0aahjuhamed.jpgMeet one of the Godfathers of the Finnish media art mafia...

Juha Huuskonen is an artist, curator, VJ, software designer and he is also the organizer of the Pixelache electronic art festival.

Through a series of performances, exhibitions and club events, Pixelache brings together young creators from diverse disciplines who playfully and critically experiment with media and technology. The festival also features practical workshops and seminars addressing current issues in the development of digital media.

Pixelache is held each year in Helsinki has also traveled to other destinations including Medellin (Pixelazo), New York, Montreal, Paris (Mal Au Pixel) and Stockholm (PixelVÄRK).

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Pixelache 2008 Helsinki will feature the first edition of Baltic Boxwars: Northern League

Juha is currently busy preparing the 7th edition of the festival Pixelache University, Exploring the Crossroads of Art, Science, Technology and Urban Culture, held in Helsinki on March 13 to 16.

Pixelache University will focus on education and ask questions such as Does the educational system have room for hackers, circuit benders, environmental activists and VJ artists? What would be a suitable curriculum for nurturing independent grassroot initiatives?

Furthermore, Pixelache has opened its very own educational programme with a curriculum which consists of monthly Pixelache events (presentations, workshops, concerts and parties).

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Pixelazo Bailable at Parque de las Luces. Photo Juha Huuskonen

I met Juha for the first time at Belsay Hall, in the North of England. He had commissioned 3 media artists to get some inspiration from the 17th century manor house and inhabit it with their art installations (review here and here again). Then we saw each other again in Colombia where Juha had invited me (hey! lucky me!) to participate to Pixelazo. I had him sit down in a bar for an interview. That was back in June.

Transcript of our Medellin conversation.

How could I define Juha Huuskonen?

When people ask what I do I tend to answer that I am a software engineer (because that is my official education) who is lucky enough to make a living as an artist but in fact I put most of my efforts into organising events and developing organisations.

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PLAN*B FOR ARKADIANMÄKI by Juha Huuskonen, Tuomo Tammenpää, Aura Seikkula & co (2005). Photo: Juha Huuskonen

How was Pixelache born?

The first Pixelache festival in 2002 was put together in an improvised manner, with a tiny budget of a couple of hudred euros. The purpose was to bring local active people together to discuss and present experimental work that fell between the categories - not art, not design, not research, but kind of all of these at the same time. This type of work is of course shown in all kinds of international festivals (today even more than a few years ago) but the other special thing about Pixelache has been that we've focused on showing work by young, emerging creators and taking risks by showing work that is still in the concept or prototyping stage. This is something that we are still trying to stick to, even though the festival has grown quite a bit and involves more established artists as well. Education - all kinds of seminars, workshops and presentations - has also been a very important part of Pixelache from the beginning.

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IMAchannel performance by katastro.fi, 1998 . Photo: Pirje Mykkänen

The longer history of Pixelache can be traced back to katastro.fi, a loosely organised media art collective that started in 1998. During its heydays, katastro.fi had around 50 members and worked on rather large scale projects, such as eko.katastro.fi and 2000.katastro.fi. The founders of katastro.fi were involved in demoscene, a subculture that evolved around software piracy and creative experimentation with early home computers (Commodore, Atari, etc). Katastro.fi brought together some of the most successful Finnish demo groups (Komplex, Orange, CNCD, Sonic, Virtual Dreams, etc) which had been active already since late 80s/early 90s. In the demo scene, people would get together in parties (events that nowadays can attract up to thousands of young people) and show the stuff they were working on. The way demoscene functioned as an informally organised, highly social network focused on developing new work and ideas has influenced my own practise a lot.

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'Assembly' demoscene event in Helsinki, Finland . Photo:Pekka Aakko

Where does the name Pixelache come from?

I found the word Pixelache sometime in 2001, in an article that was predicting new words that would be used in the future. The word was supposed to describe an "overdose of digital media." I knew myself how that feels, for me the feeling of overdose comes from seeing too much of the same, how all media and technologies become standardized, closed, stiff and boring systems over time. I googled for the word "pixelache" and got zero results, so it was a word waiting to be grabbed. So, we first had a nice sounding name, the concept of the event evolved afterwards. Pixelache festival actually tries to act as an antidote for 'pixelache', presenting projects that challenge the standardizations.

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Light Surgeons at Pixelache 2003, Helsinki. Photo: Antti Ahonen

How did Pixelache end up spreading to other countries?

Our international events started in 2003, when we organised Pixelache festival in New York and Montreal. Both festivals were organised on a shoestring budget, with a lot of effort and enthusiasm from both organisers and artists. We carried most of the necessary gear and artworks as luggage, organised free/very cheap accommodation and traveled on a Greyhound bus between New York and Montreal.

The events in New York and Montreal brought together a quite unusual combination of local organisations that all had a lot of influence in planning the festival program. In addition to international guests, both events featured a lot of local artists, many of whom were later invited to Helsinki. We have maintained this way of working ever since. The model is sort of opposite to ISEA: instead of a separate international jury, the local organisations are in charge of the program, they never have to present projects that they don't consider relevant for the local context. The program decisions are aided by an on-going discussion between various partners within the Pixelache network.

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Pixelache NYC on top of Gershwin Hotel, 2003. Photo: Antti Ahonen

I think the reason why organisations want to work with Pixelache, or start their own Pixelache edition, is that Pixelache takes seriously the work done by emerging authors but does it without trying to be pompous. Another thing that makes Pixelache interesting is that we work at lot with international networks and subcultures, such as VJ scene, hacker and activist communities, etc. The current active nodes in the Pixelache network are Pixelache Helsinki, Mal au Pixel Paris, Pixelvärk Stockholm and Pixelazo Medellin. Pikslaverk is about to start in Reykjavik and we've been actively collaborating with piksel.no in Bergen, RIXC in Riga (Locative Media Workshop), Plektrum in Tallinn, Mediawala festival and Doors of Perception in New Delhi, Interferenze in San Martino Valle Caudina and several other events.

What's the story of the creation of Pixelazo?

Pixelazo started with a random encounter - Vanessa Gocksch from Colombia contacted us in response to our open call for proposals, and eventually came over to Helsinki in spring 2005. Vanessa is running an organisation called Intermundos which works with marginalized communities in Colombia (for example kids from the ghettoes and indigenous Colombian tribes) and facilitates them to get involved in using media and technologies, focusing on free / cheap / DIY tools that are available to them. Vanessa and Intermundos have been a fantastic partner to work with, they are one of the rare organisations in Colombia who have the credibility to work with both grassroot organisations as well as established cultural institutions. It took two years to get to the first Pixelazo event, meanwhile we did some test runs by organising workshops with events like Salon Internacional del Autor Audiovisual in Barranquilla and Bogotrax in Bogota.

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VJ workshop for Kogi & Arhuaco tribes, 2005. Photo: Juha Huuskonen

Pixelazo has been a great source for inspiration and ideas for future Pixelache events, Colombians are not so overwhelmed with gadgets and technology as we in the Western world are, but they can take the time to develop their own DIY solutions. Colombia is also immensely rich in culture, even though much of it is hiding in the slums or deep in the jungle, not easily reachable by random tourists. In this sense the bad reputation given to Colombia in the international media has actually been a blessing, the fact that there has not been much tourism has preserved a lot of the culture that would have otherwise been commercialized and/or destroyed already a long time ago. But this seems to be rapidly changing, more and more tourists are coming to Colombia and Uribe has made the country a lot safer, but unfortunately in a building-high-walls-around-gated-communities kind of way, copied from the United States.

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Pixelazo music & VJ workshops in barrio Santa Cruz la Rosa, Summer 2007. Photo: Juha Huuskonen

The future goal of Pixelazo & Pixelache is to bring more ideas and cultural influence from the South to North. For example at the first Pixelazo event we had some guest from the Nasa tribe, the way they see their life is that they are constanly weaving a web of people and knowledge, spreading it around the mountain range where they live in. This is documented in their traditional handcraft, weaved bags that contain information that looks like digital data. When they started using radio, they used radio cicleta, radio bicycles to act as mobile transmission units. This way radio technology can be made transparent, the transmission station is always moving inside within the network of the tribe, it does not become a hidden black box, a top-down authoritative tool like we have adopted it. They have now started using web and internet tools as well, all based on open source, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

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Pixelazo music & VJ workshops in barrio Santa Cruz la Rosa, Summer 2007. Photo: Juha Huuskonen

What happens if I want to set up a Pixelache in another country? Is there a strict receipt to follow?

I guess step number one would be to get in touch with us, with Pixelache Helsinki or some of the other nodes in the network. Rest of the process has so far been informal, we've built collaborations slowly and by starting with smaller events. Right now there is a kind of pressure to make the process more formal and easier, so that more Pixelache events could be established since quite many people have contacted us about this during the past couple of years. We've been working on a Pixelache manifesto, a sort of 'constitution' for Pixelache events (not in EU style though :), something we can agree on and use a reference to develop the events in future. It's still under work, but it will probably contain at least following statements:

Multidisciplinarity: it's an event that brings together hackers, artists, architects, activists, but also people from the commercial new media / tech world.
We focus on working with emergening artists, rather than established ones.
We show prototypes, concepts, things in developments, projects which are not perfectly ready.

We try to bring together, support and try to understand how different sub-cultures can function, it's not just art, it's also hackers, community networks, VJs, etc.

