WOMEN’S WORK AND UNRAVELLING GENDER IDENTITY

A look into the Pattern : Code at the Women’s Center for Creative Work

As gender identities become more and more fluid, and as they deviate from, decentralize, and deconstruct the gender binary, it is necessary to be critical of how arts institutions and organizations engage with and foster these identities. It is by now fairly obvious, through the work of social critics, academics, and arts professionals (of which titles there are many overlaps) that our traditional arts institutions tend to operate within the norms of the cis, hetero, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Additionally, through the efforts of organizations and movements such as Decolonize This Place, who called out the Brooklyn Museum for its appointment of a white woman as the chief curator of the museum’s African collection, community members are holding its arts institutions accountable for the myriad ways in which these institutions uphold oppressive sociocultural systems and structures. In Los Angeles, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is carving out a space for trans- and cis-gender women, femmes, and non-binary folks to produce creative work outside of the structures of normative creative institutions. The case of the latest exhibition held in the center’s modest gallery space demonstrates how the center is creating an alternative space for creative and gendered work , and the ways in which the center is actively engaging in conversations about gender identities both from within and without.

Pattern : Code was presented by Ahree Lee, the artist in residence at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. In a modestly sized, intimate gallery space, woven works combine with an algorithmically created video to activate the “interrelationships between technology, craft, and women’s labor.”[1] The exhibition features five woven works on the two walls adjacent to the entrance, and a video projected onto the opposing wall. In the corner of the room situated next to a window sizeable enough to illuminate the small gallery on a sunny day, is a large floor loom from which Lee actively produced one of the woven works featured in the show. Even as it was unused at the time of our visit, the work in progress that had been momentarily halted activated the loom within the space and imbued the gallery with a feeling of dynamism. A floating shelf in the corner of the gallery housed a collection of literature curated by Lee related to the history of weaving, women’s labor, and computer coding. This small collection of literature, in conjunction especially with the presence and use of the loom in the gallery, helped to situate this exhibition not as a static statement of the relations between weaving, coding, and gendered labor, but rather as an exploration and a discussion in which both the artist and audience are invited to engage.

The formal content of each work in the exhibition was derived from the history and lived experience of those who developed computing and coding (and their consequent industries) and their relationships to gendered labor.  Of particular interest to me was Ahree’s ongoing work Timesheet: November 4-10, 2018, comprised of separately woven sections whose form – namely the specific types and amounts of thread which comprise the work – is directly correlated to the number of hours of unpaid labor the artist worked in a day over the course of one full week. At the time of our visit, there were three complete pieces. Although not necessarily a performance piece, the performative nature of the work makes potent the ways in which the valuation of gendered labor (or rather lack thereof)  has inscribed itself into the very fabric of our lives. Despite the origins of binary code and computing in weaving, the labors associated with both are very differently gendered, and therefore differently valued. Pattern : Code calls attention to and asks us to engage with the ways we perform gender through work, and how work reciprocally informs ideas and constructions of gender. Subsequently, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is the perfect setting for this exhibition.

 

In regards to its content and form, Pattern : Code  presents the art of weaving in a radically different light than is typical for the medium. Most often, weaving created in imperialist countries and that is shown in galleries in these countries are categorized as folk, pattern, design, or decorative. Never art in its own right, weaving and other textile crafts require an adjective in order to find a place for them within the context of the prevailing institutional art world. On the other hand, weaving created by the colonized in their own countries is often exhibited ethnographically – a showcase of the ancient traditions of the other. These shows often objectify and fetishize the creators of textiles and the cultures in which they work, and create an imaginary in the colonizing mind of a people relegated to the past. Pattern : Code does not rely on a precursory adjective to designate the woven pieces as works of art, but rather assumes their art-objecthood as a given. Additionally, the formal elements of the textiles are not framed as pattern, decoration, or design, but rather the exhibition focuses on the connection between form, materiality, and meaning, again assuming the ‘art-ness’ of the objects a priori.

