Automation and Me, Hackathon – Sarah-Joy Ford

I was invited to take part in the Automation and Me Hackathon as part of Leeds International Festival 2019 organized by Northern Sound Collective. The event brought together 20 female digital artists, to talk, collaborate and generate new, provisional works.

Photo credit: Anya Stewart-Maggs

With tech events often being a boys club, this was a much needed, feminist space that nurtured myself and the other artists to explore questions about technology, art and life. Supported by Northern Sound’s excellent facilitation and a steady stream of snacks there was a productive hum and a joyous buzz of conversation and collaboration across the three days. 

We broke into themes and I chose play together with artists Sophie Ashcroft, Toni Buckby, Chiho Oka and Lia Mice. We made a twister-quilt that responded to touch with lights and sound. I was lucky enough to have support from VSM UK Ltd who kindly leant me a wonderful digital sewing machine – the Pfaff Creative 3.0. It was the first time I have used a domestic, digital sewing machine and I had so much fun exploring all the digital stitches and designs built into the computer, as well as the software that has some really useful design wizards. Sitting in the window of the Victoria Gate shopping unit, watching bemused shoppers pass by, the automated designs stitched out with conductive thread in the bobbin, looping and catching under the embroidery. Hand appliquéd, these were connected up with crocodile clips, wires, a Raspberry Pi and linked into a computer generating automated sounds when touched. It was temperamental and super glitchy – but so much fun to make and play together, sharing our incredibly diverse digital skill sets.  

Initially I was thrown by the invitation, as I have never considered myself a digital artist. But when I sat down to write my lightening talk for the ‘Craft, Labour, Automation and Gender’ symposium panel that I was chairing I began to explore the importance of digital strategies in my art practice. 

Lightening Talk: Automation and Me

After years of working with my trusty domestic sewing machine, digital embroidery has revolutionised my practice. It has enabled me to explore scale, pattern, repetition and accumulation; strategies that resonate so deeply with the imperatives of making lesbian histories visible. 

I recently read my supervisor, Alice Kettle’s thesis that deals with the feminine and the enchantment of making. It has led me to think about how these new making spaces of the digital really feel for me

I draw more. I program stitches, and order colours in a small sweaty computer room; which honestly doesn’t feel that enchanting. In the workshop, I faff with a complex set up process. Digital embroidery is quick, but not that quick. 

There is a rule in the workshop that you must look directly at the machine at all times with no distractions. Some designs take 6 hours and sometimes I have two stitching at once, vaguely floating from one machine to another watching my image stitch out slowly in double. 

I feel guilty for using shitty fabric; I check the tension, the bobbin, the maze of threads twisting and running down the face of the machine. I listen to the sound. If I don’t listen; the hoop can jump out unnoticed, threads can twist and snap, thread fluff and fiber can build up. This is a labor of maintenance; vigilant, caring, attentive.

Sometimes I read a book, secretly, under the table. Jamming, breaking, juddering and slipping all happen within the seemingly, seamless process of digital embroidery. 

I watch a drawing of a dildo from a 1990s lesbian erotica magazine stitching out. The machine vibrates, while the blue computer screen jerks back and forth and the needle thuds through the fabric bound in the gyrating plastic embroidery hoop. 

There is a pleasure in watching my work stitch all by itself, automated.

Hands free; my mind can wander.

In 1867 the BMJ reported female sewing machinists with complaints of abnormal sexual stimulation with the motion of the machine, which had encouraged chronic masturbation; patients took up alternative employment, were committed to asylums and medically mutilated. 

Women’s pleasure, has long been restricted, policed and punished. 

In the light of these punitive histories; it feels so good to stitch snatches of lesbian desire; playing with machines as a site of pleasure; automated; vibrating and steeped in the material enchantments of technology.

Sarah-Joy Ford, PAHC 1st Yr PhD