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.


  1. I’ve been very interested in similar topics lately: often conceptually-oriented visual artists dismiss both algorithms and formalism out of hand. How does one critically square such dismissals with the political and cultural importance of systems and algorithms? It’s interesting to hear similar problems being grappled with among composers, given the long history going back to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, Cage’s use of various systems as compositional tools, etc. Come to think of it, what’s the difference between using patterns in composition and stochastic composition? Is a pattern considered a result of a process, whereas stochastic composition is the process?

    Putting my snooty-visual-artist-professor hat on now: There’s plenty of reason for legitimate critique of the tendency toward generative, abstract, real-time visuals, that appear to have no purpose other than the decorative, and whose systems seem to have no differentiation from millions of other similar systems and graphics. In the 1980s, fractals as an illustration as system was interesting because it hadn’t been revealed before. In contemporary practice, artists need to push past that bar and develop something more interesting with the system than the revelation of the same basic system. (Musicians seem to realize this when they make music, but abstract visual systems often aren’t approached with the same rigor.)

    Going back to my points from the first paragraph: I think the relationship between the system and its outputs is key. I suspect there’s a lot to unpack in the correlation between critical regard for a work and the focus on / readability of the system in its output.

  2. Hi Amy!

    I think if we’re talking about patterns in art, then a long history would go back earlier than Cage and Schoenberg. Actually I think a lot of the dismissal comes from pattern having been explored to a far greater depth by textile craftspeople, over millennia, which runs against the fascination with the genius white male contemporary composer.

    To me the most interesting and radical artists right now embrace ancient ideas from pattern and craft. This move shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘decorative’, whatever that means.

    To me pattern is in the code/notation, in the activity of following it, and is visible in the end result.. It’s alive in the whole process of making, from action to reception and the feedback loop between them.

  3. Hi Alex! I agree; pattern in art goes back to prehistory. And I agree, the relation to craft is probably part of the contemporary aversion to pattern: you make great points about traditions tied to women and non-whites being seen as lesser than male-dominated traditions. Though on the visual arts side, the aversion comes from other more recent directions as well: modernist formalism/abstraction is a history that contemporary conceptually-oriented artists don’t tend to hold in high critical regard (oddly enough, partially because abstract expressionism was so white male dominated, aka “macho.”) In any case, abstract visuals tend to be dismissed as anti-intellectual in contemporary circles unless there is some other point of entry (and sometimes even when there is!) I often specifically challenge my students to dig into abstract film for precisely that reason — appreciation of rhythm, structure, affect, etc. can be easily ignored in a generalized dismissal of abstraction. I do think there’s plenty of room to critique specific approaches (esp. since many works are derivative* yet don’t seem to acknowledge their history.) But the goal should be constructive critique that can help propel the practice and field forward.

    But — my main point was not about visual artists, but that I was surprised to learn that musicians would regard pattern with disdain as well. I wouldn’t have expected that to be the case, given that the history of Western music is a) largely abstract and b) largely pattern-driven: scales, key centers, etc. are patterns — as is a tone row, and perhaps even stochastic composition. Maybe since contemporary avant-garde music has moved on to other concerns, it’s experiencing a similar “post-post-modern” rejection of pattern. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising after all, since in music it’s the temporal system (tonal, atonal, etc.) that periodically gets rejected and rethought, not the content. There’s “always” been both abstract (instrumental) and representational (vocal) music.

    * Getting back to your original post: I suspect the point at which a pattern-based work is perceived as derivative is highly variable and therein lies the controversy.

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