Interview with Syuzi Pakhchyan: Wiring garments and objects… creatively…

by deborah on 10/4/2010

Syuzi Pakhchyan is a passionate  user experience designer, robotics instructor, writer, blogger, founder of Fashioning technology network, soft circuits  and electronics addict, tool master, sparkle maker,  and sewing machine’s best friend…

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Two years ago she has published the book ‘Fashioning Technology – A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting‘, and her works are regularly presented at DIY wearable technology and smart textiles scenes,  in magazines & blogs & portals such as Craftzine, Makezine, Instructables, Talk2myshirt, Ecouterre, Technewsdaily, etc. Between all this Syuzi regularly partakes at craft fairs and technology conferences.

She received her BFA from UC Berkeley in Literature and MFA in Media Design from the Art Center College of Design. Lives and works in LA.

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Photo taken from FashionCampLA (c)

Ladiez and Gentlemen, Syuzi Pakhchyan!

Hi Syuzi! Tell me, how did you start to play seriously with clothing interface and interactive design? Especially after graduating Slavic Culture and Languages; and International Relations…

SP: I actually started my undergraduate degree as a math major at Berkeley. At 17 all I knew is that I had an aptitude for math and that I loved to read. I quickly dropped math for rather superficial reasons — I didn’t relate to my peers — and I much preferred discussing the problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics with friends.

In my studies in literary theory, I was introduced to magical realism. I found the elements of combining the fantastic and fiction with reality to understand deeper truths fascinating.

Since my short lived attempts to enter the corporate world —first as a technical writer and later as a web designer — failed because I simply quickly lost interest, I decided to head to graduate school Art Center College of Design.

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Space Invaders Tote by Syuzi Pakhchyan (c)

There I was allowed the luxury to tinker and hone in on my disparate interests which eventually lead to wearable technology and back to fiction, design and writing.

For me, wearable technology (today) is an exploration of design and fiction. In a sense, I view it as an expression of “magical realism.” It allows us designers and artists to imagine a near future using the “magic” of technology to better understand ourselves and our world. By creating functional wearables that give us fantastic super human powers — such as the ability to sense invisible toxins in our environment — it allows us to better understand, and ideally change, our relationship to our environment.

So that conceptually is the frayed thread that links what I do now to what I did then.

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Solar Crawler by Syuzi Pakhchyan

Your work isn’t based on the principles ‘craft only’ or ‘heavy processing’ exclusively, but it’s based on sort of cultural approach… For instance, you are one of the rare bloggers who makes distinction between performance and performance art. I’ve noticed in your writings that you don’t like labels or boundaries, too…

SP: I think that largely stems from the fact that I’m a generalist with a specific interest in wearable technology. Personally I find that amazing things always happen in liminal spaces between things. I tend to like projects where a variety of disciplines come together to work towards one specific goal— the outcome typically is less predictable.

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Your book ‘Fashioning technology – A DIY Intro to Smart Craft’ on making wearables is one of the ground books for smart crafting and garments networks… What kind of feedbacks did you get from people? Has publishing of this book made a significant change in your career?

SP: I’ve received largely wonderful feedback from people — positive feedback along with hints of constructive criticism — which I respect. The book gave me the discipline and impetus to start the blog. I knew that shortly after I published the book a lot of it would become obsolete so I started fashioningtech.com to continue on the conversation. Writing the book and maintaining the blog has allowed me to meet and connect with my peers and colleagues and has allowed me to create a platform from which we collectively can continue to grow and inspire each other.

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LED bracelet by Syuzi Pakhchyan

You are definitely not a victim of any styles in your own artwork… you like to combine all sorts of materials, using elements of 8bit retro aesthetics, modern trends, a variety of style… What inspired you to get into fashion driven wearables?

SP: Interesting. I actually feel that is one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. I don’t think I had the time, nor the courage to craft a specific stylistic voice for the projects in the book. First of all, I felt that if it was too specific I would alienate a bunch of crafters and makers that weren’t interested in the stylistic approach. So I attempted to generalize it but, in the end, I feel it also seems a little too eclectic.

My personal style/voice is more dark and off-kilter— I don’t know how well a wearable tech book with a collection of projects done almost entirely in black would have done. 🙂

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Glam The Glo Bug by Syuzi Pakhchyan

You love to design pieces for interiors and interactive toys, too…

SP: I love designing toys! Personally I have a toy collection of random electronic and mechanical toys that I have acquired over the years on my travels. My first blog, which is no longer, focused specifically on bizarre electronic, interactive and robotic toys mostly from Japan.

I’ve noticed that you’re very fond to the idea of using alternative energy sources, especially with garments…

SP: I still have a hard time thinking that we will be plugging our clothes into outlets in the future. (Perhaps our future hangers will be charging stations?). I believe that we will need to use an alternative energy source to make wearables both sustainable and usable.

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Photo taken from Makezine (c)

How do you see the development of textiles and fibres in electronic context, and the development of different techniques in smart crafting?

SP: DIY techniques typically aren’t as reliable as manufactured techniques for the obvious reasons. I think if we had textile-based sensors available at an affordable cost we would not need to craft them ourselves. I feel it’s derived out of necessity.

