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Arachnes of Our Time:
The Tech-Textile Work of Antoni, Lee, and Orta.
Spiders have lived and died, but one spider has remained, the first spider, the spider that was once a woman. Arachne, now gross and shriveled, sits in her corner, weaving a web that she started fifty years ago. Sometimes she wonders what she would do if her spell suddenly broke and she became human again. How would she live? Would she go back to weaving, now on some assembly line? Would she be an "artisan" working for a little glory and even less pay?
Weaving was one of the most advanced technologies of her time. Perhaps, if she had the flexibility and motivation that she had before she became a spider, she would pursue the advanced technologies of these times. It puzzled her how today's technological artists made works that were so self-absorbed, not only unto themselves, but unto the technologies they used. Then again, if she had grown up in this age, maybe she would have been that way herself.
But it's a futile exercise to think in this way. Arachne fades back into her corner, spitting on her legs, preparing to make new silk.
The loom is one of the oldest technologies; it made possible the use of a strong and flexible material that protected, hid, and bound people just as much as it gave them a lasting way to adorn themselves and declare their individuality. In Greek mythology, Arachne was one of the first to use her skill on the loom to challenge authority-- namely Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. The common belief is that a story like Arachne's was told as a cautionary tale against hubris. Indeed, in some versions of the story, Arachne is a talented weaver whose excessive pride makes her deserving of great punishment (Athena turns her into a spider).
The rhetoric of the Arachne myth is still prevalent, and surprisingly, the onset of digital technology seems to have intensified its pervasiveness. The World Wide Web, the Net, fiber optics—these terms have been added to our common language. Even DNA, the molecule that determines our individuality, is a pair of twisted strands.
Beyond science and technology, myth as metaphor is used as often and as powerfully as it ever was. Kristin Bloomberg's recent book Tracing Arachne's Web examines myth in femin(ine)ist literature at the turn of the twentieth century. Erik Davis's Techgnosis finds the foundations in computer culture that lie in ancient myth and mysticism.
Like with fabric, one of the reasons that myth is so often and so broadly used is its incredible flexibility. As the needs of its tellers and audience evolve, so myth flows and folds into new forms of metaphor. For instance, socially progressive and radical thinkers throughout history have reclaimed myths of resistance, transforming the transgressor into a hero(ine). (See Shannon Darrow's essay on the Virgin of Guadalupe for an example outside of Greco-Roman mythology.)
Arachne can be doubly reimagined in this way. With her immense weaving talent, she trangressed the mortal/immortal line lying between herself and Athena. After she turned into a spider, she crossed the line from animal to human. In these reimaginings, I wonder: was Arachne's weaving contest a matter of hubris or self-defense? As a spider, did Arachne retain her human consciousness? Is there even a difference?
Questions like these, with their overtones of ambiguity and interconnectivity, arise when considering the structure of a web. The elements of binaries and hierarchies are more unambiguously divided and organized. On the other hand, elements in a web are more interconnected, sometimes to the point that ambiguity arises for it becomes less clear where one element ends and another begins.
Many anthropologists couch the 'web' and the 'divide' in premodern and modern terms. Premodern people structured their worldview into a web: everything, from animals to medicine to sex to tools to travel to storytelling, was woven into a community webwork of mind, matter, and spirit. By contrast, modern people structure their worldview with a divide between nature (exterior, foreign space) and culture (interior, familiar space). Science anthropologist Bruno Latour called the premodern web the "anthropological matrix" and the modern divide the "Great Divide." (Latour, 7).
In his book We Have Never Been Modern, Latour argues that the Great Divide is an illusion and that the world never really left the anthropological matrix. The illusion was useful, though-- it allowed modern societies to free itself from the conservatism of premodernism, where the effects of change reverberated more widely through the entire web/matrix. As a result, modern societies were able to pursue 'progress' at an unparalleled intensity.
But this 'progress' led to hybrids that contradicted the Great Divide: subject/objects that blurred the line between culture and nature, between agency and raw material. In today's increasingly interconnected, hybrid world, it is harder to sustain the illusion of the Great Divide: our worldview-structures are cycling back to that of the premodern web (Latour 24).
