Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Virtual Fabrics & Perishable Maps


Rachel Beth Egenhoefer makes tangible the intangible. Rather than complicate our ways of seeing the world, her practice works towards the opposite. Using yarn, candy and computers she illustrates the functions that drive much of the technology around us and reconfigures these codes as seductive patterns. As a result, the complex technology so many of us rely on in our daily communication is revealed to be a series of patterns that are not only ridiculously simple, but also ubiquitous.

An abacus, remade with candy, proposes new temptations to the ancient counting machine. How rigid are the results of mathematics when there is a potential to eat away the very core of an equation? Egenhoefer constantly poses such questions, raising a smile or chuckle that, in turn, allows a light bulb moment in the viewer’s mind. While the didactic purpose of her work can be overlooked amongst the layers of sugar and yarn, it would be an oversight to underestimate its presence.

Specimens of knitted cloth take on a pseudo scientific air under a collection of serious looking magnifying lenses – complete with instructions that chart each production pattern to illustrate the similarities between knitting patterns and computer code. Lollipops line the gallery wall in another mutation of code not only made tangible, but also ephemeral. As the humidity in the gallery soared, the floor became awash with a sea of sickly sweet colour – an ironic, if unanticipated, commentary on just how much we can really control in life. Elsewhere temptation is mediated through audience participation. Computers are reprogrammed to record the desires of the audience invited to consume a table of chocolates, leaving the wrapper for each candy consumed – yet another system of zeros and ones made visible, tangible and seductive.

In amongst the lightheartedness is a practice that lets us see the world a little differently. Take for example the unremarkable gaps between ourselves and the computing we pretend to control: a site that has become an ongoing source of curiosity within Egenhoefer’s practice. A resin cast of the space between the computer keyboard and the user, for instance, offers us a ghostly imprint of the typist’s hands and wrists; a knitted bodice with weights pulls down tense typing shoulders; a series of photographs document cupcakes placed under Carpel Tunnel-prone wrists. Each proposition is easy to interpret as absurd, until you reflect on the time and emotion that so many of us pour into lives lived in the companionship of our monitor’s glowing screens.

Egenohoefer’s practice swings between extremes of production. A computer operated knitting machine, for example, is used to create images of hand knitting. Installed inside a zoetrope, a device used to create some of the first moving images, the static knitted diagrams come alive through an unlikely marriage of the simple and the complex. In other works, technology is redeployed in the refiguring of the gaming software Wii to allow players to knit virtual fabrics on their Wii wands.

Some may question what we can make of virtual fabrics and perishable computer codes? Egenhoefer’s response may well be, “why not?” Her practice represents a rare combination of approaches, equally at ease with the potential of technology as with the hand made. This interdisciplinary perspective on textiles and technology returns to both disciplines their primary purpose: comfort and communication. As a result, her work contributes to an expanded definition of textile practice today, which draws together seemingly discrete disciplines and breaks down preconceived boundaries between craft and technology.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director
Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland