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Letter From Berlin: Capturing Process

This month we’re talking with a remarkable maker, engineer, documentarian, educator, and e-textile artist: Hannah Perner-Wilson. Currently Hannah is based in Berlin where she and her long-time collaborator Mika Satomi run Kobakant, “an electronic textile tailor shop where anybody can place an order for custom-made wearable technology garments and accessories.”

I discovered her work eight years ago when researching Leah Buechley’s High-Low Tech group at MIT. I reached out to Hannah to ask if she’d be open to a back and forth on a few subjects. Ideas I proposed included: documentation; tools and materials; and teaching, sharing, and sustaining a making practice.

Her first response about documentation is as thorough, detailed, and revealing as her work. We’re presenting her full thoughts here for the October column. If timing is good we’ll go back for follow-up topics. Watch for more of these guest maker appearances. It’s a format that’s illuminating. Be sure to click through to some of Hannah’s links; they reveal worlds.

Left: From Fabricacademy: Soft Circuits, Textile Sensors. Right: Hannah Perner-Wilson wearing her Tool Suite Vest.

Make: One of the many things your work does is make a delightful, studious point about documentation and process. Anatomy of a PinKit of No PartsSwatch Exchange, the typed, then photographed, updates from KOBA, the titles of your projects and the forms they take call this out specifically. The breadth of detail at your site Plusea.at is unique in this way. You’ve clearly set out to have cataloging and reflecting on your work become part of your making practice. What are your thoughts on documentation?

Hannah: When I learned about electronics, I profited from all the information others had taken time and effort to document online. So it felt like a natural continuation of this sharing, as well as a means of giving back to the community I had learned so much from, to share my work back in a similar fashion. I started documenting my work on the internet in form of step-by-step tutorials so that others could replicate what I’d made.

For me documentation meant constantly taking photographs throughout the process, videos too, and at the end of each day or week, going through the photos, uploading them and writing about what I had made in posts on our website How To Get What You Want.

Screenshots for workshops section of How To Get What You Want.

This documentation was not just for others, it is equally important for myself. I use my own website all the time to find materials, design sketches, images, ideas. I like to think of it as a public notebook.

Doing this, I noticed a value that taking the time to document added to my practice. The process of writing documentation is not just about sharing a recipe for straightforward replication. It is also a chance to capture a story. A story about why — why would I attempt to sew sensors into my insoles…why would I try to make circuits out of clay. My documentary posts provided me with a comfortable format for sharing more than just the “how-to” but also the “why I care,” and what kind of future this could lead to.

From photo documentation of design and build process for Hand Knitting (on Flickr).

Taking these moments to document the work that I was doing provided me with a bit of distance, a time to reflect and notice all that had been done. Even for myself to notice the “why I care” in what I am doing.

Over the years I began valuing more the documentation of the whole process and not just the narrative that “worked” — the ones that lead cleanly to the “final” working design. All the experiments and failures have become more interesting to me than the final design that works. I wish I would be more rigorous and creative about capturing these parts of the process.

But documentation also pulls me out of the process. Taking photos while I make has become natural, but taking the time to go over them and making something of them….I find myself having less time for this, the more time I spend making.

Currently I’m running a year long e-textile tailor shop in Berlin. Every week I try to write a letter addressed to a “Dear Potential Future Customer….” With these typed and photographed letters I’m trying to capture the behind-the-scenes process of running an artistic project. My inspiration for this comes from reading expedition journals. Scientists, field biologists writing about their observations in the field, they try to capture everything about what is happening because at the moment they are recording, they don’t yet know what might be relevant to later study.

Dear Future Customer Letter, Sept. 4, 2018. @Kobakant

Upon starting this tailor shop I realized it was becoming a big endeavor and I wanted a way to capture the ups and downs of running a bigger project. There are the logistics, the documentation of what is being made, the day-to-day routine, but also the ideas in one’s head that change throughout such an artistic work. From the outside things often seem so clear and polished but within they are a messy struggle. Exactly that messy struggle — and the long conversations and decisions that have to be made — is what I find fascinating: how the work we do changes our ideas about the world.

For me making has very much become a means of experiencing the world.

This summer I hung a pen around my neck and took notes on my body. It was quite an experience. Not only in really always having something to write with and write on “at hand,” but also in the performative and publicness of writing. People could see me write on myself and read what I had written by looking at my legs, my arms. During PIFcamp (a hacker camp in the Slovenian alps) I took notes on my body whenever somebody said something that I liked. At the end of camp, I transcribed this to a text.

From PIF Camp; excerpt from transcribed notes on body.

Somebody told me this is just like “field recordings,” and I very much like this interpretation — that capturing what is going on around us while we are amid our creative process is a part of this process because it is influencing us… and what we will make.

In the future I would like to be more diligent, more creative and more performative about documentation because I see it not only as a means of passing on information. It is also a form of storytelling and of reflecting on what one is doing.


Reading List

Kits, Materials and Open-Ended Learning
Essential text: Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman’s 2005 IDC paper: Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids.

An all-star cast of maker educators got together recently to unpack this question: Should Educational Kits Be Open or Closed for Making? hosted by Mark Schrieber of Year in the Making, moderated by Stephanie Chang of Maker Ed, with Amos Blankton of the LEGO Foundation, Karen Wilkinson of the Tinkering Studio, Librarian Colleen Graves of Makey Makey and Joy Labz, Bud Hunt, IT and Technical Services Manager for the Clearview Library District in northern Colorado, Katie Henry from Bird Brain Technology / Hummingbird Robotics, and Peter Hoh with the Tool Lending Library in St. Paul, MN.

Colleen Graves framed the lead-up to the September convo on her blog. Bud “the Teacher” Hunt set the table for the discussion with his August post, On Boundaries, Constraints and Kits.

IoT Systems: Micro and Macro
Mohit Bhoite from Particle.io is making beautiful miniature connected sculptures. In memoriam: Paul Allen co-founder of Microsoft had wide-ranging goals in his research and philanthropy. Read this piece on work he funded to support the preservation of elephants: how IoT tech is helping African rangers protect endangered elephants from poachers.

Big Picture
See Kumar Garg’s whiteboard from his time at Obama White House working with Tom Kalil former Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology. Garg summarized many of Kalil’s recommendations on how to get things done. For a picture of moonshot thinking, see Kalil’s comments on “The Role of Combinatorial Innovation in Addressing Societal Challenges” — he argues for a DARPA of Education.