In Techgnosis, Erik Davis uses Latour's argument to justify his own explorations: "If Latour is right, and I believe he is, then we have some stories to tell about the ways that modern technologies have become mixed up with other times, other places, other paradigms" (Davis 12).
Davis focuses on the mythical elements of digital culture in a search for the soulful richness that does exist (but is often ignored) amidst the rationalism and specialization of the information age. This richness acknowledges hybridization and blurred boundaries. To this I add that these blurred boundaries revive the possibilities surrounding community and cultural inclusion. Consequently, I focus on three hybrids throughout this essay.
First there is the previously mentioned hybridization (mortal/immortal, human/animal) inherent in the Arachne myth and my own reimagining of that myth.
Second is the hybrid of the critical essay and the personal narrative. In retelling Arachne's story, I put a personal spin on it, a spin that concerns individuality, independence, and solitude. Though I'm no expert on mythology, it seems that Arachne is one of the most prominent non-goddesses whose realistically human talent made her the heroine of her own story.
Finally, there is the hybrid that involves Arachne as a metaphorical symbol of three young artists: Janine Antoni, Lee Bul, and Lucy Orta. All three artists have worked with mythical/digital hybrids themselves, for they folded aspects of new technology into the use of the ancient technology of weaving and using textiles.
The Arachne myth has indirectly and directly inspired all kinds of artwork from Louise Bourgeois's Spider series of the mid-1990's to Peter Testa Architects' software art program Weaver from last year. However, this essay focuses particularly on Antoni, Lee, and Orta, and not only for the tech-textile aspects in their work. All three artists use ambiguity, interconnectivity, and interaction to actively transgress existing cultural boundaries—not to simply criticize and destruct them, but to expand their ability to be more socially inclusive.
Weaving can be such a boring, repetitious, finger-stiffening task-- perhaps that's why Arachne excels at it so much, with her small, flexible fingers, and her ability to remove her mind from the task, to almost make herself unconscious.
It's winter now, and people from all around come to watch Arachne and to ask her to make a blanket from them. It's good money, and Arachne enjoys the company and the audience, so she makes many blankets, dispensing away with fancy pattern work and concentrating on speed. Her winter blankets are plain and warm.
A few weeks after she sells her first few blankets, some of the people start returning. They can't exactly explain what, but Arachne's blankets have changed their dreams. What is it that Arachne is doing to these blankets?
A common thread running through much of Janine Antoni's (b. 1964) work is work: compulsively repetitive actions that explore the dysfunction and pleasure resulting from obsessive (and often domestically-oriented) labor (Antoni 11). Her work includes Gnaw (1992), where she bit into large chunks of chocolate and lard to form candy boxes and lipstick shapes; Loving Care (1993), where she painted a gallery floor by using her head and hair as a live mop; and Butterfly Kisses (1993), where she painted a canvas in mascara by using her eyelashes as a brush (Art and Culture website).
In Slumber (1994-96), Antoni turns her focus to the repetitive motion involved in weaving. Slumber is a modified tableau vivant-- literally, "living picture" (Fisher 28)-- consisting of a bed, a large loom, and an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine, all set in an exhibition room. (Antoni has presented the piece in many major museums and galleries throughout the world.) The threads of the loom stretch from the loom, over the bed, and to the opposite wall. They form a canopy under which Antoni sleeps at night. While she sleeps on the bed, EEG patches attached near her eyelids record her rapid eye movements in line graph form. When Antoni awakens, she engages herself in two activities while the exhibition space is open to the public. One is a task, where she tears a thin strip from her nightgown and uses it to weave the previous night's EEG pattern into the loom's threads, adding to a long, continuous blanket extending from the loom to the bed. (She also chooses nightgown material to "match" the city she's in; for instance, she wore paisley in Philadelphia.) The other activity prevents Antoni from being objectified within her own work: she talks to museum visitors about the piece as they examine it (Keenan 36). Talking to visitors directly also bypasses the mediation of the museum guide (Fisher 31). In each location where Antoni installs the piece, she considers its installation "finished" when all the nightgown fabric has been woven into the blanket (Spector 15).
