Golan Levin: Good morn­ing, every­one, and wel­come back for our third pre­sen­ta­tion of Friday morn­ing of Art && Code: Homemade. It’s our ter­rif­ic plea­sure to intro­duce han­nah perner-wilson, who devel­ops new types of arti­facts that empha­size mate­ri­al­i­ty and process, and which allow us to glimpse anoth­er world of elec­tron­ic diver­si­ty. perner-wilson is Professor of Digital Games & Objects at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin. han­nah perner-wilson.

han­nah perner-wilson: Thank you, Golan. Yeah, hel­lo every­one who I can’t can’t see. I’m actu­al­ly call­ing from a small town in the Austrian Alps, and my Internet con­nec­tion’s not that great, so I’m hop­ing that it’s going to stay sta­ble for the call.

While prepar­ing my pre­sen­ta­tion I had a chance to talk with Golan, and he said that Art && Code isn’t real­ly a venue for kin­da port­fo­lio pre­sen­ta­tions of projects. Much rather it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty reflect on one’s work from a dif­fer­ent angle, pos­si­bly a more per­son­al one. And so I thought if I may spend the next twen­ty min­utes talk­ing to you a bit about my rela­tion­ship issues. Or rather a bit of a cri­sis that hap­pened about five years ago. 

Yeah, I’ve been in a rela­tion­ship for about fif­teen years now. And in the begin­ning I mean, it was great. We had a lot of fun. And yeah, end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties. And it was almost kind of a love at first sight. But then five years ago, things start­ed to get dif­fi­cult. But maybe before I get into the bad stuff, I’ll tell you a lit­tle bit more about what it was like in the begin­ning when things were nice and we were hav­ing fun. 

So, this is a col­lec­tion of some of my mem­o­ra­bil­ia from fif­teen years of prac­tice in elec­tron­ic tex­tiles. What I also did­n’t men­tion is that I’m actu­al­ly back home in Austria at the moment, in my child­hood home. Which is a place that when­ev­er I come here I bring old projects and bits and pieces and things that I don’t have space to store in Berlin. And so over the years this room that I’m in right now is actu­al­ly just full of stuff. This is just a small collection. 

And yeah, these are from kind of my ear­ly years work­ing with elec­tron­ic tex­tiles. It’s been a very long-lasting work rela­tion­ship, as I said. This is a tilt sen­sor made by sewing a met­al bead on some con­duc­tive thread. And it can make con­tact with these dif­fer­ent patch­es of con­duc­tive fab­ric. So you could read out what angle it’s tilt­ed at.

This is actu­al­ly a woven speak­er. I mean, it’s pret­ty cool. You can weave con­duc­tive thread in a spi­ral like this on a cir­cu­lar loom, and you not only cre­ate the elec­tro­mag­net that you needs to vibrate your speak­er mem­brane but you can actu­al­ly use this as the mem­brane itself. So this is a work­ing woven speaker. 

This here is actu­al­ly a tool han­dle I made. It’s one of the first pro­to­types of an ohmHook tool han­dle that I made for my cro­chet hook that allows me to mea­sure the resis­tance of con­duc­tive yarns as I’m actu­al­ly work­ing with the material. 

I think what real­ly attract­ed me to e‑textiles was its mate­ri­al­i­ty. In the back­ground you can see a bunch of doc­u­men­ta­tion of my mas­ter’s the­sis work that I did with Leah Buechley and the High-Low Tech group. And I explored dif­fer­ent kinds of craft tech­niques and elec­tron­ics. And Leah actu­al­ly at the time gave a talk on falling in love with tech­nol­o­gy. And a lot of the work we did in the group at that time was try­ing to cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for oth­er peo­ple like us to fall in love with kind of tech­nol­o­gy that was more soft and crafty. 

I think that’s also what got me into this crafti­ness, that I could use my hands. And for exam­ple, cro­chet is so love­ly because you just need this hook and some yarn and you can go any­where and make sen­sors, and build strange inter­faces into dig­i­tal worlds. 

And if you actu­al­ly would bear with me a moment, I could take you to a place where I could show you what I real­ly find most sexy about elec­tron­ic tex­tiles. So if you would close your eyes for just a moment…

…while I take us… And imag­ine that you’re getting…you’re shrink­ing. You’re becom­ing real­ly tiny and small. So small that you could maybe go inside of the fibers of the sweater that you’re wearing. 

