Trans. Rosa Alcalá.
New York: Art in General, 1999
by Anna Reckin
I The Weaving of Words
When I agreed to write a response to Cecilia Vicuña’s Cloud-Net, I thought that I would slip into it as easily as one slips into her work, that “responding” would simply involve a somewhat descriptive analysis, an enthusiastic pointing out of what I admire and find fascinating in what Vicuña does. But the more time I spent with the book, the harder it has been to write about it. One reason is that so much of what makes Cloud-Net work is embedded/embodied in materiality and performance, grounded in ephemerality and transformative ritual. The remains (traces) of a project like this can be represented pictorially—as this book shows most beautifully—but the next step, to make words of my own that were not already made redundant by Vicuña’s realizations, seemed almost impossible. Not until I found myself talking with the book—using Vicuña’s words as a warp against which to construct a weft of commentary—did my work feel at all productive. Writing as weaving is one of Vicuña’s central metaphors, but it’s important to remember that dialogue implies a space, in at least two dimensions. Lines of communication don’t merely answer a with a and b with b; but open up “new” places, too.
To remember (recordar) in the sense of playing the strings (cuerdas)
Vicuña has been working with thread for most of her career, tying, fastening, pulling together. Looking at her earlier work, I see photos of little bundles of litter (basuritas), wound round with cord, memorials of resistance to the 1973 coup in her native Chile, and constructed in London; threads passing between stones and trees and over rivers, high in the Andes; a room in Holland strung with geometrical lines that catch the sunlight, and then here, in this book, gallery spaces hung with soft hammocks of unspun wool in Houston, Buffalo, and New York. This is only a selection; lines of straw and twigs also find their way over Chilean beaches and are laid gently into New York gutters.
First there was listening with the fingers, a sensory memory:
(“Entering,” Precarious, q. 131)
The basis of Cloud-Net is an airy web of raw (unspun) wool, raveled and unraveled in three different places—Hallwells Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, New York State; DiverseWorks Artspace, Houston, Texas; Art in General, New York City—between 1998 and 1999, accompanied by video, performance, and workshops. Part of the video work at Buffalo included documentation of a performance on the waterfront in New York City:
a group of women make an open weaving of thread. Holding the ends and intersections, they trace the movement of a weaver, a loom, and the cloth with their bodies and their hands. A poem makes its way through the threads slowly. The threads are finally released in the river as the poem ends. (Cloud-Net 8)
The Cloud-Net book, which is documentation for that performance, and for the exhibition in its various embodiments, follows roughly the same ritual structure: first setting up, then letting go.
At the same time, it works from outside edges inwards—though of course a net can be said not to have outside edges—its lines will continue to run through, beyond any frame that’s put around them…The main part of the book—its “real” matter, separated out from prelims and endmatter, forewords, introductions, acknowledgments—is framed by a hand-drawn trellis marked on a chalkboard. At the beginning, we have the steps that lead into the ritual: a prayer, “mother of clouds, please let me through” written in cursive script across two blank pages, and a photo of Vicuña standing, draped in soft threads, face hidden under a cone-shaped hat. We also see photos of her at work on the installation, setting up threads as if setting up a loom. At the end are the steps that lead us out: a letter to the reader consisting of quotes and commentary, and a letter to the workshop participants, and, as almost the very last piece of text, one of their responses as written on a chalkboard: “earth, its god tring. to get our attention./mind. god is tring to fix my mind./wavs. its the fish tring to call us./clouds thier moving to fing a place to live.”
The innermost part of the frame is made by two photos of Vicuña holding thread above her head. At the front of the book, she’s a dark figure between evenly spaced warp threads, holding a mass of soft wool in front of her face; at the back, she’s a silhouette of body and arms up high (on a roof?) holding the end of a thread that makes its way down towards us, straight as a cable.
