Golan Levin: We’re back. Welcome every­one to the final pre­sen­ta­tion of our morn­ing ses­sion here at Art && Code. We do have two more ses­sions this after­noon and evening of Saturday. And it’s my ter­rif­ic plea­sure to now intro­duce Laura Devendorf, who is an artist, researcher, and pro­fes­sor in the ATLAS Institute and the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she directs the Unstable Design Lab. Her work presents alter­na­tive under­stand­ings of tech­nol­o­gy that draw heav­i­ly from fem­i­nist techno­science, trad­ing notions of effi­cien­cy for engage­ment, con­trol for humil­i­ty, and indi­vid­u­al­ism for coop­er­a­tion and care. Laura Devendorf.

Laura Devendorf: Thank you, Golan. And thank you to every­one who’s spo­ken so far, and for the amaz­ing talks and inspi­ra­tion, and for those who gave me this oppor­tu­ni­ty to share some things with you.

So hel­lo. I’m Laura. I have some­thing planned for today. I’ve had the ben­e­fit of watch­ing oth­er peo­ple’s talks and I’ve been lik­ing this idea of some­thing that’s a lit­tle clos­er to a show and tell. And so, part of my research is real­ly root­ed in my own expe­ri­ence, and maybe a good way of explain­ing it— Oh. Hey Frankie. You wan­na come sit with me? 

There’s a lot of things like tiny peo­ple, like this one. [swivels cam­era down to show her child, who howls]

So yeah. I want­ed to share this as very much com­ing from the home. There’s a pro­gram called Artist Residency in Motherhood that was start­ed by an artist named Lenka Clayton, and I’ve always tak­en that as inspi­ra­tion in real­ly kind of try­ing to find ways to make my home part of my research.

Anyway, I’m start­ing in the kids’ room, so maybe that’s why we’re also being inter­rupt­ed. This is the room in our house that we call the art room. It’s very messy, just like most of my house. And what I’m going to do is I’m going to show you a few dif­fer­ent objects. Some that I find inspi­ra­tional and some that I’ve made. And the theme for this talk is real­ly about delight. And so it’s about kind of find­ing delight in objects and the way that objects form us both phys­i­cal­ly, the way they sup­port us phys­i­cal­ly, the way our bod­ies sup­port human and non­hu­man bod­ies. And also what that kind of expe­ri­ence of delight or joy is. And as I’m gonna show you things, I want to sort of empha­size that it’s not just like a no-cost thrill. It comes from strug­gle, and endurance, and stay­ing with some­thing in labor. And so, the dif­fer­ent things I try to build try to mix those two up. 

So, the first thing I want to show you is a toy I used to play with as a child. And this is called the Quercetti. It’s an Italian com­pa­ny, I believe. They still make these. And it’s called the Mosaic Machine. And what this object is doing is it has all these col­ored balls. You tip them nois­i­ly up to the top. And then you have to sort of…you sort of select where those balls go by push­ing these but­tons. And if you don’t want many of the col­ors, you go over here and you can scan through them. 

So I want­ed to start with a sim­ple idea, just because it’s sort of show­ing this like…the joy of orga­niz­ing. The joy of know­ing that every ball has a place. And how in so many aspects of our design and life we’re seek­ing that kind of cer­tain­ty. Or that’s what I feel, any­way. I mean, that’s a lot of the rea­son I love code, is because it kind of offers me that sense of con­trol and that sense of certainty. 

The sec­ond aspect of this that I’m going to kind of come back to is how it’s not this kind of grand cre­ative ges­ture like the blank can­vas and the paint. It’s real­ly the joy of press­ing but­tons and doing a kind of oper­a­tion. And so I’m going to fast-forward now about…let’s see, I was about 8 when I was play­ing this. I was about 28 when I got my PhD. So I’m gonna fast-forward about twen­ty years to a project that I did when I was a PhD stu­dent at Berkeley. So let me just go ahead and share my screen. There is no sound. 

This is a project that I worked on called Being the Machine. And Being the Machine was this idea of being able to sort of cre­ate with 3D mod­els, but not hav­ing to have a 3D print­er cre­ate those mod­els for you. So, I’ve always been inter­est­ed in code and cre­ative cod­ing and com­put­er sci­ence. And I real­ly liked learn­ing about com­pu­ta­tion­al geom­e­try and mak­ing 3D mod­els. But I hat­ed the fact that I had to give my mod­els to a 3D print­er to make, and I want­ed to make them by hand.

