PRINT November 2015


HOW DO YOU MAKE FASHION that’s not fashion? That’s not simply or only aspirational, trending, the eternal return of the new? In New York just before the turn of the millennium, artist Susan Cianciolo responded to this conundrum with RUN, a line of de- and reconstructed “costumes” that she produced in collaboration with a makeshift atelier of friends and relatives and presented in shows that turned the conventions of the runway upside down (literally, in the case of the aerialist models who dangled among ropes while showing off the looks from Cianciolo’s third collection). Offering craft instead of couture and affect instead of laconic cool, expanding into housewares and perfume, and producing collages, videos, performances, and archival “kits” that both documented and destabilized her brand, Cianciolo deftly created a different kind of culture industry, lending a fresh resonance to Diana Vreeland’s famous claim that elegance is refusal. As a series of exhibitions bring new visibility to her work, NICK MAUSS proposes Cianciolo’s costumes as one element of a singular artistic project. And in a special portfolio for Artforum, Cianciolo presents snapshots of her recent time in rural Maine and New York, experiences that are being woven into innovative materials, textiles, and a film—still another twist in her unfolding involutions of labor, form, and style.

Model in Susan Cianciolo’s RUN 4, New York, 1997. Photo: Chris Moore.

tofu kequishe
CORN muffins
SeaSOR Salad
Reflections of ouRself
lMAntations of ouR life
Dream of Different tomorow

—from a drawing by Susan Cianciolo for RUN Restaurant’s menu

I WENT TO RUN Store in the fall of 2001. I didn’t know what to expect. The shop had been set up for one day in a storefront on Eighth Avenue near Fourteenth Street, and its opening was preceded by rumors and fantasies, the sense of private anticipation that remains the ineffable emblem of Susan Cianciolo’s brand of agitprop. This was way before pop-up shops were everywhere, and though it seems strange to bring up that historical detail, it’s important to remember that, at the time, it actually felt like an experimental thing to do, this temporary store. I remember it now like a film played at the wrong speed, one in which people enacted various attitudes of service in uniforms that were delicate travesties of utility and futility, ready-made T-shirts that had been cinched and clipped to resemble shrunken waitress aprons with scalloped hems. It was unclear what, if anything, was for sale in this store run by what appeared to be a nonhierarchical all-ages commune or the cast of Robert Altman’s film 3 Women. Models and nonmodels acted like absentminded shopkeepers, as if under a spell or beholden to an oblique subtext. And for a moment, everyone was participating in this projection of an alternate site of exchange and attention, and I caught glimpses of details: ethereally weird makeup, talismans, words emblazoned on clothes held together by spiderwebs and altered with hedge clippers. “It’s like couture made by people who really really can’t sew and grandmother master tailors simultaneously,” a friend offered, as an explanation of how something could seem at once so sophisticated and so willfully naive. Each garment bore the traces and decisions of many authors, and ways of making, of learning and unlearning.

Fashion houses have always been collaborative, but Susan Cianciolo’s RUN emerged in a climate in which they were being streamlined to the point of airlessness. Under the pressure of corporatization, designers were becoming carefully marketed caricatures of “the artist”—neoliberal avatars of bohemian creativity—while the clothes themselves were being drained of interest in order to facilitate mass consumption based on predictable trend patterns. RUN, a label that produced eleven collections between 1995 and 2001, went directly against the grain of these developments, proposing a model for generating clothes with many voices and with a disregard for efficiency. Cianciolo’s clothes were handmade for particular individuals, designed, assembled, and adorned in a process that pooled various types of knowledge, techniques, skills, and nonskills, in a punk-constructivist reimagining of the production line: couture as collective improvisation. “I have always collaborated with many people,” she once told an interviewer. “I have made things with other artists. But everything was like this. Historically, and in everyday life. A bakery bakes bread with everyone. You can’t live alone. . . . I feel that I am always collaborating with somebody in everyday life. . . . It is opening yourself up and accepting other people’s ideas using you as a filter.” For many RUN collections, a group of collaborators would come together to develop and produce the garments—from DIY “kits” to one-of-a-kind ensembles carefully pieced together from an archive of found and altered textiles. These sewing circles were composed of friends, students, even relatives. Cianciolo acknowledged her indebtedness to the matrilineal transference of knowledge and skill by folding her mother’s and grandmother’s work into her own. Perhaps the most disarmingly uncool thing Cianciolo ever did was directly implicate her own family in her work, making those relationships explicitly visible yet ambivalently coded. Recently, her most intimate and daring collaboration has been with her now-seven-year-old daughter, Lilac Sky, whose hand and touches of glitter were visible all over Cianciolo’s exhibition this past summer at New York’s Bridget Donahue gallery, “if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite).” As Cianciolo gathered her daughter’s notes and sketches to include in a work, she asked Lilac Sky for permission to use them and was surprised by the answer: “You can do whatever you want, as long as we split fifty-fifty.” Her daughter also appears in the 2015 video Queens and Kings and Working Class Heroes (on view along with five of Cianciolo’s other moving-image works in the current edition of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York).

