On Yarn Bombing and Ethics

Olek for Pangeaseed. Isla Mujeres, Mexico. August 2014 (photo © Pangeaseed)

by Leanne on August 20, 2014 · 11 comments

in Yarn Bombing

Olek, aka the bad girl of yarn bombing who doesn’t consider herself a yarn bomber, is in the middle of controversy again.

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Photo credit: Olek for Pangeaseed. Isla Mujeres, Mexico. August 2014 (photo © Pangeaseed)

Last week, she wrapped pieces in Cancun’s Underwater Museum with her signature camo-graffiti crochet in a campaign to “save our seas” supported by PangeaSeed, who, according to their website, is an international organization who collaborates with members of the art, science, and environmental activist communities.

Monday, Artnet News reported that Mexican authorities and the Underwater Museum were looking to press charges as Olek had allegedly tampered with the museum’s art without permission and damaged sea life growing on the statutes in a protected wildlife area in the process of creating her uninvited installation.

Here is a video produced by PangeaSeed that shows Olek’s installation in process with an audio of her project rationale:

This is an interesting ethnical dilemma – on both sides there are individuals who are passionate about our oceans and marine life.

Questions arise: Is a barnacle’s life worth less than a shark? Does an artist making her mark on a landscape for political reasons of the entire oceans’ health trump a few individuals concern one small patch of ocean? Is this a stunt that uses an artists’ celebrity for attention, or will it be an effective campaign to make active change? Does the Underwater Museum already call attention to PangeaSeed’s concerns by shining the spotlight on our oceans through art already?

Over the years, I have been repeatedly asked two very specific questions about yarn bombing – which this project brings up again. Here’s my attempt to give the best answers I can, from what I’ve gleaned from talking to those who create political work and those who want to stick in the realm of cute and cozy.

1. Is Yarn Bombing Illegal?

Yarn bombing, unless done with the permission of a host organization or a private property owner, is illegal. Most municipalities encourage it, but some do not. If you are installing something without permission – it IS graffiti.

From day one, Mandy (my Yarn Bombing co-author) and I have always encouraged new yarn bombers to assess their personal risk level – ask yourself, are you willing to get caught? Are you willing to get arrested?

If yes, proceed with caution. If not, don’t. Graffiti is a crime and those who partake in it consistently take risks to make this kind of art. Yes, yarn bombing is generally considered a warm and fuzzy activity, but sometimes it is not. Some artists paint pictures of kittens and unicorns, some paint our worst nightmares. Why should we assume that the yarn bombing world only represents one spectrum of opinion? Just as with any other art form, yarn bombing represents human behaviour  – a wildly diverse and unpredictable variable if there ever was one.

2. Is Yarn Bombing damaging?

Yarn bombing can be damaging. Let’s not pretend that it can’t be.

Unlike spray paint which sticks to a surface, generally yarn will eventually be cut away from a surface or rot away but it can mark surfaces, or restrict access, or be adhered with materials that are damaging.

Trees are often what people are concerned with. I’ve heard concerns on both side. I’ve had an arborist tell me that as long as knitting on a tree didn’t restrict a tree’s growth or sap production, it’s fine. I’ve had another scientist tell me that it could eventually hamper the tree’s growth or attract insects who would want to kill the tree. Some yarn bombers take it upon themselves to remove knitting when it starts to look old; others leave it up to chance and weather. Natural fibers droop and fade, synthetics look good longer but essentially never biodegrade. If you live in a rainy climate, like I do, things will rot. If you live in a desert, it might last forever. Animals may take it into their habitat, bugs might suffocate under it. Just as we flip-flop over paper vs plastic, there isn’t a perfect answer to this question.

My main suggestions for yarn bombers is to:

  1. Do as little damage as possible – fix your work to a surface that cannot be altered (I’ve heard suggestions of using spray foam to adhere knitting to a surface – the horrors)
  2. Make sure that your work does not create a situation dangerous for other beings, make sure that they can’t trip on it or get caught in it. Don’t cover up reflective signage. Don’t destroy animal habitat. Think safety first. Do research on the site that you are planning to cover.
  3. Take responsibility – if your work offends, is it intentional? How will you react? Are you willing to accept all sorts of feedback and consequences? Check your inner critic and make sure that your statement meets your personal ethics. Can you morally stand behind you project? Think about the risks and assumptions involved.

Let’s make this a conversation. Your response to this post is invited and encouraged. I want to know what you think.

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