Golan Levin: Welcome back to our sec­ond pre­sen­ta­tion of the last ses­sion at Art && Code: Homemade: Digital Tools and Crafty Approaches. It’s my ter­rif­ic plea­sure to intro­duce Dr. Vernelle Noel, who is an archi­tect, artist, and found­ing direc­tor of the Situated Computation and Design Lab at the University of Florida. Her research focus­es on using design com­pu­ta­tion and ethno­graph­ic meth­ods to inves­ti­gate tra­di­tion­al and auto­mat­ed mak­ing, human-computer inter­ac­tion, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary cre­ativ­i­ty, and their inter­sec­tions with soci­ety. Vernelle Noel. 

Vernelle Noel: Hi. Thank you very much. Thank you Golan, thank you STUDIO for Creative Inquiry for hav­ing me. This week­end has been so good. I just wan­na say I’ve been so inspired. I will be reach­ing out to some of you. I’m thor­ough­ly this week­end, okay. I just want to say that. This has been great. 

Okay. And so I’ll start to share with you my work or pre­sen­ta­tion or thoughts around art, code and gift-giving as we are all con­tained or work­ing from home or try­ing to be cre­ative from home. So I’m gonna share my screen now. 

And just a lit­tle bit of intro­duc­tion into my work or my schol­ar­ship. I look into mak­ing. And that’s tra­di­tion­al mak­ing prac­tices, dig­i­tal prac­tices, and their inter­sec­tions with soci­ety. So under­stand­ing what that rela­tion­ship is, can be, or might be, and how they influ­ence each oth­er. So how mak­ing prac­tices in soci­ety can influ­ence the tech­nolo­gies that we devel­op, right. So I make tools, process­es, tech­nolo­gies, etc., and real­ly ques­tion cul­ture, soci­ety, and design through them. 

And With Golan’s prompt of this talk, I start­ed think­ing of my feel­ing, my love, why I love art so much and why I love every­thing I’ve been see­ing so far. It’s because art is a voice, right. And I love art as a voice because as Cyril I think was men­tion­ing ear­li­er today, we have so many gate­keep­ers in oth­er sort of pro­fes­sion­al space that art, we can have a voice in almost most any­thing that we have around us or avail­able to us. 

And so I play with many voic­es. I’ve need­ed many voic­es at dif­fer­ent times in life. Sometimes I do car­toons, because things crack me up and I just find things weird and so at one point I had to do car­toons for that voice for myself. 

I like to draw. And a dai­ly rit­u­al I had of draw­ing lines on note­cards, it was just some­thing that I…I need­ed to draw, I need­ed an expres­sion, I need­ed a voice some­times every day to go through that rit­u­al, and so these are exam­ples of some of the things I used to do.

Then some­times I need a voice that’s talk­ing to me or that I want to think about for a while. So some­times on these note­cards and sketch­es I would include quotes or things that I’m think­ing about that I might want to share with others. 

I’m con­tin­u­ing to explore draw­ing using pen plot­ters, soft­ware… Again it’s a voice. I want to share or show some­thing that I’m try­ing or exploring. 

Another voice being crafts and tex­tiles. This is an arti­fact, an instal­la­tion I made in my grad­u­ate stud­ies with Leah Buechley, actu­al­ly. You’ve heard her name a lot dur­ing this fes­ti­val. But when she was my teacher this is some­thing I made in her class, one of our projects where I explored yarn, liq­uid cement, and explor­ing sort of what we can get struc­tural­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly using weaving—yarn—using dig­i­tal fabrication. 

E‑textiles. Electronics in tex­tiles, that was anoth­er voice. 

The visu­al­iz­ing of data. That does­n’t come up much. So this was me explor­ing data based on my field work and research in Carnival in Trinidad, which I’ll get back to in a bit. 

I work on robot­ics, danc­ing sculptures. 

But today what I’ll be shar­ing with every­one is my work in wire-bending, right. And this is wire-bending that’s spe­cif­ic to Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, but called the Trinidad Carnival. 

So a bit of an intro­duc­tion. The Carnival was intro­duced in the 1780s to Trinidad. But eman­ci­pat­ed slaves after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery used Carnival to cel­e­brate their free­dom. So from 1834. This is an engrav­ing from 1888, where they rein­vent­ed the car­ni­val to cel­e­brate their free­dom, show their aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, cre­ate, make, etc. 

And Carnival is a voice, right. It’s a space, it’s a place where peo­ple express joy, release frus­tra­tion, cre­ativ­i­ty, and more. So think­ing of Carnival as a voice here, just like art, right. 

And these voic­es have been spread to oth­er parts of the world. So there are sev­er­al Trinidad Carnivals around the world. They have sev­er­al in the US, the Caribbean, the UK, and Canada. So think­ing of these voic­es that have spread, shar­ing these his­to­ries, these cul­tures, through­out the world. 

So I think of Carnival as the Internet of the time in that it was a space of pub­lic edu­ca­tion, pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion, and pub­lic art. Here is a band from 1957 by George Bailey. The title of it was Back to Africa.” This was based on research. They were [indis­tinct] research on cos­tum­ing, peo­ple, what he saw or envi­sioned as what was hap­pen­ing in Africa, and his por­tray­al of the peo­ple and the cos­tum­ing that would be hap­pen­ing, telling us these lessons, these his­to­ries, com­ment­ing on social and polit­i­cal issues. So Carnival is a very pub­lic space of edu­ca­tion and art. 

So com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple come togeth­er, mak­ing arti­facts for the car­ni­val. There are kiddies. 

And in part of my work, I have explored how we might engage dig­i­tal­ly with Carnival. And so this was an exper­i­men­tal I did sev­er­al years ago play­ing with how we might inter­act with what I call stick arti­facts. So arti­facts that are spa­tial, temporal—meaning last­ing only but for a while, cor­po­re­al, and kinet­ic. And this is anoth­er exam­ple of explor­ing how peo­ple might inter­act with dig­i­tal arti­facts com­ing out of Carnival. 

And so when it comes to the craft of wire-bending, wire-bending start­ed around the 1930s. And it’s the most highly-developed craft com­ing out of Carnival. So, danc­ing sculp­tures and cos­tum­ing such as what you’re see­ing here. And cos­tumes are made based on those tech­ni­cal prin­ci­ples. And in my research start­ed in 2012/2013, that’s when I found that this craft was dying. So think­ing of this craft as some­thing bad has his­to­ry and cul­ture embed­ded in it, its dis­ap­pear­ance means that these voic­es are dis­ap­pear­ing, right. So this lan­guage is dis­ap­pear­ing, these voic­es that speak through this lan­guage, they’re dying, the voice is dying. So these his­to­ries of rebel­lion and resis­tance against oppres­sion, slav­ery, free­dom, joy, etc., oppor­tu­ni­ties for these voic­es are tech­ni­cal­ly dis­ap­pear­ing, if this craft is disappearing

And so these are images of the tec­ton­ic voice of the prac­tice. Just show­ing you here where alu­minum rods, fiber­glass rods, gal­va­nized wire, alu­minum flats, etc., and use of adhe­sive tapes.

And so my desire, I guess, was to revive and recon­fig­ure this dying voice. So I want to share with you my process for how I’m attempt­ing to do this through and in my work. 

So I start­ed by going on site, going to Trinidad—I’m from Trinidad—and study­ing the work of Albert Bailey and Stephen Derek, inter­view­ing them, look­ing at their arti­facts, etc. And then, from my con­tin­ued exam­i­na­tion of them and their work, study of their work, I devel­oped the Bailey-Derek Grammar, which I named after them. And what this gram­mar does is it describes wire-bending using steps and rules so that this knowl­edge and this craft can be shared with oth­ers. Because cur­rent­ly there is no ped­a­gogy to pass this craft on. So this also high­lights a kind of com­pu­ta­tion­al algo­rith­mic way, cod­i­fied way, of learn­ing and engag­ing in this process. So its pur­pose is to allow analy­sis of the craft, syn­the­sis for design, and trans­mis­sion of this knowl­edge for both prac­tice and education. 

And so I did a few work­shops with high school stu­dents and edu­ca­tors where…in part of, or I should say in start­ing it I usu­al­ly just ask them to make some­thing. Because they too have a voice, right. So give them the tools, the mate­ri­als, and just make some­thing. Just share your voice, just as I men­tioned. You know, gift some­thing. And so from that I’m able to I think see as well as they could see kind of where they’re com­ing from, tech­niques they might have or may not have. 

Then I teach the tech­ni­cal knowl­edge. So I go through the Bailey-Derek Grammar, explain­ing how things work, why things are the way they are, how the gram­mar works, so that they can also use it in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the prac­tice, right. So the the­o­ry, let’s say, behind the practice. 

Then we go through cer­tain steps in the gram­mar and prac­tice tech­ni­cal skills that are involved in bend­ing, wrap­ping tape, how you con­nect dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als, the tech­ni­cal skill in the prac­tice is what we engage in and prac­tice for a while. 

Then I leave space for them to have a con­ver­sa­tion with the gram­mar. How does this thing work, right? What mate­ri­als do I have? What con­nec­tions might I make? So they spend time try­ing to under­stand it, fig­ure things out. 

Then we start design­ing arti­facts and think­ing through this gram­mar. So what do you want make, alright, And then going through the gram­mar how they may con­struct or build this thing. And there are no mis­takes, alright? We’re all just learning. 

And so they con­tin­ue to study the gram­mar, etc. Then they make with each oth­er. And I’ll touch a lit­tle bit more on that lat­er, but cur­rent­ly wire-bending is a one-to-one prac­tice. So one per­son to one arti­fact. But because of the gram­mar, peo­ple are now able to make and build togeth­er, because there is now this tool around which they could dis­cuss and make togeth­er. So here is a team of an edu­ca­tor and stu­dent mak­ing and design­ing together. 

This is anoth­er image, mak­ing togeth­er with the gram­mar; edu­ca­tors and students.

And then, using the gram­mar to com­mu­ni­cate how they have done what they’ve done. Because a big part of this was test­ing the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with the gram­mar. In this image, the top and bot­tom images, the arti­facts on the left are orig­i­nal arti­facts and the arti­facts on the right are repli­ca­tions. So the abil­i­ty to describe one’s process for mak­ing some­thing is help­ful, because then we could doc­u­ment arti­facts because these don’t last for long; they’re tem­po­rary, as men­tioned. But we can doc­u­ment design and mak­ing process­es, and we could also teach oth­ers or share with oth­ers instruc­tions, code, algo­rithms, for how we’ve made something. 

And so it affords mul­ti­ple voic­es to be work­ing togeth­er in this craft for social inter­ac­tion, social mak­ing, mak­ing togeth­er. So the idea or the goal, the desire, is that we give this gift, this voice, of mak­ing using wire-bending tech­niques back to peo­ple so that they can give gifts to their friends, back to their cul­ture, their his­to­ries. And while this might not be dig­i­tal code, it’s still code. It’s an algo­rithm, right. It’s steps for cre­at­ing tec­ton­ics in this craft with this tec­ton­ic voice. 

With col­lege stu­dents, this is an exam­ple of a work­shop sem­i­nar I did at Georgia Tech. I do the same thing. Make some­thing. Let me see what your voice is try­ing to tell us, right. 

And then through a more struc­tured way of teach­ing, I ask stu­dents to make lamp­shades based on dif­fer­ent method­olo­gies that I’ve devel­oped. So using the Bailey-Derek gram­mar always, right—so I teach that to them also—and then cal­cu­lat­ing design using shapes and always think­ing of their inter­ac­tion with light and shad­ow as well as mate­ri­al­i­ty and how mate­ri­als behave. Which actu­al­ly takes a bit of a while for stu­dents to get, I feel. Because as archi­tects we seem to design with things that are so abstract it takes us a while to under­stand that mate­ri­als have behav­ior and how to design with that. So that’s what I real­ly like about teach­ing craft in terms of lis­ten­ing to mate­ri­als and how they behave.

Then they learn dig­i­tal man­u­fac­tur­ing method­olo­gies by using CNC wire ben­ders. These are images of some of the process­es and some of the wire-bent arti­facts and designs that stu­dents made. 

And anoth­er thing I want to men­tion, wire-bending is very male-oriented, though there aren’t many. So there aren’t many female prac­ti­tion­ers. And what the CNC wire ben­der and these oth­er ways of open­ing up the process, what it does is it has it opened up, at least in my class­es, for female par­tic­i­pants and younger peo­ple to engage in the prac­tice, which is real­ly old men usu­al­ly prac­tice it. 

Then exper­i­men­tal soft­ware tools for dig­i­tal design and fab­ri­ca­tion, that’s anoth­er method­ol­o­gy that I use. 

Then we explored at the scale of archi­tec­ture. So what’s that voice at the archi­tec­tur­al scale. 

So here we made a pavil­ion using wire-bending techniques. 

