How I Work Open: Afroditi Psarra

Photo of Afroditi Psarra

Afroditi Psarra
Assistant Professor
Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media

Spotlight on: Digital Arts

What kind of open work do you do?
I am an interdisciplinary artist, scholar and educator working in the field of e-textiles (electronic textiles) by merging traditional crafting techniques (like stitching, knitting, weaving etc) with digital electronics and creative coding. I am inspired by science fiction literature and the idea of the extended body, but also craftsmanship and textile tradition, to create open-source hand-crafted technological artifacts with poetic narratives and retro-futuristic aesthetics.

How would you describe your research to your colleagues?
My research focuses on the idea of the human body as an interface. In my PhD dissertation I focused on the concept of technological embodiment in science fiction literature and how it translated into the realm of new media art and performance. I mainly explored the idea of virtuality, mythology, gender and sexuality in the construction of technological bodies. Taking that as a starting point and using the field of e-textiles I have developed a series of artworks that aim to reimagine our interaction with our bodies and our surroundings through hand-crafted sensing and actuating mechanisms, that include the use of light, sound and movement. As an assistant professor at the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) I have set up the “SoftLab” at the department’s digital fabrication lab, a place for experimenting with electronic crafts and wearable technology. My current research focuses on the idea of sensing the invisible through wearables – cosmic radiation, electromagnetic fields (EMF), wearable antenna designs and fractal geometry.

How would you describe your research to your family?
My research focuses on how our bodies interact with each other and our surroundings. I approach this idea by using traditional crafting techniques with “smart” materials – p.e. I use conductive thread to create textile electronic circuits that can be programmed in the computer and create different automations. At the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) I run the “SoftLab” at our digital fabrication lab, a space dedicated to anyone that wants to experiment with theses techniques. Currently I am exploring what sensing mechanisms can be used to detect the invisible radiation that surrounds us in the form of electromagnetism, radio waves, wifi networks and cosmic rays, and how can we create antennas on fabric that we can wear and perceive these waves in the form of light, sound and vibration.

How do you work openly?
As an artist and scholar working in the frontier of art & technology I use research methodologies in order to create new work, and consequently, I publish this research with open-source licenses. Furthermore, I use tactics like maintaining an open studio, exhibiting the work at different stages and publishing my experiments online along the way, presenting papers at different conferences, journals and symposiums, as well as giving public talks as a means of engaging in conversation with other practitioners and acquiring meaningful feedback that can help me further my research.

What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
Some of the methodologies that I use are focused around the production/fabrication of e-textiles – like DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others), Practice as Research/Performance as Research, Learning through Making (or Learning by Doing) – which I apply as well to my classes. In addition, I teach workshops on subjects that I am currently researching to open up the development of the work in order to get people from different backgrounds engaged with the field and learn through this experimentation.

The tools that I use include old-fashioned stitching needles, scissors and cutters, pliers, sewing and knitting machines and digital fabrication machines like laser cutters and 3d printers, but also open-source tools created by other e-textile practitioners that are specific to the field – such as a multimeter crochet hook, precision needle alligator clips, or a seam ripper that can measure electrical continuity.

In terms of hardware I always work with open-source micro controllers, p.e. Arduino boards, or use directly programmable chips. And in terms of software I use open-source platforms like Processing (for generative imagery), Arduino (for physical interactions), Fritzing (for circuit/breadboard schematics) and SuperCollider (for sound synthesis). I always publish my projects on Github including all the different elements of the project: circuit schematics, code, images and videos.

What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
One of the major disadvantages of publishing my work openly is that I frequently see images of my artwork in different websites to promote commercial products, festivals and other sort of events without a mention to the author, or the original website where the images were extracted from. Another barrier that I have been faced with is trying to use a commercial machine for a specific project and in order to be able to use it openly, having to reverse engineer it and create another version of it. In terms of research, much of the information that is included in my work comes from books, journals, texts and images with copyright that in many cases cannot be used in its original form and have to be only used as reference material, rephrased and reimagined.

What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
Some of the skills that I had to learn are rooted in the textile tradition: stitching, embroidery, knitting, crochet, weaving and pattern making/reading, while others are rooted in electrical engineering and computer science. These skills include low-level techniques: soldering electronic components, breaking down sensors and actuators to understand how they work, to higher-level such as learning diverse programming environments and languages. Finally, I had to acquire skills relative to materials science and physics, for example: understanding the composition and the chemical characteristics of different “smart” materials (conductive yarns, piezo-resistive fabrics, thermochromic pigments etc), as well as understanding the physics behind electronic circuitry.

Why do you work openly?
Working openly permits me to share my experiments with my peers while furthering my own personal research and skills.

How did you get started working openly?
Working openly occurred naturally, as I started engaging with technology through online tutorials, forums and communities based on the use of open-source tools and methodologies.

What sparked your interest in open scholarship?
The fact that it encompasses the idea of open access to data, information and methods that are key to my field of research.

Why do you think open scholarship is important?
Because it democratises the use of information, tools and machines, the idea of scientific research and the process of production in all fields.

What opportunities does working openly offer that traditional scholarship does not?
It allows for everyone to gain access to diverse information around many fields and topics, without limiting access to people of different genders, races, cultural and socio-economical backgrounds.

Do you incorporate open methods into your teaching?
Yes. In my studio classes I teach the use of open-source tools – such as the ones mentioned above, and I encourage students to publish their work using open licenses.

What’s your vision for an open future?
I envision a future where the production of cultural and technological artifacts is being developed in an open way, where both physical, as well as digital objects and services can be customized to fit each person’ s needs. A future where we understand the repercussions of technological development and act responsibly towards them, where information flows freely and tech giants share all the data that they collect with everyone, instead of using them as marketing strategies.

What do you think is the future of open scholarship in your field?
The future of open scholarship in the field of art and technology should encourage the use of open-source tools, the idea of working with open data and the notion of publishing the work in a way that is accessible to everyone who wants to build upon existing projects and ideas. Especially in the field of Media Art, acting like we have invented the wheel and being secretive about it, alienates the artist from the public and generates art that is self-referential, and thus can potentially lead to cultural decline.

Specifically, in the field of electronic textiles, although open scholarship is already a common approach in the practitioners’ community, if in the future it could extend to the textiles/technology industry, it will create a fruitful dialogue between artists and engineers that will facilitate the creation of meaningful artifacts.

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