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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STRING THEORY

String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.

ancient-greek-fabric-attica

The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 

lozenge-shaped-blk-wht-fabric

The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 

 

 

 

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.

Genderquake

It is generally agreed that there have been limited choices of employment for most women outside the home throughout the last few centuries.

Considering some of these opportunities, it seems that in the textiles industry women’s work was to programme the looms with punched cards, but it was also a woman who saw this and realised that this binary code was perfect for programming computers.

In offices around the world women’s typing was supposed to be intended only for the eyes of men, the bosses.  However the development of new techniques by Pitman and Gregg made shorthand a private female code, another language, another code.

In the production of miniature components women were small, weak and powerless but it was their hands that were more agile, dexterous and best suited to micro processing thus replacing men on the factory floor.

As it turns out, women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of digital machines.  When computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on.  When computers became the miniaturised circuits of silicon chips, it was women who assembled them.  Theirs is not a subsidiary role because when computers were virtually real machines it was a woman who wrote the software on which they ran.

Often called the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace was undoubtedly an interesting character. The question is still open for debate, was she a promiscuous, spoilt society heiress or a gifted mathematician and original thinker?  Some (man) called her not only irrelevant but delusional – I can’t remember his name now.

As the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, her mother feared that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, so she raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada had a fascination with machines from childhood, designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.

In correspondence with Charles Babbage, who was working on the ideas for a machine that is now recognised as a forerunner of the modern computer, Ada demonstrated her gift for mathematics and was described by him as “the enchantress of numbers”.  She was introduced to him by another female scientist famous in her day, the mathematician Mary Somerville, who mentored Ada during her relatively short life.

Babbage was impressed by the mathematical skills Ada possessed and invited her to make notes and translate a piece in Italian written by Luigi Menabrea describing Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’, so that it could be published in England.  Her footnotes include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, while she also speculated on its future ability to create graphics and complex music.

She must have inherited some of her Father’s brilliant poeticism, however, as she also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.  Her mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.  Maybe she was just more practically prescient than the focused men around her?

Her lasting legacy as role model for girls and young women considering careers in technology is remembered on Ada Lovelace Day (this year it’s on 14th October 2014) which is dedicated to the celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology.

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