The Warp & Weft Story

The idea for THE WARP & WEFT was born in September 2020. It was safe to say, in those days, that we were living in interesting times. It wasn’t just climate change or the pandemic, the end of American empire or fascism’s global comeback, it was also the rebellions and pushback we were seeing across the world.

It felt like we were on the edge of something — things could go south very quickly or we could make the most of a unique opportunity for transformation.

I was compelled to capture the zeitgeist of the moment. Others had done it, but they seemed to be mostly interested in what famous people had to say. I wasn’t. Like Howard Zinn, I believe that regular people are equally if not more powerful. Our collective breath and actions make and shift history.

I wanted to assemble diverse voices, not only in English (an imperial language that erases too much) but also in Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, French, and many other languages. I hoped to create an archive that wouldn’t focus on politics or the 2020 election, but would tell stories about ideas, feelings, and experiences people were engaging with. What were we thinking or imagining as a human family?

The writing could take many forms (prose, poetry, fictional story, theory, diary) and the stories would then be recorded in the voices of their creators. I was intrigued by the diversity of voices, accents, languages, cadences, and rhythms that an audio archive could highlight. I began to ask friends who were dynamic thinkers to contribute. They did not disappoint.

This is an organic, ongoing project, where responses to the archive can renew and expand it. Please have a listen.

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Curated by Mara Ahmed
Audio Engineering by Anand Prakash and Mara Ahmed
Web Design by Isabelle Bartter

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Why the Warp & Weft?

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
Of her life, and weaves them gratefully
Into a single cloth –
It’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
And clears it for a different celebration.
[Rainer Maria Rilke]

I love textiles and embroidery and am constantly aware of the quiet yet complex artwork produced by women. It’s considered ‘craft’ and not ‘art’ for a reason. Weaving is the opposite of dividing and labeling, of centering and marginalizing. It starts with the assumption that every thread, every piece of yarn or wicker, is necessary for the creation and integrity of the whole. Pull one thread out and the construction of the cloth or basket will begin to unravel.

It reminds me of Édouard Glissant’s ‘tout-monde’ or the world in its entirety — a global imperative to accelerate cultural contact and transformation.

Glissant the poet became a philosopher to reveal the fluidity of relation beyond the closed doors of systems of discrimination, segregation, and rejection, and to insist that difference is more constructive when viewed as a by-product of solidarity and conciliation between two or more elements of the Tout-Monde. In the Glissantian “worldmentality,” relation and difference link entities that need each other’s energy to exist in beauty and freedom. Convinced that Western philosophy was unable to extricate itself from the privilege of filiation and legitimation—and to maintain a humane and equal relation with the other, which accounts for more than three-fourths of the population of the earth, as well as with the environment—Glissant had to create himself as an “orphan philosopher to speak for a new condition of the world.” I term this a “worldmentality,” as opposed to the state of affairs produced by globalization and neoliberal forms of accumulating capital.
[Manthia Diawara, Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation]

For Glissant, relations between humans, as well as between human and nonhuman life, have to be defined by ‘creolization’ — a dynamic mixing inspired by the Caribbean and its history as the crossroads of the world.

Weaving requires a similar blending together of difference and contradiction in order to produce a fortified whole:

Weaving involves crossing two threads, the warp and the weft, one vertical and the other horizontal, one stretched taut and the other undulating and intertwined with the first. To produce the textile it is necessary for these two threads to be bound, otherwise each will remain a fragile and fluttering potentiality… if the meeting of opposites does not take place, nothing is created, for each element is defined by its opposite and takes its meaning from it.
[Dario Valcarenghi, Kilim History and Symbols]

Online Multilingual Archive

Archives as institutions and records as documents are generally seen by academic and other users, and by society generally, as passive resources to be exploited for various historical and cultural purposes. Historians since the mid-nineteenth century, in pursuing the new scientific history, needed an archive that was a neutral repositories of facts. Until very recently, archivists obliged by extolling their own professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity. Yet archives are established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled. Certain stories are privileged and others marginalized. And archivists are an integral part of this story-telling. In the design of record-keeping systems, in the appraisal and selection of a tiny fragment of all possible records to enter the archive, in approaches to subsequent and ever-changing description and preservation of the archive, and in its patterns of communication and use, archivists continually reshape, reinterpret, and reinvent the archive. This represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going. Archives, then, are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed. The power of archives, records, and archivists should no longer remain naturalized or denied, but opened to vital debate and transparent accountability.
[Joan M. Schwartz & Terry Cook in ‘Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory’]

