The Personal is Computable: Sonya Rapoport

Sonya Rapoport and Charles Simmonds, detail of Yarn Drawing No.16 (1976), pencil, colored pencil, stamp and thread on found continuous-feed computer paper, 59.5 x 77 inches. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Computer code, with its streaming zeros and ones, cryptic word clusters and copious punctuation marks, can be perplexing to the point of wonder. It is visually rudimentary yet conceptually vast, complex and full of possibility. Associations between technology and transcendence in art extend back to the early 20th century, when advances in machinery inspired Futurist utopias, for example, and other revolutionary modes of abstraction. In 1973, when Sonya Rapoport (1923–2015) first pulled computer printouts from the recycling bins of the mathematics department at the University of California, Berkeley to use as material for her art, she sensed its potential as “a ritualistic symbol of our technological society,” but she also saw something she could put to use.1 For the remainder of her career, computers would provide both material and tools for innovative works on paper, installations and participatory events rooted in feminism and driven by her interests in both psychology and technology.

In projects such as her 1976 Yarn Drawings, Rapoport imposed what she called a “feminist art language code” on salvaged mainframe printouts, stitching them together like pieces of a patchwork quilt with rainbow yarn that she laced through the paper’s pinfeed holes. Her “code” was based on objects from her Pandora’s Box, a collection of personally meaningful small objects that included a fallen leaf, toy anatomy templates (including one shaped like a uterus), wallpaper designs and drafting devices.2 Working with graphite and colored pencil, she used these personal items as stencils, creating shapes evocative of X chromosomes and vulvas. Rapoport referred to her code as “Nu-Shu” in reference to a syllabic script (Nüshu) used exclusively by women in Hunan, China. Her colorful, organic, hand-drawn symbols, along with the looping yarn, contrast pointedly with the dot-matrix-printed data and continuous-feed paper. In the context of the feminist rethinking of art hierarchies in the 1970s, the sewing and quilting of the Yarn Drawings can be seen as an assertion of “feminine” craft in contrast to normative “masculine” art forms such as oil painting, and to the historically male-dominated fields of science and technology embodied by the printouts. (Computer code might also be considered to connote a “masculine” system of order and control.) Rather than privileging one over the other, Rapoport puts these gendered codes into visual dialogue.

Sonya Rapoport, Pandora’s Box (1971–1976), collection of stenciils and related objects. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport

Sonya Rapoport, Anasazi Series, Panel 1-A, Page 1 of 12 (1977), Prismacolor and pencil on found pre-printed perforated continuous-feed computer printout paper. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

The visual encounter between feminine and masculine, personal and impersonal, collected and found, drawn and printed, might be described in a phrase of Rapoport’s: “the synapse of two unlikely entities.”3 Her reference to electrical communication in neurobiology perfectly summarizes the work of an artist for whom the computer would serve both as a creative partner and a tool. In the Yarn Drawings and other early works, computer printouts act as metonyms for science and technology, but Rapoport soon sought to understand the code and eventually employed information technology to explore subjects as esoteric as alchemy and as mundane as footwear.

“The anonymity of the printout and its arcane meaning prompted me to ask our scientist acquaintances for their discarded research output,” Rapoport recalled. “I wanted to learn about future codes upon which I would be contextualizing messages.”4

Sonya Rapoport , detail of Horizontal Cobalt (1977), image transfer, colored pencil and graphite on found computer printout paper. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Through her husband, Henry Rapoport, a chemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley, she had access to a broad community of scholars. Anthropologist Dorothy Washburn shared her printouts of mathematical analyses of symmetry patterns found on Anasazi pottery; Rapoport responded aesthetically to the data, using Prismacolor and graphite applied with stencils in the form of motifs used by this ancient American people.5 The hand-colored patterns contrast with the black-and-white computer data aesthetically, but suggest that the motifs themselves may be thought of as a kind of code capable of producing a set of meanings for its users as complex as ASCII code does for us today.6 As stencils are one of the earliest printing techniques (dating back some 40,000 years, to Paleolithic cave art), their juxtaposition with dot matrix printing connects the originary, prehistoric print medium to what was, in the 1970s, the most technologically advanced one.

