was purchased by developers, with help from a £25 million loan from the Greater Manchester Housing Authority to make way for apartments.

The piece follows Ayub Khan of Unique Knitwear and describes the need for the textile business to be “knitted together”. Meech explained how developers claim to be ‘saving’ the industrial heritage of Manchester, but the voices of the South Asian textile community have been missing.

Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Textile Design, Dr Elaine Igoe, discussed how materiality can be experienced through digital and virtual realms while exploring textiles as an expansive field. Igoe discussed the term metamodernism, which describes a culture that is between and beyond modernism and postmodernism.

Hypermodernity is used to describe an advanced stage of modern society characterised
by rapid technological and cultural change. She applies both of these terms to a textile perspective by exploring textile digitalisation.

Dr. Elaine Igoe speaking at the conference. Photography: Emma Abram

Historian and former chair of the Crafts Council, Professor Geoffrey Crossick closed the event, reflecting on how “craft is always rooted in its past, even when it is looking clearly to its future”. He said: “People who knit, weave, or embroider are in various ways in dialogue with the past of their discipline.”

When asked by textiles students whether looking to the future of textiles and design is just as important as reflecting on the past in the context of regeneration, Crossick said: “I think this is the right question to be asking; it’s important not to see them as alternatives.”

You can watch day one and two of the 2023 British Textiles and Place Conference on the Manchester School of Art YouTube channel.

Follow the British Textile Biennial on Instagram for upcoming events @britishtextilebiennial and visit the ‘Growing House’ exhibition at the Manchester School of Art.

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Lucy Vincent

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