This year from September 15 to 24, Electronic Textile Camp returns to the historical town of Vicksburg, Michigan, USA. Artist and co-organizer Lara Grant spoke with Makery about eTextiles camps and projects past and present.
It’s a special time for everyone who comes to Electronic Textile Camp (ETC) hosted at Prairie Ronde Artist Residency in Vicksburg, Michigan. Organizers and participants bring tools and materials from across the country for scheduled workshops, impromptu exchanges and brainstorming sessions. It’s an opportunity for each resident to both learn and teach, craft and compute, meet and make – from sharing communal meals in resident houses to publicly exhibiting works-in-progress to experimenting with various textiles and DIY electronics within the vast open space of the town’s restored historic paper mill.
Originally inspired by eTextiles Summer Camp in Les Moulins de Paillard in France, the U.S.-based, artist-led residency Electronic Textile Camp first launched as eTextiles Spring Break in 2017. In recent years, it seems that fiber arts are (re)gaining official recognition, and “soft circuits” are increasingly in demand: “There are more labs dedicated to it at universities, people in interaction design want a class in it, people are aware of it and definitely fall into it – especially if you’re already a fiber nerd in some way,” says longtime e-textile practitioner Lara Grant. We asked the artist, designer, fabricator and instructor to tell us more.
Makery: What initially prompted you to launch a dedicated e-textile artist residency in the United States?
Lara Grant: Liza Stark, Sasha de Koninck and I [three of the original organizers, with Nicole Yi Messier], we had all been to eTextile Summer Camp in France for various years. Sacha has also helped organize SummerFest, which is part of eTextile Summer Camp. The camp itself is so invigorating, energizing and inspirational. It was also this great way to really solidify a community, while also breaking out of individual bounds and being able to collaborate with new people.
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The community is really about being open source, skill sharing, bringing people in, having conversations, being creative together. We felt like it was a great way to bring the event physically closer to a lot of people who normally may not be able to get out to rural France.
Makery: So what is it like to experiment with electronics and textiles inside a historical mill?
Lara Grant: Mills, I’m telling you, old mills is always where it’s at. The Mill at Vicksburg is where Summer Textile was held in 2022, in an old paper mill. In 2023 the Mill is still accessible to artists, but our workspace is in Prairie Ronde’s music venue. In Wassaic, where we held eTextile Spring Break in New York, it was also inside an old grain mill. So the Mill in Vicksburg is extremely rough and industrial, which we love. The Mill is definitely a focus, a place where you can go to gather inspiration from and also install tiny pieces or huge pieces, because it has high ceilings. It’s a massive place.
We had a soldering area, a weaving area, a screen-printing area, an ironing station, a sewing station, and so on. Then there were tables set up for artists to have their own space. In 2022 this was all in one huge room in the Mill. You’re walking over wooden floorboards, so you really have to be careful. We had to wear safety jackets and helmets. It was pretty wild!
Last year it was really close to Halloween in October, so some of the participants decided to show a horror movie. They put up a white sheet, we found a projector in the village community space and set up chairs. There’s all this wide open space that you can utilize in whichever way you want to.
Makery: What other spaces are available to ETC residents?
Lara Grant: The residents stay in houses. Every evening we get together as a whole at one house to have dinner. That’s our relaxing community time.
For our workshops, we primarily hold in them in the workspace and have utilized a house before. It was a house with a huge kitchen and lots of counter space if we’re doing a dyeing workshop, for example, so we will shift into other spaces if they offer the right utilities.
The exhibit space is always separate from the lab and the workspace. The exhibit is us wanting to invite people from the village to see what we’re doing and for them to meet us and have conversations with us.
Makery: Are the local residents of Vicksburg curious about ETC projects?
Lara Grant: The cool thing about Vicksburg is that there is a really solid craft community there. It’s this weaving, crafting, fiber arts group. Last year we borrowed too many looms, we didn’t even use as many looms as we borrowed from them, but we just got too excited, because they offered them to us. So we got four or five different looms to set up for our participants to use, it was amazing. They were so sweet about it, so we had dinner with them as a thank you and to make a connection, and they brought homemade desserts. I had the best carrot cake I’ve ever had in my life!
The small town is so peaceful, it’s such a great way to really talk to people and get to know them. They’re all creative and friendly people as well, and they want to get to know us too.
Makery: What are some of the more popular eTextile applications?
Lara Grant: Because electronic textiles is multidisciplinary, it exists in a variety of categories. Some people are more fashion-oriented, they build really complex robotic pieces that are also wearable, or they’ll 3D-print a full dress. So conceptual fashion is one for sure. Then there are performance-based pieces, by a lot of different performers: music by sound-performers or noise-performers, classical music performers who build themselves costumes that react or sense their movement as they’re playing piano…
There are also people who get into what I think of as soft circuitry: building antennas, hard electronic components our of soft materials and experimenting with that and putting them into all kinds of contexts. A concept I see a lot is dynamic textiles, textiles that morph or change, something that visually you can see reacting to something that is input. Inflatables is also part of dynamic textiles and something that people are always interested in.
Then there’s public vs. privacy, something that will create a private space for someone, or something that will react to someone coming into their private space, or something that will create more of a community that’s open to the public. As a whole, e-textiles is very much a material-based exploration.
Makery: What about biomaterials? It looks like this year at least one participant has made a fungal breadboard?
Lara Grant: Yes, people who are interested in e-textiles are also interested in bioplastics or using mycology, basically different ways to make materials that are biodegradable.
Everyone’s always really interested in sustainability, but the harsh truth is that we’re making things that marry fibers with metal. Once those are fused together, you can’t take them apart, so they’re not recyclable. It’s kind of sad, I see that most renewable or biodegradable materials geared towards electronics never leave the research phase. I suppose there still isn’t enough money driven by larger companies and people who actually have the power to move the wheel to fund it. But we do talk about how to use sustainable materials, people actually design around that. All of this is on our minds as electronic textile practitioners.
Makery: So what are your hopes for ETC 2023?
Lara Grant: I always hope that people can just have the time that they need to, which can look like collaboration, slowing down and having space for themselves, or jamming on a new skill they learn throughout camp. We do our best to give the residents as much space and support as they need. I also hope that people walk away with something new, whether it’s a material, friendship, or learning about a new PhD program.
We do see patterns. It’s interesting how when we’re looking through the applications and see what people put as what they’re interested in learning, there’s always one thing for each year. This year it’s p5.js, a newer visual programming language. So we made sure that we have someone who is able to give a workshop in that.
Otherwise things happen very organically. I’m always nervous that catastrophe will strike. Because we’re just throwing creative people in together with tools, materials and a space to create in. However, each year has been incredible in different ways and has been a positive and inspiring experience.