Posted on 2015/12/13 by

“It’s all about building trust”: An interview with Joanna Berzowska of XS Labs

Joanna Berzowska founded XS Labs in 2002 at Concordia, where they focus on “the development and design of electronic textiles, responsive clothing, wearable technologies, reactive materials, and squishy interfaces.” Previous to XS Labs, Berzowska studied and worked at the MIT Media Lab, and she co-founded International Fashion Machines with Maggie Orth. She holds a BA in Pure Mathematics and a BFA in Design Arts.

The kind of work that Berzowska engages in is profoundly interdisciplinary and crosses distinctions that we might automatically put up between design, industry, art, and theory. Her work has been shown at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the V&A in London, and at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, among others. Her lab at Concordia is located on the 10th floor of the EV and is part of the textiles cluster.

I met Joanna Berzowska for a coffee in St. Henri on December 10 to discuss wearable technology, her experience working at the MIT Media Lab, the agency of things, and what she believes is important for building an interdisciplinary space.


First of all, why do you call XS Labs a “lab”? Instead of say a “studio”? With International Fashion Machines, for example, I notice they call themselves a “company” — why “lab”?

I think part of the reason I originally called it a lab was just out of habit, because I was at the MIT Lab, and “lab” implies a kind of research culture… I’m thinking about it right now, because I guess I’ve never thought about it in depth… So part two of my answer is that it was a very direct, easy way of referencing research culture. Part three is a very strong emphasis at the time — when I was hired by Concordia fourteen years ago — to re-brand the institution as a research institution as opposed to a teaching institution. So when I was hired, I was basically told, your teaching doesn’t matter, your service doesn’t matter, all that matters is your research and how much money you raise. I think it was a turning point for the university, it was like the institution swung one way, because very strongly it was trying to position itself as a viable research institution at the time. Since then, the pendulum has really swung the other way. Now I think with the new president, Alan Shepard, he’s trying to find a comfortable middle that supports research as well as entrepreneurship, but at the same time recognizes that Concordia will never be a pure research institution and that’s what Alan always says — we can’t compete with McGill, we can’t compete with Ivy League–type schools, Concordia is unique. But when I was hired, the push was really, for a year or two, it’s all about research. So that’s part three of my answer, which is political in a sense. Going back to part two, it was important that “lab” reference research culture in a direct way, especially being in the Fine Arts, where, at that time, all the funding bodies and all of the potential sources of research income did not recognize what we now call “research-creation” as a viable way of working.

What’s interesting is I originally called it “XS Labs,” and even within that there’s an embedded critique. “XS” official stands for “Extra Soft” and it’s about soft circuits, it’s about soft electronics, but of course when you read it, it also sounds like “excess,” so there’s an embedded critique of a kind of contrast between a lot of research in Humanities, which is inherently critical of how we apply technology or how society embraces new changes, and then research in let’s say the sciences or Engineering, which don’t question it as much, but really just pursues innovation. The reason I chose the word “XS” was to have this critique. A lot of what I’m doing is in Engineering, science-type research, and we’re just going to put as much electronics as we can into all of these textiles and wearables, but, being in the Fine Arts, I’m also aware that we have to do so in a very deliberative, interrogative way, and question it at each step of the way. So that’s very much the tradition of XS Labs. And also, since XS Labs started, it’s XS Labs, colon, and what comes after the colon has evolved. So now I do refer to it as a design research studio. I’ve examined every couple of years the kind of work that we do, and these days I call it a design research studio, but the name is still XS Labs, so I guess I just want it all [laughs].


You’ve worked with the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group. This semester we’ve read a bit of Stewart Brand and have talked about California ideology and its very utopian take on technology. I read in an interview with you [with Jake Moore] where you were talking about researchers such as [Steve] Mann or [Hiroshi] Ishii who work with wearable technology in a way where it’s an exoskeleton or a kind of protective layer. And I was wondering if “Extra Soft” is a response to this kind of ethos that came out of working with the Media Lab and this situation where technology is celebrated as utopic and where wearable technology is something protective.