There are also some themes that seem to appear in different ways in various Pixelache events: public space/locative media/borderline between physical and virtual space, do-it-yourself/hacking/missusing technologies, organisational strategies/collaboration/democracy, etc. VJ community and audiovisual performances have had a prominent role in all Pixelache events.

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Association for Experimental Electronics, Mal au Pixel 2006, Paris. Photo: Antti Ahonen

Over the years we have developed working methods that makes it easier to organise this type of events, there are some of the tricks that new Pixelache festival nodes can adopt if they want. This has mostly been about treating the organiser team and the artists as one big team that can help the event to happen, by using e-mail lists, wikis, etc. For example one little innovation, asking the artists to put info about their travels online in a wiki themselves, took away a massive travel agency type of work from the organisers (there are often around 100 international artist/contributors arriving to Pixelache). The other great effort used to be the publication, but we have managed to cut down the work effort by using a simple design template and a wiki to put it together, we also make it in A4 size so that we can print it at a photocopy place on the last minute and later on anyone can download and print it at home as well. All these methods help us to remain an independent, grassroot initiative even though the festival has been growing in scale quite a bit.

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Orgsmobile at Mal au Pixel 2006, Paris. Photo: Johan Sandsjö

When you talk about Pixelazo you usually say *we made" " we were invited", etc. Who is behind that "we"?

'We' is most often the bunch of people involved in organising Pixelache Helsinki, there is a core crew of 5-10 people who have been involved for a longer time, and a larger group of people who get involved occasionally. The larger 'we' includes the international Pixelache network and our local collaborators.

But the question 'who is we?' is actually very important for us, after all these years we are still trying to figure out what it means to be an independent, grassroot organisation. This is something we've been exploring also in previous Pixelache festivals, with the 'Dot Org Boom' theme in 2005 & 2006 and 'Architectures for Participation' seminar in 2007. With the emergence of all the 'Web 2.0' tools and networks, the role of the diy / independent / experimental / alternative media and tech organisations in changing. The revolution of 'citizen media' eventually has happened, via myspace, youtube and facebook... But in quite a different way than 'we' were expecting.

When I interviewed you, we were both in Medellin, a few days after you left the city and flew to Leticia which to me (I've never been) looks a lot like the jungle. Can you gives an overview of the Leticia chapter? How did it go? If you look back at what happened there, do you think it might have any influence on the next Pixelazo?

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Pixelazo / Selvatorium 2007, Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia. Photo: Juha Huuskonen

The purpose of the visit to Leticia (a town in Amazonia, in the border area of Colombia, Brazil and Peru) was to prepare 'Selvatorium', an artist residency and other activities out in the nature, with indigenous tribes involved. Vanessa has been working with the indians for a longer time and has documented some of their practises at Intermundos website... So we don't need to start from zero, but it's still a great challenge to figure out the 'right' way to try to bridge the gap between North and South. I don't think there is an easy solution available, with such a huge gap between the cultures. As I said before, I think we have a lot to learn from South, but we should also try to make a positive contribution to the local life, without imposing our own values and systems on them. Also it's kind of ridiculous to work on projects dealing with nature, and to burn a great amount of kerosene when people fly over the Atlantic to get there. Hopefully someone will donate us a big sailing boat soon....

Thanks Juha!

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Pixelazo / Selvatorium 2007, Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia. Photo Juha Huuskonen

Next Pixelache appointments:
Pixelache Helsinki 2008: Pixelache University, 13-16 March 2008

Mal au Pixel 2008, Paris, 17-25 May 2008

Sponsored by:





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Artist and activist Cat Mazza is the founder of microRevolt. This collective of "craftivists" develops projects which combine knitting with machines, and digital social networks to investigate and initiate discussion about sweatshop labour.

A 2007 Media Arts Fellow in New Media (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation), Cat has exhibited her work and given workshops and lectures around the world. In 2005, she received a "Digital Communities" award at Ars Electronica for her project knitPro, an online tool that translates digital images into knit, crochet, needlepoint and cross-stitch patterns.

Her 2006 Turbulence Commission: Knitoscope Testimonies is the first web based video using "Knitoscope" software, an experimental program that translates digital video into a knitted animation. She is Assistant Professor of New Media as at UMass, Boston.
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How and when did you start to be interested in anti-sweatshop issue?

In 2002 I moved to Maine after working for 3 years at Eyebeam (a New York based art and technology center), and was doing research in new media, women's studies and globalization. That work led me to volunteer with a Bangor based organization called Peace through Inter-American Community Action (PICA). I met people active in the anti-sweatshop movement there, and that's where it began for me.

Sweatshops scandals have received some press coverage over the past few years. And i suspect that you follow the issue more closely than most. Did you see the situation evolve for the better since you started to get interested in the issue?

I don't know that labor exploitation in manufacturing global goods has changed in the last 6 years, but I do agree that there has been increased visibility of the crisis. This ultimately makes a difference. One thing I've witnessed grow in the United States (with some international allies) is a series of local groups networked into a coalition called Sweat Free Communities (SFC) who campaign for better trade and purchasing policies. There also have been some great films like Maquilapolis and China Blue that have helped raise awareness. And we should not underestimate the resurgence of craft and the subsequent alternative on-line micro-economies that have developed. So even if the working conditions have not improved, many consumer, activist, entrepreneurial and legislative change agents are finding ways to confront the problem.

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Image from the movie China Blue: To avoid getting fined for falling asleep, Jasmine (17) and Liping (14) use clothespins that keep their eyes open.

What is the value of micro-revolting? Of the small acts of resistance that your work encourages? How significant can they be?

The concept of "micro revolt" is loosely inspired by the idea of molecular revolutions*. What if social change was not simply a consequence of governing or economic policies; and small, disconnected resistant acts overlapped to nudge along change?

MicroRevolt in many ways began as an experiment more than a conviction. These web-based projects did achieve networking craft hobbyists in a form of labor activism, but the efficacy or value is hard to measure.If it's "revolutionary" to favor drastic economic or social reform, knitting could be an interesting place to begin. I was just reading this book where Noam Chomsky was asked about the significance of policy reform "tinkering" and he said this can be preliminary to large-scale structural change.

Why not? What is the political potential of craft and can it be an avenue for pleasure as well as organizing for social good? You could ask the same question of art.

* This winter I hope to have a podcast of a chapter of a book by this title.

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The Nike Blanket Petition project started in 2003. How did it evolve, grow and what impact did it have?

The Nike Blanket Petition started with learning how to crochet. I was interested in the tradition of pre-industrial crafts, tacit knowledge, learning to make stuff with my grandmother. I then met up with a local craft group and they agreed to help. Gradually more and more people participated. It was on the microRevolt website that attracts a lot of traffic because of knitPro, a useful pattern freeware, so people learned about the project there. It went to craft and electronic arts festivals nationally and sometimes internationally. The project has been going on for years, but it has been this slow trickle of signatures, like a 1950's mail art project or something. People often send a single square and occasionally I'll get multiples from a Women's Center or a knitting circle from Portugal, and encouraging notes like "Good luck with the revolt!".

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Hand-made petitions for Nike Blanket, 10.16.2004

People have participated from over 30 countries and every state and I'm still behind updating the data. It's hard to measure the impact. My hope is that individuals who participated in the project have started a discussion in their circles and considered their own methods for activism.

Stitch for Senate invites knit hobbyists to craft helmet liners for every US Senator in an effort to encourage them to support the troops sent in Iraq by bringing them home. I first read about that project in March 2007. What is the outcome of SfS so far? Did you get any reaction from the Senators?

This is a very important year in the United States because of the presidential election, and 1/3 of the House of Senate seats will be campaigning as well. To get elected they will have to be bold about their position on our troops in Iraq, and the Stitch for Senate project is an attempt to engage people in discussion with their public officials about the war. There are some tenacious knitters out there willing to knit a helmet and make testimony. All of the participants support the troops; most of them are pro-peace (including some military moms). I've lived in New York State for 8 years and on the morning of 9/11 I was trying to walk over the Queensboro Bridge while the towers were in smoke... but I never supported this administration's approach to this war, or my Senators (Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer) authorization of military force in Iraq. US Senators are required to respond to every letter they receive, and they'll likely be glad to articulate their position. We are not mailing the helmets to the offices until we have 100 so we can send them all at once, with 100 people from all 50 states. I am hoping we can do this before the November election.

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You participated to the Hackers and Haute Couture Heretics workshops in Istanbul last summer. Could you give us some details about what you've been developing over there?

Firstly, Istanbul is breathtaking. For me this was a really thrilling trip because the exhibit's organizer Otto von Busch is so amazing. His writing is really interesting, and he is extremely skilled at designing. Most wonderful is his community based fashion projects like Dale Sko Hack and Merimetsan Alchemy - a fashion project in a mental health facility. I think you interviewed him about this. But also, he is a fashion theorist. What is that? You have to hear it in his words. I recommend his book Abstract Hacktivism. He had a very particular idea for this exhibit and I hope he writes about the outcome. The people he invited perhaps under the "craftivist" flag; all have very different practices and maybe even agendas. So that was interesting. It is unfortunate but I think that in some ways the intended project failed. We were supposed to collaborate with a Turkish high fashion brand called Vakko. Some of us were already skeptical and they ended up canceling after we each did an intensive design challenge. Instead, there were many fruitful workshops (Junky Styling, Counterfeit Crochet, Hacking Couture). What is special is just to have a public space where people can come in and learn and make, sew, knit, machine knit, etc.) Amazingly, this all took place in a gallery right next to a Nike Town store. The highlight for me was after four years, with a lot of help from Otto and the attendees; hundreds of the post-mailed squares were stitched into the border of Nike blanket. So it's nearly finished. I also met beautiful Iranian sisters who took me on a ferry around the Bhosphorus.

