On a sunny summer day, artist Tanya Aguiñiga placed a few coins in a Beverly Hills parking meter, spread a blanket down in the empty parking space, tied herself to a palm tree, and began backstrap weaving. Forty minutes later, two police cars arrived to Aguiñiga's site, followed by officers inquiring about her actions, and threatening to give her a ticket. As a police helicopter approached in the distance, Aguiñiga packed up her supplies in front of a growing crowd of onlookers, but her experiment in performance crafting had just begun.
The works of Tanya Aguiñiga take many forms. From jewelry made from knots to felt-covered Eames chairs to unisex adaptable clothing, Aguiñiga marries modern design with an organic, global folk aesthetic. The Tijuana-born, Los Angeles-based artist will be featured in PBS' Craft in America series, and in October her creations will be featured at J.F. Chen's collection -- the site of the controversial James Franco exhibition -- where her works grow to a new dimension, as her furniture evolves into otherworldly creatures that populate Aguiñiga's imagination.
But her latest series of works, performance crafting, breaks from her creation of things or objects. Instead she creates an experience, a moment of the uncanny -- a craft happening -- that challenges the expectations of the passive or "safe" nature of crafting. Plein air weaving on a street in America's wealthiest -- and most recognizable -- zip codes, along side open-mouthed tourists, and nearly empty luxury shops, she became an instigator.
Based on backstrap weaving techniques she learned in Chiapas, Mexico, the "New York City of indigenous cultures," as she puts it, Aguiñiga affixes herself to an object, which acts as a counterbalance as she pulls the shuttle across the loom. But performance crafting isn't just about the finished product, she says, it's about the process, which explores identity, means of production, and our relationship to our environments.
I was there while Aguiñiga set up shop there in the 90210, and later when she tied herself to the iconic Beverly Hills sign, dressed in traditional Mexican clothing. Recently, we caught back to reflect on her first installment of performance crafting, revisit the impetus behind the project and reveal her conversation with the Beverly Hills police.
Drew Tewksbury: Talk about that first time that you saw backstrap weaving.
Tanya Aguiñiga: The first time that I saw it for sure it was in Zinacantán. That's where people do a bunch of weaving and there's ladies hanging out in the street weaving, just making their own stuff.
We went into a house with a big, open living room-type of area that people would set up a little store to sell their stuff and to sell neighbors things. But all of them have this pole right in the middle of the room so that you can tie yourself to it, to do the backstrap weaving. It's a telephone pole-looking thing, like a post but just in the middle of the room. There's nothing set up around it on the floor, so that multiple people can tie themselves to it, so that everybody can work off of this one pole. It looks like a pillar, like it's what's holding up the house. That entire room is kept empty. There are never any chairs, tables, nothing hanging out there. It's just for them to be able to work.
The weaving [apparatus] is a fat belt looking thing that goes on your lower back. And then it has holes for you to tie rope to. So then what you do is you tie a rope to the post and you pull the two loose rope ends and then tie those to the loom and then you hook the belt onto the loom. So then there's this circle of you being connected to the loom, the loom being connected to the pole and then weaving by a matter of body motion.
Drew Tewksbury: Where the woman becomes part of the machine.
Tanya Aguiñiga: It was just really crazy to see how complicated the system is. They were talking about, "oh, it took be 14 years to learn how to do this." And then they were talking about how it's not something that's passed on, you have to ask somebody to teach you and not a lot of people do it anymore.
Drew Tewksbury: And were they open to teaching you?
Tanya Aguiñiga: They were totally open to teaching me but then the woman that was teaching me, her daughters didn't know how to do it. So by us learning, the little daughters were learning too, cause they were like, "oh, she never taught us." By me asking to kind of be part of the entire process: how do you sheer a sheep, how do you prepare the wool, how do you turn that wool into yarn? I wanted to learn the entire process from sheep to finished thing. By me asking about all that stuff, then they were like, "oh, my mom never taught me, can I come along and watch?" And so they started learning stuff that they hadn't learned before. And then people from the other towns were like, "oh my god, I can't believe you're learning how to backstrap weave, can I come? Can you teach me after they teach you? Can you teach me?"
And then when I went to Chiapas and I saw they are pretty insular, like they don't have much interaction with non-indigenous people and they don't know how long they've been there, and how they just stayed in the same little place. They don't have a lot of contact with like Westerners or whatever.
Drew Tewksbury: Yeah, the outside world.
