- alchemic research of Fashion, Photography and Social Therapy.
MerimetsanAlchemy took place at the Merimetsa rehabilitation centre in Tallinn, Estonia in May 2006. As a participatory fashion and social therapy project it aimed at intersecting value production from fashion with manifold hands-on therapy work, replacing some of the sweatshop like production processes at the centre. The endeavor was a reflection of both inner and outer change and the process took form in the shape of garments and photographs.
Part one of MerimetsanAlchemy , the RE_TALLiation project, began in spring 2004 as an intervention probing fashion as a tool for social work rehabilitation. The one-month long collaborative work took place at the rehab center Merimetsa in Tallinn, Estonia. The aim was to blend fashion production values with social work rehabilitation hence adding fashion value to the textiles sewn in the Merimetsa workshop. This shows how the "shallow" values of fashion could socially enrich the therapy work at Merimetsa. The project was an open call to suggestions and customization in all steps of production, from co-design and production to customer service improvements as well as fashion shootings at the rehab center. The project's garment collection went on sale in a local fashion store and was sold out immediately.
The purpose of both these projects, MerimetsanAlchemy and RE_TALLiation, was to update the existing modus operandi of production into a new format, a new process of operation, and make it run in another way. The idea was not a forced social experiment but a small-scale local gesture. These projects were a search for a magic intersection between social therapy, empowerment and fashion for both workers and garments at Merimetsa.
MerimetsanAlchemy, as part two of this project furthers the exploration of intersecting the polyphonic fashion system with rehab production. This time the strategy was to widen the interface between production situation and the consumer, not through a mimetic approach to fashion photography, but by respectful documentation of the work in Merimetsa. Instead of compromising with the aesthetics and modes of production from fashion this step aimed at deepening the social therapy work with fashion as an alchemic tool .
To understand both fashion and alchemy we must relate these practices to a concept with which they are both deeply entwined; the concept of myth . Fashion and alchemy are both usually seen as unserious practices with neither the social value of the fine arts nor the accuracy of the exact sciences. But myth is neither the opposite of science, nor is it a deception or untrue image of the world. Myths are the powerful imaginative fabrics we weave our world with. Myth does not veil reality but makes it visible, and just like fashion we live our lives inside it. It wraps the world with a holistic threadwork; not fragmenting the world into atomized and isolated data but weaving the narratives of the world into visible and tangible shapes.
Though generally regarded as shallow and ephemeral, fashion is one of the strongest myths in contemporary society. Fashion can be regarded as another layer of the world, relating to deeper transformations in the human lived experience.
The world of fashion does not claim to access an eternal truth, and does not exist in the same time frame as science. To better understand this we can examine the concept of time, which according to ancient Greeks was two-folded; Chronos and Kairos . Modern science has emerged from the concept of Chronos , time as sequential duration and linear cause and effect relationships. The chronological time is a quantitative mode of measurement, and what we today have as a main concept of time - the time we can measure. Suffering can be chronic, but passion can never be. Both passion and fashion lives within Kairos , the momentary and the undetermined special occasion, the passing instant of density and depth where opportunity and life is exposed. It is the time of the "carpe diem", the energy of the very "now" and of being in the flow - in the zeitgeist . Fashion is one with its zeitgeist , and cannot be visible outside it. When brought to the world where Chronos is exposed, to science, the archive or museum, fashion is just a dead skin. Perhaps a well tailored piece of clothing, but without life and social form.
To say that "fashion is to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else" might sound true from a chronological perspective, but misses all magic of the vivid occasion and the passion of the moment.
With its connection to the life of the passing instant, fashion is always deeply connected to change and transformations. Not only the transformation of form/garment, what we usually regard as fashion, but the deeper change of our dreams, aims and behaviors - elements our identity is made of. Fashion is a myth of the moment, taking shape as our second skins through which we live in the world.
Alchemy is the practice engaging the transmutation of matter and should not be misunderstood as a new age revival of healing, mysticism and astrology. Instead it is the methodic search for inner change symbolized by outer transformations. The medieval experiments of turning lead into gold were mere symbolic acts of a larger task; turning sinful soul to higher spirit. Understanding alchemy as this deeper journey can make us see how fashion can act as a symbol of inner change.
MerimetsanAlchemy was a project processing the hope of inner and social change through highlighting a possible intersection of fashion and therapy. Alchemy has always been a practice collecting curiosities, opening viable passages into the unknown. But it has never been an aimless meandering. Instead it has been a vivid quest of spirituality through various means. As mentioned by French scholar of esoterism Antoine Faivre, alchemy is "both a way of life and an exercise of vision." In its dynamic quest for transmutation of matter and spirit, alchemy has through history been working with the actualization of the possible. The possible in this case is not a linear extrapolation from the actuality of here and now. The possible is also not "the shadow of reality", as Wittgenstein believes is philosophy's greatest misunderstanding. Instead reality is a shadow of the possible.
This is a position of hope and of empowerment. The possible is at hand, and we can form it and give it shape. It is a position where things are open for change and where the imaginable is in fluid form, ready to transform and crystallize into reality.
During the process a design format of co-authorship was explored. The clients were modeling their garments in their working environment, supported by colleagues and tutors. The clients and producers were through every production step of the garment adding a layer of analogue presence with their fingerprints on the garment label, bearing the name of Merimetsa.
Also the inspiration for the embroidery patterns were created at Merimetsa through inspiration from painting classes and discussions. Metaphoric motives like a "ship of dreams" were to be a vehicles for a shared journey through collaborative working processes. All crafty initiatives from the inventive people at Merimetsa.
The project was done by Sirja-Liisa Vahtra, Diana Lui and Otto together with the fantastic people at Merimetsa in May 2006.
Catalogue [pdf] from exhibition at HOP gallery, Tallinn, June-July 2007
MerimetsanAlchemy Pattern and Embroidery School [pdf] A0 format