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Testimonies: Alex Tom, Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco and Yannick Etienne, Batay Ouvriye, Haiti

What are you working on currently? Is there any upcoming public event in the microRevolt agenda?

From now until August my main focus is a new artwork - Knitoscope Sampler. I may have to put microRevolt reBlog to sleep for a little while and shift my web presence from labor to war because of the election and Stitch for Senate. Also on January 26, 3-5:00pm, "Crafting Protest" - Panel Discussion and Craft Reception at The New School, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor, New York City, NY. Moderator: Julia Bryan-Wilson, art historian and critic. Panel includes artists: Liz Collins, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Cat Mazza, Allison Smith. February 20-23 in Dallas, Texas I'll be participating in two events Social Fabrics and Gestures of Resistance as part of the CAA conference. Stitch for Senate helmets and video exhibits at the Museum of World Culture in Göteborg, Sweden opening January 17.

0amask99knitpro.jpgNow something more personal. I've always been fascinated by knitPro, , a program that translates digital images into knit, needlepoint, x-stitch and crochet patterns. However, i can't knit and even if i could, the only moments when i picture myself knitting would be while i'm bored in the plane or at the airport. But they would probably confiscate my needles there.

Is there any service that would allow me to send a pattern to someone and get the shirt back nice and ready to be worn?

Not that I know of, but this could be a highly successful business. What about going to your local yarn store and asking? People that go and work at yarn stores are usually totally pro and up for commissions.

Or is there any place where one could buy one of those leg warmers featured on your blog or the little face mask. I have one and people keep asking me where they can buy one.0abarbielegwa.jpg

So far I haven't been into selling the knitwear that I make. The logoknit series was made to bring attention to the branding of corporate monopolies that were sweatshop offenders and also to show what is possible with knitPro. I made two Mickey Face Masks that I donated to Turbulence.org. I was really glad you got it because the other one didn't sell and I felt bad because it was a fundraiser. The Barbie Legwarmers I sold to Natalie Jeremijenko's daughter for her art collection. But that's it. I'd rather organize uploaded knitPro patterns into a searchable database than make and sell knitwear. Plus this is an election year; must focus.

Is it totally silly of me to assume that most craftivists are women? Or is it more gender-balanced than i'd assume? Do you come to expect that most of the people who will engage with your project will be women? How much do you think that it matters as far as your own work is concerned?

Craftivism is a new term I think coined by Betsy Greer, of craftivism.com. I am not sure I understand what and if craftivism is yet, but it's not gender specific. See: (menwhoknit.com). As far as my work is concerned, I have worked with mostly women but many men too. I just got the first balaclava from a male knitter from Federal Way, Washington who stitched for Senator Maria Cantwell and it's wonderful because it's his first knitting project with round needles. Also, I met my boyfriend because he needlepointed a series of pillows of Communist Heroes from South America.

So if one can't (or just won't) knit which kind of small acts of resistance do you recommend to people who want to protest against workshop labour?

1) Investigate your local Campaigns and see how you can help
USA: SweatFree.
Intl: Clean Clothes.

2) Vote with your dollar (Support sweat free labels, fair trade, worker owned co-ops, etc.)

3) Be sure to know about where your public officials stand on trade, petition and vote

Thanks Cat!

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Logoknitting, a tactic that uses knitPro to knit logos of well known sweatshop offenders as a way to raise a discussion on how advertising, labor, production and consumption relate

0aaalaesadnroio.jpgAlessandro Ludovico is a media critic and editor in chief of the highly respected Neural magazine from 1993, (Honorary Mention, Prix Ars Electronica 2004). He is the author of several essays on digital culture, he co-edited 'Mag.Net Reader' (1 and 2). He's one of the founding contributors of the Nettime community, one of the founders of the Mag.Net (Electronic Cultural Publishers)' organization and he teaches 'Computer Art' and 'Interface Aesthetics' at the Academy of Art in Carrara.

I think that's more than enough for a sole man.

Not for him apparently. Not only does he wear great t-shirts*, he also collaborates with UBERMORGEN and Paolo Cirio on artistic projects which have toured the world: GWEI - Google Will Eat Itself (Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica 2005, Rhizome Commission 2005, nomination Prix Transmediale 2006) and Amazon Noir (1st prize Stuttgarter Filmwinter 2007, Honorary Mention Share Prize 2007).

When I met him several years ago, i also realized that i had no chance of ever winning the contest for the "Nicest person in the new media art world." Sigh!

How did Neural start?

After being a passionate mail artist and zine fan in late eighties, in 1991 I started working as a graphic designer for Minus Habens Records (an underground electronic music label based in Bari, Italy). After a few months I was in charge to curate a special product: an early slim printed guide to virtual reality (the Virtual Reality Handbook), made out of theoretical text and resources, coming with an inspired music CD. It was sold out in less than a year, so I proposed to Ivan Iusco (the label owner) to found a magazine focusing on new technologies' cultural implications.

0aaagripppa.jpgWe worked hard on it so the first Neural issue was printed in November 1993. Topics ranged from cyberpunk to electronic music, computer art and BBS networks (the popular Internet ancestors), and even if it was almost naive compared to the current magazine it reflected the thrill of investigating a new world of personal communication and content sharing possibilities. In 1995 I continued to experiment with publishing with another hybrid printed/music product. It was called Internet Underground Guide, a guide to the most obscure parts of the rising global network, with a music compilation assembled only via the electronic mail medium (perhaps the first music compilation made on the net). In the same year I was invited to the Venice Bienniale symposium called >net.time<, where, in the end, the homonymous mailing list [http://www.nettime.org] was founded. During the three days of symposium there was such an intensive exchange of ideas and perspectives that a real international network of active persons involved with art, technology and politics was established. The various related international events (Next Five Minutes, 1996, The Beauty and the East, 1997, Net.Congestion 2000, the Italian Hackmeetings 1998-today, just to name a few) that followed were really precious to expand my personal network of friends, artists, hacktivists and theoreticians, reporting some of the most interesting concepts on the printed pages of Neural.

The magazine was developed on challenging ideas, trying to give them a proper visual frame. I cared a lot about design and how it could have expressed electronic culture in a sort of printed 'interface'. So, for example, the page numbering was strictly in binary numbers, just zero and ones, even if the printer started to complain loudly about that because this was driving him crazy. And from the beginning another 'sensorial experience' was placed on the centerfold, reprinting optical artworks and theories in various forms, giving readers an aesthetic mind trip while reading. In issue 18 this habit was definitively interrupted, publishing a disrupting hacktivist fake. It consisted of fake stickers, created by the Italian hacker laboratories' network, sarcastically simulating the mandatory real ones sticked on any book or compact disc sold in Italy, on behalf of the local 'copyright protection society' (called SIAE). On the one published it was printed 'suggested duplication on any media'. In 1998 we restyled the layout and restructured the contents, defining three sections. They still are: hacktivism, activism made through a conceptual/technically media hack, electronic music, investigating how technology is involved in music production and consumption, and media art, with a peculiar attention to the networked and conceptual use of technology in art. In 2000 I used a substantial part of music Neural content for the book Suoni Futuri Digitali (Future Digital Sounds), an in-depth research, chronicling the history of the innovations that have drastically changed how we produce and experience sounds. In 2003 (while maintaining the Italian edition) I started the Neural English edition, printed in 4000 copies. Actually it is distributed worldwide with subscribers from literally all over the world, and most of them are curators, artists, critics, students, professors and libraries. Neural.it website went online in may 1997, a decade ago, and it was updated every two weeks. Starting from November 2000, it is daily updated and from 2004 it's in English (and of course still in Italian too).

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Image courtesy of Alessandro Ludovico

Have you seen the readership of Neural evolve over time?

Definitively. In the last 15 years readers mostly followed the fast and furious changes of printed publishing literally disrupted by the online medium advent and the pervasive digital influence in printing production. When we started we had 'letters to the editor' (a sort of ancient blog's comments) and the most compelling sources were found in bookstores and obscure mail orders.

Neural started an 'Internet news' column in 1994, but in a few years things changed quickly. People started to find information online in real time, with amazing search possibilities. This completely redefined the role of magazines, from generic content container, to highly selected, conceptually strong and longer than average content frame. Moreover, it's essential to notice how the readership evolves, and their changing needs.

It's not a question of being shaped by a (niche) market, but to mediate the editorial interests with what's really interesting for the readers, keeping an eye to: language evolution, new technical 'default' (what's not meant to be explained) and new area of interests. It's sad in the last decade that many interesting independent magazines were not able to catch up this fast evolution and had to close. My cultural strategy to survive is to seriously value the readers' feedback. And I'm not really talking about compliments. I receive some, but they are mostly important for the morale. Critics are vital, instead, to understand what is the next thing to modify, change, implement or delete. It's not a democratic process because in the end I take the final decision, but it's a collective help I receive without soliciting. So the magazine's editorial line is changed (even slightly) every printed issue, and the same happens to the website.

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Cover of the latest issue of Neural

Neural is still everyone's favorite even if today several blogs/online magazines, etc. are trying to get a place on your turf. How do you maintain the "cult" status that neural has?

