Event Report - Weaving: Cognition, Technology, Culture

April 5-8, 2017, Faculty House, Columbia University

Spanning four days in April 2017, Weaving: Cognition, Technology, Culture attracted a vast number of faculty, postdoctoral fellows, students, researchers, and members of the public. The interdisciplinary event opened with several weaving demonstrations led by Bouakham Phengmixay (Lao Textiles), Simone Khamdypaphanh (Lao Textiles), and Carla Childs (Germantown Friends School). Over the course of two days, conference participants and weaving enthusiasts learned about various weaving techniques practiced in different parts of the world and participated in demonstrations that provided them with a sense of the skills and expertise required for the craft of weaving. 

Pamela Smith (History, Columbia University) opened Weaving with “Why Weaving and Cognition,” which outlined the main goal of the event: to explore the relationship between handwork and mindwork. Experienced practice, design, and innovation once required skilled hands. However, since the mechanization of Scientific Revolution, handwork has been devalued and categorized as “timeless tradition.” Education began to teach mind and hand as separate spheres of knowledge; the modern university model has been integral in creating this boundary divide. Weaving set out to explore new vocabulary and narratives for understanding the complex relationship between mind and hand that does not devalue manual work and lived experience.

View the "Weaving and Cognition: session video.

Speaker Daphna Shohamy (Psychology, Columbia), respondent Suvarna Alladi, (Neurology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, India), and chair Nori Jacoby (Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University) analyzed craft through a cognitive lens. Dapha Shohamy described the brain as a “learning machine,” which grows from experience to gain skills and expertise while also remaining flexible and creative. Within the brain, the striatum stores acquiring skills and incremental learning, while the hippocampus binds memories across time and space. This specialization of neurons shows there are different learning systems with distinct neural architectures that serve behaviors in different forms. Survana Alladi offered a response from a clinical perspective, drawing on her experience with dementia patients in a Hyderabadis clinic. Cognitive reserves, what remains when parts of the brain are affected by disease, could be built through complex leisure activities, physical exercise, education, and bilingualism and lead to a later onset of dementia. Survana Alladi noted that while not much research has been performed on the role of craft in creating cognitive reserves, playing an instrument enhances certain kinds of creative functions. She noted that some weavers had referred to weaving as a kind of music making.

View the "Habits and Skills" session video.

Speakers Roger L. Kneebone (Surgical Education and Engagement Science, Imperial College) and Izzy Dabiri (Freelance Costume Tailor) were joined by chair Carmel Raz (Society of Fellows, Columbia University) to link the worlds of tailoring and surgery. Izzy Dabiri discussed the inner life of costumes: the seams, stitching, and interlining. Learning these practices occurs through feeling, stretching and testing the fabric, repetition, and testing. Roger Kneebone followed by explaining that most important surgery knowledge is very difficult to codify, but is instead an embodied knowledge. He began to explore the connections between different worlds that use needle and thread, bringing artisans into the surgical theater. Aleix Carrell, a 20th century French surgeon, observed Belgian lace makers, which lead to a breakthrough in surgical techniques for vascular surgery. In both craft and surgery, the repetitive nature of the work does not require consciousness; indeed, being vigilant could hinder the handwork. However, many other worlds of skill do not explore the knowledge of different spheres. Participants have to be comfortable in adapting expertise to new fields.

Speakers Patricia Greenfield (Psychology, UCLA), Carla Childs (Weaver, Germantown Friends School) and Ashley Maynard (Psychology, University of Hawaii) were joined by chair Ann-Sophie Barwich (Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University) in this session, which began as Professor Greenfield presented her study on the effect of social change on cognition and culture in the Mayan community of Chiapas, Mexico. Her study centered around backstrap weaving, which is a Mayan technique where the body becomes part of the loom frame, and how this tradition was affected by various social and economic changes like urbanization, the shift from subsistence to commerce, and increased schooling between 1970 and 2012. The first shift observed was one from interdependent bodies to independent bodies on the loom. While the first generation in 1970 was taught by their mother guiding them physically, the second generation in 1991 was taught remotely by a sister, since their mother was involved in commercial activities. The independent process prompted the learner to use language skills to ask questions but also caused the method to be prone to error. The second shift noted by Professor Greenfield and her team was the loss of body technique from the second to the third generation. Kneeling is a key aspect of operating a backstrap loom and as formal education grew, girls spent more time sitting on chairs and couldn’t kneel for long periods of time when operating the loom. Increase in formal education also affected pattern representation. Those who were unaccustomed to weaving were unable to represent patterns accurately and were more likely to oversimplify them. However, those with formal education had more skill in representing unfamiliar patterns. Professor Greenfield also noted that new techniques and designs like metallic thread, embroidery, and flower patterns that are common today developed because of the changing ecology in Chiapas, including increased schooling and interactions between neighboring towns facilitated by urbanization. A key question asked was what inspired the emergence of flowers as patterns. Professor Greenfield responded that the population was forced to start growing flowers instead of corn because of the restrictions placed by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which inspired the flower patterns.

