Making myths come true: independent e-researcher Audrey Briot merges haute couture and new technology, using Stymphalian Birds particular feathers which are good conductors of electricity, used as decoration on clothes as a creative response on social distancing issues in the pandemic context. The traditional feather work is combined with chemistry and electronics exploring the influence of feathers as sensors in our environment and on the body, while proximity and tactile contacts between people has a total new meaning.
When you founded DataPaulette did you have someone who supported you in your desire to invest in the potential of the textile world?
I co-founded DataPaulette in 2014, at that time I was only 19 years old and it was a spontaneous action with my collaborators. With this small group of electronic textile practitioners who were gathering in a Parisian hackerspace, the BlackLoop, to discuss and create things at the crossroads of textiles, craftsmanship and electronics. Each of us were also part of what we call the etextiles community. Sharing skills and knowledge are core values for the hackerspace and the etextile communities but no hackerspace dedicated to etextiles was yet in existence. The support of this community to which we contribute daily led us to create this long-term etextile lab. DataPaulette which was from the beginning an independent laboratory focusing on research and development in textiles and digital technologies and later evolved from an initial structure of hackerspace to become a collective in order to highlight the collaboration between its core members. Even if DataPaulette is now run by four of us, we have many individuals contributing to the project and our ongoing researches at different levels; mutual support and collaboration are the key for us. At last, I have always been encouraged by my family to carry out my ideas as far as possible, even more if they are at the fringe, and for that reason, we named the space and collective DataPaulette, to reflect the spirit of our research, combining data with traditional craftsmanship but also as a tribute to my grand-mother.
What kind of study background did you have to be this so skilled in both designing and making your creations?
I started with a baccalaureate in Sciences and Technologies of Design and Applied Arts acquired as an independent candidate. To graduate, I did my first project re-working traditional costumes and techniques with electronics to emphasize the wearer’s freedom of speech. After that I headed for a degree in textile, material and surface design in Paris to learn textile craftsmanship and techniques and revisit them by incorporating electronics and smart materials. Back in those days, I was already defending technologies that will not distort the textile heritage but will preserve and perpetuate it. In parallel to this degree, I co-founded DataPaulette and I quickly started giving workshops, attending residencies and making R&D for clients. I have always been more confortable as a professional than as a student but I never denied the knowledge that has been given to me. People I met gave me a foretaste of the richness of textiles and I delved into these different techniques from my side combining what I had heard about with things read in books or archives; this perseverance is what has made me self-taught. During my post graduate diploma in fashion design and environment I realized that the DataPaulette hackerspace and my ongoing projects on non-verbal communication were the result of the path I have taken up to now. My actual long term research took shape through my residencies and the development of my projects. My interest for textile craftsmanship is always growing and collaboration is at the center of my work since the beginning.
How do you manage to make your clothes, to look like couture garments and not scientific prototypes? The lightness of the clothes, the technoembroidery, it’s pretty impressive!
I have always been convinced that electronics and textiles not only reflect science fiction but also traditional crafts like goldwork embroidery or tapestry. Mastering textile craftsmanship and traditional techniques such as featherwork, embroidery and natural dyeing can contribute to deepen the field of possibilities in electronics. The universe I build around Stymphalian Birds is based on my conception of that myth and focuses on the intrinsic responsiveness of elements created by nature that are feathers. They offer an experience by themselves, thanks to their capacity to react to touch, their flexibility like a spring, their softness and their delicate shape and details. The combination of this beauty with the chemical treatment and electronics now enhances the experience, transforming the feather into a light and playful sensor able to detect touch and to respond to it by feedback. I pay great care to the specific needs of the feathers in the chemical treatment and acquiring the methods of traditional handcrafts was primordial to preserve the natural aspect of these now conductive feathers. Each dress is a flexible circuit in itself in which wires and sensors are ornements. The circuit has been designed in advance following the pattern of the garment and is transferred to the textile which has been previously stretched onto the embroidery frame. All the circuit is built on the embroidery frame, its construction is a continual exchange between electronics and textile craftsmanship. For exemple, the conductive feathers are connected in the circuit using the standard electronic method of wire wrapping and subsequently their connecting wires are laid out according to the circuit and embroidered using a Lunéville crochet. I combine traditional handcrafts such as featherwork and Lunéville embroidery with digital technologies and chemical processes to magnify the possibilities of the feathers and give birth to electronic featherwork. I love the polyvalence of my work which is standing between scientific research and fashion.
