In 1960, a Dutch mathematician, Dr. Hans Freudenthal, constructed Lincos (lingua cosmica), a math-based language intended to be understood by extraterrestrials. It was designed to encapsulate the bulk of human knowledge, but was primarily a theoretical exercise. Decades after its creation, Canadian astrophysicists beamed a Lincos message to a selection of stars using a radio telescope. The first message should arrive at its star destination sometime in 2035. This experiment was called the Cosmic Call.
Jovencio de la Paz, an artist, weaver, and educator whose exhibition Cumulative Shadow is currently on view at Holding Contemporary, also reaches for conversations with the future and the unknown. Their works tread the line between the digital and the physical, finding the tense places and holding a gaze there. Material languages and technological histories are intrinsically woven into each of their pieces; tools of the past help them envision new possibilities for intelligent art-making through the use of algorithms and computer-generated patterns. The results pulsate with a glowy, interior knowing; they speak to the breadth of de la Paz’s research and reveal how the ancient human technology of weaving can transform over time.
De la Paz, the Curricular Head of the Fibers Department at the University of Oregon, was born in Singapore and immigrated to Gresham, Oregon as a child. They describe Gresham at that time as seemingly bucolic, yet violent for POC and queer people. As a result, they spent a lot of time alone, engaging with speculative fiction, sci-fi, and video games. These early influences have culminated in the underlying questions embedded in their work: How does an artist project into a speculative future? How can an artist’s tools align toward the future of art-making?
For the series of works in Cumulative Shadow, de la Paz employed the TC2 (Thread Controller) loom, a hand-operated Jacquard loom, and personally-created design software to create self-generating, “living” textiles. Indeed, they describe the six weavings included in this exhibition as life forms. They’re stretched over minimal canvases, giving metaphorical breathing room. The exhibition also includes a collaboration with Master Printer Judith Baumann—three bright, abstracted lithographs with a trippy, autostereogram feel.
Many of de la Paz’s works have a holographic quality; through color, repetition, and pattern, they’re able to create a sense of depth despite each work being two-dimensional. The exhibition’s physicality is, in itself, full of contrasts. Woven fragments are stretched taut across canvases, but even the fragments effuse independence. They seem to want to escape the frame and move freely as pliable objects. De la Paz’s lithographs, though also flat, make the eyes swim.
Visual effects also reveal de la Paz’s inspiration for the exhibition’s title, Cumulative Shadow. Shade 1.1, a cotton and raffia weaving made on the TC2 loom, was created in response to a particular conundrum of gaming design. In theory, shadows that overlap should produce darker shadows, but for a programmer, capturing that reality of light and space is very complex. For Shade 1.1, de la Paz mimicked overlapping shadows with pattern and tonal shifts.
As de la Paz’s weaving work has developed and begun to address questions surrounding physicality and technology, they’ve endeavored to write their own weaving software. They worked with a London-based programmer to create WeaveWriter 1.0, a software that, similar to drawing, allows the user to generate weave structures organically. Giving the computer minimal amounts of data, their software then populates the rest of the design algorithmically.
Computers can represent our most destructive forces, or help us understand the origins of life. During World War II, a supercomputer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey was used to develop and monitor atomic weapons. After the war, the same computer was employed to address other problems; for instance, the scientist Nils Barricelli sought to understand the evolution of single-cell organisms and prove Darwin’s theory of evolution by programming bionumeric organisms.
De la Paz’s work branches off from these earlier inquiries. Their creative conversation revolves around computers orchestrating their own patterns, and thus their own lives. While Barricelli sought organismal harmony in code, de la Paz is more interested in a code’s lack of harmony, its attitude, its potential for sentience.
Using BioLoom 1.0, another software, de la Paz algorithmically “dressed” Barricelli’s bionumeric organisms in a “costume” of weave structures that could then be woven. The software auto-grows numerical patterns such that they become lifelike organisms. The pattern is “born,” it interacts with other numbers, then “dies”—a woven abstraction of life. This process resulted in de la Paz’s Bionumeric Organisms series.
Both Donna Haraway and Carl Sagan have emphasized a human need for speculation. Science fiction storytelling is a form of folklore, exploring potential cosmologies and other ways of navigating the world (or worlds). In their artist talk, de la Paz wondered about our concept of futuristic art—for instance, mid-century modern furniture was designed to suit an imagined future. (It’s no mistake that this style of furniture shows up in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, A Clockwork Orange, and even The Hunger Games.) But a still more prescient venture revolves around developing tools for the future of art creation, like de la Paz’s design software. “As we continue to navigate our technological adolescence…the endeavor of survival is linked to the endeavor of knowing the tools around us,” they say.
De la Paz’s tool-making reflects our earliest investigations into endurance, consciousness, and language. Cloth has been an indispensable tool throughout the ages, and one that has even held data. The Incan quipu, or talking knot, was a recording device created by tying knots on long sections of rope. Quipu stored information on everything from tax obligations to military organizations. Similar recording systems were used in ancient China and Hawaii. We might even think of the quipu as an ancient computer. In science fiction, the creation of new tools tends to tie into our struggle with basic questions about humanity. Will this latest intelligence turn against us? How do we really measure sentience? When I think about relationships between the organic and the technological, Data from Star Trek hovers in my mind’s eye.
It would be an understatement to say that de la Paz’s work is complex. It’s a conflicted, collaborative, boundary-testing, unfolding tapestry of digital and natural origins, haptic yet adhering to ever-evolving algorithms. If anything, a lack of context for their work could be challenging for some viewers—there is so much embedded here, but little is explained outright. De la Paz’s artist talk and website were both a significant help in interpreting their work. It’s neither entirely human nor entirely machine-based. This relationship feels fraught, but is becoming more rooted in daily life as technology presses ever forward.
Why shouldn’t we think carefully about our relationship to the machines of this world? Cumulative Shadow shows us that we do have some control over how we engage with and shape technology—de la Paz’s software remains a tool while also taking on its own creative life. Through the invention and evolution of artistic tools, de la Paz reinvigorates their medium’s original purposes. Weaving has always been connected to language, movement, and history. In de la Paz’s work, it also forecasts our future.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.