I like learning new words, new expressions.
This week, two words I knew well became altogether new to me in their pairing: yarn bombing. Yarn bombing was born some 9 years ago.
I learned of yarn bombing at the Canadian Theological Society’s meeting in Victoria. Some younger scholars introduced me to it, and I am very glad for this. Yarn bombing might be considered a riff on graffiti (literally, “writings”). Most people have rather strong opinions on graffiti, and might find the comparison a bit odd at first blush. Yarn bombers gently and generously quilt trees, plants, planters, posts, and a host of other things with beautiful wool creations. Check out some fascinating photos here.
Yarn bombers share the vision with certain graffiti artists that public space is precisely that: public. Both groups are convinced that space that is truly public should allow for free speech. They just happen to think that free speech includes free expression that embraces visual forms. Graffiti, of course, is not transient like sound and herein lays a host of problems. Yarn, however, has the happy quality of being easily removed, and not quite as offensive as certain expressions of graffiti. But the best of both artists – with yarn in one group of hands and spray bombs in another – challenge us to ask “Who has voice in public space?” Is it really right that those with the most money win our time and attention? Who decided that perversely rich companies get to bombard me with advertisements avowing wares that feed our greed for more in the very spaces set aside for free intercourse. I realize that things are more complicated than they first appear, and that some graffiti is vandalism pure and simple, while not all commerce is corrupt. Yet too many consider corporate North America to be virtuous at best and neutral at worst, while graffiti artists are so low as to be almost below reproach: they are to be loathed. Consequently, many folk readily identify every expression of graffiti with hooliganism even though it is sometimes publically countenanced. When I was recently in Ottawa, my daughter Nadia, took me to a site set aside for graffiti artists. You can see it here.
There truly is some beautiful graffiti, but it is hard for many to see beyond the preconceptions that all graffiti is illegal and so immoral. This is why I was intrigued to learn of yarn bombing. These young theologians, in treating the topic of yarn bombing, were asking important questions about public space, and the role of faith communities in ensuring that the public commons was not being sold to the highest bidder at the expense of our communal well being. They claimed that everyone, none excepted, has a stake in the survival, and indeed flourishing, of places where all have voice.
Yarn bombing interestingly provokes us with comfortable matter. It is a paradoxical prophetic word: this balm of yarn becomes a bomb – an explosion of colour inviting all to ponder whether there is a place in public space for those who otherwise have little opportunity to speak.