Textiles and fiber arts come with predetermined descriptive phrases. Comfort, delicacy, care and domesticity act as firm descriptive phrases that oftentimes hinder the further evaluation of the textile medium. When digital and industrial methods are introduced, we owe it to ourselves to insert these factors into a larger issue concerning perception and dialogue around the works. How should a recipient or observer of an artwork respond when something that tries cozying up to you suddenly reveals a precocious hostility?
In this review published in Contemporary Art Writing Daily of Petra Cortright’s 2020 show Borderline Aurora Borealis, the author confronts Cortright’s attempt at using textiles as a translation for ethereal or fleeting computer images. In regards to Cortright’s exhibition, the author states: “Everything that makes virtual space unique is lost in order to give you, prospector, something to bite.” Ultimately, the works in the show are created to impress ‘Art dads’ and collectors in the way the works show off digital media applied to a ‘traditional’, physical form. Cortright’s theme of Post Internet Art vocalized through the textile medium strips away both of their uniqueness and you are left with what the author calls: “A cardboard cutout replacement of someone famous.” The verity of this claim lies in the motion of how printing on fabric connects to a harsher and ‘uglier’ method of production, far detached from presumptions of graceful purity often connected to the production of textile works. Cortright’s digital paintings become reproductions in a form that forces the fabrics through a printer and come out on the other side as a ‘perfect’ translation – existing without flaws or marks. The result is the production of a ready-made object, snatched from industry and applied a price tag filled with preconceived notions. In this observation, there is also an implied, cynical play on the viewer expected to accept the built-in ‘friendly’ connotations to textiles when in truth, the medium and process are grinding at each other – rendering them both hollow. Industrialization and digitization does not happen without the textile industry. The invention of the Jacquard Loom in 1804 allowed an unskilled laborer to produce the same patterned fabric quicker than a master weaver. By using punch cards, the loom would configure the correct method of creating patterns and this use of binary code would later lay the groundwork for computer programming.
Today there are machines such as the Tc2 Digital Jacquard Loom that connect pre-industrial methods, early Jacquard technology and modern digital software to create a making experience that is interesting both liberating and limiting. Working on a Tc2 gives you the same amount of neck and back pain as a regular floor loom, but through throwing a shuttle back and forth you can end up with images of internet fragments, algorithmically generated patterns or digitally created forms that are translated through the programmed lifting of warp and weft. The Tc2 however comes with a $33,000 price tag, and is often locked behind institutional doors, or a limited selection of residencies. This creates a hefty schism between two very separate forms of textile production. One operates in the private – stitching and weaving solely by hand in an effort to reconnect with ‘simpler’ ways of making. The other is dependent on institutional support that can sometimes dictate the end product. What do people want to see from textile artists where precious spots are available for this high-priced method of production? Salacious curveballs or streamlined, prewritten, copycatted artist statements? Oftentimes we are met by the latter… Do trends in the art world dictate what we end up seeing from these precious opportunities? Questions like these linger perhaps in the minds of people who hold authority over these production methods. Textile and fiber works are part of the loosely defined ‘democratized’ art sphere as there is wider acceptance of ‘private methods of making’ that are not taught by art institutions. Yet how are people still shocked by the bold and fresh Quilts of Gee’s Bend, regardless of their disconnect to digital technologies? With craft seeing an uptick in popularity in a world that is back to valuing human touch, there are instances of artists cutting out the middleman, the tools, instruments and the studio to get straight to the point and order industrially produced rugs with whatever image they might desire. Drop shipping services have made it easier to custom order textiles to portray your intended image without involving the canvas, the paper or other substrates. Canvas or linen exude luxury and glamor, paper alludes to quickness, but textiles offer another distinguishing characteristic – the aspiration of care, labor and domesticity. However, the products which you order are completely anonymous, made by what might as well be ghosts, the results of the production itself carry with it a similar poetry. The industrially made textile is no longer connected to care, or comfort, rather it is now attached to global pollution, child labor and the navigation of a terrain littered with scams and untruths. This method of making is utilized by design studios, established artist or exhibition spaces that build a narrative of the object as something other than a pointlessly expensive and materially consuming laser print. In the end, there is nothing wrong with asking for a dollar, or having a somewhat antagonistic art practice. Stitching, knitting and crocheting is making a comeback, marks indicate labor, which again identifies a sort of ‘labor value’. But does the origin of this labor stand out as meaningful? And what about its connection to technology and the hierarchies it creates within the textile world? And when does the process of labor become indistinguishable between purely industrial and that which is just the industrial oversight of the artist? The fastidious MFA student, the factory worker or the grandmother with the quilting setup are all working within the textile sphere, yet the product’s connotations are ever-changing depending on whose hand it touches. As the world changes and machine learning and AI art generators are the latest new fads to hit the average consumer, is there not a point to be argued that we owe it to ourselves to preserve a ‘purity of making’, or leave extra space for human failure? Industrial or digital textile production methods are impressive, yet dull, temporary and sometimes exploitative. A perfect product might hold high monetary value, but the diaphanous textile is forever ethereal and alluring in its imperfections.
Artwork and text by Jens Pettersen.