Though Slumber examines sleep and dreaming, Antoni deliberately avoided Surrealist dream interpretation in her plans for the piece (MacRitchie 109). She wanted to somehow use sleep as a sculptural material (Spector 13), so she turned to the mechanics of sleeping, and eventually, dreaming. Antoni says, "At a certain point I decided that dreams are the material of sleep. So in order to do a piece on sleep, I really had to think about how to make an object out of dreams" (Keenan 36). Combining medical technology with weaving, Antoni annotates rather than interprets her dreams: in her sleep-state, the machine codes her REM patterns; in her waking-state, she enacts a sort of decoding as she weaves the REM graph into her blanket (Renton 119).
This combination also allows Antoni to magnify the intricate process of sleep, from lying on a bed (which she leaves unmade), to closing the eyelids, to reflecting on the previous night's happenings. There is a duality in the piece that reflects the duality of waking and sleeping. Antoni explores duality by creating dual visual puns: her nightgown is always in two forms-- clothing and blanket-- just as her dreams are always in two forms-- the dreams themselves and their graphical interpretation (Keenan 36).
There is also circularity in the piece that reflects the cycles present in sleeping, in waking, and in the waking/sleeping chain that forms a life. Each discrete element of the piece-- the nightgown, the bed, the EEG machine, the loom and its threads, the blanket-- form a loop of objects that are all interconnected with each other. In creating levels of duality and circularity, Antoni acknowledges the ambiguity of sleep, but she doesn't try to unravel and de(con)struct them-- instead, she ravels them, weaving them into a blanket.
In her article "Interperformance," Jennifer Fisher discusses the aspirational effects of historical tableau vivants. These performances were at their most popular in the nineteenth century and they were usually stagings of famous sculptures or literary scenes. Often they were thinly veiled displays for women of marriageable age. These aspects combined to lend tableau vivants that aspirational, instrumentalist effect. Most of the time the ideal Victorian woman was set forth, but occasionally a more progressive agent emerged, agents like the "liberated spinster," the "college girl," and the "suffragette"(Fisher 28).
By inextricably weaving herself into Slumber as sculptor, performer, and docent, Antoni "presents herself as communicative muse: one who at once symbolizes unseen mysteries yet refuses reduction to silence" (Fisher 31). There is an aspirational quality in this presentation: Antoni challenges the aesthetic conventions and institutional politics of the museum, urging (by her own example) a higher level of inclusion and interaction.
But this challenge is far from didactic-- Slumber is not a lecture. Fisher's "muse" metaphor is apt, for it brings to mind those immortals who inspired agency in others. The metaphor also evokes the ancient notion of art-space as community-space, marketplace, and spiritual-space. It has been argued that for today's secularist society, the art gallery/museum is the most hallowed space outside of religious institutions. But often there is a distance and even a sterility that undermines the gallery/museum's accessibility. Placing herself in her own work and chatting casually with exhibit visitors, Antoni attempts to shrink many of these distances: gaps between the artist and artwork, the artist/technologist and the visitor, the artwork and the visitor, and the artist and institution.
Chatting with visitors in different countries, Antoni said she felt like an anthropologist viewing different cultures through the lens of her art-piece. Though she kept the conversation focused on the exhibit, it still varied widely: in Switzerland, shy visitors discussed the Jungian psychological underpinnings of the work, while in Spain, gregarious visitors discussed the work's tactile aspects while they touched it and its maker. In Philadelphia, visitors were fascinated with the science of the EEG machine, reflecting Antoni's own scientific awe (Keenan 36). Her early research for the piece led her to the Sleep-Wake Disorder Center in the Bronx. She ultimately worked with a doctor who coincidentally collected art about dreams (Spector 13). The doctor taught her to use the EEG, which she came to greatly admire: "It seemed to be doing what my work was trying to do… Science created this machine for the body to make a drawing, and I thought that was really beautiful" (Keenan 36).
