Textiles are complex objects. There is the textile as artwork, that is both sculpture and two-and-half dimensions of drawing or field-making. There is the textile as craft object, that is virtuosic in its assembly and design. There is textile as functional object for clothing, interiors, or other purposes requiring a flexible plane. There is textile as substrate for graphic print-design, dying arts or in service to paint as its foundation. And then there are all the ways textiles expand beyond a near flatness to become nets and ropes and other denser forms. There are many variations of textile-thingness.
These examples are all application, but within each of these deployments of the fiber/thread/textile there is also the affect of the thing: what is projected upon it, and in turn, held within it, that seem to complicate the textile-thing further still. The textile-thing can hold a body’s imprint or shape when covering or supporting it. The textile-thing can absorb scent, light and color and often never let it go. The textile-thing can become the repository of histories, literally or metaphorically stitched into its surface. The textile-thing can become the surface that great love, need and security are projected on and into — the most common of transitional objects. And the textile-thing can be the most portable of symbols, unable to shake the associations imposed upon it. Is this an exhaustive list? I don’t think so. Textiles are both the skeleton and the flesh of other objects. They are ultimately a shape-shifting form; a compound that is both ingredient and dish.
In an unpublished lecture (“Propositions on Cloth”), Seattle-based artist Michael Milano, who works with textiles, works out a theory of cloth as a thing-unto-itself, whose construction of over-and-under threads prompts Milano to determine whether cloth is a tautology:
A piece of woven cloth can be described as a tautology. Concerning the intersection of every vertical and horizontal thread, one can map a binary logic of mutually exclusive conditions onto it: a given thread is either up or down, over or under, present or absent. A woven cloth is a tautology because it has two sides; while a given thread may be up on one side, it is necessarily down on the other side; if on the front of the cloth it is over, on the back it must be under. Thus we can say ‘at any intersection, a thread is either up or is not up’ and this statement will always be true.1
In his own work, Milano is interested in exploring logic, systems and binaries – analyzing cloth as a site ripe for philosophical argument. His notes end with a paragraph on woven cloth as dialectical: “The vertical and horizontal threads can be mapped into the structure of thesis and antithesis, where at their intersection there is a necessary overcoming of one by the other.”
I might suggest that Milano is looking for the true nature or being of cloth, which strikes me as an important exercise at a time when object-oriented ontology, a study of existence in respect to things, has gained some traction outside of philosophical circles. His positing of woven textiles as in-and-of-themselves dialectical is a delicious opportunity to consider the inherent tension of a woven cloth’s being, and thus how logic and argument make up the very structure of an ancient object that is also part of computing’s genetic make-up. Both are on the logic family tree, but woven textiles are computer’s immediate ancestors.
It has become near common knowledge that the Jacquard loom, invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard is considered a pre-cursor to modern day computing. Employing a series of punch-cards (sometimes several thousand) strung together to instruct the loom on an elaborate pattern, the loom could weave highly complex pictorial images that only very skilled tapestry weavers would otherwise be able to accomplish over a prolonged period. Just two decades later, Charles Babbage’s first difference engine, an automatic mechanical calculator often cited as an example of an early computer, was completed in 1822. His Analytical Engine, which he began to work on in 1834 with the intention of expanding the repertoire of functions beyond addition, began employing the punch card (as seen in the Jacquard loom) in 1836 as a data input device. It was Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who worked on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, that first saw the possibility of the computer having applications beyond the computational. Lovelace recognized in the loom the capacity for numbers run in a program to represent other things symbolically, thus anticipating the range of possibility for code as a means for communicating instructions. One can easily stretch the imagination much farther than the Analytical Engine and Jacquard loom to recognize that the tapestry cartoon or the weaving draft, hand drawn on paper and read by the weaver, is the same program, simply interpreted by the human hand rather than the machine. It is still a logic of if-this-then-not-that, even if its reading is far slower or more rudimentary.