Or, for exam­ple the…[begins whis­per­ing in ASMR tones]…piece of cro­chet that I was just work­ing on. Here you can see one of those fibers. The white is poly­ester. But the dark strands are stain­less steel. And the cop­per here is a cop­per thread. You can see how the cop­per’s been flat­tened and wrapped around fibers. And then they are spun togeth­er to make them strong and robust. 

So I think what I like, can’t get over is that the tex­tiles allow me to real­ly use my body, my eyes, and my skin and my hands, and my smell to work with these mate­ri­als. It’s hap­pen­ing on a lev­el that I can inter­act with fully. 

And now if you close your eyes again. 

[back to reg­u­lar speak­ing voice] So yeah, the ear­ly years with e‑textiles were amazing. 

And it was great. Then I’d say about five years ago, I think it was in 2015 when Google actu­al­ly released a video about its project Jacquard. And it’s a great video because it did a real­ly great job of explain­ing in beau­ti­ful imagery what elec­tron­ic tex­tiles are. How they’re made. What you could do with them. And they col­lab­o­rat­ed with a lot of designers—or…not sure how many but they col­lab­o­rat­ed with design­ers and com­pa­nies because they then were look­ing to try to pro­to­type and imple­ment e‑textiles into things that could become the next line of prod­ucts in the market. 

And see­ing this video—and it should­n’t have been a sur­prise to me or to oth­er peo­ple I think who had been work­ing in e‑textiles from this more crafty end. But some­how it was. It was this kind of shock that this kind of fan­tas­ti­cal world of tech­nol­o­gy that we had been imag­in­ing all kinds of fun inter­ac­tions and projects with was all of a sud­den so close to the mar­ket. And this idea of the things that we were doing were no longer sep­a­rat­able from what was going on in the realm of tech­nol­o­gy that we weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly so hap­py about. 

I think we were also real­ly sur­prised to see that in an age where we knew about issues of e‑waste, and kind of fast fash­ion, and tex­tile indus­try pol­lu­tion, that the prod­uct ideas that were com­ing out of— It was­n’t just Google, there were lots of com­pa­nies at the time bring­ing out ideas. But there was very lit­tle thought­ful­ness about what’s going to hap­pen with these prod­ucts in the kind of greater life­cy­cle of their contribution. 

So yeah, that’s real­ly kind of…that was a moment in time where things went a bit down­hill and they’ve not real­ly recov­ered since then. A lot of the work that I showed from the ear­ly years was­n’t just done by me alone. Since I met e‑textiles I’ve been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Mika Satomi under the col­lec­tive KOBAKANT. And we both had this kind of expe­ri­ence. And I remem­ber we then went to a cafe one day to talk about like what kinds of things do we want to work on now that this kind of in-love peri­od was kind of com­ing to an end. 

And it did­n’t take us long to come up with this idea that we want­ed to do some­thing that would allow us to dis­cuss these issues with oth­er peo­ple. And we had this idea to open an e‑textile tai­lor shop as a place opposed to this idea of mass-producing e‑textile prod­ucts to custom-making e‑textiles for indi­vid­ual peo­ple. And in order to find out what would peo­ple want if a place like this exist­ed, we thought we’d just need to open it up. And we called it Koba. And I don’t have any pic­tures of it. So I kind of set up a bit of a reen­act­ment of it. 

So this is Koba. We got fund­ing and we saved up our mon­ey so that we could rent a space. This was a shopfront space in Berlin, in Kreuzberg. And it was quite a big space. You would kind of enter in, and the first room was kind of the show­room, where there were exam­ples of what you could do with e‑textiles so that peo­ple who came in could get a bit of an idea. And in the back we had kind of a couch area where we would sit and talk and eat lunch. We had a kitchen in the back where we cooked lunch every day. 

And then the main part of the tai­lor shop was the actu­al work­shop where the tai­lor­ing hap­pened. So on a kind of reg­u­lar day in the tai­lor shop this would be han­nah. And this is Mika. And I’d have been sit­ting at the com­put­er doing some cus­tom PCB lay­out­ing, or the tax­es. And Mika had this beau­ti­ful big work table where we did every­thing from pattern-making to cir­cuit lay­out and also con­struct­ing things. 

So we would be work­ing on a project and… Not that it hap­pened so often, but every once in a while some­body would actu­al­ly walk in to the tai­lor shop and they would come in with an idea of some­thing that they want­ed. And this was Boris. He’s actu­al­ly a human­i­ties pro­fes­sor, but he also plays in a street music band. And he want­ed to have a light-up jack­et for his band. He plays the trom­bone. And he want­ed it to light up as he was play­ing his instru­ment. So he came in, and when­ev­er a new cus­tomer came in we would spend some time talk­ing about the idea how and we could pos­si­bly imple­ment it. And we would draw sketch­es, and we would then work on mak­ing up a toile, like a pro­to­type of the gar­ment to fig­ure out the fit. We would also pro­to­type the cir­cuit sep­a­rate­ly, and make tests for the sens­ing and the actuating. 

