Intro - Brooke Grabiec, IDSVA cohort ’09, recently defended her dissertation on the democratization of fashion.
Brooke Grabiec is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar living in New York. Her artwork is concerned with the way creative practices can open possibilities for enriching life. Her scholarly research focuses on the democratization of fashion and its impacts on subjectivity and community. In 2008, Dr. Grabiec co-founded the non-profit interactive exhibition space, Parts and Labor Gallery, created from a transparent box-truck, which examined art in the shifting context of public space in New York City. She continued on to co-found The Travel Almanac magazine, which explores the relationship between creative production, travel, and place, where she is currently Editor-at-Large. Grabiec has taught courses in art, fashion and culture, and aesthetic philosophy at Parsons: The New School for Design and her artwork has been exhibited at institutions including Feigen Contemporary Gallery (NY), and The Vera List Center for Art and Politics (NY). She holds an MFA from Parsons in Installation Art and PhD in Philosophy and Aesthetics at Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. Her writing on the relationship of creative practices and place has been published internationally.
CB: I had the pleasure to talk with Brooke in the weeks leading up to her defense, and again for this interview. I want to thank her in advance for sharing her insights in the dissertation process, her approach to balancing life and work, the influence of IDSVA, and the becoming of an artist-philosopher.
CB: Congratulations, Brooke, on passing your exam. Can you describe how it feels?
BG: Thank you, Conny. It feels beautiful. I’ve seen videos that capture the moment when a very dull looking cocoon starts to shake, and you see this new animal struggling to free itself, and then, from all of that cocooning and work, what is released is a strangely transformed creature that turns into something light, full of new colors, that uses these little flat planes to flutter through the air and likely to experience the world very differently as a transformed creature. Completing my defense felt like what I would imagine that to feel like, where through this quite and intensive work, I became something and someone else through this process, and this was revealed through the dialogue I was lucky enough to have with my defense committee. That is just to say, I am experiencing air and life in a new way.
CB: What argument does your dissertation make?
BG: In contrast to the dominant view that fashion is a superficial field, divorced from the most pressing issues of our time, I argue instead that the discourse of Western fashion, from the late 1700’s to the contemporary moment, has been critical to the democratization of culture and the history of human emancipation. To make this argument, I examine the fashions of Marie Antoinette, Coco Chanel, and Bill Cunningham to demonstrate the ways that each of these complex and emblematic figures have materialized the terms of democracy throughout the history of modern fashion.
Fashion has historically been understood as a field that reflects culture, rather than a discourse that creates culture. My examination recasts the importance of fashion, demonstrating its role in the production of subjectivity and community throughout the last three centuries. In doing so, I aim to create the philosophical groundwork for thinking about what it could mean to have sustainable fashion, which is really a question about how we are going to participate in communities—about how we decide to fashion ourselves in relation to one another on this finite planet.
CB: Were there certain things that hindered your progress? How did you deal with the setbacks?
BG: Yes, indeed! I would say the thing that hindered my progress the most was me! For a long time, I was attached to the idea of my dissertation being very good. In other words, I had an a priori idea about how beautiful and impactful I wanted this work to be. In light of this, I constructed this very lovely fantasy of how this dissertation would turn out, and in doing so created a scenario in which whatever I wrote was always a disappointment to that fantastical world of gorgeous writing I had imagined. Once I let go of this essentialism where I tried to know the ending before I had even begun—my own monologic discourse, that, by the way, I was critiquing in the content of my dissertation—and really absorbed the wonderful advice to: forget writing a good dissertation, just write a dissertation, it freed me to actually do the work of writing. What was beautiful about doing this work-- in fact, I think even more beautiful than the fantasy I initially had cultivated-- was that I opened myself to not knowing, to the process of discovery that is writing. Unconcerned with the outcome of the work, I became very concerned with learning what ideas might come from the very act of trying to write. I became open to actually having dialogue.
CB: Could you give a brief synopsis of your early interest in fashion?
BG: My early interest in fashion began with the pleasure of transformation that clothes seemed to offer. I remember as a child, really distinctly feeling that I became a different person when I put on a pair of stone-washed-jeans with zippers up the back to go to the roller rink, or wore a cotton floral outfit that my mother made for me, or put on my polyester little league uniform as the only girl on the team, or a swimsuit in the thick heat of an Iowa summer. I had the sense that when I changed what I wore, I inhabited or even created different parts of my identity, sometimes parts I didn’t even know until I put something on. Changing clothing, changed my experience of the world. These early memories are of course connected to my work on fashion, in the sense that they are experiences of changing my subjectivity through aesthetic creation—particularly through a mode of aesthetics that is a vernacular social dialogue in which everyone participates.
CB: How does your dissertation relate to what is happening today, especially in terms of inter-subjectivity and community?
BG: Today we are in an unprecedented time where we have created a society that threatens its own existence, and even as we learn more about this threat, the problem of global warming has only increased. The fashion industry is a major contributor to the crisis we face on our planet, through waste, pollution, violation of human dignity through basic rights, and psychological damage of proliferating addiction to consumption as the promised cure for our spiritual vacuity. However, the crisis we face today is not just about our climate and pollution. I think more importantly, these issues have their basis in questions about how we care for ourselves and each other, about how we belong to and give to our communities. Therefore, I think we have to ask ourselves questions about how we care for each other, about why, with all of our good intentions, we are destroying our most precious resource, our sole home, and the potential for future generations to have well being or perhaps even to survive at all? So why, you’re probably asking, is fashion important in this? It is because fashion is the way we decide to be together. It is the way we orient ourselves in light of these challenges. So, it is worthwhile to think about how we have fashioned ourselves in the past, to better think through how we are going to fashion ourselves moving forward together. For example, a figure leading fashion to me, is sixteen-year-old, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, who, through the aesthetic poetics of her activism, has re-created and thus made visible a discourse that is changing what is acceptable and possible in terms of how we fashion each other and our world.