Although Pattern : Code presents a new way of looking at and considering textiles from the realm of art, it’s consideration of gender must be addressed specifically. Pattern : Code frames gender and labor as they relate to the history of weaving and computing, within the gender binary. Rather than make conjectures as to the artist’s consideration of gender production and labor outside of and beyond the binary, it is more useful to take the show as a departure point, a case study from which to unravel how gender is performed through (creative) labor. In this way, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is the perfect setting of the show, as it is precisely a space in which folks for whom their gender identity has been a point of restriction in the workforce may collaborate and produce work with support from similarly identified people.  Set rather casually amidst people coming and going as they work, Pattern : Code it is productive to position Pattern : Code in conversation with the Women’s Center for Creative Work and those who utilize its facilities,  even though the exhibition falls just short of taking that step to look outside itself.

With these concerns around gender identities in mind,  the question is raised of whether or not Ahree Lee, who identifies as a ciswoman of color, has an obligation in her practice as an artist to look outside of herself, to make her art touch on the seemingly infinitely complicating constructions of genders. My answer would be no. However, it is the role of the institution, at least of an institution so intently concerned with the construction and production of gender identities such as the Women’s Center for Creative Work, to position artwork and shows in a  larger conversation of gender, and through their artist residency to push artists to involve themselves in these conversations as well. With Pattern : Code, the Women’s Center for Creative work does indeed fall a little short on this, as the only text that is sponsored by the center and produced for the show is what appears to be the artist’s statement, which employs language conforming to the gender binary.

With the advent of their very own printing press, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is now in a position to produce texts and more developed, research driven publications in conjunction with their shows. This may very well be the missing link to intentionally positioning their shows in larger conversations about gender, race, and creative work, that may even circulate beyond the organization itself. Just as the Women’s Center for Creative Work is an alternative art and work space, so too could the regular production of catalogues or essays become an alternative media source for its members, visitors, and anyone who wanted to engage in these conversations. Not being bound to the restrictions of another press in form, length, and content, as well as having a plethora of people who are actively producing creative works of all types, a programmatic shift (or rather, addition) might be in order to truly make their space open, radical, and critical, especially when members and those who utilize the facilities are able to engage in conversation with the artist in residence so easily. An interesting addition to their program might be to produce some research-based text along with the opening of a new show, and then to invite members to respond to the shows through their own creative work throughout the duration of each show. This work could be collected into an online archive which anyone can access. Such an addition to the center’s programming would allow artists to retain agency over the content, form, concept of their works and shows while also ensuring that the status quo and all of the pillars that support it are continuously questioned and deconstructed (as that is the aim of the center, after all).

Currently housed in a converted residence, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is coworking, library, studio, exhibition, and educational space, among several other functions and programs located on the premises. It is staffed by women-identifying and non-binary individuals, with the aim of providing a space and support for all types of creative work produced by transgender and cisgender women, femmes, and nonbinary folks. On site they have a coworking space, a gallery which houses shows from their artist residency program, a new print lab where they have printed a number of catalogues, workbooks, and zines, a small shared kitchen, studio workspaces, and a garden and compost center. The center also offers  immigration support and after school youth programs on site. On their website, the center is intentional about transparency in their mission, values, and operations.

The webpage on which these values are laid out is fraught with what is perceived to be a great anxiety towards inadvertently upholding the status quo of the cis, hetero, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. The founders and staff clearly want to create a radically inclusive space for people to partake in creative work and production. The mission of the Women’s Center for Creative Work is to cultivate Los Angeles’s feminist, creative communities and practices.[2]  The word “feminist” as it applies to and is employed by white women and the institutions they are a part of, carries with it connotations of discrimination on the basis of race, class, and indeed gender. The exclusionary nature of feminisms such as white feminism and TERFs (trans-exclusionary-radical-feminists), and the bias of women of certain privileges, has turned many away from the movement throughout its various iterations. In their mission and values, the founders of the Women’s Center for Creative Work make assertive, explicit claims to reject exclusionary feminisms. They also make repeatedly clear that they are positioning the center as  a welcoming and safe space for trans- and cis-gender women, femmes, and non-binary folks, and particularly those of color. They claim that  “culture-making is a fundamental human and societal experience,”[3] and that this production is far too important to be relegated to industries and institutions which frequently operate to contain and creative work, especially for the groups whose identities are those previously mentioned.