Frankly, I never bored of being 'cult' that means that if Neural is 'cult' that's only by accident. Some people even told me that they think of Neural as a work of art. I don't know whether it really is or not, but actually the website even won an Honorary Mention in Prix Ars Electronica 2004, in the Net.Vision category, and even if I'm a bit critical about prizes, I was honored (anyway in the end I think that my real prize are the tens of thousands of incoming links).

0aaaaneurall9.jpgTruth is: I simply use instinct, experience and outer feedback in running the magazine. Sometimes I think of Neural as an info-gallery, the best info-gallery I'd want to read. If you want, it'd be defined as my personal narrative of the digital culture evolution, formed by important chunks of information condensed in a limited space. Concerning the 'turf', I always thought that the more cultural efforts (including blogs and magazines) are made to discuss (and then implicitly promote) digital culture the more we'll get out of the actual ghetto. Nevertheless as John Perry Barlow once said "You can't steal what's inside my mind." And this is true for every intellectual product (so also for blogs/magazines). People are interested not just in one, but in different good products and not really in clones (unless you enter the mass commercial market). Furthermore experience still counts a lot: no matter what's the work I always admire persons really experienced in one specific field. In the end I definitively think that Neural is a huge effort made over time with tons of passion and some discipline. One of the main characteristics of digital culture is spreading fast powerful ideas. A good technical hack, as an innovative use of sound, or an original concept shown in a proper digital artwork, are meaningful signals. These signals are ideas, which have to be shared among the worldwide interested community, for a participative development. The aim of Neural is to vehiculate meaningful ideas within local and international networks. This is my primary purpose.

I know how hard and time-consuming it can be to write an online magazine, how do you manage to maintain an online presence and publish the paper magazine regularly? please, tell us you live alone in a grotta and workers in developing countries are writing most of the content for you.

Apart from kidding, I know it's almost insane. Especially because I'm still obsessed in caring about each step of production, to achieve the best content quality I can afford. But again passion and the inestimable support I receive are continuously motivating me to go on and improve. It's a question of never stop to optimize processes and time management, also improving the gained experience. I'm still chaotic, as you might guess, but I'm definitively committed to continue and to make the project the better and the more sustainable I can. Now Aurelio Cianciotta is the music co-editor and we weekly deal with stuff from almost a decade. Paolo Cirio is the online platform guru, so also the person who made possible the Movable Type-based website (after years of cut and paste routines in html), while Roberto Orsini helps me so much with translations. Among the contributors, Valentina Culatti is the most generous in donating her time to Neural, but also skilled writings come regularly from Vito Campanelli, and Tony Canonico. They are all Italians, but this is only a coincidence and I'm also looking for skilled voluntary contributors from abroad. Going back on how to produce paper and online content, I'm developing a workshop, with Simon Worthington (co-founder of Mute magazine), to share our long experience with other independent publishers. I was a zine fan in the late eighties, so I still think that independent publishing should exploit every digital technology to enrich the freedom of expression many possibilities.

In the beautiful text "Paper and Pixel, the mutation of publishing" that you have written for The Mag.net reader, you talk about the changing role of the printed page. Can you explain us the reason why you keep on printing the magazine instead of relying only on a pixel version of it?

0ammaagnetreader.jpgI think that paper is not supposed to die anytime soon. For that text I researched how the 'death of paper' was announced more than once in the past, after some major 'new' media announcement (radio, pc, the net ...). But it simply never happened. Actually, paper is the most stable medium in a crowded mediascape of 'unstable media'. Once produced it doesn't need electricity to be enjoyed and it is mobile as our life is more and more going to be. But, as I said above, we have to face that paper today means luxury. It means having time to enjoy reading in a comfortable way. Interesting paper content is not inducing banal 'flipping pages' habits. It's enticing in spending time on it, without burning your eyes in front of a screen light more or less instinctively clicking somewhere, and having the chance to simply interrupt the reading whenever you want and pick it up again in an arbitrary moment. And especially for specific niche and artistic data, the stability and feel of paper is still unbeatable (it's what I've tried to define as 'the persistence of paper' in an essay published on the Magnet Reader 2). These processes are even more interesting when the content is related to digital culture, because the medium becomes also the place where it itself is discussed. With some of these premises I was invited to join eleven independent editors at the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía in Seville (Spain) in 2002, for a series of seminars and lessons entitled Post-Media Publishing, print-publishing and networks for electronic culture, coordinated by Andreas Broeckmann. It was a unique opportunity to join efforts with other editors and create an informal network of collaboration. So we founded Mag.Net (Magazine Network), Electronic Cultural Publishers. Our motto is "collaboration is better than competition" and we collaborate commissioning contents each other, sharing the knowledge on specific topics (like the online paying platforms, or the print-on-demand technologies), and working jointly on some projects, not necessarily all at the same time. The most tangible effort has been the Mag.Net reader, a book about the digital/printed content relationships, freely downloadable from the Mag.Net website or purchasable as a physical paper book through a print on demand platform. Actually the most active Mag.net members are Mute [UK], Springerin [AT], Zehar [SP], 3/4 Revue [SK] and Neural. Among the latest Mag. Net initiatives were a conference that took place in January 2007 at the Amsterdam's De Balie theatre called 'Offline ? Online Publishing: The Love for Print in an Age of Electronic Media', the Mag.Net Reader 2 that I edited with Nat Muller, and that was launched during the last DEAF (Dutch Electronic Art Festival) in Rotterdam, in April, and the Paper and Pixel week of panels and presentations I curated with Nat again for the Documenta 12 Magazine project in Kassel. Neural was part of this project (involving more than 90 independent art magazines form all over the world], and I was advising them for the online part. Finally in the last September I was invited by ANAT to give some workshops about the history of independent publishing, differences and similarities between online and offline media and how the open source culture can be applied to publishing. I'm editing with Nat the 3rd Mag.net Reader that will be published in 2008.

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Amazon Noir

How do you explain that most "traditional" art magazines are still snubbing new media art?

In (new) media art the fetish physical component, i.e. the marketable object, is often missed. The infinite reproduction of the work of art is a process yet to be digested even by the contemporary art world. So traditional art magazines that are basically funded by the art market, are relegating it as a marginal and (sort of) exotic phenomenon for its economical scale. And we'd also consider the technical side. Dealing with hardware and software, media art aesthetics and narrative could be mind-boggling for curators and institution directors (often in their sixties or even older). Finally we should consider that video art was recognized by the art world only after twenty years from its early stage, because it suffered from similar problems.

And beyond all that, there's a fruitless terminology prolificness that is silently killing the scene: in the beginning it was called 'cyber art', then new media art, digital art, web art, etc. etc.) Needless to say the 'new' term in 'new media art' is already 'old'. But the terminology game based on catching the most recent buzzword and applying it to 'art' is even worst. So we had 'browser art', and then 'device art', 'interface art' or even 'rfid art'. But does it really makes sense?

I think it doesn't, and it endlessly breaks up an ethereal and problematic identity. William Gibson said once in late eighties "there was science slash humanism. Let's start to talk about the slash". I choose not to be obsessed by the most traditional art market, placing Neural on the opposite of new media art "snubbers". So I'm still focusing a substantial part of my personal research on the edges of the so-called 'new media art', on topics like spam, viruses, peer-to-peer networks (the last two developed thanks to the support of Franziska Nori) and how the 'perfect' marketing strategies of online giants can be 'hacked'. My humble opinion is that they are all possible testbed of future standard communication protocols, and so media potentially used for propaganda and mass marketing.

How would you describe the situation in Italy for computer and technology based art? Can you recommend some Italian artists who should get more attention outside of the country?

Unfortunately, Italy is not the ideal country to develop digital art projects. We have too much ancient and classical art heritage to hope for serious institutional support in contemporary art (and even less to digital based art). Nevertheless, there are persons with which I share some of my working paths. For example the 'Scuola di Nuove Tecnologie dell'Arte' (School of New Technologies in Art, part of the Carrara's Academy of Art) directed by Tommaso Tozzi is one of the national points of reference. I totally share his passion on the subject (for example he's developing an important collective and shared WikiArtPedia project on the Networked Arts history), and I was very happy to join the school actually teaching 'Computer Art' and 'Aesthetic of Interfaces' courses. But there are many different small initiatives around, and recently it seems even trendy to claim a Saturday night vjing in a small club as an 'electronic art and music festival'. My favorite festivals are Interferenze and PEAM in the center-south and Share in the north. In this field my personal experience goes back to 1996 when I was actively supporting the group that made one of the first 'new media art' exhibitions with Italian artists called Virtual Light (Aurelio Cianciotta was then one of the curators). It definitively was a success, but the curators had already spent two years to convince the municipality to fund the effort. My first reference in early nineties was Decoder, an underground magazine that introduced the concept of cyberpunk as a political movement, including art expressions at large. Actually the mailing list AHA - Activism, Hacktivism, Artivism, moderated by Tatiana Bazzichelli is the most popular electronic forum on electronic art in Italy. Generally speaking, anyway, there are Italian digital art productions more aesthetically oriented (Limiteazero, 80/81, Luigi Pagliarini, Chiara Passa, just to name a few well known, but there'd be way too many to cite), and the one with a specific political background. Among the latter, the Luther Blisset initiative (that I consider one of the most important cultural event in the nineties) influenced subsequent groups and initiatives as the 0100101110101101.ORG, epidemiC, Serpica Naro and many others, and on the same wavelength there are Molleindustria, Candida TV and the whole Telestreet movement with the New Global Vision archive, Dyne.org free software house, Sexyshock, my colleague Paolo Cirio, again only to name a few. Finally, even if it's not recognized as 'art', I think that the Hackmeetings are really a performative collective 'art' event. It's a hacker meeting completely self-organized through a mailing list taking decision on every aspect of the meeting with an anarchic playful spirit and gathering nonetheless a few thousands hackers in a different place every year from a decade, sharing knowledge and establishing/reinforcing human relationships and political awareness. I attended all of them from the beginning (except the last three), because of the incredible atmosphere and the deep social exchanges that I had there. But to answer your last question I think that Luca Bertini has not yet gained some (well deserved) attention, and it's a real pity because I think he's one of the most inventive and controversial Italian media artists. Finally in spring 2008 I'll start the 'Neural Archive' project, creating an online database of bibliographical references to all the physical stuff I have in my personal archive (books, dvds, cd-roms, ephemerals), to create a free online resource for researchers.