Tanya Aguiñiga: It was really interesting to me that they still use the pure form, like the old school Meso-American way of weaving. It was just really nice. This whole idea of de-colonializing your mind. Yeah, so I was just like "oh my god, this is really cool, that they're still doing the old school thing." But then also, it frees you up to be able to weave anywhere.
Drew Tewksbury: Why did you decide to do backstrap weaving in the States, in a public area?
Tanya Aguiñiga: It's just a really beautiful process. It's like this weird dance where your body and the piece are so linked.
Drew Tewksbury: And tying yourself to something is a kind of protest too, right?
Tanya Aguiñiga: I was thinking about how when you tie yourself to something you draw attention to the object that you're tied to. I was thinking about what things are significant to me and how can I have a dialogue with those things. How could I record those things? So I kept thinking, "okay, how can I have a dialogue, like a conversation with an inanimate object and then have like a record of that experience and that time?" Then I was thinking, "well this backstrap weaving is the perfect thing because at the end of it I would have a finished thing that would tell me about what that experience was.
Drew Tewksbury: And record those locations in textiles.
Tanya Aguiñiga: Yeah. And so then I was thinking about what's significant to me, what do I want to tie myself to, what I want to bring attention to and so it's bringing attention to the object but also bringing attention to the process because its something that people haven't seen before, so people want to sort of check it out. To me, like in the end of most of the stuff that I do, I want to just use attention to draw attention to something that I think is important.
Drew Tewksbury: So, why did you decide on Beverly Hills then?
Tanya Aguiñiga: Then it turned into: maybe it would be cool to do it in places that are unexpected and not so much worry about what it is that you're tied to. So then I thought that when people think about L.A., they think about Rodeo Drive, money and excess.
Drew Tewksbury: You also chose to do this in front of the YSL store, in front of super high end fashion.
Tanya Aguiñiga: Yeah. Those fashion pieces are made out of fabric and I'm making fabric in front of a fashion store, which is something that most people don't associate, like how fabric is made and the history from start to finish of something.
Drew Tewksbury: Lead us through the process. How did you find the spot, what was it like setting up?
Tanya Aguiñiga: The spot itself wasn't as important as like being able to get two spots. One to park the car, and one to weave in. I was thinking about this idea: if I pay for something, then it's mine. And so I thought "well, I don't think I'll get in trouble because I paid for it, so I'm legally its owner for an hour, if I pay for an hour, so I can do whatever I want there." That's how I thought I could get away with doing something in a really public place. But parking is so valuable parking in L.A.
Drew Tewksbury:Especially in Beverly Hills. So you bought the spot.
Tanya Aguiñiga: So we pulled up into the spots and then we paid for it, and then I thought I could actually get work done.
I spread out the blanket on the ground. I wanted to do it in one place that was super visible but I wanted to see how people would react to me if I was dressed in a very nondescript way.
Drew Tewksbury: When you sat down there and you laid down all the tools and everything, at first it looked like you were just someone working on the parking meter or something like that. Describe that process of for you, how did it feel from setting the stuff up, to finally putting the stuff together and beginning the weaving process?
Tanya Aguiñiga: It was super stressful.
Drew Tewksbury: Why?
Tanya Aguiñiga: Because I get really anal about actually doing work and getting stuff done and getting it done fast enough and it was taking a really long time just to set up. So I was really stressed out because I was just like, "I need to get to work," you know? And it was just people walking by and just the situation didn't seem like it was the best work environment and so I was really stressed out.
Drew Tewksbury: So you attached it to the parking meter?
Tanya Aguiñiga: I actually attached it to a palm tree.
I thought I was going to attach it to the parking meter but then the palm tree was just fatter and easier to work with so I attached it to the palm tree, which made it even funnier cause its like, you know, palm trees in Beverly Hills.
Drew Tewksbury: So, you sit down, you have it all going. Were you noticing people stopping or did people talk to you?
Tanya Aguiñiga: Yes, people were stopping and people were actually asking what I was doing and they were actually interested. It was funny that the YSL [security guard] was like, "oh, what are you doing?" and he was like, "oh, cool." It seemed like he was excited to see what was going to be the outcome of it. But it was pretty interesting that people were actually asking what I was doing and they were stopping to look. And some people, were I think kind of going out of their way to step over my stuff. Instead of going around, they would step into my workspace, which I thought was kind of weird.
Drew Tewksbury: It seemed like there was a lot of tourists too and that in some sense they were new to this spot that they, everything was so foreign to them that they didn't think it was weird.
