Meet the Maker: Erin Lewis – Electronics Artist

Posted on March 21, 2013 Under Toronto Makers

Erin LewisEveryone meet Erin Lewis. Erin is an emerging Canadian artist working in the field of New Media and Wearable Technology. She works in OCAD’s Social Body Lab, alongside Kate Hartmann and co-organizes a wearable computing meetup in Toronto. We are delighted to have Erin on board for Maker Faire Toronto!

Interview by Rachel, wearable computing enthusiast.

How do you refer to yourself as a maker? What do you call yourself?

“I call myself an artist.”

So tell me a little bit about how long you have been an artist… the journey… where did you start, how did you get into this space?

“I officially became an “artist” about a year ago when I graduated with my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, so that’s my official standing, but I think people who are artists… well I think it’s something in their nature, their character… to just be a creative person and always have the drive for making things and exploring ideas.”

“I  came to this place through an unlikely path. When I was 18 I started working in a community health centre and I continued working there for 11 years. I had an established career path and was making good money. I was totally steady and stable and could have continued like that for the rest of my life if I wanted to, just moving around in the area of public health and community health. But I wasn’t happy, nothing was really interesting and I think that’s speaking to my desire to create and constantly shift and change and move. Basically when you’re working in large institutions that generally aren’t very creative places, eventually your well dries up. I got to the point where I felt I had to decide between a stable lifestyle with a steady income, and being happy. So I chose to go to art school and I actually got a bit of scrutiny for making that decision, not about going to OCAD, but to step away from my career path.

I enrolled at OCAD and thought I would get into video, because I’d already been doing some VJing at that point. I took an electronics course just out of curiosity and totally fell in love. All I could see was endless potential for creating works. I come from a very technologically friendly family. We had computers introduced into our house at a very early time.  My father was an electronics engineer back in the sixties and seventies. Him and my brother are now software engineers.  I grew up with computers in the house and I was on the Internet from the early days. Really I felt very non-threatened by technology and computation, so I think discovering electronics opened me up an area that I’d been somewhat exposed to, but never completely delved into. I began incorporating electronics into my installation work by working with realtime data and using it to drive electronic circuits. OCAD started to offer wearable tech courses, which dealt with electronics that live on the body, and I began to take those.With wearable tech I’m working with a different conceptual ground, but still working with electronics. I think what ultimately underpins my work is that I’m an electronics artist, because some of work is wearable and some of it’s not. In addition to that I’ve just been really keen to develop the conceptual ground of the body as an interface and have a genuine interest in learning more about electronics and learning more about programming. I’ve stayed committed to the path of wearable technology OCAD’s really good for that; they have a number of ways that you can connect with wearable technology through the undergrad courses, through this research lab and its Continuing Studies course. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have Kate Hartman as my professor and mentor throughout this process. She’s really taken me under her wing and supported me through the lab to conduct experiments and to explore the potential of wearable tech.”

OK, so you teach here?

“I teach here at OCAD in the continuing studies department.”

In terms of how projects come to you…. we talked a little earlier about people looking for Arduino experts, so how do projects come to you?

“Mostly it’s through word of mouth. I think part of it’s been that I’m starting to become a somewhat recognised figure in this small community of people. Just through networking in that small community, people come to know you and have may have seen your work or been to one of your workshops, so if an opportunity arises, some people are quick to throw my name in and that’s how I’ve gotten paid jobs in the past, commissions and projects.”

In terms of maker communities in Toronto, obviously you lead the Wearables meetup, but in terms of other spaces, how and what do you interact with in the city?

“There’s only a few that I’ve really connected with and come to know them, so for example Site 3 and Interaccess. With Hacklab, I’ve never been to Hacklab, but I know Eric because he’s everywhere – so I feel like there’s a certain connection in that direction too. I think what happens with the wearable tech scene is that it intersects so many other disciplines and communities. I mean you get people from artist-run centres, hacklabs, academic circles and different design circles. It’s such a melting pot of expertise, that I find that the connection to maker spaces comes through there.”

