Weaving women’s work, Hollerith tabulators, and procedurally generated art

13.46, Friday 2 Dec 2022

There’s an exhibition at Tate Modern in London that you really should see if you get a chance: Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope. It’s on till May 2023. There’s a review and bio over at The Guardian:

Every Tangle of Thread and Rope traces Magdalena Abakanowicz’s development as a textile artist from the mid 1950s until the late century, beginning with designs for tapestries and jacquard punched cards for weaving, rows of leaf-shapes, colourways and tryouts for decorative fabrics, but soon expands, as did her art, into sculpture and installation art.

It’s all challenging, emotionally powerful stuff. The forest of giant fabric sculptures, immediately followed by a room of something like organs, seemed like an assault on walls. So much about interiors, but these slightly open sculptures so much like hung garments or rotted ancient trees, and the forest that you can be within without being contained… here’s an alternate way of being, being enacted right here.

Though it’s the tapestries that stick in my mind - patchworks of woven fabrics - and in particular, in the same room, an early piece made from jacquard punch cards.

Weaving, of course, being traditional “women’s work” and programmable jacquard looms being an industrialisation of weaving.

And Abakanowicz growing up in Poland in the Second World War… the connection I mean is not exactly the use of IBM’s technology by the Nazis for the Holocaust but… the Holocaust was enabled by population census data. Data was tabulated on Hollerith machines, which was the original purpose of these very first data processing machines when they had been invented in 1890 for the US Census (and which eventually became computers). Hollerith tabulators were popular; Hollerith had merged and become IBM; Hollerith punch cards (inspired by jacquard punch cards) became IBM punch cards.

So - and this is a guess, or a query I suppose - there may have been a connection for Abakanowicz between fascism and population control on the one side, and weaving and industrialisation on the other, mediated consciously or unconsciously by punch cards. The two are entangled, textiles and totalitarianism.

Another faint trail through these themes:

At home we have a treasured piece by the artist Hilary Ellis. Look at her portfolio (and WIP on Instagram) and imagine these works at scale: large textured canvases with repeated marks or stitches of thread.

There’s an explicit connection with women’s work:

… an enduring and persistent nature that dwells quietly within the realm of traditional womens’ work and its often futile repetitions. …

Using a variety of media, I produce repeated marks and actions that aim at exact replication, but whose inevitable deviations expose the frailty of the human hand in attempting the pursuit of mechanical process. …

I mention Ellis because when I encountered her work, I thought I saw a connection to the work of Vera Molnar.

I first found Molnar’s pioneering computer-generated art in the 1976 book Artist and Computer (Amazon) in which editor Ruth Leavitt collects work and statements from a large number of contemporary artists. Wonderfully the entire book is online.

Vera Molnar explains her work (there are also examples there):

Using a computer with terminals like a plotter or/and a CRT screen, I have been able to minimize the effort required for this stepwise method of generating pictures. The samples of my work I give here in illustration were made interactively on a CRT screen with a program I call RESEAUTO. This program permits the production of drawings starting from an initial square array of like sets of concentric squares. …

And there’s a resemblance with Ellis think? Not a similarity, that’s not what I mean, but something generative about putting the works in dialogue in my head.

Then this interview with Vera Molnar, Weaving Variations:

“My work is like a textile,” Vera Molnar has told me

Molnar, like Abakanowicz, is an artist from Cold War Europe.

I don’t mean to draw connections where there aren’t any. (Though maybe that’s allowed!)

Nor do I don’t mean to (say) glamourise the hand in the weave and the ritual of repetition, opposing it to the horror of Hollerith punch cards in the formative infancy of computers; all three of these artists connect this territory in different ways. (Though holy shit we should talk about the military history of computing more.)

But it seems to me that there is some kind of nexus of weaving, mechanisation, women’s work - both the way it is performed and the way it is treated - computers and what computers do to us (or what we use computers to do to each other), power more generally…

Something something, I don’t know, I lack the tools to process these thoughts… and this is all so delicate and so faint and I know so little about any of it… but…

The Abakanowicz exhibition has stirred up so much in me. Do go check it out. Art!

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