Film As Thread

Mary Stark uses visual art and sound to shed light on the history of women laborers in the sewing and film industries, and the connection of the two industrious crafts.


If you travel north of Manchester, England to the semi-rural town of Rossendale, you’ll find textile and performance artist Mary Stark. Mary lives and works on a former working farm, which now operates as a communal living space for her young family of three, and sister-in-law’s family of four. Not every family in the area has taken an old dairy farm and converted it into darkroom, but that’s what Mary has done. “I am most happy when I can expose film in the darkroom, hand process, edit, and project it all in the same space,” she almost too-casually explains.

And Mary’s sense of and appreciation for space seems to make its way into her work as well: from 2012 to 2016, her performances were held in a former cotton machinery and garment works warehouse. Her work explores both the region’s deep-seated industrial history and her own: Mary descends from a long line of needlewomen and cotton workers. In fact, the women in her family played a large part in her choice to study embroidery at university. “My family’s history of work with textiles brings richness to the work I’m doing now.”

While studying embroidery, however, and also pursued degrees in photography—and quickly started exploring their connection, especially as regards film. “I held the string of tiny photographs in my hand up to the light and thought: This is fabric. My immediate urge was to cut and weave film into fabric,” Mary says, “video editing is similar to cutting and stitching cloth.” In fact, it was originally thought to be menial labor and a women’s job and inherited much of its terminology from textile practice: to cut, spool, wind and lace film in the projector.

Currently, Mary is pursuing a practice-based PhD of her performance piece, ‘Film As Fabric’, which is a combination of visuals and sounds used to reveal the history of the tactile art of sewing and it’s connection to film in various ways. In the performance, you’ll see her do things like show photochemical film as a sculptural reflective fabric, measured and worn on the body and cut with scissors, then stitched on the sewing machine. She also edits film live in order to call attention to the now obsolete industrial practice of linear film editing.

She also will puncture film loops with the unthreaded sewing machine needle at different intervals to create a range of ‘stitched’ rhythms. In fact, the “optical sound” has become an increasingly important part of the performances themselves and recorded versions are now for sale.

Overall, Mary seems to thematically concern herself with those who are unseen, from female factory workers to early film editors to the artist herself. “I now often make performances with sound because it is a way to demand attention and my live active presence is an important part of the work.”

But how anyone could miss this is truly hard to tell.

Rebekah FinkComment