Given the visual art world’s seeming “rediscovery” of textiles as a compelling art form, one wonders if today’s enmeshment with the digital hasn’t been the very thing that has given rise to textile’s greater visibility. Craft technologies have always been just that: an application of knowledge for practical purpose — a brand of human creativity and ingenuity that hasn’t always been celebrated as an art form. Prior generations sought to keep a healthy distance between high art and technology, differentiating the work of the mind from the work of the body, the poetic from the practical.
But today’s celebration of the digital realm as a sphere full of polymaths who have turned their fluency in science, math and technology into something part art-form/part magic, may have opened a space for craft technologies to be appreciated for their complexities anew. Between ceramics’ glaze chemistry and textiles’ programming, the craft fields are looking very STEM. Furthermore, if we are to take seriously object-being, is the computer — now so deeply entwined in our own being — remembering its ancestors? If we are indeed melding with our devices as per Ray Kurzweil’s theory of “the singularity,” are we, and our devices, remembering our past as cloth, on the loom, as fiber, as thread?
For documenta14, held this past year between Kassel, Germany and Athens, Greece, curator Candice Hopkins included the computer chip weavings of acclaimed Navajo weaver, Marilou Schultz. Originally commissioned by the Intel corporation in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, the weavings were replicas of printed circuit boards. The weavings recalled the role of Navajo women who were employed in the manufacture of computer components by Fairchild Industries that operated on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico between 1965 and 1975.
In early marketing materials, (Fairchild Industries) expressed that they saw an analogous relationship between the skills and aesthetics of Navajo weaving – largely practiced by women – and computer chips.2
This historic link was, apparently, unbeknownst to Schultz; in some kind of full-circle inheritance, the weaver remembered the computer, which had remembered the loom.
For A Thread of Execution, the curators assembled a group of 11 artists, Indira Allegra, Samantha Bittman, Julia Bland, Dierick Brackens, Pip Brant, Moira Holohan, Laura Marsh, Elaine Reichek, Carrie Sieh, Frances Trombly and Margo Wolowiec, as a meditation on the shared process between mathematics, weaving and computing — that is the building of “threads” and sequences over time to constitute a structure.
In computer science, A Thread of Execution is the smallest sequence of programmed instructions that can be managed independently by the operating system. The implementation of threads and processes differs between operating systems, but a thread refers to a single component of a system’s process. The layering of executing threads ultimately produce commands which make software possible.3
Software is comprised of the instructions that make computing possible. The woven fabric is an interesting analog to software, not simply because of the literal idea of “soft” — but because the woven cloth is the materialization of its instructions. If the weaving draft or punch card is the score (more analogous than cloth to software as the instructions), the woven cloth itself is the record of that score, the score played and captured. It gets to inhabit both registers at once: as transcription and translation, the cloth remembers the instructions (and the weaver) while also becoming its own textile-thing.
But that textile-thing has one last slippery quality: it is reversible. It can be unwoven, decrypted, and returned to the state of thread. As Milano goes on in his propositions:
… any woven structure can be unwoven; thus a piece of fabric becomes an unstable material that exists between two states of un-being. Like a pendulum in a vacuum, weaving and unweaving are unaffected by entropy; the arrow of time runs in two directions simultaneously. Weaving avoids entropy in two ways: as a reversible process and, in the form of a woven cloth, as an extremely well ordered state. Unweaving doesn’t attempt to make time stand still as in Penelope; it attempts to make it run backwards.4
The cloth then remembers itself as a thread, because it is thread, reordered and structured, with the possibility of being decrypted and re-encoded as something else, as another cloth altogether. The textile-thing is the document of the event, the event of the thread-thing, the thread occupied: the thread executed.
Dimensions Variable was previously located in the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College.
1 Milano, Michael. “Propositions on Cloth,” unpublished lecture, 2009
2 Hopkins, Candice. “Marilou Schultz.” Documenta 14, www.documenta14.de/en/artists/22610/marilou-schultz.
3 “A Thread of Execution.” Dimensions Variable, dimensionsvariable.net/exhibition/a-thread- of-execution/.
4 Milano, Michael. Ibid
Shannon R. Stratton is Chief Curator at The Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Prior to her appointment she was the Founder and Director of Threewalls, Chicago.