Shrinking the gap between the artist and institution seemed to be Antoni's greatest personal challenge. First there was the difficulty of sleeping in a big space, without the physical security of a bedroom's closer walls. Then there is the vulnerability of being watched by museum guards even as the museum must trust Antoni to participate in its security procedures, which in turn have been modified to accommodate Slumber (Fisher 32). The connections between trust and challenge can be traced to Antoni's ambivalent outlook on a history that defines her as an artist but excludes her as a woman (Cottingham 103). This might lead to Slumber's framing effort at inclusion: by carving out a space to live and work in the gallery/museum, Antoni symbolically adds to the space for excluded people to live and work in art's history and institutions.
Though she was hardly set on it, spinsterhood appealed to Arachne. She had many childhood friends whose lives seemed to flatten and pale once they became wives and mothers.
Maybe this wasn't true-- maybe they were exploring richnesses Arachne couldn't see. Nevertheless, it annoyed her when another woman-- or worse yet, a man-- nagged on her singlehood. "Why don't you have any suitors? Soon you'll be too old, and all you'll have is your weaving!"
Arachne had already thought of this. It made her throw herself into weaving even more.
But every year the nags increased, until finaly she snapped, "Well, if you can find someone who weaves better than me, I'll marry the damn paragon."
She regretted it as soon as it was said. She didn't necessarily want someone who wove better, some paragon; she just wanted someone who let her be.
Lee Bul (b. 1964) is the daughter of political dissidents, and grew up as part of her parents' fugitive life (Lee 29). It might be part of why much of her work addresses female identity in Korea and Asian identity in a Western-dominated world. In Lee's work, fabric and flexible material like vinyl are generally used to consider and satirize stereotypes surrounding Asian women's clothing and adornments. In one of her early pieces, the performance Cravings (1989), Lee made and wore "soft sculpture" costumes that resembled anime-caricatured hybrids of spiders, hydras (Fabric Museum••••), limbs and viscera (Hoffmann 125). Wearing these costumes, Lee danced Butoh, a stylized of Japanese dance style that emerged in the wake of Hiroshima's bombing (Lee 29). She wore one of these costumes again the next year in Sorry For Suffering-- You Think I'm a Puppy On A Picnic?, where she walked the streets of Seoul and Tokyo, trying to provoke the public with her strange dress (artist's website).
Lee's career is marked by an evolution from a reliance on textiles in her early performance work to a reliance on digital technology and sci-fi media images in her more recent sculptural work. It seems that Monuments, her series of inflatable sculptures, is a transition between performance and object, for it co-opts museum visitors to perform inflatio(n) on the object (Lee Bul Art and Culture website). Neither textiles nor digital technology are used heavily in Monuments, but both play important roles.
Each of the Monuments consists of a tall balloon (perhaps averaging forty feet high) onto which a huge, color-saturated photo image is digitally transferred. These photos feature Lee decked out in luxurious fabrics, jewelry, and strap-on baby doll faces: the resulting effect is something like a little-girl geisha dominatrix. The costume's array of fabric is dizzyingly busy with its satin kimono, fishnet stockings, lace bodice, and pleather boots, all composed to spoof "Western images of the exotic Asian woman and expectations of how Eastern feminist art should look" (Hoffmann 125). The vinyl balloons are huge monuments, but they are also inflatable dolls, often regarded as emasculating objects of sexual desperation.
The monument I Need You and Hydra, are connected by plastic tubing to about twenty foot pump/toy trumpet hybrids that visitors can use to slowly inflate the works. I Need You's vinyl is flesh-colored, which Hydra is hot pink and is covered in small vinyl appendages (artist's website).
Like with Janine Antoni, one of Lee's concerns in developing the Monuments is closing the distance between gallery/museum visitors and the objects they behold. By connecting the big vinyl balloons to honking foot pumps, Lee endows these anthropomorphic objects with the sort of animist power that children bestow upon toys. Just as Arachne blurred the line between human and animal, Lee blurs the line between human and object. Lee says that she has never subscribed to the notion of a finished object in and of itself, she believes instead that the "object itself has no power to exercise until it is encountered by the audience and what they bring to it." (Ulrich).
