Golan Levin: And we’re back. Welcome back, every­one, to our sec­ond talk of the morn­ing of Art && Code: Homemade. And it’s my ter­rif­ic plea­sure to intro­duce Lee Wilkins, who is an artist, cyborg, and researcher, and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er inter­est­ed in tech­no­log­i­cal curiosi­ties and the cre­ation of whim­si­cal robots. Lee is a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the University of Toronto, and teach­es wear­able tech­nol­o­gy, phys­i­cal com­put­ing, and new media arts and design at OCAD University and Ryerson University. They’re also co-executive direc­tor at Little Dada, a group of cre­ative tech­nol­o­gists for social change, and com­mu­ni­ty man­ag­er for hack​a​day​.io. Folks, Lee Wilkins.

Lee Wilkins: Thank you so much, Golan. I am so excit­ed to be here. And this is a par­tic­u­lar­ly real­ly inter­est­ing for­mat as well because I feel like all of these talks feel real­ly inti­mate because I’m just sit­ting in my home as opposed to sit­ting in this con­fer­ence envi­ron­ment. So I feel like lis­ten­ing to every­thing before me I’ve tak­en a lot of it very much to heart more than I would’ve oth­er­wise. So, thank you so much for putting all this togeth­er, Bill and Golan and the whole team.

Ajunct instructor. PhD Student. Maker. Artist. Researcher. E-textile practitioner. Cyborg. Community oriented human. Experimental hosiery manufacturer.

So, just quick­ly about myself. I feel like I gen­er­al­ly wear a lot of hats. I’m not real­ly sure exact­ly who I am or what I do but I think I’m all of these dif­fer­ent things. I tend to sort of bounce, real­ly, back and forth between these dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties. You know, at some point I real­ly heav­i­ly iden­ti­fied as an e‑textile prac­ti­tion­er, but I think you’ll see in my work it’s strayed quite a bit from that. 

I do a lot of com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion. I real­ly love get­ting peo­ple excit­ed about mak­ing weird tech­nol­o­gy. I also have a day job in exper­i­men­tal hosiery man­u­fac­tur­ing, which is large­ly unre­lat­ed to any­thing I’m gonna talk about here but, we all have day jobs. 

The stuff that I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in, you know, is stuff like this. This is a project that I was work­ing on through­out quar­an­tine. So it sort of explores the envi­ron­ment around us. And it’s also some­thing I’m real­ly think­ing about a lot as we go into this next semes­ter of teach­ing and teach­ing online. Thinking about how peo­ple can explore the spaces around them and make tech­nol­o­gy out of some­thing that we nor­mal­ly would­n’t have thought of as tech­nol­o­gy. I feel like it’s an idea I’ve kind of been ped­dling for a long time, but one of for me the inter­est­ing things about being con­fined to my own space is I’m forced to recon­sid­er it again and again in all of these dif­fer­ent kinds of ways. 


But real­ly what my work is con­cerned about is the body and tech­nol­o­gy. And through watch­ing a lot of the folks present this week­end I feel like I’m def­i­nite­ly on the same brain­wave as a lot of folks here. You know, they’re often thought of as very dif­fer­ent things. Technology is thought of in these sort of rigid forms and devices, and the body is like this organ­ic oth­er type deal. So, I’m real­ly about explor­ing the ten­sion between those things. 

This is a project I worked on for the last cou­ple of years called Voids. And it’s actu­al­ly just a very sim­ple sort of light trick. A lot of my projects you’ll see use real­ly sim­ple tech­nol­o­gy to try to max­i­mize those kinds of results. And this project is kind of… I mean, to be real­ly hon­est I real­ly like the idea of putting your head in stuff. I think that’s a real­ly fun thing to do. A lot of my work in the past few years has real­ly been revolv­ing around your head and your face and all of the things that you can do with it. 

