In 2011 Afroditi Psarra – Athens born artist and scientist with an incurable passion for cyberpunk literature and a soft spot for traditional crafting techniques, realized a self-made fabric synthesizer and played it in a live performance. As a result of her experimentations with LilyPad Arduino white noise generators, its name was Lilykord – part of an ongoing series called Lilytronica – and it was one of the first outcomes of her constantly evolving research in open-source sensitive wearables with embroidered electronics.
Two years later Psarra presented an interactive sound performance called Idoru(), which is meant to transform the human body into an interface through a particular non-pervasive electronic garment sewed with sensors. With its minimal retro-futuristic allure, the dress translates into frequencies and data every movement of the performer within the space and then converts them into sound. Thanks to a LilyPad Arduino microprocessor, a Xbee wireless antenna, a conductive thread and fabric, and a little over, the performer is able to create an immersive soundscape to be physically experienced by the viewers.
Over and over Psarra has been contributing to push further body augmentation research blending folk tradition, pop culture, hand-made electronic and coding to create art, conveying also social, biological, and environmental issues. Through fascinating and dystopic garments like Divergence, Soft^Articulations, and Fractal Antennae, she could turn the human body into a radiation collector, detecting all the invisible waves that silently surround and affect us – i.e. radio waves, wi-fi or electromagnetism and making them perceivable through light, vibrations or sound feedbacks.
Latest developments of her work include Cosmic Bitcasting, a neoprene tunic with embedded actuators that enables the human body to perceive and visualize cosmic radiations all around us and then to upload all the outputs on a computer. A further improvement of this project would be to create a cosmic data archive open to everyone to access and eventually to enrich, providing a useful tool for the scientific research in this field, and for humankind to get closer to the universe.
While keeping an eye to work openly and sharing, Afroditi is keeping the female knitting and embroidery tradition alive, and she is proving that – just by adding a bit of physical computing and conductive materials- it is still a valuable form of expression in the contemporary era. Today she’s assistant professor at DXARTS – the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she runs also the SoftLab, devoted to experimenting with wearables, and she is definitely the one to talk with, when you want to make a point of e-textile, DIY and DIWO technologies.
Federica Fontana: I want to start by addressing an – apparently- unusual topic for e-textile: the role played by sonification, and sound in general, for the most part of your works. Why is this aspect so important to you?
Afroditi Psarra: I feel that sound is the most direct medium to create experiences and also, it’s intrinsically linked with the idea of physicality. Sound can create spatiality, it can be felt through the body, it can create associations and trigger emotional responses. Although at first glance it may appear unrelated to the field of e-textiles, my first experiments with soft-circuits were aimed to create noise machines, something that got me really interested in exploring sound synthesis through DIY electronics and algorithmic processes. Furthermore, I feel that e-textiles and wearable technology are ideal mediums to explore sound performance, and to create small mechanisms for augmenting the hidden soundscape that surrounds us.
Federica Fontana: Your materials are basically electronic components, sensors, and fabric… the result is hybrid wearables that let whoever put them on to become an interface. Working with these elements you are dealing just with technical problems or also with aesthetic ones?
Afroditi Psarra: In e-textiles functionality and aesthetics go hand in hand. The placement of electronic components or other materials (like conductive or resistive yarns and fabrics) is key to creating functional circuits and meaningful interactions. In my projects, I’m interested in creating something technically functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing.
Federica Fontana: Most of your projects are the output of a collaboration with other professionals: physicists, architects, performer, etc…how do you interact with them in the creative process? Is it a group brainstorming or they just provide you with particular technical skills?
Afroditi Psarra: Each collaboration is different, but it is equally engaging for all people involved. When I collaborate with other artists/designers/architects, or scientists, we go through various brainstorming sessions together, then research the subject matter that we are interested in exploring, and finally go through various hands-on prototyping stages together. For example, in my collaboration with Cecile Lapoire – the experimental particle physicist with whom we created the wearable cosmic radiation detector Cosmic Bitcasting, the boundaries between the role of the artist and the scientist were very blurry.
