26 December 2016

It’s not unusual to see Belfast based artist Nora Borealis wearing a balaclava. But this is not any old balaclava — it’s bedazzled, with eyelashes, and one that she has made herself as a member of the guerilla knitting community, otherwise known as yarnbombers. Here Nora talks to us about the practice and its potential to transform public space from drab and dreary to colourful and connected.

Two women wearing knitted multicoloured balaclavas lean over a wall and hold a knitted slogan.

How did you get interested in yarnbombing?

Everybody has to be good at something and I happen to be very good at knitting.  I know there might be lots of more valuable skills, but my gift is with needles and wool.

Some years ago I saw pictures and gradually became aware of the phenomenon.  It was so witty and absurd and renegade.  I loved it! I could see that it could rewrite the mundane — like wool wrapped around a fence, or could draw attention to the important but invisible, like a yarn artwork on a significant statue — or it could just make people smile and brighten their day.  I wanted to get in there.

I had long been a fervent and enthralled admirer of guerilla knitting and had a driving urge to do some yarnbombing myself.  So I hunted and hunted for like-minded activists to join. For the past few years I have been on an interesting, but sometimes painful, trajectory as I have taken my knitting in a whole new delicious direction.

Don’t you get in trouble for doing it?

Sometimes I do ask permission. I wouldn’t yarnbomb a piece of art without checking with the artist first, for example. And sometimes I do a piece that is purely temporary and remove it the same day — like my yarnbomb on the Buoys outside the Art College, Belfast, two years ago. I was surprised when I first started doing this, though, how completely you are ignored by passing pedestrians, council workers and police people.

Reclaiming public space is often seen as a political act and is a particularly contentious issue in Northern Ireland. How does yarnbombing fit into this and what impact do you think it can have on a community and their perceptions of public space?

Sometimes public spaces just benefit from being more attractive and playful. It can make people feel better about their area if it is pretty and witty — like knitted slogans and crocheted flowers on lamp posts. Or the art can be proactive and make a positive statement.

In Northern Ireland, some people are offended by the display of flags, particularly during the summer marching season, as they are seen to promote exclusion and hostility between communities. In 2014, for example, all 42 lamp posts on Belfast’s Ormeau Road had a flag flying from them, but there was very little that people could do about it. So I decided to add a colourful knitted or crocheted piece to each lamppost so that people would feel less alienated by the flags during this tense time of the year.

My message was that this area is also welcoming and friendly, has a warm heart and a sense of beauty. I extended an invite to other people to take this affirmative, positive and constructive action too, and over the next few weeks a total of ten additional yarn art works appeared on the lamp posts — some whose provenance I knew about, but several were by complete strangers! That was extremely gratifying because I felt that I empowered and enabled some positive energy there.

It is often said that art has a universal appeal — it is something which we can all connect with, regardless of language, nationality, etc. Why do you think art speaks to our souls?

Art is for sharing. My pieces are supposed to entertain people and to lift their spirits. My yarnbomb of the  Monument to the Unknown Woman Worker statue brought its subject back to people’s attention and reminded them of the important messages it was designed to promote: women’s rights issues of poorly paid jobs and unpaid housework. That was enriching and thought provoking for many.

Humour also plays an important part and is something that we can all connect with. I think my slogans speak for themselves — ‘The revolution will not be knitted’; ‘The lifestyle you ordered is out of stock’; ‘Careful Boys, Down with this sort of thing.’  And all my site specific slogans for the Buoys outside the Art College: ‘The Buoys are back in town’; ‘Big Buoys don’t cry’; ‘Wild Buoys’; ‘A Buoy named Sue’, and my favourite ‘Two Little Buoys — Too soon?’ And all my balaclavas are very ‘bling’.

And sometimes art can be shared more directly. On Belfast Culture Night this year The Big Lunch and Feed the 5,000’s project was about free food for all, so I decided that free flowers should be available too. I crocheted 280 flowers (there were 280 places at the Big Table), tied them on to the trees in Donegall St and put up notices saying ‘Pick a Flower and Take it Home’. They had all disappeared by 6.00pm and all evening I spotted people with a flower tied to their wrist, their hair or their baby’s pram.  A little bit of joy for random strangers!

What has art done for you?

It gives me great pleasure. I enjoy collaborative projects but am also happy to come up with ideas on my own. I enjoy supporting interesting projects with my work and I have also occasionally been able to inspire others, like the craft women in the Ulster Folk Park who thought I was ‘mad!’ when I first spoke to them about yarnbombing the park (they told me that after they did it). But they got the bug and went on to yarnbomb the park’s replica street and an antique bicycle! ‘There was a pram too’ they told me, ‘but we ran out of time. Maybe next year!

What have you learned about yarnbombing and what advice would you have for others wanting to do it?

Learn to let go. I once sat up until three in the morning crocheting, and the next day I put colourful knitted and crocheted decorations on every single lamp post on my street. And I was thrilled with myself. But abruptly, just six days later, ‘my’ lamp post was bare. I had expected for pieces to be pilfered gradually and in fact, a tiny, pretty jumper knitted with embroidery silk had already been ‘harvested’. But I hadn’t expected a total pillage. Every single lamp post had been stripped, violently and destructively too, as fragments of wool still clung here and there. This wasn’t someone trophy-hunting who wanted my creations for their own room. This was ruthless, ravaging and annihilating. I was gutted.

But, I’ve learned you can do this stuff on your own — you don’t need to be part of a team or to ask for permission — and make sure you have a fabulous photographic record of everything you do. And, most importantly, if you have arranged a really good photographer to take zillions of photos from millions of angles, make sure you get your roots done the night before!

If you have been inspired by Nora’s story and want to keep up with her work, check out her website: http://noraborealis.wixsite.com/yarnbombing.

Sometimes public spaces just benefit from being more attractive and playful. It can make people feel better about their area if it is pretty and witty....