The Poetics of Error: A Conversation with Steven Leyden Cochrane Regarding his Exhibition Shining Tapestry

Wednesday, January 16, 2019





I first saw Winnipeg-based artist Steven Leyden Cochrane at the talk for his exhibit Shining Tapestry which was displayed at aceartinc. during the fall of 2018. Combining digital and craft mediums, the exhibition largely explores the death of Cochrane’s mother in 2006. The way his talk engaged with the histories of the materials he uses, along with the complex ways he was thinking around language, memory, and gender convinced me that I wanted to explore these ideas with Cochrane more in depth.


Cochrane describes himself as a conceptual artist; as someone who is interested in constructing projects through a set of instructions, or through a pattern. Yet his work explores the unpredictability of this construction process, where one fails to follow a pattern or where the directions for constructing a piece begin to break down. The errors in attempting to follow a pattern reveal a human element to this mechanism, collapsing the binary between process and product, becoming a source of meaning in themselves. This framework questions the ability of art to express meaning, the efficacy of communication itself while, at the same time, valuing the attempt to try anyway.


Error as a poetics became an idea that seemed to hold different parts of our conversation together as we conversed in Cochrane’s studio. We explored the relationship between language and visual art mediums, the interweaving of personal feeling with historical reference, and the relationship of trust building between an artist and those who engage with their art.




“my starting point is always: ‘expression is impossible, art is useless, and nothing means anything’… however, I’m still going to get up tomorrow and do something and it’s just a matter of figuring out what.”





Could you tell me a little bit about how Shining Tapestry came together as a project?


I tend to work exhibition to exhibition, so on a very practical level I had done a show of cast concrete blocks in the early summer of 2015 and kind of ruined my body casting concrete in my backyard. I decided to make work that I could do from bed so that’s how the large scale crocheted documents were started. The first of those was the big text piece from the show titled Famine Stella which references work by Elizabeth Parker. I had done all sorts of crochet before, but I had never done lace making thread crochet so I started that project with no real plan or expertise. From there the photo-based textiles came into play. Once I had a small body of work I started to think about older pieces that fit into the same kind of depressing milieu as the new work; work that, for me, dealt with trauma on some level.


Was trauma the thread that brought these pieces together?


The central trauma was when my mom passed away in 2006. I started grad school in 2007 so I had work from that original time period that didn’t feel like it needed to be resolved, but there was more for me to pick apart there. I was pulling in pieces from 2007-2008 that were very near to the event and then weaving them into the newer work and picking up on the same themes.


In the ten years that I’ve been working as an artist, I’m continually going back to earlier periods. I’ll dip back into high-school, I’ll dip back into my undergrad, whether it’s an image that stuck with me that I haven’t quite finished with or if it’s a technique that I tried out fifteen years ago, often I’ll be reaching back into the past and pulling out ideas and reworking them.


In other talks you discussed your crocheting work in relation to error. How does error function as a poetics to your artistic practice?


Failure and error are constants for me. I think that comes from a fundamental mistrust of the efficacy of art or of communication. If we’re thinking of art as some sort of expressive gesture, then it’s one that’s always bound to fail in some capacity. Specifically in regards to crochet, I would begin by saying that I would align myself as a conceptual artist, even though I work with a lot of physical media. By this I mean I like pieces that I make to involve a set of instructions and to follow that set of instructions so that there is a pattern; there’s an idea, there’s a statement, there’s a directive that is the work and then you execute that set of instructions to produce it. I’m really interested in when one fails to follow the pattern, or when one fails to correctly execute the idea. If you look at classic conceptual art from the 60s you have artists like Sol LeWitt who did these large pencil wall drawings that were mathematically based. He wouldn’t produce the work, he would give the instructions and the installers would create the work. I think for those original artists the idea was the art was completely independent from the execution, but I’m really interested in the execution, the unpredictability that comes into play when humans are actually doing things. It wouldn’t be disastrous if I gave myself a crochet pattern and executed it flawlessly, but at a certain point why bother making it, why not just show the pattern? I also like the idea that I could execute the same piece twice and it would come out differently. I think that microscopic bit of wiggle room opens up a lot of potential for unexpected things to happen or for there to be some sort of poetry that goes beyond the rout following of the pattern.


