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TVQ ESSAY: The Tyranny of the Block

By Catherine Jones

A quilt is both more and less than the sum of its unassembled blocks. More, because you can sleep under it or hang it on the wall and call it art. Less, because, once the blocks get put together, some of the life goes out of them. They may interact visually to make a complex whole, but they no longer invite rearrangement, no longer function as an item of barter between quilters, no longer evoke so insistently their individual qualities and names.

A sense of drama and luck (sometimes bad luck) runs through the names of traditional quilt blocks. Wheel of Fortune, Steps to the Altar, Time and Tide, Storm at Sea, Drunkard's Path, Road to Oklahoma, Monkey Wrench, Road to California, Broken Dishes, Tangled Lines, Courthouse Steps, Crown of Thorns, Joseph's Coat: phrases like these beg to be fitted together into some ballad of fate and survival. But the physical blocks, once stitched in place, cease in some way to exist as blocks; they lose their verbal and historical associations and become mere fragments of a larger work. A tension exists between blocks per se and blocks as components of a quilt.

There are partisans of the block and partisans of the quilt. And also those who flit between the two camps, seeing quilts sometimes as aggregations of blocks, as expressions of the whole story-trading, block-swapping, advice-giving, cozy, semi-communal quilting subculture, and sometimes as detached works of art, as bed-sized paintings that happen (usually) to be made out of blocks. While a fascination with blocks -- with categorizing them, researching their history, devising, piecing, and trading them -- may go hand in hand with the urge to design whole quilts, there's no necessary connection between the two.

Maybe this is the place to admit that I've always felt like something of a gate-crasher in the world of block-based quilting. Not because I prefer, in general, the whole-cloth or free-form art quilt. Or because I don't value the stories and poetry of blocks. I'm not a barbarian who wants to burn the museums, lest the achievements of long-dead quilters inhibit creative effort today. (Painters have suggested, not always in jest, setting fire to the Louvre.) But I come to quilts with a certain exploitative gleam in the eye. I'd like to see what else could be done with them.

Restrictions can energize an art; people may work harder and more inventively when faced with an intractable medium or a rigid set of conventions. For this reason, among others, I'm not in any hurry to abandon straight seams or repeating rectangular blocks. But within these restrictions I'd like to do some exploring with a speed, ruthlessness, and freedom from tradition not encouraged by pencil-and-paper techniques or even by today's quilting software.

Except for their history, blocks in themselves don't interest me nearly so much as the way they interact, once placed together. Unfortunately, from my point of view, most methods of quilt design focus more on the isolated block than on the whole quilt. You pick a few blocks from somewhere or painstakingly draw them, arrange them in some layout (with or without a computer), and hope, blindly, for the best. If the overall effect falls short of what's wanted, you tinker with the result and try again. A slow, maybe comforting, procedure, but not the only one possible.

In an age when a Pentium computer can cost less than a sewing machine, there's no technical reason for quilting software to limit itself to this approach. At the very least a computer program can randomly generate a blizzard of new block designs, arrange these into quilts, and flash the results at a human viewer for rating; this person's responses can then feed back into the program to shape future rounds of machine-generated ideas. Even if a computer's suggestions prove unappealing they have at least some shock value. A painter trying to figure out what's wrong with a composition will turn the canvas sideways or upside down. Seen from this novel angle, flaws become more obvious and therefore easier to fix. In the same way, a computer's funny attempts at quilt design can nudge a weary human into doing something new.

Why do I feel I've committed some violation even to talk about this? Because, I suppose, there's no guarantee that whoever programs the computer will have any a priori interest either in cloth or in the history, lore and domestic roots of quilts. I guess there's a question of legitimacy here. Whenever an art form invented by one group gets taken up and elaborated by another, questions arise about who owns what and whether changes of tools and context are producing exciting or merely monstrous results. In fact, these questions come up -- and provoke fierce debate -- even when very close links exist between new-style and old-style variants of an art.

Consider, for example, painted pottery in the various Native American pueblo traditions. Is it OK to copy traditional designs in modern commercially prepared paints? To put them on mass-produced slip-cast ware? What about blending old and new motifs? Or reviving extinct ones found on ancient clay shards? What about people of mixed or unrelated ancestry working with Native American imagery? In the quilting world such questions have appeared so far mostly in muted form, often in connection with the somewhat arbitrary division between "traditional" and "art" quilts. (I use those terms warily, knowing that they carry a political charge and defy easy definition.) So far non-quilters haven't done enough with quilts to set off any great disputes over who's an outsider or who owns what part of the quilting heritage.

But this could change. There's so much going on in quilts visually and, in an obscure way, mathematically, that the field seems ripe for the picking by art-oriented computer science enthusiasts. That this hasn't yet happened may be partly due to the social discomfort that goes with trying to function in the odd place where art, computers, and quilts come together. The three communities -- of artists, quilters, and programmers -- have, as far as I can see, different norms and values; it's hard to construct an identity that moves smoothly from one of these worlds to another. I know something about this; I've come to belong in some way to all three groups without proper credentials in any of them. Maybe the chief benefit of this uncomfortable position -- apart from the chance to coax some reluctant computer into designing a plausible quilt -- is the light it sheds on issues of legitimacy and border zones between the different subcultures.