I am keenly aware of the problematic nature of archives, the stories they tell or do not tell, the voices they include or exclude, the power they hold to shape myth and memory. No archive is neutral and therefore, it is helpful to define its provenance and administration as clearly as possible. This is an online archive of stories, curated by Mara Ahmed. Initially, I invited friends and family to contribute stories and reflections but I hope that the archive can expand over time.

The archive is multilingual because it hopes to disrupt the linguistic imperialism of the English language. It’s a language that erases much of what it comes into contact with. I was also thinking about Édouard Glissant’s right to opacity:

The “right to opacity” (le droit à l’opacité) constitutes an important part of Glissant’s poetics of relation. As an antonym of transparency, this notion questions the possibilities of intercultural communication. In a multirelational world, recognizing difference does not mean understanding otherness by making it transparent, but accepting the unintelligibility, impenetrability and confusion that often characterize cross-cultural communication. Opacity thus tries to overcome the risk of reducing, normalizing and even assimilating the singularities of cultural differences by comprehension. Within this framework, Glissant challenges the rational epistemic of Enlightenment and its assumption of universal truths by calling into question the etymological meaning of ‘comprehension’ (com-prendere) as an act of appropriation. Opacity, instead, offers a de-hierarchized world-vision…
[Andrea Gremels, Keywords in Transcultural English Studies]

We did include English translations of works in other languages based on the practical consideration that most Warp & Weft contributors are based in the US and have written in English.

Oral Storytelling: Why Audio?

I’ve been reading ‘The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses’ by Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa. In the book he discusses the “dominance of the visual realm in today’s technological and consumer culture, which has pervaded architectural practice and education. Whilst our experience of the world is formulated by a combination of five senses, much architecture is produced under consideration of only one – sight. The suppression of the other sensory realms has led to an impoverishment of our environment, causing a feeling of detachment and alienation.”

I was recently asked in an interview about my favorite instrument of memory. I realized then how creating the audio poem Knowing is Beautiful, with my friend Darien Lamen who did the sound design, was one of the most satisfying experiences for me. Although I’m highly visual in how I think, I feel that the lack of images leaves much more to the imagination. Having to depend on the less intrusive, less domineering medium of oral storytelling allows listeners to own the story in a way that they might not be able to do with film. They can fill in the gaps and generate their own images based on their personal experiences and memories. Perhaps this is why oral storytelling is an innate part of being human.

Contributor Bios

I thought about including brief bios for all the contributors to the archive. However, people’s education, work and titles are ways of hierarchizing or ranking based on status, power and importance. Since I had already eschewed celebrity culture and the usual reliance on experts, I decided not to include bios, a decision that supports the idea of opacity and denies immediate legibility based on stereotypes and categorizations.

Responses to the Archive

I am interested in the work of Farah Saleh, a Palestinian dancer and choreographer, who conceives of the body as archive. She says:

I’m investigating the idea of artist as archivist. The body contains counter archives or counter narratives from the official narrative… My question is how can artists contribute to change by problematizing social and political memories? I’m interested in latent stories or invisible stories of Palestinian history that were never officially archived or deliberately obscured. I’m archiving the gestures of the actors of these stories using historical archives that were documented, personal testimonies, and imagination.

Saleh talks about the interactivity between the archive and its users. The possibility of transformation through this contact can do away with the closed rigidity of the archive. We can hope for sharing, expansion, and evolution.

It was important to include responses to archived stories in the archive, allowing the collection to grow from person to person, and inviting new ideas, connections and remembering into this rich assemblage of voices.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty images

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A Weaving Together of Multiple Voices


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Archive Launch

The Warp & Weft will be launched in partnership with the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. A set of four new stories/audio recordings and artistic responses will be released each week via RoCo and Mara Ahmed’s social media, starting March 4, 2021. This program will run along with RoCo’s exhibitions ‘Last Year on Earth’ and ‘Through The Cracks.’ Abi Rose reported on the Warp & Weft project for Reclaiming the Narrative.