And so from this work of my inter­est in sort of lin­ear mate­ri­als, I make light­weight struc­tures using pulling from many of these tech­niques. And since I’ve been at home, it’s the first time I’ve had my mate­ri­als and tools home with me, so I’ve been able to explore and exper­i­ment in my own mak­ing, my own wire-bending arti­facts. I love explor­ing them and their rela­tions to light shin­ing on surfaces. 

And here are light paint­ings that I did as I was doing some wire-bending actions. I did these light paint­ings that I find inter­est­ing. I could say I like see­ing how my body movies, or bod­ies move. Because they can ask ques­tions of dif­fer­ent bod­ies engag­ing in these crafts. 

And I think that’s it. That’s all I want­ed to share with you today. 

Golan Levin: Thank you so much. This has been great. So, there’s a quick ques­tion of clar­i­fi­ca­tion. Andy asks could you explain a bit more about how the wire-bending tra­di­tion is dying? It was­n’t clear. You said maybe it’s done pri­mar­i­ly by old men? But at the same time you also said that Carnival has been spread to all these new places around the world. So it would seem like maybe it’s thriv­ing. So in what way is the wire-bending tra­di­tion both dying and kind of thriv­ing again? 

Vernelle Noel: That’s a great ques­tion, thank you. So it’s dying in Trinidad, for exam­ple, and in oth­er places too. Wire-bending is hard­ly used as the prac­tice. So peo­ple weld, or cos­tum­ing is done by buy­ing com­mer­cial parts. So the aes­thet­ic of cos­tum­ing in Carnival has changed. It is dying in Trinidad due to dying prac­ti­tion­ers. So since I’ve start­ed my work I’ve lost three—four of my sort of wire-bending knowl­edge experts. The craft, there is no way of teach­ing it, so we don’t have cur­ricu­lum or ped­a­gogy to teach it cur­rent­ly in Trinidad. So if I want to learn it I need to find that wire-bender to go to to learn it. So those are some rea­sons why it’s dying. 

Levin: Kelly Heaton asks, Have you trans­lat­ed wire-bending tech­niques into freefrom cir­cuits?” She says like dead bug-style cir­cuits, as made by artists like Peter Vogel. Have you thought about mak­ing sort of cir­cuits that are made of wire that float in midair? 

Noel: I wrote Peter Vogel’s name down, because no, I don’t know about that but thank you very much. I could def­i­nite­ly look at it. For sure. 

Levin: Yeah, there are some peo­ple, Peter Vogel’s one of them, one of the better-known ones, who can make three-dimensional sculp­tures out of wire but actu­al­ly the wires are things like resis­tors and elec­tron­ic com­po­nents that are sol­dered togeth­er in 3D space. 

Madeline Gannon asks, Can you talk about the tem­po­rary aspects of the wire-bent sculp­tures? The ephemer­al qual­i­ty. Do peo­ple who are learn­ing want them to last for­ev­er, or are they okay with it being sort of destroyed, reused, invent­ed? What’s the life cycle of these wire-bent sculp­ture forms?”

Noel: Good ques­tion. Thank you very much. So for Carnival, pri­mar­i­ly you always start over every year. So, when peo­ple make cos­tumes and danc­ing sculp­tures, if it’s a per­son­al cos­tume some peo­ple will want to keep it, right. So some­times it depends on who makes what if they want to keep it. But oth­er­wise, those who make them, the espe­cial­ly large ones, they want to reuse mate­ri­als. So the abil­i­ty to take them apart eas­i­ly and reuse mate­ri­als, that’s part of the [indis­tinct] desire to use adhe­sive mate­ri­als that can be removed ver­sus weld­ing and oth­er more per­ma­nent connections. 

Levin: Iman [sp?] points out that the use of wire-bending allows the oppor­tu­ni­ties to make min­i­mal sur­faces with soap bub­bles, and there’s prob­a­bly some real­ly amaz­ing forms that are yet to be explored through tech­niques like that. 

Pipo [sp?] asks a tech­ni­cal ques­tion, which I think you very quick­ly men­tioned Oh yeah, so my CNC wire bend­ing machine.” But I think many peo­ple have not seen those before. And Pipo’s ques­tions is, What’s the soft­ware that you use for the CNC wire bend­ing machine? And what’s the machine you used?”

Noel: So it’s a machine from Pensa Labs. It comes with its own soft­ware. It takes…the file exten­sion, I can’t remem­ber. But it just takes 2D parts, and you could also script bend or feed. But how it real­ly helps me is in par­tic­u­lar the hard­er wires. So for small­er arti­facts I could bend by hand. For oth­ers it’s very labor-intensive, and so the abil­i­ty to have a machine doing that real­ly helps when it comes to that part of the prac­tice. But you can check it out: Pensa Labs CNC wire bend­ing machine. 

