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It Takes a Village to Raise an Artist: The Smart Textiles Class from MICA/JHU

MICA Smart Textiles professors Annet Couwenberg and James Rouvelle - Arianne Teeple
MICA Smart Textiles professors Annet Couwenberg and James Rouvelle - Arianne Teeple
A tapestry hangs on the wall, its shades of blue dim in the dark room. The audience turns in their folding chairs to watch as the artist snaps his fingers in front of the fabric. A smattering of white lights appear in response to each snap, revealing the neat array of LED dots that has been worked into the swirling patterns of dye. When he finishes the demonstration, the audience's applause lights up four rows of lights. A fifth row on the bottom blinks intermittently, like the cloth is clapping back.

And so the semester ends and the reception begins for the Fall 2010 "Wash & Wear Electronics"  course, a collaboration between MICA and Johns Hopkins. The students have presented their final works to a packed room of guests.

About three years ago, MICA fiber faculty member Annet Couwenberg, speaking with the Chair of Interaction Design and Art, James Rouvelle, realized that some of the aesthetic designs her students were coming up with -- how to make fabric respond to a cue on demand, light up, or make sounds -- were getting technically advanced. Fiber was going digital. Rouvelle, with a background in electronics, thought working together would benefit both their students and they began to conceptualize a class.

MICA's Fiber Department Chair put them in touch with the director of the Digital Media Center at Hopkins, Joan Freedman. The three soon designed the "Collaborative Smart Textiles Research Lab." Freedman secured funding with a JHU Arts Innovation Grant. Now the class has been taught three times.

For six hours every Wednesday night this Fall, the artists and engineers got to work together. "Fifteen weeks is short," says Couwenberg, and students start with little if any "tech" background. Hopkins guest lectures helped to change that. Engineers specializing in materials or bodies, computer scientists, and graphics and audio staff from the Digital Media Center all lent their expertise. Sometimes the students visited labs, seeing body sensors like heartbeat monitors in action. To make fiber projects that "react" to physical cues, the students needed to incorporate sensors like that into their designs.

But once a tapestry has sound sensors, it needs a brain to process the information from a snap. Rouvelle brought a solution: the LilyPad Arduino. This credit card-sized microcontroller is an easy to use, programmable platform designed to be sewn or mounted into textiles. It communicates with sensors using conductive threads or wires. With the LilyPad, students could orchestrate their projects as they chose, perhaps making lights dance along a hemline or music change with a pulse rate.

Set up like a workshop in a MICA studio -- with some space also at Hopkins -- the class ran long into each night. After a while, no one was taking dinner breaks anymore. Most of the students continued their work at home. The computer scientist from Hopkins got help with sewing and the artists learned how to solder and program. Their designs included, on the more abstract end, a waist-high white box with a hemisphere of spiky fabric sticking out the top that pulsed to a heartbeat, sub-woofer-like. Other projects seemed more mainstream, like the legwarmer-looking horse boot with lights up the side that turn off as the hoof lifts, a feature useful to trainers studying a gallop. Another student made a glove that controls sound when the fingers bend, which the artist hopes to use in puppet performance.

Two girls, both foreigners, used sound as "nonverbal communication" to depict the feeling of being isolated in a new city: their backpacks emitted static-y noise like an AM radio that changed frequency as they got closer together. Face to face, they pulled tent-like structures out of their packs and over their heads which they connected, forming a small, LED-lit cocoon. They called themselves Urban Aliens.

Then there were the volunteers, locals who just wanted to be involved. Like Gary Mauler, founder of the somewhat-infamous Robot Fest who, after a friend accused him "of being a left brain engineer without any art appreciation," began looking for a way to prove her wrong. Mauler found Rouvelle and spent a summer asking him questions about the smart textiles class until finally, he thought, "I might as well just come up." From there, it was no going back. He got his son Robert, a tech-savvy student at UMBC, to start assisting as well. "When we show up we're just non-stop," says Mauler, "just one student after another with questions." The artists, he says, are out of their element and he and the other volunteers are "like tech support."

Even so, Mauler wasn't always in his own element either. The hardest question he was ever asked? How to match the color of electro-lumino wires to a skirt. In his Bawlmer twang he tells it, "I said, girl, look. Your world and my world are pretty far apart. You don't ask an engineer to match colors." Still a few seconds later he is already admitting that "it's interesting to be asked about the art side of a piece."

How did having so many different lecturers, professors, and Baltimoreans change the experience of the class? One MICA student, as he spoke to the audience, burst out, "This is what education should be."


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Photos:

- HOMEPAGE IMAGE - "Urban Aliens" by MICA fiber senior Anna Obikane and MICA graphic design senior Sunny Oh - photo courtesy of Dan Meyers
- MICA Smart Textiles professors Annet Couwenberg and James Rouvelle - Photo by Arianne Teeple
- "Midi Puppet" fiber piece by MICA junior Peter Ahlach - Photo courtesy of Dan Meyers
- Anna and Sunny work with lilly pad mounted to fabric - photo courtesy of Wendy Tai
- "Lighting Umbrella" fiber piece by MICA junior Matthew Reading - photo courtesy of Dan Meyers
- "The Breath of Life" piece by JHU Whiting School of Engineering, Environmental Engineering sophomore Peter Bai and MICA fiber senior Samara Rosen - photo courtesy of Dan Meyers
- MICA Smart Textiles professors James Rouvelle and Annet Couwenberg - Photo by Arianne Teeple
- "Urban Aliens" by MICA fiber senior Anna Obikane and MICA graphic design senior Sunny Oh - photo courtesy of Dan Meyers
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