By Rebecka Öhrström Kann 6/02/2024

In 1843, mathematician Ada Lovelace looks at the connection between the jacquard loom and algorithms, resulting in the Note G, the first computer program. In 2018, Danish artist Amalie Smith uses a digital jacquard loom to create her tapestry commission for Ørestad Gymnasium, marrying the very technologies joined by Lovelace and a pursuit which  leads her to write the book Thread Ripper.  Composed as a hybrid novel exploring digital technology’s textile past, Thread Ripper is an intricate, intellectual and sensual web of meanings woven by Smith.

Thread Ripper is published by the British publishing house, Lolli Editions, which specializes in Danish literature in translation, here provided by Jennifer Russell. Russell also translated Smith’s previous book Marble, an experimental novel exploring the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen’s research on the colours of ancient Greek sculptures in the early 20th century and the relationship between surface and depth. Similarly to Marble, Thread Ripper combines storytelling and research in a transgressive prose-fiction-poetry structure, displaying the author’s conversant grasp of the technology and history that unravels on the page. The use of a first-hand account generates an engaging narrative on the history of both computer algorithms and weaving where archive and fiction merge and intertwine. Here Smith enacts a horizontal relationship with the material, one that is not simply guided by academic authority but where emotions and sensory reflections are given equal space on the page among historical facts and technological references. 
Smith’s vast knowledge within these areas and her ability to draw conclusions and connections across theory and history from the Greek myths of Penelope to the  AI program Google DeepDream and the Victorian textile labor movement of the Ludittes creates a complex argument on digital technology’s textile past and the interconnectedness of everything. Here the theoretical lingers with the personal on the opposing page, a trajectory exploring a seemingly autobiographical narrative of an artist in the endeavour of making a tapestry through AI-generated images and the strange turns this pursuit takes her (Smith embarked on a similar project in a commission for Ørestad Gymnasium in 2018, making a woven tapestry using the program Google Deep Dream and a digital Jacquard loom much like our protagonist). (1)

Interlaced throughout the book is an investigation into the binary system as the basis structure of encoding for both weaving and programming. Time collapses so as to reveal the connections between historical accounts from silk moths, Klaus Schwab’s 4th industrial movement, and Ada Lovelace. Here Smith’s argument goes like this: The use of punch cards creates a parallel between the binary machine code, comprised of 0s and 1s, and the two-part system utilized in the loom's weft and chain method. Through this method, looms and computers weave a fabric of material connections, as they convert images and information into binary systems. By drawing parallels between the ancient human practice of weaving and the fundamental binary language that underpins all algorithmic coding, Smith presents a new narrative, one in which man and machine are inherently intertwined.

Despite the varied topics and historical temporalities that Smith brings in, the work feels coherent and enticing, and the connections woven between the various narratives sound. In many ways, her structure is a form of collection, like the work of Maggie Nelson or Joan Didion, which Smith tactfully threads with poetic precision, offering concise explanations and the treatment of complex material.

The book’s physical structure reminds us that writing, too, is a form of weaving as my hand rhythmically turns the page, joining the strands of narratives that are both theoretical and visceral. As Smith herself rightly points out, “the word ‘text’ stems from the Latin verb ‘textere,’ meaning to weave.”(3) Here, form and content mirror each other; Smith, in her endeavor to string words into a book, and the reader whose back-and-forth turning of the pages, progressing into the multi-stranded narrative, in turn, enacts a form of physical and metaphorical weaving of the rich compendium mapped by Smith.

The tone of the novel morphs and mutates between its speakers, from first person to third person, from analytical explanations to diary entries, haiku and personal letters. The effect is one of feeling changing textures of fabric under fingertips as new threads are woven in, and I find myself attentive to the new histories that emerge through the cloth. Alongside our narrator are two other storylines, that of Ada Lovelace and a moth discovered inside a computer by scientists at Harvard University in 1947, which Smith reimagines through the fabric of her novel. Like a ghost in the shell, Lovelace’s memories haunt us through a series of machine-generated texts produced by entering the mathematician’s letters into a computer algorithm (although these sections are actually written by Smith herself). As temporalities collapse on the page, the narrator finds in Lovelace her twin in the yearning and frustration she herself expresses on the opposite page, brooding on whether to leave a lackluster relationship and feeling torn between her own desires and others' needs.

In the latter half of the book, we are introduced to the moth found in the Harvard Mark II computer in 1947, famously named the world’s first computer bug. (3) Like an intruder in our wardrobe, the moth enacts a disruption of the Harvard Mark II computer system, “bugging it”, so to speak. Yet here, there is also a desire to indicate the instability of things, ever at the possibility of unraveling and ripping at the seams. In her text Of Mice Moths and Men Machines, artist and researcher Susan Schuppli describes the glitch the bug performs within the forest of wires as one imbued with the potency for transformation; ”the moth in refusing to conform to the principles of a closed system embeds it vital materiality with the circuitry of the computer releasing a new machine, which even in a state of complete system failure becomes an index of its potential to change, to become other.”(4)

Smith imagines this bug lingering in the computer system, hauntingly residing within the encoded data after its image has been examined and uploaded to the digital collection of the Smithsonian Institute. In the book’s denouement set in the near future of 2030, a dissident squad of moths, descendants of the original computer bug, attack the hyperloom through which a digital web of images is tirelessly woven and unraveled by Homer’s Penelope day and night. On the opposite page, a relationship falls apart and then rejoins. Here again, is the inevitability of entropy, that things are always more elusive, held by threads more fragile than we may think. But Smith also seems to hint at possibility in ruins; perhaps amidst all these unraveled threads we can weave something new.

1. Smith, Amalie. 2018. “Hypertextile (Flipside).” Amalie Smith. 2018. https://www.amaliesmith.dk/hypertextile-flipside?lang=en.

2. Smith, Amalie. 2022. Thread Ripper. London, United Kingdom: Lolli Editions. 99.

3. National Geographic Society. 2022. “World’s First Computer Bug.” Nationalgeographic.org. 2022. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/worlds-first-computer-bug/.

4. Schuppli, Susan. 2008. “Of Mice Moths and Men Machines”. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 4 (1-2):288. https://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/103.