Designing Pixels You Can Touch

Michelle Hamer's work may look like overblown photography, but her creations are the result of painstaking needlepoint that comment on an information-saturated society.
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Michelle Hamer

At first, Michelle Hamer’s work may look like overly pixelated photographs of trains and buses, street signs and billboards, sonograms and X-rays —which might be interpreted as a critique of our chaotic digital media and information-saturated culture. But on second glance, it becomes clear that her pixelation is not of the digital variety at all. Rather, her works are delicately hand-stitched replicas of photographs that inject 21st-century imagery with a 19th-century needlepoint veneer. Hamer’s art is making needlepoint “samplers” out of her photographs—now that’s retro.

An Australian artist who teaches architecture, Hamer has had no textile training and minimal exposure to needlepoint. And yet: “I am a fan of its history of narrative,” she told me. “For example, The Bayeux Tapestry.” From sampler to tapestry, her interest in what she calls “primitive pixelation” is particularly relevant given that she sees some Australian indigenous art as “historically pixilated.” And while she is more concerned with the stitch as a pixel than purely needlepoint as art or craft, she likes the interplay between manual and digital.

Michelle Hamer

Hamer began this kind of work, most recently exhibited at Fehily Contemporary in Melbourne, by laboriously stitching images of LED road and traffic signage onto perforated plastic. “I always loved perforated materials, and it just felt so logical to explore the way we move between manual and digital without thinking,” she said, and added that the “manual-ness” of her work “actually makes people stop and be present in moments they know but otherwise may not question.” Her passion for this material emerged when she realized that perforated plastic combined with an admittedly obsessive interest in freeway signage, “and the way the pixels were dropping out and at times changing the signs,” became something “I had to create.”

Social commentary is inherent in a technique that has perceptual implications. “My work is at 36dpi, and I know that many people are viewing the world through their cameras at 100-300+ dpi,” she explained. “I am interested in the way we see, what we absorb and what questions we ask and/or avoid as a society. I think the language around us asks these questions. Some of it is graffiti, some advertising, and others labored signage … It all reflects something of where society is at as a whole.”

Michelle Hamer

Fonts and wayfinding graphics were always important to Hamer back when she was studying architecture. “I learned early in my working experience that the placement, size, and type of signage made a huge difference to the way a site would be navigated,” she noted. “I am more interested in the flux of spaces and the margins of error inherent in life and built form.”

She is also intrigued by the language of signs. “One day I realized that the LED signage on my local freeway was actually positioned in a space that was necessary but would be generally ignored. It was an on/off ramp area,” she explained. “I also began to realize that the signage and text were largely ignored but [still] part of our psyche. Then the pixels began to degrade and the messages changed …  I was no longer bothered by sitting in traffic because I was more amused by what was happening around me.”

Since Hamer’s stitching technique is something of a novelty, it runs the risk of becoming a conceit with diminishing impact. How does she decide what to create? “The text is a big driver,” she explained. “What it says . . . the expressiveness of a particular font in juxtaposition to its surrounding. The final work is a moment and that moment needs to confront and/or amuse me in a particular way.”

Michelle Hammer

Hamer also produces time-lapse animations in a paint-by-numbers fashion, showing the original photographs turning from needlepoint back into the context where original signs appear, or what Hamer called “a type of purgatory.” Exhibited through projectors onto hanging white needlepoint screens, the pixels of light could be experienced and walked through (which created shadows on the screens interrupting the video). Some of the light also filtered through to the white painted bricks beyond the screens. “I was interested in the variation of pixels,” she said. “Both the display and the videos themselves, I think, in some way force the viewer to be part of these in-between, uncomfortable but everyday moments.”

Hamer is considering projects around Times Square in Manhattan and the Shibuya intersection in Tokyo, two of the most sign-saturated venues in the world. Reinterpreting the old adage as “a stitch in nine saves time,” Hamer’s artistic goal is to slow down time through her obsessive stitching of kinetic signs, and thus explore the idea of movement in her work.

“Perhaps,” she concluded, “my work is really more about time than stitching.”

Michelle Hamer
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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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