Motif 1775 2008 Watercolour/Mixed Media
The origins of all digital coding and cybernetics lies within the genealogies of decoration and motif, in particular the technologies of knitting, weaving and interlacing surfaces, within whose threads the spectre of a cipher may be almost perceived. Textiles themselves are very literally the software’s linings of all technology
- a binary system of interlocking threads, knit and purl, a base-two technology mirroring the 0’s and 1’s of digital coding. The first programmable machine was the early nineteenth century Jacquard loom and precursor to the first computer, namely Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, which adopted for its own use Jacquard’s system of patterned punch cards to archive and process information or instruction. What such an example illustrates in a very literal sense is the correspondence between motifs of decor, ornament, and the coding and transfer of information – a link in the hypothetical space between ‘to encode’ and ‘to adorn’. Such connections between motif and instruction are far from exceptional. Ornamental pattern has long functioned as a complex index, protective, mnemonic or narrative device. Yarns tell tales, fabrications, functioning as a means of communication and storage long before anything was written down: coded messages in samplers during warfare, biblical legend - moral or historical anecdote woven within the interlocking filaments. The digital array may still recall these earlier forms of inscription, the loom embedded in the lineage of the data file, the trace of a body buried in the system.
The notion therefore that decorative pattern and ornamentation serve as a superficial preoccupation unconnected to the significance of objects is entirely misguided. With woven material, there is no distinction between ornamental detail and the structure of the object itself, program and pattern are- literally- interwoven, pull a thread and the whole system begins to unravel. The distinction between surface and structure came later, when patterns as image or word were printed on cloth or paper, but the original link still remains. Motifs therefore are not mere hieroglyphs of social status or aesthetic taste, but essential contributions to the functionality of the things to which they adhere. Often ornament had a special role in the mediation of social life – the creation of a meaningful attachment between people and things, encouraging a particular relationship between the person and the object of contemplation, inscribing use values and forms of social agency, codes of behaviour, age, and gender specificity, crystallising certain habits of use whilst discouraging others. Alfred Gell uses the example of a child’s bedspread whereby the jovial pattern contributes to the functionality of the object as a psychological product for security and rest, without contributing to the physical structure of the bed itself in any manner or form. Similar persuasions may reside in the application of a floral chintz pattern on a Victorian settee or a brightly coloured adornment for today’s portable electronic, the mobile phone or iPod.
The pattern functions as an index, the ‘text’ in the textile, its matrix of thread stretching between the motif and the viewer, an algorithm, a set of instructions. This index requires a user to be read, it is unfinished business, a web of intersecting lines, slowing perception down, halting it.
This applies even today, where decorative motif is frequently the product of a thread turned back on itself, Penelope’s nightly unravelling, a history of design retracing its steps back to the loom as the descendants of Babbage’s machine now employ numeric algorithms to generate ornamental pattern. These are codes to make cushion covers, a familiar design which hides the original language of the ornament. The artist Kitty Roger’s decision to rework historical pattern through drawing, collage and paint attempts to deconstruct ornamental language, to draw to the surface the revenant social agencies that continue to haunt motif.
Kitty’s work on paper has connections to her recent video work, an examination of analogue mediums in film and photography. These are also coded surfaces which, like the first woven patterns, contain an indexical trace, which is to say that the grooves on the surface of the vinyl record and the emulsion on the photographic negative encipher the very sound or images that the analogue object is said to contain. Once more, pattern is program, surface content.
Analogue means a continuous line, a narrative whose ruminations follow a sequential trajectory from a beginning to an end. In contrast, a digital signal is discrete – the many strings that form a weave are here disparate in an intangible and often invisible code that, like an ancient character long divorced from its original meaning, defies any easy human translation. Kitty’s digital recordings of close up photographic negatives seems then to function in much the same manner as her deconstructions of motif – an attempt to decode, to render what is scarcely visible but nonetheless implicit in the construction of a pattern explicit through interactions between the continuous and the discrete.
Rachel O’Dwyer is a student on the M.Phil in Music and Media Technologies, Trinity College, Dublin.