In Focus: Cat Mazza's "Knit for Defense"

Stills from Cat Mazza’s animation Knit for Defense
Cat Mazza (2008 Film/Video) celebrates the premiere of her Creative Capital-supported project, Knit for Defense, in the exhibition 40 Under 40: Craft Futures at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition, which opens Friday, July 20, features forty artists born since 1972, the year the Renwick Gallery was established.
Knit for Defense is an animation at the intersection of craft, labor and combat, exploring the aesthetics of war in film through an experimental visualization of knit stitches. Working with sound designer Jesse Stiles, Mazza drew on archival footage, historical artifacts, and sounds from knitting machines and textile processes to create Knit for Defense, threading together footage from World War II, Vietnam and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when wartime knitting was in practice. In the resulting animation, knit motifs of tanks, planes, ships and drones animate a cinema of combat, reflecting on war from a pixelated distance. I spoke to Cat to learn more about the development of this project and her upcoming premiere:
Jenny Gill:  How did the idea for this project (looking at knitting as part of the war effort) develop?
Cat Mazza:  I was doing a presentation with my friend Sabrina Gschwandtner at St. Lawrence University in 2006. It was three years into Bush’s war when those yellow ribbon magnets were viral on the highways. During lunch the curatorial staff told us about a wartime knitting project called “Operation Homefront” that they were participating in. Military families organized a collection of knitted helmet liners for American troops stationed in Iraq. I had seen knitted garments like this in old knitting magazines my grandmother gave me, including one called Knit for Defense that was printed in 1941. These pattern books had knit instructions for military balaclavas and things like “Convalescent Knits” with amputee cozies and lap blankets and “Marksman Gloves” to accommodate right-handed trigger fingers.
That led to my research and an anti-war knitting initiative called Stitch for Senate and collecting moving-images of combat during wars when knitting was popular. These things all folded into the idea for the animation Knit for Defense.
Jenny:  It seems that many of the artists in the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibition are creating work in or about craft media using digital processes. Can you talk about the process and technology you used to create the Knit for Defense animation in that context?
Cat:  I work with a custom program called Knitoscope to create animations. The program is based on the open-source freeware and knit pattern program knitPro that’s hosted on my website Knitoscope builds on the concept of image to stitch but is an application for moving images. Knitoscope builds on knitPro’s concept of image to stitch but is an application for moving images. I developed it in 2005 as a grad student and it was programmed in C with Quicktime and OpenGL by Shawn Lawson. Basically I hand- or machine-knit a swatch, scan individual stitches into a database and then the program will generate a stitch in correlation to the video’s RGB. The final video is threaded together with multiple programs based on source footage from World War II, the Vietnam War and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know what to expect from the other work in Craft Futures, but it’s exciting that so many different craft and digital practices are represented.

Cat Mazza interview about Knit for Defense, for the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibition

Jenny:  Your work looks at the practice of knitting through a socio-political lens. Do you see a trend towards political commentary and social practice in contemporary craft media?
Cat:  In 2003 when I launched knitPro I had this fantasy of mobilizing craft hobbyists against the exploitation and feminization of labor in the global garment industry. At the time it seemed like these movements (new media/craft/labor) were barely connected. Now I see these components in many artists work looking back and at present. To me what’s powerful about traditional craft practices is the labor involved; whether it’s done by an individual or as a collective. Contemporary art that draws upon these practices often tries to capture that symbolic resonance. Understanding why there seems to be a rise in handcraft during war, as well as a time of sweeping technology, may help us understand its social implications and cultural appeal.
Jenny:  How has Creative Capital’s support, financial or otherwise, helped move the Knit for Defense project along and bring it to fruition?
Cat:  For me what is truly rare and special about Creative Capital is the funding of basic project needs like studio costs, research travel and equipment as well as providing a network of peers and professionals who help problem solve through the many phases of a creative project. Like many of the grantees I am overwhelmed by the generosity of funding and the multiple ways Creative Capital gives individual support. Knit for Defense would be a very different project without the support of Creative Capital. I was honored to receive it and I think it gave me the will to take my time and make the work I really hoped to make.
Knit for Defense will be on view in 40 Under 40: Craft Futures at Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, from July 20, 2012 – February 3, 2013.

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