In making this humorous series of anti-monuments, Lee sets out to parody the monument-erecting process as well as the monument itself. She puts forth a monumental object-- tall, phallic, public-- and makes it necessary for collective action (or extremely devoted singular action) to ensue for the monument to become fully erect. Otherwise, the deflated monument lies there, refusing to impose itself on the visitor. The foot pumps' connection to toy trumpets intensify the self-consciousness of erecting the monument, for a honking noise accompanies the odd, undignified motion of heaving a foot up and down. This might alienate a visitor, but it is Lee's purpose to emphasize an awareness of the collective mechanisms involved in making a monument (Ulrich).
That the Monuments are fallible-- they deflate if left alone too long-- implies Lee's skepticism over the notion of the machine (in this case, the foot pump, but in later work, Lee starts to examine the computer) as a neutral tool that facilitates achievement: "The idea of fallibility, whether human or mechanical, is considered a matter-of fact truth, something that the more 'advanced' Western societies, with their technological triumphalism, are reluctant to acknowledge" (Bul 106).
Both the Monuments and Lee's early performances make use of the Hydra myth. Like Arachne in spider-form, the Hydra is a creature of many appendages (head/necks instead of legs). Lee's use of the Hydra infuses her work with imagery similar to Arache-influenced artworks: splitting strands interwoven with dislocated appendages. Arachne challenges an immortal, but the Hydra is both moral and immortal. When one of its heads is cut, two heads grow back in replacement. Only by burning the bleeding neck-stumps will this double-growth be prevented.
It seems that Lee identifies with the Hydra, who, with its villainous reputation, is a more solitary symbol than Arachne even in her spider-form. The Hydra myth is also a gorier one, and Lee's fascination with it might be traced to a key moment from her childhood. Walking home from school, Lee saw a pair of young lovers on a motorbike riding past a bakery full of cakes, baroque confections covered in ruby-red syrup. Then the lovers crashed, and she the next thing she remembers is this cinematic scene:
... a close-up of blood streaming down the pale length of the woman's legs toward a pool slowly forming on the pavement... love's aura had done nothing to shield their vulnerable flesh against the brutal materiality of the world. Over the years, I've kept returning in my imagination to the site of the accident... to try to capture that precise moment, absent from my memory, when pure beauty suddenly gave way to utter horror" (Lee 105).
Lee might return to this accident to re-grow a failed memory in the same way the Hydra's heads re-grow. Shrinking the gap between beauty and horror might be a force behind the feminist and Asianist themes in her work. But even then, she admits that her memory is like an attic covered in cobwebs, useless in marking a linear structure to events, but implausibly textured and interconnected, a "dream language that mediates between the unconscious and the lived experience" (Lee 105).
Being changed from a woman to a spider first seemed like the punishment it was meant to be. It had only been a few years since Arachne had begun to think of herself as an adult, and she had only started to become used to the new levels awareness and gravity that come with maturity. To suddenly be tinier, hairier, to have double the number of appendages-- it was far from the future that Arachne had begun to see for herself.
But weaving had always been Arachne's vocation, and in the absence of companionship, in the absence of understanding her own body, she trained her mind on weaving, this one thing that remained. She soon found that she was a much better weaver as a spider than she ever would have been as a human. The extra legs and all-over hair that first repulsed her soon became indespensible tools in making a strong web on which to live and catch food.
The thought of living from weaving! When she was human, weaving was a decorative art-- the most useful things that Arachne ever made were those plain blankets. Now, weaving was necessary-- it was architecture. Though she never understood it, she saw that this was why the silk she made was so strong. Though its threads were thinner than her hair, they were strong enough to hold many times her weight, to protect her from storms, to maintain a firm grasp on her food and her children.
