Thinking Out Loud

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“Women have always spun, carded and weaved, albeit anonymously. Without name. In Perpetuity. Everywhere yet nowhere… That’s where our yarn gets tangled.” When weaving emerged on the pixeled screens of computer monitors, the yarn was tangled once again. Women were among the first of the artists and photographers, video artists and film makers to pick up on the potential of the digital arts. Esther Parada described “the computer as an electronic loom strung with a matrix image, into which I can weave other material – in harmony, syncopation, or raucous counterpoint…” Working with computers, she writes, is “like working with fibres, the process of knotting strings to form a pattern feels like the clustering of pixels to form an image.”

– Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones

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[This is 20kb of memory from the 1960s; Hand-woven cores each hold 1 bit of data.] Each metal ‘donut’ stores either a 0 or a 1, depending on its magnetic polarity. This piece is made up of 40 stacks… Almost all core memory was made by hand, often by trained craftspeople. Core memory can be seen as a textile, reinforcing a connection between weaving and computation that extends beyond metaphor. It offers us a material example of the ancient relationship between mathematics and textiles.

– Thinking Out Loud exhibition panel, Open Data Institute

If you heard the chain of interviews last week on Woman’s Hour you may have heard my comment that knitting a sock is significantly harder than soldering a speaker and Lara mentioning the pleasure and empowerment inherent in making things yourself – whether that is making your own face scrub or writing a beautiful line of code. To me these different making contexts involve common struggles: the comparison between an initial concept and an actual outcome; the pleasures and frustrations of process; researching and practicing new skills; and the evaluation and restlessness of a creative search.

The new exhibition at the Open Data Institute – Thinking Out Loud – speaks directly to this rich intertwining of craft and code. The amazing hand-woven digital memory at the top of this post is on loan to the ODI from the National Museum of Coding for the duration of the show and other works on display include pieces by Ellen Harlizius-Klück, Dan Hett, David Littler, Alex McLean, Sam Meech, Antonio Roberts, David Griffiths and Julian Rohrhuber, Amy Twigger-Holroyd and, ahem, me.

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The very handsome Mark Stanley demonstrates how to listen to Shetland Wool through Shetland Wool at my installation of knitted speaker and Shetland Wool soundmap at the ODI

Thinking Out Loud explores how information has been documented in textiles and in technology, and the role of pattern in those contexts:

Openness and processes of making – where any end results are left partly undone – are at the heart of many of the projects on display. The exhibition draws connections between the ways in which humans have captured, encoded and distributed data, and made it meaningful through pattern throughout history. From pre-Columbian Quipu and the ancient art of weaving to computer software environments, it introduces us to creative notions of code, and the ways in which it can carry both language and thought.

The exhibition features artists and makers who are driven by radical intentions to expose the inner workings of the systemic structures we live with. We are encouraged to engage with these ourselves through art, software, folk songs, glitch aesthetics, chance encounters and knitted jumpers.

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Spectrum of re-knitting treatments, digital print on paper, by the amazing Amy Twigger Holroyd

I really love the inclusive and radical premise of this exhibition; I have spoken in the past about the tech-world’s neglect of its own origins in textiles and it is fantastic to see an exhibition where that is definitely not the case. I’ve been collaborating with Alex McLean – aka yaxu – for several years, and there is something wonderful about the ways in which he works. Currently artist in residence at the Open Data Institute, instead of showing a retrospective of his own work, Alex has invited comrades working in related fields to show our work beside his in a kind of group think-tank exhibition. The result is a richly diverse collection of linked concepts from the worlds of coding and craft which comment variously on labour, representation, repetition, pattern and sustainability, and which celebrate connective and collaborative creative practices.

Alex is an artist, musician and programmer, and I first heard of him through his “algoraves” – sound and light shows generated by computer code, generated in real time, and often including input from the audience. He has written a mini programming language called Tidal that enables users to generate music from banks of sounds, organised through the pattern language of code. Whenever I’ve heard Alex talk about building his performances in front of audiences through live-coding processes, he has likened his work to much older, analogue technologies like weaving and knitting. In his live coding, Alex exposes the underlying logic of code and the aspect of coding that is about making something. Watching him perform is not unlike watching someone weaving or knitting in that, unless you understand how the technology works, it looks a bit like magic. I also like that Alex has a focus on the value of the creative process as an end in itself. By performing coding as a live action, Alex celebrates its generative, messy and makerly premise. Just like learning to knit can help you to understand how finished garments are produced, his work offers insights into the digital technology with which we are surrounded in the 21st century.

Alex also knits and, pointing to the similarities between the code languages of software and knitting patterns, describes this finished baby hat on Flickr as “Program #2 complete”.