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Image courtesy of Alessandro Ludovico

Together with UBERMORGEN and Paolo Cirio you have realized Google Will Eat Itself, an artistic project that aims to buy out Google with funds generated from Google Adsense. How did google react to GWEI?

0aalagweiii.jpgWell, the official reaction of Google was a 'cease and desist' letter of their German branch. But it was very different from the other 'cease and desist' letters I've seen, it was a sort of confidential letter, not the usual cold lawyer-lexicon style one. But nevertheless even more frightening. It basically said, "ok, we understand it's art, but you have to stop it now". It matches what I think is their status of 'funny dictator', as I've tried to define it. In fact there were so many mysteries and strange facts during the project that I and Hans Bernhard did a whole lecture/performance on that at the v2's TANGENT_CONSPIRACY night, in December 2006 (video). Furthermore Google Italy, indeed, terminated the Neural.it AdSense account without any explanation. I think that was quite stupid because Neural.it has never been part of GWEI (this was clear from the beginning to all of us). But Goggle Italy was too blind minded to understand that, so just after being invited to a public debate with me and Paolo, they simply refused to come and terminated the Neural account because of 'fraudulent clicks' that never happened there. But you'd take in count that they grant the AdSense money so they can anytime decide to terminate your account without any real proof. That's also part of what I defined as their 'porcelain interface'. GWEI was for me one of the most fascinating experience I had: it was (unexpectedly for me) incredibly successful and it let me experience for the first time the artistic dimension inside a very skilled team, so sharing with Hans, Liz and Paolo all the (good and bad) moments. I'm really grateful to them.

Let's talk about Amazon Noir. What are the latest developments? Has Amazon reacted to the project?

Amazon noir is still going on with its most visible outcome: the stolen book files. We're still re-embodying them in different forms. We developed an installation that physically (and very symbolically) embodies the project. It consists of two overhead projectors displaying the logo and the diagram of our software internal mechanisms, and an incubator with one of the stolen book inside, reprinted digitally. Symbolically we chose the American counterculture classic from the seventies 'Steal This Book' by Abbie Hoffman. We in a way re-embodied the book (obtaining cover and complete textual content from Amazon) in its mutated physical form. But we also placed a warning near the incubator. It stated: "The book inside the incubator is the physical embodiment of a complex Amazon.com hacking action. It has been obtained exploiting Amazon 'Search Inside The Book' tool. Take care because it's an illegitimate and premature son born from the relationship between Amazon and Copyright. It's illegitimate because it's an unauthorized print of a copyright-protected book. And it's premature because the gestation of this relationship's outcome is far for being mature." That was why I thought that we 'stole the invisible' [http://amazon-noir.com/thieves.html]. It's an installation showing a net art piece without any IT or internet connection. Actually, various people tried to steal the book opening the incubator, claiming that they simply do what is written on the cover (we personally kindly asked some of them to put the book back, and one of them actually succeeded in stealing it during the Shift festival opening in Basel and we had to find out how to replace it quickly). This is also a proof that, ironically enough, it was also very 'interactive'.

About the Amazon reaction, they reverse-engineers the software, making the robot useless. We, indeed, spread all the books we downloaded through peer-to-peer networks (bittorrent, gnutella, fast track, emule, etc.).

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Amazon Noir installation at the Share Festival in Turin, March 2007

The installation was exhibited in various museums and festivals in different countries and it has been actually nominated for the upcoming Tansmediale Award 2008. I've tried to conceptually develop a whole theoretical concept about the big online corporations marketing strategies and their potential hacking in an essay entitled "The (online) economy of desire". It'll be online soon.

Thanks Alessandro!

Related interview: Interview with UBERMORGEN.
Related story: How to survive the paper industry.

*here's the way to spam-clothing bliss.

Forays is a low profile (that's their words) artist group strung somewhere between New York and Montreal whose work focuses on the research and creation of open-source minor architectures and low-tech modifications of everyday life.

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Forays is Adam Bobette and Geraldine Juárez.

Geraldine Juarez is a self-taught designer and an artist from Mexico City based in Brooklyn, New York where she is a Senior Fellow at Eyebeam and play around the city with Forays. She is a drop out of Communication and Graphic Design of a university in Mexico City and worked in advertising for several years doing visual effects in Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. Her current interests are low-tech crafts and artifacts. Most of the time she obtains her supplies in trash bags, by freecycling or by hacking public sites.

Adam Bobbette is a writer, researcher and artist based in Montréal.

What started as an innocent conversation between Geraldine and i about the Postal Gown she was modeling around Williamsburg during the Conflux festival escalated into a fully-fledged interview about her, and mostly the works she's currently working on together with Adam. Here we go:

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Postal Cocoon

Hey Geraldine, you write that you find your supplies in trash bags, freecycling or by hacking public sites. Sounds interesting but we'd like to get more details. How does one hack a public site? can you give us examples too? And what is freecycling?

G:. I read once that hacking is the creative adaptation to immediate circumstances. I switched not so long ago from purely digital work to more analog and tangible object production and I had to learn electronics from scratch, a bit of code and a whole lot about materials. I started hacking the city accidentally. I was working a lot with paper and electronics and I needed something that I couldn't afford. Looking online for alternatives I found it freely available in the public infrastructure of the city: the postal office. Not paying for my source material was a complete delight and I pushed it forward. Picking stuff from the street in New York is nothing new, everybody does it. There is a royal amount of quality waste all around the city. However there is an easier and more social way to get specific things that you need. Freecyle is a simple yahoo list that let's you ask and offer things for reuse. Most of the time the craft materials are just surplus so you get perfectly good stuff for free. Often I found just what I needed and it was an opening to start wandering around the city to get what I need and most important, interacting with the moneyless layer of New York City.

Together with Adam Bobbette, you work on the Forays projects. How did you get to meet and work together? Does each of you have his or her own skills and knowledge that complete the other?

AB. Like yin and yang? Like milk and tea? Like diamonds and roughness?

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G:. it’s actually not like that at all, we don’t really like each other. We met in Eyebeam. I knew he wanted to work with steam and I thought that was wicked but he was too cocky so I didn’t want to talk to him. One day I stole a little kaleidoscope from his desk. I confessed to it and then we found out that we both were into folding stuff, trash and useless things. He is a luddite and I’m more geeky. He speaks French and I speak Spanish, so it helps to create confusion.

AB. We always have experiences to share about crossing the American border, which is a strong bond.

G. Also, we really work hard to keep it low and that's really encouraging. Adam has trouble with authority while i have it with sustainability and environmentalism. He likes space and i like materials. We both find waste inspiring. We like the idea of creating pieces that make you realize your space and environment in a more beautiful and accidental way. Since we come from different worlds we are constantly questioning what it really means to step into these arenas like activism, art, architecture. We are also really afraid of how art goes, and we don't know how to slip in and come out clean. And yeah we don’t like each other.

AB. Which makes for this great productive confusion. Collaborative work is mostly frustrating.

G. And there are others we work with too, wonderful, distant others.

AB. And some of them like you, Jerry.

G. Sure.

AB. We do a lot of our own stuff and sometimes just fall into each other’s projects mid-way, towards the end or drop out from the beginning. But it’s definitely important that we are surprised by what we work on individually. Or, it’s great to be surprised by how differences end up overlapping.

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Beach Mat Cocoon

One of your pieces Field Notes addresses the ways in which the delineation of interior and exterior or private and public space can be used towards political ends. Using cocoons, you and Adam propose open source architecture and hacked materials as forms of grassroots activism. Can you give us more details on that? Which materials you use? And how the cocoon can be turned into OS architecture?

A— G: The basic nature of the cocoon is to turn the structures and infrastructures of the city into a vehicle for experimentation. It might need space, it might need a certain material, it might need a certain action to hang it. When a cocoon needed certain materials, it made us go and find it around, explore sites and slip into and through cracks to get it. This gives us the chance to hack infrastructures. When the cocoon needs to be used you have to look for space: a scaffold, a tree, a fire escape, which enables reclaiming some lost space. Also, the cocoon is meant to be a tool for tactical occupation, like in the case of More Gardens

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AB. A kick ass New York City community garden advocacy group that saves community gardens from being destroyed by the city

G. — Either for tree sitting or for creating a temporary squat, when you slip into a cocoon you slip into a tool riddled with the potential of continually evolving.

AB. With the cocoons we weren’t really so interested in focusing on the objects but on the whole network, the whole approach that building and thieving, freecycling, skill sharing and trespassing gets you into. I mean, we personally really cared about the objects but that was not what we wanted to show to the public. That stuff is personal. What we do care about is pointing in a direction; towards techniques of trespass, of building, of acquiring materials. It was important to provide entry points into the very material circumstances and consequences of art making.

