American artist Robin Kang (b.1981) threads nuances between technological advances and the history of the textile industry via Jacquard loom handwork and patterned circuitry imagery. Alongside her creative practice, Kang is also founder and director of Chicago’s Carousel Space Project as well as Ridgewood, Queens project space PENELOPE. This year, her work will be showcased by Field Projects, New York, at VOLTA NY from 2-6 March. We speak to Kang about her experimentation with both traditional and recent textile technologies.
A: Can you tell us a bit about the motivation behind your work? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
RK: The historical connections between the textile industry and the development of technology provide inspiration for my recent work. The Jacquard loom is argued by some to be an ancestor to the invention of the computer, as it was the first machine to use a punch card system. While researching early computer hardware I learned that the earliest instruments for memory storage included both handwoven copper wires and hand-drawn solder lines. These objects embodied concepts of woven information and a kind of technological drawing, which becomes inspiration for the digital sketches that I then weave by hand on the Jacquard loom. Ferrite Memory Cores were the predominant form of computer memory during 1955-1975. These early computer parts were hand woven out of copper wires with tiny bead-like toroids that were magnetized, positive or negative, to hold binary data. Though no longer hand woven, computer memory is still somewhat based on this construction format.
Concepts of memory and symbolism that refer to cultural identity are depicted in textiles throughout history. This makes for fertile ground for the mixing of references from the ancient and the contemporary together, producing a kind of blending of space and time. Photoshop pen tool gestures layered with symbols from ancient weaving traditions and motherboard hardware blend together amid interlocking threads. The juxtaposition of textiles with electronics opens an interesting conversation of reconciling the old with the new, traditions with new possibilities, as well as the relationship between textiles, symbols, language, and memory.
A: What aspects of the Jacquard loom do you prefer to working with more recent textile technology?
RK: Actually the version of the Jacquard loom that I work with (the TC-2 made by Tronrud) was invented 1990’s by the Norwegian weaver Vibeke Vestby, who wanted a loom that would combine the freedom of tapestry weaving with the speed of a shuttle loom. This machine is such a fantastic tool for an artist because it combines a computer based file set-up process that allows for weaving multiple complex weave structures within the same cloth, with the unique experimentation that can only happen with hand weaving. The hand operated aspect of this loom is what allows me the ability to use experimental materials and produce one of a kind tapestries that are handwoven from digital files.
A: What do you find most stimulating about creating textiles?
RK: There is a certain mediative satisfaction in the rhythmic and repetitive process of creating cloth. I enjoy the challenges of what include a considerable amount of labour with the loom setup, threading, file programing, and research. Cultures all over the planet have engaged in various forms of weaving for centuries, so it is a deeply rich and fascinating craft to study. In the midst of so much structure, there are infinite opportunities for improvisation at each step that will completely change the outcome of the weaving. These are magic moments of discovery. Manifesting something completely tactile from what had before only existed digitally, feels almost alchemic.
A: What techniques do you base your process on?
RK: My background with printmaking and creating compositions digitally is very important for working with this particular type of loom. There is a considerable amount of process that goes into the file set up, which involves many steps that translate a digital image into weave structures. These determine the way the threads interlock and which ones are visible on the surface of the cloth. Once the digital files have been completed, the hand weaving aspect is actually very similar to that of a floor loom.
The exciting part of the process is that the translation from computer to the weaving is never exactly what you expect. Many indigenous cultures would create intentional error within their designs. They did this to honor the Divine and highlight the humanness of the hand that created the weaving. This concept feels relevant in a digital age when human and machine are in constant dialogue. In my process I break up rhythm and symmetry by utilizing unusual materials, dangling broken threads, and improvisational color changes. These acts embrace the beauty of the handmade glitch.
VOLTA NY, 2-6 March, Pier 90, New York, 10036. For more information, visit www.ny.voltashow.com.
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1. Video featuring Robin Kang, courtesy of the artist and VOLTA NY.