Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

No Longer Lost in the Metaverse

Today’s blog post is in follow up to two of my previous posts: Lost in the Metaverse (January, 2022) and Mining Historic Textiles as a Route to the Future (March, 2020). That January 2022 post was primarily an excuse to show some work in progress photos and let you know that I was doing something in my studio. Now the finished tapestry, Portal to the Metaverse, is showing for the first time in the American Tapestry Biennial 14.  Time flies! I thought maybe it was the time to tell the origin story of this work.

Ellen Ramsey, “Portal to the Metaverse,” 2022, 8 epi, cotton, wool, silk, tencel, metallic thread, 68” x 77”

I’ve often thought that circuit boards resemble  textile patterns, and my current body of work grows out of the connection I see between tech and textile. Portal evolved over time from a workshop I took with Gerhardt Knodel called Mining Historic Textiles as a Route to the Future. (See post from March 2020 by guest blogger, Mary Lane). In that workshop we looked at dozens of textiles from all over the world. We analyzed their structures and decoration, we drew them, and most importantly we looked for points of connection between culturally diverse examples of woven, pieced, and embroidered cloth. 

There were two main takeaways from that workshop came into play during the development of this tapestry’s design. The first one is the common practice of “centering” and the role of symmetrical design within textile traditions. This was sometimes connected to specific ritual practices, but often not. Sometimes the centering simply made space for the body, for example. In some examples the centering was created by patterns of wear made from people sitting or standing on the cloth in the same place repeatedly. 

Inspired by the concept of centering and the symmetrical designs found in many carpet traditions, I used Photoshop to cut, paste, invert, and rearrange a stock circuit illustration into a digital version of a central medallion motif. As I ran the original circuit board image through many adjustments, the program spit out glitches and digital noise in cyan and magenta throughout. I especially liked the glitches, so I adjusted the colors for the entire tapestry to reflect a CMYK palette – cyan, magenta, yellow, and [near] black. In that central medallion I imagined a place of connection between the material and the digital. The resulting “portal” is human scaled – 68 inches tall – which is roughly my height.

Besides centering, the other big takeaway from the Knodel workshop was the common appearance of pattern “disruptions” in historic textiles. I see this in a Türkmen rug that I have in my home. There is field of repeated medallions, or güls, in the center. The pattern is diamond-like in red, blue, and brown, repeated with no obvious system. Furthermore, the design of the gül is uniform, except in a single instance where an entirely different design fills the space instead of the regular pattern.  These disruptions are what make traditional textiles lively and endlessly interesting to look at. You get a glimpse of the human behind its making. Was the weaver bored with the repetition? In the zone and temporarily lost the sequence? Or making an intentional choice?  As a weaver, I know that all these scenarios come into play while making. 

Türkmen rug displaying a pattern disruption.

Disruptions are an important part of Portal to the Metaverse. First of all, interference happens quite naturally when designing digitally. There are many instances where my original file was somehow corrupted as I manipulated the pixels in the image. The most obvious example of this is the large vertical glitches that appear in my design. These glitches were a challenge to weave, but they are key to the design. They frame the center almost like a border and they divide the composition into three parts.  

In one instance I intentionally added disruption to the weaving of the piece. The blue background was woven with no plan in mind. I alternated between many different values of blue and teal fiber, randomly combined on the bobbin and randomly sequenced in the weaving process. 

There are unintended asymmetries in this tapestry that happened very organically. The second half of my design was just the reverse of the first half, but I couldn’t always remember exactly how I wove a certain area before when I reached that part in the design again.  As a result, there are discrepancies all over the place. At the time, I was confident I would remember my decisions, but months later, my memory betrayed me. Colors change and a few motifs disappear entirely because in that moment I spaced out and neglected to weave them. I like this aspect of Portal a lot. I imagine this is how some of the discrepancies in historic textiles come about and it makes me feel connected to a vast tradition. This is a process that is adamantly human.

When I got to the center, I felt compelled to weave the word “Surrender.” Such an evocative word! The addition of this word (which you can only really discern when you are standing close, within the “portal”) was a risk.  It signals a potential layer of meaning, but I hoped it would leave that meaning up for individual interpretation.  There are so many ways to understand that word. It can refer to defeat, loss, devotion, or release. Depending on your point of view, you might interpret the intention behind the work differently. The tech fatalist may read it one way, the avid gamer in quite another, for example.  A yoga practitioner I know wondered if the circuit lines could be interpreted as a meditation tool, like a labyrinth! I totally love that interpretation. Why not? Another person asked me if I intended to visualize musical harmonics. All I can say is I wish I was smart enough to envision such a thing!  In the end it doesn’t matter at all what I think this piece is about. These conversations tell me that Portal to the Metaverse succeeds on a level I could not have imagined.  (*smiley face*)

Portal to the Metaverse is currently showing in the American Tapestry Biennial 14 at the Appalachian Center for Craft through July 20, 2023.

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