In early 1976, artist Sonya Rapoport chanced on a box of discarded computer printouts in the basement of the UC Berkeley Math Department, a find which eventually led to her reinvention as a digital artist.
Rapoport was attracted to these complex, coded analyses of information printed in carbon-black, standardized font, on wide-format, ruled, perforated, continuous feed printout paper. Initially, she did not have access to or interest in the meaning of the printed data – in 1977 she wrote, “my work is an aesthetic response triggered by scientific data. The format is computer print-out, a ritualistic symbol of our technological society.”
The earliest works in this period are the Yarn Drawings (1976), wall-sized compositions constructed by stitching together rows of found printout paper with rainbow-dyed quilting yarn. Rapoport drew into the printed data with graphite, a colorful palette of Prismacolor, and miscellaneous ink stamps. She made use of letter stencils and the Nu Shu stencils from her earlier Survey Chart period.
In 1977, Rapoport took an important step and began what would be the first of many collaborations with experts from other fields. Anthropologist Dorothy K. Washburn was using computers to study the ancient Anasazi people of the American Southwest, analyzing the mathematical symmetry patterns in their pottery. Not only did she provide printouts of her data for Sonya to draw on, but she assisted Rapoport in understanding the content of her research. At the same time, Rapoport was taking a computer programming course, deepening her knowledge of what would become a critical tool.
The earliest of the Anasazi Series of drawings are indeed an “aesthetic response.” Using colored pencil, Rapoport layered partially-filled letter stencils over blocks of data, giving the impression of an indecipherable code, a complex palimpsest. The relationship between the data and Rapoport’s compositions was formal, rather than conceptual.
As the Anasazi Series progressed, Rapoport started featuring design motifs from Washburn’s symmetry analyses and illustrations from her books. She then started expanding her research into the Anasazi people, incorporating into the drawings elements such as Washburn’s research notes, maps of archaeological sites, translations of Navajo words and stories, documentation of art objects, etc. The resulting drawings are conceptual in nature, as there is a relationship between the printed archeological data and Rapoport’s drawings, sometimes accompanied by a key/legend enabling the viewer to “decode” the drawing.
The final step in this rapid and radical change to her artistic methodology was the incorporation of autobiographical material. In Bonito Rapoport Shoes (1978) she began with the archeological discovery of an Anasazi sandal, and expanded her research into her own shoe collection – a domestic and traditionally “feminine” concern. For the first time, she gathered and tabulated data, analysed it via computer, and then drew on top of the resulting printouts of charts and graphs.
At the same time, Rapoport began making use of solvent image transfers, often colorized with Prismacolor, to incorporate images from books and articles about the history of women’s footwear. Bonito Rapoport Shoes represented her most explicitly feminist work to date, as well as her transition to what we would now term a “research based practice.”
Energized by this new creative methodology, Rapoport plunged into one of the most prolific periods of her career. She collaborated with a wide variety of scientists, expanded her use of computers, and demonstrated an insatiable desire to synthesize knowledge from wildly disparate fields.
A prime example of this period is Horizontal Cobalt (1977), a collaboration with the Nuclear Science Division of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory rendered on computer printouts of data from a groundbreaking physics experiment where cobalt nuclei were bombarded with neutrons and transmuted into gold. This piece explores the history of alchemical transmutation, pagan cosmologies, Kabbalistic mysticism, Carl Jung’s psychological metaphysics, and the history of American nuclear research. The result is a profoundly rich document, overwhelmingly information dense, bursting with arcane imagery, buzzing with interconnections between disparate schools of thought, and alive with humor and wit.
Many of the drawings from this period saw Rapoport turn her analytical eye on herself. This and the death of her mother in 1979 led her to develop the project with which she was perhaps most profoundly engaged – Objects On My Dresser (1979 – 1983, 2015).