SMART FABRICS

Throughout History and Now

What did ancient people try to accomplish when they deliberately made clothes that contained meaning? For one thing, it must have been to mark or announce information.  Twenty thousand years B.C. a small, plump Venus donned a string skirt to announce her readiness for childbearing and in the mountains of South Central Asia, a Kafir woman wore a distinctive headdress for a few days each month to indicate that she was now a woman.

 Cloth could also be used as a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Social rank too, has probably always been encoded through symbols in material, design, colour and embellishment of the clothing.  In Ancient Rome the emperor and no other enjoyed the privilege of wearing entirely purple robes.  Hanging up a distinctive textile could be a way of making ordinary space special, even sacred.  In Southern Sumatra a special ritual cloth was placed as a backdrop in important rites of passage ceremonies.  And the vision of Henry VIII and his ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ remains a vivid image in the minds of many British schoolchildren cheering at the British King who was grander and more stylish than his French counterpart.

 

Thirdly, fabric design has been used to invoke magic – to protect, to secure fertility and riches, to divine the future, perhaps even to curse. Within that magical world, fertility, prosperity and protection were three of the most common objectives.  Images of snakes, frogs and fish (egg layers all) incorporated into woven cloth were thought to bring wealth and fertility to a household in many parts of Europe.

SLAVIC GODDESS

The Slavic Goddess Berehinia – Protectress of women and their fertility displaying birds in her hands

 But Europe had no monopoly on mystical, protective images on cloth and clothing.  In Egypt, Tutankhamon’s tomb was found to contain a wealth of royal cloth, in particular a richly decorated tunic, with a neckhole forming an ‘ankh’ (or sign of long life) with his name embroidered at the centre of the cross and surrounded by the traditional ‘cartouche’ (a protective oval made by a magic rope), and at the bottom of the tunic panels embroidered with an array of real and mythical beasts (thought to be of Syrian workmanship) are all designed to ease his journey into the afterlife.

 More structural approaches to working magic have been devised with folktales telling of magic girdles where the magic seems to be inherent in the weaving, not merely in special decoration.  One possibility was to weave in the spell as number magic; in the Netherlands experts have unearthed cloth where the weaver has chosen red wool warp threads for her work, twenty four spun one direction, and twenty four spun the other way.  Opposite spins catch the light differently and, when placed next to each other, give a striped effect.  She divided the bunch spun one way into three sets of eight, and the other bunch into four sets of six, and alternated them. It can’t be a coincidence that in Holland, Germany and Denmark those numbers were considered particularly sacred.  The scheme is best known from the runic alphabet, which at first consisted of twenty four letters in three sets of eight, and later of thirty two letters in four sets of eight.  It is assumed that number magic began with the introduction of Mithraism into those countries via the Romans; Mithraic religion from the Near East is just packed full of number magic. 

 The Batak tribes of Sumatra generated woven magic another way; in one area the women wove special magical cloths on circular warps, which were never cut because the continuity of the warp cloth across the gap where the wool had not been woven in, was said to ensure the continuity of life from the mother to the child.  The birth of the child was represented by the beginning of the weft at one side of the uncut fringe; drawing the cloth through the hands of the weaver represented the child growing up, and when the other side of the uncut fringe was reached, it represented the beginning of a new generation whose life would repeat that of the mother, and so on ad infinitum.   Biblical students will remember that Jesus’ garment was removed from his body uncut “in accordance with the scriptures”, a possible reference to this custom?

But these magic numbers, symbols, and methods of weaving depended largely on the wearers and viewers buying into the myth of the magic woven into the cloth which they were conditioned to believe.  It was not until the twenty first century that actual magic became available to inventive weavers worldwide.  Conductive fibre or elements; computer circuitry and electronics; laser optics and speakers would mark the next stage for this fabricated messaging. Value Added Fabric can communicate, transform, conduct energy, grow, medicate, play music or identify friend or foe.  It is used for astronaught suits as it can inflate or deflate, be heated or cooled down, be lit up in dark outer space, and can incorporate infra-red digital displays and alarms.

Smart fabrics are set to transform the fashion industry and allow us to download new styles for our clothes rather than buying new garments.  “Micro-robotics, 3D printing and rapid changes in technology are poised to revolutionise fashion,”  says the designer of Lady Gaga’s bubble-blowing dress ‘Anemone’, and ‘Volantis’ her flying dress powered by twelve electric motor-driven rotors.

lady gaga 2

 Electronic conducting textiles have the ability to make music.  One example is the electric gloves that allow people to interact with their computer remotely via hand gestures, beautiful gloves that help the wearer gesturally interact with their computer and technology allows for a performance without having to interact with or physically touch, keyboards or control panels.

 The new generation of weavers will double as medics, technicians, artists, designers, spacemen, nutritionists, image consultants and, of course, scientists.  What will be next?  How much more inventive we can get?  Maybe they will be able to realise what only those imaginative writers of the TV series Star Trek, way back in the sixties, had thought possible; maybe the next big thing is Transportation Suits where we can wear a piece of clothing that will jumble our atoms and ‘beam us up’ to new and unexplored parts of the universe, or even to different time zones?  But what happens when those suits gets hacked or infected with malicious Ransomware?  Back down to earth or lost in time and space?  

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THE COLLECTION

at The Proud Archivist, London, N1

Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd January 2016

“An immersive exhibition celebrating the lives and loves of some the UK’s greatest collectors.  Showcasing some of the most intriguing and unusual collections from across the nation.”

 We may think that collecting is a wonderfully eccentric British obsession – nearly seventy one percent of Britons say they are collectors – though it is not solely confined to these shores.  This exhibition, however, highlights collecting in a uniquely British historical context where collecting had once been a noble pastime and the practice of adventurers and amateur scholars.  Some of the greatest museums in the world owe their existence to the acquisitive instincts of private collectors from the Ashmolean in Oxford to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London.  Henry Wellcome, the pharmacist, collected over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science and later opened his museum.

 For many people who amass collections, their value is not monetary but emotional.  Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in their history, or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present.  Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete; an itch which can never be eased.  Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. Some people find the act of arranging, organizing and presenting serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed. 

 Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive side to collecting, the need for people to have ‘an object of desire’ and hence the innate propensity to collect begins at birth, stemming from unresolved toilet training conflict, say the Freudians. They maintain, therefore, that the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their ‘possessions’ which have long since been flushed down the loo. 

loads of houses

 Jung had a more reasonable theory about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behaviour, embedded in, what he termed, our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of nuts and berries, once needed for survival by our early ancestors.

 At some point in history, obsessive acquisitiveness began to be seen as something suspect, infantile or just plain strange – stamp collecting became the epitome of suburban small-mindedness – and those inchoate accumulations were completed out of sight.  But in the late twentieth century came a second wave of collectors and those supposedly worthless assemblages of ephemera started to make serious money; a piece of chewing gum spat out by Britney Spears at Wembley Arena in 2000 being sold on eBay for $14,000.

Some commerce-motivated collectors hunt for collectables only to turn them into profit soon after – think the TV programme Four Rooms.  However, most autograph seekers are emotionally motivated to collect with, apparently, over ninety percent of autograph collectors having no intention to sell their trophies. Happiness is derived from adding a new find or signature to the collection; the excitement of the hunt, and the social camaraderie when sharing a collection with others.  

A neurologist who studies hoarding behaviour agrees with Jung that the need to collect stems from a basic drive to collect supplies such as food that goes back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and that this drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. He has found that many compulsive hoarders had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of their brain that regulates cognitive behaviours like decision making, information processing, and organizing behaviour.

So collecting can be many things to many people, different motives are not mutually exclusive and different motives can combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons.  A positive and healing occupation; a way of passing the time; a symptom of brain malfunction.  Someone, one day, will probably make a collection of collectors, keep them in suspended animation and refer to them as curiosities. I’d pay to see that.

THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?

LOOMS AND LAPTOPS

Old Looms

The loom was the first piece of automated machinery.  It was basically a simple system although it looks really complicated. There are horizontal rods, which connect with vertical rods with hooks. The horizontal rods interact with the punched cards which either have holes or un-perforated card (yes or no, on or off, one or zero, good or bad). If they move, then the vertical rod is moved. If the hook at the rod top is moved into the path of the griffe as it rises, then the hook is raised, and the thread is lifted. That creates the shed for the weft to pass through.

As a weaving system which withdrew control from human workers and transferred to the hardware of the machine, the Jacquard loom was bitterly opposed  by workers, who saw in this migration of control, a piece of their bodies literally transferred to the machine.  The Luddites opposed this automation and were supported in the House of Lords by the poet Lord Byron.

Charles Babbage, interested in the effects of automated machines on traditional forms of manufacture, published his research on the subject The Economies of Manufactures and Machinery in 1832.  He later said that looking back on the early factories was like seeing prototype ‘thinking machines’.

It was the Jacquard loom that excited and inspired Babbage (maker of the Difference Engine) who went on to build his Analytic engine, in which he was greatly helped by Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of previously mentioned Lord Byron. It was Ada who commented that if the Difference engine could simply add up, the Analytic Engine was capable of performing the whole of arithmetic.

Charles and Ada developed an intense relationship and in agreeing to write the footnotes to – and to translate from the Italian – Louis Menebrea’s Sketch of the Analytic Engine invented by Charles Babbage (1842) Ada produced the first example of what was later to be called ‘computer programming’.  The introduction of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating his looms, the punched card, was copied by the pair to attain the varied and complicated processes required to fulfil the purposes of the Analytical Engine.

Old fashioned telephone exchange

Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page. Only by criss-crossing the complex topical landscape can the goals of multifacedness and the establishment of multiple connections begin to be attained.  Where there are a jumble of voices, ideas, and gossip, where there are people talking at the same time, where there is empathy and discourse, that’s where you‘ll find the real world of women.   The Internet shatters the myth that women are victims of technological change.  Weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating, women have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, enjoying intimate relations with the techniques and technologies which are revolutionising the Western World today.

laptop and hands

MARTYRS at St. Paul’s

Martyrs_(Earth,_Air,_Fire,_Water)

“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.” ― Julian of Norwich.