The handmade collective deconstruction of what a body can be does not work with factory production. The only way to produce truly new fashion is to inhibit the industrial production of clothes. When Cianciolo says that she makes “costumes” rather than engaging in the “designing of clothes,” one thinks of what it could mean to wear a costume every day, to activate a form of interpersonal ritual within a stream of global trends. On the one hand, fashion connotes an originally Western tradition that is only about five hundred years old, while costume is used by curators and academics to refer to the practices of making and wearing clothing in every place and period. Cianciolo’s chosen term therefore suggests that the wearer of her clothes is somehow outside fashion but still very much embedded in histories. On the other hand, costume is also meaningful in a specific historical context: The 1990s was the era of the Gap uniform at the low end of the market and of understated “minimalism” at the high end, styles that posited attire as a kind of transparent frame that lets the wearer’s authentic self shine through. The idea of a costume—of clothing as performance—violates this logic. Cianciolo’s work seems to aspire to a state of permanent dishabille. Her costumes require a new kind of reciprocal engagement from her clients, who must learn how to wear a piece, how to incorporate it into their lives, and how to acclimate to its constraints over time. In 1996, discussing RUN 3—each collection was simply called RUN and numbered consecutively—Cianciolo stated: “There’s personality in each person’s movement, it’s like any other type of expression. And the industrial fabric [I used in this collection] collaborates with that expression. It doesn’t just become part of the body, it’s like the two are almost fighting together. For that fabric to meet the body is so difficult. It’s a sharp object—you know some of [the clothes] have metal and Kevlar in them—meeting a soft one. Technology, the computer versus the human.”

Bibi Borthwick and Mai Aurell model RUN 11 outside Susan Cianciolo’s RUN Store, New York, 2001. Photo: Anette Aurell.

I FIRST HEARD of RUN through word of mouth. I was working for Mended Veil, a tiny apartment operation that made fantastical dime-store-meets-Salammbô jewelry. Some of those pieces were shown in Cianciolo’s early collections. Nearby, at Colin de Land’s gallery American Fine Arts, artist Patterson Beckwith’s mother, Jane, was organizing crafting bees called Bee-Ins; American Fine Arts was a few blocks from Cianciolo’s studio. Danny McDonald, the genius behind Mended Veil, ran the gallery; I remember Lizzi Bougatsos playing receptionist, waiting for band practice to start, while, in the basement, I drilled holes into quarters from 1984 for necklaces. There was a lot of antic collaboration across disciplines and vested interests, and, more important, injections of eccentric motives into seemingly stable frameworks. It’s relevant that some of the most interesting collaborative projects happening at that time, like Art Club 2000 (the artists’ group that seven Cooper Union students, including Beckwith and McDonald, had founded with de Land in the early ’90s) and the artists’ collective Bernadette Corporation, used fashion as an avenue for cultural critique. AC2000 parodied the sartorial monoculture of the Gap in a deadpan performance of selling out, while clothes with the Bernadette Corporation label could be found for sale in Ludlow Street boutiques. But if Bernadette Corporation was performing its own now-famous mystique as part of a critical investigation of the cultural and economic co-optation of “downtown,” for Cianciolo the earnest openness of uncoolness was an operative method.