On the other hand, by making your own sensors for example, you learn a lot more about how these simple technologies work. This hands-on knowledge is invaluable.

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Photo taken from Makezine (c)

I inherently believe most of us learn more and better from making than simply reading. Even if in the near future we have an array of commercial soft sensors and technologies to work with, it will still be valuable to make a few from scratch.

For the sake of developing and moving beyond prototypes, we will need more tools with consistent results for the field of wearables to grow. Plus we can then begin focusing on the aesthetics and the more valuable cultural and conceptual ramifications of what we make and why we make them rather than spending half our time troubleshooting our hand-crafted sensors.

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Lilypad Arduino

Can we divide the wearable technology scene between something like ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Arduino has been invented? Particularly now, when there is a term used colloquially like ‘Arduino Art’…

SP: I think the Lilypad Arduino made it more attractive for people to get into working with electronic textiles. Additionally the introduction of the Lilypad Arduino also brought along with it the accessibility of conductive threads and fabrics.

I think it was more difficult to make wearables pre-arduino since you had to beg a manufacturer for conductive thread but I wouldn’t classify any of the work as pre-Arduino or post-Arduino. Maybe that’s because i don’t like boundaries… 😉

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I’ve heard in one of your video interviews that you wanted to create a sort of wiki for interactive garments community… You have now Fashioning Technology network which is based on Ning service… What was the initial trigger for starting Fashioning technology network?

SP: As I mentioned previously, I knew the day that I started writing the book that it would become obsolete quickly after it was published. I needed to keep it relevant and the conversations around wearable technology thriving and the web is the perfect vehicle for that.

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Photo taken from Makezine (c)

Network culture is increasingly important… How is your network important for the wearable technology scene? What do you think is the future of Fashioning Technology network?

SP: Like most blogs, the Fashioning Technology network is a labor of love. I don’t serve ads on it so I don’t make any money from it— I only make friends. The latter is incredibly important to me. Even in a large city like Los Angeles, I don’t know many other people working in the field of wearable technology. It’s a way for me personally to connect with others and for others to connect with each other.

If I had the resources and time I would do things much differently. But for now, the Ning network works. In this past year, I’ve collaborated with a few guest bloggers from different parts of the world bringing their unique perspective to the FT network. I hope to keep growing these collaborations.

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E-Puppets by Syuzi Pakhchyan

What techniques and equipment do you use in your own work? If there is such, what is your favourite piece of equipment or tool?

SP: I just got a laser cutter in my studio space so I’ve playing around with that a lot lately. Other than that, basic tinkering and traditional pattern drafting and sewing.

You also teach kids electronics and robotics… What kind of responses did you get from kids?

SP: I love working with children. I actually prefer teaching children over adults because I learn a lot from them. I learn what interests them, what toys, gadgets, and video games they are interested in and why. They inspire me. The products and wearables that I hope to design in the future will inherently be more relevant in their lives than for my peers.

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Aerial the Birdie Brooch by Syuzi Pakhchyan

How do you usually deal with creative blocks, either as artist&maker or a blogger&writer?

SP: I try to surround myself with hard-working creative people. When I’m being personally unproductive, I try to volunteer my time to help out with other people’s projects. I share my studio with a director, a sculptor, and stop-motion animator. There is always inspiration to be found there.

You are a regular visitor and lecturer at craft fairs and conventions… This Spring you had a public conversation in Austin, jointly with Alison Lewis from Ihearswitch.com titled ‘Duh…It’s Like Tech for Girls <3.‘, in order to foster girlz to play with electronic crafts and textiles? Seems like the most of wearable technology & DIY scene is being moved by women… Am I right or wrong? What changes have you noticed in last 4, 5 years?

SP: Wearable technology in the DIY world is being predominately pioneered by a group of brilliant women (Leah Buechley, Sabine Seymour, Alison Lewis, Hannah Perner Wilson— to name a few). I don’t know exactly if that is the case in the commercial world of Nike, Apple, or Adidas who have a vested interested in wearable tech.

In the DIY realm, we’re getting more tools and products targeted at the smart crafting and E-textile communities. In the commercial world, companies like Adidas are gobbling up smart textile manufacturers so that must mean that we will be seeing more high tech commercial wearables in the future.

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Photo taken from Makerfaire (c)

 

Lots of exciting things are happening right now in interactive textiles and wear tech scene… But I really have to ask you what are your thoughts on where wearable technology is going to be in the future?

SP: I believe wearable technology will become quite interesting and relevant when begin to network garments with our other mobile devices. Personally I don’t think that the garments themselves will have much computational power — they will function more as sensing mediums and as an interface to control our other “mobile” technologies.

Once we get our garments linked to other devices the possibilities really are endless.

And your future plans and dreams are…

SP: I hope in the next five years to run a design studio specifically focused on bringing wearable technologies to market. I hope to have a variety of individuals with diverse backgrounds from PHDs in fashion theory to, of course, hardware and software engineers, collaborating to create near-future products.

Syuzi, Tnx a lot!

http://averagejanecrafter.blogspot.com/2008/10/fashioning-technology.html