Pixel Pioneer

‘I never got the point of higher resolution’, says Charlotte Johannesson, whose trailblazing work in textile and computer graphics is currently on view at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Charlotte Johannesson in her studio in Skanör, south of Malmö. Photo: Lotten Pålsson.

The word ‘pioneer’ is originally a military term for foot soldiers tasked with digging, cutting, and building bridges – preparing the way for the advancing army. In art, the term might sound pretentious and singular, as not many individual artists today can truly be attributed a trailblazing significance. But someone who can indeed claim to have been a pioneer is the Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson, who at the age of 78 is presently having her first major solo exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. The exhibition comprises 150 textile and computer-based works and is curated by Mats Stjernstedt and Lars Bang Larsen.

Johannesson originally trained as a weaver, but came to seamlessly switch from textiles to computer graphics after she acquired her first Apple II Plus computer in the 1970s. A few years later, she and her husband Sture Johannesson ran The Digital Theatre (Digitalteatern) in Malmö from 1981 to 1985. The Digital Theatre has been described as one of the most advanced Apple systems of the time, consisting of seven computers, printers, monitors, and synthesisers.

Charlotte Johannesson, Take Me to Another World, computer graphics plotted on paper, 29,7 x 42 cm, 1981–1986. Courtesy of Moderna Museet.

The fact that Charlotte Johannesson has only received attention on a larger scale in recent years may be due to several factors. On the one hand, textile and computer art have long been overlooked by art institutions and historians; on the other, she has operated in a relatively unexplored field between the two media. Furthermore, Charlotte and Sture Johannesson’s deep roots in the 1960s counterculture put them at odds with the establishment, which may also have played a role. Also, many of her works have until recently only existed on a number of old floppy disks in her studio in Skanör, thirty kilometres south of Malmö.

Charlotte Johannesson, The Digital Theatre (Digitalteatern), Malmö, 1980s. Photo: Birgitta Olsson.

For this interview, Charlotte Johannesson didn’t want to meet in that studio – the images she wants to show me are stored on her laptop nowadays. Instead, she wants to meet at Malmö Konsthall, where she was part of Pressure / Imprint, a 2018 exhibition which brought together three artists (herself, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, and Ester Fleckner) who work with technologically or graphically reproduced images. We met on an unusually sunny but cold day in April. Inside the Konsthall, things looked almost normal, despite the pandemic’s strict guidelines. The first thing she told me, is how excited she is to now be able to show her pixel images from the 1980s in large format at the Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Charlotte Johannesson, Drop Dead!, textile, handwoven wool, wood, 200 x 100 cm, 1977. Courtesy of Malmö Konstmuseum.

“When I started making works using Apple II computers, after a research trip to Silicon Valley in 1981, the images were already considered low resolution. Everyone was obsessed with the number of pixels and high resolution like in photography. But I never got the point of higher resolution; for me, the pixelated images were perfect. Especially since I was used to weaving and constructing my patterns on grid paper. Two hundred and thirty-nine by one hundred and ninety-two pixels, I think that was what I always had to start from. That’s why it’s so fun that these images are shown enlarged as projections in Madrid, in slide shows that I have put together. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to travel to the exhibition myself,” said Johannesson.

In the Spanish press, she has attracted attention as a pioneer in both textile and computer-based art, and the museum has been open throughout the exhibition, which runs until August.

“I hadn’t received my first vaccine shot and couldn’t go down for the hanging of the exhibition, but Mats [Stjernstedt] had antibodies so he went. For Lars [Bang Larsen], it was more difficult: he would not have been admitted back in to Denmark if he had travelled abroad,” Johannesson said. “The exhibition has actually been postponed three times in total, so I’m happy after all that it finally opened.”

At the Museo Reina Sofía, Johannesson’s work is presented as a continuum between computer-based art and textile. In addition to the screens with projected computer images, twenty-one new versions of her textiles have been produced for a larger installation.

“They were made in São Paulo by a weaver named Tiyoku Tomikawa, who also made the reproductions that I showed at the São Paolo Biennale in 2016,” Johannesson said, with great admiration.

