Interview with Stefanie Wuschitz, part 1: On Women, Technology and Hacking Playground

by deborah on 08/5/2011

Ladiez and Gentlemen, it’s time to start with a series of interviews I did during amazing Belgrade’s Napravi me / Make Me Festival in June. My first guest will be hardware hackin’ lady and artist Stefanie Wuschitz, the founder of Vienna’s Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory – Women and Trans hacklab.

 

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Stefanie Wuschitz, photo taken from F-book (cc)


Hi Stefanie! Tell me something about your art and hacking roots… You are educated as an artist, but then you decided to seriously mess around with electronics, DIY, open sourcing, activism, workshopism… When did you hook up to all these things?

SW: I studied media art with video art and animation, and then I participated at Eclectic Tech Carnival in Graz, I think it was in 2005, and I got addicted (laughs). I was very impressed by the women that I’ve met there. I thought, Wow, we can do it! And they are not unhappy, strange geeks but very cool and strong women. Then maybe I could do it too. I was really impressed by these tools of self-expression, writing, making web sites, editing sound, making interactive stuff and opening computers and finding out more about how things work.

After that, I did MA in interactive telecommunications in New York. There we had a very dedicated boss, an old woman who does the art class for thirty years. She always invites 1/3 of IT people, 1/3 artists and 1/3 designers. She always gets 50% girls and 50% boys. So, it‘s a very diverse environment and then you collaborate on projects together. Hence, artists learn a lot about hardware and coding, designers to do art projects, whilst IT people open up to really weird ideas on how to use technology, so everyone can kind of improve and help the others.

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Barbie wiring by Stefanie Wuschitz (cc)
Taken from mzbaltazarslaboratory.org

Is this the same school Sabine Saymour (author of books ‘Fashionable Technology’ and ‘Functional Aesthetics’) has finished too, right?

SW: Yes, exactly! It’s the same program. She was the only person I knew in Austria that had attended the program (laughs). So, I called her, although I didn’t know her at the time and asked what it’s like to study there? She said: Yeah, it’s great! You should do it!

I got the scholarship and went there for two years, but then I thought it’s really unfair that in such an exclusive environment there are no many people from ethnic minorities. I thought it would be cool to share all these knowledge – open source and open hardware. So that you don’t have to go to university and ask in order to learn (laughs). Something you can just teach each other.

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Interactive Storytelling Workshop featuring Stefanie Wuschitz (cc)
Photo taken from Stefanie’s F-book private album

Seems like you’re more interested in open source hardware, then in open source software?

SW: Yeah! I’m interested in how to sense the world, I’m interested in interfaces of communication and how to create new interfaces for enabling to play with the environment and express yourself through it. If there is software needed it for it, YES, I’ll do it. But it’s not so much fun for me to produce the software. It’s more fun to try to find new ways how to interact with the world, which becomes meaningful.

When I have a choice to do whatever I like mostly I would do 50% art and 50% activism. I’m trying to build structures in which is fun to work, it’s playful and sort of experiment with socializing. I find that really important.

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Are You Conductive? Workshop led by Stefanie Wuschitz
Photo taken from grenzartikel.com (cc)

Since you are basically both, artist and hardware hacker, what is your opinion on the current state in new media art regarding working processes? Let me explain briefly what I mean. There are so many artists that use programmers and engineers to make their work, and very often I’m listening engineers and hackers complaining that they would love to show practically everything to the artist in order to motivate him/her to do their work completely on their own… Of course, not everyone needs to know everything, but isn’t this position a little bit tricky for the artist? I would even say isn’t this a little bit old fashioned?

SW:  You mean when they ask them to do it for them? Well, I think it’s a big decision to give away this process into the hands of someone else, because it’s the most creative phase of your work, actually to get into the making phase from the conceptual one, and usually it changes a lot. I mean, if you ask a sculptor, if you know how to do it and then you work on it, there is a big difference, it develops into the phase when you actually work with the material.

So, if you give that into the hands of some else they make creative decisions for you. And then I think it’s very problematic if an artist says It’s my project, because in the end it’s a collaboration between this technician and the artist. Because there are so many things that you have to do, of course, it depends if you just have very, very clear idea what you want. But then it’s also boring kind of art, it’s always just going from A to B. I think, a project can be extremely surprising, the interest in exiting and seeing where the process is taking you when you make and discover something new.

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Drawings by Stefanie Wuschitz made for Make.Me Festival! (cc)

It’s about the tinkering…

SW: Yeah, I think there is some kind of progress that you make when you are trying to find something and when there is an error, and then you try something else, and then you realise that you should do it other way previously. So, I think apart from the fact that you give away the material and the decision making process, it’s also politically problematic.

If it’s always a girl paying a man or being nice to man in order to have them program their artwork, it’s just hiring them. I think it’s really, really difficult if you work in a lab and you deal with certain people and you always have to be the one who is receiving and you can’t be who you want to be, then it’s typical female things, cooking and you do the graphics (laughs). It’s perpetuating the structures.

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Wearable Technology Workshop led by Stefanie Wuschitz (cc)
Photo taken from Stefanie’s F-book private album

And with that aim you founded Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory – Women and Trans hacklab?