Sonya Rapoport, Objects On My Dresser, Phase 1: Pictorial Linguistics—Untitled (Numbered For Analysis) (1979), printed paper and labels on photographic print, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Sonya Rapoport, detail of Objects On My Dresser, Phase 1: Pictorial Linguistics—Untitled (Objects Words Correlated) (1979), plotter print, type, pencil, and colored pencil on continuous feed vellum, 12 3/8 x 45 inches. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

After her project with Washburn, Rapoport collaborated with the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she obtained printed data from a physics experiment involving the transmutation of cobalt nuclei into gold through bombardment with neutrons, a process she interpreted as “updating alchemy.” In works such as Horizontal Cobalt (1977), she used solvent image transfers and a color typewriter to superimpose texts and pictures from sources including Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, Kabbalistic mysticism, and the output data of the experiment.7 Measuring about 15 feet in length (17 continuous-feed computer sheets), Rapoport historicizes and mysticizes empirical evidence from scientific research at its most sophisticated level. It’s notable that Rapoport used a transfer process for the data (rather than working directly on printouts as she had previously), which appears faint and in reverse, in contrast to the bolder, colorful imagery.8 While one might read this as a demotion of the new scientific elements relative to the pictorial and historical ones, it is more likely a product of her consideration of the overall theme of transmutation: the content is changed from a numerical form of communication to an aesthetic one; computer code becomes pictorial ether, data becomes art.

For Rapoport, however, data was more than atmospheric. She had a deep respect for scientists and scholars, and over the course of her career collaborated with experts in physics, chemistry, botany, entomology, history, linguistics, sociology and computer science. At the same time,
she upheld the importance of art and believed that previously distinct ways of understanding the world were now in flux:

The scientist’s role is said to advance the understanding of the world; the artist’s role is to entertain or describe it. This is an old adage. The roles are now interchangeable, compatible, or radically different, depending on what science and which artist. I think of my work as doing a bit of both, but mostly I think of it as a contentious vehicle for aesthetic and provocative cultural rethinking.9

Sonya Rapoport , detail of Objects on My Dresser, Phase 1: Pictorial Linguistics—Untitled (Punched Cards) (1979). Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

While collaboration remained a mainstay of Rapoport’s practice, beginning in 1979 she no longer relied exclusively on others for data, and instead turned inward for information closer to home. During a period of reflection following the death of her mother, Rapoport began considering 29 objects that had accumulated on the dresser in her bedroom over the course of 20 years. In mathematical terms she saw the objects as constituting a random set that, as part of her “provocative cultural rethinking,” could be subject to analysis. For each object she chose a descriptive word and a “correlated object” or image, in the manner of psychoanalytical association. A ceramic cat bank, for example, elicited the word “child,” which in turn prompted Albrecht Dürer’s proportional diagram of a child. This information set was processed with the assistance of a programmer at UC Berkeley Computing Labs and graphed using a plotter printer. Exhibited at Franklin Furnace in New York City later that year under the title Pictorial Linguistics, the work included the objects themselves, the list of word-image associations, as well as punch cards, plotter-printed graphs, and printouts embellished with photocopy collage, colored pencil and type. To a conceptual art–savvy New York audience, the abundance of charts and diagrams, lists and degraded Xerox images may have seemed almost de rigueur, while viewers who followed feminist art practices would have found the use of personal objects to be a familiar strategy. What was unexpected, however, was the fusion—or synapsis—of what, at the time, would have been distinct visual modes.

