Movement is something I always took for granted. This changed in March 2020 when the world went into lockdown measures to combat the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. To me this reality was inconceivable, it was the first time I have undergone any form of state-imposed confinement. Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic saw resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to increased violence against Black bodies. This experience – confinement amidst an unprecedented global reaction to anti-black racism created a state of mental and emotional claustrophobia, a lump in my throat that refused to dissipate. I soon found a newfound freedom through movement, walking and cycling through my city. Movement was a privilege and a freedom: I was able to breathe, think and even cry. I tracked most of these walks and rides through Strava, an app that tracks physical activity and reimagines it through the “Heatmap”. The “Heatmap” is a map of everywhere you have recorded movement – colours shift to indicate your highly trafficked areas. . For my project I took my 2020 digital heatmap and materializing it into a physical object through embroidery. My decision to embroider a tote came as an ode to movement – the object has been crafted so it may move with the wearer.
In my preliminary research I came across Matt Ratto a scholar at, who says one stage of research critical making is to gather and review pertinent concepts, theories, and literature, mining it for details that can “metaphorically be ‘mapped’ onto material prototypes and explored through fabrication” (253). While Ratto explicitly states this mapping is metaphorical, I conceived of my own project as a literal manifestation of this metaphorical mapping. By taking digital images (the heatmap) and creating a literal map I am able to conceptually map my experience and enter into dialogue with theories of mapping as a practice.
Ratto highlights the ability to bring concepts to the body not just the brain “to leverage student and researchers’ personal experiences to make new connections between the lived space of the body and the conceptual space of scholarly knowledge” (254).
One of the most important factors in critical making theory that Ratto in particular stresses is that the prototype is not meant to communicate or produce meaning in and of itself. Rather, critical making creates value and meaning through the process of construction (253). For me, this meaning is produced through the introspective and interrogative process I engage in when embroidering my map.
Walking as a practice
While my project’s methodological concerns are informed by critical making practices, the concept also requires a guiding framework to situate itself in dialogue with existing discourses. I am focussed in two areas in particular: walking and handicraft
Walking is a major theme and site of inquiry for this project. Or rather, walking as a form of knowledge production and meaning making. A critical guiding question for me is who is this method of knowledge production available to?
When you begin to research walking as a philosophical practice the flâneur is the first thing you might encounter. Jamie Coates in the “Key figure of mobility: the flâneur” describes the flâneur as invoked by many scholars including Baudelaire and Benjamin as a mythic, iconic and aspirational figure. “The flâneur is a figure of agency in the city whose idle yet assertive negotiation of the street has been used to discuss modernity, the embodied mobile person and the urban” (Coates, 28). Coates emphasises the mythic power embodied within the figure of the flâneur and the power it holds in our society. Turning to other scholars we see that there is a shared deference paid to the practice of walking. In their article, “Urban strolling as the measure of quality”, Gordana Korolija Fontana-Giusti states “There is something liberating and equalising in walking” and that “Walking permits breaths of freshness, novelty and sparkle making people sense the texture of their living in an enhanced way” (255). While I certainly agree there is an enhanced sensory experience that can be unlocked through strolling, I feel it necessary to problematize Fontana-Giusti’s assertion that there is something equalising in walking. In fact, most literature about walking presumes the walker is male. Coates acknowledges this idealized figure is traditionally male though there have been interventions such as the flaneuse (Coates, 28). In my own research I did not have a hard time finding the flâneuse or the female walker. In fact, I came across a book Wanderers: A History of Women Walking, that traced three-hundred years of female thinkers, writers and walkers. This text explores and highlights female thinkers and their connection to walking as a meaning making and creative process (263). However, it like most other resources I have found do not address the Black body walking. This is where Fontana-Giust’s assertion of walking as equalising starts to become a problem.
In his article “The Skin I’m In” Desmond Cole relates his experiences in Kingston and Toronto being harassed and stopped on the streets by police. He admits to driving and walking aimlessly so the police would not know where he lived (Cole, 2). Here we see the pure and lofty pursuit of aimless wander the flâneur enjoys perverted by the disciplinary gaze of the state. While it is not new knowledge 2020 has taught us that the Black body is not safe merely existing.
For me, this tension between the idealized flâneur and the disciplined Black body is where this project begins. I believe I exist in a liminal space. I experienced the privilege and liberty while simultaneously hyper aware of the realities of those around me, who look like me, even my younger brother who was stopped by the police and asked for ID this past summer are unable to access.
