Visitors to the university this week might have encountered the strange sight of artist Harriet Riddell sewing tapestries on her bicycle-powered sewing machine. Riddell has been commissioned to spend 6 days at the University of Hertfordshire and around Hatfield town, stitching a snapshot of the university and its life. She has observed visitors, residents, staff, and students going about their everyday activities, and has depicted them in stitch. Her time here will result in a large tapestry for each day of her residency, reflecting the people places and events that she witnessed while sitting at her sewing machine.
Riddell’s undergraduate thesis was on the subject of how audiences perceive art differently in different contexts, and this theme still informs the way that she works. Her audiences are exposed to her work as it is made, gaining access to the making processes that are normally unseen. This context offers audiences insights that alter the way that they view her outcomes. During her visit to UH, observers asked questions that they might not have asked had they not seen her at work, enquiring about her process more than the features of the final piece. Some enquired about how her equipment functions, some about whether she sketches before she sews, and others about how she switches between materials.
Process is the defining characteristic of Riddell’s work. She refers to herself as a “performance textile artist”, acknowledging the importance of the performative aspect of her practice. Riddell has embraced the social aspect of this way of working, enjoying the opportunity to engage directly with her audience as well as her subjects. Her social interactions directly inform the content of her works, with overheard words and phrases integrated alongside the stitched images.
One feature that audiences find remarkable is the speed at which Riddell works. “I have to move fast”, she says, “so I can lift real life immediately onto the cloth”. She works intuitively, with no planning of sketching, letting a composition emerge as she works. This lack of planning allows her to be reactive, responding to changes in her environment, or unexpected events that take place in front of her (perhaps the most remarkable of which was the murder of a man in Kenya).
In order to truly reflect the life that she observes as she sews, Riddell has to be quite furtive about her activities. She does not tell people that she is sewing their image until after she has completed the work, and makes an effort to pretend that she is not looking directly at them for fear of alerting them to the fact that they are being watched. She has to be “sneaky”, raising her head only when her subjects are not looking in her direction. Only then can she observe them in natural, unguarded poses.
Her new bicycle-powered sewing machine enables interaction with audiences without compromising Riddell’s ownership of her work. “I like community work”, she says, and using people-power is a way to involve others, including those without any understanding of how to use a sewing machine. The bicycle-powered machine is “a way of making the work more inclusive”; for people to feel as though they are part of the production of her work, without feeling the pressure to directly contribute or any weight of expectation about the quality of their contribution.
Participants’ can directly experience the extent to which they are contributing to the production of Riddell’s work. The bicycle provides a kind of haptic feedback. Pedaling becomes more difficult when the stitches are being sewed, and resistance is reduced when the sewing machine is inactive or working more slowly. This enhances the sense of participation, provoking physical responses that connect the audience more intimately to the production process.
Riddell has only recently started working with bicycles in this way, having been given the idea at a festival. Her previous sewing machines have been powered by motorcycle batteries, which are readily available in whatever country she finds herself, and before that, mains electricity. For Riddell, the most important consequence of the move to portable power has been the opportunity to move outside. The need to be connected to a mains socket had previously restricted Riddel to working indoors, forcing her to form relationships with owners of cafes and other small businesses so that she could be close to electrical supplies while working.
Her desire for the freedom to work outside drove Riddell to seek alternative power sources. “I didn’t understand, as a textile artist, why I had to be indoors. It was frustrating for me”. She tried working with natural, found materials such as willow, in order to find excuses to work outside, but the work did not inspire her. The realization that she could take her machine outside, not just locally but internationally, led to the fulfillment of Riddell’s lifelong ambition to travel to India, where she produced the work that can be found here.
In stark contrast to the exotic locations of her recent work, her residence with UHArts has brought her back to familiar territory. She studied here as a student until 2012, and it was here, at a life drawing class, that she first started to use a sewing machine to stitch human portraits. The visit has brought back memories, and has prompted her to reflect on how far she has come. She has started to ask questions about where her work could take her next, and how she could prompt further evolution of her working methods.