Digital Perceptions: Technology as Tool

Digital Perceptions: Technology as Tool

Digital Perceptions, on exhibit January 14–February 18 at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, explored the use of new technology and digital imaging in the work of seven textile artists: Alison Bell, Philip O’Reilly, Cathy Treadaway and Kathy Schicker from Great Britain; Carol LeBaron and Joan Truckenbrod from the United States; and J. R. Campbell an American who was recently appointed Research Director of the Centre for Advanced Textiles at the Glasgow School of Art.

With the exception of Truckenbrod’s installations of projected video onto cloth, the work on display could broadly be divided into two categories: digitally printed fabric and digitally assisted Jacquard weaving. Technology has affected the two areas in opposite ways, with artists in the former able to sample less (largely because of the expense of digital printing) and artists in the latter able to sample more (because of the speed at which woven structures created on a computer-controlled Jacquard loom can be altered). This shift is not overtly addressed in the exhibition, although Campbell notes that the expense of sampling has changed his working practice from one in which hand-printed samples were a limitless option to a growing financial pressure to make every digital print account for itself and the progression of his research.

Perhaps the best lesson to be gained from this exhibition comes from those who see technology as an additional tool to their textiles practice rather than an end in itself. “The computer is a tool that can emulate other media,” explains Treadaway, who concludes, “but it is only part of the process.” Thoughts such as these were reiterated by many artists in the exhibition and, I believe, need to be impressed upon students early in their design education.

Philip O’Reilly terms his work “digital recycling.” His printed felt discs were one of the few instances in which digital printing did not give itself away by its own peculiar, but oddly recognizable, palette. The fact that O’Reilly works back into the prints to add elements such as glitter and stitch undoubtedly helps, but I suspect that the visual depth to his work also has to do with the absorbent surface felt provides.

On a more conceptual level, the Jacquard-woven Sepp purple by Kathy Schicker offered a haunting portrait of physical loss through the fading of memory/photography. Truckenbrod’s Parallel Lives, a digital print of salmon swimming upstream installed underwater and documented in a lifeless manmade waterway, expands the photographic reality possible with digital printing to offer more than simply another replica. In this case, Truckenbrod suggests that our own well-being is linked to that of nature, in spite of our desire to ignore much of the harm we have wreaked on the natural world in the name of progress.

For both weave and print designers, digital design presents one crucial difference: the fact that pattern no longer needs to be set in repeat. I am surprised that the opportunity for such a fundamental shift in the way we can now approach textile design is not explored more closely across the work in this exhibition. In his contribution to the catalog, Campbell poses the question, “Where does fabric end and technology begin?” His own work [discussed in Fiberarts, September/October 2005] does engage with this question, but, on the whole, evidence of a more rigorous critical engagement with digital opportunities is still needed.

FiberArts Magazine (summer 2006: 58)