As time went on, RUN became an umbrella for a wide range of propositions that have operated sometimes in tandem with collections and sometimes independently of them, and that continue to this day. One of the earliest was RUN Restaurant, an establishment that existed for a month at New York’s Alleged Galleries in 2001 and that, in documentation, looks like a piece of experimental theater, the enactment of a social ideal and an exercise in suspension of disbelief, much like RUN Store. People sit on the floor around a low, cobbled-together table-cum-stage, near a freestanding fence, close to a small hut. Someone is “cooking”—actually, it looks more like they’re decorating hors d’oeuvres. The food doesn’t have to be real. A man wears an apron with an outsize handpainted gingham motif. Cianciolo’s other ventures have included the alternative currency RUN Money, with which people could pretend to purchase RUN kits at the RUN 11 collection presentations; the housewares line RUN Home; a perfume, Chevalier; and, most recently, YaloRUN, a project space in Water Valley, Mississippi, founded by Cianciolo with artist Coulter Fussell and designer Kiva Motnyk, which also functions as a store for textile-craft supplies.

In retrospect, it becomes apparent how defiantly Cianciolo has played with commerce in order to rethink value, insisting on the way ideas, feelings, and intimacy inhere in both production and day-to-day life with garments and objects, on touching and looking rather than being looked at. Functionality is given dreamlike new valences or thwarted completely; often, to use one of Cianciolo’s products, you have to love it irrationally, love it for itself (not for its usefulness or for the way it ratifies your status or your identity), even love it enough to sacrifice comfort or security or sense. Shoes are covered in white feathers that will fall off if you wear them as often as you’d like. Sacks made of veiling provide only the thinnest, most porous boundary between your bare foot and the floor—they are just volumes of air with a long zipper to close them up. A swimsuit kit is in fact a canvas book with slits into which your hand disappears to pull out a crocheted bikini. In a 1999 essay, fashion editor Nakako Hayashi quotes Cianciolo: “Most of my work is about happy and sad memories.” Hayashi continues, “She once made a skirt where a long, narrow cloth hung down from the waist ‘to wipe your eyes when you cry uncontrollably.’” This affective “script” hints at the complexity of Cianciolo’s vision of peformativity, which in her work is deeply intertwined with lived experience without necessarily being “live”—for her videos and films have always gently pressured the line between performative presence and the moving image. One of her earliest fashion shows, for example, was not a show at all, but a screening of her film Pro-Abortion; Anti-Pink, 1996, while her hauntingly elliptical Queens and Kings and Working Class Heroes, shot in the Cloisters in New York City and in more bucolic settings in New York State, Maine, and Mississippi, evokes—and features performers who have appeared in—her live shows.

The story goes that Cianciolo “left” the fashion system at the moment it claimed her, when her brand marketability was burgeoning. But it’s clear now that she has used fashion as an exploratory vehicle for an ongoing multidetermined performance work that allows for numerous collaborators, experimental venues, and layers of conflicting messages. Still, for a long time, except among true devotees, it really did seem like Cianciolo had disappeared in 2001. And so excitement greeted the announcement of Cianciolo’s “return” exhibition at Donahue’s gallery this past summer—an appearance that would be followed in quick succession by outings in group shows at Rodeo Gallery’s Istanbul and London locations in September and in Greater New York in October, with solo shows planned for 2016 at LA’s 356 S. Mission Rd. and Yale Union in Portland, Oregon.

Sign for Susan Cianciolo’s RUN Store, New York, 2001. Photo: Brendan Fowler.