Can you tell us the practical aspect of these dresses? Is it possible to wash them? How long does the chemical treatment on feathers last?
These dresses explore the combination of fibers created by nature, silk and feathers, with technologies created by man to sense beyond the skin introducing the immediate periphery of the body as an interface. The combination of electronic circuits with the physical transformation of the feathers by the introduction of electrical conductivity will now permit these organic flexible sensors to detect touch and respond to it by sound due to previous programming. Wearing these dresses offer an ultimate experience to perceive ones immediate environment through hybrid feathers as sensors. Each feather is unique and each feather tip appears as a suspended electrode above the textile. When an external body approaches these newly created biometric sensors will be the first in contact. These feathers are now covered with a thin layer of carbon which will never leave for any reason. It’s part of their structure, they are carbon-covered feathers. The dresses are embedded with electronic circuits and washing them is not a problem, simply the electronics may be removed to avoid damage. To allowed the feathers to keep their initial aspect they will require specific care that I learned alongside plumassiers or by digging into archives. Stymphalian Birds invites us to reconsider interactions of living beings with their environment by introducing the immediate periphery of the body as an interface. The wearing of these dresses allows us to become a cyber organism, broadening our experience to get beyond our physical and social boundaries. The project took another dimension with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic reshaping our everyday interactions, while the dresses propose to amplify our touch sensitivity, social distancing guidelines must be followed, proximity between people and tactile contacts appear as an even more sensitive issue.
Have you started working on this project because you were fascinated by the mythologic meaning of the Stymphalian birds? Or it was just an inspiration for what you would have liked to do anyhow? The dangerous beauty of the Stymphalian bird myth, is something that characterizes your kind of woman?
I learned about this myth many years ago when I was a teen. I kept the story in my mind since then and these birds have always intrigued me. I had so many questions regarding these animals. Myths are very challenging for me and I have always been wondering how I could make this myth come true ? The feathers of the original Stymphalian Birds express my expectations: though the feathers themselves might appear mundane, their material properties make them extraordinary. These conductive feathers become sensors which react to touch by emitting sounds.
The wearers of dresses made of feathers of Stymphalian Birds are divided between seduction and hypersensitivity. They experience sensing beyond their human abilities and learn from non-humans. The biomimicry of these specific feathers which fulfill the role of sensory receptors in birds permits the creation of these hybrids with superhuman capabilities. I am making the myth come true and giving life to these dangerous and mysterious birds which use their feathers as arrows to express my kind of woman. In western society, applying birds’ panache to women expresses seduction, but I want to go beyond. They also incarnate my approach to emerging technologies, always considering them with skepticism and warily even if they are very appealing.
When do you think your creation will become common among the masses?
Never ! I don’t expect this and I don’t think something based on silk and feathers have its place in mass consumerism. Moreover, my work and these dresses are unique creations and they are not destined for mass consumerism. They are the incarnation of my ongoing research in which I explore the potential of non verbal communication through the ubiquitous nature of textiles. I consider textiles as a memory and transmission medium. I believe that If we seize and share textile production tools and knowledge everybody can produce their own textiles. I want to hit out against the obsessive consumption and fashion trends. Instead of using the meaningless textiles they impose on us as desirable and arranging them to communicate our opinions. I maintain if we can craft our own textiles, we can transmit our intentions by taking over the form of communication used by them. Stymphalian Birds invites us to reconsider our textiles as communication mediums and think profoundly upon it.
Can you tell us more about the installation? Could these chemically treated feathers in your opinion be used in anything else besides fashion?