And so I devised this lit­tle sys­tem, which is just a pan/tilt brack­et with a laser point­er on it, that basi­cal­ly draws G‑code. And you fol­low the G‑code by hand. So you can see here that I’m actu­al­ly doing that with clay. 

And so, over time you can take this wher­ev­er you want. I’ve built with pan­cakes, with bal­loons, with different…who knows what, Cheez Whiz, glit­ter, lots of pipe clean­ers. And what I liked about this project was think­ing about cre­ative action not so much as again this grand blank slate thing, but just the kind of rit­u­al per­form­ing of a ges­ture, of becom­ing the machine. And then when you sort of take on that role, it ends up height­en­ing dif­fer­ent sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences you have. So, the dis­ser­ta­tion I wrote was very much about how you learn about the agency of mate­ri­als when you’re work­ing with them by hand. And how the mate­ri­als come to form the mak­er. And that the ideas actu­al­ly real­ly come from the mate­ri­als, rather than us hav­ing ideas and putting them in the materials. 

So. I’m gonna keep this play­ing for a lit­tle bit while I walk us down­stairs, where we’re going to con­tin­ue the rest of the talk. Actually, maybe I’ll stop shar­ing so you can see a lit­tle bit more of my studio/work space. Which, you know…is also my house.

So. We’re the chil­dren’s art room. We’re walk­ing through the hall­way. We’re say­ing hel­lo to my hus­band August. Hello. 

I actu­al­ly got the old 3D print­ing sys­tem out. So maybe while we’re going down you can look at the sim­ple lit­tle pan/tilt brack­et. I believe all the instruc­tions are still on Instructables. Costs about…I don’t know, twen­ty dol­lars to make this? Although when you work at Autodesk you have the sort of insane priv­i­lege of real­ly intense 3D print­ers. So there might need to be some kind of finagling to get it to work on dif­fer­ent print­ers. But luck­i­ly they also just sell pan/tilt brackets.

Okay. So, we are get­ting set up in my basement.

So. We’ve head­ed down­stairs and now we are in the place that’s been my stu­dio for the past year. And this has become my new sort of mechan­i­cal muse. It is a hand loom. And it’s called a Baby Wolf. It’s a floor loom. And what I real­ly love about this is that it’s kind of tak­ing so many of those ideas that were in that orig­i­nal toy and in Being the Machine, and it already exists in a machine, which is a loom. 

So a loom is actu­al­ly just lots of threads that’re thread­ed per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly. And the way you thread them through the dif­fer­ent frames deter­mines the pat­tern. And so what you actu­al­ly do is do some­thing kind of like assem­bly pro­gram­ming, where you wire up your pat­tern into these dif­fer­ent frames, and then you use these foot ped­als down here… Let’s see if I can get it clos­er to the foot pedals—hello, feet pedals—that’re down here. And that actu­al­ly lifts up the frames and allows you to throw the dif­fer­ent pat­terns through.

So, weav­ing has been so inter­est­ing because it’s like you get to pro­gram. And you do get to pro­gram in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. But then, you get to have all the dis­cre­tion of like, which G‑code instruc­tion you exe­cute at any giv­en time. And you get to play with all these dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als, which is real­ly real­ly fun.

So some of the mate­ri­als that I’ve been using that are my favorites are mate­ri­als like this. Which is actu­al­ly just paper. It’s kind of like a wax paper. It’s real­ly crunchy, so that when you weave some­thing with it it’s not just about hav­ing some­thing wear­able so much as a whole sensory—it makes sound, it has a feel against your body. 

And in weav­ing there’s all these kind of cool dif­fer­ent struc­tures. So I’ll show you this one. You’re not even just weav­ing flat sheets, right. It’s not all about dish­cloths. But what I’m find­ing real­ly inter­est­ing is there’s this… I don’t know, before writ­ten his­to­ry peo­ple have been weav­ing. And there’s thou­sands and thou­sands of years of knowl­edge in the dif­fer­ent struc­tures for weav­ing, many of which aren’t just flat, they’re multilayered. 

So in this exam­ple you can see here I’ve woven three lay­ers at once. And so I can actu­al­ly pull them back lay­er by lay­er and I can cre­ate these real­ly inte­grat­ed sys­tems. And some of the sys­tems I’m mak­ing as part of my research are essen­tial­ly just mul­ti­lay­ered cir­cuit boards. So they’re kind of like woven cir­cuit boards. 

