Concordia Corner

Extra-Soft Lab is extra heavy on research

Karen Herland

Joanna Berzowska (left) tests the circuitry on Intimate Memory with the help of Marguerite Bromley and Marcello Coelho.

Photo by Jessica butler for xs labs

Research/creation is a concept increasingly applied to work coming out of the Fine Arts Faculty, especially for those associated with Hexagram.

“I define the term as more research-heavy, an artistic practice that relies on new methods and uses emerging technologies,” said Joanna Berzowska, of XS (Extra-Soft) Labs.

Located on the 10th floor of the EV Building, XS Labs integrate electronics, circuitry and conductive yarns in textiles and wearable clothes. “Even if we’re using something like thermochromic pigments, we’re using them in a way that no one has ever done before.”

The idea is to translate the traditionally hard, plastic and square interface associated with technology into the soft, tactile, intimate realm of materials that are worn against the skin. In so doing, XS labs combines engineering with art, emerging media with traditional realms like stitching and weaving, and the male-dominated world of electronics with the female, domestic world of sewing and fashion.

In fact, it was that artificial gender divide that got Berzowska interested in mastering the technology in the first place. “I developed an insatiable need to understand how the technologies work.”

Lab associates and research assistants come from a variety of disciplines, including design, computation arts, fibres, art education and computer science. “It’s very multi-disciplinary that way. It needs to be.”

XS Labs has been invited to give workshops at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and even further afield, in India and Australia. “It’s part of my pedagogical practice to show young and emerging artists how easy electronics are to understand and use.”

For the last five years, Berzowska and her colleagues have been developing technological ways to have clothes register memory or context. Intimate Memory (see image) registers when the wearer has been touched or even breathed upon with changing colours and flashing lights. Another piece uses shape memory alloys to allow appliqués on clothing to open, close or fold over.

Berzowska’s has tried to make each new project equally valid in terms of engineering and art. That means that results should be published with the Institute of Electrical Electronics Engineers, and shown in galleries and museums.

She is concerned that trying to be both (“wearing two hats, and two gloves”) can fail. “It’s true that you can end up with something very thin when you’re trying to cover such a large area,” she said. But being able to demonstrably bridge both worlds has been a priority.

In the next five years, she’d like to move away from focusing on the technical innovation towards art and design. “I’d like to be able to exploit the technological innovations from the last five years to their full extent.”