The kind of materials we were using were things like construction netting hacked from construction sites. To get them you climb up inside scaffolding and cut out some chunks. We also used modified Tyvek postal envelopes grabbed for free from post offices around New York. And, 1 dollar beach mats. These are the main materials, but there is tones of other stuff, mostly culled from construction sites, hardware shops, outdoors shops and the street.

Open source architecture refers to the way that we hoped to distribute a process of building, not instructions on how to build a particular thing. We had to break codes and hack systems to build the cocoons and what we are interested in distributing are the techniques we used. We don’t think any body would be really all that interested in reproducing the objects we produced, but the techniques could help people build their own stuff or at least take an adventurous approach to buildings. We are just hoping to pass on a very basic program for experimental architecture.

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Postal Cocoon

What does one of these cocoons look like exactly? Can you sleep in it?

A— AB. People have said they look like many things. Some people think they look like body bags, which I kind of like. Some people think they look like jewels, some say they are just hammocks, some don’t really know what to make of them.

Yes, you can sleep in them. We have and will continue to. There is this whole experiential side, as you can imagine, to sleeping in trees and hanging up against scaffolding, strapped to some edifice under construction like you were, well, a little larvae grafted to structures. Which you are already, with or without some cocoon.

G. They are really a simple hammock. However the material and the way in which they are built, make them what you want them or need them to be.

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And how about the Craigslist chapter of the project? How did it go and did it encounter the kind of response you were hoping to get?

A— G. Well, Adam got all those emails. Actually the Craiglist chapter are the origin of the cocoon. He was trying to advertise free space for people to occupy as well as describing this kind of poetics of squatting. Squatting not only as a political strategy but also a creative architectural endeavour.

AB. Craigslist is a funny place. It was really a way for us to talk to an audience that would otherwise have little relation to this kind of work (though maybe we’re making bogus assumptions). And, yeah we had great responses ranging from sincere interest to total confusion to pick-up lines.

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I like the “swing actions? a lot. How did the public react to the swings? Do you know if the idea has spread around?

yes-three.jpgA— AB. It’s pretty hard not to love swings even when they are set in places they shouldn’t be; they are pretty benign objects. Everybody loved them, from construction workers who would tell us we ‘gotta patent that shit’, to passersby, and of course, kids. But this is why they can be a decent introduction or gateway to more intense experiences of disruption, or of bending and twisting space.

G. I was just the trooper. I had to wait in line to use the freaking swing. The pictures I took are beautiful though.

Did you ever get into trouble for installing swings and portable squats?

A—G. Not a real problem. Some building porters that double as mini-cops...

AB: So many people in New York city are mini cops...

G. Some have come to us to ask what the hell we are doing, but often people give us a break to finish or even let us keep going. You would be surprised by how many public servants are tamed by the word "art". It's really the best antidote or word you can use to dissolve confusion and tension. We just published recently ‘How to Unload bags and Practice Failure’, a description of getting busted and the function of the “artist?. Why don't you read it. It's my favorite project.

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I want to know more about 100% Local Irradiated Food. And that TV set that you turned into an Edible Excess Machine. What was the impetus for that project? How does the EXM work?

A— G. Oh! The EXM doesn’t work.

EXM_adam.jpgAB. It is a symbolic machine. We have been inspired by freeganism for quite some time and wanted to build a machine that spoke to the very interesting contradictions of freeganism, the same contradictions that underlie so much of our own work. I was excited about the machine because of the way that it spoke to all of these interesting problems of the excess/consumption, host/parasite relationship.

Basically, parasitic activity requires the very consumer society it deplores in order for it to survive. Freegans would be impossible without the excess generated by consumer society. Their activism, their scavenging, which is a totally justified protest against this consumption at the same time depends on it. So, in their own ideal world they would not exist. In a way they are fighting for their own disappearance as a group. That’s interesting.

What the machine is supposed to do is allow you to turn absolutely anything (garbage, bricks, old tires) into edible waste by irradiating it and swallowing a laxative. A perfect circle. A perfect impossibility. If it were true, at a certain point, you would end up turning your own self into edible waste.

We built it as a workshop at Eyebeam. Jerry and some excellent workshop folks built a commercial around the EXM. We hope to eventually get a feature in Martha Stewart’s magazine.

G. I have a crush on garbage bags so I really wanted to do something directly with them. The idea came up actually because someone told us that you can actually create x-rays out of a tv.

So the project is meant to raise attention to the enormous amount of waste we produce everyday, right?

G. We are trying to make clear the fact that while everybody goes green, local and organic our waste will remain there. It’s about excessive consumption. If everyone is really really interested in being sustainable, how about eating your own waste? THE EXM is as retarded as green capitalism.

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There’s a strange little device on your website. It’s called Bucky and seems to implode. Can you tell us something about it?

A— AB. This is Jerry’s killer project and she thinks more clearly about it than I but we do share this distrust of Mr. Bucky Fuller. He is still someone that we have to contend with, maybe one of the most important idols that we have yet to destroy. He is really this figure head of all of this naïve technological optimism that threatens to murder anything that was once dangerous and/or interesting about sustainability.

G. The Bucky is an exploding microcosm contained in a dome. It simulates the illusion of cheap and easy sustainability and environmentalism based on the commodity. Saving the world has became a commodity that you can buy in Whole Foods and every other shop on the block and it's really pathetic. Why is being green even an interesting future? Honestly, it looks all the same to me.

AB: Isn’t it just the same as the present except that people will feel guiltless about their consumption, about their excesses? You know, I feel like sustainability even has enough room in it’s future for things like solar powered tanning salons and ways to power your television set by the energy emitted by burning your own calories. And all sorts of other “neat? stuff.

JG. For me, a sustainable future based on consuming "with the earth in mind" is the ultimate social disaster. I prefer to stop preparing for the upcoming natural disasters and start acting on the social disaster around me, like consumer capitalism.

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The Bucky’s are based on Fuller's Geoscope: This globe that allows you to see the big picture and help humanity somehow to "anticipate and cope with inexorable events". Bucky I is a forest made of money that explodes. Pure illusion. My Bucky is meant to mimic the actual fragility of 'Space Ship Earth'. Green or not. I really want to destroy this illusion of "saving" the world going "green". I don't think we are going to "save" it. But i do believe we have to go more dark in order to learn how to live on it from now on.

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During the last edition of Conflux, I saw you walking around with your friends wearing some pretty Postal Gowns. How can I make one? Can you give us a little step-by-step?

A—AB. Regine, haven’t you heard how damn stubborn Jerry is with instructions these days? She avoids them like she had a nut allergy or something.

JG. Uff. Don't even get my started. What's with this obsession for systematization? Yeah i don't like instructions, but actually some people really dig instruction sets and they even think they allow you to show how instructions for anything always rely on some impossibility and the unthinkability of chance.
p.s.

postalgirls.jpgWell my allergy to instructions is that i don't think there is a possible way to break down into steps things that are not technical, and maybe i really want to move over the technical. I like to share information yes, but i think we have to subvert the way we share it some how too. Instructablism is getting a little boring to me. To make a Postal Gown first you need to get some material for free by any means. And this can be as broad as you want. Hacking, thieving, freecycling. You have to make an effort to avoid money exchange. You have to learn how to step into strangers homes (it's really weird sometimes as well as interesting), receive something and take responsability of it.

Once you got your material:

(You need a pattern and a sewing machine)

1. Cut your pattern

2. Sew both parts together,

Thanks Geraldine and Adam!

All images courtesy of the artists.

portraitCU.jpgIt might come as a surprise but i actually do not like design. I don't care about lemon juicers, that new phone all my ifriends want me to itry, "interactive and playful" lamps, lamps on top of a horse, chairs that change colours and sing, tables that "communicate with your remote partner", lamps that you can punch, lamps that juice lemon (though i quite like the chairs that do the same job), etc. Still, every year i grumble but go to the Salone del Mobile in Milan and other furniture gigs. It's because i do know that some designers can amaze me better than many techno-art geniuses. Eelko Moorer is one of them. Quite often my admiration for a creator seems to dwindle over time because of the way they repeat themselves or because my own interests shift. Didn't happen with Eelko's work. I discovered his Stilts a few years ago, i remember that they left me so dumb i even forgot to take a picture of them, then i fell in love with the rubber bearskin, i'm still laughing at the Emergency Games: A Manual For Extreme Experiences In The Danger Of Your Own Home and that was just the beginning.

Eelko Moorer studied at Utrecht School of the Arts (The Netherlands) 3D design and shoemaking before setting up his own studio and developing products for fashion, performances and works on the borderline between art and design. In 2003, the year he was nominated for the Rotterdam Design Prize, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London where he received his MA in Design Products in 2005 exploring new territories and contexts for his work. Based in London, he now works on a freelance basis for companies, individual customers and on self-initiated projects.

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I have never asked this question to anyone so far because it is kind of cheesy but i cannot help it this time. Where do you find your inspiration? How do you get all those ideas?
Do you envision a particular type of user before or when you design a new piece or do you just go ahead, follow your inspiration and see what happens later?

Design for me is a vehicle for exploring larger social and cultural ideas that I am interested in. The start of most projects therefore is from a personal motivation and interest and themes always seem to revolve around nature-culture, body-desire, interior-exterior (society). I move from the personal to the generic. I mix everyday myths and facts for which I find inspiration in literature, film, material culture studies, newspaper articles, etc. From these elements I construct users that are fictional.