On my way to see Bill Viola’s video installation at St. Paul’s I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the work, Martyrs, was displayed on four vertical plasma displays on the South Quire Aisle and I knew that each screen contained a figure being subjected to the elemental forces of earth, wind, fire and water.

I was hoping for was an echo of Viola’s stunning projection The Messenger, made for Durham Cathedral, in which he pulled off a transcendent piece of art shot-through with pulsating, gurgling colour; an incredible and disturbing soundtrack; and at four metres high an artwork on the grand scale.

I was worried that it might resemble The Passions in which he recreated scenes from the bible using actors and shown on LCD screens lying on their sides.

What I found was fresh and didn’t actually look like either of these.  Approaching this work you see the installation positioned on the side of the high altar at the end of the quire. The structure in which the screens sit, designed by Sir Norman Foster, fits the space perfectly, measuring 140 x 338 x 10 cms, neither huge nor mundane.

On the left hand screen there is a man covered in a pile of earth holding his head.  Slowly the earth flies upwards and the man stands, ultimately alone, looking upwards.  The second screen is the only woman, who is bound hand and foot and held, dimly hanging from above.  Wind blows her from side to side, painfully twisting her around.  Eventually her ordeal ends and she hangs, now still but looking upwards.  In the third screen sits a man in a darkened space.  Very slowly little tongues of fire fall around him, culminating in a conflagration that engulfs him.  The flames stop and he rests, looking upwards. The final screen on the right shows a man lying on his side and bound at the ankles, his eyes shut.  He is pulled upright, upside down.  He hangs with his arms raised in the horizontal, with water falling heavily onto his feet and down his body. The water lessens and he is drawn upwards, his arms back at his sides, and out of vision.

Many thoughts were sparked by looking at this and many religious parallels could be made. Many questions about man’s endurance, persistence and steadfastness also came to my mind.  I repeatedly wondered at the pain the woman must have felt, hanging there, and I wondered, was it deliberate that Viola give the woman the heaviest burden?

Bill Viola uses technology but his sources of inspiration are the Western and Eastern mystics.  And many of Viola’s titles simply are religious content. It seems to me that Viola is asking fundamental questions that traditionally we look to religion for the answers.  By asking those questions it doesn’t automatically make the work religious.  If that echoes the way we pray and meditate that merely reflects man’s insecurities not religious faith.

I thought the work might take on something of a moving stained glass window but this work is not concerned with colour, then I realised there are no stained glass windows in St. Pauls – too Popish I suppose – and maybe he was respecting this.  He also eschews sound, sadly but understandably, especially as, when I was there, a simple sequence was being played quietly by an organ somewhere.

Like most of his work, Martyrs is shown in slow-motion (the second screen may have been in real time, it’s not exactly clear) a device that has been criticised for being inappropriate, ponderous and achingly obvious, but isn’t the point of slowing things down more to do with exposing the true elegance and wonder of the world around us, of giving us time to think?

Viola’s work The Passions has been called vulgar, smug and tear-jerking hocus-pocus but I can honestly say Martyrs struck me as understated and dignified. I can see that some of his comments can be seen as self-satisfied but this work is anything but vulgar or smug.  Bill Viola and his technology have come of age.  This work shows an artist at his peak, assured of his tools but restrained and considered. All was exceeding well.

ZERO STATE

In a state of zero there are no questions.

An empty void waiting to be filled?

On my bike today is my existence elevated by

a black cormorant sweeping low over the water and a flying fish jumping out to meet him,

the sun in an azure sky, small white clouds low above the horizon,

eight duckling chicks with protective Mother, a moorhen’s precarious nest propped against a post,

a cluster of iridescent dragonflies busy on the banks,

one of the first cuckoos singing in the distance,

elegant reeds – standing tall and soft in their massed ranks,

pink-tinged wild roses abundant along the banks rubbing branches with blowsy elderflower bushes in full bloom,

a cacophony of smells – hot hearth – damp algae – fishermen’s decaying maggots – a lavender bush – grass cuttings accumulating on the water,

all carried to my senses on the breeze blowing from the water?

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All senses indeed elevated by the experience.

 

A SICK JOKE

Simone de Beauvoir must be turning in her grave.  Is it some kind of sick joke?  After years, decades, nay centuries of effort to get gender equality into our social order, women have now achieved that great accolade – for which, as far as I know, they never strived – they have been granted the chance to be given frontline combat roles in the armed forces.

Sicker and sicker.  Although there have been women with background roles in the armed forces before, women in the UK can now be deployed at the very front of where the action is with a primary role to kill.

So from our traditional life-giving roles, which we have taken for granted for too long, we now have arrived at that apogee of equality, we have been given the wonderful chance to be life-takers.

Oh joy.  All the women throughout the ages, suffragettes, Greenham Common women, technological innovators, we/they have all now failed.

I have called myself a feminist with pride, but what I really was yearning for was the chance to make the world a better place, a place in which a woman’s touch would turn this planet into a peaceful place.  I have never supported war in any guise, and do not recognise that there is any ‘just war’ and it is never right to take life.