Scarlet

SCARLET | “Then the angel carried me away in the Sprit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.”

In the Book of Revelations (17:3), in a typically apocalyptic part of the Judaeo- Christian Bible, this is the scarlet Whore of Babylon. The colour itself denotes, a slightly orange red colour often seen as the colour of fresh blood, and the word comes from the Persian ‘sarqilat’ which gives it the heathen connotation that the Whore carried with her. One account has her symbolizing pagan, pre- Christian Rome, but ironically in the 13th century it was declared to be the colour of the cassock, and choir cassock of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. The switch from purple may have had to do with the expense of Tyrian purple, or the whittling away of its production in Constantinople and therefore have been a pragmatic decision to switch to a not quite so expensive dye colour which nevertheless had a certain exclusivity and lustre. Retrospectively, as the colour of blood it is said to symbolize the willingness of cardinals to lay down their lives for their faith, but a fresh irony was also produced in that a whole range of fundamentalist Protestant Christians refer to the Roman Catholic Church itself as the “scarlet whore of Rome.”

Outside of theological schism the ‘scarlet woman’ has maintained its Whorish association connected to ‘loose morals’ and/or prostitution. This did not however, have any literal impact on Sumptuary Laws as they related to prostitution. In some places such women were banned from wearing high fashion garments; in others they could wear clothes prohibited to respectable women. In Ancient Greece it was only prostitutes who could wear embroidered robes. In Zurich and Hamburg they did have to wear scarlet headwear, but in other places like Mantua and Parma they were required to cover their dress with a while cloak whereas in Milan it was black, and in Vienna, Seville, Venice, Bergamo and Leipzig various forms of yellow cloth were insisted on.

It is in more Puritan circles that the literalism of scarlet carried weight, and the heroine of this story is Hester Prynne in the novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter. Accused of adultery in puritan Massachusetts she is forced to wear a scarlet A on her clothes to mark her out. She refuses to take the easy way out by moving away from her town to somewhere she is not known and then turns the tables on her accusers by refusing to remove the badge when permission to do so has been won by others on her behalf.

1907 | “I owe my soul to the company store,” this folk song by Tennessee Ernie Ford talks about the conditions of US coalminers in the 1940s and it describes something that’s been hated by workers all over the world. Back in 1907 Margarita Martinez, a textile worker, leads an attack on the company store of the French owned factory Rio Blanco in Pueblo, Mexico. This attack also has its own history: it‘s the last years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship; they had struck before in 1903 over an abusive supervisor; and it ends with the death of anything from 50 to 200 of the workers and the imprisonment of 400. Not all one-sided, the weavers fought back. Some say that 25 federal soldiers were killed in the process. It began in 1906 with the formation of a workers‘ organisation the Gran Circulo de Obreros Libres (GCOL) and, on the other side, a Centro Industrial Mexicano formed by the predominantly French owners of 93 textile factories in central Mexico with the support of Diaz‘s Finance Minister, and marshalled by the most powerful French interests. Late in November it prohibited uncensored reading materials in company towns and required identification passbooks, which were to include the discipline history of each worker. The CGOL called a strike against the passbooks, the company store system, and for shorter hours and improved wages. The factory owners responded with an across-the board lock-out. “Now is the time,” one of then declared, “to throttle these movements at their beginning.” With 30,000 suddenly out of work and the Diaz regime touched by nationalist sentiment, it intervened much to the annoyance of the employers who, however, get much the best of the deal. The concessions to the workers were small: uniform wage rates across the industry; limiting child labour; and limiting wage deductions. A new leadership was imposed on the GCOL, with a timekeeper, Morales, as its leader. He accepted the deal, but a strong minority of workers rejected it. The attack on the deal began with the company store raid. The local political chief called in the peasant troops who refused to attack the workers and were arrested themselves when federal troops arrived. The troops then opened fire, killing 17 workers immediately and arresting many more. Soon afterwards the workers divide into two groups. One marches into town and releases the prisoners. They seize the railway station and cut down telegraph wire. The other group go to Santa Rosa and Nogales and set fire to company stores there. On their way back the army ambushed them and many were killed. On January 8th two of their leaders were executed, as the army regained control, their actions warmly praised by the USA consul. Blame for the violence was attached in normal fashion to ‚anarchist agitators‘. Meanwhile in the same year and running into 1908, the army was also required to arrest leaders of strikes and to occupy factories in the San Angel textile-manufacturing district near Mexico City.

Back in Rio Blanco, an army garrison was established, and impoverished peasant strike-breakers from neighbouring Oaxaca were brought into the factories. But despite this, and a desire by many to keep their heads down, the workers struck again in 1909 and closed the plant. In December 1911, taking advantage of the first phase of the Mexican Revolution, a general strike was called which closed down all the most important textile centres. It was so effective that on 20th January 1912 the owners, who had been so hard-line just a few years earlier, agreed to a 10% wage increase, reduction of the working day to 10 hours and a tripartite regulation system for the industry. Although textile workers did not fight in the ongoing Revolution, they continued to take advantage of it and shifted the balance of power over discipline in the factory, getting rid of unpopular supervisors and preventing the firing of workers. In this, remembering the events of 1907 they also used violence to contest managerial authority. Right through to the 1940s they won arguably the best working conditions in the world’s textile industry though at the cost of an institutionalized labour hierarchy and the marginalization of women.