I’ve been very interested in trying to freeze, preserve, or at least examine a faulty memory; to actually visualize something that is only half remembered. With Shining Tapestry I think I’m even taking it a bit further to comment on how even the original experience is flawed or incomplete. The traumatic memory isn’t really experienced as in the past, it comes rushing through into the present. Whether I’m thinking about the initial experience, or its persistence in memory, there is no real event or real fact to go back to. I wasn’t even present to form the memory correctly to begin with. Even as it’s happening, time slows down and speeds up and sometimes only little fragments come through with alarming clarity and the rest is sort of confabulated or pieced together from inference. I was trying to find a way to leave some of those corrupted or absent parts evident in the work itself.


I’m interested in how crochet and traditionally ‘craft’ media are in conversation with digital media in your work.


I think that traditional craft and digital art are on a single continuum. Even historically, early computing was developed in service of the textile industry so the first computers were developed to program weaving machines. The reason we have binary code in computing is because of craft. Also, both computers and crafters are working by following sets of instructions. They’re executing some sort of plan, some sort of pattern, so I think there’s a complimentary logic to how the kinds of craft work that I do and the way digital systems operate.




 Famine Stela, 2018 part of Shinning Tapestry



Is there is a connection between your visual art practice and the mechanism of language?


Language and visual art have always been twinned for me. Before I was accepted to art school, my plan was to go into linguistics. There’s also always been a strong text component to my work. There’s no way to say your work is about consciousness without it sounding kind of dippy, but for this show I was trying to think about how consciousness isn’t something we can directly measure. I asked ‘ok, well what is it made out of?’ Some of that is mental imagery, but also categories of language and image and, as a person who exists in language, I can’t separate myself to get to any sort of pre-linguistic experience. So I guess I was seeing speech, seeing language, seeing imagery as the elements from which consciousness is composed and then I was interested in how both individually and together, those can break down. In the same way that the image breaks down in some of the work, whether it’s metaphor, or whether it’s the words themselves which start to fall apart.


One of my favourite artists, James Castle, was born congenitally deaf and never acquired language. Still, he produced this astonishing body of drawing work that actually incorporates a lot of text, although the text functions as a visual reference there’s no meaning attached to it. Castle’s work occupies a non-linguistic or pre-linguistic space that I don’t have any access to, but that I’m still trying to reach towards.


Could you expand a bit on the sometimes arbitrary relationship between signification and the world?


I think we need things to signify and we need things to mean something in order to survive. As a visual artist, I’m always trying to get people to see, and see again, and to have that become a conscious process. I’m just always interested in lived experiences were the ordinary signifying process starts to break down and to try and capture that in a more deliberate way so that we can observe that happening. It’s a bit silly, but one of my earliest childhood memories was from kinder-garden trying to use the washroom. I could see the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ on the washrooms doors, but I couldn’t read yet, and I distinctly remember looking at the words and the letters almost swimming in front of me. I knew they were trying to tell me something, but it would be like me looking at Greek or Hebrew now. Of course one can intoxicate themselves to the point where they can’t read anymore and it’s a similar kind of experience. I’m sort of reaching for this innate sense that there should be meaning, or that there is an intent to communicate something, but it’s just not accessible. Rather than discounting that, or trying to move past it, I want to dwell in that space of not understanding or non-knowledge.


What sort of significant space do trees occupy in your work, particularly in pieces like Black Hour?


I did a much happier show on plants in 2013 which was about being in Winnipeg and being from Florida and how a part of me remains in this distant place. A lot of it goes back to one of my favourite artists who is a modernist painter named Ellsworth Kelly, who mostly did shaped canvases and solid monochromes, but throughout his practice he had a body of plant drawings that he would make too. My partner is a horticulturalist, so he can read plants in a way that I can’t, but they have so much evident structure and pattern… you know they’re up to something even if the forms they take are totally foreign to human experience. I think of the role that images of nature, images of landscape, images of wilderness have in collective memory, or in collective culture. I like that trees have a kind of architecture to them, but its not a human architecture. In Black Hour, there are two sets, one with the blue branches overhead which I see as a kind of sheltering or comforting type of image and then the Black Hours which are something else entirely. My family religious history is quaker who were an off-chute of the Puritans originally. There’s an idea for people of European descent that there is a real fear of the wilderness which took a particular form in North America with events like the Salem witch trials. There’s this idea of the devil in the woods, and I’m interested in where that comes from. We can see images of the forest as a sheltering space or equally as a sort of threat. They can signify both of those in the same moment at the same time as they don’t really have inherent meaning of their own.