Levin: CNC wire bend­ing machine. I’m just look­ing at the ques­tions here. 

As an archi­tect how do you think about scale with respect to your work on wire bend­ing? From the pho­tos it’s clear that some of the pos­si­ble objects are quite large.”

Noel: Yes. So, that project I showed, the pavil­ion that we made, that was explor­ing it at the archi­tec­tur­al scale. And as you saw, I think I quick­ly went through that because the clock scared me. There were new tec­ton­ics that had to be devel­oped, but also test­ed. So we did struc­tur­al test­ing on these tec­ton­ics to see if and how they would work, so that we knew that they could be applied at the archi­tec­tur­al scale. But that would be some­thing that I con­tin­ue to explore, what these large impli­ca­tions or pos­si­bil­i­ties might be for the tec­ton­ics of wire-bending to be present in these cultures. 

Levin: Another ques­tion from the chat. Are the small-scale maque­ttes proof of con­cepts, or ways to refine a design? Or are they objects that stand alone in themselves?”

Noel: Which ones? The last slides, maybe?

Levin: I’m not sure actu­al­ly from the ques­tion. I guess I mean, when you’re work­ing stu­dents, they’re devel­op­ing like lamp­shades, which are fin­ished projects in them­selves. Do peo­ple who devel­oped the large-scale things for the car­ni­val, do they make small ones first?

Noel: No. So, because… Yes and no. It depends on the process. Because Carnival…thought it’s a year, it takes so much resources, many times it’s sort of a full-scale pro­to­typ­ing process. So they might pro­to­type cer­tain moments of it. But a small sketch or a small idea that might be done to sort of test the idea of it? Rarely did I see any small things. Some peo­ple made from things that they drew, direct­ly. Some made with­out even draw­ing, right. So it depends on how they do it, but very rarely are small pro­to­types made.

Levin: There’s one per­son who’s observ­ing in the chat that they had nev­er heard the term gram­mar” in a craft con­text before. And anoth­er per­son observed that it’s love­ly that you…did name the gram­mar after the peo­ple from whom you learned it?— 

Noel: Yes I did, yeah.

Levin: That this was like yeah, A #1 to name the gram­mar after people. 

What was the process like of extract­ing the gram­mar from domain experts who might not be using that vocab­u­lary? They prob­a­bly did­n’t say Oh yes, I have a shape gram­mar,” you know, for talk­ing about that. 

Noel: Yeah. It was nice in that our dis­cus­sions— So I would spend days with these peo­ple and we would each, we would chat. I would look at what they were doing, ana­lyze their arti­facts. So it was a process of tak­ing a lot of images and ana­lyz­ing the things that they’d made, ask­ing them why cer­tain mate­ri­als came togeth­er, or why they did cer­tain things that they did. Great dis­cus­sions on the his­to­ries and where they thought the prac­tice was going, what it meant, what Carnival meant. It was just a nice relationship-building, and still is. 

And so I took the gram­mar back to them, to show them this is what we have now. And Albert Bailey, he was like, Ooh. I under­stand this. I could use this.” And anoth­er design­er who does a lit­tle wire-bending, he says, Ooh, this could help me. This could def­i­nite­ly help me.” So their recep­tion of it was most definitely—

Levin: Well, you’re pro­vid­ing them a for­mal­iza­tion of what they had pre­sent­ed to you in a less for­mal way.

Noel Yes, absolutely.

Levin: I think your work is real­ly love­ly with the Carnival in par­tic­u­lar in terms of the way that it shows peo­ple devel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies and crafts in ways that first of all come from very old craft lan­guages. And illus­trates a way in which peo­ple are mak­ing things for them­selves and also for their com­mu­ni­ty, you know, for their fam­i­ly and friends. It’s real­ly an impor­tant way to remem­ber that we can be devel­op­ing things. And I hope you get to find a way to make a gigan­tic wire-bender to make real­ly, huge huge auto­mat­ic shapes. 

With this we have to wrap up. In just two min­utes we’re going to be hear­ing from Hannah Epstein. I want to thank Vernelle Noel. Thank you so much Dr. Noel.

Noel: Thank you so much.

Levin: And we’ll see soon, okay. We’ll be back in two min­utes, everyone.

Noel: Bye.

Levin: Bye.

Further Reference

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