Sonya Rapoport, documentation of A Shoe-In. Berkeley Computer Systems (1982), polaroid
photography by Tom Bates. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Pictorial Linguistics was the first phase of a body of work she called “Objects on My Dresser” that would eventually have eleven parts and continue for five more years (until 1983), making it a central and pivotal opus in her career.10 One of its notable aspects is its use of information technology to “quantify qualitative information” (her words) and make subjective emotional associations the focus of objective analysis.11 Rapoport’s approach stands out as a unique blend of feminism and conceptualism that proclaims the personal to be political and computable.12

Rapoport expanded her data pool in her first interactive piece, Shoe-In (1982), in which she collected information from participants about their shoes. Upon arriving, participants had their shoes photographed on their choice of footrest, then answered questions such as “When did you buy your shoes?,” “Where did you buy your shoes?,” “Why did you buy your shoes?,” “What do you use your shoes for?,” and “How happy are you with your shoes?”13 Rapoport quantified their foot positions, chosen footrest and responses to come up with a shoe “charge” value for each person. This value was entered into a program designed for plotting electrical fields in physics, which structured the input information as radiating force fields that Rapoport called “shoe fields” or “shoe psyche plots.”14 Subsequent phases of the Shoe Field project included a 1986 event at the Media Gallery in San Francisco, where force fields were screenprinted on floor tiles and participants placed their shoes on tiles that most resembled their printouts; one visitor, perhaps struck by the fields’ resemblance to mandalas, remarked that “with all those shoes lying around, it felt like a Buddhist temple.”15 Such associations may not have been incidental. For many in the intellectually curious communities of the Bay Area, the transformative potential of computer technology was suggestive of Buddhist notions of material detachment and rebirth.16 Connections between science, technology and mysticism can be found throughout Rapoport’s work—she had cited the Kabbalah in Horizontal Cobalt (discussed above) and its interpretation of the Hebrew Bible using ciphers had obvious resonance with computer coding. Both traditions represent the possibility of new forms of “enlightenment.”

Sonya Rapoport, documentation of Shoe-Field at Media Gallery, San Francisco (1986). Photo: Marion Gray. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Not lost among such transscendent associations, however, was Rapoport’s sense of humor. By her own admittance, Rapoport had an obsession with shoes and this psychological attachment compelled her to explore other people’s relationships to footwear. Rapoport input the data from the 76 participants in the Media Gallery installation into her program to create Shoe Field Map (1982/85). Here the individual force fields interact to produce an irregular and variegated image that reflects the variety of individual responses. Installed as a hanging scroll, the map recalls Chinese ink painting or tapestry (this latter association recalls the Jacquard loom, whose automation through punch cards is often seen as a precursor to computers). While these cultural and historic connections would have been evident at the time, one aspect of Shoe-In and Rapoport’s subsequent interactive projects that has become apparent only recently is their prescient awareness of “big data.”17 Although data from 76 subjects would not be considered “big,” either now or then, Rapoport intuited (20 years before the term existed) how information gathered from individuals could be analyzed computationally to explore human interests and behaviors. For her the shoe fields were “20th century portraits”—not physical likenesses but graphic representations constructed from an individual’s quantified responses to a prompt or, in 21st-century terms, their “likes” and “dislikes.”

Shoe-Field Map(1982/85), impact print on vellum. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Sonya Rapoport Family (2008.13.1).

In phase six of the “Objects on My Dresser” project, Rapoport made a self-portrait using her word-image associations as input for a computer-generated spiderweb (or radar) chart that she—presciently again—described as a NETWEB. The web has six radial points labeled with themes derived from conversations with collaborator and psychotherapist Winifred de Vos about her original word-image selections. Three of the themes—eye, hand and chest—are corporeal, elements that one would expect in a conventional self-portrait, while the other three—masking, threading, moving—are gerunds suggesting action. On the chart, each action relates diametrically to a particular body part: “hand” shares a vector with “threading,” connoting sewing or making; “chest” and “moving” are inline, evocative of strong emotion. The link between “eye” and “masking” suggests a certain skepticism toward visual perception on Rapoport’s part. Indeed, her “Self-Portrait” is visually unrecognizable, yet, like Francis Picabia’s Dadaist “machine portraits,” it offers a psychological diagram of her inner “profile.”

