Tradition and quirks of modernity collide in artist’s embroidered autocorrect fails

Images via Pacific Felt Factory

Margaret Timbrell’s exhibitions “Auto-Corrected” and “RedWork” open this Saturday at the Pacific Felt Factory. In traditional “redwork” embroidery, she captures and interprets moments when autocorrect betrays the user with something inaccurate or embarrassing. We checked in with her to explore the effect. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. A reception is planned at the Pacific Felt Factory on Thursday, Sept. 14  from 6 to 8 p.m.

Mission Local: First, what is this red traditional embroidery? How did you get into that, and where is it tradition?

Margaret Timbrell: Traditional red embroidery is a European type of embroidery, and it was originally only for the super-high classes, because materials were very expensive — silk thread, and even just having the time to have a leisure activity like that, were reserved for royalty.

The British eventually developed a red dye, and this is how they became known as the redcoats: They developed an inexpensive red dye that held fast. This opened up embroidery and needlework to middle-class people who had time for a hobby but couldn’t necessarily afford silk thread.

Redwork became this very domestic type of embroidery, with which to decorate primarily home things, like kitchen towels and tablecloths. It just kind of prettified the home.

Redwork embroidery is what I do with my work that’s about parenthood, because I feel that the material is a very appropriate one for the topic. The other material that I use in the redwork is vintage tablecloths for embroidery. I was experiencing sitting at the table with my 20th cup of coffee, and babies crying, and just kind of slowly losing my mind. And red seemed so appropriate for, just, kind of a madness that sets in.

In the series, I work the material both front and back. Embroidery is judged by looking at the back of the work — if someone’s skilled, the back of the work is very tidy and nice-looking. I felt like that was very parallel to parenting: Through social media and our society, parenting is judged so much at all moments and you’re always kind of doing something wrong. And I felt like, by working the piece backwards and frontwards, I was kind of exposing the flaws in my own life. It feels like an honesty of, “Go ahead and judge me; this is parenting, you’re gonna judge me.”

ML: Interesting how this work spans different eras of mediums for judging – we used to judge people by their needlework and ability to afford silk thread and now we do it on Facebook.

MT: That’s totally things that I think about when I’m working it: The time and the social media, and the contrast between the fastness of social media and the internet versus the labor of needlework. That’s something that comes up in my autocorrect fails series — it’s this little glitch that happens.

Personally, when I’m stitching it, I end up spending a day with these little accidents. I spend so much time thinking about what the wording means and how that reflects on our society that, in this tiny little way, it is causing ripples and it reveals some biases happening in our technology.

It’s something we don’t think about much; it’s just a little tiny blip, but it is indicative of bigger issues that are going on right now.

Some of them, I just like the phrase and the funny word choice, it’s just the humor.

Other times, I pick ones that are more challenging about race and culture and being American and all these kind of issues going on, trying to figure out what it means.

I don’t always do it well or right, but I feel like it’s important to think about, and this is just a little tiny way that you can think about it.

ML: What are some of those biases that are revealed?

MT: People [who don’t have] traditionally white names have a lot of problems with autocorrect, because it’s changing their names. There’s a woman I met who’s in the tech industry, her name is Priti. Her autocorrect alway changes it to “Pretty” or “Preheat.”

You’d think that someone on top of the food chain like that wouldn’t have to have this daily little tiny annoyance about their name. I feel like that’s indicative of who initially is behind these programs — it’s white people, and they enter the names into the algorithm that are recognized as names, and standard Euro names are acceptable, whereas anybody with something atypical or unique or “ethnic” has a lot more challenge with autocorrect.

Autocorrect is so strange, just in the discomfort it sometimes creates. One [example] was, “I need to take an aspirin,” and instead of “aspirin” it was switched to “African.”

I was thinking about how weird that is. Why would autocorrect do that? And also, what does it mean if you literally said that?

I tried to push the boundaries of it, and make it a little more uncomfortable by pairing it with this image of a little white boy in a safari hat. I’m trying to look at how systemic racial bias is in our culture, but also … why this algorithm values certain words over others. It’s causing these strange little nuances in our culture.

People go with this and adopt it into their relationships. [One woman’s phone changed] “I’m good now” to “I’m Gucci now.” She and her friends turned it into this little joke. This tech program is changing our language. It doesn’t have a will or a desire, but somehow it seems like it does.

ML: Do you see the same thing in other languages?

People who type Spanglish who are switching back and forth between languages and keyboards, there’s apparently a huge issue. … Someone donated to me one piece which said, “me gusta el porn.” Her grandma had sent her this — because autocorrect intervened and was like, “surely you don’t mean whatever the Spanish word was.”

Of course, she receives it and laughs, and I don’t know what her grandma’s interpretation was.

I could imagine that if she’s a conservative little grandma, she could be very embarrassed that she said something like that.

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