Blurred black-and-white words fill the walls and part of the floor of the ODD Gallery this month, as Caitlin Erskine-Smith’s text-inspired weavings inhabit the Dawson City art space.
Three of the four different works in Missives present layers of words that are mostly or entirely unreadable. They are blends of texts, recalling the way thoughts combine and smudge each other over time.
The elegant, 17-metre long flow of “Writing Down the Gauntlet” (2009) is an unusual 3D reflection of how our minds take in so much information, and then intermingle facts, fictions, memories, desires and communications.
“The Gauntlet piece is about unconscious communication, just the constant reading and the constant taking in of text,” says Erskine-Smith, “and how much we unconsciously absorb but still put value on.”
Thinking about the constant flow of information that shapes our communication, Erskine-Smith uses public, academic or formal texts, not personal and intimate ones.
“I think that the larger the scale, the more difficult it is to communicate and the more we take in,” she explains.
“When you send an email or a letter or a text, chances are there will also be words spoken in person or … over Skype. There are so many options in the way that we communicate on the personal level.
“But the second it becomes something that’s bigger than that, or the second it’s something that we’re not even conscious of, it’s harder. The opportunity to refine and adjust the message is lost.”
The woven messages are blends of multiple points of view.
Erskine-Smith hand-paints words onto the unwoven threads as they are revealed in the working area of the loom. It takes about 40 minutes for the diluted acrylic paint or Indian ink to dry. Then she reverses the threads and paints another text on the same section.
After the second paint layer dries, she weaves the two texts together. Some individual words can be read, but the overall message dissolves.
The black-and-white text might remind viewers of newspapers. It’s fitting because Erskine-Smith says a series of newspaper editorials, during the Lebanon uprising in 2006, was the trigger for her to start weaving multiple messages into one fabric.
“You saw around you that people were getting tense and shop owners were getting really offended that Canada was taking such a public and biased stance,” she recalls.
“That was when I started working on linen with text with Indian ink, which came off very much like a newspaper does as well, which is interesting.
“It was what made me think of taking the two layers and being like, okay, everyone has an opinion on things, everyone’s feeling pretty confused, and this war was so present, both with the Iraq war and the Middle East.
So I started writing out the Globe and Mail editorials that were maddening, on one layer, and I started taking rants and overheard conversations and general confusion and bewilderment on the other, and then wove them together.”
The most recent work in Missives, called “Demonstrated,” continues using visual art as a way to explore communication around large public events that have conflicting narratives.
This print suite’s top layer – a lithographed statement from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair – is the only perfectly readable text in the show.
It’s a quote from a speech Blair gave before the G20 Summit last year, promising to protect the public.
The second layer is a quote from the Toronto Star talking about the police brutality that occurred during the protests. The bottom layer of each triple-printed piece is 1,108 names selected at random from the Toronto phone book with their phone numbers erased.
When Erskine-Smith originally exhibited all 10 of the prints in the “Demonstrated” series in Toronto last year, she also showed the individual Star and phone book layers, so people could compare the different communications approaches.
This is one detail that the ODD Gallery exhibition lacks – without those layers on display here, it’s impossible to know that the Star’s story contrasts with Blair’s story. Only his can be read.
Then again, that’s part of Erskine-Smith’s point. A formal statement from a person in authority has the power to shape the public narrative – maybe too much power.
Is the work cynical, then? Possibly, says the artist.
Reading the media, “it’s so hard to trust what’s being said, and it’s so hard to understand how the conclusions were reached.
“What I think is most interesting though is we’re still talking. There is this desire to try to understand the other side, even though that’s very rarely apparent [in public communication],” she says.
Missives is at the ODD Gallery until November 26.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.