Crafted Logic for a Different—Big—Machine

This text is written for Ebru Kurbak's work Stitching Worlds (2014 – 2018) and published in the book of the project.

Ekmel Ertan

I am thinking of media art in 1960s, artworks such as Schotter by George Nees,[1] Hommage à Paul Klee by Frieder Nake,[2] and other works produced when the computer was a new medium for art. While these were about creating visual artworks and, in a way, mimicking the conventional art of the time, nevertheless, they immediately sparked discussions about the relation of art and technology. The artists were basically using the military technologies of the time! This was one of the main concerns for 1960s artists, especially in the US; other concerns were the new art form’s social role and commercialization of art . In 1971, Frieder Nake published an article titled “There Should be No Computer Art.”[3] He wrote “Sorry! But I don’t have any new works” on the invitation letter to (New) Tendencies 5, in 1973.[4] In 2014, in a rejoinder to the statement he had made forty-three years ago, Nake wrote “The myth of the big machine, I believed, was propagated by its aesthetic products more successfully than by its usual numeric applications.”[5] Perhaps Nake was right. Perhaps media art did help the big machine to penetrate all aspects of our lives. At the end of the day, all the prophecies, all the facts that the media artists warned us about, have come true.

Media art has always had a strong critical path, especially in the 1960s, 1970s, late 1990s, and early 2000s. However, following this critical path became more difficult in the post-digital era, as the artists lost their distance from the medium. Postmodern neoliberal politics went hand in hand with digital technologies, with the “big machine.” The success of neoliberalism is wired into the digital realm, from the society of control to algorithmic governance, to labor and self-exploitation. Media art lost its critical stance due to the ubiquity of digital technology and its penetration into everyday life, the institutionalization and commercialization of the media art scene, and the predominance of the noise created in every field by the perplexity and transitivity of neoliberal concepts and discourse.

Stitching Worlds makes an important artistic statement that questions the foundations of the digital and takes a unique approach in deconstructing “digital” from the viewpoint of the arts-based research project. Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch’s Crafted Logic, a work they developed in the scope of Stitching Worlds, is about creating electronic switches and logic gates, with the traditional crochet technique using conductive threads. What they created in the end is a functioning ALU (arithmetic logical unit) of an 8-bit computer. However, this particular computer is supposed to be made at home using sophisticated crafting knowledge and the labor of women, and with an embedded aesthetic evolved over centuries and throughout the cultures.

Globally, women in the digital sector hold approximately a quarter of the jobs and only thirteen percent of the jobs that require specific ICT (information and communications technology) skills. We can safely say that digital technology is a male-dominated industry. Can we thus assume the digital world’s relation to power, from war technologies to the control society, is a consequence of this fact? In Crafted Logic, Ebru and Irene give the main role to female labor, but not in a context where women are found only in low-skilled and low-paid jobs. On the contrary, the artists are suggesting a paradigm change. Through seeing their work, one starts to imagine the digital—industry—differently, as an industry based on sophisticated female labor and knowledge without compromising its relationship with the social context and tradition. This is not only about science, or more specifically, technology; it questions the premise of the “digital revolution.” When and how did we realize that we needed such a revolution? We know from world history that revolutions are not sustainable without a cost. Indeed, we are suffering from the consequences of the digital revolution, which brought about rise of neoliberalism. Perhaps what we needed was not a digital revolution but an evolution based on the needs of individual human beings: the natural person, not the legal person. Let’s imagine that a computer was something that women handcrafted. What would an industry founded on such fundaments have to offer the world?