Lead by chair Donna Bilak, (The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University) this session featured speaker Annapurna Mamidipudi (History of Science, Maastricht University) and respondent Andrew Goldman (Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University). Professor Mamidipudi focused on innovation and the transfer of tacit knowledge through examining handloom weaving in India. She put forward the example of how craftsmen use indigo dye as three types of tacit knowledge: relational tacit knowledge regarding the recipe for the dye; somatic tacit knowledge, since they use smell to know when the dye is ready; and collective tacit knowledge regarding memory to remember the method. Once she established how large aspects of handloom weaving were tacit in nature, Professor Mamidipudi addressed innovation in weaving. She recounted her work in the village of Uppada, India where there was a collaboration between weaving and technology. The introduction of computers that could plan and edit designs prompted the master weavers to make purposefully pixelated patterns, which would decrease their workload while still retaining aesthetics. Technology further allowed them to use cellphones to build a network of the neighborhood women who wanted saris and directly contact them when they finished weaving, allowing for a faster turnover of goods. This tradition of innovation within weaving was recast by the craftsperson to make innovation tacit. Professor Mamidipudi went further, comparing innovation within weaving and innovation in Indian music, where innovation has a negative connotation. The musicians see improvisation as very different from innovation. Even while improvising, they are still expecting the guru to show them the way. Although perceived differently, the steps to innovation are similar for musicians and weavers. They build skills through repetition, learn rules through imitation, become fluent through variation, and innovate during their respective performances. Professor Mamidipudi ended her talk by questioning whether we should make explicit this tacit tradition of innovation that the weavers possess. She concluded that this knowledge should be conceptualized only with the participation of the weaver, since it is often appropriated. The key points of her presentation showed how the Indian handloom is able to use collaboration across old and new techniques to compete with the machine and establish weaving to have a tradition of innovation.

Dr. Goldman’s presentation dealt with the concept of improvisation as a way of knowing. He proposed that improvisation is more limiting than composing since it is in real time, and so questioned what allowed improvisers to create music in real time. He studied musicians attempting to improvise in keys that were familiar to them and those that were unfamiliar. He noted that in an unfamiliar key, improvisations relied on diatonic pitches and lesser entropy, namely safer notes and more predictable patterns. The inability to transfer the same piece in a different key showed how explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge don’t always translate fluently.

Watch the "Weaving as a Socio-Technical System" session video

In Weaving’s keynote address, Uzramma (Independent Scholar, Goldsmith, and Handloom Activist) was joined by respondent Maurie Cohen (Science, Technology, and Society, New Jersey Institute of Technology). Uzramma’s rousing talk examined the difficulties cotton growers, spinners, and weavers have faced over centuries in India. She started with a historical framing of the problem by tracing how weaving has been a symbol of political and nationalist resistance, starting with Gandhi and his charkha (spinning wheel) in his fight against colonial power, and how similarly contemporary Indian weaving could facilitate environmental and social change today. Weavers make cloth without using fossil fuels, unlike their mechanical counterparts, and, with as many as 4 million weaving households, handloom weavers have the potential to bring great environmental change. However, powerlooms are able to manufacture and produce cheap cloth and undercut handloom prices, so Indian weavers are forced to migrate and work in powerlooms, where they are often subjected to cruel treatment. Uzramma noted that economic concerns, rights, and the exploitation of workers must be taken into consideration before handlooms are dismissed as things of the past. She referred back to the Industrial Revolution and its devastating effects on Indian weaving as further evidence that the mechanization of cotton cloth in India is not desirable and was detrimental to sustainable livelihoods in Indian society. With the import of better and cheaper British yarn, Indian cotton growers and spinners had suffered greatly. Even today, the mechanized production of cloth aims to benefit the investors and owners rather than the growers and the weavers. Uzramma’s Malkha project aims to democratize this process by helping the producers make profit for themselves. In her speech, Uzramma addressed the potential handweaving has on bringing environmental change and greater social equality to India, even though the craft faces great challenges in the form of modern technology.

Respondent Maurie Cohen portrayed the handloom as a metaphor for a post-industrial and post-consumer mode of processing. He expanded on this point by referencing the “Staged Economic Growth” theory by the economist Walt Whitman Rostow. This theory dealt with bringing “developing” countries to modernity, which is characterized by the development of a mass consumer society through imports, roads, and ports. He also talked about economic growth in a “developing” country which placed emphasis on steady growth. These important economic observations put better into context the changing socioeconomic environments and the resulting difficulties weavers face.