Lucy Orta (b.1966) was trained as a fashion and textile designer in England, but her use of textiles brings portable architecture more to mind than fashion. From 1992-95, she developed a series called Refuge Wear in response to extreme conditions in Kurdistan, Kobe, and Rwanda (artist's website). These items, mainly a series of jackets and jumpers large enough to be converted to individual tents (named Habitents) and sleeping bags, provided portable shelter to refugees from war and natural disaster. This series also included burial bags and water reserves in acknowledgment of the hygienic issues in devastated areas.
Within a few years, Orta had conducted City Intervention, a series of workshops with the homeless in Paris, her home city since 1992. As a result of these workshops, her concerns with the hardship of the disadvantaged morphed into the growing isolation of the disadvantaged and of modern society in general. By the mid-1990's, she focused on Collective Wear, a series that she continues to this day. These outfits are made of high-tech, weather-resistant textiles that can be worn by one person, but can also combine into various communal dwellings (tents, sleeping bags) through the use of closures like heavy-duty zippers and velcro.
In her workshops with homeless shelters, aid camps, and schools, Orta observed many levels of alienation-- from other individuals, from society, and from his or her own body. For many homeless, alienation is augmented by traumatic circumstances and situations. With this in mind, Orta's interest in high-tech or 'intelligent' textiles is twofold-- she thinks of these textiles as membranes that protect people from the elements while coalescing its inhabitant(s), possibly providing a stronger sense of self and sense of community (Virilio 45).
For more than a decade, Orta has worked on the street, in the community, and with humanitarian groups just as much, if not more, than she has exhibited in galleries and museums. Nevertheless, she does not think of herself as a politician or activist-- she is very firm in characterizing herself as an artist who focuses on creating metaphors that are more contentious than useful clothing per se:
"I am very interested in current research into intelligent textiles, which in my opinion is the basis of a change in the relationship between clothing and architecture and their social implications... [my works] are not designed to solve the growing problems our society is facing. However, they have brought to light certain problems and opened up a debate which I hope will include as many people as possible" (Hanru 1999).
Though I'd hoped to focus this essay by focusing on one work from each artist, it's difficult to talk about one work exclusively. Since they are so interconnected and continually revised for artistic and practical purposes, each of her pieces seem to make most sense in the context of her post-1992 body of work. However, there is one piece, Modular Architecture, whose image provides a visual link to the Arachne myth. As seen on the website, Modular Architecture is a collective of jumpsuits/sleeping bags connected in a circle by the sleeves and feet. The maintain a more private space for each of the collective members while the sleeve connections still allow each member to share body heat, more efficiently than a tent in fact (Crosling 65). When viewed from above, Modular Architecture looks very much like a web.
But evoking Joesph Beuys' social sculptures, Orta's primary weaving is that of social networks (Hanru): not only between disadvantaged individuals, but also between the gallery and other community elements (homeless shelters, charities, schools, etc). Originally, Orta would develop a project and enact it outside of the museum; then the museum would exhibit project's documentation. However, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the separation between the "living experience and its frozen institutionalization" (Hanru). As a result, Orta has increasingly tried to engage galleries and museums from the beginning of her projects, as hosts and sponsors to her social projects. Because of Orta's involvement with tight integration of various kinds of networks, the urban cultural theorist Paul Virilio has spoken of Orta as more of a 'societarian' than 'humanitarian:' she addresses the "precariousness of individuals socially alone" (Virilio 47). Orta's take on museums also shows an awareness of the delocalized institution, socially alone.
In seeking a middle ground between clothing and architecture, a private and a public form of shelter, Virilio likens Orta's work to that of packaging, that middle ground that emphasizes marketing and mobility (Virilio 46). However, I see Orta's work more as recalling nomadic periods and creatures. When humans were nomadic, they relied more heavily on fabric as shelter. This made sense because of fabric's lightness, strength, and flexibility. Though the human species has changed much, there still exist nomadic creatures who rely on self-made fabric or fibrous shelters: spiders, caterpillars, and even some birds. And as far as 'intelligent' textiles are concerned, the silks of the caterpillar and especially the spider are the strongest naturally occurring fiber in existence.
