Maggie Orth
Art, Technology, Design

Conversations with Gee's Bend Statement, 2018

When curator Annie Adams asked me to participate in the Conversation's with Gee's Bend exhibition, I had not heard of the famous Gee’s Bend quilts. The moment I found them on-line however, I felt deeply honored to have my work shown with these textile masterpieces, works of visual genius which defy the often-pejorative label of “craft.” As Adams notes in her curatorial statement, despite their unfamiliarity with the high-art world, the Gee’s Bend artists created quilts with colors and compositions as powerful as many famous Modernist paintings.

At the same time, comparing the Gee’s Bend quilts to Modernist paintings seemed, to me, at best inappropriate, and at worst racist. For though these stunning textile artworks developed outside the predominately white privileged art-world, they were also a product of an equally rich culture: a culture which, though suffering from structural poverty resulting from slavery and racism, also created its own artistic traditions. These traditions were handed down through generations of Gee’s Bend quilters, enabling a remarkable visual heritage and vocabulary. And so I ask, would it not be equally fair to say that Modernism developed in isolation from the Gee’s Bend traditions? Would it not be equally fair to say that Modernism is surprisingly related to the Gee’s Bend quilts?

Within this context, it is easy as a white artist to feel uncomfortable being included in this exhibition. I grew up in an upper middle-class home, attended RISD and MIT; and though my work shares formal elements with the Gee’s Bend quilts, I certainly have not experienced the poverty or endemic racism which the Gee’s Bend artists did.

In any good essay, the author would now pivot, writing, “And yet.” But I will qualify my essential and privileged separation from Gee’s Bend artists.

What I can say however, is that like the Gee’s Bend artists who created their quilts from worn clothes and scraps, I have also sought to transform a material not considered worthy of or intended for art—electronics—into something beautiful; something in the service of human expression. Unlike the Gee’s Bend artists however, my material does not speak of racism or poverty. My material speaks of wealth and the power of capitalism.

As potent cultural tools which are changing both our society and humanity, computing materials, including electronics and software, were born in and remain deeply tethered to capitalism. From chips to smart-phone apps, computing materials could not exist without a century of massive capital investment by international governments and private enterprise—hundreds of billions of dollars of investment only possible within the economic structure of capitalism, where loaned money can grow.

Indeed, creatively working with computing technology at a level deeper than a hobbyist, required, at least when I began exploring technology twenty years ago, the education and scientific community of a wealthy institution like MIT, as well as the funds to purchase and develop these materials. Working with computing materials required, both twenty years ago and today, privilege.

Which is why, when I originally created the color-change works exhibited here, it was within my small tech startup, an art/technology business that provided, through commercial work and research, the funding necessary for the custom electronics and electronic-textile methods used in these artworks.

But securing funding for my materials also meant selling a utopian fantasy of technology. Indeed, during my time at the MIT Media Lab, where I earned my PhD and first worked with electronic textiles, I also learned the hyperbole of technology. At the Media Lab, as at most technology institutions, researchers must convince potential funders not only of the prowess and originality of their technology, but of its intrinsic ability to act for social good, while ignoring its negative effects.

So it is hardly surprising that the artworks I made while hocking the upside of electronic textiles at my company appear merely formal. No stories of frustration with the male dominated world of technology are told on the surface of my work. Nor are there tales of how technology promotes the illusion of efficiency and productivity, while muting human creativity, destroying the environment, and enslaving workers. Nor are there predictions of how unfettered, unregulated technologies, like brain implants, threaten our humanity.

Yet twenty years ago, when I began working creatively with technology, it was not without critical content. In fact, my decision to transform technology through textiles, and textiles through technology, was itself symbolic. The tech world then and now is male dominated. By using textiles, traditionally labeled female, I was able to gain authority and freedom to operate within that male technology space. At the same time, transforming technology into soft, feminine materials seeking beauty, was intended to question the “productive capitalistic drive of these materials.” Why, I asked, were so many intellectual and economic resources given to the “practical” side of humanity, not to the spiritual and artistic?

The formal nature of my work then reflects my inability to speak critically within the space of technology, while the materials themselves are threshold to the meaning of this work.

If my work can claim any relationship beyond the formal with the Gee’s Bend quilts, perhaps it is that. Perhaps we both have used materials a threshold to meaning. The scraps used by the Gee’s Bend artists transform poverty into works which comfort through both beauty and form; they are after all quilts meant to hold and warm human beings.

The textiles in my work are meant to shake up our assumptions about technology; meant to inspire questions about where technology comes from, where it is going. As one of the oldest human materials, a material always meant to comfort and protect our bodies, the textiles in my work ask: is technology truly in the service of human beings?