Coding meets Art for MMU postgrad

Lead image for the news story 'Coding meets Art for MMU postgrad'

Coding may seem like the preserve of computer scientists but one MMU postgrad is proving that it can be used to make art as well. Michelle Stephens, who will displaying her work at the Manchester School of Art’s MA show, uses coding to create unique tapestries for a series of work entitled ‘Paradise Mill Reanimated’.

Stephens wrote computer code to manipulate traditional textile patterns into reanimated designs for both print and weave. However, her work doesn’t stop there she was also commissioned by the by The Ideas Foundation and the Comino Foundation to run a series of coding workshops for school children – sharing her coding knowledge and skills.

We spoke to Stephens ahead of the opening of the Manchester School of Art MA show – #endofthebeginning – to find out more about her work:

Can you tell us a little bit about your work and what inspired you?

A defining characteristic of my work has been the sustained commitment to the conceptual synthesis of contemporary technology and historical textile sources. Currently my work involves the examination of technology as a design tool by using the coding language of Processing as a method of reanimating the traditional textile patterns of Paradise Mill, Macclesfield. These traditional textiles and/or archives are the catalyst to any body of work I produce.

Why did you decide to use computer coding to design your patterns? What inspired you to create the work?

I wanted to produce a generative piece of textiles, so in order to do this I had to learn the language of Processing to manipulate the traditional jacquard patterns into new formats. Following the investigation of Paradise Mill archives it was key that the coded textile images became a physical fabric again, rather than staying a print based medium. Referencing the historical methods of jacquard cloth production has been a key component of my on-going research. Therefore, these new coded patterns have formed repeat pattern to construct the woven structure for a triple cloth on a digital jacquard loom.

How did you find the process?

Learning computer code, specifically the language of Processing has been a lengthy, but worthwhile process. I just had to be disciplined in learning the new language, but doing it in stages so that I didn’t overwhelm myself with it all. But I have given myself another skill set that I can now use freely in my design process. I’ve formed a new and distinct method of working, which has been at the core of my MA research.

Outsourcing a local mill in the production process was also vital, as the width and length required for the textile installation meant that a larger loom with higher picks per inch was essential. The thirty metre long piece of fabric was produced on the digitally powered jacquard loom at The English Weaving Company, Huddersfield.

How did your bursary from the Ideas Foundation help your work?

I was commissioned by The Ideas Foundation and the Comino Foundation to write and facilitate a series of digital coding workshops within St. Ambrose Barlow high school. The workshop series set to explore the fusion between digital technologies and design practice. Working with the theme of ‘Order and Chaos’ students and staff learnt how to use coding as a design tool. Broader work was shown alongside this core set of physical workshops that are relevant to any Key Stage Computing, Design Technology and Art & Design curriculum group.

It was critical that at the core of these workshops was the skill share between the artist, staff and students. This was so the digital skills obtained could be readily used in a variety of environments. As a result of the possibilities of coding I asked for ICT students as well as Art students to work with. The students produced a body of work that was compiled into a permanent artwork within the school.
In the sharing of this information to others it has given me a a better understanding of coding. It’s also simplified some of the code in order to pass it on to a wider audience in the future. After graduation the plan is to continue running these workshops as well as taking them to various other locations such as hospitals, art centres, galleries and offering the tutoring from my own studio. This will also provide a steady income stream to go alongside my own practice.

How important are bursaries to artists like yourself?

Bursaries, commissions and funding are key supporting elements within any given artists’ career. There are times when one requires funding or support in order to facilitate certain projects, whether it is working in specific environments or simply time to develop a body of work. Without this funding creative individuals would struggle in many circumstances to produce the quality and quantity of work envisaged for that particular project.

What do you think made your application to the Ideas Foundation stand out?

Due to the fact I was fusing traditional textile patterns and computer code it gave me an edge over other applicants. I had a niche way of working that could be applied to any given design project in the educational environment they were looking to place the designer into.

Stephen’s work will be on display at the Manchester School of Art MA show from October 3rd -12th while she can be contacted via her website.