Weaving together history, experience and STEAM based learning

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman), C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

Soft Monitor is an art, science, technology and engineering initiative exploring how to divert the detrimental effects of ‘screen time’ and make digital media more holistic. The endeavor is a collaboration between Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman, who each have backgrounds in arts-centered research, and provide aesthetically captivating insights into how technology informs our social, cultural and cognitive experiences. Through a materials based exploration into themes including computing and interpersonal communication, Soft Monitor’s multidisciplinary artwork personalizes the oft-impersonal nature of being immersed and reliant upon technology. The duo’s work is supported by a Materials-Based Research grant from the Center for Craft, which “encourages mutually-beneficial collaboration between craft and the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

A 19th century Jacquard loom with information punch cards at the National Museum of Scotland. The programmable loom inspired Manganiello and Goldman’s 21st century C O M P U T E R 1.0. Photo by Stephencdickson.

Manganiello and Goldman began working together in 2017. Their inaugural project is a large-scale multimedia installation called C O M P U T E R 1.0, which addresses the intersection of art, math, science and history. The artwork is a massive handwoven textile, created using hollow polymer tubing and natural fiber thread. A series of pigmented liquid, oil and air pixels are pumped into the tubes in a sequence that is programmed from data dictated by motion sensors, computer-controlled valves, air compressors and pumps. When the artwork is activated, it forms a compelling visual pattern that is meant to operate as a lo-fi computer display. Its ancient, natural materials and techniques juxtapose contemporary digital technologies, telling an open-ended story of technology’s successes, failures, promises and deceptions.

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C O M P U T E R 1.0 on Vimeo. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

C O M P U T E R 1.0 pays homage to the craft-based origins of contemporary computing. In 1801, a French master silk weaver named Joseph Marie Jacquard, developed the first programmable loom known simply as the Jacquard loom or the Jacquard machine. The loom’s design and programmable function was an inspiration for the production of additional programmable machines, including a seminal digital compiler that IBM utilized in their construction of the modern day computer. Jacquard’s invention helped lead the industrial revolution, which shifted the prerequisite of manual labor from skilled artisans –including master weavers– to an automated workforce that didn’t require highly trained and technical labor. Unfortunately, the arts, which were integral to daily life, faced an existential crisis within the public’s perception from thereon in. On a grand scale, it seems more desirable and convenient to produce and consume mass produced objects than to devote the time and experiential knowledge necessary to design and craft quality goods. The problem with this ideology is that it is detrimental to our creative development. This thinking has led to the lack of art educational offerings in schools and the defunding of the arts in general.

When we reduce honing specific skills, techniques and creative processes in favor of mass produced objects, we become less creative and more dependent on imported and exported labor. This way of life significantly impacts our critical thinking skills and  autonomy. Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, states that we ‘think through making’ (Ingold, 2015). Through explorations with materials, we web together a series of experiences that lead to a mindful interaction with our cognition and the materials and environment around us. During that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through experiential improvisations using different materials and techniques. Thinking through making is the crux of Fröbel’s Kindergarten, the Reggio Emilia approach and Montessori education (see: Penfold, 2019). Each of these early childhood learning methods focus on student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives. This freedom, accompanied with the instructional scaffolding and motivation from educators, provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. The aforementioned mindset and methodology was consistently supported in pedagogical circles until World War II, when the arms and space races made STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education the focus of K-12 and higher educational curricula. As Sterling and Burke (1997) reflected, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. More local and national funds were allocated for STEM subjects in schools, starting with the 1958 National Defense Education Act (see: Jolly, 2009). Art education has further suffered from stringent sociopolitical policies like the No Child Left Behind act, which results in teachers having to “teach to the test” in order to have their students pass required standardized exams.  The focus on assessment through quantitative data means less funding or the outright cutting of arts education in schools across the United States. In recent history, the arts have been propelled back into educational frameworks, as a component of the STEM curriculum because of its recognized benefits on facilitating student inquiry, critical thinking, interpersonal dialogue and social engagement (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits).

