Offline Matters: An Interview Series —
Slowing Down with Pamela Nelson

Text by Jess Henderson
Images courtesy of Pamela Nelson

Text by Jess Henderson
Images courtesy of Pamela Nelson

Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.

In our fourth interview of this series, Jess speaks with artist Pamela Nelson on the temporality of art making, fighting Zoom fatigue and the creation of ‘tech free’ spaces for creating.

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Dear Pamela,

What a pleasure it is to talk to you about your practice. I was taken by your experiments with temporality and the sensation of ‘slowing down’ through embroidery. In a recent interview you mentioned how ‘…In a fast paced, technocentric world, we must not underestimate the power of being able to slow down.’ Can you tell us more about how you are exploring this, and how you came to seek it?

Hi Jess. My story begins shortly after starting my master’s in digital design, when I began to feel a wanting to look at how to form a new relationship with technology.

I felt like there was rarely a time when I wasn’t trying out a new program, researching on my laptop or typing up an assignment. The engagement with and through technology was constant.

On top of that, I was still mindlessly clicking into social media sites and apps. It seemed a never ending routine. I decided to reflect upon this relationship by sewing; I would track and note some of my habits and behaviours with tech, and embroider data or diagrams into old pieces of cloth, while simultaneously abstaining from going online, almost as an act of rebellion.

 

At the same time, I was reading through Low Tech Magazine (whose founder Kris de Decker, also features in this series) and Digital Rubbish and learning about the materiality of the internet and the environmental impact that digital technologies have. I wanted to learn how to use tech in a slower way that took greater responsibility.

I set aside time for myself to embroider that was intended to be ‘tech-free’; no laptop playing Netflix in the background, no podcast streaming from my phone. I was successful for the most part in doing so, but in some cases I gave in to watching a show or listening to a Spotify playlist…

Do you notice a difference between what happens and how it feels when you are creating in a zone that is deliberately ‘tech-free’, versus working on something with a show or podcast playing in the surrounds?

Part of the idea of creating a tech-free space was to try to remember what it’s like to be offline again. To be fully offline, as much as still possible. I noticed that embroidering in this quiet space allowed me to slow, and with that, time itself seemed to slow down too. I was certainly more attuned to how I was feeling in the moment, there is a real meditative quality to it.

However, making that deliberate decision to turn off all of your devices is tough, especially if you have a lot on your mind and the instinct is to try and mute it, or push it out. At times, the silence was anxiety inducing. That’s when I would put podcast on – to ‘switch off’ a bit. I’m hoping that with time and practise going tech-free will become easier.

In the aforementioned interview you explain that “During lockdown, my focus shifted to my changing relationship with technology and growing reliance on it due to Covid-19… I noted the tension between wanting to be offline but at the same time needing to be online for other work, I thought about ways to allow for a more authentic social experience over Zoom by brainstorming how to ‘make a screen disappear’.”

The phrase ‘make a screen disappear’ is so captivating. Could you explain what how you noticed your relationship to technology changing; how did this tension manifest, and what actions did you respond with?

I took the phrase ‘to make a screen disappear’ from the paper From Use to Presence: On the Expressions and Aesthetics of Everyday Computational Things by Lars Hallnas and Johan Redstrom. I was having trouble accepting that for the time being I would need to rely heavily on my digital devices – more than ever before – and thus, began seeking ways to start a process of acceptance. The paper inspired me to find approaches for redefining my devices, even perhaps by viewing them as windows looking into new worlds.

I moved back to Ireland from Amsterdam for the duration of the lockdown and continued working on my master project remotely. During the week we had our daily Zoom ‘stand ups’ with the class first thing in the morning, followed by a full day of working behind my laptop, and evenings spent calling and messaging family and friends.

It was really as though our whole lives now revolved around technology. I was at the mercy of my phone and laptop, which left me increasingly uncomfortable.

The alerts and reminders from different apps were constant, an endless rotation of things that I needed to check in on… it was beginning to take its toll.

I felt as though I needed to take back the control over my devices and try to find a harmony between my online and offline lives. This is when I began to note the tensions and changes within my relationship to technology that were being amplified during lockdown. I embroidered them into a pillow every evening. Keeping this ‘diary’ gave me a clearer picture of how I was coping on a daily basis and what changes I needed to look at making to restore a balance.