Emma, an old Bolivian textile dealer, told me how to heal with threads, to carry that knowledge to Europe. Different coloured threads are required for different illnesses and should be broken over the body only on certain days; dark natural alpaca shades for serious illness on Fridays; lighter tones for starting a treatment and for the healing of less serious illnesses on Thursdays. The threads must be torn apart with great force over specific body parts, and the thread itself has to be left-spun, the one used for the weaving of ritual cloth. Right-spun thread is for the weaving of everyday wear.

Upon my return the items of the eccentric collection assembled in Peru and Bolivia were gathered in my flat in Vienna. After a while I began to feel exhausted, sick, burdened, not able to move for days on end. During this time, the entrance key to the block of flats which was in my bag bent in the direction of 90 degree angle for no apparent reason. Suspecting that my own state must be linked to the presence of the textiles I resolved to iron them all, thinking that this might deal with whatever force they were creating. While I was ironing a specific poncho time somehow stopped and it seemed to go on for ever, I was covered with sweat. The rest was told to me by my assistant, a very decisive person who was, for once, mesmerized by what was happening. She saw me doubling in size and I started screaming without pause. After half an hour she seized the cloth away from me and threw it out of the window on to the grass outside. The grass had not been cut for some time. My assistant went downstairs to clean the poncho with palo santo, the smoke of the holy wood of the Andes which is used by shamans to cleanse evil spirits. When she had done this, she moved the poncho. In the space it had occupied, three precise turquoise circle outlines formed on the tops of the grass. At this point my assistent called me down for moral support and she moved the poncho again while I watched. Other turquoise circles formed, and then others though the colour had got less intense.

The next days the circles were still there and they remained for four more days until this section of grass was due to be cut by the Municipality. But I was far more alarmed at what else happened the next morning: I picked two teeth out of my mouth. Worried but not connecting the facts I spoke on the phone with Frau Heidi who reads the cards for me and, incidentally, mentioned the teeth. She was seriously disturbed and decided I needed help immediatly. She gave me the telephone number of an Austrian shaman. I found it unreal that I was doing such a thing as he murmured with a strong Lower Austrian accent down the phone until he finally assured me that everything was now all right. Frau Heidi also asked for help from her sister, a shaman in Germany. Things then got really out of hand, as her sister called for a shamanic conference there. Their verdict was serious, I must send all the textiles back to the Andes or burn them on the bank of a river. I must do this was the agreed opinion, because my life was under threat from spirits in the textiles. They did not want to be in Austria and were directing their aggression towards me.

I could not do this as my whole research founded on the collection of textiles. I also believe that once you have started something there is no easy way out such as ´burningánd you have to find other solutions. So instead, I spent time trying to feel out which of the textiles so resented having been brought to Europe and remembering the circumstances in which I had acquired each piece. Finally I chose a weaving which I had bought reluctantly in La Paz. I had hesitated, but finally bought it because of the dyeing technique used, and for having an Ikat pattern that is not so common in the region. Even though I had not bought it from Emma I was confident she would know how to deal with it and I prepared a parcel with gloves on and addressed it to her and on the back, in big letters, DO NOT RETURN TO AUSTRIA.

Other textiles from the collection I had subsequently sent to many other artists to respond to in whatever way they might. A year later I took an 800 year old Nazca cloth from the collection to Korea with the idea of asking a Korean shaman to respond to it. The one I reached immediately said that she would not do it, and that if I came to visit her I must not bring the cloth with me. Having heard my story she told me that a black shadow was lingering behind me, that even if I sent off the textiles the spirits would remain with me. She advised me that I should prepare an altar with food and liqor. On the other hand she said that I was stronger than her, that what had happened to me would have killed her, but that on the basis that the spirits had not disappeared she would prepare a charm for me and that it would consist of 3 inscriptions in a bag, written with colured earth and oil. The only proviso was that I should not show the three papers to anyone else, and that I should not allow them to get wet.

For whatever reason, the very next morning, needing to wash clothes, I forgot that I had left the charm in a pocket of a robe that was now in the washing machine. The bag emerged fine but the papers were now pulp. I was not to panic she said, she would write three more and I could collect them the following evening, Sunday. In the afternoon of that day I returned to the Inwangsan mountainous forested hill that rises out of a cluster of high rise apartment blocks in Seoul, and is called the Shaman’s hillside though there are also Buddhist temples. The first time I visited it had been surprisingly tranquil and uncrowded for such a beautiful place in such a populated city. This time I took the Nazca cloth with me to take some photographs in this place for the archival card. Upon arrivel one could hear drums from all kind of directions and in different spots shamans were performing with no big deal being made of it. Other people carried dried fish with them to supply the cat that is the god of the hill. Offerings with food and flowers were made at springwaters and rocks, candles and incense lit, cloth was ritualistically torn over bodies, there was a magical feel to everything. One of those lovely golden autumn afternoons, full of colours and smells. I photographed the textile under a sacred bush and at a retreat high up where two small areas had been levelled under a huge rock and thick polysterene slabs placed to lie on. On the level below a woman shaman sang and danced into a trance, unconscious of the few people who passed. Listening to her for a long time I cought a glimpse of her on the way back. She was throwing wooden sticks and, dancing winding a cloth around her. In the evening I went to the flat of the shaman I knew and got a new talisman with three dry inscriptions inside of them, this time to hang around my neck.