I am interested in what psychological effects contemporary life has on the individual and what possibilities for design there are in this area to design new sensations for the desensitized. tired of feeling and seeing.

I find that today’s designed environment has too much of the same conventional products, focusing on comfortability and the practical, that are the result of a too much systemized and industrialized society. On the contrary I believe in the value of difference, co-existence and the eccentric.

In the production process I explore the personal and the expressive in relation to the anonymous and the mechanized and through playing with form and meaning and through association I communicate ideas as well as through their function. The ideas and proposals are often critical and ironic at the same time.

Next to this I also work a lot from material experiments that I do. I believe that materials and techniques speak to you and technology is never neutral, that machines have politics behind them. Reflecting on form and meaning I analyze these material experiments and so see what they tell me in that context and how they relate to themes I’m interested in.

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At the Salone del Mobile in Milan you exhibited In The Jungle Groove, a site specific installation made of swings, vines and suspended objects. Can you explain us what you were trying to achieve with this work? How do you imagine that people could use it?

Milan is all about the aesthetics of interior objects and not really about concepts of living, so I decided to present an alternative living space, a new experience, with new behaviors and new and unique designs.

I found that today’s home has too much of the same conventional products, focusing on comfortability and the practical. The contemporary home has become a passive and merely consumptive transient non-place filled with electronics.

0aadagroouve2.jpgI wanted to design a living environment that was more about the emotive and physical and that would explore the values of discomfort, danger and especially play. The Jungle proposes a new interior space, literally and metaphorically. The Jungle is a hide out, a retreat from the outside world, a place to escape inward, a redesigning of the home as a place to reclaim the self.

In its form I was exploring the cultural meaning of the jungle as image and as a theme in relation to modernity as it emerges in popular culture with its connotations to the internal of the mind, the exploration of the unknown and as a the projection of man’s fears and desires.

I wanted to specifically use ‘environmental storytelling’, like it is also used in amusement parks like Walt Disney’s, or theme hotels as Las Vegas’ ‘The Mirage’ for example. This story element is infused into the design of the physical space and so gives meaning to the user’s experience.

Using associations to pre-existing stories already known to users through books, film, television, comics and other media allows the user to enter physically into a space they may have visited before in their fantasies. And so to evoke and make concrete memories and imaginings through which they can wander and with which they can interact.

Such a pre-existing story provides structure to the experience but is therefore in danger of limiting the imagination of the user by definition. It is, 1, by designing only an atmosphere and not fill the story in too much that there’s still enough room left for the user’s mind to wander and imagine themselves Tarzan, Jane, Liane The Jungle Goddess, King Kong, Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness’, etc.

And, 2, on top of that by entering this immersive and associative narrative environment the user can play via swinging on the vines and arrange and re-arrange by knotting the vines and objects in the space to his own liking. This provides space for game play and interaction. Room to play, to hide, and to perform. Within the given structure they can D.I.Y. their own plots and so experience the characteristics of interactive play such as freedom, power and self-expression.

People can use elements of it in their homes. I can also see it used in a hotel environment for example.

What I wanted to present in Milan is an idea, an atmosphere, a theme that I could continue working in. Right now I am designing more things for the jungle that are more product oriented and that can be sold.

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Is the Jungle related in any way to Emergency Games?

Both the Jungle and the Emergency Games deal with exploring ‘play states’ (deep play, role play, etc) with the aim of designing a more creative and physical interaction with the home environment. While the Emergency Games sets out a direction and is a bit darker, the Jungle is a first attempt to materialize the idea in a lighter way.

You seem to be fascinated by rubber. Why this interest for the material?

Rubber is child- and toy-like. It transforms objects into a toy-like plastic reality. Into some sort of projected mental space where desires and fears are concretized and fictions and myths begin taking shape.

There’s desirability to it whilst at the same time being quite cheap looking and pulp, a bit subversive. It looks hard but is in fact relatively soft. There’s an element of ‘bad taste’ to it that I like.

Besides that there’s something magical for me about casting. Releasing an object from the mould and then having ‘a double’ or many ‘doubles’ that are exactly the same, and they way their meanings and relations to each other change, is something that keeps on captivating me.

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Perch, 2005

What motivated our work Bird People? What were you exploring with that project?

I was exploring what psychological and therapeutic function designed objects can fulfill as props for living and the new typologies that could derive from this.

The story was about somebody that feels completely absorbed in his mechanized routines of everyday life, cannot relate to society anymore and because of this he feels dislocated and depressed. He feels unreal and wants to experience his physicality again, to release his desires, to let his animalistic side out again. He wants to set himself free, to become a bird literally.

Results were a perch chair: A new typology of a chair that asks for balance and concentration and the user takes a position that is protective and completely introverted.

The Balcony seat lets you experience a feeling of taking off, a feeling of falling over. It puts you in a contemplative state deriving from the existentialist notion that you can only experience life’s meaning in the face of death.
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On the right, Tube Shoes, 2005

The Bat shoes enables to act out, to reclaim the public space for desire through play. Here the user is experiencing himself, but he also becomes a performer because by doing a surreal intervention, he transforms a mundane daily routine of traveling on the tube and produces some sort of myth.

And how did it end up in the Evening Standard and other mainstream media?

It was presented on the TV-set that hung in the jungle, a small part of the jungle installation in Milan. Somebody of the Evening Standard newspaper wanted to feature it. When they did, the Press Association put it on their website and it started rolling from there: ITV’s six ‘o clock news ran it too that day and it kind of escalated a little bit after that ending up on BBC’s Breakfast Show on TV, BBC radio and Irish national radio, various other pulpy newspapers and a lot of blogs all over the world.

You recently explained me that the objects that you design are not mere commodities but some desirable pieces? Can you explain what you mean by that?

I was more talking about that commodities have the characteristic of being as smooth, anonymous, impersonal as possible. The personal is then added via an atmosphere created through advertisement. I am interested in designing objects and products that would combine the personal and the associative with the anonymous and mechanized in its actual physical appearance. So the object or product would completely become an image and the image the object/ product. So the entire object/ product’s content and meaning are projected out onto its skin. There’s nothing behind its surface and so the object/ product quite literally becomes completely superficial.

The bearskin for example is maybe the most extreme example of this. It is an object that is completely useless in comfort and not practical. Yet at the same time extremely desirable via its associations. The object is a play with form and meaning, change of context, transformation and scale and the references and associations that come out of this.

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The rug refers to a lost exotic romantic world of hunting and intimacy that has been replaced and subverted by a toy-like plastic reality. It deals with the human desire for some ‘otherness’, but at the same time can also be understood as reference to a larger cultural and critical context (hunting trophy - man over nature, a nod to animal rights...).

The original model has been executed by hand in clay. From this a silicone mould has been made.

The materiality of the object plays with attraction through an almost carnal sensuality due to the handcrafted surface and at the same time a rejection of softness and presence of immateriality through the use of rubber and the objectʼs reproducibility. This play with attraction and rejection creates a fetishistic desirability, an erotic anesthesia.

How did you get to design Footwear for Rui Leonardes?

I know Rui from RoXY, a former nightclub in Amsterdam, where we both were hanging out a lot in the early to mid 90’s. We didn’t see each other for years until we met at the RCA-bar in 2003 where we both just started studying. He studying Footwear and myself Design Products. We’ve kept in contact ever since and he then asked me to do some shoes at some point. We share a similar kind of attitude so it combined well together.

Why do some of the shoes you design look so uncomfortable?

Well, the stilts for example look uncomfortable because they are. The idea was not to make wearable footwear necessarily, but more footwear that could function as a therapeutic prosthetic object with a psychological function for the user. It lets the user experience his own body making him conscious of the flesh through strapping on the stilts in a bondage kind of way and via balancing on the tips of the heels.

Oh! Btw, is there any place where I could buy a pair of “Wellies??

I’m afraid the company went bust a short while ago.

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I usually think of you as both an artist and a designer. Are you comfortable with my blurring of your “label??

I always look for the ambiguous, the in-between spaces, the borderlands, or twilight zones, both in work and in life because these areas provide me with a feeling of freedom, inspiration and this is where identity and difference are negotiated. I see these territories as places where new perspectives and thoughts are being born.

Besides that, a lot of the work that I do balances between the descriptive of the arts, but contains the process, the context and the prescriptive elements of design.

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On the left: Wonderland, 2001, in collaboration with Zjef van Bezouw

Where do you think that you “fit??

I see myself as a multidisciplinary designer. A designer because I use design methods and design research and that’s the context I function in. And multidisciplinary since I am moving on and mixing the boundaries of design, fashion and art, because I think different ideas and stories function best in different contexts. In general I guess you could describe my work as couture in a way if you like: conceptual and theatrical atmospheres and experiences that are often handmade and function as one-offs, or small series, exhibited and sold in galleries.

Let us put aside design for a moment. Which artists do you find most inspiring and why?

At the moment I would say:

I love Franz Kafka. Especially ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’. How he transforms everyday reality and actions in surreal and absurd adventures. The way he psychologically drags you into his twisting and turning so you are totally confused yourself and so lets you feel the absurdity of systems and constructed realities. Also I love his ‘Observations’, who are beautifully sharp and short.

Antonioni’s L’Eclisse for how he portrays the feeling of loss of human intimacy and natural context of the protagonists by putting them against a man-made landscape of technological progress and modernist architecture. Together with a slowing down in time this makes the actors seem disjointed and lost between all that materiality. He makes alienation and estrangement feel so tangible and look so beautiful in that film.