View the "Indian Loom, Climate Change, and Democracy" session video

Speaker Barbara Faedda (The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University), respondent Dorothy Ko (History, Barnard College) and chair Lan. A. Li (Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University) explored the use of technology within fashion. Dr. Faedda’s talk focused on the interaction between technology and fashion and how that has affected the relationship between clothing and the body. She began by establishing how high-end fashion has been defined by high quality and attention to detail, usually performed by hand. “Manus X Machina,” fashion exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2016, exemplified the dichotomy between “hand and machine”, and “ready-to-wear and high-end fashion.” 3D printing is perhaps the most controversial technology today, according to Dr. Faedda. However, it is unlikely to replace high fashion, since it is unable to provide the detail and tailored fit required by the high fashion industry. Dr. Faedda presented IBM’s “cognitive dress,” which changed color based on emotions in tweets, as an example of the growing, controversial trend that is wearable technology in fashion. In contrast to new techniques that integrate technology, Dr. Faedda gave the example of Antonio Marras, a high-end fashion designer inspired by Sardinian culture, who uses traditional weaving as a technique. Marras’ popular traditional designs that comment on social relations and community, inspired by Maria Lai, show that the future of high-end fashion is not limited to machine-made or wearable technology.

In her response to Dr. Faedda’s talk, Professor Ko questioned the very definition of fashion. She surmised fashion as “novel, creative, and modern,” as well as inseparable from the West and a capitalist society. In contrast, the perception of the world outside the West, she noted, was stagnant and traditional. Despite these different perceptions, fashion is a material engagement, she emphasized. The dress could wear the body or the body could wear the dress. This interchangeable role shows how fashion in both worlds is about the interdependence between clothes and the body.

Chaired by Jenny Boulboulle (Artechne Project at Utrecht University), this session featured speaker Clare King (Propel, LLC) and respondent Paul Sajda (Biomedical Engineering, Columbia University). King’s presentation focused on the development of wearable technology, commercially known as “smart garments,” and the safer, more practical future they envision. Her company, Propel, uses human-centered designs to solve pressing problems. Propel recently began improving existing steam suits that are present in submarines in case of accidents, making them lighter and more flexible. Similarly, King and her team also started designing a wearable advanced sensor platform for firefighters to learn why fifty percent of firefighters globally die of a heart attack on the job or within 24 hours after leaving shift. This “smart shirt” would be able to measure the wearer’s heartbeat, position, internal temperature, and many other physiological metrics. While developing wearable technology, King has attempted to bridge the inevitable communication gap between the world of textiles and the world of electronics. Electronic engineers drive a lot of the research in the industry, but many of them underestimate the complexity of textiles. To facilitate an open and creative collaboration, King had to create a common language that enabled the engineers to communicate with the textile experts. In her concluding remarks, King elaborated on the promising future of weaving in electronic textiles. Professor Sajda’s response focused on the subject of the “machine-human” interface. In particular, Professor Sajda discussed the development of technology that can sense physiology and its practical use to help people with sensory impairment, as well as those with “normal” sensory functions. Contemplating the future of integrated technology, Paul Sajda used the example of “neural lace,” currently being developed by Elon Musk, where a woven net of electronics is injected into the brain and used to record information. One day, this kind of “neural lace” could be part of what we “wear” and modulate our interactions with machines. Professor Sajda concluded his response with a question about the issue of ethics and morality in the world of integrated technology. He raised concerns about how we would be able to control what information we share if technologies became seamlessly integrated into the body.

Watch "Practice, Design, and Innovation with Textiles" session video.

Discussants Ulinka Rublack (History, University of Cambridge) and Stephen Flusberg (Psychology, SUNY Purchase) were joined by moderator Pamela Smith (History, Columbia) and discussed the questions and issues raised during the conference. Professor Flusberg opened by talking about the persistent dualities that exist today between the West and the world outside the West, capitalism, and subsistence, and academics and practitioners. He explained that these separations exist because there are hierarchies within these institutions, which contribute to the problem. Moving on to cognition, Professor Flusberg described how cognition has traditionally been viewed as an internal process solely relating to thought and the mind. In contrast, he perceives everyday behaviors (e.g. picking up an object) to shape and constrain our cognitive processes. The binaries we tend to view the world in are a product of these cognitive processes. To demonstrate this idea, Professor Flusberg recounted one of his experiments where subjects found it harder to mentally rotate an object that was physically hard to rotate. The key points of Professor Flusberg’s talk dealt with how the duality between cognition and action, like note taking to relieve internal memory storage, is affected by everyday actions.

View the "Response and Discussion" session video

Artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese of LigoranoReese talked about the use of optic thread in weaving to create a new form of portrait for this digital age. Their latest project, the IAMI, uses personal data collected from the sitter to paint an interactive emotional portrait in real time. By creating this electronic tapestry, Ligorano and Reese incorporated the traditional and the futuristic to dynamically fuse and develop a new type of art form.

View the "Textile Exhibition" session video.