Ghost-Stitching American Politics

@tinypricksproject and Memorialising Trump’s Words in Thread

How to Cite

Wallace, C. V. (2023). Ghost-Stitching American Politics: @tinypricksproject and Memorialising Trump’s Words in Thread. M/C Journal, 26(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2935
Vol. 26 No. 6 (2023): thread
Published 2023-11-26
Feature

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, feminist and online craft communities responded with a call to arms (or needles) aimed at resistance through collective action in thread, yarn, and textiles. One such project, Diana Weymar’s Tiny Pricks Project, records the incessant barrage of Trump’s media coverage: tweets, journalist reportage, and statements in stitched thread. Weymar started Tiny Pricks Project on 8 January 2018, stitching the 45th President’s bluster of a 6 January tweet, “I AM A VERY STABLE GENIUS”, in yellow thread across a field of tapestry flowers. Issuing an invitation for contributions from stitchers around the world, Weymar accrued a vast archive of over 5,000 individual textile works which transform political rhetoric into thread. Although the project has been exhibited in its material form in galleries around the United States (particularly in the lead-up to the 2020 election), its primary display is online, where the textured and tactile objects are imaged and uploaded to Instagram. Drawing on the associations of a medium associated with intimacy and femininity, @tinypricksproject traces Trump’s presidency, rejecting the immediacy of the 24-hour media cycle with careful, time-consuming stitching that bears the imprint of its makers.

As an attempt to reshape Trump’s violent utterances as a material symbol of resistance, Tiny Pricks Project has a close parallel in the bright pink hand-knitted “pussyhats” that became the symbol of the 2017 Women’s March. With a pattern distributed online through platforms such as Ravelry and sold on online marketplaces such as Etsy, the Pussyhat Project exemplifies the ambitions of twentyfirst-century craftivism, that “creativity can be a catalyst for change” (Greer, 183), but also the neoliberal commodification of these ideals. The contested legacy of the Pussyhat Project, lauded as a means of participatory politics but criticised for the whiteness and transphobic essentialism of its chosen symbol, demonstrates the challenges in harnessing craft as collective activism (Black), and suggests the need for individualised, responsive ways of connecting politics and hand-making. The same phrase that inspired the Pussyhats, Trump’s recording of 2005 admitting sexual assault (“They let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”) also appears across the Tiny Pricks Project as an embroidered text where it performs a very different role. In contrast to the performative use of knitted projects as a garment to wear in action, Weymar describes Tiny Pricks Project as a “stitched material record” and as “testimony”. Both acts, of stitching and posting, are acts of memory-making and communication, and as such, the cumulative posts of Tiny Pricks Project function as a feminist vernacular temporary memorial. Initially focussed exclusively on Trump, the project has expanded in both territory (with a dedicated Tiny Pricks Project UK) and politically to encompass direct statements of opposition. The intimacy and history of needlework in Tiny Pricks Project punctures distance, drawing the violence of Trump’s political rhetoric (against women, immigrants, the disabled, and the vulnerable) into a direct, affective contact with the bodies of stitchers and viewers.

This article proposes the contact of Tiny Pricks Project as a form of haunting, where threads pierce through memories of the past and bodies in the present. Embroiderers have a term for stitching which follows a pattern from the other side – ghost stitching – allowing for the thread to create a pattern which is elsewhere but not visible, a tracing through to the inverse and across multiple layers of textile. To consider threads as conveying presence recognises the powerful affective charge of stitching. As Roszika Parker asserts in her influential work of feminist art history, The Subversive Stitch, “embroiderers … transform materials to produce sense” (6), making complex embodied meaning through thread and fabric. A digital ghost stitch, the tracing of online content in needlework that records the sense of its maker, which is then reposted elsewhere, draws out the affective quality of the material that “pricks” the user. Ghosts here are defined through the work of Avery Gordon, where they are “that special instance of the merging of the visible and the invisible, the dead and the living, the past and the present” (25). In their production of material effects, ghosts are the manifestation of haunting, which for Gordon is a particular form of mediation that breaks down distance:

in haunting, organized forces and systemic structures that appear removed from us make their impact felt in everyday life in a way that confounds our analytic separations and confounds the social separations themselves. (19)

A ghost stitch, then, is the specific quality of stitched thread in a digital post to puncture mediatised politics, drawing together otherwise invisible bodies and histories.

