Karina Thompson: Digital Intervention

A More Onerous Citizenship:
Karina Thompson’s “Pattern Within” series for the University Hospital Birmingham

Along with the overwhelming emotions of serious illness, there often lurks a further challenge: the sheer science of the medicine used to treat it. For many of us, the language of medicine verges on the unfathomable. And so it should be. Not because it is impossible to understand, but because it is as specialised and particular as the cures it seeks to provide. It is these codes of diagnosis and treatment that populate the machine-stitched embroideries Karina Thompson has created for the University Hospital Birmingham’s Centre for Clinical Haematology. Commissioned by Cure Leukaemia, the twelve-piece machine stitched “Pattern Within” series is based on symbols, letters and numbers that Thompson explains are “critical to accurate patient diagnosis and treatment, yet to the outside seemed impenetrable.”

When we are well, illness itself seems foreign. The late American thinker Susan Sontag described illness as “the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.” In her book Illness as Metaphor, she warns: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Sontag goes on to argue for the importance of not treating illness as a metaphor, but for treating it in factual terms that do not hide or obscure facts.

It is facts – in this case abstracted photographs of medical equipment and clinical data – that make up the rich visual content of Thompson’s recent series. The decision to work with the reality at hand (rather than the more familiar saccharine scenes of escapism that often adorn the walls of waiting rooms) was guided by research Thompson undertook with the patient support group and clinical staff at the Centre. For example, she asked staff “where is the pattern in your world?” and was led to a room used to house the test tubes with coloured tops – vacutainers – in which blood samples are collected. Her photographs of the grids of vacutainer tops led to works she describes as “speculative and playful”: “Grey Vacutainers”, “Purple Vacutainers” and the background pattern of “Gold Blood Cells”. Thompson makes clear that these works “were not trying to say something” but act instead as studies of colour and repeating pattern based on the physical environment of the Centre.

Elsewhere in the series, it is data collected from the Centre that makes an appearance. For example, “One Month (Pale Blue)” uses anonymized data collected from a month of patient diagnosis. In others, this data is overlaid with imagery that looks a little like shadowy figures but is in fact two pairs of chromosomes. Thompson explains that the Philadelphia chromosome was one of the earliest genetic defects to be discovered. The four shapes found in works such as “Grey Chromosomes” and “Not Deleted” represents two pairs of chromosomes that have swapped parts of themselves with each other and are now understood as an indication of a type of leukaemia.

The series has been described as “samplers for a digital age” and Thompson confirms that the role of digital technology in all aspects of life from craft to medicine is a core concern of the work. “Computers have radically changed our world and in many ways this work is just a reflection of that process of change,” she explains. “Digital technology allows us to see into our bodies like never before. I want to use similar technology to create stitched images that would be impossible to make any other way.”

In the 1980s Thompson studied for a BA and MA in Textiles at Birmingham Polytechnic. In the decade that followed she produced narrative machine embroidery and by the turn of the new millennium was working with slashed surfaces – a process she continues today. Although her work with digital stitch may seem far removed from her slashed works, she explains that both share her desire for “abstraction. Taking elements out and getting the image to work.” “I am interested in removing myself from one part of the making stage. By asking what happens if I let the machine make it, or what happens if I use stitch in a manner that would be impossible for me to do by myself alone.” She is quick to acknowledge that digital design and production allows her to embroider images that she could not create by hand and now sees her artistic “finger prints” at work in the “thinking and planning stages” rather than in production.

An Arts Council England grant in 2008 allowed Thompson to begin her research of digital stitch. This, alongside a generous loan of the largest domestic digital embroidery machine on the UK market from Pfaff, have allowed for the realisation of this series. Perhaps more importantly, access to this equipment has also allowed Thompson to indulge in what she refers to “incorrectly” stitched created by working at the limits of her equipment. In “Taupe Karyotype”, for example, floating threads between areas of embroidery are deliberately left intact, partially obscuring the data stitched beneath. Thompson explains that many of her pieces contain nearly half a million stitches and are the result of several solid days of stitching. “Although both the software and hardware can do that, working this way is at the extremes for a domestic sewing machine,” she admits.

Unusually, “Pattern Within” is not on public view. Two of the twelve works in the series were auctioned as part of a fundraiser for Cure Leukaemia and the remaining ten pieces are installed in the consultancy and treatment rooms as part of the Centre’s holistic approach. But perhaps most curious of all is Thompson’s choice of content. Rather than attempt to avoid the impossible – the illness requiring the treatment that the Centre provides – Thompson (like Sontag) confronts the facts. The beauty she finds in this foreign world of codes treats illness as something tangible rather than mysterious. In doing so she provides precisely what Sontag asked for, an end to the metaphors and the opportunity to confront and, when possible, find beauty in the facts.

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct. 2010: 28-31)