Sunday, April 3, 2016

Electronics Plus Textiles

I've been working with e-textiles--electronics embedded into textiles--for all four years I've been here at IU. I've made many projects of my own and facilitated more e-textile workshops for youth and adults than I can count. Some of my work can be found at this blog maintained by researchers interested in e-textiles. Therefore, I'm very familiar with sewing e-textile circuits, and making another one would not have been very educationally meaningful for me. I was relieved when Kylie gave me the go-ahead to explore making something else in the School of Education's MILL Makerspace.

Keeping in mind the Buchholz et al. reading about "rupturing traditional gender scripts" around electronics, I wanted to find a way to use electronic parts in unexpected ways. But before I found the parts I wanted to work with, I had no idea how I was going to do this. Without intra-action with the materials, agency to create had not yet emerged. I didn't just "have" this agency before I was inspired by the materials. This really helped me to appreciate the new material feminism perspective introduced in Taylor & Ivinson and explained for the first time in a way I could understand and buy into in Anna's presentation (let me know, though, if any lingering misconceptions about it show up in this post!).

I looked through the bins of various electronic and mechanical parts that had been donated to the MILL space. There were lots of hard plastics and metals, sharp edges and wires--in other words, materials with masculine gendered histories. I settled on a turbine-looking thing attached to a motor (it actually reminded me a bit of a hair curler), and a heavy black plastic disc that also had a motor. I had no idea where these parts had come from originally or what they were used for. Without those preconceived notions, I was free to use the materials in a way that was based solely on emergent properties as I tinkered with them. Here are those two motorized parts:

I used wire strippers to strip the plastic coating from the turbine's wires. That done, I tested whether the turbine worked by holding two 3V coin cell batteries to the wires. The turbine indeed spun! What could I do with this that somehow incorporated textiles? As the turbine spun around, I had a vision of fabric attached to the top of it, draped around it like a skirt, which would hide the metal parts most of the time, but spin when the batteries were activated, like a dancer's skirt. As I was exploring these materials, I also found out that the turbine could be propped up on the black disc piece, by leaning against the disc's motor. That settled the mystery of the disc's role: it would be a platform.

I then ventured back out into the space to find non-electronic materials to incorporate into my project. The felt fabric everyone was using for their e-textile projects seemed too stiff to me to have the spinning effect I was looking for. So I settled on ribbons and sequin tape. I also found some electric tape in blue, my favorite color, to use to attach things together. Here's a picture of almost all the materials I used, which followed the material phenomenon of "magnetizing" to my workspace (a phenomenon that Anna has discovered in her Early Inquiry Project):

I used the blue tape to prop the turbine upright against the disc's motor, and taped the negative lead of the turbine's motor to the negative side of the batteries. The positive lead has to be held in place on the positive side of the batteries in order for the device to spin. I also cut strips of ribbon and sequin tape. I did not end up using the white tape.

Next I tried attaching the ribbons to the top of the turbine with clear Scotch-like tape, but it didn't work. So I used hot glue instead. Here's a photo of the final product next to the hot glue guns:

When I was done, I was quite vocal about how I had made a project that "ruptured gender scripts" around technology because it repurposed mechanical, practical, masculine-coded pieces into a beautiful, playful spinning toy that incorporated feminine-coded materials like ribbons and sequins. Here's a video of the device in action:

Don't ask me to explain what this thing is supposed to be! It kind of reminds me of a merry-go-round or one of those spinning swing rides at carnivals. The important point is I tinkered with materials, let their properties rather than their original intended uses speak for themselves, and disrupted gender scripts by combining traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine materials. The agency to create such a thing was only possible in the free and open context of the MILL, with its assemblage of materials that cover a wide range of high-tech, low-tech, masculine, feminine, electronics, and craft, all working in intra-action.

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