Kraven Knitting factory, Stratford, Ontario, circa 1985, courtesy of the artist.

Le Chiffonier / The Ragpicker

Karen Kraven

Artist talk

On the occasion of the closing of side by each 2.0 and Le Chiffonnier / The Ragpicker, AXENÉO7 artist-run centre invites you to a discussion with artists Alexa Hatanaka and Karen Kraven about their work on these exhibitions.

Following the discussion, the center will reopen at 7PM for a festive closing celebration.

Music by DJ Rodrigo Medrano

Free admission
Cash bar
Free parking

Book here

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

— Samuel Beckett

What is the affect of encountering an ongoing state of liquidation? What does it mean to observe a constant negotiation, a perpetual boxing up, storing, shifting, selling, checking notes and records, moving things, opening, lifting… closing. Karen Kraven was born the year that her father had to close Kraven Knitting in Stratford, Ontario. As family lore goes, her wily, charming grandfather had convinced the owner of a sweater factory he had worked at in Winnipeg to sell it to him — a son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to Canada in the early 1900s. While the textile industry had a high employment rate, there was an effort to gradually phase out the Canadian clothing industry by the federal ministry of industry, trade and commerce in order to invest in new capital that lacked a competitive future. By the time the 1994 NAFTA deal was signed, and China became a key producer of clothing along with the elimination of import quotas on apparel produced in developing countries, the national textile industry was veritably destroyed.1 The slow, intentional decimation of textile manufacturing across the country was a key factor that led to the closure of the factory. A feeling of failure and sadness is what Karen remembers of her father who was immersed daily within an environment of sluggish liquidation that included the selling of yarns and expensive industrial knitting machines. Failure, while explored by contemporary artists as a mechanism to counter ideas of success, is an attribute of planned obsolescence. It is what contemporary capitalism has pre-determined into both financial and technological systems that naturalizes and normalizes failures as the fault of the citizen, while all successes are the result achieved through technology. Silicon Valley celebrates failure as innovation, while Sara Ahmed considers failure as an “affective economy”, where failure is a psycho-economic emotional state, part of accumulation and circulation like capital itself, which does not sit within any object or commodity, but moves continuously.2 Ahmed studies how capitalism, which produces failure, forms circumstances in which when failure occurs, we only blame ourselves. 

As Kraven was sorting through her father’s materials after he passed away, she came across a binder of suppliers from 1975. Included were orders for navy and yellow merino wool from Mohawk-Hanson Ltd., the former mill that is the site of Axenéo7. Kraven’s installation here captures a scene from her father’s factory after its closure. A series of bins are stacked atop each other and emulate the transitory state of materials and supplies. The bins are comprised of thin cotton delicately stitched and custom-fitted over steel armatures, harbouring textile refuse from the garment industry in Montreal that Kraven has gathered – all the edges, excess, odd bits, or remnants have been carefully sorted through by the artist, and are now homed, protected, and sheltered in these carriers. While hoarding was formally pathologized as a mental disease in 2013, it is amongst artists (specifically crafters who accumulate yarns, textiles, or scraps) a collection of potential future works.3 Considering the throw-away culture we live in now, hoarding of materials encompasses the memory of past materials and possibilities of use. However, in Kraven’s carriers/containers, the scraps are both an archive and a future, as well as objects where meaning collapses. In this scene, a freeze-frame of bins that speak about an ongoing sensation of failure — a failed state — the hoarded, expelled scraps that no longer have use or cannot add to a capital flow, are themselves an ambiguous in-between. They occupy a border condition, what theorist Julia Kristeva considers as the abject, like the body in its corpse-state. The installation then begins to stand in for a boundary between life and death, carrying remnants that stand as a witness to a larger process of capital, accumulation, failed industries, and an economy of failure. 

The Rag-Picker (1865-1871) by Édouard Manet, centers a figure of an old man set against a flat, depthless background. Rag-pickers, or chiffonnier, in Paris held a legitimate profession between 1840 and 1880, which became obsolete during the reconstruction of the city, and the Poubelle Ordinances. They collected rags (chiffon) for the paper industry, corks, broken glass, and animal bones used for everything from refining sugar to door handles. It is believed that Manet’s figure may be a portrait of the poet Charles Baudelaire, who wrote The Ragpickers’ Wine, in which the rag-picker is “stumbling like a poet lost in dreams”. The older man, with his heavy sack and torn trousers, with oyster shells and a broken champagne bottle at his feet, is regarded as the poet vagabond who has reached into the depths of the city. He rummages and collects rubbish that can be repurposed, that which become temporary archives but are in a transitory state. Kraven’s installation The Chiffonnier, softly parallels Manet’s poet/philosopher to her father: ever-sorting, ever-sifting, ever-failing. 

— Swapnaa Tamhane


1. Isabel Slone, Why isn’t more clothing made in Canada?, Maclean’s, July 21, 2021, accessed December 23, 2021.

2. Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander, Failure, Polity, Cambridge, 2020, pg. 31-35.

3. Kirsty Robertson, Secret Stash: Textiles, Hoarding, Collecting, Accumulation and Craft, ed. Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch, The New Politics of the Handmade: Craft, Art and Design, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2021, pg. 183.

Karen Kraven is a Montreal-based artist working with photography, sculpture and installation. Influenced by her father's (and his father's) knitting factory that stopped manufacturing the year she was born and by the physical and optical properties of textiles, her practice explores the ways clothing registers the body-how the body is unfinished, unstable and under interrogation–pointing to the sustained impact of work, wounds and wear.

Recent solo exhibitions include Lull, Latitude 53, Edmonton (2020), Dust Against Dust, Parisian Laundry, Montreal (2019), Pins & Needles at the Toronto Sculpture Garden (2018), Deadstock, Maw Gallery, NYC (2017), Flip Flop Punch Front, Mercer Union, Toronto (2015) and Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah presented at the ICA, Portland, Maine and the Darling Foundry, Montreal (2014/5). Her work has also been included in exhibitions in Toronto, Marseille, Mumbai and Baltimore. Reviews have been published in C Magazine, Canadian Art, Momus and Artforum. Her work was recently acquired by the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal. Karen Kraven is represented by Bradley Ertaskiran in Montreal.

Swapnaa Tamhane is an artist, writer, and curator. She has a MA in Contemporary Art, University of Manchester (2001), and a MFA in Fibres & Material Practices, Concordia University, Montreal (2021). Her visual practice is dedicated to drawing, and decolonizing art, craft, and design. She has exhibited her work at articule, Montreal; A Space Gallery, Toronto; Museum der Moderne, Salzburg; Serendipity Arts Festival, Panjim; and has upcoming solo exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, Dundee. Her interests also extend to material culture. Together with designer Rashmi Varma, she curated and wrote SĀR: The Essence of Indian Design, published by Phaidon Press (2016). With Susanne Titz, she curated In Order to Join — the Political in a Historical Moment, an exhibition of global feminisms at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany and CSMVS, Mumbai, India (2014-2015), taking as its focal point artist Rummana Hussain (1952-1999). She curated HERE: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists (2017) at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, which included 23 artists. She has been a Research Fellow with the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2009), and an International Fellow with the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (2013-2014).

The artist would like to thank the Canada Council for the Arts and le Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec for their project support, Montreal fashion designers Odeyalo and Veri for their fabric offcuts, Boris Dempsey, Elliott Elliott, Dean Baldwin and Concordia University for their fabrication assistance and Swapnaa Tamhane for her research and generative conversations that led to this text.