Orta's interest in intelligent textiles like aluminum-coated polyamide, the material used for Modular Architecture, seems to imply both and attraction and revulsion to modernity: she is interested in its innovations, but deplores its callous wastefulness. Two early factors that spurred her to undertake the sort of work she does now: disillusionment with the Parisian fashion scene and anger at seeing French farmers dump produce on the highways to protest the European Union (artist's website). In using advanced textiles and pursuing the twofold interest of protection and communion, Orta seems to be advocating a pointed return to the interconnected premodernity that Bruno Latour highlights as our actual reality. She also seems to be trying to lend an element of Athenian immortality to society's most mortally vulnerable sector: the homeless, the war-torn, the displaced.
In the original myth, Arachne was turned into an animal as punishment and humiliation. It can be humiliating to be homeless—like non-domestic animals, they are often despised, feared, and pitied by people who have more stable living conditions. In her workshop series Collective Dwelling, Orta found that while most people feel some sort of disconnection and discomfort with their bodies, the homeless feel it even more acutely in their lack of a stable environment. Orta was reminded of Vito Acconci's early transition from street performer to body artist: he learned that performing on the streets too soon made him feel lost. As a result, he returned to his home and concentrated on his body: "… whatever work I would do in an art-context had to begin with what I could assume I knew at least something about" (Acconci 1). With Collective Dwelling, Orta sought to ease that animalistic humiliation by conducting art therapy around home and the body. With her collective architectures, she seeks to give the homeless a greater sense of stability and a sort of public privacy (Crosling 1).
Humans have been nomadic until relatively recently in evolutionary history, but the stability they lacked geographically they made up for socially by traveling in packs. Many homeless lack both geographical and social stability, making them vulnerable to both environmental and social dangers. Like the spider who attracts lone insects to her web and often assembles a pack from multiple catches, the disadvantaged are more vulnerable to becoming a part of negative networks like "gangs, new tribes, and commandos" (Virilio 46). Orta's work attempts to counteract these negative networks by coordinating many levels of positive networks in their place. By using new textiles printed with bright colors and text, she also attempts to counter the invisibility of the homeless population. It's been hard for me to tell whether this countering invokes a new kind of vulnerability-- a slightly forced conspicuousness-- since testimonials and analyses by participants, sponsors, and observers outside of the art/architecture are nonexistent as far as I know. Nevertheless, for many in the art community (including myself) who have the privileged opportunity to make their voices heard in some small way, Orta's work is successful in expanding a pertinent debate in a way that is local enough to maintain its integrity.
From The "Anthropological Matrix" To The "Sociotechnical Network"
In his extensive anthropological study Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide, Mark Warschauer argues that discussing digital technology in terms of a divide is less effective at solving issues of technology and social inclusion because it fails to effectively frame the analytical discourse in the first place. Among the many complex case studies he cites is the "hole-in-the-wall" program in New Delhi. This program, which places networked computers in street kiosks, gives street children the opportunity to use the computer and the Internet, but it fails to provide education or foster community support (Warschauer 2). This program's failure to constructively engage a community raises questions surrounding the validity of the 'Digital Divide' concept. Here was a community that had become a "have" instead of a "have-not," but was it really benefiting from digital technology?
Instead of a divide that is defined by hardware/software haves and have-nots, Warschauer emphasizes the importance of social context: a "Sociotechnical Network" (Warschauer 207) of supporting elements (like education, incentives, and trust) that increase people's ability to access, adapt, understand, and make use of technology in a way that is meaningful to them and their community. He points out that the 'Digital Divide' concept is based on the idea of information and communication technologies (ICT) as a tool or device that embodies its own use and understanding. He emphasizes the alternate model of ICT as packages that require complex social support and firm contextual beliefs of how the package can be used to be locally effective. The use of this model, he argues, the integration of new ICT into any community (including the US government, already a heavy technology user) is more successful (Warschauer 206).
