Electronic Textiles Artist Barbara Layne on Creating Interactive, Wearable Fiber Art

Professor Barbara Layne with two of her wearable pieces that were shown at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Professor Barbara Layne with two of her wearable pieces that were shown at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The Dairy Center for the Arts is opening a new exhibition, The Art of Fiber: Fifty Years of the Handweavers Guild of Boulder, that showcases a juried exhibition of new work as well as a historical display of textiles and technology. In celebration of the show, the Handweavers Guild and the Dairy have invited Barbara Layne, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal who works through the Interactive Textiles and Wearable Computers research axis at the Hexagram Institute, to speak at the opening tomorrow night. A former Colorado resident, Layne studied art at the University of Colorado and was an early member of the Guild. In advance of her talk on electronic textiles at the Dairy, Layne spoke with Westword about the origin of her work in the fascinating field of fiber art and technology.

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Westword: What was your initial introduction to working with electronic textiles?

My interest in textiles actually began way back when I lived in Colorado in 1974. I was living on a ranch up in Golden Gate Canyon and the woman who lived next door to me had a handweaving loom. I had nothing to do but take care of horses for a year, so I went and bought a loom and she showed me how to start it up and I started weaving then. I kept weaving for a few years -- I moved down to Boulder and in 1979, I got my BFA in painting from the University of Colorado.

Then I stopped weaving for almost thirty years and finally came back to it around 2001. When I was still living in Colorado I was a member of the Handweavers Guild of Boulder -- I was a relatively early member. I was really studying and painting at that time, partly because they didn't have a textile program in Boulder. But also because I really wanted to work on the art part of it -- I wanted to make expressive, creative pieces, not necessarily beautiful, functional and technical things.

I'll sort of gloss over those 25 years -- I was doing installation work, a lot of handmade paperwork and mixed media installation. But in 2001, I became part of a research institute here in Montreal where I live now; it's called the Hexagram Institute and it's part of several Universities here in Montreal where we research digital technologies. So at the institute, there are all kinds of things -- there is robotics, interactive performance. It also has a very strong techno-textiles component to it, with several other researchers involved in electronic wearables and interactive installations made with textiles -- soft computing is what we call it.

My goal was to put one light in a weaving. We didn't really have good information back then, so it was just trial and error. I learned basic electronics, I learned a bit of programming and I just tried to weave in one wire that had an LED soldered to it -- which broke very quickly. We just kept testing different kinds of techniques and had failure after failure after failure.

Eventually, I met a woman who I brought in for a consultation with me named Joanna Berzowska, who was then at MIT. She provided some new tools, techniques and approaches that really kind of gave me a big boost and then we took it from there. Joanna went on to work with me at Concordia and there were several other artists working with textiles at the institute as well, so it's kind of a hub for information -- we share a lot of information and we do a lot of conferences and exhibitions together. It's really kind of a wonderful foundation to work from.

It is a really interesting intersection of art, technology and in many pieces that you've done, fashion and wearable work.

I'd say most of the people doing it work in interaction design, more than anything. Where as I am really interested in the artistic content of the pieces -- what they say and what they do. I don't do just wearables -- I also do a lot of wall hangings and installation work as well. But the wearable is interesting because I'm always curious about how people are interacting with the garments or with the wallhangings -- how do they change? Coming closer could change something; moving your body in a certain way could change something else. It's very dynamic and interesting and stimulating.

Because textiles are so close to the body, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do was to go head and make garments, too. But I'm not a fashion designer and I don't really have fashion knowledge. I'm a great seamstress and pretty good at common sense figuring things out. But I'm certainly not really involved in the fashion world.

What will you be speaking about at the Dairy? What work will you be showing?

I'll be giving an overview of my work and a little bit about the Institute, because it has been so important in my growth. There are two pieces I'm showing at the exhibition -- the first is the keyboard dress and it is a dress that doesn't function as a keyboard, but as a display. There are embroidered letters in keyboard across the chest of the dress and when someone types into an iPad, the typing gets sent wirelessly to the dress. The keys that are being pressed reflect on the dress. You could type a message, but it would be very difficult to decipher the message -- it's more of a way to talk about coding and different ways of designing and activating a space. It's more like a secret message than an obvious text message.

The other dress I'm bringing is a dress that is a display for a touch pad. The iPad and touchpad will be in the gallery so that visitors can interact and activate the dress themselves. The touchpad is an embroidered piece of cloth that people can draw on. By touching the fabric, the design that they make will be wirelessly sent to the LED dress. It is a small resolution display but it makes a point.

What is it about the interactive element of this textile work that you find interesting or important?

I've found that textiles have always been at the cutting edge of technology, since the beginning of time. So it just follows that -- textiles evolve and kind of set a pace for what is happening with technology. So we're not just taking tools off the shelf or something; we're inventing new things through the weave structure itself or the way we use an embroidery needle. We are just taking advantage of the nature of textiles to activate things in a way that is reflective of the situation today and the digital world today. But we keep it materialized and keeping it based in something that is tangible and meaningful.

Electronic Textiles at Studio subTela, a lecture by Canadian scholar Barbara Layne, begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 4 in the McMahon Gallery at the Dairy Center for the Arts; the event is free. The talk also signals the opening of a new exhibition, The Art of Fiber: Fifty Years of the Handweavers Guild of Boulder. For more information on Layne, visit her website. For additional information on the The Art of FiberThe Dairy's website.

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