Knitting and Pixel Art Collide in 'Punchcard Economy'

Machine Knitting Workshop with Sam Meech / Photo by Julian Paul

Knitting and Pixel Art Collide in 'Punchcard Economy'

Punchcard Economy, the tiny knitting factory located in the cafe stage area during transmediale, is London-based video artist and knitting enthusiast Sam Meech's attempt to fuse the analog with the digital. At a glance, it would seem that people were simply operating knitting machines and nothing more. But, quite a bit more conceptual flavor was at a play.

Punchcard Economy, the tiny knitting factory located in the cafe stage area during transmediale, is London-based video artist and knitting enthusiast Sam Meech's attempt to fuse the analog with the digital. At a glance, it would seem that people were simply operating knitting machines and nothing more. But, quite a bit more conceptual flavor was at a play. 

Meech's background is in video and digital art, and he'd had never seen a knitting machine until he filmed a local knitting group. "I became really interested, and knew I wanted to do some work with the knitting machine," Meech said. "I was fascinated by the [machine's] punchcard system, and the potential for this machine and the design restrictions of working for knitting, but also the design restrictions for that punchard system."

"There are 24 cells across, so its equate to 24 pixels, and that's a really interesting design space to work with," he said. "Also, the fact that a punchcard is a mechanism that was used in early computers, but also this third idea that the punchcard is the clocking in-clocking out system. I'm not sure why the standard gauge punchcard for knitting machines has 24 cells; there might be a really good reason for it, but it's quite fortuitous in the sense that I can record data for 24 hours."

Working within punchcard's cell system paramaters, Meech decided to do a data visualization project around work and time. Before it coalesced, Meech was introduced to the eight-hour workday movement banner, and decided to make this a central metaphor for what would become his eventual Punchcard Economy banner. (This banner appeared transmediale's Guest Exhibition Time & Motion: Redefinining Working Life.)

So, how do Meech's data-infused knitting machines work? Those who joined one of his workshops got a firsthand lesson. For those who didn't have a chance to punch their data on cards and help Meech knit a new banner, the process is quite simple. 

"I asked them very simply to record for a week the hours in which they have done work," he said. "It's not a rigorous sociological study, I simply say it's up to them to decide what work is, whether they're paid or not; and if you've done some work, even if it's checking email for ten minutes, let's regard that hour as one in which work has invaded those other spaces. So, what typically they produce is this grid of 24 spaces for the seven days of the week, and if they've got a proper job you'll see all those squares as work, but also quite often you'll see that people do extra bits of work outside of that."

This is how Meech and his workshop group arrive at a basic design. By punching this data into their cards, they create design patterns unique to them. Meech also asks the group to look at all of the hours they work and take that basic eight-hour day out of the design, which represents extra work. This could manifest as overtime or the flexible work done outside of job structure. 

"That's what I am trying to represent in the banner," Meech said. "It can get peole to think, 'Yeah, the way I work doesn't fit into an eight-hour day because I'm freelance or because I am addicted to email, or because I can do it on the bus home.' It's a really good way of getting them to reflect on what work is, or where they think it happens and when, and how much agency and control they have in defining or regulating that."

"And the nice thing is they get to knit, they get a nice piece of textile," Meech added. "As a workshop, it's quite round as a conceptual element. There's a design aspect to it, and there is the hands-on production aspect of it."

And because cells are either punched or not, Meech sees the punchcard and pattern as representative of a binary system. That is, a collection of 1s and 0s. So the analogue input becomes a sort of hybrid digital-analogue output throughout the workshop process. 

"You can equate it to pixels," Meech said. "I don't know if it's definitely the case, but I would be interested to know would there be any truth in the idea that knitters and textile artists were the first pixel artists, because they just go hand-in-hand visually."

For more pixelated-esque knitting projects, be sure to visit Sam Meech's website. And watch the below video to see Meech's knitted, stop-motion animation inspired by Eadweard Muybridge's Horse in Motion.

Knitted Horse Firework animation - SD from Sam Meech on Vimeo.

Photos by Julian Paul, Katharina Träg and Paco Neumann

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