Gender, Domesticity & the Idealised Wildness of Nature
Giulia Mangoni presents INTERVIEWS FROM LOCKDOWN: #2
A remote conversation with artist Sarah G. Sharp,
through the lens of an intersected historiography.
The Family, 2015
The Amateur Struggle Against Nature, 2015
“These collages utilize found images of communes and idealized nature on the west coast of the US from popular media sources like Time Magazine. Most of these images are from the late 1960’s-1970’s and represent popular media’s attempt to explain utopian subcultures to American society at large”.
Images and text courtesy of artist’s website
GM: In your research-based work ‘The Youth Communes and the Pacific States’, you process the media’s attempts at making ‘digestible’ the idea of a commune at the fringe of society to the general American public in the 1960-70s. Can you talk us through what happens between the source material in the form of printed documentation and your own manipulation of this historiographic trace in the present?
SGS: I was interested in this movement in time where people launched out into the land to build their own communities as antidotes to the problems of modernity, rejecting the conservative American narrative whilst also basing themselves on prescribed divisions between urban man and the idealized wild nature beyond the cities. I started working with LIFE magazines from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, which introduced these revolutionary ideas into the normative American home. I was especially interested in opening and disrupting the original documentation of these movements so as to make evident the complications and interconnections between utopian ideas and their re-insertion into mainstream culture.
Through the hand-embroidered diagrams and threaded interventions I wanted to remove, obscure or draw attention to certain incongruencies of class and gender that seeped through in these images of the struggle for Utopia; especially ideas of “naturalness” reinforcing gender roles.
Autobiographically speaking, my dad was part of the counterculture and lived on a commune in the 1960’s, but then became a fundamentalist Christian. I was actually brought up in his fundamentalist Christian church in the 80’s. I am part of a generation, especially growing up on the west coast of the US, whose parents created and participated in these countercultural practices and spaces. So, I was also thinking about the gap between his lived experience and my understanding of his history and the counterculture. Media narratives kind of “filled in” those gaps for me during a childhood that was super-saturated with christianity and a lot of fear around non-traditional ways of living. My work draws on a kind of re-interpretation of the religious iconography and the geometric patterns that could be both DIY instruction manuals for self-sustained living and mystical annotations.
Page 16 to 17 of Understanding Whole Systems, Artist’s Book, 2016
Screen shot from Finding our Place in Space
Full Length: 11 minutes, 2017
“In 1975 NASA sent two rovers (Viking I and II) to Mars to survey the planet’s surface. During the same year a group of women in the Pacific Northwest formed what became known as the Oregon’s Women’s Land Trust. Land purchased by the OWL Trust became the site of separatist wimmin’s land where women from varied backgrounds developed new modes of self-sufficient, rural, communal living. Finding Our Place in Space complicates these historic, gendered, technophobic and technophiliac narratives by combining documentary notes, text and images from these momentous events”.
Images and text courtesy of artist’s website
GM: I am revisiting your project ‘Whole Earth Systems’ with accompanying publication ‘Understanding Whole Systems’ (2016), and video piece ‘Finding our Place in Space’(2017) )
The two separate yet parallel events that appear in these works are strangely connected to each other. By overlaying craft-oriented geometrical patterns over fragmented documentation of both events, a wobble is caused in their parallel historic narratives as we cognise them in the present. Could these disruptive methodologies be said to set the terms or draw upon a kind of ‘feminist historiography’?
SGS: Finding a Place in Space combines text from the founding of the Oregon Women’s Land at Owl Creek in 1975 with media from NASA’s launch of the Viking I and II Mars Landers during the same year. The Viking Landers photographed the surface of Mars for the first time, as part of the “search for life” in space. I was interested in how these extraordinary efforts that seemed to belong to all mankind, and these smaller collective actions emerged from the same place; a recognition that human interaction with the Earth, and western society as it stood, would eventually become unsustainable. Humans were beginning to realize they might need another plan, and I wanted to explore these two extreme branches by placing them alongside each other. Would the future of mankind be best served by space travel and living on Mars or the abandonment of cities and moving to self-run alternative communities? These were answers at two different scales and born out of different sets of priorities, but with common underlying contexts. I was especially interested in the value and importance of land itself in these two solutions, both in space and on earth, in light of American foundational history and the associations between land and power. For NASA, colonization of another planet, and therefore new land to live on, was a distant hopeful goal. For the women of OWL, land ownership represented a kind of potential sovereignty and new self-governed social structure.
Reading the actual minutes of the founding of the Women’s Land in the video and using open source images made by women of the Land Trust were really important for that video piece, letting the narrative that was already there come through and reframe these other narratives produced by Nasa.
I think there is feminist historiography, which started to be broadly framed and recorded in the 70s, in regards to reworking history, and then gained a space in academia and other kinds of publishing. But, I am most interested in not putting “a circle” around a specific kind of historiography or method of collecting and passing on history so as not to remove it from other historical narratives. It is pivotal instead to re-attach them, to cognize the different histories and to situate them in relation to larger narratives. It is, of course, important that communities produce their own historiography and for these narratives to be centered on people’s experiences, but I am most interested in how these histories overlap, bleed into each other and are invariably intersected with each other.
 For full 11 minutes of ‘Finding our Place in Space’, click here.
Volume I: Tool Book
Book, 6″ x 8″, 2017
“The Tool Book Project is a semi-annual publication that showcases art, writing, dialogue and critical discourse from an international group of artists and cultural producers. Tool Book is also a platform for sharing resources via curated gallery shows, readings, roundtable discussions, andother public events. Sales from the publication are donated to specific social and environmental justice organisations, providing a mode of direct action for artists and writers to exchange ideas and affect positive social change”. 
