Eve Andrée Laramée is an installation sculptor whose work challenges assumptions about the authority of history, science, and art. This textile, which Laramée designed as the focal point of A Permutational Unfolding, her 1999 exhibition at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center Gallery, confronts the standard history of the computer as a descendant of calculating or statistical devices. It presents an alternative narrative through the history of the textile arts, specifically the jacquard loom.
This history begins with early modern European automata, whose mechanical features were the antecedents for Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s (1752-1834) celebrated loom, created in 1801. Jacquard’s innovation was the use of punch cards to automatically control the raising of the loom’s warp threads and thus determine the woven pattern. Jacquard’s punch cards effectively created a binary code (warp thread either raised or not) and this system was the basis for a further invention, a calculating machine created by British mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) in the 1850s. Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” is generally acknowledged as the precursor to today’s computer technology.
For her exhibition, Laramée transformed MIT’s List Gallery into a late Baroque-Rocco style French period room. She filled the room with a combination of 19th- and 20th-century artifacts of binary code, including an historical jacquard loom and a primitive memory core panel from a mid-20th-century computer. Laramée designed this brocade fabric for the room’s elaborate curtains and upholstery. Woven by a contemporary jacquard loom fed by a CAD weaving program, rather than punch cards, to control the patterning, the textile itself evidences a continuum that spans almost two centuries.
The elements of Laramée’s design present a rich visual network of information, past and present, about programmable computers. For example, Joseph-Marie Jacquard is prominently featured in a jacket patterned with zeros and ones, a paradigmatic 20th-century motif. The black and white Art Nouveau-like patterned square at Jacquard’s elbow is Laramée’s rendering of a circa 1972 computer chip design. The woman is Ada Lovelace (1816-52), an accomplished mathematician and close friend and supporter of Charles Babbage. The duck is a diagram of the ingenious automaton created by Jacques Vaucanson (1709-82) in 1733, which actually ingested and digested grain and then defecated. The hand is a diagram of the prosthetic created by Ambroise Paré (1510-90) in 1564. The spider signifies today’s World Wide Web. As the textile unfolds, the juxtaposition of these elements and others is revealed, causing a reordering or permutation of the common understanding of the history of computers.
Maleyne M. Syracuse is a graduate of the Masters program in the History of Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum/Parsons The New School for Design, and is President of the Board of Directors of Peters Valley Craft Center. She recently retired as a Managing Director in the Investment Bank at JP Morgan and continues to work part-time as an independent professional in corporate finance and investment management.