As it stands, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is housed in a converted one-story residence at the end the road in the very quaint (and quickly gentrifying) residential neighborhood of Elysian Valley. The irony of the center and Pattern : Code being housed here is not lost on me, and adds another interesting layer to the meaning of gendered and domestic labor, particularly as they are undervalued. At this time, it is not clear whether the selection of a home for the site of the Women’s Center for Creative Work was intentional or not. In either case, the site itself is warm, welcoming, and disarming. The only indication that the center is there is a printed banner with on the exterior of the home near the front doorway. The home is nestled in a dead end, quasi cul-de-sac, framed by a garden and overhanging trees. Inside, there are views of the LA river from the rear windows.  It is a serene setting, and the interior carries that feeling through. The front doorway leads directly into the co-workspace, which has an intimate cluster of tables and couches, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves housing a collection from the F.L.O.W. library.

The site and the set up are so divergent from other co-working spaces to be found in Los Angeles, which have the feeling of impersonality and boast wildly expensive membership prices. Currently, the most expensive membership tier for the Women’s Center for Creative Work, the tile of which is “Intersectional Goddess,” costs $125 per month, or $1250 paid annually. Members of this tier have virtually an all-access pass to the facilities and its programming, including keys to the building. The membership tier just below “Intersectional Goddess,” called “Feminist Warrior,” costs a mere $40 per month (or $400 paid annually). This membership stops just short of all access, restricting the use of the on-site studio space and limiting regular individual use of the site to the center’s operating hours. With membership tiers that cost as little as $5 per month, the Women’s Center for Creative Work is a truly accessible place for creatives of many economic classes, reflecting an intentional effort to carve out alternative spaces for creative work made by the founders and staff.

At the time of this essay, the center is looking to relocate, with the hopes of staying within a few miles of its current location. It is unclear as to how this move will affect both the atmosphere and experience of the center, as well as its economic accessibility. The move is born more or less out of necessity – both a need to grow as their membership grows, and from pressures of rising costs of rent (a symptom of gentrification). However, the selection of a new facility has not gone on in secret, but rather attests to the very nature of the center. In addition to ongoing crowdsourcing for some of the funding for the move, the Women’s Center for Creative Work held a community meeting in early November 2019 during which they shared their progress and thoughts on the move as well as invited feedback about the move from community members. Although I was unable to attend this meeting, I would like to briefly speculate here as to how this move may impact the culture and operation of the center.

A commercial space, while perhaps fiscally and operationally more convenient, would fundamentally alter the experience of the center for visitors and members. The home, however ironic or not it may be, is entirely what imbues the physical space with a disarming and collaborative atmosphere. One is quite literally at home in the space. To be sure, expansion is necessary. It might be productive for the founders and staff of the center to look to the 2015 exhibition In Search of an Exit (or Eight Characters in a Parlor) for a truly exemplary case study of how a home might be reimagined to house creative work. Drawing from Jean Paul Satre’s 1944 play No Exit, this show, produced by the USC Roski School of Art and Design and the MA in Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere Class of 2015 (from which degree program WCCW co-founder Sarah Williams is a graduate), explores situations in which “groups of people find themselves in a space and have to negotiate their existence within pre-established and external conditions.”[4] Housed in the historic Victorian homes of the Heritage Square Museum, the conceptual underpinnings of the show and how the show interacts with the space might serve as an inspiration when envisioning how the Women’s Center for Creative Work can expand and inhabit new homes in innovate ways that remain true to the core values and integrity of the center.

Bibliography

Women’s Center for Creative Work. “Mission and Values.” WomensCenterforCreativeWork.com.  https://Women’s Center for Creative Workcorevalues.persona.co/ (accessed December 5, 2019).

Women’s Center for Creative Work. “Artist-In-Resident: Ahree Lee.” WomensCenterforCreativeWork.com. https://womenscenterforcreativework.com/history/ (accessed December 5, 2019).

USC Roski School of Art and Design. “In Search of an Exit.” Roski.USC.edu. https://roski.usc.edu/events/search-exit (accessed December 15, 2019).

[1] “Artist-in-resident: Ahree Lee,” Women’s Center for Creative Work,  https://womenscenterforcreativework.com/ahree-lee/.

[2] “Mission and Values,” Women’s Center for Creative Work, https://Women’s Center for Creative Workcorevalues.persona.co/.

[3] “Mission and Values,” Women’s Center for Creative Work, https://Women’s Center for Creative Workcorevalues.persona.co/.

[4] “In Search of An Exit,” USC Roski School of Art and Design, https://roski.usc.edu/events/search-exit.