'The Transubstantiation of Knowledge' by Rachel Ara

Produced as part of London Design Festival 2018

Ran from 15 September 2018 to 23 September 2018

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Rachel Ara is the artist in residence for the V&A Research Institute (VARI). Informed by her research into the Museum's collections, systems and data, Ara created a site-specific mixed-reality work which explored the hidden stories behind the Santa Chiara Chapel in our Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.

Ara's work was created in response to the history of the Santa Chiara Chapel, which used to be part of a convent in Florence, Italy, belonging to an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares. In the 15th century around one in eight Florentine women lived in convents, many to escape marriage and social oppression. This concentration of highly educated women transformed convents into sites of great influence. But as religious reforms were introduced across Europe, rules of enclosure for the nuns were re-enforced, and many were silenced.

Do you really believe, that everything historians tell us about men – or about women – is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the truth except by accident.

Moderata Fonte, 1592

The Poor Clare nuns specialised in the manufacture of metallic threads. In her installation Ara speculates that through the act of weaving, the nuns embodied their knowledge into woven 'neural networks', held in trust for future generations. She suggests that the legacy of this technique can be seen in the computer memory boards of the 1950s, which may be seen to echo the grid structure of 16th-century textiles. By interweaving historic and fictional stories from Franciscan nuns, computer code and contemporary technologies, Ara's work explores issues of feminism and gender that have repeated themselves through religious history to technology industries.

Through a collaboration with DoubleMe, The Transubstantiation of Knowledge invited visitors to wear a HoloLens mixed reality headset to view holographic images of 15th-century nuns, which were transplanted back into the chapel and surrounding gallery space.

Hololens still of the Poor Clare Nuns in the Santa Chiara Chapel. Courtesy of DoubleMe

Listen to an audio guide narrating the nuns' hidden story, written in collaboration with Laura Hudson:

Audio guide: The Transubstantiation of Knowledge

This display was produced in collaboration with DoubleMe and Laura Hudson.

The V&A Research Institute (VARI) is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.