So basi­cal­ly what hap­pens here is when one set of lights is on, the per­son whose head is inside one of the trape­zoids can see the oth­er per­son, but the oth­er per­son can only see a reflec­tion of them­selves. And then it sort of switch­es back and forth. So while you’re watch­ing some­one else, they don’t know they’re being watched and they’re watch­ing them­selves. And yeah, it’s just a real­ly sim­ple kind of light trick. It uses the same reflec­tive coat­ings that are on build­ings on win­dows. So there’s no real mag­ic here, but I was super fas­ci­nat­ed by the mate­r­i­al and also the fact that it’s kind of this every­day mate­r­i­al that we real­ly don’t kind of think about. We sort of just take these build­ings almost for grant­ed. And I real­ly like the way it kind of changes your per­cep­tion of space and sort of throws it back and forth. So it’s almost like a con­ver­sa­tion between these two dif­fer­ent peo­ple in terms of per­spec­tive and it sort of being con­stant­ly thrown back and forth. 

What is a body? Where do boundaries end?

So this type of work has sort of led me to this big ques­tion about what is a body, and where do the bound­aries of your body end. And this is where I’m doing my PhD research and I could spend a long time talk­ing to you guys about mate­ri­al­ist the­o­ry. But I’m not gonna do that here, I just want to show you guys some cool art. 

But, basi­cal­ly one thing I’ve been think­ing about a lot is just like, what do we con­sid­er to be our body, and what have we kind of agreed upon? Are we think­ing about the microbes that are all over us? Are we think­ing about what hap­pens if we get cut and bleed. Like, where things start to and stop becom­ing your body? 

And one area I found that was real­ly inter­est­ing or a way of think­ing about this is by using space set­tle­ments. So space set­tle­ments in the last few years have become sort of a cen­tral touch­point to my research. And every time I do a research project, I imag­ine it in my imag­i­nary space sta­tion L4. So, dur­ing the 70s—some of you might be already aware of this—there was a real­ly big move­ment of sort of utopias and imag­in­ing all these dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments that we could live in. And the L5 Society was a group of folks who were super enthu­si­as­tic about the idea of a space set­tle­ment in a point called Lagrange 5

So what we can see here is sort of a map of the Earth and the sun. And these labeled points are called Lagrange points. And they are basi­cal­ly points of grav­i­ta­tion­al equi­lib­ri­um. So if you put an object in between…for exam­ple we have L1, which is right between the sun and the Earth, that object will stay in grav­i­ta­tion­al equi­lib­ri­um. And it’s the same for all of those points. They each have sort of slight­ly dif­fer­ent effects. But the L5 Society was imag­in­ing this space sta­tion at Lagrange 5

And there’s a whole bunch of real­ly inter­est­ing art sort of about what these space sta­tions would look like and what kind of form they would take. So this is Don Davis, and it’s a piece that illus­trates the Stanford Torus space sta­tion, or space set­tle­ment. And what I like to think of this is like sta­tus quo space. A lot of these space set­tle­ments sort of extrap­o­late on the way we have tech­nol­o­gy already and sort of put it into space. And you know, these very, like, nor­ma­tive ideas that we can pret­ty clear­ly digest. Like okay, so it’s kin­da like Earth but it’s space.

Technology doesn't look or feel like this because it's the best way, it is because there's systems of power that manipulate and dictate material, processes, and techniques. Soft electronics are resistance.

So, I think this idea is super super inter­est­ing. But the way I think of technology…you know, the way I’m try­ing to get peo­ple to think of that stuff dif­fer­ent­ly, is that things aren’t always the way they are because that’s the best way. But they’re sort of embed­ded in these ideas of pow­er and process. And that’s why I like to think of e‑textiles, and soft elec­tron­ics, and weird elec­tron­ics as like a way of resis­tance. I mean resis­tance in par­tial­ly a polit­i­cal sense but also in resis­tance because often these materials…are quite resistive. 