The resurgent relationship between art, technology, science, engineering and mathematics within formal and informal education is not surprising. Combined, these disciplines have advanced many important social, cultural and economic breakthroughs. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary and university settings. In previous posts, I have described how the arts were historically seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin, the leading Victorian era cultural critic, aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Art educational courses in early American schools generally concentrated on teaching creative skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools, designed to incorporate artistic techniques and artisan principles that promoted valued craftsmanship, were established for industrial laborers. Vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and recognized the importance of artistic development as a means to develop “a mutual understanding of the importance of process in the creation of a product, an appreciation of elaborate sequencing, a valuing of cooperative teamwork in project oriented work, an acknowledgment of the value of uniqueness and adaptation as contrasted to rigid conformity and a mutual respect for the concrete and the visual as well as the abstract and the conceptual ” (Sterling & Burke, 1997). The symbiotic relationship between the arts and skilled utilitarian labor is a major component of the digital age, with artists and collectives like Soft Monitor, who are providing innovative and critical designs to respond sustainably and creatively to sociocultural and environmental issues.

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Soft Monitor, C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of the artists.

In today’s digitally saturated culture, C O M P U T E R  1.0, “seeks to function as a historical lens that asks us to make inquiries into how our relationship to computing technology has been fraught with juxtaposed promises of utopian and dystopian futures, while the reality consistently finds itself somewhere in between.” An essential question that the artists pose through their work is: “are we better off since the advent of programming and sophisticated technological automation?” C O M P U T E R 1.0 prompts our collective conscious to recall and observe the myriad ways our society has been dealing with a digital existentialism. According to the artists,  “C O M P U T E R  1 . 0  is the physical display of the eternally uncertain potential of technology.”

C O M P U T E R 1.0 also seeks to operate as a prototype for a digital display screen that would be more beneficial to our bodies and minds than the current screens on our smartphones, tablets and computers. Most of us spend a significant amount of time enveloped by the artificial blue light that our screens emit (see: Heiting, 2017). This blue light has negative impacts on our physical and mental well-being, interfering with everything from sleep to creativity (see: Ruder, 2019). In light of our technological conditioning, Soft Monitor aims to utilize the physical and emotional lightness and comfort of textiles in a manner that could function as a personalized display screen. They are doing this by minimizing the use of blue light in favor of a screen constructed entirely from soft, natural and ancient materials such as flax, water and air. The artists intend to use both simple and intricate woven patterns to project images and text from their textile display screen.

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman). Courtesy of the artists.

I recently spoke with Victoria Manganiello about her STEAM-centered explorations and how collaborating with experts in other disciplines (like science, technology and engineering) has informed her work as a solo artist and as part of Soft Monitor. I wanted to know how working in a multidisciplinary artistic duo has influenced her own expertise, knowledge and comfort in subjects outside of the arts; and whether she feels it is necessary and beneficial for the arts to be included in projects that have scientific or technological objectives.

She began by stating that “As a visual artist, I have always found inspiration in the science, technology and engineering fields and in particular, from their histories.” She is especially interested in the contributions that women have made to textiles that had an impact in diverse fields including medicine, agriculture, fashion, art and space travel; and is working on a documentary series, called Woman Interwoven, which explores and presents the stories and multifaceted identities of women through their craft-based practices.

As for scaffolding inspiration, knowledge and personal growth through collaboration, she elaborates that “I’ve learned about circuitry, biology, chemistry, and engineering while working with collaborators and those things have in turn informed other projects. And while I’m still an amateur at best in those disciplines, I have had some opportunities to try them in real life which might be an experience unique to an artist. And perhaps, not knowing what I don’t know has given me an optimism that’s led to an innovation only available to a novice.”

Manganiello’s philosophy regarding art’s benefits on learning and exploring other subjects is a great quote to conclude with. She expressed, “For me, art is a way for us to understand the experience of individuals as a way to understand larger phenomena in our societies and environments. If we can make other disciplines artful, that might mean connecting them to lived experiences. I think that would at least make the STEM disciplines more interesting or accessible to learners but further, it will make them more ‘human’ and perhaps allow us to understand their uses for good and betterment. For example, if when I had learned about electricity in grade school I was shown a project like The Knitted Radio by Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, I might have been able to both understand the concepts with more clarity, be offered the precedent as an opportunity to see myself actually applying them, and a reason to use something like electricity to connect with humanity.”

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Heiting, Gary OD. “Blue light: It’s both bad and good for you.” All About Vision, November 2017. https://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/blue-light.htm

Ingold, Tim. 2015. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Jolly, Jennifer L. “The National Defense Education Act, Current STEM Initiative, and the Gifted” Gifted Child, 32 (2) Spring 2009. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ835843.pdf

Penfold, Louisa. “Five key early childhood educators! A post for parents.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 27 May 2019. http://www.louisapenfold.com/five-key-early-childhood-educators/

Ruder, Bradley Debra. “Screen Time and the Brain.” Harvard Medical School News, 19 June 2019. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/screen-time-brain

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

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