Charlotte Johannesson, Take Me to Another World, installation view from Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Except for a few originals, all of Johannesson’s computer-produced images had been stored on 3.5-inch floppy disks. But in connection with her exhibition in the Nordic Pavilion in Venice in 2017, together with Siri Aurdal, Nina Canell, and Mika Taanila, among others, the curator Stjernstedt made sure to transfer the images to a newer format.

“In connection with Venice, I was asked to exhibit at Malmö Konsthall the same year, which was great. It led, among other things, to me getting in touch with the gallery Hollybush Gardens, which now sells my works,” said Johannesson. 

In the early 1980s, few computers and printers were compatible at all, and it was not uncommon for self-written programs to be required to connect them, she said. But when asked what made her start experimenting with computers, she flinches and chuckles: “What else were we supposed we do?”

She continued: “My grandfather’s mother wove a lot and she lived in Scania where we have a tradition of special techniques that are pixel-based. This led me to a textile school in Malmö and on to the textile artist Hannah Ryggen’s work that inspired me to continue. During the 1960s and 70s, I wove quite a lot, and it was really only through my husband Sture – who had started working in the computer lab at IBM Stockholm together with Sten Kallin – and through computer magazines from Silicon Valley that I became interested in it. Around the same time, I came in contact with a man who bought an Apple II computer that he felt ‘done with’. He exchanged it for a textile work I made that said ‘I am no Angel’. So I got my first computer around 1980.”

Charlotte Johannesson, Parsifal, computer graphics plotted on paper, 23,5 x 31,5 cm, 1981–1986.

Just before the pandemic, Cecilia Alemani, the curator of the Venice Biennale 2022, was on her way for a studio visit in Skanör, but had to quickly cancel her plans, Johannesson told me. Things don’t seem to be slowing down for the now-COVID-19-vaccinated artist, who plans to travel to Madrid for a panel discussion in June, when she will finally see her largest exhibition to date. A major monograph on her art is also in the making, but the publication date is uncertain due to the pandemic.

Coming from a crafts-based practice – textile and weaving – what was it like to go from that to screens, keyboards, and rudimentary programs for creative work?

At that time, we always talked about “hands on” and “trial and error.” That’s what it all came down to. We experimented and struggled on despite what others thought of computers at that time. Many people associated computers with war and politics, and there was a lot of scepticism at that time from the art world. There were a few people who were interested in what I was doing, but they weren’t involved with the art world. A person within STU [The Board for Technical Development] authorised our applications, and when we had his trust, we could apply for a loan from the bank and start building The Digital Theatre with seven Apple computers and a 20 MB hard drive.

Charlotte Johannesson, Take Me to Another World, installation view from Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

What did the craft look like, specifically?

On a trip to California, Sture and I bought a drawing board, which you had to calibrate all the time. I used that to begin with. For me, the craft was central, while Sture mostly talked about the theory of digital art. [laughs] I was often interested in people and portraits, and scanned images with a camcorder and then continued to work on them pixel by pixel. An image could take many days to make and printing it could, with the printers of that time, take up to fifteen to twenty hours. I have always had a strong interest in the concrete craft, the importance of something coming from all the hard work. That is probably partly why I stopped using computer images and continued with handmade paper and now painting and textiles.

Towards the end of the 1980s you stopped working with computers, but how have you updated your works for the exhibitions of recent years?

The smaller pixel images are projected as slide shows on canvas in a larger format, and I have also made a sculpture of the pixelated man that I drew a long time ago. I have made many pictures with people from that time: Boy George, Björn Borg, and David Bowie – who we later ran into at a gas station by pure chance. These were people that everyone was talking about at the time, so for me it was natural to incorporate them into the pictures. I also think it was good that it took several decades before Lars [Bang Larsen] looked at my images. It was funny in the 1990s when everyone who got a computer thought they were the first in the world to do computer-based art. When I heard that, I frowned and thought “if only you knew.”

Charlotte Johannesson, Take Me to Another World, installation view from Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.