Coding, textile printing and heart rate monitors create a quilt of stories for The Lowry

Can a person become a quilt? Sounds like an absurd metamorphosis, but in the hands of artist collective > thread {}, it’s one that’s entirely possible (sort of), thanks to coding, textile printing, and clever use of "biodata".

Not quite as dystopian as it sounds, biodata is a term that encompasses any data drawn from a person, which could be anything from their pulse to answers to questions about people’s lives and work, as well as information on their values, beliefs and attitudes.

> thread {} (the name neatly references both a coding command and textiles) comprises Sally Gilford (Old Trafford), Cheryl O’Meara (Old Trafford) and Vicky Clarke (Stockport); and the trio’s work sees them combine digital and traditional printing with coding and data bending techniques to produce textile and fashion based artworks. Their new project, Edit.02, is to go on show at The Lowry this month and will take the form of an immersive art installation using projections, sound and a large textile quilt. The whole process will be documented in The Lowry's galleries concurrently.

The piece was developed through a week-long workshop at Islington Mill, which saw > thread {} work with a group of young people aged around 16-21 from Salford "who’ve faced challenges for whatever reason," says O’Meara. "Broadly speaking, the project investigates ideas around cross-disciplinary collaboration, humanising data, and combining digital and analogue processes to explore how we can “soften our ideas of what data means."

The young people undertook a number of processes, including recording abstract sounds such as the "vibrations" generated by printing processes, and collecting their own biodata using a pulseometer, with the numbers then run through an open-source code platform. The values in that code were selected using "significant numbers" for the young people – perhaps relating to their relatives or important dates.

This data and code then informed the designs that were generated, formed through numerous iterations across a number of media and techniques including screen printing, screenshots, scans, and glitching techniques. O’Meara refers to this idea of constantly shifting between techniques, deliberately juxtaposing the analogue and the digital, as "data bending". She says, "There are lots of layers to the process. It’s a constant conversation between human between human and digital, with really interesting outcomes and different ways of approaching something. It’s giving data a twist, and a human element."

> thread {} first worked together on Jeremy Deller’s What Is the City but the People? project at Manchester International Festival in 2017. The group was contacted by The Lowry visual arts director Micheal Simpson, who was impressed with their sensitivity and approach to participatory creative projects. "We wanted to apply technologies and processes in a more abstract and unusual form than you might usually see in participatory art, we work in a more personal, intimate way," says O’Meara.

That approach – one that’s both creativity bold, and empathetically human-centric – proved the perfect conduit for the group. "At that age, they’re moving on and starting their lives. What we worked on together isn’t about defining them by the challenges they faced, but giving them the skills and confidence and interest in the arts, in general, to express themselves through code and work that into an interesting piece," says O’Meara.

"They are the quilt; each of them is in that piece."

O’Meara’s artistic background is in print design, and she’s also the owner of The Archive, an extensive library of over 50,000 fashion and print designs. Clarke, meanwhile, is a sound artist, electronic musician and DIY instrument builder and Gilford is an artist, maker and creative practitioner, specialising in screen printed textiles, education and social enterprise. The fusion of those diverse yet highly complementary skill-sets is instrumental in what’s brought this project to life; and for O’Meara, one of the joys from her own line of work was in seeing the "fusion of contemporary and traditional" techniques in making the huge collaborative quilt.

The resulting piece is one that O’Meara describes as "very cuboid", formed of hexagonal quilt blocks with a "very futuristic, vibrant, technological look", combined with screen printed blocks, some of which have fallen away. "It acts as a metaphor for placement and displacement," says O’Meara.

"The idea that you have your own personal pattern is really exciting – something so esoteric as life and pulse that’s been data bended leaves you with a really beautiful pattern that’s so unique to you. Being able to take that graphic image and play with colour and printing; it was amazing what they produced.

"That human element has transferred and manifested into beautiful print."

Edit.02 > thread {} runs from Saturday 17 March until Sunday 22 April 2018. To find out more, visit thelowry.com.

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