Installation Artist Spotlight: The Caribou Collective

The Caribou Collective are a group of 11 makers who are responsible for what will be one of the focal points of next week's main event...a 10 foot tall knit tornado! The following interview with collective member Ellie Chesnutt talks a bit about collectivity and knitting up a storm...literally!

Tell me more about The Caribou Collective. How many of you are there, and what sorts of skills and backgrounds contribute to the collective's projects and activities?

Well, we are pretty much brand-spanking new as a formal collective, but the concept is this: The Caribou Collective is an amorphous group operating under the mandate that the nature of the project decides who is involved. So, whatever skills are required to realize a concept, existing members are called upon or new members are recruited until the complete skill set is established.

So, the idea of the collective in our case is really about stockpiling ability rather than people. As I mentioned, it is project-focused. So, the vision for a piece can come from a single source and be carried out by a selection of Caribou. Each person knows that when they want to carry out a project, they simply call on the relevant hands to bring the idea to fruition.

The individual Caribou involved in this City of Craft project include eleven artists and crafters, combining a variety of strengths and experience. Cumulatively, our skills include knitting, sewing, crochet, mixed-media installation, photography, stained glass, writing, film, paper-mache, video, painting, web and sound art.

Your installation for City of Craft is an enormous, hand-knit tornado. Why do you feel knitting was the the most suitable medium for this installation?

Well, my own work often incorporates aggression and tedious repetition. In terms of process, I enjoy taking something that has velocity and rendering it very slowly and methodically, although the end product isn’t always this still – I’m used to working in video.

As a medium, knitting is slow, but there is a lot of motion that goes into it that you can’t see in the end. The final product is so still that it masks the movements that created it. I thought it could do the same for the tornado – to take the movement out of it.

Knitting the tornado in strictly garter stitch furthered the tedium – it started to feel like meditating. You can’t help but think about the similarities and differences between the comforting, cozy and methodical and the violent and unpredictable.

Was it ever a concern of yours that you may not have enough time or person-power to make the tornado as large (approximately 10 feet tall!) as it ended up?

It definitely provoked a few of us to wake up with the sweats in the middle of the night screaming, “yarn!” But, we’re feeling much better now.

The original idea was to go between six to eight feet tall; and, at the time, even that felt like a tall order. We consoled ourselves by saying in part the size would be dictated ultimately by the space available; so, if we had to go shorter... And we wanted to leave enough room between the floor and the bottom so that people could crouch down and get inside the tornado.

But, people just went berzerk with the knitting, even before we had received notice from the COC that we were going to be in the show. Also, I think throughout the main tornado body stage we all feared that we were behind schedule, then it turned out we were way ahead of where we needed to be. There was a fair bit of calculating and recalculating how much length was required. As we got to the target number of feet, the faith in the math went out the door and we kept thinking, "We need more!"

Happily, with 18 feet of height at the Theatre Centre, we were able to go a bit bigger than the original plan and viewers won’t have to get their knees dirty to get inside the tornado.

What other projects has The Caribou Collective collaborated on? Do your projects involve recurring themes or interests?

Like I mentioned, the collective is actually a recent invention, formally. But the members involved in this project have created individual works with common themes such as natural and man-made disasters and the sciences. Aside from the tornado… a series of weather-related disasters would make a great show!–- although no Caribou have signed on for tsunami duty yet…

One other recurring commonality is things that are very big. Go big or go home could be our other mandate, besides all that stuff about collecting skills. If we had the time, money, space, we would only work on house-sized projects, turning simple things into spectacles and revealing the details of the small and inconsequential.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best things about working collectively?

For me, I really appreciate the communication aspect. You have to articulate ideas clearly enough that another person could carry out exactly what's in your head, using very specific details. So, pitching a project is almost like the piece’s first showing. You want to excite your collective with a “finished” idea in the way you want someone to be excited when they first see your art in person. As you discuss the idea, people give you their spin and the idea gets better. Together, you think further ahead into the details of the why and how. I think each person pushes themselves harder to make the project more compelling and that leads to healthy competition too.

I also hate the idea of being bound by my own personal ability. I strongly believe in the value of seeing works realized, rather than getting a credit. So, if I have an idea that I don’t know how to execute completely, I love that a collective acts as a vehicle for just putting something out there.

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