The poems and photos in the first half of the book set up looms and make nets. They document the Cloud-Net video, with stills of a cat’s cradle of threads running/being run along a pier; they show us photos of heads wrapped in nets (Vicuña herself, in work dating from 1969, and an eighth-century illustration of the Mayan god Pawahtun), and they point up the webs in window-frames and cobblestones, the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
Nets are based on knots (if a knot is taken to be an entanglement of one thread with another), and knotting, as Vicuña reminds us, is also inscribing, a way of taking notes. This is in part a reference to quipu, woolen cords, some knotted, some not, used by the Incas as a recording system. Here there is also a reference to the knot as a crux, a place that calls for decipherment:
K’u, called “the sacred”
“of the sacred book” (Cloud-Net 52)
This is the start of a poem that is made out of commentary by Dennis Tedlock and others on the text of the Popol Vuh, described in Vicuña’s notes as “the Quiché Mayan book of creation.” Vicuña has homed in on the interpretation of a single phrase, showing that close scrutiny of the syllabic signs of Quiché Maya may not result in any one meaning. Instead, the process seems to open out layered threads of possibility; words that have to do with writing, knotting, and the names of gods slide over each other, connected but refusing to be tied down.
The knots are not resolutions, then, and we need to keep paying attention to what lies between them. The dancers spinning threads along the pier are Fates,
fate is not
(Er, Cloud-Net 34)
Words are movement, and breath, and the spinning out of a thread, even a story:
they came to a mysterious place, at which
one of each pair souls departed
The second part of the book both meditates on and enacts processes of fragmentation and dissolution. It includes the contents of the three “poet’s tables” that Vicuña constructed for the exhibition’s three venues, tiny sculptures made of trash, which she calls precarios, or prayers. Lists of their titles, some in Spanish, some in English, form three poems.
Among the pieces shown close up are “wool satellite,” a puff of orange wool with bright red plastic netting loosely wound round it, and “nuestra casa espiral,” a cone-shaped spiral of metal ribbon, with a mass of orange threads hanging down inside it, suggesting a tent, the frailest kind of shelter. These are made from found objects, a reminder of Vicuña’s account of the origins of spinning, quoted in an interview at the beginning of the book:
The New York table, illustrated here, looks like a painting by Miró, with its black and red lines drawing out colored blobs across a pale surface. The scale of the pieces, and their attenuated quality, makes me think of other surrealist objects: the minute sculptures, many of them less than an inch high, that Giacommetti made during his sojourn in Switzerland during the Second World War. Laura Hoptman, in one of the introductory essays to Cloud-Net, describes the powerful poignancy of Vicuña’s sculptural work:
In his discussion of Vicuña's precarios, “Cryptic Weaving,” Hugo Méndez-Ramirez mentions the phrase “al filo del agua,” which he translates as “on the edge of disaster.”(Precarious 60) Whether figured as “down to the wire,” or the thread of water as a precipitous edge, this phrase seems to encapsulate the vulnerability of the precarios,—a suggestion, perhaps, of the drop below the net that becomes apparent at moments of great danger.
The tone of the second half of the book is bleaker than the first half. In a sense, “cloud,” representing smoke, sweat, clouds of steam, the miasmas of city life, and the dangers to the earth of environmental imbalance, is in danger of taking over from “net.” In the “Letter to the Reader” at the end of the book, Vicuña asks
Reversal isn’t impossible, though, if you know where to turn to:
“world reverser,” is the Andean deity associated with rain, thunder and
lightning. He is also, the notes to the poems tell us, “the supreme mediator
of sound.” Two poems at the beginning of the second section are dedicated
to him, under the names of Illapa and Illapantac, and they call upon the
powers of song and the mediating flow of water and tears to
Pachacuti, “world reverser,” is the Andean deity associated with rain, thunder and lightning. He is also, the notes to the poems tell us, “the supreme mediator of sound.” Two poems at the beginning of the second section are dedicated to him, under the names of Illapa and Illapantac, and they call upon the powers of song and the mediating flow of water and tears to
clouds, containing sound and light, form a dynamic matrix out of which
help can come:
Illapa’s clouds, containing sound and light, form a dynamic matrix out of which help can come:
And even clouds as smoke can have ambivalent powers, especially when grounded, given roots:
the haze, illustrated by photos of buildings obscured by rising steam
from heating vents, becomes the smoke of the oracle pouring through a
crack in the earth.