Handicraft as a practice
My desire to process these thoughts and experience through handiwork came almost immediately. I learned to knit, sew and embroider around the age of 5 or 6. I often use handicraft, as a meditative process. It calms anxiety and nerves and allows me to focus on my thoughts. I also believe it has the capacity to be a site of knowledge production, not dissimilar to walking. Upon my initial research I found there is emerging scholarship on the complexities of handiwork and how it can be used as an act of resistance. Rather than an explicit site of resistance, I am interested in exploring more broadly how handiwork may convey meaning above and beyond its recognized aesthetic and utilitarian values. In this way handicraft and walking really do seem to have some connective tissue. What I found in my research was not surprising. The landscape of scholarship on handicraft is pervasively white.
Hinda Mandell’s Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats. Acknowledges this blind spot. Chapter 24 by Diane Ivey “Reshaping the Narrative around People of Colour and Craftivism” is an attempt to fill this void in the scholarship. Ivey writes on why representation in crafting spaces skews white “I believe it’s because crafting has traditionally been an activity of leisure for white women but a means of survival for people of color” (312).
The survival Ivey invokes is literal and material. However, for my project survival is a bit more symbolic; my handicraft is a physical representation of my activity. My movement as a Black body in spite of the literal and symbolic confines upon it can be understood as a celebration of survival.
My project as an exploration of movement through handicraft embodies a raced/gendered lens that I have not been able to find in my research. In this way I hope to diversify existing discourses of these alternative knowledge practices and resistance from a Black perspective. Ultimately, I see this project as claiming space within these two discourses through the construction of my prototype. I have deep respect, appreciate and connection with both of these practices which have led me to greater knowledge of myself and the world. This is why I was motivated to ask these questions in the first place.
My process and experience
The process of creating the actual prototype was not too complicated, it was not supposed to be. I did play around with ideas of how exactly to materialize this digital map. Would I painstakingly trace out and stitch every line? I ended up deciding on using a technique I have employed in the past – photo transfer. I printed several iterations playing with contrast and exposure so it would translate. In part printing the digital image and embroidering on top saved time and effort. As this is merely a prototype, I can explore how the object would change if I were to embroider its entirety. However, I was also interested in how the interplay between the literal digital image and my manual embroidery would imbue the object with a different meaning than if I were to transpose everything. In some ways I think the result is somewhat more interesting – we do not lose the digital nature of this map. Additionally, the transposition would have given me a sense of ownership over the map. While I do believe we can conceive of my movements as idiosyncratic and personal, it is ultimately organized by existing schemas of the city, thus conveying, material and colonial logic that organizes our city and shapes how we move. For me, taking ownership over the city streets would be a misrepresentation of how I am constrained by the city’s infrastructure.
Despite the enthusiasm for this project, I found it very hard to begin. I think in part this was due to the intense emotions tied up in this project. The very guiding questions themselves required sitting with this deeply unpleasant experience. George Floyd’s murder and the proceeding movement was a very difficult time for me last year. At the time in 2020 I would often delete my Instagram app because I would mindlessly enter only to see the same violent videos again, and again. The result of this was not tears, or even nausea but pain. My whole body began to ache. My movement was one of the only times I was not tempted to touch my phone, additionally, somehow entering into my body through movement took me out of my body in pain. This project required jumping back into these feelings, intensified as Derek Chauvin’s trial was backgrounding this process of reflection. However, despite my anxieties this process has led to many new ways of thinking and conceiving of myself and my body as it relates to our world.
As Ratto stressed my prototype is just that, a prototype rather than a complete work. Similarly, this reflection is not complete. Not only are we still very much “in” the pandemic, and therefore any reflection is more of a check in than a retrospective experience. But also, this process seems like an endless opportunity for discovery. Through this project I have come to find so many ways to approach my guiding questions, so many scholarly lenses to see through. Unfortunately, they could not all fit within my word count. Ultimately this project is about persistent experiences, the pandemic is and will continue. Black lives will continue to be taken from us. Every time I leave my house, I create maps.
Andrews, Kerri. Wanderers : A History of Women Walking, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=6377000.
Coates, Jamie. “Key figure of mobility: the flâneur.” Social Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 1, 2017, pp. 28–41. Wiley Online Library, doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-8676.12381.
Cole, Desmond, “The Skin I’m In: I’ve Been Interrogated by Police More than 50 Times—All Because I’m Black”.Toronto Life. 30 June, 2015 p. 9.
Fontana-Giusti, Gordana Korolija. “Urban Strolling as the Measure of Quality.” Arq: Architectural Research Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 3–4, Cambridge University Press, Dec. 2007, pp. 255–64. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/S1359135500000750.
Ivey, Dianne. “Reshaping the Narrative around People of Colour and Craftivism”. Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats. edited by Mandell, Hinda, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=5900
Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252–60, doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.