The Bridget Donahue show, curated by Donahue and artist Alex Fleming, featured thirty-two found or newly made boxes, or kits, laid out on the floor in a loose grid. In the late ’90s, Cianciolo began studying Fluxus and developed a relationship with movement historian Barbara Moore. Cianciolo’s first group of kits, which she has referred to as “Fluxus boxes,” grew out of this engagement; since then, the kits have become a central feature of her work. Each unique kit contains a highly personal constellation of objects. Offering her reconfigured archive in the form of distinct devotional cosmologies, Cianciolo created a complex dramaturgy of intimate tactile conversation, improvised ritual, and hypothetical transaction. She also reimagined the role of the gallerist for this scenario: Donahue became docent, interpreter, archivist, and oral historian. On entering the gallery, at your request, she would begin describing and interpreting, while carefully laying each artifact on one of the small quilts or rug-like textiles on which the boxes were decisively positioned—a tactic that delimited a zone of focused activity in which the boxes became reliquaries, conceptual models, sliced sediments of a life given up for perusal, theater stages, libraries, lamps, even utopian cities. (In a sequence in Queens and Kings and Working Class Heroes, Lilac Sky performs a similar role, unpacking one kit’s contents on a cloth that has been carefully laid on a bench.) The nonlinear “purpose” of each kit—Hologram Box, 2015; Documentary of Conversations Box, 2013–15; DIY Blouse Kit, 2001—is expressed by artifacts from different points in time, atomizing chronology to illuminate other kinds of relationships among the various items gathered within and across boxes. In this context, Cianciolo’s “costumes” became historical events annotated with snapshots and notes. Everything became an asterisk referring the viewer/handler to some other item among a battery of social memories of a particular set of events, casting webs of cross-references throughout the space. Where one box might contain an elaborate necklace-like collar that can also be hung on the wall for decoration, you could discover in another box a photograph of that piece as worn in what looks like a procession through a forest. A pandemonium of artists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, designers, and stylists from the New York scene were conjured in a zone that connected to other historical legacies: of avant-garde costume design, Futurist books made of sandpaper and wood pulp, and the collaborative modus of Sonia Delaunay, who also reinvented books, blankets, and boxes in her own explicit language of citation, collage, decoupage, and patchwork. As an event, and as a history, the exhibition made sense the same way Cianciolo’s clothes always have—obliquely, with an intense vulnerability.

As in other Cianciolo projects, this investigation of the retrospective format not only functioned as a reevaluation of old conventions but also generated its own momentum as a pretext for the production of new images and satellite occasions: a series of posters, a screening of Cianciolo’s films at Anthology Film Archives, and a presentation by Moore of never-before-shown slides of the Fashion Show Poetry Event, organized in 1969 by Hannah Weiner, Eduardo Costa, and John Perreault at the Americas Society (then the Center for Inter-American Relations) on Park Avenue and Sixty-Eighth Street. The last of these side events was particularly interesting, as it folded other important microhistories of the art-fashion dialogue into this one. Described by the poets who organized it as “a fictionalized version of a real life event that would appeal to an audience accustomed to sophisticated perception of visual phenomena,” the Fashion Show Poetry Event included among its participants Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Deborah Hay, all of whom made clothes following sets of instructions provided by the organizers. The poets in turn retranslated these ensembles into “typical fashionese” and read their texts during the catwalk presentation. The audience was asked to contemplate a “slightly insolent creation . . . for the young man about town” as Rene Ricard modeled Marisol’s paint-smeared underwear on the runway, while Weiner’s design, “Wear Your Own Luggage,” was modeled by Bernadette Mayer. “There is a difference between fashion copy and our ‘poems’ which are imitations of fashion copy,” wrote Mayer, Costa, and Perreault. “There is a difference between a real fashion show and our imitation of a fashion show. We are interested in these differences in spite of the fact that we have tried to eliminate them. . . . The Fashion Show Poetry Event is not only fashion, poetry, and art, it is where these arbitrary categories overlap and as categories dissolve and become irrelevant.”

The RUN presentations followed in this transgressive tradition—Cianciolo showed clothes in art galleries and public bathrooms, live and on film. For the 1997 collection RUN 5, she introduced life-size dolls, or “sleepers,” alongside living models, followed by abstract bodies—neoconstructivist wooden armatures to support clothing, conceived by artist Aaron Lown—for RUN 9 (1999). But of course, Mayer, Costa, and Perreault’s statement has a broader resonance for Cianciolo’s practice, not just her fashion shows—she, too, has explored and activated the dissolution of cultural categories while, paradoxically, sustaining poetic difference. The invocation of the Fashion Show Poetry Event within the frame of Cianciolo’s exhibition not only situated her in a particular lineage, intensifying the dialogue between “art” and “fashion” in historical terms, but underscored the singularity of her work, bringing into sharper focus her techniques of deconstructive intervention, her coquetry with expectations, and the multiple reimaginings and conflations of spectatorship, consumption, and collaboration within her constantly shifting scenographies.

Greater New York, featuring six of Susan Cianciolo’s films as well as a selection of her costumes and archival materials, is on view through Mar. 7, 2016, at MoMA PS1, New York.

Nick Mauss is an artist living in New York.