We collaborated in every aspect of the project, from aesthetics and materials, to fabrication and coding. In other projects, like Idoru() or Soft^Articulations, I created the interfaces and sound synthesis myself and worked with performers on a later stage to understand the mechanics and restrictions of the body movements within which these wearables could function properly. That being said, when presented live, the performers had absolute freedom in improvising with them as they wished, so again even if the collaboration process differs, each party has an equally important role in the development of the project.
Federica Fontana: Speaking of professional collaborations, one of the outcomes is The Culture series you realized with architect Dafni Papadopoulou as artist-in-residence in Milan in 2015. It was inspired by Iain M. Banks “The Culture” series, and it symbolizes the strong connection you have with cyberpunk literature. Which is the influence it has in your practice? What does inspire you the most: technology or literature?
Afroditi Psarra: Science fiction literature is my haven. I enjoy immensely immersing myself in unknown future worlds, without manuals and datasheets. I feel that literature that engages with technology doesn’t have to be based in real-life scientific “truths” – unless we’re speaking about hard sci-fi which is a completely different thing; Science fiction writers take the idea of a technology as a starting point and develop it in completely unforeseen ways. Taking into account this speculative aspect of science fiction, I am utterly inspired to create art that can speak for the era that we are living in, by creating poetic representations, and generating a critical discourse. Technology is just one of the mediums I use to do that and not the end goal.
Federica Fontana: Two significant aspects of e-textile practice are the use of traditional crafting techniques and the social commitment. In which way do they reciprocally interact in a work like Oiko-nomic Threads?
Afroditi Psarra: Oiko-nomic Threads was a work that came to life through a commission from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Athens and the Greek National Documentation Center, that gave me the opportunity to collaborate with two remarkably talented Greek artists, Marinos Koutsomichalis. Even though our collaboration was not aiming to produce a political work, we decided to utilize the financial data from the Manpower Employment Offices because living in Athens in the mist of the financial crisis, it felt like something very relevant to our everyday experiences. Furthermore, even though Greece is best known for ancient classical art, it has a rich tradition of handicrafts, that can be witnessed in centuries of folk art archives and until very recently, this tradition was a core part of the domestic production.
Hence, we decided to play with this idea of domestic production – the word oikos means home – with the economic reality of unemployment which we decided to materialize through the production of a knitted textile archive of the crisis. The work has many conceptual, as well as technical layers, as it required many months of research on traditional handicrafts motifs, as well as machine hacking and creative coding, to produce an algorithmic visualization of these financial data in a generative way. The production of this textile is done by hand-knitting with a hacked machine, which emphasises the physicality and effort that is put into the labor of creating this knitted archive.
Federica Fontana: Let’s talk about your very last work, Fractal Antennae. A fractal is a neverending pattern repeating itself over and over in a loop. It is both a mathematical element and a natural pattern. But to create this particular shape on a garment, you had to face some technical challenges…
Afroditi Psarra: Yes, Fractal Antennae is basically a research project that aims to experiment with different fabrication methods to create wearable fractal antennas, that can be used with different Electromagnetic Field detector circuits as transmitters and receivers to pick up radio waves. Even though the project is still in early stages I have so far experimented with different materials such as copper-based conductive yarns, resistive yarns containing silver, pure copper taffetà, silver-plated lycra and silver/cotton based fabrics. For designing the fractals algorithmically I have used Processing and so far have worked with the Sierpinski Triangle, the Minkowski and the Hilbert curve space-filling fractals in their first four iterations, and in order to fabricate them I have experimented with laser cutting (for the fabrics), hand and machine embroidery for the conductive threads and machine knitting for the resistive yarns.