To draw out the haunted nature of thread this article locates the affective quality of the stitched politics of Tiny Pricks Project in the context of contemporary memorial cultures, rather than the field of craftivism or digital activism. Focussing on the histories and politics of needlework, I begin by understanding the material use of thread and stitching in Tiny Pricks Project as a connection to intimate forms of memory-making, specifically American traditions of quilting. I then locate the specific form of @tinypricksproject, cumulative posts on Instagram in response and reaction to historical events, as a form of vernacular memorial that punctures the screen with the presence of stitchers, framing this discussion in relationship to new forms of public memory-making in both public spaces and online. Finally, I consider the combination of these forms, threaded stitches and digital memorials, as a “ghost stitch” that “pricks” me when I scroll through the feed, forcing an embodied relationship with its haunted political texts.  

The stitched thread has a powerful emotional charge that intimately traces the body, through the gestural mark of a hand, and evokes memory, through a connection to family heirlooms and domestic material culture. This nostalgic embodiment is exploited in the material form of Tiny Pricks Project, where Trump’s words in are stitched into vintage textiles, such as lace-edged napkins or printed children’s handkerchiefs, each carrying sentimental associations. Items of clothing sometimes appear as the support – as Trump’s response to the 2019 Senate inquiry that “I did nothing wrong” stitched in red on the front of a child’s dress decorated with red, white, and blue ric-rac and stars. The technical skill on display varies across the project, but most text is rendered in simple back stitch, creating a punctuated and punctured line that wobbles and reveals its handmade quality. Weymar’s own hand is evident in the use of bold, block lettering, often layered over tapestry – such in a repeat of “I AM A VERY STABLE GENIUS” in blue and yellow thread stitched over a stag tapestry by her grandmother. Some have the addition of more elaborative embroidered imagery or applique in the form of anachronistic illustrations and decorative motifs. Whilst information on individual panels (the stitcher, the source of the quote, and sometimes an account of the work’s production) is available in the Instagram caption in the feed and tag, each individual painstakingly stitched post is understood in relationship to the surrounding images.

The combination of the individual panels of repurposed fabric of Tiny Pricks Project evokes the iconic American form of the patchwork quilt that pieces together textiles with their own histories and memories to make new form that is both fragmented and connected. On @tinyprickproject the visual similarity to a quilt is striking, as an image of each textile panel is joined to the next via Instagram’s gridded interface. In the individualised feeds of the account’s followers, each Tiny Pricks Project post is stitched together with other algorithmically selected images, generating a unique piecing together of politics with the personal, as a digital quilt. Although the image of quilting in the popular imagination remains dominated by images of white femininity (as in the 1996 film How to Make an American Quilt), quilts have historically also been a site of expression and memory-making for bodies otherwise effaced in American culture. The tradition of Black quilting, for example, has a complicated history, as bell hooks describes, where quilts were produced out of basic material need but were also a powerful form of aesthetic expression. Remembering her grandmother’s quilting, hooks identifies the way that the reuse of the family’s tattered and worn clothing in crazy quilts results in “bits and pieces of my mama’s life, held and contained there” (121). Peter Stallybrass similarly articulates the powerful communication of presence and absence of using worn garments for quilting, where “a network of cloth can trace the connection of love across the boundaries of absence, of death, because cloth is able to carry the absent body, memory, genealogy” (36-37). In their material and form, quilts have a powerful connection to memories outside dominant narratives as an assertion of the bodies who laboured on them, those bodies whose worn garments have been transformed into pattern, and the bodies they symbolically cover.

This quality of intimacy, memory, and embodiment has a political potentiality, as exploited in the cumulative, community NAMES project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Founded by Cleve Jones and first displayed in 1987 in Washington D.C., each individual panel approximates the size of a body (or coffin) and is stitched with the name and memory of someone lost in the AIDS crisis. In its public display through the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the panels spread out on the ground in public spaces, AIDS quilts (both the original NAMES project and subsequent localised versions around the world) controversially drew individual memory into public politics, deploying feeling as a form of activism. At the height of AIDS crisis, Queer art theorist and ACT UP member Douglas Crimp, for example, positioned the spectacle of mourning in opposition to militancy, where “public mourning rituals may of course have their own political force, but they nevertheless often seem, from an activist perspective, indulgent, sentimental, defeatist” (5). Countering this position, Peter Hawkins argued that the quilt “made intimacy its object; it has enabled quite private reality (sometimes sentimental and homey, sometimes kinky and erotic) to ‘come out’ in public” (770), a powerful personification of social and political ambitions. The recent digitisation of the 50,000 panels of the quilt on the National AIDS Memorial Website makes more direct the connect between the intimate feeling of mourning and the “stitching” ability of digital memory.

