“Inherited Fragments” is an examination of the material and cultural history of Willow Pattern china through a post-colonial lens; it is a generative computational work that displays the data of history.
produced by: Rebecca Aston
In my approach to the data of history, I responded to or drew from traditional history research methodologies, data visualization, and web development, computational and artistic practices. In addition to the general desire to investigate willow pattern china, one line of inquiry was around sequencing. I thought about how we most often consume information and history dispersed, out of order and encoded in our environments, as well as placed into coherent timelines; I thus wanted to explore the chaos of chance encounter versus ordered human narrative. I was thinking about storing collections of information that as a whole held coherency, but once fragmented and encountered next to other pieces of information could convey different meanings.
I wanted to create a tool both for gathering and collating information, exploring different sequences of said information as well as presenting it to others, thus I set out to create a generative and emergent tool which I as an artist could create and discover with rather than simply present static output to a viewer.
Concept and background research
What is Willow Pattern? It is a china or porcelain pattern that was developed in England in the 1700s that cannot be attributed to a specific factory. It’s a transfer pattern that allowed for mass-production. It was a mimicry of blue and white hand-painted porcelain goods being exported out of China by Europeans, the Chinese legend about star-crossed lovers the pattern represents is largely a British fabrication. Willow Pattern has since accrued sentimental value for British people, it became a staple of middle class aspirations and has found its way across the globe.
My process of discovery for the project started with finding a Willow pattern milk jug in the house of my step-grandmother in Zimbabwe. It was already a familiar pattern to me, yet looking at it with adult eyes I saw it as alien in Zimbabwe, a relic of old ways. For me the act of 3D scanning it was an archival act, a 3D scan unlike a photograph brings questions of object-hood and form into play in addition to color, pattern and light; both technologies seek to capture or to memorialize. Since then I have had chance encounters, investigated and hacked together many different approaches in my study of Willow Pattern.
What attracted me to the Willow Pattern jug as a starting point is its seeming banality. Many people of British decent, whether in the UK, in ex-colonies, the commonwealth, or even America, will recognize Willow Pattern china as something that maybe their grandmothers cherished, or perhaps they had one chipped bowl in their childhood home, or an immaculate tea-set entombed in a display case. There is a sentimental comfort that forms around that sort of familiarity. Willow Pattern scattered across the world is however, also a physical remnant of migration during the British Empire and thus of a colonial brutality that was enacted on many peoples. The physical material of civility and class is so often fashionable goods, porcelain being one example; acquiring Willow Pattern china in the mid to late 20th century marked, if not someone’s arrival at, then at least their aspirations to middle class respectability and civility. The language of European colonizers and missionaries often relied on the word “civilizing” when describing their endeavors; the export of a set of beliefs and manners, so seemingly true and comfortable to those who ascribed to them, destroyed entire cultures. We often encounter history in fragments and out of order, dispersed into our physical environments, encoded into objects we encounter everyday. The sentimentality we attach to such objects calls for examination.
The approach of investigating one cultural object meant that I was able to discover a wider web of history associated with Willow Pattern. In addition to the general willow pattern mania that has inspired advertising knock-offs, plays and literature, the history of the porcelain that the pattern emulated is vast. Porcelain was one of the trade goods that saw the rise of global trade as we know it. The Portuguese were amongst the first Europeans to be exporting original hand-painted porcelain out of China prior to 1600, but the VOC—known in English as the Dutch East India Company—which formed in 1602 soon had a monopoly, their first shipment of porcelain into Amsterdam was taken off of the Portuguese in an act of piracy. “Within a few decades, the VOC proved itself to be the most powerful trading corporation in the seventeenth-century world and the model for the large-scale business enterprises that now dominate the global economy” (pg 16 Brook). In addition, the company hired a lawyer Grotius to justify their acts of piracy, he wrote a document entitled "Freedom of the Seas” which stated that all people have the right to trade on the seas; they used this to justify the use of force against their rivals the Portuguese who had essentially claimed the rights to the trade because they had arrived first. These flows of goods and power are at the foundation of the world economy today. Another one of my chance encounters arose because I found a piece of willow pattern china in a stream in Oxford, which lead me to being put in touch with a mudlarker Anna, who finds many fragments of Willow pattern china along the Thames. She told me how she finds most of the fragments at old landfill sites along the river, she called transfer-ware Willow Pattern the “Ikea of its day” because it was so prevalent. The material of mass-production, is now fragmented rubbish in the mud.
These findings begin to trace the material, economic and cultural histories of Willow Pattern. My hope was to explore an old technology and all its material and cultural ramifications within a modern technological context.
