Phoebe Connelly

Of Crafts and Causes

Crafts are officially cool again. At many a chain bookstore, ReadyMade magazine's new book, ReadyMade: How to Make (Almost) Everything, isn't tucked away in the "Crafts" section, but stacked four high on the front display table.

Hip, design-savvy and eco-friendly, the book embodies one pole of a flourishing craft movement that draws equal inspiration from politics, art and urban living. It signals the latest incarnation of the craft movement -- which appears every time a new generation discovers the pleasure of handicraft (recall the '60s back-to-the-land, Whole Earth Catalog crowd).

The book joins a crop of new craft titles that draw from the best of Martha Stewart, then add a dash of your dumpster-diving, protest-attending college roommate. ReadyMade magazine, which started publishing in 2001, released its eponymous resource book in December, just in time for the deluge of holiday shoppers simultaneously over-consumed and broke. The magazine's title comes from surrealist Marcel Duchamp, who coined it to refer to the ordinary objects he altered or signed and then called art.

"Learn how to turn everyday objects into spellbinding inventions," the cover blurb invites. "Our simple self-improvement techniques will make you smarter, better looking, and more well-adjusted."

Organized by material (paper, plastic, wood, metal, glass and fabric), each section provides brief history of the substance and an overview of its manufacturing. Then come the projects, rated on a difficulty level from "monkey" to "craftsman" (who "knows that a "stud finder is not a matchmaking service!"), each with its own stylized icon. The "Remake This!" sections showcase a project they tried to make work, but which ended up more complicated than pleasing. Most cloying or endearing -- depending how much the McSweeney's crowd raises your bile -- are the clever non-craft lessons: "How to Make a Film Like Ingmar Bergman," "A Look Back at the Origins of Heavy Metal" and "How to Tell a Good Story."

They are the most ambitious aspect of the book, arguing that the craft ethos applies to one's entire life. They hark back to the Foxfire books (recently reissued by Anchor Books), the pioneering oral history project of the '70s, which had Georgia high school students interview elders in their communities for histories on everything from washing laundry in an iron tub to telling ghost stories. Here though, Grandma's been replaced by Ira Glass.

Still, there is an uneasy relationship between the rhetoric of reuse and refashion and the underlying comfort with consumption. The introduction to the paper section provides dismaying statistics about paper manufacturing, but they're quickly bracketed with cheery reassurances: "The good news is that trees are renewable, and American farms, planting millions of seeds each year now contribute nearly 90 percent of the raw material used to make paper." Phew! For a second there it sounded as if we should put down our crafts and organize around that.

Glossy, modernist ReadyMade sits on the design end of this new craft-resurgence, with inside cover blurbs from celeb aesthetes like Dave Eggers and Todd Oldham. But another strand of the craft movement, one that views itself as overtly political, utilizes DIY (do it yourself) as a means of subverting disposable consumption, and questions the ghettoizing of crafts as women's work. It's grown up in conjunction with postfeminist magazines Bitch, Bust and Venus, and has ties to various activist communities.

Greg Der Ananian's Bazaar Bizarre: Not Your Granny's Crafts! proudly flies its freak flag. Named for the bi-coastal craft fair run by its author, Bazaar Bizarre is a collection of how-to-make-it presentations by the fair's artists, from sock monkeys to mini-shrines made of Altoids boxes. Der Ananian introduces each crafter with a short bio, a mug shot and brief Q&A. Clearly the edgier of the two books, the difficulty level of each craft here is given in number of anarchist symbols -- one to five.

Der Ananian takes on one of the complicated questions of the craft movement, asking each crafter "What is the difference between an 'art' and a 'craft'?" Many of the artists -- Der Ananian's term -- argue that their work is designed to break down this distinction that pits "skills" against "functionality." The best answer, however, belongs to Stacie Dolins: "Art goes on your wall. Art rhymes with fart; craft rhymes with daft."

More is at work here than just a punk sensibility (though Der Ananian does have a disclaimer box to explicate the book's use of "punk" and "punk rock.") There's the question of class. ReadyMade has always emanated a college-educated, streamlined, art-school vibe, while Bazaar Bizarre is solidly broke, challenge-the-establishment, rock-kid DIY. The difference is made amusingly clear in their choice of joking drug references: On the topic of office paper, ReadyMade, assures readers they are "very much in favor of the recreational use of the white stuff," while Bazaar Bizarre cautions crafters to keep the industrial-strength glue "away from the huffers."

This resistance to the status quo likely informs Bazaar Bizarre's choice to confront the underlying gender roles of the craft movement. Crafts have traditionally been associated with homemakers, a stereotype Bazaar Bizarre tackles head on. One section, "Watch Where You Put That Friggan Distaff!," concludes:

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Protester Protector

Located three blocks from Madison Square Garden, the New York Civil Liberties Union Protecting Protest Storefront is insuring that protesters at the Republican National Convention have the information and legal resources they need. Steve Theberge, a longtime organizer from New York, is coordinating the space.

How did you get the idea for the storefront space and what will be going on there?

The storefront space actually came up at a meeting about six or seven months ago. Folks were thinking about how they were going to work around the Republican National Convention and how we should prepare for what is going to happen. The storefront is our street-level, face-to-face section of what we are doing this summer. We have all of our volunteers based out of the storefront space. We're going to have most of our staff here the week of the convention and we're also doing a variety of different trainings at the space throughout August. It is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Friday, as a space where people can come get information about the demonstrations that are happening and talk to people about what their legal rights are as demonstrators.

What is the best thing protesters can do?

Be aware of what the climate is, in the city and police department and in the atmosphere that they, as well as the protests, are creating. The most important things are to watch the news, pay attention to everything that is happening on the street and also bring water. We are anticipating peaceful, lawful, safe demonstrations that will be a perfect example of the power of democracy in this country; we are also prepared for the possibility that this will not happen.

What is your favorite protest or public display you've seen recently?

People are being so incredibly creative around the convention that there is not just one thing that I can point to. Personally, I think the Paul Revere ride down Lexington Avenue is pretty creative. These folks are planning to ride down Lexington Avenue announcing that the Republicans are coming. Also, the map that has been created, The People's Guide to the Republican National Convention is a pretty amazing piece of information that has been put out. It's a very detailed map and guide about the different events that are happening.

There has been a lot of talk about how protest is changing. What do you think are some of the most effective forms of protest emerging?

We have seen in the past couple of years in New York City a really impressive and significant effort made towards building coalitions, uniting and working with a variety of organizations toward a common cause. We haven't seen this kind of unified effort in quite a few years – so that's quite impressive to me. Also, people are embracing very creative means of expression, different kinds of street theater and visual art. For me personally, one of the most beautiful things coming out of the convention this year is the explosion in creative art – the T-shirts, the buttons, the stickers. An amazing amount of work is being put into expressing dissent. People are really coming up with new and innovative ways to engage in this kind of dialogue and conversation.

Do you think this political expression will have life past the election?

I can only hope so. Everyone recognizes that the election is only the first hurdle, that there are many things that have been set in place over the past few years that need to be reformed or worked through. On my most optimistic and naive days, I think that the energy and the unity and the power of dissent that built up over the past few months leading up to the convention will carry through afterwards. On my pessimistic days I worry about the scare tactics and fear-mongering that things like the Patriot Act do. So much is up in the air that it's difficult to say which way we're gonna go.


Happy Holidays!