WoW Woman | Dr. Camille Baker, Artist, Designer, Author and Co-Founder E-Stitches

By Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove

Camille is an artist-performer/researcher/curator within various art forms: participatory performance and interactive art, mobile media art, tech fashion/soft circuits/DIY electronics, responsive interfaces and environments, and new media curating.

Camille co-founded E-Stitches in 2014 a meet up group in London that brings together artists, fashion and other designers, performers, makers and encouraging electronics engineers, bio-technologists, wearable DIY enthusiasts, quantified-selfies, and entrepreneurs to come along to discuss, show, share, educate and learn from each other on the current wearable tech and e-textile issues, as well as future directions in this developing area.

Camille has a fascination with all things emotional, embodied, felt, sensed, the visceral, physical, relational, and participatory projects, that involve video, communication devices and biofeedback. She has been on a continuous quest to work with new and emerging technologies to explore expressive methods, via art and performance, to connect people with each other, over distance better and in more embodied, emotional ways.

When did your interest in e-textiles begin and how did it all start?

I was first interested in wearable technology and e-textiles in 2002, when I first became a Research Assistant on a wearable tech performance research project, called Whisper(s) and Exhale, during my Masters degree in Vancouver, Canada, led by Professor Thecla Schiphorst and Dr. Susan Kozel.

Wearable tech has only just reached mass interest with the Google Glass and fitness trackers however, it has been around for quite some time.  Why do you think it’s getting a lot of attention only in the last few years?

Because the researchers have found companies to fund their research and make them into products. And the products are simple and packaged to the point of easy-to-use by the public. Also, the sports industry wanted to find ways to maximise the performance of athletes and this is where the big investment has come in – from sports, fitness and medical industries banking on the public’s health concerns and fitness enthusiasm to give away their data for free.

What is e-textiles and is it wearable tech?

Wearable technologies are technologies (mobiles, watches, and normal eye glasses are wearable technologies) and other devices (electronic sensing and actuation devices originally made for medical and other engineering uses).

E-textiles are an offshoot or bridge between wearable technologies and textiles design. People using wearable technologies, especially women, fashion designers and artists wanted to make their own wearable technologies by embedding more soft, flexible, aesthetic and conductive materials into their handmade wearable technologies, and the textiles industries were creating these textiles for manufacturing and other industrial purposes, and they were appropriated by engineers and designers for fashion, art and design purposes.

What is E-stitches and how long have you been running it?

Camille 2.jpg

E-stitches is meetup group, that I co-organise in London with Melissa Coleman, that was initially called Stitch, Bitch, Make/Perform that derived from my desire to take, not only my own artistic practice to task on the problems of unethical data collection by corporate wearable tech manufacturers, but also look more closely at the horrendous environmental and labour and the unethical supply chain issues of sourcing rare earth minerals in war torn countries to make these devices, as well as the lack of enough artists involved this debate nor in the development of wearable technology.

Initially, I wanted it to also be about arts and performance in this space, with a more feminist agenda, but I also let the group make decisions about its direction - many of the artists and performers have left, sadly - the group remaining decided to change the name to a more neutral name, but that’s sometime the sacrifice you make to draw more people in and create a broader appeal. However, the bulk of the now over 115 members now are women (maybe 97%) and many are interaction designers, PhD students or fashion designers.

Why is the #WomenInTech initiative important to you?

Well I’m an artist really but because I work with technology I’m often called a woman in tech and I’m happy with that. But what’s important to me is that art and tech are merged more in the common consciousness and that’s why the two EU projects I’ve initiated have been about that. In future, I will focus more on girls and generally technology in schools being less segregated from arts and more girls getting involved… but one project at a time.

I find it’s very important to reach the female students in my classes and try be a role model for them, this was in some ways more important when I was teaching in an engineering department at Brunel University, where there were fewer girls. At UCA, where I am now, it has more of a female population (at least in Epsom where I’m based), but it’s still important for me to show the girls that technology is not scary and that they can be programmers and still be designers.