I realised that since (for the time being) there was not much I could do about being online, I needed to find ways of doing it on my own terms. I wanted to explore how sewing and ‘slowing down’ could somehow translate into how I spend time in the digital world and that’s when I opened up my explorations to online communities of embroiderers.

During lockdown, my focus shifted to my changing relationship with technology and growing reliance on it due to Covid-19. I had a ‘worry pillow’ that I would embroider with passing thoughts and changes I was noticing during this time… I found the process of logging and dating these observations useful for keeping track of my ever-changing outlook on technology.

What I was doing as a type of ‘documentary embroidery’, as used by researchers Aviv Kruglanski and Vahida Ramujkic, which uses no previous planning. It encourages the sewer to ‘economise and abstract’ certain information.

Consequently they follow a process of encrypting and ‘creating symbolic graphics’ when limiting details. In documentary embroidery, the slowness is considered an opportunity to engage with each other, and share ideas. I wanted to introduce this community aspect into what I was doing too, but it would mean having to compromise the ‘tech-free’ element of my exploration…

Pamela’s embroidered ‘worry pillow.’

Discovering digital communities as a way to mediate the relationship between online/offline is an interesting finding. Is there a key to be found here, a way to use the internet–to use your words–‘on one’s own terms’?

It’s easy to be led around the digital world via notifications, alerts and algorithms prompting us about what sites to visit, who you should contact, what music you should listen to, and when to do it. What I learnt over the past months is that I must make a conscious effort to redirect myself when using the internet. Joining digital sewing communities allowed me to interact online in a way that fit into my life offline. During lockdown I tried to look at the virtual ‘space’ in a new way, a way that resembled my life before Covid-19. I took opportunities to socialise and to navigate it as I might navigate a city; exploring communities, meeting new people, and sharing interests.

It’s easy to be led around the digital world via notifications, alerts and algorithms prompting us about what sites to visit, who you should contact, what music you should listen to, and when to do it. What I learnt over the past months is that I must make a conscious effort to redirect myself when using the internet.

It’s fascinating that these community sessions also use Zoom for the calls, but you didn’t experience the so- called ‘Zoom Fatigue’ whilst participating in them. Why do you think that is?

I suppose the main reason for this was that I was engaged both in conversation and in a shared activity. By continuously sewing and working on creating something in the physical world, I felt less ‘lost’ in the virtual world. It is so easy to become completely immersed in being online. For me that can be exhausting. I realised that being online works best for me when I can remain connected to my physical surroundings in a physical way.

How have you witnessed traditional crafts being utilised or revived during the pandemic? Are we perhaps seeing the beginnings of a renaissance?

Since world governments and health agencies have been recommending wearing cloth face masks to help prevent the spread, this has sparked an interest in hand sewing. We’ve all seen it.

Alongside that, there seems to be a lot more ‘sewing for sewing’s sake’ happening. When I joined Fashion Revolution’s ‘Stitch and Bitch’ this became very apparent. I realised that my instinct to sew was not something unique to me, many others were reaping the therapeutic benefits of sewing too; sewers from Lisbon, Italy, the U.S, India, and many other countries.

We saw how during times of economic uncertainty; many others were rediscovering hand sewing techniques to mend and repair clothes, instead of looking to buy anew. From a sustainability point of view, these ‘fashion revolutionaries’ were and are eager to support and encourage a revival, as a way of combatting fast fashion and promote a movement of ‘menders.’

It seems you unearthed an inspiring way to find a happy medium in your practice and pleasure between offline and online. This seems an inevitable question we are all facing and grappling with at present – perhaps now more than ever before. Are there any gems of advice you can hand forth to others contemplating the same challenges?

Most importantly, it’s vital not to be passive when going online. I have been guilty of scrolling endlessly on Facebook or clicking into WhatsApp every time I hear my phone ‘beep’. This is exhausting and overall, it doesn’t make me happy.

Now I try (and sometimes fail!) to strive for meaningful and deliberate online experiences. The deliberate part is key. I found my ‘happy medium’ through seeking out and finding these communities, and by getting physically involved in the virtual world. This was extremely meaningful for me.

I would advise to become aware of one’s habits when interacting with the digital world. It’s from there that we can work creatively towards changing them.

Lotte de Jong
Kris de Decker
Geert Lovink
Pamela Nelson

The original interviews appear on No Fun Mag a newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters. To read our interview with her, check out the story here.

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