SW: Yeah, we started Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory to have interdisciplinary collaborations and to be creative, to find new tools of expressions in electronics and new media. So, girls are encouraged to do things themselves and not to be so respectful towards it, because it’s something they can learn for themselves too.

In order to see that it’s not so extremely mysterious and holy and beyond their capability, you know. But it’s something you can actually do if you have understood that and realized how to do it. Normally, after that you can maybe also reflect this experience to other practices, and you can turn yourself in other circumstances, as someone who is making and doing things, something you would not have believed that you could do.

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Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory Crew (cc)
Photo taken from the official site

So, it’s an NGO…

SW: Yeah, it’s an NGO. I mean, we are tiny but we got some funding. So, we are able to pay all lectures, and that’s also important because in the culture field there is so much exploitation, self-exploitation. Therefore, we are trying to value people’s skills and when they share something that’s private because it’s their own artwork, and we are trying to acknowledge that.

There are so many organization, projects, and institutions in new media nowadays, but they have usually one way communication, something like festivals and it’s always towards the audience. There is no communication from all sides. That’s very interesting with the hacklabs and shareable cultures…

SW: Yeah, the interesting thing is that we took the concept from the Genderchangers, through the Eclectic Tech Carnival, because they were really convinced that it’s important to participate, which is also kind of sharing and contributing. At the Eclectic Tech Carnival everyone participating is also giving a workshop, and then it’s a group of people where all share.

I mean, in this case, of course is almost undoable you can’t have lecture, than you would sit for three weeks if really everyone here would give a workshop, I guess. But from that tendency we tried to have everyone see themselves as active and passive, like giving and taking, and being exposed to information because then again you feel like paralyzed in  a way.

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Photo by Stefanie Wuschitz from Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory Workshop (cc)

What are your experiences with sharing knowledge in different cultures? Have you found working with a variety of people from all backgrounds rewarding?

SW: I think there are different qualities of how we collaborate. Like in Syria for example, people are really used to collaborate a lot, because there is a lot of trouble, and people are just sticking together more.  They are very improvisational and spontaneous, but basically I think in the movement of our Lab we have this very special environment that we create with Women and Trans Only and then technology, that’s so specific. This experience of being in this whole circle is really special, creative and very safe environment. Therefore, it’s much more influential then the history or the society where participants live.

But groups are always very diverse, and  I think that at the end most people realize in their groups that actually the only thing they have in common is that they are maybe all afraid of technology (laughs), based on the society around them, who says NO, there is nothing for you here! So, the moment we realized that you are more afraid to do whatever you like because you realize, OK this is from outside, this perception of myself, that I feel uneasy.

Access Denied: DI_Yourself: Stefanie Wuschitz talks about her experience
in international hacker spaces during Transmediale 2011

Did you see some differences in the final result?

SW: I’ve seen more similarities, that’s interesting! Many people are significantly interested in these wireless and connective things. I think that a lot of the things that come out at the beginning are about communication and contact, triggering some reaction in something else. Well that’s my interpretation, that kind of expression of what you experience if you are at the 3 or 4 days workshop in the group.

Then there is a lot of connection and you trigger thoughts in someone else. Yeah, it’s a very fertile environment and the output you have is also about these things that are sparking each other and one enlightening the other, one touch is making lights go on.

It’s also a lot about different phases you go though. That’s also many times a topic that comes out in the artwork  produced within this process and the character of an artwork. Also, it’s easier to do that with interactive media rather than with the painting, I think, because it’s time based. So, you might enter a room and the video camera is tracking you, and then something else happens, then you move in a different way, something happens…

Therefore, the performance space and time based characters are also reflected in the content of the artwork. Because it’s often about life phases or relationship phases, you know. So, there are similarities and differences. Differences are very much smaller then I would have ever expected between people…

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From Coatlicue performance (c)
Photo taken from grenzartikel.com

That’s nice to hear… Could we talk a little bit about this combination of low tech and high tech, because your workshop here at Make Me Festival is an example of this – on one side Arduino and on the other side the usage of old obsolete parts from mobile phones combined with the photocell…

SW: Yeah, it’s funny, you know, this inflation of what is technology or what isn’t technology, yeah… For me, it’s more sensational to work with stuff that is not seeing as technology anymore (laughs). It’s easier to put some meaning in it and see it as a poetic thing, while the things that are really new, they are labelled as TECHNOLOGY, you know, just like the transcendence like ‘Have you seen this Macintosh’. It’s so light and smooth, it has all these status qualities…

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Angst Dolls Workshop led by Stefanie Wuschitz
Photo by body pixel (cc)

Yeah, I know… I’m a former Mac user (laughs)… But no chance to get back, especially after getting an introduction to the Linux community… Of course, then this opportunity  to choose what I want, using dual boot or as many operating systems I want…and Hackintosh is also very cool option to try out…

SW: It’s really something people are not allowed to touch and question. So, I think that things that are associated with low tech are just the ones that people sympathize more in the art world, which is like: yeah, making it yourself and changing to your own needs, and adapting it, reusing it and not just wasting energies and resources. There is a certain language associated with the use of low tech, I guess. The certain culture associate with low tech, that’s when people are so happy about it in the moment, because it’s just a reaction to a lot of things in our world that we might criticize a lot.

Jump into the second part of the interview with Stefanie Wuschitz: Don’t scare of technology, dismantle it!