Yeah. So at the Media Lab there was definitely a strong gender divide actually, between how wearables were tackled by male researchers — and also, maybe coincidentally, the female researchers had more of a background in design or the arts. These are all stereotypes, which unfortunately were instantiated in my experience. So, women who I worked with, like Elise Co, Maggie Orth, who was my business partner for a while, Amanda Parkers, who came later, who’s now very active in the space, and then the dudes that I worked with, who were Brad Rhodes, Thad Starner, who ended up working for Google Glass, and Steve Mann, who’s a prof now at U of T [University of Toronto] — the women had more of a design and art background. I’m not saying it’s necessarily because of gender that they were more in touch with embodied sorts of questions, perhaps it was because of their past training, but maybe the past training was tied to gender. There was in fact one woman who was a really hardcore engineer, she still is, and she worked with Ros Picard [Rosalind W. Picard], who’s also a woman and also a hardcore engineer, so maybe the background training is more relevant in terms of the women that I worked with who were more interested in what we now refer to as embodied interaction, and considering the body as crucial — they were interested in textiles and the surface of the skin and what I now call beyond-the-wrist interaction —

Beyond the wrist…?

Whereas the dudes were really interested in things that you can manipulate with your hands and head-mounted displays, I was more interested in what happens on the rest of the body. And in many ways what happens on the rest of the body can be considered as dirty or sexual or smelly or provocative, so that doesn’t fit as easily into an Engineering research model, where you don’t have a specific problem to solve. And of course there are many problems, like how do you track baby kicks during a pregnancy, or whatever [laughs]. But, I certainly was more interested in the textiles, the rest of the body, how can we embed computation in textiles rather than attach devices to our bodies. And one corollary of that is also an interest in simpler kinds of computation. So, you know, the more cyborg approach to wearable computing basically strives to develop a computer as powerful as possible that is wearable and portable and now we have them [points to phone recording conversation] — these phones are kind of that, right? So, keep in mind this was twenty years ago, and the idea was, how can we take our computer with us all over the place? And now we do it with our phones, it’s funny. But back then, it was basically, you had to put the hard drive in the backpack, you have to take it all in pieces, have a huge antenna for your satellite GPS, etc. That’s wearable computing very literally, where you wear the same kind of computer that you have on your desk, whereas with my electronic textiles and the soft computation, it wasn’t a computer as you know it from your desk, but computation, how can you have wearable computing that is about simple kinds of interactions or simple kinds of functionality that are more interested perhaps in well-being or pleasure or just everyday experience or communication rather than just taking your computer from your office. That’s where the Extra Soft comes from, and there’s so many references, because also there’s hard science versus soft science.

It also sometimes seems like a lot of wearable technology aims to be “corrective” somehow, but you’re not really trying to “correct” the body. You’re trying to do something different.

“Extend” is usually what I say, whatever that means. Or not bring about some huge productivity gain or something but instead allow us to experience the world in a slightly different way.

To go back to the lab for a minute, is XS Labs one lab space or is it a series of lab spaces now in the EV?

Going back to the lab I realized there was something else that I wanted to say, so I’m glad you brought it up again. Another reason why I called it a “lab” is also that I wanted another way of working with my students. Traditionally in the Fine Arts when you work with grad students, they work on their own individual projects and you maybe advise them, you provide critique, whereas in the sciences and Engineering, they’re research assistants and you pay them for their time and they work not on your project but on a group project. I remember when I first came I was always using the plural “we” even though I only had maybe one research assistant, and people were very surprised, they were like, why aren’t you saying “I” or “my work,” and it’s because I was coming from a research lab culture, where every research paper that’s published has multiple authors, and you don’t work alone, ever, so that was another reason why I wanted to call it a “lab” and to train the students that I hired to not think of it as a job but to think of it as a collective inquiry that everybody will be credited for and everybody will benefit from. There were a lot of issues that we came up against of course where there was confusion between what would be their own individual practice and what is the research lab practice, so I tried to have very specific guidelines around how we credit, what people can take credit for, and how everybody had to credit everybody else’s work, and that’s a whole other kind of discussion.

In terms of physical space, we’ve always had one space that’s shifted over the last fifteen years, that’s smaller or larger, that was like our headquarters. Then through Hexagram and other facilities we needed to use or have access to other spaces either through the more technical work we needed to do, like the weaving, or, at one point, I was collaborating with a prof in Materials Science on Nitinol, so we had all of these other spaces where work was done, mostly leveraging specific facilities and expertise. With Materials Science we needed specific furnaces to shape the Nitinol and quench it. We’ve got different kinds of looms or laser cutters. Or, collaborating with École Polytechnique, we’ve had some of our students there developing new fibres. But we’ve always had this little central headquarters. [Nitinol, “also known as muscle wire, is a shape memory alloy (SMA) of nickel and titanium that has the ability to indefinitely remember its geometry”; it is used, for example, in XS Lab’s Skorpions dress.]


When you yourself go into the lab, do you have any daily rituals that you find yourself performing there?