So in this exam­ple I just showed you, this is a 2D posi­tion sensor. 

So, on the bot­tom lay­er there is a real­ly con­duc­tive cop­per yarn. Actually it’s the same yarn han­nah showed in her talk the oth­er day. Then the mid­dle lay­er is this kind of sep­a­rat­ing mesh. And then the top lay­er is just one con­tin­u­ous strand of resis­tive yarn. 

So in that sense you kind of weave it all at once, and then after­wards you do a lit­tle sewing and mend­ing. And it all comes togeth­er. And what’s real­ly kind of fun is that then I can also just weave in things like the volt­age dividers, and the pow­er and ground rails and things like that. 

One of the things that I may be most excit­ed about about weav­ing is that this entire cir­cuit did­n’t use any adhe­sives. And so, this is an entire­ly dis­as­sem­blable struc­ture. So some of the research I’m doing with my grad­u­ate stu­dent Shanel Wu is real­ly think­ing about how we can use design soft­ware to build in dis­as­sem­bly and the abil­i­ty to mend, from design time. So instead of being like Oh, would­n’t that be a nice thing to offer,” real­ly build­ing that in as a core functionality. 

So, now you have been exposed to my love of looms and my love of weav­ing. And I have lots of oth­er things in here. But now I’m actu­al­ly gonna shift over and talk about the sec­ond facet of weav­ing that I’ve also real­ly loved. 

So I sort of com­piled a whole bunch of books. This one’s not about weav­ing. Let me get to the ones that I want to show you. So. Weaving also com­bines my love for con­trol and pro­gram­ming. Because to make any woven struc­ture, you use some­thing that’s called a draft.

So this is a very famous…if you want to learn to weave, this is kind of like your bible. Or what­ev­er reli­gious text is very mean­ing­ful to you. Or not. And Anni Albers has this real­ly beau­ti­ful way of draw­ing the woven struc­tures. And so she draws the drafts, which show basi­cal­ly which yarns go over and under oth­ers. But then she also shows you kind of from a cross-sectional view what struc­ture that makes in the fab­ric. And just this process of even draw­ing them is real­ly ther­a­peu­tic. And so that’s actu­al­ly what I’ve includ­ed in the zine. It’s sort of a quick instruc­tion of how to write drafts and how to draw them by hand. 

It also means that when you go to thrift stores you can find any num­ber of craft books. So like this one. Some of my oth­er favorites—when you are inter­est­ed in fiber art you get a lot of spiral-bound books. And I just love this idea that there’s been this thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple. It’s kind of like a zine com­mu­ni­ty but it’s real­ly focused on tech­nique. And they’re all over the place. And they’re very affordable. 

This one is about a tech­nique called mar­bling, and what I love about it is there’s an inscrip­tion on the front that says The best part of learn­ing to mar­ble was find­ing a friend in you.” And so, I don’t know. There’s a sweet­ness to find­ing these things that’ve been owned by oth­er hands, and know­ing that you’re kind of car­ry­ing on those dif­fer­ent techniques. 

The oth­er thing I like about weav­ing as it becomes a nat­ur­al explo­ration. So, all these plants around us, I did­n’t real­ize that milk­weed that grows in my neigh­bor­hood can actu­al­ly be sourced for fiber. And I can spin it and I can weave with it. I can also go on a hike and look for dif­fer­ent plant species that I can use for dye­ing. And some of these dyes have real­ly inter­est­ing prop­er­ties. One, they’re nat­ur­al dyes and so they’re not these kind of chem­i­cal dyes that we use in most of our gar­ments, and where a huge amount of the pol­lu­tion comes from in tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing is the dye process. So that’s kind of cool to find these alter­na­tives. Turmeric so far is maybe the most inter­est­ing and yel­low stainy dye that I real­ly love. 

Alright. So. I’m going to show you now a sec­ond lit­tle screen share. And this is kind of the oblig­a­tory I am a pro­fes­sor and I’m work­ing on a project and I real­ly real­ly real­ly want peo­ple to use it.” And so, I’m going to show you…let’s see. Wherever it is. I’m gonna close out of that video… Oh boy. The pow­er of technology.