I combined the curatorial act of the author with a more randomized accumulation of information in an attempt to capture the volume of content online about Willow Pattern. I created a data structure, using JSON text files, that stored text—fact, speculation, personal recollections and meta-data—and referenced different media by creating a basic file system structure with paths to different file types. I used a more traditional approach of reading historical books and articles, writing my own accounts and taking images and 3D scans, in addition to a drag-net approach of scraping articles and images from the Internet. I wrote a Python script to scrape the information, parse it and write it to separate JSON text files. I used Openframeworks to write the simulation or tool that was presented in the exhibition. In the Openframeworks program I’d load the JSON files into separate “frame” objects, run sequencing logic on them and load in associated media as needed.
I set up the system to be able to explore different ways of sequencing and fragmenting information I had gathered; I wanted to create correlations or accumulations that poetically mapped the real-world fragmenting and accumulation of Willow Pattern in all its forms, both matter and ideas. For the exhibition the information was sequenced using a weighted random choice. Using a limited predefined set of tags the data was tagged either manually or when parsing the text in the Python web-scraping script by programmatically matching words. In the program the current frame’s tags were compared to the tags of all the pieces of data loaded into the program, the number of matching tags determined its weight of correlation. The data was then sorted in ascending order from highest correlation to lowest correlation and the next bit of data added to the visual simulation was chosen from the top half of all data.
The display of data itself existed largely in two parts, raw data alongside the fragmenting of that data. I took 3D scans and abstracted them into a particle system, I also converted selected images into triangulated 2D meshes and added them to the particle system. I scattered the fragments of color using forces and flocking algorithms. The particle system was a Binned particle system that used spatial binning to apply different forces to each particle. The text was presented on screen, and through audio files I recorded of my own writings and system read outs of other's texts using a synthetic voice; all text written by others was cited on screen.
The two camera views highlight two perspectives, the main one being centered on the individual piece of data being added to the system, the secondary camera offering a birds-eye perspective of the whole system as the accumulating fragments reform into new flattened abstract shapes and patterns. I started to think about the different layers at which information can be read or broken down, abstracted, and reformed and re-read. The correlation between data visualization and the idea of pattern recognition, and the obvious link to the Willow Pattern, was not something I had originally formulated in my concept but is rather a linkage that came out of the process of making this piece and is a direction that I’d like to further explore.
I 3D printed some of the models, as well as 2D printed some of the birds-eye view pattern that was displayed in the lightbox case with the original Willow Pattern fragments that Anna the mudlarker kinldy lent to me to display, along with the one fragment of china that I found myself.
I think that one of my major challenges was the challenge of viewing time. Thinking about how long a person drops in and out of a piece for, say in an exhibition, a film or on their own laptop. The fact that this is largely a narrative-based piece means that it would probably benefit from a re-work that allows someone to traverse through the information in their own time, for example by exposing some parameters that would allow them to change the sequencing of the information. Or to present this perhaps as a series of short films; sequences that I have curated that convey some of the different narrative threads that have a digestible coherency in a short time frame.
Largely due to the above reason, I would like to create a modified version of this project online. One that allows others to navigate through the content. I would also potentially like to use this approach on a different object. I’d like to see if there are ways in which I could modify, prune things, develop algorithms, or to pull out a core of an approach and see if a more generalized research-based art practice arises.
I have covered one major challenge of viewing time in the section above on future development. This links into the challenge that arises from an interest in chaos versus order, a shorthand I’ll use for what I think is the friction that comes from humans reading, divining and overlaying narrative on the material world. Creating a system that reads as only chaotic, glitchy, meaningless or broken is a challenge I have faced before, my response this time around was to frame this study with a very polished frame; in other words the display case. I wanted to allude to the scientific and to the museum in the material and form of the display case. I custom-built the wooden unit that housed the light-box and screens, I varnished it, and built a seamless transparent acrylic cover for the light-box. This I hoped would allow people to enter the piece thinking of the simulation and the process as a microscope of sorts, and allow people to read the fragmentation and scattering as an intent rather than a by-product of a messy system.
I know that I took hold of many different issues, approaches and thoughts and tried to wrangle them into one package. There were things lost and found in that process, which I’m ok with. I have thought of this as a first step, a question, rather than a completed piece and it is something I will continue with into the beginning of my MFA year this year. I think that I relied too heavily on randomness in my code, but it was a useful prototyping tool that allowed me to understand that sequencing, fragmentation and pattern recognition were the technical and conceptual core of the piece. I’d like to explore more algorithms and approaches to sequencing, breaking down or fragmenting and programmatically reading and creating pattern; still broad, but more directed technical questions.
- Howard Melnyczuck's tutorial on web-scrapping using Python and Beautiful Soup.
Works, sites, and people Cited in the exhibited piece:
- Anna, photos of a sample of her collection, link to her mudlarking instagram account.
- Elizabeth Chang, "Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain", Standford University Press, 2010.
- Timothy Brook, "Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World", Bloomsbury USA, 2008.
- Francesca D’Antonio, "The Willow Pattern explained, East India Company at Home, 1757-1857", http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/
- And various Google Image searches were scraped.