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Nicola Naismith Blog 3: Loops

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There are loops and then there are loops

The Arduino session was certainly an exploration into tech that was completely new to me. Working with components and coding for the first time was daunting, and I stumbled somewhat with the first task. I attempted to join two components together – at first too tentatively so they didn’t actually connect – and then with some careful force, which although successful left me feeling an imposter with these materials. I thought about my own familiar tools – scissors, needles and blades – and materials – cloth, thread, paper, neoprene and vinyl – and how I have developed over numerous years of practice the tacit and haptic knowledge needed to work them with care. Yes a needle may become bent when trying to stitch an unyielding material, but it can be straightened to a certain extent, or worked with in its new form. Bending a pin on a component may, I fear, render it unusable, so I felt unsure and hesitant. Did I feel like this as a child when I first learnt to sew?

It’s also the complexity of these components, I simply don’t understand the electronics or their qualities, the extent of their robustness or delicacy; and therefore this introduced a kind of detachment and perplexity. This feels akin to a first look at a gas boiler, or under the bonnet of a car – how on earth does this work? But I know through reading instruction manuals, asking advice of more experienced people and practising, the basics can be carried out: the boiler re-pressurised, the routine maintenance on the car. So too in time will I be able to work with the Arduino kit, or similar tech, with some degree of understanding, or least have some idea of what someone more experienced may be talking about.

In my creative practice I have already been through these feelings of perplexity, sitting in a place of not knowing; but over the course of 3 decades of exploration and practice I have developed some strong foundations of knowledge, both in my creative process and with the materials I work with. Working with IOT is to learn things anew, working through problems, asking questions and at some points simply copying (something which remains at the centre of many apprenticeship and craft processes). In our workshop session with Phil we copied and pasted bits of code – I copied some from what I was seeing in the screen when I got left behind, and with some trial and error managed to get a light to switch on. Not earth-shattering in itself, but new territory for sure.

In the UK coding is part of the school curriculum: these children are digital citizens, and have a different relationship with technology and the internet, having grown up with it. The digital realm sits within the everyday for children in both productive and problematic ways. For me, it’s something I have to consciously seek to understand and integrate. I happily ignored the WorldWideWeb for the first 10 years of its existence, with my interest only being heightened when I was studying my Masters degree and became fascinated with the interplay between hand and digital, through reading Malcolm McCullough and David Pye. It was at this time that I started to think about the similarities and differences between hand and digital methods of investigation, process and outcome.

Within the scope of IOT sensors available it is the ones which capture motion that most interest me, given its connection to the body. Apparently each type of sensor has a library of code, written by a number of different and likely unconnected people, who work to write a specific combination of words, characters and symbols which allow the sensor to do one job in particular. It was at the end of our tech session, when we talked about vocabulary of code, that I was taken by the term loop – an instruction which leads to a command being repeated – say -1000 times, or until a certain condition is met.

The translation of this loop function into stitching was almost immediate. Thousands of times I have looped thread to create stitches in relation to my professional work, but also more recently for enjoyment and relaxation. I use a very particular embroidery practice to provide respite from the business of life, work commitments, economic concerns, caring responsibilities and world troubles: I map out simple mandala inspired designs where the only decision-making required is to select colours with the stitching itself being automatic. When I reach the desired condition – often relaxation and rest – I pause, leaving the work-in-progress ready for the next opportunity – or need – for rest.

A state of being mindful  – blocking out other concerns – and mindless – so completely absorbed as to be almost absent – is facilitated by the repetitively sown french knots. This repetitively soothing activity could be an antidote to the randomly annoying aspects of cloud-based apps which want to send unsolicited reminders in the form of notifications which distract, and are all too often immediately dismissed. I wanted to extend my thinking to include another loop-based craft – knitting, so I asked my Mum, who has been knitting for nearly 70 years, if she would demonstrate her making process. After some initial uncharacteristic self-consciousness she cast on, knitted a few rows and cast off, before extending the repertoire to include cable stitch, which required a third double-pointed needle. The complexity and dexterity required in the knitting far exceeds that of the french knot, or perhaps it just appears like that, as my own knitting skills have remained basic since I first learnt as a child.

We both have copies of Smart Stitches, a small booklet produced in 1935 – Mum’s copy is dedicated to knitting and crochet, mine to embroidery and tapestry; but both were inherited from my Nan, who used to knit and sew. The knitting edition uses a unique code to explain the pattern and type of stitches, whereas my embroidery version relies on an illustrative approach. So how can these different types of communication be brought together? What can these different kinds of loops tell us about the main research question? How might these craft practices be connected with care, and caring relationships? The research group catch-up will be an opportunity to share these thoughts in process and see what comes to mind.