The installation I made before these dresses is offering a rich multi-sensory experience: complex haptic interactions with feathers are sonified in acoustic soundscapes. While I was developing the dresses the COVID-19 pandemic first appeared and grew. I saw the installation being rejected from scheduled exhibitions because touching the piece was becoming an issue in itself. We can see all of us being inhibited and deprived of touch and caresses. One of our senses is denounced and haptic feedback is becoming a stressful feedback. This pandemic is reshaping our everyday relations. Seeing how proximity between people and touch are appearing as even more sensitive issues has consolidated the development of these sensitive garments where social distancing guidelines must be followed. In former days, fashion was playing a massive role in social distancing. The work has been published in scientific conferences specialized in interaction between humans and computers such as CHI. These newly created sensors are a way to enhance our nervous system, I am convinced they can offer an interesting experience to those who cannot feel touch anymore. In that direction, I am actually considering them as implants in my ongoing developments. In the same way as the textiles were the support for the circuit, our skin can be the medium. Non-verbal communication is carried by body language and I am convinced that make-up has a huge potential to enhance. Being inspired by non-humans can help us to improve human skills and the freedom to express ourselves.
Will textile innovations make fashion appear less superficial in our society?
In my opinion superficiality should not be reprimanded, it’s a way to express ourselves showing what we love and which community we stand for. Textiles are the medium of our outer appearance and protection in the way the feathers are for the birds. It’s important for me to give attention to the way we are building our external envelope, that’s our way to communicate messages. Of course innovations can bring more, especially to overcome disabilities. The sad thing for me is that covering the body immediately refers to fashion and by extensions, in most cases, to mass consumerism. The interesting thing is the way we build the non verbale communication, making a patchwork of clothes to express ourselves and identify with our community. Our body language has been perverted by the consumer society but we will keep speaking out ! Innovations might be a way to re-invent our body and speculate about what we can do but we cannot deal with the future without considering the past in order to reinvent and preserve our patrimony.
Why did you choose music to detect the contact with other people on these clothes?
When I initially started with Stymphalian Birds, my intention was to create an acoustic sound controlled by the feathers. The sound was incarnating the Stymphalian Birds which were replying to touch. Sound can depict a large range of feelings: it can create a deep and meaningful atmosphere by introducing sensations from another sense.
Do you feel more stimulated by fashion or technology?
Neither one of them ! I am more stimulated by textiles ! They are the result of technologies and the foundation of fashion. Textile technologies are behind the molecules, the fibers, the techniques to transform fibers into yarns and then into textiles. These technologies are not from the last century but date back to the beginning of life on earth; we can even found textile technologies in nature, in nest building for example. This strong heritage animates me in my lust for preserving and revisiting textile craftsmanship. Textiles represent and incarnate fashion and technology and they are everywhere. Textiles are connected to our body, from birth to death, from nappies to burial sheets. However, similar to feathers, textiles first and foremost also act as an adornment, rather than modesty and protection. While some human cultures might not use clothing, humans will never be without adornment. As technology becomes ever more closely integrated in our lives, electronics are starting to permeate the textiles which accompany our lives as well, both those worn on the body and in the environment around us.
Is there something in your work that you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve never got the chance to?
There are so many things I want to do, time is short for me, 24 hours is not enough ! Following my experiments to sense and communicate beyond human abilities. I’ve always wanted to use my body as a medium and I tend to do this more and more through art performances, for example connecting it with earth satellites in my other collaborative project Listening Space. I have been taught to cover my body with textiles and by extension to communicate with them. Going beyond this, our body, our skin and their ornements are our choices to communicate. I envisage to use my own body and skin as a substrate for circuitry. I am attracted by the sky above us and what’s beyond. In the continuity of my interest in body language and connecting with the invisible environment that surrounds us, I would like to experience what it’s like being in zero gravity and what’s being outside of Mother earth. We are, we think and we create with regards to Earth’s gravity and I believe in zero gravity, and especially in Space, things might have been different.
Designer: Audrey Briot / @audrey.briot
Interview: Silvia Valente / @silviavalentevi
Photo : Anna Le Chah / @annalechah
Stylist: Martin Bady / @safre___
MUA : Alexia Amzallag / @alexiamzallag
Models: Ines & Souha /@inespttr & @souhabaylik
Video & edit: Thomas Daeffler / @thomas_daeffler
Dop: Thomas Wood
Composition: Théo Bedoucha
Mastering: Sean Henry
Producer: William Hearsey
Grip: Marc Droumaguet
Special: Genial Pictures