Okay. Well, I’ll give you an intro to what it is as I’m look­ing it up. But basi­cal­ly what we’ve been doing is we’ve been build­ing open source tools for weavers. And so we actu­al­ly have a deployed soft­ware. It’s open source. It’s on Github. And it’s also just free for any­one to use. And it’s called AdaCAD.

And so AdaCAD actu­al­ly has some dif­fer­ent fea­tures of notat­ing drafts that allow you to do things like the design on dif­fer­ent lay­ers. It might not be super excit­ing if you’re not a weaver, but I would encour­age peo­ple to maybe think of this as a dif­fer­ent kind of cre­ative cod­ing com­mu­ni­ty. So, right now I’m sort of repli­cat­ing basic things weavers do, but you can imag­ine the sort of gen­er­a­tive pat­terns that would come out. People have been real­ly beau­ti­ful pat­tern­mak­ing with Glitch using dif­fer­ent kinds of mesh­ing algo­rithms to actu­al­ly cre­ate woven struc­tures that map to bod­ies and shapes. So, just putting this out there as some­thing that is kind of fun to con­tribute to. And on this about page, you can have a link to the dif­fer­ent Github repos­i­to­ries and things.

So part of the plan with AdaCAD is…maybe anoth­er ulte­ri­or motive I have as a pro­fes­sor is to kind of show that crafts­peo­ple are engi­neers. And so I think a lot of the times in my field, we see peo­ple with tech­ni­cal skills, tra­di­tion­al tech­ni­cal skills like com­put­er sci­ence or elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, being com­fort­able sort of tak­ing on the role of craftsper­son. But at the same time we’re not very…generous with giv­ing the term engi­neer” or tech­ni­cal” to peo­ple who are real­ly from the world of craft. And I think that actu­al­ly has a lot more to do with social cat­e­gories and the way that we’ve assigned exper­tise to cer­tain kinds of demon­strat­able skills. And to cer­tain forms of knowl­edge that’re eas­i­ly expli­cat­ed. And not to peo­ple with that skill in their fin­gers, or that tac­it knowl­edge. Or that maybe wan­na work in a way that’s just…more atten­tive to the mate­ri­als, more open to the mate­ri­als sort of hav­ing a say in what’s cre­at­ed and real­ly learn­ing from that deep kind of mate­r­i­al process.

So one of the things we’ve start­ed at the university…I run a lab there called the Unstable Design Lab. And one of the things we’ve start­ed is an exper­i­men­tal weav­ing res­i­den­cy. So I have a call every…let’s see, we’ll have anoth­er one I think around sum­mer. And we have some­one come in who’s a fiber artist, and we have them col­lab­o­rate with an engi­neer­ing team to solve a prob­lem. And so in this res­i­den­cy, we just made this kind of cat­a­log to show the dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als and struc­tures we used.

We actu­al­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed between a Finnish weaver named Sandra, who was love­ly, and some aero­space engi­neers to cre­ate these head­bands that have dry elec­trode struc­tures on them that can sense mus­cle activ­i­ty in the fore­head. So this is the idea that if your astro­naut is freak­ing out, it might be use­ful to know that, and that we could do that through some kind of unob­tru­sive sens­ing. So that’s been real­ly fun. And for those of you inter­est­ed, I’d encour­age you to check it out on our web site, which is…I’ve writ­ten it down for you… Nope, I wrote it down on a dif­fer­ent paper. It’s unsta​ble​.design. Here it is.

Okay! So as I close, I wan­na show you maybe some of the things I do with weav­ing. And this kind of brings it full-scale back around to some of the things I talked about with child­hood and being a mother.

So I was real­ly inspired by this book called Spacesuit by Nicholas de Monchaux. And this book talks about the space­suit as body archi­tec­ture. And as some­thing that helps your body adapt to harsh envi­ron­ments or makes your body able to be…to inhab­it spaces that it may not be meant for. And in this act of inhabiting…I’m try­ing to find a good picture…you actu­al­ly get to see some of the forces it’s pro­tect­ing you against.

So, I was just kind of inter­est­ed in what would this look like if we did­n’t cre­ate these kind of inhab­it­ing suits for astro­nauts but for moth­ers. And real­ly think­ing just about my own expe­ri­ence as a mother. 

