LOS ANGELES — What is considered women’s work? Do we confine our imagination to the home, to the nostalgic housewife stooped over a stove? Or do we conjure the harried career woman, rocking her baby back to sleep just three hours before she heads to the office? In Ahree Lee’s exhibition Pattern : Code, on view at Women’s Center for Creative Work, Lee acknowledges the truths buried in the stereotypes, but also folds in two other historically feminized labor practices: weaving and, more unexpectedly, computer programming.
In a small room dominated by a loom, Lee has hung weavings and projects a video created with a computer algorithm. Some pieces, which Lee mounts to canvas blocks like paintings, have small, loose-knit holes dotted along in rows that look like punch-outs carved out of timecards. This is just one example of how Lee unites craft and computation.
While they may appear at odds, the design of computing machines and weaving technology are closely entwined. Polymath Charles Babbage designed his analytical engine, the precursor to digital computers, after observing the mechanical operations of Joseph Marie Jacquard’s loom, a device weavers used to make intricate patterns like brocades or damask. The loom was programmed with punch cards that guided wefting threads attached to hundreds of hooks through a warp. Realizing that the high-volume of cards could also be used to input complicated mathematical formulae, Babbage appropriated the Jacquard loom’s system for his primitive computers.
While men may have designed looms and computers, operating them became women’s work. Before it was a ubiquitous term for digital processing machines, “human computers” were grunt workers manually calculating unwieldy equations for science and engineering projects. These research projects became more popular during World War II when the military sought technological innovation for intelligence, combat, or transportation; but with men overwhelmingly deployed in combat zones, women were recruited to do calculations in the office. Iconic human computers include Margot Lee Shetterly, whose autobiography became the film Hidden Figures, and Sue Finley, who joined the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a human computer in 1958. Now a subsystem engineer for the Deep Space Network, Finley is the longest-serving woman in the history of the organization.
Eventually, women were pushed away from STEM fields, leading to industry-wide gender imbalances that pressure Silicon Valley to make outspoken commitments to diversity that have yet to come to fruition. Pattern : Code, however, won’t let us forget the role women played in history.
Lee’s piece “Ada” is named after Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Babbage and wrote what’s considered the first program. In two sections, the weaving mimics the look of the punch cards fed into Jacquard looms and the Analytical Engine. On her Instagram, Lee explains that the holes in “Ada” contain an encoded message written by Lovelace: “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
Another weaving, “Disrupting the Industry,” doubles as data visualization, showing the decline of women studying computer science. Covering a 44-year period, from 1966 to 2010, navy threads march horizontally along a grey background, reaching halfway across the upper third of the canvas before haphazardly retreating down the length of the weaving. Translation: significantly more women earned degrees in computer science in the 1970s than they did in 2010. A jarring, loosely woven stripe also interrupts the graph, a metaphor for the industry’s gender gap.
Lee doesn’t entirely focus on computer history, though. She also addresses the idea of women’s work more personally. One of her pieces, “Timesheet,” is a woven tapestry that breaks down how she spent a week-long period last year. An array of colored threads stand for activities like sleep, child care, and “work, non-household.” Taking advantage of the loom’s ability to make patterns, Lee blends threads in various blocks of time to show multiple activities taking place together. In the evening, she multitasks childcare duties with art making, representing it in a high-contrast blue and gray nailhead pattern. As Lee’s residency goes on, she will add six more timesheets to show how varied her weeks as a mother, artist, and programmer can be.
From now until December 7, Lee will complement her exhibition by leading crafting circles and workshops on weaving and physical computing. Educating others, another labor practice in the broad category of women’s work, is integral to Lee’s mission of untangling the history between looms and computers.
Pattern : Code continues at the Women’s Center for Creative Work (2425 Glover Pl, Elysian Valley, Los Angeles) through December 7. A full schedule of events presented by artist-in-residence Ahree Lee can be found here.