In their practical work, Ebru and Irene collaborate with women; they learn from and develop together with them. They extend their practical knowledge and experiments by working with women from different cultures, from Europe and Turkey to China, South America, and beyond. They collect different traditions and techniques of textile handcrafts while developing new knowledge by combining their experiences with new technologies. This brings a brand new aesthetic approach to the digital and connects worlds that we would never have imagined coming together. This is, in its essence, a participatory art practice. When I invited the artists to show Crafted Logic at Amber Art and Technology Festival in Istanbul, I did not simply invite them to exhibit the finished product, but wanted to include the process of creating it as part of the artwork. The artists communicated with local women, made workshops with them, found out new forms and crochet techniques for creating electronic components, documented the process, and collaboratively prepared the exhibition. This was what made the work “real” in the sense that the final outcome—the art object(s)—established a strong connection with its theoretical/conceptual background, which was actually and continuously formed in the course of these processes. As a curator, I am highly interested in such collaborative processes: the formation of the work and the process initiated by artists and developed collaboratively along the way. This collaboration brings high technology down to earth among the people, not as a commodity, but, on the contrary, as a tool and medium with which to work/develop things and ideas.

With Crafted Logic, for example, the artwork had to be considered in its entirety, as this work was a research process based on collaborative learning and creation.  In that sense, it is also a good example of what artistic research is or can be; it requires a high level scientific and technological knowledge, engineering, and experimentation. However, when the artists decided to take their experiments to another level by producing electronic components through textiles, they needed the type of knowledge that the textile industry or, typically, women had to offer. As an artistic choice, the artists started working with women, and this choice eventually brought new openings and new directions to their work; questioning/implying the value of craft, tradition, DIY, women’s labor, the type(s) of knowledge that is rendered insignificant, knowledge-power relation, non-commodity oriented research and development, and last but not least, digital technology itself. Of course, this is my speculation on the flow of things; it could also go in the other direction or—most probably—continuous mutual interaction of all parts; but all of this was (and is) only possible through artistic research. Not many artists work in this way and likely no scientist or technologist does, either.

If you look at the artworks that combine digital technologies and textile, you will find artistic implementation/utilization of existing—digital—technologies; those might also be socially critical works. But Crafted Logic does not take digital technology as a given; it is much more radical than that. On the one hand, it recreates digital technologies; it poses fundamental ontological questions on the other. Even more remarkable is its potential to produce a political discourse. In that context, this is an activist artwork that draws attention to female labor, international working conditions, and most importantly, the regimented production of knowledge, among many other issues. Last but not the least, it challenges the conventional relation of science and technology: without technology, science is an abstract concept. Scientific concepts and findings enter our lives as technologies. Science—as a concept only!—is pure and lies above ideologies or politics, but technologies are not. Crafted Logic plays with this conventional relation of science and technology.

From a media-archeology perspective, this project poses important questions. “[…] media archaeologists have begun to construct alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their "perfection." Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell.”[6] Crafted Logic is doing what media archeology does in a different, reversed way; lead from today to an imaginary beginning. Artists do not take an obsolete technology and research it as—at least some—media archaeologists might do; instead, they create a highly elaborate but actually obsolete technology to do the same; to narrate their stories of the digital.

In the 1970s, Nake criticized his generations of artists—and himself—for legitimizing the big machine through art. Many critical digital artworks have been created since then. However, Crafted Logic is not one such digital artwork that utilizes given digital technology to criticize the digital condition; on the contrary, it suggests another technology in which a holistic critique (critical approach) is embedded in and through the interrelation of science and technology. To conclude, I would add, Ebru and Irene recreate anew “the big machine” with its myth inverted; they propose reading the whole story backward.

[1] Georg Nees, “Schotter”, 1966, Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

[2] Frieder Nake, “Hommage à Paul Klee”, 1965, Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

[3] Frieder Nake, “There Should Be No Computer Art”, Page (Bulletin of the Computer Art Society, London) No. 18, Oct. 1971

[4] Ekmel Ertan and Darko Fritz, Histories of The Post Digital: 1960s and 1970s Media Art Snapshots (İstanbul: Akbank Sanat & amberPlatform, 2014), p. 56.

[5] Ekmel Ertan and Darko Fritz, Histories of The Post Digital: 1960s and 1970s Media Art Snapshots (İstanbul: Akbank Sanat & amberPlatform, 2014), p. 64; also available at:, accessed February 14, 2018. 

[6] Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “An Archeology of Media Archeology” in eds. Erkki Huhtamo et al., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), p. 3.

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