I got to this place in an unexpected way. I bought a perfectly serviceable piece of quilting software and then, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, became so exasperated with the quilting-software industry (if that's the word for a tiny collection of friendly small businesses) that I decided to take up programming computers myself. Not for a living and not necessarily forever. I was too old and too committed to a low-budget art-making lifestyle even to think of professional programming. I couldn't find the time to spend whole years of my life working 60 or 80 hours a week on somebody else's ideas.

That doesn't mean, of course, that it didn't intrigue me to imagine having a skill known sometimes to command astounding amounts of money. It's startling to turn from the art and quilt magazines, with their listings of juried shows where the exhibitor pays a fee, to the back pages of something like _Dr. Dobb's Journal_, full of employee recruitment ads pleading for programmers. I wondered, idly, how painting or quilting might change if conducted under the influence of venture capital.

Learning to program was hard; in fact, it was grueling. I set out like some madman hoping to climb Mount Everest barefoot. My whole preparation consisted of one class in a language called FORTRAN taken twenty-odd years earlier and a brief recreational fling in 1985 with another language called TurboPascal. (Programmers will understand the skimpiness of this background.) Shutting yourself up at home alone with a pile of books, a computer, and a burning desire to fabricate a new kind of quilt-design program written in C++ for Windows 95 -- this may be a cheap and focused way to learn programming or a high-risk radical cure for pre-menopausal blues, but I wouldn't lightly recommend it to anyone. I only made it through because I was so annoyed -- annoyed at the quilting software suppliers, annoyed at the image of quilting as a harmless feminine pastime, and annoyed at myself for having a bunch of ideas about quilts that I couldn't seem to express without waving my hands in the air.

In retrospect I'd say I was suffering from what I now call the tyranny of the block. By this I mean that the quilt block, with all its historical associations and individuality and preciousness, occupies a very privileged place in the way we think about quilts and the way commercial software encourages us to design them. Blocks are a kind of collector's item. People accumulate stashes of block designs, which they pore over, savor, and organize; people collect blocks the way they collect fabric. Quilting software comes with big (and delightful) libraries of fabrics and blocks; it presents to the user a vision of quilt design as shopping on an unusually large budget. You pick up a few blocks and fabrics, customize them a bit and pull together a new look. Fun. Easy (once you master the quirks of whatever software you're using). And -- unless you actually make the quilt and use new fabric -- wonderfully light on the pocketbook. Recreational quilt design as shopping without guilt!

But some ancient Puritan or Freudian reality principle rises up in me to protest. Quilt design is work, and work can't be that easy. For one thing, the hard part of quilt design -- the part where we really could use some help from computers -- isn't the shopping or the poring over catalogs of blocks. It's stimulating, refining, and wooing the intuition so that we can conjure up out of countless possibilities those shapes and colors will meld together to make a satisfying quilt. For another thing, it's ridiculous to hope for anything like a comprehensive or well-rounded inventory of blocks. The numbers involved are just too vast. How many different blocks can you devise using a basic nine-patch (3x3) grid, no extra vertices, and at most three fabrics? I've no idea, but a quick calculation shows there to be at least a billion. (For more on this, click here.). For better or worse, quilt design involves us in a brush with the infinite. That, among other things, is what makes it an art rather than a shopping expedition.

Maybe I should close, before I get too pompous, with the incident that -- more than anything else -- set me off on my programming quest. The company that sold me my quilting software sent me a flyer or newsletter with testimonials from a few satisfied customers. One of these customers mentioned losing some weight; engrossed in designing quilts, she'd skipped a meal or two. I found her comment endearing, but it also bothered me. It reminded me of those ethnic jokes you can get away with telling only if you belong to group in question. She could laugh about losing weight, but I didn't want to hear that from a software company. I wanted to be told their tools would make me more powerful, more capable of doing great things. Quilt design, as I see it, is worthwhile work. It's only incidentally -- and not very reliably -- about staying out of the refrigerator.

Recently I came across a comment that may be, in the computer-programming world, the equivalent of quilters' weight-loss jokes. It appeared in an essay by Eric Raymond titled "How to Become a Hacker." (He uses the term "hacker" in the positive sense to denote a public-spirited person who writes and shares useful and ingenious computer code.) "If you're attracted to hacking because you don't have a life," Raymond says, referring what he calls the Hacker/Nerd Connection, "that's OK too -- at least you won't have trouble concentrating." You can take this comment a couple of ways. As a rueful admission by a programmer that his kind sometimes "don't have a life". Or as an assertion, masked by comedy, of the value of what they do. I'd like to hear more assertions like that by artists or makers of quilts. Maybe someone will say one day that being too thin or too fat is OK if, for some reason, it helps you make a good quilt. That kind of confidence will probably go hand in hand with overcoming the tyranny of the block.

(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.

 


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