What is an artist’s responsibility in knowing the histories of the materials they work with and how to you personally situate yourself within those histories?


A lot of it is purely a selfish endeavour in that the more I know about what a material or a process can signify, the more I have to work and play with. For this particular piece, my training was in painting, although I don’t really paint anymore, so it came out of a historical thinking of the value of painting verses sculpture versus other things. It’s just sort of a collection of these random stories with the Renaissance artists painting on marble and copper to recreate the lifelike qualities of painting, but having the durability of sculpture; so theres this idea of eternity wrapped up in that material. The particular yellow pigment (and I’ve never been able to verify this story) was produced by poisoning cows and then scrapping this yellow pigment from the insides of their bladders after they were slaughtered, which doesn’t totally make sense because they weren’t really slaughtering cattle in India and that’s where the pigment came from… but when I was starting with it, I was thinking about my mother’s illness and about the condition of jaundice, and having this pigment who’s story is rooted in biology and illness producing an effect that is very much like jaundice of the skin.


I don’t feel like I can use marble as a metaphor for skin without thinking about how that as a cultural meme has been passed down to us. From the Renaissance on there was, in Europe, this association of the whiteness of the skin of classical sculpture and the Platonic ideal, and that fed directly into emerging racist ideologies. I’m not sure how much of that is apparent, but its something I feel like I have to acknowledge as part of the cascading failures of intention and meaning; that something with a pretty direct meaning is actually much more fraught.


What draws you to approaching working with different kinds of materials?


I like the idea that there is a learning process baked into the construction of the piece, and for there still to be a record of that in the final piece. The best example would be the long text piece, Famine Stella, where you can see my crochet technique improving and changing from the top left to the bottom right. I just like to see that record of learning in the final piece. I’m not interested in mastery. I’m not interested in doing something for ten thousand hours until I can do it better than anyone else. I like my own learning and my own imperfections to be there present in the work itself. I try to introduce elements of uncertainty; if I run out of thread in one colour, I might just pick it up in another colour that I do have and that wouldn’t be a planned thing, I wouldn’t know where that was going to happen.


How do you speak to the gendered histories of crochet in your work?


My gender is a bit of a mess lately, and getting messier. Again, its an irreducible fact of the medium that it historically has been women and children’s labour. It’s a difficult thing to work with because people will say things like, ‘oh, you don’t expect a man to be using these materials’ and A: I don’t quite identify with that word, and B: I just feel like I’m being given extra credit. A woman using traditionally female encoded medium suffers for it, whereas I benefit for stepping out of my perceived lane.


I am sincerely interested in trying to erode some of these false categorical distinctions. Like I said, for me there is a very natural sympathy between digital and craft mediums, even though one is very strong coded male and the other very strongly coded female. It’s a bit of a delicate balance wanting to take up someone like Elizabeth Parker and say ‘here we have a conceptual artist,’ because all mid-century art movements started off as very male coded and matcho-analytical, and it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that artists of colour and women artists starting picking apart some of the assumptions of conceptual art. So I’m trying to reveal shared histories and commonalities that aren’t acknowledged, while also not denying or downplaying the gendered histories of those forms.


Its analogous to the development of my own feminism where I identify more strongly with feminism than I do with my assigned gender, and when I look back at the stodgy second wave I think there is some really good stuff here that I don’t want to erase while still saying that we need a broader and more complex picture of what we’re talking about.




“The subjective experience of trauma is a feeling of having reached your limits, and everything after this point is still there, still happening, but it is beyond my grasp; it is beyond my ability to rationalize, or even incorporate into a self-image or a worldview. This feels very natively queer to me.”





What are your thoughts on the idea of feeling in excess?


I think the aesthetics of being too much is just a very naturally queer thing. But it’s always framed as a pathological excess. It comes back to the problem of expression, whether it’s self expression or any kind of expression. In my education, and just where we are historically, there is this notion that no expression is really possible and that is because the forms we have are insufficient to contain the meaning that we need to put in them. Somehow, being over the top just feels like a natural space to be in. Also, just the subjective experience of trauma is a feeling of having reached your limits, and everything after this point is still there, still happening, but it is beyond my grasp; it is beyond my ability to rationalize, or even incorporate into a self image or a worldview. This feels very natively queer to me.


