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Kirsty Robertson

2006 SSHRC Postdoctoral Prize

Knit one, purl one. Warp and weft. A string of zeros and ones on a computer screen. Three different examples of binary code humans use to make something out of nothing: a pair of wool socks, a woven poncho, an email virus.

All of them grist for Kirsty Robertson’s mill.

The SSHRC Postdoctoral Prize is given annually to the year’s most outstanding SSHRC postdoctoral award recipient. Robertson, whose PhD came in visual and material cultures at Queen’s, and who will be doing her research at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, is one of those adventurous, wide-ranging, original thinkers who roams the culture, looking in all kinds of seemingly unconnected corners to find all kinds of unexpected connections.

Robertson won the 2006 Postdoctoral Prize with a research proposal titled “Keep in Touch.” In the project, she aims to use the very physical world of textiles—knitting, weaving, sewing—to tease out the actual and metaphoric connections with what she calls “the allegedly asensory world of online communications.”

The Web is certainly one of the project’s main threads. Robertson takes as her starting point a feminist history of textile production that links the binary nature of kitting (knit one, purl one) and weaving (warp and weft) to the development of modern communications technology with its binary computer code.

She also plans to investigate the links between knitting and activism, and look at how activists use textile arts to subvert the status quo (for example, the Zapatista Women’s Collective’s use of embroidery to spread word of the 1994 Chiapas rebellion). She’ll look at the world of wearable technologies and the way these, too, can be instruments of subversion, despite their military and industrial origins. She’ll look at how World Trade Organization decisions that, as she says, “apparently liberalized the trade in textiles,” have changed not only the kind of economic regime we live in, but the kind of art we make.

Searching to understand the links between textiles, communication, art, economics and activism, Robertson is ultimately looking for the real connections in our networked, globalized, seemingly nonphysical world—a world that is not as virtual as we think.