Beyond the specific form of the quilt, on a broader social level the nostalgic quality of Tiny Pricks Project’s accumulation of hand-stitched textiles draws together the past and the present. The rise of craft culture is underpinned by online platforms (including Instagram) that have facilitated DIY and craftivist communities, where historical material processes such as knitting, crocheting, needlework, and sewing provide powerful affective and political points of connection. Addressing the relationship of contemporary artists working in textiles to the economic, political, and social context of globalised late capitalism, Kirsty Robertson argues that such works are “haunted by their passages through time and space”, specifically the “ghosts of textile artists and workers” (195). This connection to bodies across history is wrapped up in the materiality and gestural process of needlework. These are the ghosts of those whose presence is rendered invisible in twentyfirst-century deindustrialised countries, where textile industries have largely disappeared and where feminism has fundamentally changed the ubiquity of domestic crafts in the home. Their return, either in art or the “hobby” sphere, carries both a radical political legacy and a complicated nostalgic charge. In the context of the United States, a further material trace in the stitched and embroidered works of Tiny Pricks Project is in the fibres of the materials themselves, in the bleached history of cotton’s brutal past that connects enslavement and contemporary capitalism (Beckert). The threads of handmade embroidery, quilt, and woven crafts move across time, as art historian Julia Bryan Wilson argues:

textiles warp between the past and the present: relentlessly recruited for pressing contemporary concerns they are also tasked with reminding us of, and are often pulled back to, the traditions from which they sprung. (261)

Ironically, then, the popularity of online textile and needlecraft projects such as Tiny Pricks Project can then be mapped alongside the rhetoric of Trump’s populist “recruitment” of America’s industrial history (Making America Great Again) as an emotive “pull” to an imagined past within contemporary politics more broadly (Kenny). This deployment of sentimentality untethered from facts is one part of what Lauren Berlant described as the “noise” of Trump, the concentration of feeling as the substance of his politics:

Trump is sound and fury and garble. Yet—and this is key—the noise in his message increases the apparent value of what’s clear about it. The ways he’s right seem more powerful, somehow, in relief against the ways he’s blabbing.

Rather than communicating a political messaging, Trump’s bluster exemplifies a mediatised politics that has taken on the logic of social media and 24-hour news cycles, fragmenting and dissipating attention (Crary). The disconnection of noisy mediatised politics makes it always just in the past, endlessly present in its digital archive, but evasive in its meaning.

Tiny Pricks Project is just one example of drawing affective attention to Trump’s words through this same medium, recontextualising them as an act of memorial-making. Certain key quotes are recovered again and again in different hands alongside “I am a very stable genius” and “grab ‘em by the pussy”. Some are ironic, such as  “I know words, I have the best words” (from a speech about Barack Obama in 2015) and “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” (a tweet in 2019); but many capture the most misogynist and racist records of Trump’s speech including “Nasty Woman” (directed at Hillary Clinton in 2016); and “send her back” (a rally chant about Ilhan Omar, 2019). Embroidering Trump’s tweets and soundbites into material form, then preserving these on a digital wall for all to see, Tiny Pricks Project appropriates into thread the American tradition of hagiographic presidential monuments that immortalise political actors through their speech made material. Across Washington D.C., epigraphs are carved into stone and cast in steel, as at the Lincoln Memorial (1922), which fixes its subject’s meaning in historical place with select quotations that evade the mention of slavery. The dominance of these forms of monument to America’s past efface the complex racial violence of the country’s past, as Kirk Savage has argued, and it is only when encountered with living bodies that this becomes legible again as in the iconic use of the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech (1963). Indicative of a shift in the culture of memory-making and memorials, this visible contest between vulnerable bodies and symbols of state power played out during Trump’s administration in sites across the country, most notably at Charlottesville in 2017, where conflict over the fate of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue boiled over into fatal white supremacist violence.

Tiny Prick Project’s function as a collectively generated memorial is part of this broader cultural shift: what Erica Doss has described as America’s “memorial mania”, an explosion in fragmentary memory-making where an ever-growing number of official monuments are joined by individualised commemoration and contestation. Inscribing Trump’s words on repurposed materials, Tiny Pricks Project reshapes presidential monuments through the aesthetics of temporary memorials. Examples such as the spontaneous memorials around the city of New York in the wake of September 11 and mementos left in the chain fence near the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site “embod[y] the faith that Americans place in things to negotiate complex moments and events” (Doss, 71). Such memorials rely upon stable and commodified ideas of identity such as teddy bears and American flags to assert the “comfort culture” (Sturken, Tourists of History, 6) of American consumerism in the midst of trauma and loss. This has created a visual lexicon for traumatic events that is predicated on the accumulation of the mundane and everyday of material culture.

