Creative technologist, designer and all-round amazing human Alice Stewart works between London and Amsterdam, as an educator, artist and researcher. In March 2019, as Touchy-Feely Tech she joins us in Berlin for the Build-Your-Own-Vibrator workshop, an introduction to electronics, hardware and customisable pleasure. We are pleased to also announce, that she will be joining us in the summer for the Physical Computing for Beginners program, between the 1-26 July 2019. We spoke to her about vibrators, education, tech and being a human which crosses over all these topics today.
Tell me a bit about Touchy-Feely Tech. How did that start out and what does it encompass?
Touchy-Feely Tech came about because I thought it was a nice idea to sound more like an organisation when running workshops and doing commercial projects. It is the team of myself, and Dani Clode, who is an amazing product designer and researcher who has designed the cases for the DIY Vibrators. What it encompasses is in the name - tech that is a little softer, romantic, curious - but also I liked that we could play with the negative connotations of ‘Touchy-Feely’ and reclaim the phrase into something nice. I love hardware and think that it’s such a unique artistic expression, and want to share this sentiment with everyone - I guess it starts with the name!
“Making your own stuff in general increases the intimacy we share with our possessions”
Why vibrators as a DIY project?
Vibrators are really interesting objects to me, they are sort of neutral objects. They are very specific in their purpose, but can come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They are also so taboo, they aren’t meant to be handled in public - but interestingly if you make your own, in a group of people, this taboo disappears. If you make a ‘controversial’ object from scratch, it feels safer and less alienating. I think making your own stuff in general increases the intimacy we share with our possessions. What object is more intimate than a vibrator? I like the idea of DIY educational projects ending with an outcome you can actually use, rather than something you will throw away. I hope that after crafting such a personal item and engaging with it on a few different levels, people will cherish it a bit more than a radio or a blinking LED.
What’s attractive about using Arduino for this purpose?
It’s a great way to introduce people to programming, and Arduino as a platform embodies similar values to the DIY Vibrator workshops - like access to information, demystification, and having a good time! What’s your favourite aspect of these sorts of workshops?
The fact that the workshops and the project in general resonate with people is so motivating. When people feel proud of themselves for making something it feels great to have helped enable that. Aside from this, I have really love art directing the workshops, like designing the worksheets and collaborating with friends to create the visual identity.
Your practice encompasses design, art and tech very much in the context of education. What does this afford to your practice, and your own ambitions?
Most of my work involves some type of education or demystification of a subject or theme. Usually I learn something and immediately want to share it - I try to put that special kind of positive energy that you feel when you understand something new (however small it might be) into the making of a new project and I hope that people feel that come across when they experience whatever it is. I think I enjoy learning the basics of a lot of different things, rather than sticking with something for longer and becoming a master. It keeps things moving forward!
Many of your works position themselves between the physical and the virtual. Digital Cross Stitch, for example, turns the hoop into the controller. Can you talk about how you perceive physicality / virtuality today?
I like to sit on the fence between analog and digital, which explains why I am really into physical computing. I think there are so many analog analogies to explain digital things, which I suppose is how I perceive more complex virtual topics. I think there’s no point in taking a side, but it’s about how analog and digital can work together to create endless possibilities.
Can we talk a bit about physical computing? Have you always been attracted to crossing over with technology? Do you find it a reflection of our times, and if so - how you see the future of its development?
Physical computing doesn’t feel contemporary to me - the fact that it’s been made accessible is a really contemporary idea but aside from that, we’re working with pretty historic components. I have always been interested in making physical ‘stuff’, and to enhance that stuff with electronics and code is still really exciting to me. I am not sure of the future of it. I can see why people are still interested in hardware, in the way that people are still interested in hand-weaving and knitting. For the future, beyond things like implementing IoT and more complex software stuff, I am not sure know how the hardware will develop. Maybe the tech will get smaller, we will be able to make DIY-biohacking projects, and batteries will evolve to become even tinier.
“The fact that something a designer/artist created is now being used in medical research that will eventually become part of history is incredible.”
How can we begin to apply it in our practices, whether for the purpose of research, academic or artistic work? Can you think of any examples of how your students have applied it in the past?
It can be applied pretty much everywhere! Physical computing is an amazing prototyping tool. I’d like to mention Dani’s Third Thumb project which she prototyped with Arduino and some code-less physical computing modules when she was studying at the RCA. Now she’s using the thumb in a research project about brain plasticity at the University of Oxford. The fact that something a designer/artist created is now being used in medical research that will eventually become part of history is incredible.
For those of us who have been interested in physical computing, can you give us some tips on how to start?
Of course it depends on what kind of person you are, but my #1 tip is to have a goal of what you want to make, and it should be something personal to you rather than a generic demo project. Then, learn the subtle art of Googling the heck out of something. It’s painful but it really works. If there are courses and workshops then definitely check them out, but don’t lean on them to be able to propel yourself forward - because the learning comes from you in the end. Ask lots of questions, and reach out to people whose work you like. I know a lot of people who think they’re being a nuisance if they reach out, and that makes me sad because it’s so wrong!
In terms of conceptualising and producing, between working with the physical materials and computers. Do you have an artistic / research process or approach to your practice?
My ethos is always to ‘keep it dumb’, because the beauty of something simple is hard to beat. Aside from that, I will do my best in any project to include LEDs somewhere no matter how irrelevant they are ☺
Physical Computing for Beginners, an intensive four-week program will take place between 1-26 July 2019, in Berlin, Germany
Make-Your-Own-Vibrator with Touchy-Feely Tech, a workshop designed to introduce you to the basics of electronics, coding and customizable pleasure takes places on 23rd & 24th March 2019, in Berlin, Germany
20 March 2019