The technical difficulties vary depending on the method. Laser cutting for example in small sizes, especially when working with the Sierpinski triangle is pretty challenging as the fan inside the laser can blow away easily the small triangle pieces, let alone transferring the shape on a non-conductive fabric can be incredibly difficult as you have to assemble and iron all the individual pieces. That being said, other fractal shapes like the Hilbert curve or the Koch snowflake can come out pretty robust and work perfectly.
In hand embroidery, the creation process is very laborious and you have to keep in mind that the back side of your fabric has to be consistent and look like the front, meaning that only specific types of stitches will work. In machine-embroidery you can easily avoid these issues by selecting directly the type of stitch you need, but then you have to face other issues like the constant breaking of the conductive thread, because of its thickness and the machine’s tension etc. All in all, working with e-textiles is challenging and requires a lot of improvisation as you go.
Federica Fontana: Your research ̶ like the one of a wide range of artists, from Stelarc to for example Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas ̶ deals with body enhancement to augment human perceptions beyond their natural limits. exploring ways to perceive the unperceivable. Is there any particular reason you choose to work with textiles instead of flesh and skin? What are the differences between your approach and the biohacking?
Afroditi Psarra: My PhD research was actually on cyberpunk literature and media performance, so I got deep in exploring cyborg aesthetics, but working with e-textiles was something that occurred naturally in my artistic practice. As a grad student, I got into learning creative coding and was spending too much time in front of a computer screen. As a previously trained visual artist I was really familiar with working with my whole body and mostly making stuff with my hands. So while learning how to code I got into embroidery and getting to know the field of e-textiles, it was a great opportunity for me to combine my two different approaches in art-making.
I find the idea of crafting, the laborious skill-acquiring process that this field provides, and the underlying link with tradition, all very appealing. I also see fabrics as interfaces between our bodies and the world, meaning that a fabric/garment acts like a second skin, without being intrusive to the body itself. That goes without saying that I find biohacking extremely interesting and I would like to experiment with it given the opportunity.
I am deeply grateful to form part of a very active community of artists, designers and researchers, that of the E-textiles SummerCamp, and a lot of my fellow e-textile practitioners, like Aniela Hoitink, Giulia Tomasello, Melissa Coleman, Svenja Keune, Anastasia Pistofidou and Ricardo Onascimiento have been experimenting with the idea of harvesting and creating biomaterials. I also find very inspiring the work of Hackteria Lab and Gynepunk that engage in biohacking by open-sourcing their research and methodology.
Federica Fontana: Capturing detection data and uploading them to a free database open for anyone to do research, Divergence and Cosmic Bitcasting work also like data collectors: have you thought about the potential of all these data for the industry, or about their possible use, in wellness for example, in the future?
Afroditi Psarra: Yes, I have and l think there is a lot of potential in the specific field, although I should say here that I am not a fan of the quantified-self movement. My position as an artist is to create/design interfaces and mechanisms that provide a critical/poetic interpretation of the world that surrounds us. I would like to see these data on open servers to be used for citizen science, artistic purposes, or furthering research on scientific phenomena, and not as monetizable goods for private wealth.
That being said, wellness companies have their own “agendas” and if they want to generate data like these, they will spend enormous amounts of money and resources in R&D to create their own products and services. I embrace the open-source, DIY and low-cost approach that can be manufactured by anyone, and thus, contribute in the democratization of technology.
Federica Fontana: Which is the technology you really want to experiment with in the near future?
Afroditi Psarra: I am interested in sensing the invisible and creating physical manifestations of it, so I would like to continue exploring radio-waves. I am actively in search of grant opportunities to continue the Cosmic Bitcasting project with Cécile Lapoire, in order to work with scintillating-fiber technology. I would also like to continue experimenting with fractal geometry and antenna creation and I hope to collaborate with an antenna engineer to maximize my understanding of its capabilities – I have recently been reading about microwave detection using fractal antennas and the possibility of creating an “invisibility cloak”.
Another thing I’m interested in is crystal creation to grow and harvest my own electronics. And last but not least I want to learn how to weave and build my own loom.