In the 1980s postmodern turn, we reached a point where narrative was no longer enough to keep us going, or at least grand narrative wasn’t. This idea has always held a lot of appeal to me, maybe just as a pessimistic person. But thinking historically, it is interesting that this idea gained traction just as the dominate white male-coded forms of expression were beginning to wind down and a lot of women and people of colour were coming onto the scene. At the time there were new forms like neo-expressionist painting which were very female lead and now isn’t it convenient that Adorno comes along and says ‘oh, by the way, expression is impossible’. So I think the 1980s we saw a premature death of expression and now we’re sort of in this post historical, post-apocalyptic moment where we still have these scattered pieces of historical culture and people are finding ways to revive them, or redeploy, or repurpose them. The idea of the impossibility of expression, or the end of history are useful myths that I can then react against.


Maybe the anointed cultural forms are exhausted, but as soon as one form is exhausted someone will come along to reanimate the corpse and i think everyone everyone working today is engaged with either reacting against that or acquiescing to it and I guess I do both. My starting point is always: ‘expression is impossible, art is useless, and nothing means anything’… however, I’m still going to get up tomorrow and do something and its just a matter of figuring out what.



Installation view of Shinning Tapestry



The pieces in Shining Tapestry are quite a range of scale, mediums, and themes. Could you tell me a little bit about that?


I guess some of it comes from a feeling that any one object and one gesture by itself no matter how big or heroic is never going to be sufficient in and of itself. Its also just a way of working that feels natural to me where I’m constantly switching from one form or medium to another just as the wind takes me. The way visual artists are expected to work doesn’t feel very natural to me. I was trained as a painter and there the expectation was that you choose some sort of process or some sort of subject matter and then in a methodical way you are going to go through the different iterations of that, and I’m just too scatterbrained to sit down and focus on one thing. Even for my longer pieces which might take me three months to finish, I’m already on to the next idea and seeing how it feeds on or expands the ideas that are present or implied in another work. Also, if I could have chosen, I would be a singer-songwriter. That’s what I wish I was with my life, but I do not have the temperament for it. I like the way the songwriter can work: you have a song which has its own logic, its own narrative arc, and its own idea, but then theres also a context for that whether it’s a concert, a set list, an album, a mixtape, or whatever. There’s a constant reshuffling. Also, you can switch up the arrangement, but it still remains recognizably the same song. I think in the visual arts we’ve professionalized ourselves out of the malleable qualities that song allows into making things that are a little more regular, streamlined, or market friendly. On some level there is a part of me that is engaged with a long history of superficially trying to resist a market, a market which of course has no interest in me. Maybe this is a gay thing too, but I like the idea of being able to become unrecognizable, or be able to change my form and do something else.


I’m a very associative person, one idea always leads to five others. I like the idea of being able to, in an exhibition, create a space where there isn’t a linear progression from one thing to the next, but a branching outward. This way I can create a sort of constellation of individual works that are all their own thing, but still add up to something and then I could shuffle them and they might say something else entirely.


Could you comment on the relationship between the viewer, gallery and history?


For me, the reference and inter-reference in my work is a sort of trust building exercise. This gives the work a sense of stability. Even if the individual viewer can’t follow the line from point A. to point B., it’s still implied that there is a connection and that they will trust me as an artist. If I can create a space where there can be a trust between the artist and the viewer then the viewer can be empowered to create their own connections. My worry is that people will just throw up their hands and say ‘this is beyond me’. Rather, I would like the response to be ‘ok, something is happening here, connections are being made, let me explore them or let me find my own’. The only way to understand things in on multiple levels and with the slightest shift in perspective, understanding shifts with it. It goes back to music as well: how many songs do I love and have incorporated into my own self identity, but if I were to pick apart the words I don’t know what they mean? I have trust in the author of the song and I just let them take me there. I hope that is people’s experience of my work rather than needing backstory or needing my specific interpretive framework to guide them through it.



Jase Falk is a queer, non-binary writer based out of Winnipeg


Frontis image: installation shot from Cochrane's Shining Tapestry at aceart



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