I went to see the Decode and Quilts exhibitions at the V&A yesterday. I was really disappointed by the Decode exhibition of digital design. The most positive thing about it was that it was showing digital, interactive and networked works in a major museum space, and its three themes of CODE, NETWORK and INTERACTION made the exhibition very accessible. But where was the content? Even the social media works felt devoid of social impact. The works that were chosen made digital design look like digital wallpaper and mirrors most of the time. At times I was reminded of seeing a video camera linked up to a monitor in a TV shop window when I was a kid – we could have played in front of them for hours, with the novelty of seeing ourselves in real time on a screen. There were four pieces in this exhibition that did almost exactly that, but with different technologies and at different speeds. To me, none of them were as interesting as Bruce Nauman’s 1970’s video work ‘Live-Taped video corridor’. It reminded me of the best of our undergraduate degree work for the BA Multimedia Design course at Huddersfield, although of course some of their work was inspired and influenced by some of the older works in this exhibition. A good exhibition for introducing techniques of digital design, but disappointing if expecting a reflection on the current state of digital design.
Then on to the Quilts exhibition, still thinking about code, network and interaction, and immediately Ele Carpenter and Open Source Embroidery came to mind (a great project in which the shared ethos of open source software and embroidery are brought together). The code of the complex patterns handed down from person to person through patchwork and quilting patterns, each adapted and developed by subsequent stitchers. These networks evolving through design are also reflected in the communal production process and the social use of quilts as objects passed down between generations. And the codes really are complex, the patterns of tiny pieces in traditional patterns that evolve over time. For obvious reasons a favourite of mine was the Mariners Compass quilt design and a sampler made by 10 year old Ann Isabella Reader in 1800, “Silk satin ground with a design showing a map of England and Wales, with the counties outlined and labelled in stitch. Embroidered in silk in running, outline, split, stem satin and long and short stitch.” (from V&A collections). Each county stitched around with at least 4 silk threads, for her eduction in needlework and geography, an interesting link for me to other textile maps.
In the quilts exhibition code, network and interaction also became social actions, political commentary, historical record, tactile experience and adaption through everyday use. What was disappointing about Decode was there in abundance in the quilts, and is there in other digital work, just not the ones exhibited here.
One of the best contemporary works in the Quilts exhibition was Jennifer Vickers work ‘The Presence of Absence’ (as described here) a quilt made of paper with a square of blank newsprint for each person who has died in the second Iraq war.