This six-week pop-up public art project in a downtown storefront is the brainchild of School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University professor Samantha Fields. It combines spectacle, public participation and hands-on learning. The ongoing, performative deconstruction of clothing resembles sculptor Ann Hamilton’s transformations of objects through bizarre, slowly repeated motions. Fields’ purpose is political, to redirect the expectations of consumers in a prime shopping district. The project fosters awareness of habits of consumption that connect to patterns of social injustice and environmental destruction worldwide.
Funded under the Now + There Accelerator Program and the City of Boston’s Transformative Public Art Program, Desires was to launch before Artscope’s September publication date. But the dicey retail environment of Downtown Crossing has yet to yield an empty storefront for Labor Day.
Elizabeth Michelman: What’s going on here?
Samantha Fields: For three weeks, “workers” will be silently disassembling clothing in a storefront window as commuters go by. The second three weeks, the store will be open, offering hands-on workshops, from how to maintain your clothing, take out stains, sew buttons and stitch hems to altering clothing and crocheting classes. At my ideal location, Downtown Crossing, it would be open retail hours and also reach commuters after work. But it may not happen there.
I’m hoping to have speakers come address our three main topics: First, how our brains work when we’re shopping and buying something new; then, emotional purchases — what actually makes us buy things. Third, how our over-purchasing affects the lives of others who make garments that we don’t actually need — and how over-manufacturing and waste cause destruction to the environment.
The Store is set up like my studio: plants, furniture and rugs, some artwork. The public can make something with the disassembled clothing or take it and use it. There will be a library on these topics with books, YouTube videos and informational films.
I see Lucy Lippard and Ann Hamilton in your bookcase …
SF: Those are books for the store: textile books I use for teaching, the psychology of purchasing, buying addictions, how-to books and a lot on “sustainable fashion” and “sustainable design” by organizations that are reshaping the way we think about how thing are actually made. People can do research through our website, desiresnotevenourown.space.
Who’s working with you?
SF: Twelve students will be taking garments apart, doing graphic design, and all hands-on deck for install. They’re from Mass Art, the Museum School, Lesley, UMass Boston, Boston Collegiate Charter School and a Gordon College graduate. I’m also looking for volunteers.
My main audiences are the public passing by and art-people, and also these students from different schools, who wouldn’t ordinarily rub shoulders. How can I make this an enriching, collaborative experience for learning about public art and community building?
How will you have these conversations?
SF: I’m creating a place where people will want to hang out and explore. We’re developing zine literature to take away. The website also has a community board blog where people can post what they’ve done with the fabric or where you can learn to sew.
We’ve started disassembling two tons of clothing donated by Goodwill. This tag says, “Object: jacket trim; Brand: Preston and Young; Factory location: Hong Kong; Materials: 100% cotton.” These will be shelved in the store — all the back pockets in one pile.
You’re mixing garment tagging with museum tagging! Will these items be purchased or stored?
SF: Given away. All the parts will be out for anyone to take.
Thrift stores can’t sell donated clothes if they’re dirty. If you wash and donate, and do it in season, there’s more chance they’ll make it out on the floor. Boston has a textile recycling program, but only very small amounts in this country get recycled. Second parties often buy and ship clothing overseas. There are pros and cons to that. Often, it’s not usable. And it’s messing with local economies. I’ve learned there’s a dramatic impact on resources if you just wear a garment three months longer. That’s crazy! I keep my clothes for years.
Might you take the project somewhere else?
SF: I’d have to rethink it for a gallery space. Inside a mall might work. I think there are enough people concerned about these issues that it could travel.
That fuzzy pink thing is gorgeous!
SF: It’s mohair, made in Scotland. I’m going to have to make a rule: you can only take five things!
You’re playing both sides. People come in: “I need this, I want that.” They want things that reflect them.
SF: It’s fine. This is how we express ourselves! One workshop is about how when you have a new experience, like buying something, dopamine gets released in the brain. But if we could learn to alter what we already have, could it create that same sense of excitement and newness as when you buy something new? The hands-on part of making is empowering — to have that skill, taking control over your clothing. Could you hem something, or add a pocket or put a different sweater with something else? If people could love and honor what they have and reshape it, wouldn’t it have that same effect?
It might be hard to hear these questions in a commercial hub. What gets people to respond in a deeper way?
SF: I’m creating an empathic space free from judgment, where people can have an epiphany within themselves while they’re examining their habits. Here are some basic resources: where to drop off clothes, or learning you should wash them before donating — just small steps to attack a bigger problem.