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Black Work Embroidery – Jayne Wallace

In this exploration Jayne used the technique of blackwork embroidery as a craft process to generate designs and patterns with a visual allusion to electronic circuitry. Blackwork embroidery uses black thread and geometric patterns and dates from late 1400s in Spain. The critical process of the embroidery sought to leverage new group thinking and discussion around the tensions and discontinuity between the ‘face’ of IoT presented to users and the concealed complexity and challenging aspects kept away from full public scrutiny.

Monoprint from vintage circuitboard (which has been in Justin’s cupboard since 1985)
Penrose aperiodic tiling

As a practitioner researcher Jayne’s craft-oriented approach aligns with Adamson’s description of craft as; working through engagement of the senses with the affordances of materials, while reflecting, evaluating and iterating[1]. Employing a Research through Design (RtD) approach the subject of the circuitry aesthetic and its similarities to embroidery was explored.

 “There is something relevant here for what we see when we interact with the internet or IoT and all of the complexity that is behind the scenes. I was also thinking about how the thread itself is, unlike a printed line (a trace), never wholly on one side of the fabric or the other — it travels between the two to create the pattern — it is both part of the ordered image/pattern and the chaos of the reverse of the fabric.“ —Jayne.

Front and reverse of blackwork sample

T of Jayne’s blackwork samples.hrough the act of embroidering, the contrast between the surface connections and the textures on the reverse of the embroidery became apparent. The exposed connective threads at the back led us to reflect on the hidden infrastructures that lie behind embedded wired locative devices and how these diverge from the surface experience of IoT. In this case the double-sided nature of the blackwork embroidery provides a visual metaphor for the two faces of many IoT systems, one simple and seemingly legible, while the other is hidden, complex, ungraspable and unintelligible to most.

Although there is a substantial physical component to IoT infrastructure, the physicality of IoT sensors is embedded or black boxed. Norbert Weiner describes black boxing in the context of cybernetics as a process whereby the input and output are visible, but the system is invisible and inaccessible to the observer[2]. Black boxing is more relevant than ever in relation to the workings of algorithms in IoT and the lack of transparency in the current internet[3]. The inner workings of IoT are hidden, companies tend to provide minimal disclosure on environmental and privacy issues as well as the data they gather beyond what is accessible for individual users. 

[1] Glenn Adamson. 2007. Thinking through craft. Berg, New York.

[2] Norbert Wiener. 1948. Cybernetics, or, Control and communication in the animal and the machine. The Technology Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[3] Frank Pasquale. 2016. The black box society: the secret algorithms that control money and information. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.