Here the haze, illustrated by photos of buildings obscured by rising steam from heating vents, becomes the smoke of the oracle pouring through a crack in the earth.
But the ending of the ritual is as light as its beginning, marked by a return to the girls dancing and weaving—making a net, making a web of living, singing connections, re-making nest/shelter/matrix/cloud/net:
The last few photos show white woolly threads, oddly comforting, laid over rooftops. Caterpillar-soft, a thick white line is swung across a flat roof, climbs up and over a stepped gable. Finally, as described at the beginning of this essay, a fluffy cable swings up on a steep diagonal, connecting earth and sky.
(“Antivero,” Precarious, q. 64)
The threads are wound through and between unlikely pairings (the Andes mountains and the streets of New York City), like the tendrils of a plant or the running of water, making strands/streams of connection but never stopping still; pushing or pulling against only to keep moving on. It’s in the nature of thread to be linear, but this is the linearity of drawing (Klee taking a line for a walk), an exploratory line that draws out a relationship, points up the possibility of convergence, rather than the straight and narrow path that already knows its own conclusion.
The paradox of the net is rather like the paradox of a line drawing; the line that wraps and encloses but also releases form. A containing-within that is also a passing-through. “Open” and “closed” also start to blend into each other. Cloud-Net’s soft squares were woven indoors, in galleries, but an earlier squared-up mesh was constructed in the stone-walled space of a corral in Chile. In the photo, the field is flat, and beyond the walls are trees and mountains. The threads that pass over it seem to say, “here, in this ‘empty’ space, is where the connections become clear.” And also, maybe, “there is no inside and no outside.” (The Corral Grid, Precarious q. 114-15)
At the center of the book,
where I have made a division between its two halves, a small and very
simple black and white image: one thread laid over another. A cross(ing).
Heart of a weave, simplest kind of knot. Knitting, lace, and crochet are
based on knots, and the most basic kind of stitch (for fastening, or embroidery)
requires that resistance—the thread against itself, or against another.
Scattered across the matrix, these shining moments, constellations of little crosses
Back to the net, though—what (it) slips, splits through…
IV Crossing Over
project is fabricated out of translation: translation of metaphor (between
material and spiritual, poetry and artwork), and translation between languages
(English, Spanish, Quiché Maya). Not all the Spanish also appears in English;
specificities (knots, cruxes?) are important. Where the translation reads
across facing pages, it’s as if there’s a third poem that hangs between.
Sometimes Alcalá’s English words are directly opposite their equivalents
in Spanish, sometimes they appear at a diagonal. As I try to write and
explain this, I find myself making cross-shapes in the air with my fingers—the
same movements one uses to hook up the string of a cat’s cradle.
This project is fabricated out of translation: translation of metaphor (between material and spiritual, poetry and artwork), and translation between languages (English, Spanish, Quiché Maya). Not all the Spanish also appears in English; specificities (knots, cruxes?) are important. Where the translation reads across facing pages, it’s as if there’s a third poem that hangs between. Sometimes Alcalá’s English words are directly opposite their equivalents in Spanish, sometimes they appear at a diagonal. As I try to write and explain this, I find myself making cross-shapes in the air with my fingers—the same movements one uses to hook up the string of a cat’s cradle.
The “change” in exchange
Vicuña, Cecilia. Interview, conducted by Charles Bernstein. Granolithic Productions, 1996. Also available at http://wings.buffalo.edu.epc/authors/vicuna.
_____. Cloud-Net. Trans. Rosa Alcalá. Art in General, 1999.
Vicuña, Cecilia et al. QUIOem/The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña. Ed. M. Catherine De Zegher. Trans. Esther Allen. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1997.
BIO: Born in England, Anna Reckin has been living in the USA since 1995, and is currently studying in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. Her poetry has appeared in Chain, Prosodia, Key Satch(ell), and The Texas Observer. Broder, her first book, can be found in the mixed media section of this issue.