Pixelation Makes its Point


“A truly new, old fabric” is how the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius describes the Sampler Blanket Series she made while artist in residence at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City in 2005. Jongerius drew upon motifs she found in the museum’s sampler collection, but enlarged the scale to create a sturdy blanket that used recycled materials and industrial needle punch techniques embellished with machine embroidery. The blanket can easily be mass-produced, but maintains strong visual links to the traditional, hand made sampler.

Increasingly, textiles like Jongerius’ Sampler Blanket Series are challenging the boundaries between mechanical and hand production, adapting the pixilation often associated with computer graphics, but reworking this imagery through the reintroduction of the maker’s hand. We often associate pixelated imagery with low-resolution digital image files that do not contain enough data and so break down into visible cells of colour. But when this ‘flaw’ of technology is painstakingly rendered by hand, we have to consider the broader critiques about process and content emerging in the textile arts.

Textiles and computing have long shared history. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a calculator considered to be the forerunner of today’s computer was adapted from the punch card system Joseph Jacquard used to control his complex looms. Thus, weaving and computing have always, at least loosely, been connected. Woven in the mid 19th century in silk, the Cooper-Hewitt’s Jacquard woven image of Joseph Jacquard is a curious textile containing layers of reference both to the technology of photographic image making and that of weaving. The woven portrait is not only the picture of a man who invented the complex loom, but also a quite literal example of how the technology of weaving is comparable to that of computing.

In Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture Sadie Plant writes: “The yarn in neither metaphorical or literal, but quite literally simply material, a gathering of threads which twist and turn through the history of computing, technology, the sciences and arts.” Plant goes on to expand on the relationship between textile and technology: “In and out of the punched holes of automated looms, up and down through the ages of spinning and weaving, back and forth through the fabrication of fabrics, shuttles and looms, cotton and silk, canvas and paper, brushes and pens, typewriters, carriages, telephone wires, synthetic fibres, electrical filaments, silicon strands, fiber-optic cables, pixelated screens, telecom lines, the World Wide Web, the Net and matrices to come.” Plant’s observation of the networks that have, and continue, to bind us together holds particular resonance for those interested in textiles. But what about technology? How does the textile and its roots in computing play out today?

San Francisco based artist Rachel Beth Egenhoefer observes, “cloth provides the comfort and security of an object. It is tangible code we can see and understand, while giving us comfort.” Variations On a Theme is Egenhoefer’s literal creation of a computer code many can understand: simple knitting patterns. Displaying each sample under a loop, Egenhoefer suggests a scientific realm that is in fact far from foreign. The text to the side of each sample contains the instructions for knitting each pattern. But context is always key to interpretation. When the work was exhibited alongside other new media artists, viewers asked which computer code she had depicted. While the samples are not in fact code, they could easily be, as knitting and weaving are constructed out of the same system of zeros and ones that builds computer programming code.

Linda Grashoff’s Vermilion River Bed is a textile based on the artist’s own photograph, printed digitally at an intentionally low resolution and then hand embroidered. By painstakingly returning to each pixel and embroidering it by hand, Grashoff returns the mark of the maker’s hand to the anonymity of the digital process. She is curiously also turning what would likely be seen as a ‘flaw’ in the photograph, into the point of focus for the textile. Superimposed over the large embroidered print is the photograph itself. In contrast, Jennifer Wright 5 Count is a digital print on cotton that works in an opposite way to Grashoff’s process. Wright scanned her needlepoint with plastic pony beads and printed it digitally. Each pixel is not where the image is beginning to fragment, but one of the many pony beads she has stitched onto the surface. The result is a flat cloth that records what looks to be a pixelated image, but is in fact the record of time consuming labour.

Johanne Mills Rose Series takes an equally intensive approach. The series looks to be inspired by traditional cross-stitch, but only one version is in fact stitched. Others are fashioned from digital prints collaged together and striped shirting fabric. Again the speed and ease technology offers (digital printing) is used, but ironically in a thoroughly labour intensive way. Again, we see work that took a fraction of time for the machine to produce returned to the hand made. Similarly, Elaine Reichek’s samplers Screen Saver (Pink Peanuts) and Sampler (World Wide Web) are painstaking embroideries on linen that capture the broken geometries of our computer screens through hand stitching.

Working on a much larger scale, Tina Ratzer’s installation at the Danish Design Centre looks from a distance to be a mural, but is in fact a giant weaving. Similarly Caroline Broadhead’s recent installation Exchange of Views at the Barrett Marsden Gallery is not made of textiles, but makes a strong reference to cloth. Created out of hand cut mirror, the giant lace curtain of reflective mirror fills the back wall of the gallery. Cut with a jeweller’s saw, the edges of each section of mirror are pixelated, creating a fragmented and incomplete image of the gallery and its viewers captured but also distorted by the giant lace pattern.

Textile Art’s critique of computing and our increasingly technology-driven world can only be a healthy one. While appropriating imagery from computing and recreating this imagery by hand may initially strike one as a slightly perverse undertaking, there is much to be learnt from this process. If nothing else, artists are not and will never become computers, rote in our outlook on the world and our response to it. But nor are we Luddites, quick to spurn new technology and it possible threat to our ways of making before seeing what it may be able to offer. Instead, there seems to be a healthy balance afoot, one that acknowledges not only the ubiquity of computing but also acknowledges our understandable curiosity with the possibilities it provides.

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2007: 18-22)

image: Hella Jongerius from the Sampler Blanket Series