For some, Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman’s installation “Computer 1.0” conjured up memories of hospital stays — all IV drips and blood transfusions. Kids saw an ant farm, full of insects marching from one end of their contained space to another. Some onlookers, according to Lydia Brawner, the curator of the exhibition Victoria Manganiello: Computer 1.0 and Manager of Public Programs at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, viewed the patterns of blue dye and air pushed through the zigzagging hollow tubing as data and pixels displayed on a screen, just another piece of technology.
Regardless of your interpretation, whether it be morbid or meditative, “Computer 1.0” welcomes your projections. Hanging from the ceiling by ropes and cordoned off by a plastic barrier, “Computer 1.0” is at once a feat of modern engineering, an exploration of the relationship between textile and technology, and an homage to the oft-forgotten ancestors of today’s machines. “The first computer was weaving: the binary code, 0101, under over under over,” explained Manganiello, a textile artist and professor at Parsons as well as one of MAD’s Artist Studios program alumni. She later added that while the proliferation of women in STEM is a current hot topic, indigenous female weavers were innovating centuries ago, and during the 19th century, Ada Lovelace, who’s frequently credited as the first computer programmer, was herself inspired by the Jacquard loom, an apparatus that uses punch cards to direct threads in each row of the industrial weaving process.
Connected to pumps and valves powered by an Arduino microcomputer all contained within a transparent box and set on a shelf above a pool of blue liquid, the tubing of “Computer 1.0” was handwoven through white cotton and forms a continuous loop. The entire tapestry spans nine meters in length and is draped and twisted through the showroom. To create the patterns of air and water, designer Julian Goldman wrote code that continuously instructs the system to release specific amounts of both elements, one after the other to mimic traditional woven designs such as bird’s eye and monk’s cloth. However, due to gravity and pressure, the familiar designs are manipulated and turn abstract, a phenomenon Manganiello says she considers analogous to how we relinquish full control over our images once we upload them to the internet.
While the box holding the pumps and microcomputer is clear, the installation is not accompanied by diagrams or detailed documentation. There’s a short video with close ups and a brief interview as well as some wall text — the same summary that appears on the website — but nothing comprehensive. Initially, I viewed the limited context presented with the installation as a flaw. Wasn’t it the museum’s responsibility to provide more insight into its exhibitions? How was I supposed to know what Manganiello and Goldman intended? I wanted instructions for how to think: a clear description of what it meant, how it worked, how I should respond. Basically, I was missing the user manual.
But here was a microcomputer powered by code that couldn’t answer my questions, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It defied my understanding of what technology should be—it didn’t make my life easier or more efficient, nor did it help me become better informed. The water and air didn’t tell an obvious story even though the piece was inspired by many. Ostensibly, you could go in, sit down on the bench, watch the water droplets creep and speed through the pipe, and leave, without viewing “Computer 1.0” as anything other than “cool.”
Admittedly, this is how I approached the work before speaking with Brawner and Manganiello. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was responsible for my own interpretation. My frustrations with its ambiguity betrayed my own intense reliance on all the expert opinions and storehouses of information contained within my appliances of choice. Prior to attending the museum, I had gone through the press materials like a detective on the hunt for finger prints — I researched every technical term and proposed connection, jumping from an encyclopedia definition of the Jacquard loom to the history of Navajo textiles and the gender politics of categorizing weaving as housework rather than an art form. I wanted to get the exhibition “right.”
Only after interviewing both women did I realize that I hadn’t needed to interview them at all. My pre-visit cram session had smothered any chance of being inspired by Manganiello’s work. I had intellectualized it to my own detriment, letting our thinkpiece-driven style of cultural consumption destroy the possibility for naive wonder. While other visitors were able to free-associate and see ants or internal organs among the tubing and cloth, I was stuck in a box, unable to let my own creativity out to breathe.
Manganiello and Goldman prompt self-examination without explicitly demanding it. By providing us with something of a blank screen through which we can draw whatever conclusions we so choose and see whatever influences we may see, they’re igniting a curiosity that can’t be quenched by anything other than our own brains.
This, of course, is a feature, not a bug.
Editer’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify Julian Goldman’s role in Computer 1.0.
Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman’s Computer 1.0 continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Central Park South) through June 30. It will later be shown as part of Synthesis at Indianapolis Contemporary starting July 17. The Museum of Arts and Design exhibition was curated by Lydia Brawner.