So what I start­ed doing I was work­ing with some friends to imag­ine L4. So L4 is kind of like the equal and oppo­site point of L5. So, math­e­mat­i­cal­ly they’re the same. You could also put a space set­tle­ment in L4. But in our L4 soci­ety, we are…you know, this like, spec­u­la­tive fem­i­nist space sta­tion. And we curated—myself and Hillary Predko, and also Sagan Yee—we curat­ed work from a bunch of dif­fer­ent folks to imag­ine what life would be like on L4. So this is a zine that you can read online and have a look at what these dif­fer­ent folks con­tributed. But also it’s just sort of like— I try to present all of my cur­rent work as though they’re oper­at­ing in this sta­tion that is sort of oppo­site this nor­ma­tive idea of space sta­tions. So, it’s like at an equal and oppo­site kind of float­ing point. And what would those tech­nolo­gies look like, and what would those tech­nolo­gies kind of feel like. 

Space settlements inherently mean the boundary between us and our technology is blurred

I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of space sta­tions because it inher­ent­ly means blur­ring the bound­aries between us and our tech­nol­o­gy. We’re breath­ing in the syn­the­sized air, we are exist­ing in this envi­ron­ment where every­thing has to be kind of curat­ed. So it’s real­ly like, so vis­cer­al­ly about bod­ies? that yeah, I’m total­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by these ideas. 

Bringing human to technology

So, in order to start bring­ing these two things clos­er I’ve sort of divid­ed up some work I’ve been doing into three sort of touch­stones. The first one I’m gonna talk about is bring­ing the human to tech­nol­o­gy. So, tak­ing what we clas­si­fy as like human feel­ings or human ideas and putting them onto this like cold idea of tech­nol­o­gy. So, this is some­thing that I think has been you know…it exists in a com­mer­cial sense. Of course none of the things I’m going to show you have quite the mar­ket val­ue that we might want but yeah. 

The first one I’m gonna show you is this idea of what it would look like if a serv­er room got mar­ried. So think­ing of these two very dis­joint­ed kind of ideas and sort of smash­ing them togeth­er. So this is a piece that I worked on with my col­lab­o­ra­tor Hillary Predko, and it’s a drone dress. It sort of takes these ideas of like drones, and servers, and hard tech­nol­o­gy and sort of pairs it with high fash­ion. So, this was a part of Make Fashion 2018. It’s a run­away piece, so exist­ing in a very high-fashion envi­ron­ment. But basi­cal­ly there’s this drone that sort of fol­lows the mod­el down the run­way. And her gar­ment is made out of Ethernet cables and there’s indus­tri­al fans on her hips. And you know, it cre­ates this actu­al­ly quite ele­gant out­put. And we sort of select­ed the most bro-iest of tech­nolo­gies like drones and Ethernet cables and sort of smashed them togeth­er in a sort of high-fashion wed­ding dress. So yeah, that’s sort of part of this explo­ration that I’m going for. 

This is anoth­er project that I worked on actu­al­ly just as the last thing I did before the pan­dem­ic hit. This is called Machine Yearning. So it’s a pret­ty basic machine learn­ing project. And it’s just sort of about ways we can see the machine kind of reach­ing back to us. 

So basi­cal­ly it is a whole bunch of per­son­al ads. And we took them from local Toronto ads, because we made this in Toronto. And we sort of put them through a machine learn­ing algo­rithm and tried to have it spit out what the machine real­ly wants and tried to pull that sense of desire. I’ve high­light­ed some of my favorites here. I real­ly real­ly like them because it kind of takes all of these dif­fer­ent types of yearn­ing and puts them togeth­er like the machine is real­ly fight­ing to try to find what it wants, or try­ing to find that sim­i­lar­i­ty. But yeah, it prints them out on lit­tle print­er receipts, which again feels like this very for­mal way of pre­sent­ing this idea of yearning. 

