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December 11, 2017
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Paula John "sewing" her film, Becoming Marilyn, as it plays for an audience at Arta Gallery during the 2011 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche (Image courtesy of Paula John).

"Living in a digital culture we must not lose touch with the processes of the past. We must celebrate the tactile, the physical, the handmade…I do not work in zeroes and ones, but in stitches, splices, tucks, tapes, pricks, punctures and projections…"

The words read from Paula John's Manifesto, written in support of her most recent artistic project: Celluloid Dress. An analog girl in a digital world, John is a 24 year-old, Toronto-based artist who works primarily with textiles, sewing and 16mm celluloid filmmaking. Arguably her most accessible art project to date, Celluloid Dress is both a dress and performance piece that examines the relationship between the technologies of sewing and 16mm filmmaking. The dress, a 1950s-style couture cocktail gown, is a wearable work of art made entirely out of 16mm film and nylon mesh, with LED lights sewn underneath that illuminate individual frames of black and white film. 

The work debuted on October 2, 2011 at ARTA gallery in Toronto's Distillery District as part of a Futurist exhibit for the 2011 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, an annual, all-night celebration of art that spans the downtown core and attracts thousands of attendees - serious art aficionados, as well as the mainstream masses. For the performance, John's film Becoming Marilyn (2010) projected onto the wall from a 16mm projector but with a twist: instead of simply looping back into the projector, the filmstrip stretched across the ceiling over two hanging pulleys, threaded through a sewing machine sitting ten feet away, before flying back across the room to reconnect with the projector. The projector drove the movement while the sewing machine drove the performance, which involved John sitting in her film dress, at her sewing machine, "sewing" or puncturing holes in the film as it played onto her and the wall behind. White holes sporadically appeared over the projected image, eventually engulfing it entirely as the film was destroyed. She started by sewing strips of film together and immediately became excited about the way that it felt, the sound made by the needle as it punctured holes and the strange kind of fabric it produced.

The Celluloid Dress

(Image courtesy of Paula John)

"I associate the act of filmmaking and sewing," says John. "It's a very similar kind of work flow for me. I do it in my house, often at the same table, using similar machinery." The most notable similarity, John notes, is the fact that Singer, the leading manufacturer of sewing machines, also made 16mm projectors. In her project statement, she lists countless other correlations between the machines themselves: "both projector and sewing machine are threaded; both machines have a spool and a take up; both machines make similar sounds; tension is important; and the presser foot and film gate serve essentially the same purpose on their respective machines. Even the movements of the machines reflect each other with the spinning of the reels and of the balance reel."

After producing experimental shorts such as In the Absence of Memory (2010), which involved painting and scratching onto film, John moved on to experiment with sewing directly onto film. She started by sewing strips of film together and immediately became excited about the way that it felt, the sound made by the needle as it punctured holes and the strange kind of fabric it produced. She estimates she spent upwards of 150 hours creating the gown over the course of two and a half weeks.

The project seemed a natural progression for the young artist, whose work also speaks to the matrilineal traditions she grew up with. Her grandmother created beautiful embroideries and taught her mother to sew, a fashion designer who passed the craft onto her.  As a child, John would sit next to her mother at her work table, making little bags and stitching buttons onto things until she eventually learned how to use the machine.

I associate the act of filmmaking and sewing, it's a very similar kind of work flow for me. I do it in my house, often at the same table, using similar machinery.

Beginning at the bottom with the opening countdown, the film circles upwards around the full skirt, winding up to the waist where it meets a structured bodice complete with a Jean Paul Gaultier-inspired cone bra. "[The cones] just made sense to me because I saw the film spiraling out to the points," says John. "It was more based on the way that I could work with film and aesthetically I am into a more 1950s silhouette. It was a really glamorous time and I love the clothes. I thought it would be beautiful and the whole point was to not necessarily cut the film except at seams...At the same time, I was reading about the Futurists, [including a] manifesto that outlines the use of avant-garde materials, and it just seemed to fit well within that tradition."

John specifically drew inspiration from the words of Vincenzo Fani, who published the Futurist Manifesto of Women’s Fashion in 1920 in Roma Futurista. In it, he states, "Woman's fashion can never be extravagant enough. And here too we will begin by abolishing symmetry. We will fashion zigzag decollettes, sleeves that differ from one another, shoes of varying shapes, colors and heights. We will create illusionistic, sarcastic, sonorous, loud, deadly, and explosive attire: gowns that trigger surprises and transformations, outfitted with springs, stingers, camera lenses, electric currents, reflectors, perfumed sprays, fireworks, chemical preparations, and thousands of gadgets fit to play the most wicked tricks and disconcerting pranks on maladroit suitors and sentimental fools." While she concedes that her futurist dress does not include fireworks, the addition of LED lights was a nod to Fani's words, and also fit with her tradition of using unconventional materials to rethink fashion.

Paula John's exhibit at Nuit Blanche

(Image courtesy of Paula John)

Aside from creating a dress using film, it was important that every stitch and every frame also connected to a bigger theme. "I just think that there's an opportunity for art to engage you on multiple levels, where the form influences the content and vice versa. The film itself is this kind of creepy little piece about me doing myself up as Marilyn Monroe, whom I used to have this weird obsession with. And so [the style of dress] speaks to that era as well."

Creation and destruction are themes in her work, as is the idea of transformation. John literally constructs an image of herself In Becoming Marilyn, takes the film itself and turns it into a dress, which she wears while creating a performance that results in the destroyed creation of the original film. Perhaps surprisingly, in her work she is most often pleased by the beauty of the destroyed object, rather than the "finished" beautiful product she has created.

"The destroyed thing becomes the creation, an object of beauty. And the destruction is a part of that process and that lends a sort of power to it…" John says, pausing to think before continuing. "It's not like I'll destroy the film dress. But I do like the idea of destroying film strip - it's this special kind of thing you're not supposed to get a finger print on, let alone have flying through the air. I like taking it out of that untouchable zone; I don't wear gloves when I edit and I embrace all the imperfections - the dust bits, the scratches - it makes it more a collaboration between my body and the film. The oils of my hands are on it and that affects the image. There's definitely been a self-destructive element to my life, and I'd say I've found ways to take those things in my life that have wreaked of destruction and create something beautiful." Video:  Celluloid Dress, at ARTA gallery during Scotiabank's Nuit Blanche


Paula John: http://www.paula-john.ca

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