Sonya Rapoport Wrote Artistic Code and the Computers Spit Out Something Wonderful

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Collection of booklets, printed paper, floppy disk, gold shoe and shoehorn
Sonya Rapoport, 'Shoe-Field: Our Fate is on Our Feet,' 1989. (Courtesy of Casemore Gallery)

I’ve been diligently avoiding engaging with AI-generated art. Most of what I’ve seen (melty humans with too-many-fingered hands in weird places) feels more like an exercise in dark humor than it does a groundbreaking new avenue in art production. And while fearmongering headlines feed worries about artists being replaced, I tend to lean in a more hopeful direction: technology is a tool. Artists will always find ways to undermine, critique and radically adapt those tools to their own advantage.

I have this belief because of artists like Sonya Rapoport. When she passed away in 2015, she left behind six decades of work across a variety of mediums, including painting, drawing, assemblage, interactive computer installations and web art. Force Fields, a show of her early computer art and works on paper, is now on view at San Francisco’s Casemore Gallery through May 13.

Born in 1923, Rapoport was one of the first women to receive a master’s in painting from UC Berkeley, coming up in the Abstract Expressionist scene. Last year, Casemore exhibited a series of her 1960s “fabric paintings,” a departure from that earlier work, where Rapoport used the existing patterns of commercial textiles as funky substrates — responding to and masking out sections in turn. Atop garish floral patterns, she painted her own language of hard-edged organic curves and solid shapes, building out and layering the paintings until they became sculptural wall works.

White gallery with tall vertical works on paper and black shelf at right
Installation view of ‘Force Fields’ at Casemore Gallery with ‘Hovenweep V, VI, and VII’ on the left and ‘Shoe-Field Map’ on the right. (Courtesy of Casemore Gallery; Photo by Chris Grunder)

In 1976, her medium shifted yet again with the discovery of discarded dot-matrix printouts in the basement of a UC Berkeley math building. She treated the papers much like she had those found fabrics. Lacing the sheets together with colored thread, she responded to their existing patterns with colored pencil, stamps and her own language of shapes, which she called her “Nu Shu” language. (It was Rapoport’s nod to the centuries-old written language of Nüshu, developed by women from the Xiao River valley in China as a means of resisting a patriarchal society.)

To Rapoport, the computer printout was “a ritualistic symbol” of modern-day technology. In Hovenweep V, VI, and VII (1976), on view in Force Fields, she embellished research printouts created by archaeologist Dorothy Washburn, who was looking at the graphics of Native American pottery to identify migration patterns. Passing through Ropoport’s hands, the three vertical rolls of paper take on a monumental scale and become doubly encoded — first by Washburn’s methods, then with Rapoport’s vibrant color pencil markings.


By the early 1980s, Rapoport learned to code so she could set up her own programs to gather and process data on what she called “soft material”: biorhythms, sartorial choices, the objects on her dresser. Perhaps most importantly, she opened up her use of the technology to others, meeting them in ordinary places as well as art spaces. That social aspect of her work is represented here by prints, documentation and ephemera from Shoe-Field (1982–1989).

Five framed prints on white wall, each square with circles of white text on black paper
Installation view of ‘Force Fields’ with the ‘Shoe-Field: Shoe Psyche Charge’ series, 1986. (Courtesy of Casemore Gallery; Photo by Chris Grunder)

It’s important to remember that the general public of the time had little to no relationship with personal computers. But Rapoport’s work made the emerging technology accessible, even fun — and that sense of playful possibilities is what makes this show such a pleasure to visit. The Shoe-Field series began with a performance at a Berkeley home computer store, where participants were invited to insert a floppy disk, answer questions about their feelings towards their own shoes, select a “sole-mate” and receive printouts that represented their “podiatric Rorschach blot.”

The resulting white-on-black screenprints (with radiating circles of text, numbers and symbols) are like aura photographs for the feet — solemn or silly depending on your personal take. In Shoe-Field Map, Rapoport merged various shoe-fields together into a trippy, lava-lamp-meets-ASCII-art dot-matrix print, capturing the wonderfully social nature of the project.

Like the Hovenweep series, there is meaning there, however arbitrary, but Rapoport’s treatment makes the data aesthetic as well, and encourages that reception of the work as equally valid. In the gallery’s back room, video documentation of a 1986 Shoe-Field staging at San Francisco’s Media Gallery includes a delightful, incredulous narrator whose fear of computers is transformed into joy. It’s almost as if the narrator passed through the code of one of Rapoport’s very own programs.

‘Force Fields’ is on view at San Francisco’s Casemore Gallery through May 13.