Bringing technology to human

So yeah, that’s sort of like the ways I’ve been try­ing to make the tech­nol­o­gy more human. But then bring­ing the tech­nol­o­gy over to the human side I think is anoth­er inter­est­ing thing that I’ve been kind of explor­ing. Like I was real­ly think­ing about what han­nah perner-wilson said yes­ter­day about the idea of falling in and out of love with e‑textiles. Definitely can iden­ti­fy with that. I feel like… Yeah, things have changed. So when I was think­ing about my e‑textile prac­tice, I was think­ing well what is it about the prac­tice that I real­ly find inter­est­ing. And I think what I real­ly find inter­est­ing is the idea of find­ing affor­dances using the body and also like being phys­i­cal­ly very flex­i­ble and pli­able and try­ing to make tech­nol­o­gy into these organ­ic kind of forms. 

So this is a cou­ple of exper­i­ments I was work­ing on sort of using my face as the plat­form of the inter­face. So, they’re all super basic. They’re all just switch­es that’re made with con­duc­tive tape. And they sort of use the ele­ments that already exist, of course on my face or things that I’m already doing, to cre­ate these small ele­ments of inter­ac­tion. So, with this I’m sort of try­ing to imag­ine what it would look like as a full-body inter­face that you don’t real­ly have to think about your inter­ac­tion with tech­nol­o­gy, you don’t real­ly have to think about engag­ing with it. It sort of comes about as a result of your exis­tence with­in the world, right. So what does this look like when the tech­nol­o­gy starts to become part of us? We don’t have to think about like press­ing this but­ton. We can just sort of inter­act with our bod­ies in this way. 

So of course all of these are just you know, some tape, some alli­ga­tor clips, and some LEDs. But what I real­ly want to do with this is prompt ways we can think about engag­ing with the body and using it to con­trol oth­er things or engage with things in anoth­er way.

Blurring the boundary

And then the third kind of deal is cre­at­ing this like, blur­ring the bound­ary a lit­tle bit more delib­er­ate­ly. So once we’re at that point, how can we start to almost for­get when…you know, for­get that one is the oth­er. And I’ve tak­en a cou­ple of stabs at this over a lot of dif­fer­ent types of projects. And I don’t think I’ve quite seam­less­ly merged the human and the machine yet but…you know, work­ing towards it. 

Seamless transfer of information & symbiosis of performer and apparatus

So this is a piece called Android Apparatus, and it’s sort of about the sym­bio­sis of a per­former and appa­ra­tus. So how these two objects you can be ful­ly inter­twined togeth­er and cre­ate a rec­i­p­ro­cal interaction. 

So, this is a cir­cus per­former piece, and basi­cal­ly the wear­er is on a lyra, so it’s a sus­pend­ed hoop, and she does a per­for­mance. The piece is designed— We put a bunch of sen­sors all over the artist and we had her do this spe­cif­ic danc­ing. And we used that data that we got to cre­ate this gar­ment. So we looked at what areas of her body in this dance she uses to touch the hoop. We looked at how he’s phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing, how many times she spun around. And we used that to phys­i­cal­ly design the gar­ment. So the pat­terns on it are the data from the dance, and the loca­tion of every­thing is based on exact­ly how she’s mov­ing. And as she moves it changes the lights on the gar­ment. So we’re try­ing to sort of cre­ate this thing where in order for the gar­ment to exist in its full beau­ty, it requires to be used in this very spe­cif­ic way. And in order for the per­for­mance to exist in its full beau­ty it requires the use of the gar­ment. So it’s cre­at­ing this almost symbiosis. 

