Pattern and decoration
I finally took some time to watch the video recordings of the AlgoMech Symposium on Dancing and Braiding, which I co-organised but couldn’t attend, because I was running around co-organising the rest of the Algomech festival at the time. I was struck by Berit Greinke asking the question “What more can repeat patterns do?” in the second talk in this panel shared with the Kate Sicchio and chaired by Victoria Mitchell. Later in response to a perceptive point from an unseen audience member (please shout if it’s you!) Berit points out that repeat patterns haven’t been in favour in textile design, being dismissed as “decorative” (see 53m30s). As an outsider, I found this surprising, isn’t textiles all about pattern? But it’s also the case in classical music, where music and pattern seem synonymous, but accusing a composer of making patterns would be extremely insulting. In a fantastic blog post Andrew Hugill notes that it “.. implies that you have nothing original to say and fall back on mechanical formulae.” It’s super interesting to me to see “mechanical formulae” as pejorative, which I can feel even though I run a whole festival celebrating algorithmic and mechanical movement!
Both Berit and Andrew are making the same point – that the word pattern means different things in different fields. But in a way it seems it isn’t taken seriously by the highbrow in any field. Andrew points out that designers talk about “depatterning” as important – you start with a pattern in order to get away from it. Berit is implying that once you link meanings of pattern across two or more fields, you get to see how it is misunderstood. You then see pattern as active structure, that is, after all, all around us.
I’m also reminded of Dave Griffiths demonstrating his incredible Fluxus live coding environment many years ago at an event in Rotterdam, with a recursive unfolding form of a fern-like structure, a standard Fluxus demo that just takes a couple of lines. A media design theorist in the audience gave a withering response by pointing out that the animated visual results were ‘decorative’. I suppose he partly meant that this technical demo wasn’t high minded conceptual art (which shouldn’t be surprising, introductory, technical demos rarely are), but I think there is something here about the rejection of fractals and other patterns because they come from an identifiable procedure. It’s as though if you can tell how something was made, then it is worthless. Running counter to this view, Dave’s work always has the principles of openness in its foundations..
I think that from the outside, almost anyone would argue that the fields of textiles and music are all about pattern. But from the inside, composers, textile design academics and media theorists alike reject pattern as decorative, and therefore besides the point and theoretically worthless. This is a disciplinary blindness. We have to rise above these fields to really see pattern for what it is – active structures of making, that allow us to reach beyond our imaginations.