Allison Hunter shows how an artist can be fully contemporary without digitizing, streaming, or projecting imagery. Presenting jacquard looms and punch card technologies from the 1950s, difference engines and magnetic core memory stacks, silicon chips in wood housing and digital code on 18th-century woven fabric, Eve Laramee manipulates history like a medium.
Eve Andrée Laramée addresses the hot topic of technology without digitizing, streaming, or projecting imagery - that is, without using “new” technology in her MIT installation, A Permutational Unfolding (1999). So startling to see a contemporary installation unplugged, especially at a site associated with technological expertise, one can hardly believe there’s not a MIDI trigger hidden somewhere.
The artist transforms the List Visual Arts gallery by painting, furnishing, and upholstering the room in the style of an early 19th century, Empire period parlor which she fills with artifacts of that period. One also finds anachronistic elements such as woven copper wire memory cores from 1950’s computers that in this setting resemble Art Deco designs. With no explanatory wall text, one reads the contents of the room, contexts that display connections from the past to the present, all of which relate to the history and influence of programmable machines.
The objects and artifacts found in this installation evoke a time when technology manipulated in the hands of the leisure class provided toys for entertainment. These toys, such as 19th century music boxes, were luxurious; made of polished wood, cast steel, and shiny brass.
Our current trend towards global Internet connectivity blurs the reality that computers are expensive toys, our luxury item. The materials used for housing the technology are inexpensive (plastic CPU cases) and have minimal decoration. The cost of the computer is found inside, in the labor involved in producing the processor and operating system. Laramée gestures towards the difference between our “toy” and those she displays. For example, she exposes 20th century technology normally hidden (the French verb for exhibiting artwork is exposer). One finds vitrines and wall mountings displaying these objects: the wiring for a whirlwind computer (circa 1950), a TX-2 magnetic core memory stack (also circa 1950), a detail of a 1972 computer chip.
The viewer enters the exhibition in order to unfold its visual clues. Without wall text or directional symbols, one may enter or unfold the work permutationally. This non-linear presentation recalls hypertext fiction, with its clickable paths rather than a linear narrative. As one peers closely at Laramée’s brocade, for instance, one deciphers a ribbon of 0’s and 1’s, obviously not an authentic subject for 19th century textile. Once the viewer realizes the intervention, s/he begins to make connections between the author’s narrative and the historical setting.
The focal point of the room is an historical loom invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard on loan from the American Textile History Museum. The loom is programmed by paper cards punched with holes - the inspiration of our binary card-operated computers. The cards replaced the need for a manual laborer, which not only reduced the cost but also increased the speed of textile production. The impact on mass production, labor, and domestic interiors was vast, and the motif of the punch card is consistently reinforced throughout the visuals in the show, in the brocade design, on Jacquard’s portrait, and elsewhere.
Laramée’s A Permutational Unfolding combines the real with the reproduced and the real reproduction. Enlisting experts to collaborate, produce, and lend, Laramee manipulates artifacts of history like a medium, weaving her voice into the constellation of the past. This results in a dialogue between contemporary art and its audience more relevant than the Modernist formalism that can result when creating “original” work for an installation. Instead of focusing our attention on the abstract formal elements of the work, Laramee inserts herself in the overlaying of pre-made (either historical or commissioned) elements such as the portraits or the fabric. These items are based on historical designs which the artist manipulates through painting over an original or designing cloth mechanically woven by a Jacquard loom. These interventions make no attempt to hide themselves; they are transparent - light enough to expose the artist’s hand.
Laramée worked extensively on the design of the brocade which was woven on a contemporary computerized Jacquard loom. She explained her design process in an email exchange.
I taught myself how to design a repeat brocade by studying textile history and a lot of trial and error. My designs were done in gouache on paper which I then collaged into an “analog” fabric design. This “cartoon” was then scanned into a computer, run through a CAD-type weaving program (weaving is 3D not 2D). This file was fed into the loom and the output was the brocade fabric.
Laramée manipulates the medium of the installation masterfully. She builds extensive historical and theoretical research into her artwork, and produces a strong installation that clearly nods to artistic precedents. What Laramée has inherited from the past (Broodthaers’s The Invention of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles), and what she shares with contemporaries such as Joseph Kosuth The Play of the Unmentionable) (and Fred Wilson (Mining the Museum) is an understanding of the role of the artist as one who is responsible for the political and philosophical meaning expressed in the work. To author is more than to create - it includes the responsibility for the meaning (or multiple meanings) in the way a work is produced, framed, and contextualized.
Yet, she also allows the audience to breathe, experience, and discover her work on its own. She does not label the elements within the room, nor give the audience explanatory text. The work is introduced with a brief statement outside the gallery and a checklist of the room’s contents.
The show’s catalog, Eve Andrée Laramée: A Permutational Unfolding, published by the MIT List Center, includes four essays by scholars of art and science: Barbara Maria Stafford, Jonathan Crary, Jennifer Riddell, and Jessica Riskin. Stafford is an art historian based at the University of Chicago who specializes in 19th and 20th Century art and its relationship to technology, science, and medicine. Crary, an art historian based at Columbia University, is the editor of Zone Books (MIT Press). He also writes about relationships between art, visuality, and technology. Riddell is Assistant Curator at the MIT List Visual Art Center and is also an art historian. Riskin is an historian of science and teaches in the Science, Technology, and Society division of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at MIT. Their insight into Laramee’s past work, as well as into the history of automation, adds an historical and theoretical perspective that one does not find in most art exhibit catalogs. In a way, the historians’ contribution to the catalog creates another collaborative component to Laramee’s work, one in which their essays underscore the strength of the visual and its ability to provoke.