Have you ever wondered where does vandalism begin, and where does it end?
This is a question which has tormented the general public for a long time regarding various practices, including graffiti for more than half a century, to give you an example (art or vandalism?). Vandalism of art objects is not a new thing either (art on art or vandalism on art?). Actually, the very notion of vandalism comes to us from the art world. The term was first used in 1794 by Henri Grégoire, bishop of Blois, to describe the pillage and destruction of artworks in the course of the French Revolution. In fashion, though, we no longer speak of art when mentioning an aesthetic intervention on a garment, but of embellishment. Yet, the meaning remains the same. An embellishment, in textile- and needlework, is anything that adds design interest to a piece of clothing. That adds, not that removes. This is important for what lies ahead. However, the term “embellishment” has been used in so many different ways and contexts that there is a danger that it may begin to mean everything and nothing. So, what can be considered as an embellishment and what cannot?
From the French verb “embellir” (literally “to make beautiful”), the term refers to beauty, and so, by definition, to a subjective notion. Vandalism, in its turn, is systematically equated with violence which is also subjective. Yet, by this analogy, violence is reduced to the infringement of private property, the simple act of transgressing the liberal vision of the world which considers private property to be an inalienable, essential, absolute right and almost an organic extension of the individual. When, in fact, violence is not only damaged mailboxes or broken windows. It is much bigger and specific to each person. So, how to navigate between these two subjective concepts – beauty and violence? Where to draw the line (if a line is to be drawn, of course)?
If vandalism is the act of destroying, damaging, and thus removing something (dis-mantling), any act of adding something, as seen above, is de facto embellishment, right? However, can the two merge, overlay or simply cross? Can embellishment be considered as vandalism?1 And, conversely, can vandalism be considered as embellishment? Can it be a non-violent action? Can it be done with care?
On a more concrete level, is embroidering a distress message on a garment label vandalism or embellishment?2 I think we would all agree that a cry for help must never be ignored, discredited or even discussed. If violence is inflicted, victims’ voices must always be heard, without being put in a box. But what if the embroidery is done downstream?3 Vandalism or embellishment? To go further, is altering, in any way, new clothes in stores vandalism or embellishment? I mean, is it necessarily vandalism or can it be embellishment? And can we rather speak of sabotage, to group together these two intersecting abstractions? Can we speak of emancipatory sabotage?4
I would like to tell you a little about myself. Repair is my form of resistance. Taking care of clothes is my way of taking care of people. People who made these clothes, people who wear them, people who, without even having seen them in their lifetime, (will) suffer the consequences these clothes (will) have caused on our planet (through their production, their use or their disposal). Accordingly, I repair – with no distinction – all clothes with holes, whose path I cross, even the ones in stores. I repair the latter ones in changing rooms, before putting them back on display. I allow myself to heal them, because they are truly injured. Because they have been inflicted with unconsented wounds. My practice, though, can be perceived as totally unproductive. And that is alright. I basically do a profitless work. I play, I trick, I hack. I “do the wig” (”fais la perruque”), in the terms developed by Michel de Certeau, amongst others.5 Without asking permission, I undermine the very notion of ownership and get us closer to the commons.6 Without waiting to be asked, I make an offering and pave the road with my cobble towards a money-free world and a gift economy. On my scale, I help the narrative to get changed. The days of ripped jeans are over. Today, the resistance wears repaired clothes.
Neither vandalism nor embellishment, repair is, therefore, one of my many small but radical acts of sabotage. But should it not become common practice for everyone? Should we not all disobey? Should we not all desacralize the products of Modernity and dare to alter the nature of so-called immutable things, the ones that are believed will never change? Should we not all sabotage? In his book Comment saboter un pipeline, the Swedish author and lecturer in human ecology, Andreas Malm, asks us naively: “The Berlin Wall, we didn’t bring it down by caressing the cement, did we?”7 And he reminds us that “slavery was not abolished by conscientious white people gently disassembling the institution.”8 Radical acts of sabotage were needed. Only placed end-to-end, they enabled emancipatory alternatives to emerge.
It is now our turn to desperately need radical acts of sabotage, as small as they may be. Our house is on fire. And everything is just fine. We are facing with a collapsing world that has entered a drastically uncertain era. But at the same time, we are facing with a general lack of action in response to planetary meltdown. So, to counter mass apathy, we do need to re-engage with sabotage. “In the context of the climate emergency, [sabotage] is simultaneously a logical, justifiable and effective form of resistance.”9 We need to embrace sabotage today, at least, to shift the Overton window.10 To make it clear that nothing can be taken for granted anymore. To make it acceptable that our civilization is certainly doomed to change into makers, repairers, cleaners, assemblers, constructors, as illustrated in the science fictions of Octavia Estelle Butler.11 To make it thinkable that we have the power to drive change. Even a little.