What has been your biggest obstacle?

I’ve been in the arts most of my career, so in some ways I’ve not had as many obstacles as many women in industry, and especially the tech industry, and I’ve been in academic environments as well.

However, my main obstacle when I was at Brunel was getting promoted, there were only about 4-5 women in our dept and only 3 were actually engineers, and none of us were being promoted. Then they employed a new Vice-Chancellor, who’s a woman, and she tried to correct this situation somewhat, but I decided just to leave to go where I’d be more appreciated and that’s worked quite well for me.

I think I’m quite driven and focussed, so I don’t feel anything is much of an obstacle, it just might take longer at times to get what you want.

Definitely, being a foreigner in the UK (I’m from Canada) has been an obstacle for some time – I now have indefinite leave to remain, but that was tricky for a while. But again I’m very determined.

I think you just need to set your mind to something and not let things in your way. I haven’t had children however, and I do salute those women who’ve had children and have to parent and try to get ahead, the world isn’t very kind to mothers, sadly.

What are the challenges of being in the e-textiles industry?

I don’t know. I’m not in the e-textiles industry per se, although I’d say there is a learning curve to learning new technologies and doing the things you want with your own practice/ projects. I tried to learn as much as I could to make my own wearable performance projects but then I realised that I’m an artist and not an engineer and unless I want to learn a new profession, I would not achieve my goals with my media research projects (most not with collaborator Kate Sicchio, a media artist/ choreographer now living in New York), if I/we didn’t collaborate with electronic engineers and e-textiles designers.

What are your biggest achievements to date?

I have a couple books coming out, one that is a collaborative edited series with Kate Sicchio; becoming a Reader for UCA in 2015 was an achievement that I’m proud of, after all those years of striving to get promoted and working very hard on my PhD and postdoctoral practice; also being awarded this 2nd EU project to focus on in the next 24 months is awesome. It aims to:

  • Developing a sustainable European network of stakeholders and hubs, to connect and push the boundaries in the design and development of wearables;

  • Encouraging cross-border and cross-sector collaboration between artists/designers and technology developers to design and develop wearables;

  • Developing a framework within which future prototypes can be made that will become the next generation of what ethical and aesthetic wearables could/should be;

  • Leading the emergence of innovative approaches to design, production, manufacturing and business models for wearable technologies;

  • Making citizens, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders (especially the tech industry) more aware of the ethical and aesthetic issues in making and use of wearable technologies.

Can you please tell us about your book and how you made the decision to write it?

My book is about how mobile phones have been used with art and performance works since the first smart phone – lt covers:  in part 1, digital critical theory around connection, intimacy (with & through the phone), liveness & presence in performance (via phones) within events such as immersive theatre and dance; in part 2, it’s more of a survey of the different types of performance and art forms using mobile devices (including wearable sensing), such as live telematic performance (via teleconferencing), wearable devices and VR /AR in performance, mobiles as a musical instrument, in theatre, dance, live art, music; and part 3, is about my own work (my PhD, my performance work with my collaborator, and also my e-stitches and WEAR work), as well as interviews with other artists in the above mediums.

It cames from being approached, to submit a proposal for a book at a conference, on my PhD and my practice a few years ago – I did so and after some revisions it was accepted. But at first I felt like I had moved on from this subject of mobile performance, but once they let me talk about my own work and how things have shifted since 2010 when I completed my PhD, then was more engaged in it again. However, about 40% is still from (but reworked) my PhD thesis.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all women in wearable tech, artists and e-textiles?

Try to make it yourself, to get a good handle on the process, and the tools and techniques required, but also then collaborate with experts when you want to move further on from dabbling or making projects for yourself.

I wanted to be able to do everything myself, but I’m not an engineer – I’m an artist and some point I couldn’t progress my ambitions without help. So don’t go for help first, but know when you’ve reached the limits of your expertise.
 

Websitewww.swampgirl67.net and camillebaker.me

Twitter: @swampgirl67 

Instagram: @mythrakitty 

Linkedin: Camille Baker