Warschauer's effort to re-center the discourse from the Digital Divide to the Sociotechnical Network parallels Bruno Latour's effort to re-center the discourse from the Great Divide to the Anthropological Matrix. A key to both efforts is the acknowledgement that amidst slowly formed relationships and complex infrastructures, all actions have potentially enormous repercussions on all other elements of the web/matrix. In the web/matrix model, the understanding of these actions, their underpinnings, and their potential repercussions is difficult to make explicit—it is inherently tacit/implicit (Warschauer 207).
One example of this implicitness is the US social context in which the Internet emerged. The American engineers who developed ASCII code made a seven bit system that only allowed for 128 characters: enough for the English alphabet and punctuation, but hardly enough for letters with diacritical marks, pictograms, and other characters. Another example is the GUI of the desktop and its office metaphors. This is the predominant computer GUI today, but it uses only one metaphor out of many (like the kitchen, the farm, the tool shed). This tends to limit the computer's conceptual access to people with office exposure (Warschauer 203).
In their work, Antoni, Lee, and Orta demonstrate an understanding of technology's embeddedness. This understanding enables them to make informed attempts at socially inclusive projects. For me, what makes turns these attempts into art is that they de-embed various digital technologies from their usual social context, exposing their underlying politic and pointing to the possibilities for forming new contexts in previously unexposed communities.
In a subtle way, recontextualizing new technology in terms of old technologies and metaphors serves a purpose even more urgent than ongoing altruism. The world is increasingly interdependent and interconnected. In his book Nonzero, Robert Wright discusses the inevitability of this interconnection, emphasizing its positive aspects: increased interdependence leads to more people being concerned for more people, even if only for their own personal well-being (Wright 196). However, Wright points out that this inevitable change must not be hastened too quickly. For the economically and technologically disadvantaged, rapid change can lead to alienation, a perceived lack of agency, frustration, and even destructive fury (Wright 232). Because of the world's increasing interconnectedness, it's easier than ever to exploit the enormous destructive potential of technology (Wright 208).
It is ultimately in the interests of our own safety and well-being to make technology more inclusive at many levels. The recontextualization of technology, while not necessarily the most effective method to yield obvious political or economic results, is nevertheless an expansive way to acknowledge the complexities of an increasingly interconnected world.
I originally chose to discuss Janine Antoni, Lee Bul, and Lucy Orta because of their work with both textiles and new technologies: Antoni uses medical technology in Slumber, Lee uses media technology in Monuments, and Orta uses fabric technology in Collective Wear. However, as my essay developed, it became clear that these artists' greater relevance is their efforts at recontextualization. They translate the rhetoric of the 'divide' into the rhetoric of the 'web.' They subtly reimagine how technology can be used to be more inclusive. In their own ways, these artists are furthering the effort to develop levels of local agency by facilitating technological understanding and participation by ignored and invisible communities. Combining new technologies with the ancient technology of weaving and textile-use adds an accessibility born of the rich, multicultural metaphors that weaving and fabric have acquired over many centuries. These artists are some of the Arachnes of our time.
She sat in front of the loom, for once doing nothing, just sitting.
Tomorrow the competition would take place. The competition that she called in her own irritation. The competition that she did not know how to call off.
Tomorrow, perhaps some mysterious new weaver would emerge and humiliate her. What a wonderful way to enter matrimony.
But what worried her more were the people that she'd known for years: the friends she wove with at the market, the teachers who had watched her grow, the pupils she had just begun to teach. She imagined all of them looking at her in excitement-- it seemed that this competition was drawing a new interest to the old world of weaving. She imagined all of them looking at her in anger-- why was she fragmenting a community that was already so small, so underappreciated, so ignored next to the shipbuilders and metalworkers?
She picked up a long strand of thread and warped it clumsily through the woof. Though no one really knew it, she had not made anything she was proud of in months. She wouldn't be surprised if she lost the competition to one of her upstart pupils.
Though no one really knew it, she was tired of weaving. She wished there had been a way to turn the competition into a festival. Something that celebrated what she did, what her friends, her teachers, what her pupils did.
That was it. Tomorrow, though no one would be prepared, she would try.
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