I usually call for people surrounding me to get out of the binary, out of this or that. Not to be only consumers or only producers. But to be both and neither of them at the same time. I call for them to produce in the place, where they have consumed. And vice versa. I call for them to change the narrative. However, I always try to remind them as much as myself, borrowing the apt words found by the French essayist and ecologist Pierre Rabhi, that “we [actually] have to respond to our true vocation, which is not to produce and consume without end, but to love, admire and take care of life in all its forms.”12 So, to a radical call for love, over production and consumption, we need to respond with a more radical love. And if we rely on the assumption that there is no love, but that there are only proofs of love, then we need to respond with more radical acts of love.
Mikhail Rojkov’s video: Wanna be a fashion doctor my friend? published on Tik Tok:
- In other words, can embellishment be considered as infringement of the integrity of the garment itself, but also of the environment and the garment workers’ dignity and health? Because the following collateral question arises: how to understand the so-called embellishment that consists of removing matter from newly produced clothes (bleaching, sandblasting, tearing), as in the case of ripped jeans? It goes without saying that the practices involved are destructive on all levels.
- Here, I refer to messages hidden in clothes by garment workers. They were intended to warn the consumers about the deplorable working conditions upstream. See, for example: Susanna Rustin, “This cry for help on a Primark label can’t be ignored,” The Guardian [online], June 25, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/25/primark-label-swansea-textile-industry-rana-plaza (accessed March 14, 2022). Or, later on: Associated Press, “Unpaid Turkish Garment Workers Tag Zara Items to Seek Help”, November 3, 2017, https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/unpaid-turkish-garment-workers-tag-zara-items-to-seek-help/ (accessed March 14, 2022).
- Indeed, some of the tagged labels appeared to be hoaxes and/or consumer-to-consumer awareness campaigns: Scarlett Kilcooley-O’Halloran, “UPDATE: Primark Concludes Labels Were A Hoax,” Vogue [online], June 27, 2014, https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/primark-conclude-exhausting-hours-label-hoax (accessed March 14, 2022).
- Emancipatory sabotage leads us to a positive or affirmative sabotage. Affirmative Sabotage was first theorized by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Indian literary postcolonial theorist, feminist critic, and professor of comparative literature. In 2020, the concept of affirmative sabotage has been taken up by two researchers, self-described saboteurs, Miriam Yosef and Thu Hoài Tran, and crystallised in the form of The Institute for Affirmative Sabotage (IAS). The saboteurs explain, relying on Spivak’s work, affirmative sabotage by critical-performative acts of disruption and dismantling power structures. “Instead of systematic destruction, affirmative sabotage relies on the fact that it is possible and necessary after all to appropriate instruments and theories of hegemonic discourses for critical intervention.” To find out more, see: https://affirmativesabotage.org/en/manifesto/.
- The French word “perruque” designates the use of materials and tools by a worker, in the workplace and during working hours, for the purpose of making an object outside the normal production of the enterprise: Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien, tome 1 : Arts de faire (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 43-49. The precise English equivalent is a “homer”. See: Michel Anteby “La « perruque » en usine : approche d’une pratique marginale, illégale et fuyante,” Sociologie du travail 45, no.4 (2003): 453–471.
- The commons are the cultural or the natural resources that a community decides to treat as a shared wealth. The commons imply that property is not conceived as an appropriation or a privatization but as a use. Yet, there is no commons without commoning (the process of community participation). Indeed, commons are managed and maintained collectively by the community, which establishes rules with the aim of preserving and perpetuating these resources, while providing its members with the possibility and the right to use them, or even, if the community so decides, by granting this right to all. The concept of commons is raised today as a viable alternative to capitalism that puts human wellbeing and the planet above profit.
- Andreas Malm, Comment saboter un pipeline, translated by Etienne Dobenesque (Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 2020), 128.
- Ibid., 50.
- Ibid., 85.
- The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is an allegory that locates the set of ideas, opinions, practices and policies considered politically acceptable in the public opinion of a society at a given time. Forged in the 1990s and developed by liberal lobbyists, the concept first defined the spectrum of what can be said within a society before becoming a tool for changing standards. Since its conception, it has not lost popularity and is still much used today in politics and rhetoric.
- See, for example: Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
- Christophe Chenebault, Impliquez-vous ! 101 actions solidaires et écolos pour un monde meilleur (Paris: Eyrolles, 2011).