What are your expectations in where you want to go as an artist, as well as your expectations for the discipline?

“For my personal direction – it’s easier to speak for myself than wearable tech as a whole, but I have short term and long term goals and eventually I’d like to see myself working with electronics and wearable tech in an educational setting. I really enjoy working at a university because I thrive being around creative people and these kind of projects that come in, that change and evolve, that kind of research and experimentation is something that I really enjoy and of course all of this is a very nice way of saying, I like to make weirdo art projects and get paid for it.”

And in terms of you taking your work further into an educational setting? Would that be schools or younger kids?

“Well it’s tricky because the trouble with wearable tech is that there are all these amazing projects on the web. People come to the class with the expectation that they’ll do something like and then you present them with something like this [brings out samples] and it’s well very arts and crafts…. kind of kitschy from the get-go. And I think that there are a number of different problems with that and one of them is that that’s not very encouraging. If you want to make a dress that talks to Twitter – you still have to start out with the basic exercise of sewing LEDs to fabric. There’s something to be said for learning the fundamentals. The thing about teaching kids is that I don’t know how far out of the arts and crafts stage you’d get. For me, wearable tech is ultimately about concept, not just about wearing whatever on my body because I can. It’s about viewing the wearable tech work as an art piece. Some people view it more from a design standpoint, but I’m coming from an art standpoint – seeing wearable tech as an avenue for art and not just design. So I’m not interested in the latest gadget I can wear on my wrist, but how can you communicate an interesting and meaningful idea through a wearable tech piece.”

I’m keen to pick up on the fact you see yourself as an artist, rather than a designer?

“Yeah, I’m not sure what the official differentiation is, but I think as an artist, you’re working with an expression of thought and feeling, conceptual ideas. I think with design, there’s always some connection to purpose and functionality and I think with art you don’t need those considerations. Designers work with concepts as well, but I think there are other things thrown into their mix that change the outcome, whereas I think as an artist you’re allowed to forgo certain things like functionality. Just as an easy example – the Earthquake Skirt that I had created, I mean as skirt it’s totally unusable, you can’t wear it, it’s not comfortable. You know it’s intentionally uncomfortable and would a designer make something like that, I don’t know, but I’m trying to convey a particular idea, no function, no purpose.”

Thinking about that piece of work and some of your other examples that I’ve seen from you, like the corset that connects to the stock market – how do you get your ideas? How does inspiration come to you?

“Well that’s a bit of a challenging question to answer because sometimes you just don’t know and maybe for every project it’s a bit different. But with both of those two works, I think both of those were inspired by data feeds.”

What do you mean by that?

“Just by browsing online and thinking about what kind of realtime data could I wear on the body. What does it mean to wear data sets on the body and how does that change if I wear that as a skirt or a shirt or as a whatever…. and you start to enrich your concept by viewing it from all these different angles and thinking about things like would the Earthquake skirt work as a pair of shoes. How would the idea change? How would the information convey something else? I think with the Stock Market lingerie – there was a little more humour in that one. It was like let’s take two unlikely things, stock market data feed and lingerie and pair them together and see what kind of environment I’m playing in then. So sometimes there’s just that bit of whimsy and then at other times it’s a little bit more directed, but there’s always a starting point and for those two works it was definitely about starting with real time data feeds and thinking about how that can be worn on the body.”

So looking at the data that’s out there and how you can play with it?

“Yeah, viewing data as some kind of malleable tool that you can shape and transform and give new meaning to depending on how you use it; to give it a body. I mean really it’s just numbers, so how do you make those numbers relevant, how do you contextualise it, what changes as a result?   Working with real time data is something that’s been consistent in my work for the last five years and I think it’s really about how do you give the data body and give it some kind of conceptual point.”

In terms of other makers in this space, or even other makers in other artistic spaces, is there anyone you particularly admire?