CB: How did you balance work/life during this time? What lessons did you learn?
BG: In spite of my best efforts, balance was not certainly my forte while working on this project. Instead, I worked rather in extremes, which no one will recommend for a dissertation and neither would I. During the course of writing my dissertation, while I was living in Berlin, I co-founded The Travel Almanac magazine with my husband, John Roberts and our friend who now runs the magazine, Paul Komineck. The Travel Almanac was such a ball of a project to work on, because our work was examining how travel and place impacts the creative practices of many of today’s leading artists, and exploring as much of the world as we could in the process. I wrote most of my dissertation between this work, and living between Berlin, Paris, and New York. I would travel for a few months taking in as much as possible, writing and interviewing artists, and then write on my own work like mad for a few months tucked away with my books and minimal distractions. I felt so grateful to have the opportunity to see our beautiful world, that at times, felt like a damn crime to be in front of the blue glow of my computer screen, when there were new, sensuous experiences to be taken in out there in the world. But the interesting thing for me is that it has always been writing or dialogue, or making visual work, so the screen, or the page, or whatever odds and ends I make artwork out of, better enables me to process and understand these experiences, and at best, to use them to create and make something new out of them. This constant travel also gave me the opportunity to think through ideas about fashion multiple contexts—to get to see, for example, how people in Japan v.s. Cambodia v.s. Morroco dress or prepare food, or gesture in relation to one another and their communities. It gave me a continuum of the IDSVA experience, where you are working dialogically, both in terms of content, but also in terms of culture and place.
CB: Looking back, how would you describe the influence of IDSVA on your personal life and thinking? How did IDSVA change your outlook of the world?
BG: IDSVA was the first school I attended that did not see philosophy or thinking as a separate practice from making. In other words, the school sees art, architecture, film, and so on, as ways of doing philosophy. At IDSVA, art is not something only to be thought about, but it is also a way of thinking. This was key for me. One of the beautiful things about being part of the community at IDSVA is that—though it’s the most academically rigorous program one could imagine (and at times this rigorousness feels almost impossible)—it’s ultimately not about academia, the institutionalization of a pedagogical ideology, or even the honor of a PhD one is awarded. What it is about, to me, is the possibility for growth when we begin to be be open to real dialogue, when we begin to feel deeply comfortable asking questions, which is when we begin to feel deeply comfortable knowing that we do not know. What this cultivates is care—care towards the other, because we actually believe in the possibility of learning from one another, that is, learning through difference. To be in a community that is shaped on discovery through the care of intensive dialogue—and that is a hybridized dialogue, not just with each other, but with history, with artists, with philosophers, with time and space, ideas and buildings, food, and fashion, art and culture—is for me to be in the rhizomatic heart of life, in other words, to really feel alive, because of the possibility of what we can bring out in each other.
CB: What do you hope to achieve with your scholarly work? What does it mean for you to be part of the “coming community”?
BG: Achievement, to me, has to do with my way of being in the world. Some of the most accomplished people I’ve been lucky enough to know strike me as such because they treat life as a gift, and they see life as the material of the artist—the material from which we can continuously re-create and reimagine existence towards greater freedom. So what I hope to achieve is the constant re-imagining of life through art. So in some sense achievement for me is about creation, what can we create with what we have, with what is between us, with what we cannot-yet imagine, but create in the dream a desire to imagine the possibility of what we do not yet know. For example, I’ve had a couple of near and dear friends pass away recently, and it occurred to me that my scholarly work is as much about knowing how to be with a friend who is dying as it is to know how to celebrate what is so beautiful about living. Even death, which is so often thought of as an absence, creates something, and it asks you how you are going to be in that experience. So I study philosophy and art to know how to live better, through whatever wild rides life brings.
I don’t know what it means to be a part of a “coming community,” and I suppose that is why the idea excites me, because I’d like to set myself on the path of finding out. It’s like making artwork, the excitement, for me, is in the surprise that inevitably happens between what you think something will be and then what it is. In that disjunction, I find that place where we make what we do not yet know.
CB: What projects are you working on now that you’ve passed your defense?
BG: Through my visual art practice and also through the creation of a mentorship program in fashion, I am continuing to try to answer questions that came up in writing my dissertation in their next iterations. At the moment my visual artwork is taking the form of designing clothing—thinking about the body/subject as a fluid environment—and hopefully, this project will eventually will grow into a larger installation and community space. I am also co-creating a non-profit fashion mentorship program called, The Collective for Fashion Education, with the fashion stylist, Martha Violante. We are creating a mentorship in fashion for two 11th grade-public school students in New York City, to give them an immersive introduction to fashion as a globally impactful field. The course consists of alternating site visits to the workplaces of industry professionals coupled with mentored classes that integrate these site visits into the larger cultural contexts of fashion, combining theory and practice. Our hope is that it will provide a springboard for students to reimagine the terms of the fashion industry, moving it towards sustainability, social good, and democracy. And then, if I can convince myself to be brave enough to write again, I will turn my dissertation into a book for a general audience, because I think in whatever small way I can, I would like to rethink and honor, the incredible work of women, feminist, and so many amazing individuals who have created liberating discourses of fashion throughout history.