In the sheer scale of posts on the @tinypricksproject Instagram feed the effect is of a cumulative vernacular memorial where the stitched posts accrue over time like mementoes on a wall, each with an affective connection both individual and collective. In many ways the process of memory-making online mirrors the assertion of presence on physical sites, most directly in the convergence of selfies and social media posts at memorial sites: what Kate Douglas describes as “dark selfies” where the act of photographing and sharing is a form of witnessing that locates the self in relationship to the past. Like temporary memorials, on platforms such as Instagram the emphasis is on individualised traces of memories constituted through a shared use of a platform and set of recognisable imagery. The participatory function of digital culture connects memory to identity and communication, through “mediated memories”: media theorist José van Dijck’s term for "the activities and objects we produce and appropriate by means of media technology for creating and re-creating a sense of past, present, and future of ourselves in relation to others” (21). The specific agency of Instagram to hold memory (a capacity built into functionality such as “on this day” or “Memories” features) casts all its posts into memory, but with the potential to return as “mediatised ghosts to haunt participants” (Garde-Hansen et al., 6).

There is a distancing effect facilitated by the mediation of digital memory, a re-directing of absence into the presence of participation in social media consumption, echoing the participatory consumption of memorial culture more broadly. As Martin Pogačar argues, digital memorials online facilitate the “exteriorization of intimate and affective … practices of memory and remembering”, but he claims there is still a subversive potential here, “to elude these constraints by negotiating and revising the institutionalized forms and canons of memory and remembering” (33). Similarly, despite official intentions or commoditisation, physical memorials are also sites of feeling that can rupture any containment: they are “haunted” as Marita Sturken describes in her analysis of the Ground Zero Memorial in New York as an official memorial that cannot “contain the ghosts that live there” (“Containing Absence”, 314). In her analysis, Sturken is drawing on Gordon, who argues that haunting has the capacity to produce counter-memory by allowing for unexpected and potentially contradictory connections to be formed that challenge official structures. For Sturken it is the direct embodied trace of individual experience, such as recordings of victims’ voices, that is the ghost here.  

The difference between the official, intended meaning of a memorial and the haunted counter-memory is akin to the distinction between Roland Barthes’s studium and punctum in a photograph. Where the studium is the communication of conventionalised forms of meaning across a surface, the punctum pierces the viewer’s body, it is “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27). The “prick” of the punctum is, in the context of haunted memorials, the ghost making its presence felt as a material impact. The “prick” of the stitched thread in the posts of Tiny Pricks Project is a similar form of haunting, a ghost stitch that allows direct feeling through in the externalised context of mediatised politics and digital memory as followers scroll and touch each post in close and intimate contact or see the works exhibited in a gallery. As Weymar has said of the project as a site of feeling, “if you can stay present long enough to read what he’s saying, you will become politically active. You will feel a sense of urgency” (Chernick).  

With its ironic use of nostalgia, the ghost stitch of the Tiny Prick Project posts also punctures through contemporary political rhetoric, exposing the artifice and contradictions of sentimentality for an American past. Instead, Tiny Pricks Project proposes a counter-memorial of Trump’s presidency. A counter-memory of stitched thread runs through American political history, and when introduced to the space of digital memory this thread has a capacity to “prick” by bringing with it an affective connection to the familiar, intimate, and embodied presence distinct to hand-stitching. Defying the fragmentary nature of digital culture, thread sutures and connects, but also punctures and pierces, bringing together but also allowing points of escape. Considering Tiny Pricks Project as an example of digital ghost stitching opens up possibilities for the active role of thread as a way to “prick” the viewer and pull through connections across and between bodies and social systems as a form of political resistance.

References

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Author Biography

Caroline Veronica Wallace, La Trobe University

Caroline V. Wallace is a Lecturer in Visual Art at La Trobe University. With a background as a textile artist and art historian, her research focuses on the complex relationship between artists and politics, focusing on the looking at way that cultures of display contribute to ideas of gender, class and race. She publishes on American art and activism, with a particular interest in museum activism and feminist interventions in monument culture and public history.