This is anoth­er piece that I worked on at Dinacon last year. And it is about col­lab­o­ra­tive sens­ing. So, it’s a sen­sor that can hear bat nois­es. So, nor­mal­ly we can’t real­ly hear them with our human years. We aren’t capa­ble of receiv­ing that high fre­quen­cy. So basi­cal­ly one per­son has a sen­sor on their hand, and they are able to point it in var­i­ous direc­tions and try to find these nois­es of the bat. And the oth­er per­son has a trans­duc­er on their head. So, a trans­duc­er’s a bone-conducting sen­sor so only they can hear the out­put. But these two people…you know, indi­vid­u­al­ly they can’t hear the bat, but when they touch hands they com­plete their cir­cuit. So they have to sort of walk togeth­er through the jun­gle and find these bats and lis­ten togeth­er and it cre­ates like a col­lab­o­ra­tive kind of experience. 

So in this sort of way we’re sort of blur­ring what it is to have this sin­gu­lar expe­ri­ence and it becomes this group expe­ri­ence of walk­ing togeth­er and being togeth­er. And… Yeah, so that’s what I’m kind of try­ing to do here, is fig­ure out how we can—if we can expand the sense of one sort of engagement. 

So I thought I’d take a cou­ple min­utes to talk about my next steps. I have been real­ly think­ing about what else I could do to cre­ate this blur­ring of envi­ron­ments and blur­ring of inter­ac­tions. And again, dur­ing quar­an­tine I’ve become very very inter­est­ed in this idea of fish­tanks, most­ly for a hob­by. You can see my fish­tank over here. And I’ve been real­ly think­ing about what that’s almost like for the fish. They’re almost like cre­at­ing a space sta­tion for the fish to exist. I’m real­ly into the idea of like fil­ter­less tanks that are real­ly self-sustaining. So I was sort of think­ing about how I could have the fish expe­ri­ence this idea of L4, or this idea of the space station. 

So what I’m gonna do next is I’m in the process of build­ing a shrimp space sta­tion. It’s going to be a wear­able gar­ment that allows the shrimp to expe­ri­ence the out­side and are almost going to be… It’s going to be like a wear­able device, that I’ll have to take shrimp out so they can get their UV light and be hap­py in their envi­ron­ment. But also it pro­vides this fully-sustaining sys­tem for them to live. So yeah, that’s what I’m real­ly excit­ed about next. I’m real­ly excit­ed to try to make some wear­able shrimp space stations. 

So that’s about it. That’s kind of all I have to talk about. I’m hap­py to take ques­tions. If you want to get a hold of me you can find me at @Leeborg_. And yeah, thank you so much.

Golan Levin: Lee, thank you so much for this incred­i­ble pre­sen­ta­tion. Lots of great com­ments in the chat. I per­son­al­ly love the idea of mount­ing things on one’s head as a mode of artis­tic practice. 

Got a bunch of quick ques­tions for you. What’s a new sense you’ve been han­ker­ing for personally?

Lee Wilkins: A new sense. Hm. I’m not real­ly too sure. I have a cou­ple of implants. So I have like a mag­net­ic implant. However I feel like it’s not maybe nec­es­sar­i­ly every­thing it’s kin­da cracked up to be. So I’ve been real­ly inter­est­ed in kind of explor­ing oth­er implantable sens­es or ways to aug­ment that and make it—yeah, like a lit­tle bit more of a way of per­ceiv­ing the world as opposed to just a cool par­ty trick where I can pick up small Canadian change. 

Levin: Mm. So this ques­tion is more sort of—goes to the phi­los­o­phy of what you’re doing. I real­ly appre­ci­ate how your work spans both sort of per­for­ma­tive aug­men­ta­tions of the body that are almost like fash­ion or you know, for oth­er peo­ple to kind of dis­play. That there’s a kind of a pub­lic face to it. As well as very pri­vate things like you know, putting a mag­net in your body and things that aren’t obvi­ous to oth­ers and which enhance your own sen­so­ri­um. Do you feel like— This is the ques­tion. Do you feel like you’re pro­to­typ­ing for a future you want to see, or do you feel like these works are set in the present and are ask­ing peo­ple to reflect on their cur­rent rela­tion­ships with technology?

