Reinterpreting the heritage of NW textile industry, whilst documenting the current experience of ‘work’, Punchcard Economy is a machine-knitted banner based on the ‘8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest’ slogan coined by Robert Owen of the Eight Hour Day movement.
200 years after Robert Owen founded the 8 Hour Day movement, developments in digital technology and shifts in working practices have led to a more flexible (and precarious) economy in which the notion of ‘work’ is no longer tied to singular place or a rigid schedule. Digital technology has also led to the proliferation of data capturing and sharing, opening up questions as to who gets to collect, own and interpret this data, and how art and artists can ‘explore data critically and materially’ (theODI.org, 2018).
Originally funded by Arts Council England, and commissioned by FACT Liverpool and Open Data Institute. Site designed by Robert O’Rourke.
Punchcard Economy has toured internationally to a range of audiences, from textiles and craft events (Festival of Making) to art and critical theory conferences (Transmediale), Design Biennales (St Etienne Design Biennale), and data / technology exhibitions (Future Everything, Open Data Institute).
The design incorporates data colleted from a range of ‘workers’ (primarily in the digital, creative and cultural industries), auditing contemporary working patterns within the digital economy, and revealing the shift from Owens’ ‘888’ ideal. Each hour worked beyond this ‘contract’ is expressed as a reverse stitch (or glitch) in the design.
Prototype data-vis pattern samples have been knitted by workshop participants on a domestic knitting machine (Brother KH881) using traditional punchcard techniques. The final Punchcard Economy banner collects all the working hours submitted to that point, and was produced on a hacked electonic knitting machine (Brother KH950i and Img2Track). The resulting data shows a significant shift towards precarious or flexible working, and many people working at evenings and weekends.
Though the banner is now complete, you can still take part in the ideas behind Punchcard Economy by logging your working hours at www.punchcardeconomy.co.uk
The punchcard has played a role both in the development of textiles technologies (the Jaquard loom and the domestic knitting machine) and early digital computing systems. Punchcards have also traditionally been used as a mechanism for logging working hours and thus controlling workers. As digital tools allow us to engage in work at home (or in transit), the distinction between work, rest and recreation is increasingly lost. Whether a freelancer or a full time employee, we often struggle to avoid ‘bringing your work home’.
The popular introduction of domestic knitting machines in the 1950s brought the factory into the home, and saw the elevation of a hobby into a one-person cottage industry. Though Brother ceased production in the 90s, hobbyists and professional have kept the craft alive through sharing of techniques via video tutorials and blogs. More recently the electronic knitting machine has become a popular with hackers and makers.
The mechanical punchcard machines introduced in the 1970s and 80s use a series of punchcard holes in a mylar card to programme the machine. This makes knitting patterns much quicker (and patterns much easier to share), but it also offers a really iteresting design space to work in. The standard punchcard size of 24 stiches and 60 rows can be used to create motifs and patterns, but it can also capture data. The number 24 is of course very useful if you want to log datasets that relate to time – each row thus contains a whole day, demarcated by hours.
About the artist
Sam Meech (UK, Hudds) is artist and videosmith whose practice combines projection design, interactive video installation, community engagement, and digital textiles. He is interested in the overlap and interplay between digital and analogue hybrid design processes and the possibilities of combining the two in production and performance.
He explores ideas in absurdly ambitious ways – building cinemas, casting giant iron fidget spinners, and even knitting a scarf for the inventor of the web. Sam has developed artistic commissions and projects for organisations including FACT (Liverpool, UK), The Lowry (Manchester, UK) Open Data Institute (UK), Royal Opera House (UK), National Film Board of Canada (CA) Quartier des Spectacles (CA, Mutek (CA), Liverpool Biennial (UK), British FiIm Institute (UK), Staro Riga Festival (Latvia), and numerous libraries, museums and local councils in the UK.
Sam is also a co-director of Re-Dock – a not-for-profit organisation, developing arts projects beyond the gallery, exploring ways in which communities relate to digital media, ideas and public space.
Punchcard Economy is a development of the artist’s work with the NEPHRA knit and Natter group in New Moston, exploring the overlap between knitting machines and digital imaging, and his research into textiles manufacturing history in North Manchester.