Postmortem: Hanging textile for Interactive Portraits by Anne Smithies

In the post about Festival of the Mind Futurecade, I mentioned this collaboration with Anne Smithies on a gorgeous, huge textile to accompany my interactive portraits. I first approached Anne about this because of a chat I had in Tokyo with Zep, the maker of the Pico-8 platform that I’ve been working with to make these small software pieces – we were chatting about how a particular graphics feature he’d introduced to the platform a few months earlier was giving works a textile-like quality to them, as you could now build landscapes out of 4×4 repeating pixel patterns. When the Crossover Labs people asked me if I could think of some way to blow up the works to something large-scale that could take up more space in the room, the first thing I thought of was textile arts like crosstitch, knitting, or patchwork. I brought this to Anne, an artist who does a lot of work with textiles, has a giant quilting machine, and does a lot of mixed-media art depicting animals – an important theme, since most of the portraits take animal form. Anne suggested applique, which allowed her to combine repeating patterns with large circle shapes, which is a pretty faithful reproduction of how I’ve coded the portraits’ appearance.

The image I gave Anne to work with is the design for the portrait of Iriya. Iriya’s portrait is the first one I made that wasn’t based on an animal – I generally try to choose an animal that matches something related to a person’s story or a name they use online, but I couldn’t find anything in my interview with Iriya or in their online persona that corresponded to any kind of animal. Then I saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting shown above in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and something clicked. I was really moved by the image of this small being with a huge aura, nestled in an imposing landscape. A lot of things changed when I translated this image into the circle-and-pattern-based system I’m using for the portraits, and I still wanted Iriya to have facial expressions like everyone else, so I made the little glowing being a bit bigger. Anne took this image, and re-inserted colour in the applique process, which ended up bringing it to a good middle spot between the stark black environment of that one portrait, and the very colourful appearance of some of the others.

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Photograph by Festival of the Mind

There are so many surprising little details that Anne incorporated into this piece that I won’t be able to remember them all. She took a load of old computer keycaps that I’ve been collecting and made them into buttons for the text panels, which are detachable – this way, as the interactive portraits tour spaces with different dimensions, the textile can adapt to fill the space differently. We had a whole conversation about which keys on the keyboard are a good fit for the theme, and which are too on-the-nose (we decided that the “shift” and “alt” keys were good, but “m” “t” and “f” were not). The character’s shadow is made of reflective fabric, so that when the textile is photographed with flash it seems to light up. Anne even made sure that her giant quilting machine would follow a route that resembled a circuit board, so that when seen from the back the piece still has interesting visual features that reference its digital origins. One of the most striking features is a result of Anne using vinyl printing to create a very rigid overlay with digital accuracy on the soft fabrics – I think that’s what really makes this piece look like a hybrid between pixel art and patchwork, and makes it into something that I never would have imagined.

I was attracted to the idea of a textile piece because I thought the traditional features of weaving textiles had an intrinsic similarity to the features of coding patterns in Pico-8 (a connection that was certainly inspired by Emilie Reed’s article on the historical link between weaving and coding) so to be honest, the idea of using vinyl printing made me slightly uncomfortable at first. I had this prejudice in my mind about it, like maybe printing is a bit contrived or inauthentic? But nothing Anne does is either of those things, so I trusted that she was onto something, and I am so glad I did.

One of the greatest joys in my life is letting go of my preconceived ideas, so that my eyes are open to something beautiful and fresh, that I could never have seen through my old conceptual goggles. The precision and flatness of the vinyl ended up being very important to this work, and made it into much more than a piece of textile art inspired by a piece of digital art. It’s actually something new, that clearly has a place in both mediums.

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