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At Thinking Out Loud and echoing Alex’s figurative unpickings of digital culture, Amy Twigger-Holroyd presents a reworked cardigan. This marvelous object embodies the different ways in which we, as makers, can rework existing garments. Her approach challenges the linear production-consumption model of the contemporary fashion, representing a kind of de-coding of existant garments. Interrupting the cycle of use in which the sweater was originally created, it’s a fashion hack similar in its subversive functions to the interventions in consumer electronic goods and in computer code performed by digital hackers.

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David Littler‘s piece – The Doffing Mistress Takes A Stroll – takes its name from a folk song from the Irish Linen Industry. He has created looping, hole-punched papers that sit alongside a tiny mechanical piano player. Exhibition visitors can make their own holey papers and play the ones on display, and the whole process recalls the jacquard loom punch-cards that once dictated the patterns in woven fabric.

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The related history of punch-cards as records of labour and for use with knitting machines is referenced in this wonderful video by Sam Meech, whose piece, 8 Hours Labour, is also included in Thinking Out Loud. This machine-knitted banner draws on Robert Owens’ eight hour day movement and is a representation of time and labour:

Meech’s knitted banner displays glitches in the fabric for each half hour that present-day workers who contributed their labour data to the piece worked over an eight-hour day. The version on display was created for Data as Culture 2 in 2014.

Since going to the opening last Thursday, I’ve also found myself reflecting on how working with Alex has made me thinking differently about my own practice.

We spent some happy days in Sheffield last year on a residency exploring the potentials for combining his use of live code with my use of knitting charts…

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…and in 2014, we spoke together on a panel discussion at an event co-organised by Alex and entitled Sonic Pattern and the Textility of Code. The film I made for that event is currently playing intermittently on one of the screens in the ODI offices…

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition I’ve been reflecting on the vast quantities of information held in digital sound archives – on sound recordings as data – and on knitted swatches as records of places and times. Just like Alex has represented a knitted hat as a completed programme, my book – the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook – is on show at Thinking Out Loud as a textbook for re-coding our familiar environments and treasured possessions into the language of stranded colourwork.

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Some of the charts from my book, drawn from observing an old Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin

My work with KNIT and SONIK deliberately blurs lines across practices in knitwear design; sound-reproducing technology; and digital and fabric-based storytelling. I like combining stuff from these different realms because I love these media and all the rich ways in which they are related. However there is also a feminist impulse at work and I want to contest the unequal values placed by the dominant culture on the things in which women are interested (broadly speaking) and the things in which men are interested (broadly speaking). There is no crazy cat-hoarding stereotype for men who like building their own software and electronics in hack-spaces, for example, but this definitely still exists for women who knit.

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Part of the joy of having an exhibition that presents textiles and code alongside one another as related practices is that it contests this inequality. Pattern is presented, here, as a continuum of ideas on which knitting and coding and weaving and writing can all exist in mutual respect and as part of the same discourse.

I am especially excited to have found the work of Shelley Knotts through Alex. Shelley is a composer, performer and live-coder who performs internationally, “collaborating with computers and other humans.” OFFAL (Orchestra For Females And Laptops) and Algobabez (who performed on the opening night of Thinking Out Loud) are just some of her many projects, but I really like how they assert the presence of women in the world of hack-spaces, live-coding and laptop music. You can hear a bit more about that in this amazing video about an all woman hack space which she curated and produced with Suzy O’Hara:

Participants will gather to access and create with archival materials relating to the NE regions industrial heritage and current, open data sets, which represent our post industrial present. Challenging perceptions that Hackaton events as well as histories of our industrial past and our scientific and technological present are male dominated.

I really welcome the connections running through this exhibition and particularly how it recasts knitting patterns as programming languages and celebrates the textile basis of binary codes and I’m honoured to be part of something that explores these themes and which highlights the enriching consequences of working in a diverse community of practitioners.

I’ve only touched on a tiny selection of all the work that’s on in the ODI until next March; to experience it all more fully you’ll have to go along yourself. I’m fascinated to see what the response is, over time, of this work sitting in the offices of the Open Data Institute for the best part of a year, providing a rich cultural context for the work that takes place there.

I hugely recommend that you go to see Thinking Out Loud and experience its diverse forms and thoughts for yourself! I would love to hear your thoughts if you do get along. Massive thanks to Hannah Redler and Alex McLean for inviting me to be a part of it. Thinking Out Loud has been curated by them and is on display until the 31st of March, 2017 and can be viewed by appointment if you contact dac [at ] theodi [dot] org.

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