J.G. Ballard’s novels in which his protagonists are conditioned and where they take action via some sort of release exposing an underbelly of a seemingly perfect social model. Although his earlier writings are a bit too SF for me, the later works deal with the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments and are more subversive and surreal in a subtle way.

Books like Cocaine Nights, Crash, Super-Cannes show visions of a nearer dystopian future that’s very well possible, or might even already be here. And in doing so, like all SciFi, showing a portrait of tomorrow, but actually talking about today.

Henry Miller because reading his books give me a feeling of being centered in what life really is about: experiencing total freedom regardless, the energy and joy of life, faith in chance, things like that.

Mike Nelson’s fictional narrative environments because they are so incredibly immersive and imaginative. Sometimes it feels the spaces are alive and spirited. I like the way he connects literal and highly detailed familiar looking spaces with abstract ones and leaves detailed traces that are humorous, slightly subversive, surreal, etc.

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The artists that make the drawings for the covers of those pulp magazines and the anonymous designers/ makers that have made the objects that can be found on carboot sales and flee markets.

Thanks Eelko!

didi-photo.jpgDi Mainstone is an insanely talented fashion designer. She trained in fashion design at Central Saint Martins College of Art, London. Her work was soon sold at Selfridges, Urbanoutfitters and Harvey Nichols. Further design collaborations included illustrations at Jimmy Choo. Following a series of experimental fashion collaborations with engineers, dancers and architects, Di joined Sara Diamond at the Banff New Media Institute to investigate wearable technology and create a series of electronic fashion garments, Company Keeper and Emotional Ties. Shortly afterwards Di started collaborating with founder of XS Labs and electronic textiles expert Joey Berzowska. Together they produced Skorpions, a set of kinetic electronic garments that move on the body in slow motions. Acting like parasites of the skin, they breathe and pulse, controlled by their own internal programming.

I found this statement on the project website particularly interesting: SKORPIONS reference the history of garments as instruments of pain and desire. They hurt you and distort your body the same way as corsets and foot binding. They emphasize our lack of control over our garments and our digital technologies. Our clothes shift and change in ways that we do not anticipate. Our electronics malfunction and become obsolete.

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You specialize in interactive couture, not the geeky kind but rather a stylish and feminine one. On the other hand you've worked for modern and mainstream labels such as Urban Outfitters and Topshop. Do you foresee a (near) future when we will be able to buy the kind of interactive or kinetic garment you create on the high street?

The more fashion-led work that I’m interested in may take a little longer to be embraced by the high street, as its whimsical approach is wedged somewhere between fashion, technology and art. Not so long ago I designed a series of therapeutic emotion-sensing garments called Company Keeper and Emotional Ties, with a team at the Banff New Media Institute. Whist the project was avant-garde in its concept; specific technological and aesthetic elements of the dresses were seen as being highly marketable:

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Company Keeper and Emotional Ties (BNMI 2005) by Di Mainstone, Sara Diamond, Tom Donaldson, David Gauthier, Jan Erkku, Greg Judleman, Jeroen Kaijser, Mireille Dore and Haydar Saaied

I love to work in this way, and believe that unabashed, fearless experimentation is necessary to pioneer new concepts and mechanisms that may ultimately become commercial. This said, interactive fashion is certainly getting increased industry profile - established investigative fashion designer Hussein Chalayan has tickled the imagination of the fashion world over the past seasons with his electronic couture experiments, whilst newcomer Angel Chang is designing technology driven fashion as the basis of her range. With this gradual and inevitable evolution, both the fashion industry and the consumer need to be allowed to fully absorb the meaning and possibilities of electronic and interactive fashion. Collections will not only have to be exhibited with fresh vision, to highlight the interactive nature of the clothing, but also be manufactured in an entirely modern way. Because of potential production issues it may be a year ors two before we see intricate electronic fashion in outlets such as UrbanOutfitters and Topshop, however I feel certain that the consumer is ready to accept new modes of fashion interactivity, with or without electronics. Clothing that can be reconfigured for example, to offer two or more purposes, or DIY fashion that invites the wearer to design and manipulate the silhouette and aesthetic of the garment:

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Reconfigurable Dress by Di Mainstone, made at XS Labs

I love the idea of modular clothing that can be linked to a friend or friends to tell a story or reveal new function, or clothing that can slot into the urban environment to offer shelter, privacy or entertainment. In short, we need more future-forward, playful, therapeutic attire that can be used to dissolve social distance, raise topical issues and most importantly unleash conversation!

Apart from the cost of developing an interactive garment, what stands between creating avant-guarde prototypes of garments and their mass-production?

Having spent 4 years as lead design at London fashion house Soochi, I am painfully aware of the hazards of manufacturing even the simplest item of clothing! All manner of mayhem can occur when constructing a basic printed t-shirt, so to then expect traditional clothing manufacturers to sew electronics into garments without a string of potential catastrophes is unrealistic.

If successful mass-production of electronic fashion is to come about there needs to be a three-way merger between the interactive research environments, the fashion industry and the consumer electronics companies. A mutual dialogue and infrastructure needs to be set, outlining modern methodologies for safe construction of smart garments, basic electronics training for clothing manufacturers and appropriate cross-disciplinary working environments for sampling and experimentation. Many of these methodologies are already in practice on a micro-scale in research labs such as XS Labs, Philips Design and Distance Lab.

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The Skorpions collection, which you developed together with Joey Berzowska, is amazingly beautiful. Do you see them more as sculptures or pieces of clothing?

I see the Skorpions as portable body sculptures! Canada Council for the Arts largely funded the collection, and as such Joey and I preferred to approach the project with a conceptual, artistic vision. As an investigative fashion designer this was a fantastic opportunity for pioneering experimentation - technically in terms of engineering fabric and Nitinol (the shape memory alloy that enabled movement in the dresses) and architecturally through garment construction and radical pattern cutting. I was able to treat the body as a canvas or landscape to explore, manipulate and distort, without focusing on the immediate comfort and usability of the everyday.

Are they comfortable to wear during a whole evening?

Although Skorpions are designed using soft natural textiles such as leather, raw silk and felt, the dresses are not intended for daily usability, instead their shell-like forms roam the body like a rampant fungus, wrapping, restricting, concealing and exposing!

Having worn all of the dresses, I can tell you that each evokes a unique ambience in the wearer.

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Slofa (the portable upholstered sofa-frock!) is deliriously squashy with its bulbous skirt and curvaceous headrest…after wearing the dress for 10 minutes it leaves you feeling giddy, relaxed, lethargic and seriously ready for a doze.

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Skwrath, on the other hand is constructed with quilted leather, its amour-like bodice holds you upright like a warrior, whilst rigid interlocking plates encircle the thighs, making you feel robust and indestructible, until you need to go to the loo… then you’re in trouble. So in answer to your question – no Skorpions are not ideal evening attire!

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In a paper presented at Ubicomp 07, you and the XSLABS team wrote that the garments "have intentionality". Can you explain us what you mean?

When Joey and I embarked on the Skorpions project we decided that we did not want the dresses to respond to any kind of environmental sensory data, but instead to have their own internal programming. We likened the dresses to organisms that clamp to the wearer or host like parasitic body adornment moving and pulsing to express a particular sensation or feeling! With so much current focus on sensory data we were happy to shift away from this, enjoying the Skorpions lack of control and the uneasy sense of anticipation felt by both the occupant of the dress and those in close proximity.


Video of Enleon: kinetic electronic garment

What or who inspired the Skorpions collection?

The Skorpions collection was created in a collaborative environment at XS Labs, part of the Hexagram research institute in Montréal; as such it is a wonderful catalogue of ideas and possibilities.

Technology was our starting point; Joey who had recently worked with the team to produce Kukkia, a dress that integrated filaments of the shape-shifting alloy Nitinol, was keen to further her experimentation with this material. Intrigued by the concept of kinetic couture, we were both eager to explore how Nitinol might be used to distort and reconfigure the body. Early on in the development of Skorpions we began to weave a narrative thread, which bore a family of five dysfunctional animal-inspired creatures: Skwrath, Slofa, Luttergill, Enleon and Glutus. These mythical souls allowed us to build a series of dynamic character moulds, which subsequently dictated the architecture, colour, mood, and movement of each dress.

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Another artistic direction came from my then recent trip to Barcelona, where I found myself captivated by the work of Spanish architect Gaudí. This influence became evident whilst defining the dress silhouettes - instead of following traditional pattern cutting methodologies, I treated the garments as malleable architectural structures, encasing the mannequin with foam and fabric to create 3-dimensional skins, immediately sketching on their surface to define the seams, sometimes using only one spiraling line to intersect much of the body:

Joey and I would not have been able to develop the Skorpions without the brilliance of the XS Labs collective, a talented team of dynamic individuals, all of whom held a pivotal role in the design and implementation of the collection. These were: Daviid Gauthier, Marguerite Bromley, Marcelo Coelho, Valerie Boxer, Francis Raymond and Damir Cheremisov.

Thanks Di!

Don't miss the videos of Di discussing the inspiration behind the Pioneering Skopions collection: Enleon- a kinetic dress from the Skorpions collection; Di talks about the concept behind the name Enleon; Luttergill – a kinetic dress from the Skorpions collection; Di sews conductive thread and Nitinol into Glutus; Di makes a kinetic hat.

All images courtesy of Di Mainstone.

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