And then Boris would have gone away. And nor­mal­ly it would take us two or three weeks, some­times even longer for the two of us, and some­times we would even get out­side help, and a lot of late nights to then fin­ish the orders for the cus­tomers. And so then Boris would have come back and received his…we called it the Trombone Breathing Vest, was the com­mis­sion that he received. And I don’t have any pic­tures here, but if you go online to the Koba tai­lor shop web site, if you go to the Trombone Breathing Vest com­mis­sion, you can see pic­tures of the vest and watch a video of him play­ing his trom­bone with it light­ing up.

And so Koba was basi­cal­ly kind of like a fairy tale. And to keep the rela­tion­ship anal­o­gy, maybe it was some­thing like a roman­tic hol­i­day, where for one year we made believe that we were e‑textile tai­lors and that this was a life that we could live.

But it was­n’t finan­cial­ly sus­tain­able, and it was nev­er intend­ed to be. And Koba, we closed the shop two years ago now. And since then we’ve kind of been recov­er­ing a bit finan­cial­ly and…maybe also men­tal­ly. And I think some of the best advice I got since then has actu­al­ly come from Daniela Rosner, who’s speak­ing tomor­row I think. And yeah, it’s kind of along the lines of it’s not about break­ing up and run­ning away from tech­nol­o­gy or e‑textiles just because I’m upset with some of the things that I see. But rather if I want to be hap­py in the long run it’s about cul­ti­vat­ing a kind of—or car­ing about some­thing. So car­ing about e‑textiles. And if I care about it enough, I could use that to bring up the ener­gy to look to see where it’s bro­ken and to work towards fix­ing it. 

So I think I’m at the point now where I’m no longer think­ing of break­ing up and run­ning away from e‑textiles, but I’m def­i­nite­ly also still work­ing through the issues that that I see with this field. 

And yeah, so last year I depart­ed on a new e‑textile adven­ture, as Golan men­tioned. I’m now a pro­fes­sor at the per­form­ing arts uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin. And our mas­ters pro­gram is called Spiel und Objekt, or Play and Object.” And I think I’m kind of tak­ing e‑textiles with me into this new posi­tion because I’m think­ing I have a chance to enjoy work­ing with it as I see e‑textiles as kind of a prop for sto­ry­telling, and for try­ing out oth­er ways of being in the world. 

And it’s also kind of com­ing full cir­cle. I’m back in an edu­ca­tion set­ting again, which for me is a place of explo­ration but also research. And not to be doing that alone. So I think what I told you that what seduced me about e‑textiles was the kind of crafti­ness, and that I could use my hands, and the mate­ri­als are so… Yeah, to me they’re beau­ti­ful and aes­thet­i­cal­ly real­ly inter­est­ing. But I think that was a bit of a trick. That was kind of the shiny, sexy sur­face. But I think what real­ly sus­tained my prac­tice over the last years was that I was also part of a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple prac­tic­ing in this field. And so I see being part of this edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram as also an oppor­tu­ni­ty for more community-building and explor­ing tech­nol­o­gy together. 

I still have some time left. And I don’t know, I recent­ly was read­ing a kind of an advice book on how to choose a part­ner. So maybe I can read a pas­sage from… This is some­thing I was read­ing when I was not quite sure I was going to stay work­ing in e‑textiles.

When you make a choice, you change the future. Choosing a roman­tic part­ner is one of con­tem­po­rary life’s biggest adven­tures. Embark on a quest and we may meet fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, as well as some who make us crazy. We may rise to emo­tion­al heights, as well as sink­ing into fury, fear, and depres­sion. We may lose direc­tion com­plete­ly before at last we find our way to love. The real chal­lenge is that we grow. Partner choice is a self-development jour­ney, dri­ving us to learn more about our­selves, about oth­er peo­ple, about life and the way we want to live it. Take all that on board, and we start to real­ize just how big an adven­ture choos­ing a part­ner is. 

So…yeah, thank you for indulging me on my rela­tion­ship issues. I guess there’s time for ques­tions now, but also I would real­ly love if you have…I don’t know if it’s advice or just also if you could share from your own expe­ri­ences with your work rela­tion­ship how you man­age to sus­tain it through dif­fi­cult times and keep your­self excit­ed about what you do. Thank you.