“I don’t know many people who identify themselves as makers. I mean I know people who identify themselves as artists or designers. I know people through OCAD who are part of maker communities, but I don’t know if they identify as makers because they have backgrounds in art or design. I don’t know what the divide is. I often struggle with that terminology because I’ve had people refer to me as a maker, but I don’t feel that I’m a maker. I feel that I’m an artist. But because we often share the same tools and spaces, the line gets blurry and I’m just not sure where that divide is.”

I know that some of the wearable sessions we’ve both been at, there’s been a lot of discussion that batteries still pose one of the greatest challenges for someone working in this space? Since this was a problem that I experienced 14 years ago, it always seems sad that we haven’t made more progress. Is there anything else that isn’t happening that you think would transform this space?

“I think that’s true, if you look at some of the material we use in soft circuit building like conductive thread and conductive fabric –these kind of materials, they’re repurposed from other sources. Like conductive thread that’s used to fix fencing garments, so conductive thread’s been around for a really long time. Conductive fabric that’s used for EMF shielding – I feel like I have to sit and think about what’s really our own? What hasn’t been repurposed somehow from some other space. And I think at the last Toronto Wearables Meetup, Nick Puckett spoke a little but about that – that there’s such limited access to a lot of these really interesting materials because the market isn’t out there; it’s only being manufactured for industry and if industry doesn’t see a reason for it it won’t get produced. As Nick exemplified, Shape-changing polymers are somewhat hard to come by, and hard to get manufactured to your specifics. In wearable tech, we face this similar challenge in that we just don’t have that much control over some of the materials that we’re using.”

Is that because wearable tech is still a relatively niche space and it would be hard to generate sufficient demand for new materials?

“If I wanted to create my own conductive thread, there would me some pretty significant challenges in doing that and it would be hard to get such a small quantity made and all of these things that are a challenge for a DIY community in connecting with large manufacturers. There’s like a huge divide there, but one area in which we are more successful is like circuit board design and printing PCB, but there’s still further exploration that needs to happen with flexible PCBs that can truly be worn on the body and truly integrated into garments. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. I mean flexible is out there – flexible electronics are totally available, but they’re still not ideal to wear on the body. I think where we are headed is working with nano-transistors and these microscopic electronic components that can actually exist on a single piece of thread and get incorporated into the weave of a garment/fabric, which I think is ultimately where wearable tech needs to go. And it is going. At some pace, anyway. It’s happening and there’s research in that area, but we don’t have access at this point.”

And I think you were also skeptical as to whether these supposedly washable circuits were actually that washable?

“Yeah and I mean they’re not like very comfortable. They’re not very conducive to a comfortable, wearable circuit. We’re still pushing through this period of time. It’s just about the trajectory of wearable tech and where we are in that process, that evolution. And things are improving, but we still have a lot of aspirations.

I designed this circuit board that sits in a scarf [shows example] but it’s heavy and bulky and there are things that catch on the fabric. Components can break off, and it’s just not an ideal way to wear something. For now, I think wearable tech is more about prototyping. I think we’re prototyping for the future and we’re expressing how we want technology to work for us when we consider how it lives on the body. I mean this is my wireless scarf, but no-one’s really going to go out and wear this. It’s got this big clunker of electronics in it. I can’t wash this. It has a wire running through it that doesn’t look very good or feel very good. I can change the type of wire, but I can’t get away from the fact that it needs a battery and I can’t away from the size of the radio I need.”

And thinking about that, do you have any specific hopes for Toronto’s Maker Faire?

“Having a strong presence of wearable tech there would be great; it puts a nice spin on craft and textiles and computation. It’s so multi-faceted, wearable technology, so it would be great to show people the potential of wearable tech. We’ve talked about having a fashion show and how that represents us (the wearables community) – the issues involves -like the fact it many wearable tech pieces are not robust and therefore can be difficult to wear and move. We’ve also talked about an exhibition hall, which I prefer because most people like to connect with the person that made the work and talk to them about it.

I’d like to see some really inspirational talks, perhaps with some kind of theme, like the human-technology relationship. Like cyborgology etc… What are the common themes? I’d love to use some of the ideas coming out of academia as inspiration for projects.”

Something more intellectual?