I’ll just say that I was Chair of the department for three years and now I’m on sabbatical and I’m pregnant, so what I do now does not reflect historically. Maybe I’ll just talk about the previous ten years, when there was a strong routine and a strong practice. I always had my days organized — certain days I devoted to teaching and office hours — certain days to service — meaning all the committee work, etc., and all of the research assistants who worked with me, some of them were grad students, some of them were undergrads, some of them were affiliates, there was really a wide range of different ways that I worked with students and research assistants. We had one weekly meeting, where everybody was expected to attend. So that was a sort of ritual where we’d touch base and I would give goals and guidance to everybody for the week. I also had somewhat of a hierarchical structure, where students who had been there longer would be responsible for training some of the younger students, and by younger I don’t mean age, but the newer ones. A lot of the culture in a research lab isn’t about hiring skilled personnel, it’s about training HQP [Highly Qualified Personnel], that’s what we write in the grant proposals [laughs]. So I hire students with potential who don’t necessarily have the skills that I want them to have, and part of what we do is train them. I would pay them to take workshops or classes, but I would also really expect them to teach one another and I would hire very complementary kinds of personalities who could teach each other, and the work is intrinsically interdisciplinary, which is where I think you’re going with this anyway. So that kind of collaboration was really crucial to the success of the work.

I’m very interested in research-creation. Would you say there’s any divide in your work between the research and the creation? Do you have a space more for inspiration and a separate theoretical component, or is that tied together for you?

It’s really tied together because the creation is about questioning technology and doing things with technology that were not possible in the past. So for me, creation is not about what colour is it — let’s talk about garments since we make a lot of those — it was never really about, what does the garment look like — it is, what would it mean to have a garment that moved on your body and moved in an uncomfortable way? What would it mean to have a garment that needs energy but doesn’t have batteries and needs to harness energy from the environment or from somebody else’s body. So for me that’s the creative aspect, and then being able to formulate that into a research question that leads to a successful research grant proposal. And then, working with a team that is very creative, so that the potential answers to these questions that we suggest can be described as beautiful or evocative or playful. And they do get invited to be shown in galleries and museums, which I guess is sort of the institutional stamp of approval for the creation side. I’m not an artist. I’ve never had a solo show as an artist. I really think of myself much more as a researcher. But a big part of my dissemination happens in museums and galleries.

So you wouldn’t consider yourself an artist, but you show in galleries? And your inspiration is not so much connected to the fashion, but connected to questions about technology?

Yes. Like how can we really break down what a garment is. Or what a textile is. And how can we use all of these emerging materials that are being used in aerospace or the automobile industries or whatever, but use them in garments. What kinds of new functionalities would they enable? New forms of expression. New ways of connecting with one another. But also, how would they help us understand the world in a different way? Question the world. The project Caption Electric and Battery Boy is really about questioning our dependence on energy and batteries and portables. The major point there was to create garments that are sort of ridiculous and uncomfortable. And the thematic that runs through it is one of fear and paranoia and fear of natural disasters and protection, so it’s deeply linked. And then in order for me to be able to raise the money that I’ve raised that’s more from the sciences and Engineering, there’s always a very strong scientific or engineering innovation in the project. And I would feel like a fraud if there weren’t.

Do you think with working on very highly funded projects, with industry and with big labels, do you see that as in any way compromising your vision? Or extending it? Do you find that working with big industries provides a positive constraint or something where you have to really compromise your creative work?

It’s a different kind of vision. I don’t see them as contradictory. The obstacle to work in my experience has just been the really kind of overwhelming bureaucratic aspect of administering large research grants at the university, where I ended up just spending so much of my money doing paper work and filing reports and filing expense reports in a thoroughly inefficient way… Industry can’t afford to have the same kind of level of inefficiency that we have in academia… They would go out of business. So that’s super refreshing. Of course then we have a board of directors that we have to answer to. We have to show a business model that would be profitable with an X amount of years. Whether that business model involves being acquired by Google or having sales or whatever, I mean that’s another questions, it’s the VC [Venture Capital] world.

That’s interesting, because usually we see the academy as the place where we can sort of nurture our bigger ideas and industry as a place where we have to compromise. But that’s not your experience?