Images and text courtesy of artist’s website
GM: I wanted to ask how you transited from more individual research-based projects to more socially oriented projects like ‘The Tool Book Project’, and if you see the creation of this publication as a community-building platform?
SGS: I had been thinking about how underground, activist and other non-mainstream communities connected with each other prior to this huge digitalisation of communication. As I was conducting research in various archives of underground newspapers and radical literature, I thought about how these communities that were linked to small-scale publications sent through the mail were less rhizomatic in growth and you could trace how they grew. These publications represented a smaller, perhaps more civil example of what media scholars might call “the many speaking to the many’, as opposed to the “few speaking to the many” in mass media. Now we live in a media culture where “the many speak to the many” in a way that can be overwhelming; where there is no editorial voice, for better or worse, and we have bots and trolls that interfere in our localised and communal discussions from decontextualised places.
My series Whole Earth Systems relies on ideas and imagery derived from various volumes of The Whole Earth Catalog. Prior to this catalogue, which was first published by artist Stewart Brand in 1968, you may have had to seek out multiple sources, catalogues, or stores to find what you needed to live off of the land and be intellectually engaged. In this publication you could find DIY instructions, goods and tools from the most practical, (how to farm the land) to the most esoteric, (how to read auras). It followed this very utopian dream of the era, that if you could educate yourself and build your own tools you could have your own world. This was, in itself, rife with problems. For one, the detachment and disconnection from pre-existing social structures and communities.
So, after the 2016 election I decided to start The Tool Book Project as my own offer of a publication-space for tool-sharing and empowerment/consolation for artists and writers.We also organized readings, panel discussions, gallery shows and different sorts of community engaged events. The profits go to social justice and environmental justice non-profits, which I worried would lose all their funding due to the Trump administration. We have just published the third iteration now, and I can say that I am not interested in being an architect of a new community, I am interested in giving the resources that I have to make a space where we can connect, and to really engage with the communities that already exist.I personally think all art practice has a purpose and you don’t have to become a socially engaged artist if that’s not what you are trained or attuned to do. I think if you have purely formal or aesthetic concerns it has great value. So through The Tool Book Project, you can still do what you do and in the meantime part of your work can help fund all these amazing organisations that work ethically and with experience in their own communities.
 The Toolbook Project Instagram is now active in a ‘Social Distancing Tool Share’ experience, open to takeovers by artists and contributors to share their studio work, information about cancelled shows and lectures, tools and commiserations due to recent/current pandemic. For artists working and living in Italy interested in contributing should email firstname.lastname@example.org or DM Sarah on The Toolbook Project IG: toolbookproject
KinShip Chevron (Blue),
Cotton hunters shirting, linen, quilt binding, digital embroidery, machine quilting, synthetic leather fabric, metallic polyester ribbon, brass eyelets
36 x 32”, 2019
Courtesy of artist’s website
GM: How does your publication research and the actual creation of The Tool Book Project spill into the ‘Kinship’ Project in 2019?
SGS: Kinship is the title of my current series in progress. It was developed during my most recent archival research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in their Radical Literature collection. I was looking at self-published feminist newsletters and magazines from the 1970’s, just before the Roe vs. Wade era, which was the famous supreme court case that legalized abortion in the US. Women were controlling all the forces of publication and writing about themselves. So, I was conducting this research and thinking about how it might be translated into textile and mixed-media works.
When I’m working in Baltimore, where I teach, or when I’m doing artist residencies in rural areas, I end up going to commercial fabric stores, often one called Joanne’s Fabrics, for studio materials. I had this ongoing experience of encountering this gender encoded place, where women who have domestic, craft-oriented and retail training work along with a few men or gender non-conforming folks. There seems to be some sense of safety in these domestic ‘making’ spaces and, despite it’s framework of commericalism, a community of sharing takes place there. During hunting season in Baltimore, and other rural and “ex-urban” places, Joanne’s often has displays of various camouflage textiles and hunter’s shirting. These stores are usually located in semi-suburban strip malls. They have a huge range of camouflages, including multi-distance camo made to disrupt the digital “eye” of a modern camera in warzones, and these are being sold in this gendered encoded setting, ideally waiting to be sewn into clothes for men to go deer-hunting.
I was also reading Donna Haraway’s Staying With The Trouble, and combined with my research into early feminist publications, this framed my thinking about the kinship between knowledge bases; who was buying these textiles, who was selling and sewing them, then who was using the sewn product and how they intersected with gender, domesticity, and again the idealized wildness of nature. The work deals with the complexities of these relationships to the land, with guns and with the interspecial relationships with the animals in question, using languages that are digital and craft-based, totemic but futuristic, celebratory but war-related.
Whole Earth Catalogue 1969 Cover
Women – How we live – 1971 – Vol 2 Cover
Images courtesy of artist’s archive
GM: Let us end with news from your most recent feminist publication research, planned to be showcased at the start of April and now cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
SGS: I had a solo show that was going to be installed in early April at Syracuse University’s Random-Access Gallery. I was planning to show the textile work from Whole Earth Systems and my video “Finding Our Place in Space.” The gallery has two rooms, so in the smaller space I designed a reading room with excerpts from my Feminist Publication research, items from the Syracuse Library, (including a few volumes of the Whole Earth Catalog!) and a reading list “zine.” I made posters of some of the newsletter and magazine covers from my research and was making seat covers from custom fabric. The zine got a bit derailed when I realised that everything was changing, but I’m hoping to finish it soon and have it available as a kind of document of the ideas.