Wilkins: Yeah, that’s a great ques­tion. Definitely when I sit­u­ate my work with­in L4, it’s very future-focused. But I also don’t think you can like, snap your fin­gers and make a dif­fer­ent future, right. We have to crit­i­cal­ly think about why we think about tech­nol­o­gy the way we do, and we have to crit­i­cal­ly think about why you think one thing is tech­nol­o­gy and anoth­er thing is not. Especially like the ear­li­er slides I was show­ing all the food switch­es and stuff I made, you know. Like, I’m not nec­es­sar­i­ly say­ing that we should always use corn as an inter­face for things, but I am say­ing we should think about why we don’t. So…I’m not sure if that answers that but maybe.

Levin: Yeah. Sure we’re say­ing both, and it makes sense that we have to kind of pro­to­type it to get there.

This is a ques­tion from Lea, which is How do we think about wear­able per­for­mance gar­ments that move away from reac­tive or visu­al­iza­tion roles and into inter­ac­tiv­i­ty or with its own agency? In oth­er words, how do we meld per­for­mance to unpre­dictabil­i­ty?” Thinking about per­for­mance garments.

Wilkins: Yeah. Totally. I really—you know, I’ve been think­ing so much about agency in like the philo­soph­ic sense. So how we can allow objects to inter­act on their own with­out any of this like human-type inter­fer­ence. And I’ve been think­ing a lot about ther­more­ac­tive gar­ments and those types of atmospheric-reactive gar­ments to try to cre­ate that sense of agency that these things on us are enact­ing around us and not because of us. And I think that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing idea that has def­i­nite­ly been swirling around in my head.

Levin: And a final ques­tion, because we have a moment, which is, you also make zines. And I’m curi­ous if you could talk about how or whether or to what extent that plays into your cre­ative prac­tice. Is it a mode of pub­li­ca­tion or do you actu­al­ly see a much more tight mate­r­i­al con­nec­tion in terms of giv­ing things to people?

Wilkins: Yeah, absolute­ly. I mean, I start­ed mak­ing— I have a cou­ple of zines—I could drop it in the chat—about about wires, LEDs, and but­tons. And these are three things that I feel like are often real­ly over­looked in the elec­tron­ics world of like Oh, just con­nect it with a wire” and there’s so much small knowl­edge there and very tiny facts that it’s real­ly hard to get a han­dle on. So I real­ly want­ed a way for peo­ple to be able to get that infor­ma­tion with­out feel­ing over­whelmed or like it’s super technical. 

So I feel like zines are super…they’re an approach­able way. You kin­da like, pick one up when you’re wait­ing for an appoint­ment or wait­ing at a mak­er space or what­ev­er. So it gives peo­ple this kind of casu­al way to absorb that detailed infor­ma­tion. Like I just keep think­ing back to when I was learn­ing elec­tron­ics and I first stripped a wire that was mul­ti­strand. And I was so con­fused because I thought that all wires were sol­id core and nobody had ever told me. And it’s just lit­tle moments like that that I want peo­ple to have an acces­si­ble way to under­stand. So, that’s sort of my moti­va­tion behind the zines.

Levin: Got a ques­tion from Kate Hartman. And we have basi­cal­ly one minute left, we’ll see if we can throw this one at you. How do your art prac­tice, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, teach­ing, and doc­tor­al research inter­act and inter­sect with each oth­er? Or do you see them separately?”

Wilkins: Yeah, I feel like it’s always…they’re always swirling togeth­er and always influ­enc­ing each oth­er. So for exam­ple like some­how L4 has now made it into my dis­ser­ta­tion, but also I’ve run com­mu­ni­ty events with it, so it’s impos­si­ble to keep them one out of the oth­er. I feel like they are…yeah, they’re always, always self-influencing. And some­times that could be help­ful but some­times…[laughs]…some­times it builds on itself a lot.

Further Reference

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