It’s different ideas. But what’s really exciting is there’s different kinds of industry. And right now with the start-up culture around new technology, it’s all about innovation and wonder and discovery that, sure, you have to have a business model, but that can be viewed as a benefit rather than an impediment… I’ve also worked on projects with creative studios. So industry doesn’t necessarily mean military or medical devices. Industry can also mean Cirque du Soleil. Or working with PixMob, which is a great company, some of my ex students started it. So industry, sure, has to have a business model, and if it’s not profitable, it will go out of business, but it doesn’t mean you don’t innovate or you don’t do exciting work. And sometimes innovation is actually stifled in academia because of all the bureaucracy and paper work. I’m being provocative of course. Because all of the assumptions you’re bringing to that question are true, but there’s also that other side.

You said you don’t see yourself as an artist. What do you think the differences are between art and design?

Everybody is going to give you a different answer. But my answer these days is that art is about one individual and design is about multiple individuals. And of course people will argue with that and I will change my mind eventually, but that’s how I think about it these days. So for me, design fits a lot better into this research model where we have multiple authors for each project. It’s almost like thinking of the research work as a theatre performance, or a play, or an orchestra, where you have a conductor, but then everybody gets credited for their own role. Whereas I find a lot of the art research-creation, it’s still about the one person who takes credit for everything even though they might have a team of people working with them. But also for me design is perhaps a little bit more concerned with the tools, the materials, the processes, rather than like the final moment of showing the piece.

So in design there’s more of a process?

No, it’s not that there is more process, but the process is almost more important than the final piece, for me, okay. Whereas the way that I think of art is that the final artefact is given more importance, culturally. In design research, the process, the materials, the steps you took, are maybe just as important or even more important. And especially when you look at that whole movement of speculative design. Or critical design coming out of the UK, with people like Dunne & Raby. In fact, there isn’t really a final outcome, but it’s all about these trajectories and interrogations and asking “what if?” and showing these speculative processes. Or experimenting with materials. But not necessarily building up to the one artefact that will go into a permanent collection somewhere.

But say with industry you would need to eventually produce an artefact—

—Yeah, you need a product—

—Or else they would be like, “where’s your product”—

Well not necessarily, because also patents are a very viable outcome of industry work. So I’m writing a lot of patents right now with OmSignal. And those aren’t artefacts. That’s IP [intellectual property] that has a high monetary value.

In your work, for example in your Skorpions dress, you describe the dress as parasitic and the wearer as a host, so a lot of agency is given to the actual items that you create. Do you see what you do as somehow aligned with biotech? These garments are almost coming “alive”?

To me, a lot of interaction design I find problematic around the idea that the human is always in control or needs to always be in control versus the idea of giving up control a little bit. And maybe that’s also just a personal philosophy as well. With being a mother. Raising two kids in this very unusual sort of circumstance where I’m not their biological mother but I’m their full-time mother and yet I don’t have the same kind of control… So I think for me, my personal life experience has also influenced the way that I think about interaction design… It’s less about biotech and more about control.

It sounds a little like actor-network theory. We read this also in communication with Stewart Brand. And the fact that objects or technology can dictate the way things go, not necessarily just the human.

One of my favourite quotes from Sherry Turkle is that computers aren’t just a projective medium, but also a constructive medium [See Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1984]. You control or project your desires on them, but they also shape what your desires are.

So it’s a collaboration in a way between the human and the technology? And this is maybe freeing?

Well, the reason I can do these things is that I’m not in an Engineering faculty where each project has to be about solving a specific problem that is then quantifiably successful or unsuccessful. I can produce these projects that exist in this much more qualitative research space, whatever that means. I don’t have to have tables and graphs for each project that I make…. I don’t need to do those kinds of quantitative studies for my research, which allows me to explore these questions that are more — sometimes I say they’re poetic — I don’t have a very rigid theoretical structure for how I talk about these things. But it’s definitely great to have a freedom not to need a quantifiable result at the end of each project.


Is there anything about your lab that you would like to change or that you find problematic? Say, in terms of space?

When we were in that corner space on the 10th floor, that was too small. At one point if you can imagine I had about twelve people working in there with all kinds of sewing machines and electronic stations, so that was nuts. The thing that makes a space successful is to allow everybody to feel ownership over a portion of the space. You need everybody to feel like some small portion of it is their own. To develop a level of trust where people can leave things without worrying about them being either stolen physically or the ideas stolen, so actually working on a culture of collaboration and trust is really important. Definitely in my particular discipline where we need machines there’s always going to be the need to go to other spaces to use different kinds of specialized machines or facilities. But the space itself — it’s more about the culture you create in the space, about exchange, about giving, and the way that I fostered that from the very beginning is by having a lot of parties and 5à7s. It’s all about building trust.

All images taken from the XS Labs catalogue.

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