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Joseph Turp

Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

19 May 2015 Imogen Greenberg

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is a major new artwork by acclaimed British artist Cornelia Parker. It is part of the British Library’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year. It replicates in stitch the entire Wikipedia article on Magna Carta as it appeared on the document’s 799th anniversary. London Calling got the chance to see it with Cornelia Parker as a guide.

The artwork was a collaborative effort of Parker herself, alongside judges, QCs, barristers, campaigners for civil liberties, civil rights, political rights and human rights, diplomats, MPs, artists, filmmakers, writers, journalists, broadcasters, academics and students. Many hands and many hours went in to producing this.

Prisoners did the bulk of the stitching as part of Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled and creative needlework. Working with prisoners was part of the project from the outset. Parker met some of the prisoners, and had letters from others. “One of the curious things was that most of them haven’t seen Wikipedia before. They’re not online and so they’re not familiar with it.”

“Having prisoners involved raises questions about the significance of words in the text. In one section, Habeas Corpus was missed out by one of the prisoners, because he didn’t want to stitch it. Instead, Igor Judge, former Chief Justice and his wife embroidered Habeas Corpus in a much more crude way.”

There is an inversion of skill here. Parker says “I like the fact that the best stitching was done by the prisoners, because they have honed their craft over years. I was joking with someone saying, ‘you’ve done all the long sentences’. They went with the flow on that one...”

At 12.5 m long, it is impressive in size but also in detail. It is remarkable to see the recognisable aesthetics of Wikipedia, the simple typeface with hyperlinked blue words, rendered in stitch.

Parker expands, “It has slowed everything down to this moment, that’s taken thousands of hours to produce. We took something digital, and made it this handmade thing. I wanted to have the real sweat and the real hands, because everything’s gone digital. I liked the idea of taking something digital and making it analogue again, and making people really struggle over the meaning of the words”

As the piece evolved, it got more and more complex. It was a logistical nightmare, with pieces being passed from one group or person to the next. Now, Parker says, it’s a “mucky old thing”, bonded together with stories, with sweat and DNA from all these people. There’s even a small tea stain, and a small spot of blood where Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, pricked his finger on a needle whilst stitching the words ‘contemporary political relevance’.

Some of the stories Parker tells, of those involved and the journeys the pieces have taken, are remarkable. Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer, embroidered ‘law of the land’. Part of that was embroidered in Guantanamo Bay, because he’s working with a client there.

Moazzam Begg has embroidered ‘held without charge’ because he was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay whilst Edward Snowden’s embroidery of the word ‘liberty’ only arrived last week. It went astray somewhere in Russia, and turned up at the last minute. He sent it back with a note saying that he had stitched it on a snowy day in Moscow in his unexpected exile, and that embroidery was more difficult than he thought.

These stories will become part of the archive of the piece. True to the idea of digital freedom and democracy, it will be made available online, along with the piece itself.

The more the piece evolved, the more people got involved. Were they always going to involve controversial figures like Snowden and Assange?

“I didn’t want it to be a piece of community art, a soft-centred thing. I wanted it to have some teeth. I just needed people who aren’t so safe. I didn’t want it to be a community project, with equal amounts of MPs, and this party and that party represented. I didn’t want it to be that. I wanted it to be wild and woolly like the Wikipedia page.”

The Magna Carta Wikipedia page is shifting and changing all the time. The screenshot that Parker has recreated was taken on the 799th anniversary, on the 15th June 2014. Only the next day it was changed again. Now there’s even a reference to this art piece on the page.
It shows how much the debate about Magna Carta and its significance is ongoing. Why does Parker think this is?

“I do think, even since last week, our human rights are under attack already. We have to be very vigilant and we have to be very vocal. It’s more important now than it’s ever been. We don’t understand that we’re under mass surveillance, and everything is being tweaked. If we leave Europe for example, we’ll lose out on a lot of our freedoms and protections. I think now is the time to be very vigilant.”

The piece draws out the tensions and the controversy. Parker chose words that were appropriate to the debate, words like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ whose interpretation really matters, then invited appropriate people to stitch them.

The hours spent working on it was time to process the meaning behind the words. Julian Assange stitched the word ‘Freedom’. But it was also stitched by Eliza Manningham-Buller, ex Director General of MI5, and by many of the prisoners. Parker says, “They all had very different views on what freedom might be. All of our freedoms are very personal and individual.”

Just like Wikipedia itself, the piece is subjective and full of agendas. Parker likes that on Wikipedia everyone can have his or her bit, but you can’t choose who you’re next to. Wikipedia is quite democratic in that way. This artwork takes all the contributions and puts everyone on the same page, just as everyone is equal before the law.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is on display from the 15th May to 24th July at the British Library. For more information, please see the website.

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