So the first one I cre­at­ed in this series is called the Nipple Poncho, or the Exoskeleton for Sucking. And this makes my body more plea­sur­able to my chil­dren while also pro­tect­ing me from being sucked on all the time, which is a very real threat as a moth­er. Threat. I don’t know, what am I saying?

The sec­ond is the Exoskeleton for Sedimentation. So this actu­al­ly has these inte­grat­ed force-sensing struc­tures. So it actu­al­ly sens­es the force of your chil­dren on your body over time. And I liked think­ing about that in terms of ero­sion, or the way your body and oth­er bod­ies form against each other.

Another one in this col­lec­tion is the Exoskeleton for Screaming. So, in this exoskele­ton I go in and I record the sounds of motors. So I walk around, and I have a lit­tle inter­face on here where I can record sound on this lit­tle teen­sy audio chip. 

So I record the sounds of motors in bin­au­r­al. And then I have a breath sen­sor here. So when I inhale and I reach the top of my inhale, the motor sounds start play­ing and I scream with them. And if you’ve ever screamed with a motor, it is very sat­is­fy­ing. And also fright­en­ing to the peo­ple who love you.

And so the last thing is this gar­ment I’m wear­ing now. So this is actu­al­ly one whole fab­ric piece that I wove. It’s about three meters long and I drape it around and wrap it around me. It is one giant PCB. And each one of these sec­tions is a force sen­sor. And a col­or change region. 

So the idea here is I’m gonna wear this for at least a week. And I’m gonna track where my body encoun­ters force over that week. And then I’m gonna take this gar­ment off, ship it to Hong Kong. It’s gonna be in a gallery. And those kind of inter­ac­tions are gonna play back on the col­or change through­out the fab­ric. In the same way they’re also gonna gen­er­ate heat. And so there’s kin­da this inter­est­ing thing about my body heat being trans­port­ed through space and time.

And I’m try­ing to find…it’s kind of an inter­est­ing wrap­ping struc­ture. But here’s kind of my main con­trol elec­tron­ics. And I wove this entire­ly on a loom. So when Kelly Heaton last night was talk­ing about big PCBs, I could sort of sym­pa­thize. And I might sug­gest weav­ing. So this only took me about a hun­dred hours to weave. And now I get to wear it around.

But with that, I am done show­ing you my show and tell. And yeah, just want­ed to tell you a lit­tle bit about my prac­tice and life. So thank you.

Golan Levin: Laura, thank you so much for shar­ing your home and your cre­ative prac­tice with us. That was great. I have a ques­tion from the audi­ence, which is some­one writes, I’d love to hear about how you end­ed up work­ing at this inter­sec­tion. What was your path to this work, your influ­ences?” What were you doing as a high school stu­dent and how did you end up here, at this com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent types of tech­nol­o­gy and craft and you know, very old lan­guages and very new ones.

Laura Devendorf: Yeah. Um…I mean grow­ing up I was real­ly inter­est­ed in pat­terns and math and design. I had a thriv­ing cat­a­log of leo­tards that I made. [laughs] I was into gym­nas­tics and so as a lit­tle kid I would just design like thou­sands of leotards.

I went to col­lege for mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing, and I dropped out in the first semes­ter. I just was hav­ing some issues I think emo­tion­al­ly with leav­ing home and I was so tired of the kind of cur­ricu­lum where every­thing was right or wrong. And for the first time in my life I had tak­en an art class. And I real­ly fell in love with the idea that the world had mean­ing. And I learned about semi­otics. And I just was total­ly enrap­tured with this whole idea of things being more…gray.

And so, I basi­cal­ly fin­ished an art degree and I worked at a cloth­ing com­pa­ny as a graph­ic design­er. And they were like a small, sus­tain­able and organ­ic cloth­ing com­pa­ny. And then one day they need­ed to start a web store and I had taught myself how to do Excel macros… [laughs] And so, start­ed build­ing lots of macros, and then I start­ed writ­ing HTML, and then I start­ed writ­ing PHP. And then I start­ed tak­ing night class­es at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege in com­put­er science. 

And then I went back and did a sec­ond bach­e­lor’s when I was about 27. And so I was the old­est female under­grad­u­ate com­put­er sci­ence stu­dent. And I just real­ized I loved being in school. And so…I don’t know, it’s always crossed between the beau­ty in math and pat­tern, and the kind of beau­ty in humans and what we do and how we don’t make sense. I’m always try­ing to bal­ance those.

Further Reference

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