Tanya Aguiñiga:Yeah. I think they probably thought it was part of some entertainment.
Drew Tewksbury: Then the cops showed up.
Tanya Aguiñiga: So, we're doing everything but I wasn't even able to do anything. I was still setting up. I mean it makes sense that, like in Chiapas when I was working with my weaving teacher, she wouldn't set it up and she wouldn't take it down. She would just roll it up and leave it there. So then I was like, okay you leave it up because it takes a while to set up, you know? Cause I was like, "shit man, I've been here 45 minutes and I can't even get this thing started." I couldn't get comfortable too because I was like, "dammit, I'm sitting on hot pavement and this kind of sucks." So, it took a little while to set it up and I didn't get to do anything and then the cops got there.
I don't think they even had any sirens or anything.
So then they came out and as soon as they came out, like I just wanted to kind of ignore them and try to get some work done but then they were really mad.
Drew Tewksbury: What did they say to you?
Tanya Aguiñiga: Well they said that I had to get all of my stuff and leave and that I wasn't allowed to be on the street and I said, "Well, I rented the space, I paid for the meter." And then they said, "no, you're not allowed to be on the street if you're not a car." They said that it was dangerous.
They wanted to write me a ticket if I didn't get my stuff together as fast as possible.
Drew Tewksbury: Is there a ticket for weaving in the street?
Tanya Aguiñiga: No. And they took the little thing out and they were like, "you better do this faster, I'm about to write you a ticket." But they felt bad though. They felt bad for me. Cause even one guy was like, "I know this is stupid. You should try it in L.A. County. I think they wouldn't care. This is Beverly Hills."
Then the helicopters came and looked at us. I was like, "oh my God, this is such bullshit."
Drew Tewksbury: Two cars and a helicopter.
Tanya Aguiñiga: Two cars and a helicopter. Yeah, like we weren't doing anything mean. It was just like a super benevolent activity. But I was pretty upset though that they didn't let me rent that spot, when I thought I had rented it.
Drew Tewksbury: Yeah. I mean you still had, 20 minutes.
Tanya Aguiñiga: I still had money in the meter.
It makes me not understand. They were like, "oh no, it's because you can get ran over, a car can park there and not see you." But then I was like, "what if I put cones up?"
Drew Tewksbury: Where'd you go next?
Tanya Aguiñiga: The cops, I think, were the ones that told us that there was a nice park. And they said, "go over to the nice park, nobody's going to mess with you there." I thought it would make a nice photo-op to go over there and to put on the traditional clothes and do it in a place that's full of tourists touristing. We went over there and the same thing. It took me awhile to set up and then as soon as I set up though, there was a little boy that came over. And he was asking what I was doing and then they were interested and the little boy wanted to help.
Drew Tewksbury: But his mom was like, "oh don't talk to her."
Tanya Aguiñiga: Yeah. his mom was like, "don't talk to her, she's doing something. Don't bother her," and so I was like, "no, no, no. What do you want to know? Do you want to help me?" And so that was cool cause that little boy was interested.
Drew Tewksbury: I thought that was super interesting because little kids don't have the knowledge of boundaries and the mom saw you doing this thing and stayed out of your boundaries. But kids don't get it and he just went over and talked to you.
Tanya Aguiñiga: It was interesting though that everybody tried their hardest to ignore me at that spot. Everybody tried really hard to ignore me.
Drew Tewksbury: Because there was people trying to get a photo.
Tanya Aguiñiga: They were all trying to take pictures with that Beverly Hills sign. But they wouldn't even look at me. That part was interesting that like on Rodeo, dressed like nothing, people felt like I was more approachable and then dressed in like performance stuff, and so it was interesting because it's like kind of how you feel when you go to an art gallery. Stuff becomes so much more formal and it makes you uncomfortable. So it was interesting just to see the people's reaction to that. And then they kept trying to not have me be in their pictures, too. so then I think they were really annoyed that I was in their pictures.
Drew Tewksbury: Yeah. Cause they had to come all this way and then you being in their shot.
Tanya Aguiñiga: There's like this random chick, in a crazy outfit, in their pictures.
Drew Tewksbury: I thought that made a really interesting social interaction where it broke the whole thing apart, where the tourists' interaction was, "we're going to go to this spot and this exchange will occur: I'm going to go to this spot, we're going to stand in front of this sign, then I'm going to get this photo." And having you there infused this whole level of chaos to it, where it was like they couldn't deal.
Tanya Aguiñiga: Yeah and they were super upset that I was ruining their pretty picture.