Computers are alchemical in the way that they use tiny assemblages of conductive squiggles and crystal wafers to generate images, solve complex mathematical problems, and connect people miles apart in real time. How does this transformation from material to information to image occur? Weaving Data, a group exhibition in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, offers a different way to understand the development of computing technology—by going back to its origins in the textile industry.
In the mid-nineteenth century, mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace borrowed from Jacquard loom technology—which used punch cards to determine the pattern woven into textiles—to invent what we consider the first computer.
Where the loom used a binary system of hole/no hole to determine a pattern woven into fibers, the punch cards in Babbage’s “analytical engine” controlled a mechanical calculator. Switch holes on punch cards to ones and zeros, and you have the building blocks of modern computing technology.
The works in Weaving Data pay homage to this history, and other lesser-known narratives of the confluence between textile and tech.
The first work visible, upon entering the gallery space, is Faig Ahmed’s show-stopping “Gautama”—named for Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. It looks like someone cracked open a carpet to let the patterns pour out like a psychedelic egg yolk. In the course of its creation, Ahmed digitally altered a traditional rug design, which was then hand woven in shades of burgundy, blue, and gold by craftspeople in his native Azerbaijan.
This glitchy effect continues, albeit more subtly, in digital Jacquard weavings by Joan Truckenbrod and Jovencio de la Paz. Truckenbrod uses jewel tone fibers and thin copper filament to depict fencing found around encampments occupied by unhoused people, while de la Paz sticks to a more muted palette of mostly black and white threads and tweedy abstract patterns. It’s no coincidence that these impressive, detailed works resemble pixelated screen images, alluding to binary coding in practice.
Against these displays of cutting-edge technical virtuosity, Los Angeles artist April Bey offers a refreshing counterpoint of irreverent, sewn collages. She cuts up wax-resist print fabrics, and mass-produced Jacquard blankets, reassembling them into scenes relating to the ongoing Afrofuturistic narrative that runs through most of her work. In doing so, the commercial fabrics become a metaphor for textile’s role in histories of cultural power and exchange.
Colors from Bey’s pieces reappear throughout the exhibition space, as monochrome backdrops for art, in the informative exhibition brochure, and in the custom wallpaper design that accents the work. It’s a bold deviation from the classic white-cube gallery aesthetic, but it works as a deliberate statement by curators Nancy and Theo Downes-LeGuin.
The pair wanted to highlight “the contributions of women, low-wage laborers, and people of color” within the evolution of contemporary high-tech industries—the history of which is often incorrectly characterized as “a line of male inventors and capitalists”—in order to reframe weaving as a technology rather than a craft.
This theme becomes more overt in the lower level of the exhibition, where the standout piece, by anarchist artist Vo Vo, pairs a Jacquard blanket with audio interviews of textile workers discussing the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as well as the toll factory work takes on its (historically mostly female and immigrant) laborers. (PRO TIP: A printed transcript of the interviews is available on the wall next to the artwork, and is well worth grabbing for the additional images and translations it provides.)
Ahree Lee’s unassuming weavings and meditative video directly reference Ada Lovelace’s work on the analytical engine, and the underappreciated legacy of women in computing. A replica of an Incan numerical storage device called a quipu is exciting both for its historical significance and for the fact that visitors are allowed to touch it—it’s always a good day when you get to touch the art.
Hand-woven tapestries by Kayla Mattes round out the depths we’ve traveled, providing comic relief with their cartoonish depictions of Zoom screens full of cats, inflatable dancing tube guys, and a haywire Windows desktop.
Weaving Data‘s assembled works succeed in collectively shining a light on some of tech’s underrecognized stories and influences, without flattening the complexities and individualities contained within those histories. You may not come away understanding exactly how computers work, but you might have a better sense of who was involved in the evolution of the technologies that make up the fabrics of our everyday.
Bey will give a public talk about her speculative decolonial world-building practice on Thursday, March 9, 5 pm—don’t stress if you don’t know what that means yet, all you need to know is it will be extremely cool and should absolutely not be missed.