Golan Levin: han­nah, thank you so much for this incred­i­ble view into your prac­tice and your pas­sion. It’s real­ly easy to under­stand how fif­teen years of rela­tion­ship with a tech­nol­o­gized cre­ative medi­um could real­ly evolve a lot, you know, since 2005 let’s say. Where you have the mak­er move­ment and this kind of bright, shiny kind of thing that that was, and sort of the ride that we’ve been on as we’ve kind of come out of that is real­ly inter­est­ing. And it’s super inter­est­ing for us to hear about your rela­tion­ship to this, espe­cial­ly as things that start small and kind of punk become kind of adopt­ed by Google and take cer­tain things maybe away from us, or we think might.

It’s real­ly inter­est­ing to see your view. There’s a ques­tion from the Discord which is, do you see your­self pri­mar­i­ly as a sto­ry­teller, with these mate­ri­als as your medi­um? And is that your true love now, perhaps?

han­nah perner-wilson: Wow, that’s… I think yeah, it’s exact­ly what I’ve been try­ing to remind myself. That’s why I took on this pro­fes­sor­ship job in this per­form­ing arts uni­ver­si­ty, because I want­ed to give myself a push in the sto­ry­telling direc­tion. So I don’t know if I see myself as it yet but yeah. That’s where I’d like to go.

Levin: You’re in a pro­gram in Berlin that’s one of the few pro­grams in the world that has a pro­gram in dig­i­tal pup­petry as well, which is a super inter­est­ing sort of par­al­lel con­nec­tion as well.

It seems— I mean, you’re fan­tas­ti­cal­ly cre­ative. I spent an after­noon going through your Flickr site look­ing for images and was just over­whelmed with the efflo­res­cence of you cre­ativ­i­ty. You must hold a lot of projects in your heart, though. I mean, things that you’ve made that are spe­cial to you or that you felt good about because they touched some­one. Do you have anoth­er sto­ry to tell about a project you made, maybe at the tai­lor shop or a thing you made that was nev­er intend­ed to be mass-produced but just a thing that you feel close to that you can leave us with? Or a story.

perner-wilson: Yeah…I’m scour­ing the room now to find some­thing that…

Levin: Or an expe­ri­ence of a gift, per­haps, that you received or gave that…or some story.

perner-wilson: You know what, that is kind of easy because I have here— 

Two Christmases ago, I decid­ed to write a sto­ry for my par­ents. Because for a while I’ve been sick of Christmas gifts and I thought… I want­ed my par­ents to dress up and be sil­ly with me. So I wrote them this sto­ry and then I made masks for the char­ac­ters in the sto­ry. And then I made them put on these masks and then we went over to the neigh­bors and scared them with this. 

But in the story…it was kind of set in the future, and the beings in the future…different kind of beings had evolved, but one of these beings was homo lumens. And it had man­aged to form some kind of syn­er­gy with…there’s moths here and some pine cones…in order to sur­vive in an atmos­phere on Earth where the sun has dis­ap­peared. And in order to form this syn­er­gy which allowed the humans to draw oxy­gen from the envi­ron­ment, but every time they would breath in it required so much ener­gy that they could­n’t think. So their think­ing was very well-organized but kind of com­part­men­tal­ized. So this mask actu­al­ly con­nect­ed to kind of a breath­ing sen­sor. And every time you breathed in it would light up…this cro­cheted part here would glow, because it was requir­ing so much ener­gy to breathe. And I had this image in my head of us all sit­ting around in the liv­ing room in the dark, and only the breath­ing of our masks would be illu­mi­nat­ing the space. 

Levin: han­nah, there’s so much per­mis­sion that you’ve giv­en us as a gift in this pre­sen­ta­tion today. I men­tioned yes­ter­day to Irene the per­mis­sion to be a hybrid. But you’ve giv­en us so many oth­er kinds of per­mis­sion in this pre­sen­ta­tion. I just want­ed to say thank you so much. I don’t even want to put names to them all. There’s a lot to think about, some of which is ver­bal and some of which is not. It’s great to get this view onto your cre­ative practice.

perner-wilson: Thank you so much, Golan, for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to present.

Levin: It’s great. So, that con­cludes our morn­ing ses­sion. We will gath­er again today at 1:30 in the after­noon Eastern time, with Ari Melenciano for our after­noon ses­sion. And I’ll see you all there. Thanks every­one, and have a good lunch.

perner-wilson: Bye bye.

Levin: Bye.

Further Reference

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