Objects On My Dresser, Phase 6—A 20th Century Portrait (Original Transparency) (1982), printed acetate with hand-colored elements, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Rapoport’s exploration of nonrepresentational portraiture based on non-visual information continued in subsequent interactive projects such as Biorhythm (1983), which measured each participant’s evaluation of their emotional and physical states against that of a computer, and Digital Mudra (1987), which explored connections between participants’ gestures and symbolic Indian hand-gestures (mudras). She continued to follow developments in computer science closely and, in 1989, created an online version of Digital Mudra (called Digital Mudra Web) for the Internet. Her subsequent Web-based work again explored themes of femininity and masculinity, as well as transgenderism and genetics.18

Rapoport’s work of the 1970s and early 1980s remains a remarkable personalization of digital technology at a time when computers were widely seen as the purview of big business, government agencies and advanced scientific research— in short, the “impersonal.” For Rapoport the psychological attachment to a ceramic cat bank or pair of shoes was as valid a form of computable data as the calculation of a missile projectile or corporate reports. Although seemingly genuine in its personal and intrapersonal interest, the work is also tinged with irreverent humor that was certainly political. Her feminist viewpoint also distinguishes it from the predominately abstract work that characterized computer-generated (and inspired) work of the era. At the “synapse of two unlikely entities” Rapoport created a body of work that embraced contradiction. The seeming absurdity of it all speaks to us more clearly now than ever before.

  1. Sonya Rapoport, exhibition announcement, “Sonya Rapoport: An Aesthetic Response,” 1978. Cited in John Zarobell, “Sonya Rapoport: On Drawing and Data,” in Terri Cohn, ed., Pairing Polarities: The Life and Art of Sonya Rapoport (Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2012), 51. []
  2. Sonya Rapoport in “From Alchemy to Bioweb: Metaphors of Transmutation and Redemption, An Interview with Sonya Rapoport” by Ernestine Daubner in ibid., 79. Rapoport had used these stencils earlier in a body of work from the 1960s that she made on found geological survey charts. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Rapoport in a statement for an exhibition at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University in 1978 as noted on []
  6. Zarobell makes a similar observation in “Sonya Rapoport: On Drawing and Data” in Cohn, Pairing of Polarities, 59. []
  7. Original Cobalt (1977) and Mercury (1980) are other works by Rapoport that employed data from the Lawrence Lab. []
  8. Image transfer involves using a solvent like acetone to dissolve the ink of a printed image before transferring it to another support. The results are often blurry and faint in comparison to the original. []
  9. 9. Daubner in Cohn, Pairing Polarities, 79. []
  10. To learn more about the various iterations of “Objects on My Dresser, see []
  11. Terri Cohn, “Introduction: Pairing of Polarities: Sonya Rapoport’s Art and Life,” in Cohn, Pairing of Polarities, 10. []
  12. The Society for Computers in Psychology, for example, was founded in 1971 with “the purpose of increasing and diffusing knowledge of the use of computers in psychological research.” []
  13. This description is based on a Powerpoint presentation Rapoport created to explain the project and was shared with me by Terri Cohn. For more detailed description, see Zarobell in Cohn, Pairing of Polarities, 61. []
  14. According to Farley Gwazda, Director of the Sonya Rapoport Legacy Trust, the programming language was FORTRAN and the program was likely a custom code with a command line interface. Later iterations were run on MS-DOS according to a 1994 article in Microtimes. []
  15. Shari Simburg, “Shoe-Field Audience Participation Documentation” by Sonya Rapoport, 1986. []
  16. Many pioneers of computing were also interested in Buddhism, like Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor and Kevin Kelly. Daniel Veiglinger, “Introduction,” in Buddhism, the Internet, and Digital Media: The Pixel in the Lotus (New York: Routledge, 2015), 7. []
  17. 17. Again, I thank Farley Gwazda for sharing his thoughts on this subject as part of his research on Rapoport’s connection to “big data.” []
  18. Arbor Erecta (1998) explores the gender reassignment of “James” and Redeeming the Gene (2001) raises questions about genetic engineering technology. For more information about these and other Web projects by Rapoport, see []