Taiwanese artist and design researcher Shih Wei Chieh was in residence from September to November at Bitwäscherei hackerspace in Zürich. During his residency, Shih Wei Chieh advanced his current research work on dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC), a photoelectrochemical system inspired by plant photosynthesis which, when exposed to light, generates electricity. Cells of this type are sometimes referred to as Grätzel cells, in reference to their designer, Michael Grätzel of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. So Switzerland seems the obvious destination for the Taiwanese. Makery wanted to know more about his background and new projects. Second part of the interview.
Makery has been interested in the projects of Taiwanese artist Shih Wei Chieh for some time now. Initiator of the Tribe Against Machine workshop, already a landmark event in the e-textile makers world, long-time companion of the Hackteria network in the Pacific, and now with his fairy fingers in the field of Grätzel cells? His European visit as hacker-in-residence at Bitwäscherei in Zürich was an opportunity to get to know this inspired and inspiring designer. And to ask him what his research was in Switzerland. The result is a wide-ranging interview.
In the first part we discussed your projects before Covid, I heard also about your project Having Friends in the Future during the pandemic, can you tell us a few words?
I used to work with an open government bidding project from National Taiwan Craftsmanship Research and Design Institute (NTCRI) during the COVID time from 2019 to 2021. After I have curated a show of the collaboration of my own developed Laser Dye Project and local natural fiber culture in 2019/2020, NCAF commissioned me to organize another show. Having Friends in The Future was supposed to be an e-textile art oriented physical artist residency program in the beginning. I was planning to invite e-textile artists Afroditi Psarra and Audrey Briot to NCAF. Unfortunately the COVID came and we have to adapt to the restriction so the program changed to an online residency program. The purpose of this residency, or online gathering was to invent an exchange between Taiwan traditional craft culture and e-textile techniques. We have gathered 23 artists, participants are mostly members of Hackteria Open Source Biological Arts Platform, the Paillard e-textile summer camp and the Electronic Textile Camp (ETC), we even have some new faces. Eventually we collaboratively made a book composed with small swatches of each artists’ works. The books were then shipped to all 23 participants internationally as a symbol of the collaboration.
You started to work on dye sensitized solar cells, or Gratzel cells, why did you get interested in this technique?
My fascination with regular dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC) began at the 2018 Tribe Against Machine camp in Taiwan. The spark came from Trisha Andrew and Marianne Fairbanks’ solar textile project, which I stumbled upon through the e-textile network. Motivated by their work, I decided to embark on creating my own version of DSSC.
For more personal reasons, I found DSSC intriguing as a technology that allows for dyeing with natural dyes and can be patternized through screen printing. The allure of working with the properties of light, evident in laser dye projects, has always captured my interest. This curiosity has persisted and evolved as my understanding of light properties has deepened over time.
I firmly believe that as I continue to immerse myself in learning about photonic applications, I’m inching closer to a level where I can actively engage with consciousness science, awareness, and neural science. Although I recognize that I am still far from reaching that stage, my ongoing journey of learning fuels my optimism about eventually delving into these profound realms.
I understand you want to experiment really ambitious ideas with it, such as dye sensitized solar cells in fiber form? Can you explain?
Working with flexible electronics has always been one of my main practices. I think I can’t explain it since it has already become a habit or a personal tradition since my other previous wearable projects. It’s also a way to connect myself to other enthusiasts from bigger communities.
My research and experiments of solar textile are still in the preliminary stage and it’s not really any scientifically innovative, it’s mostly reproducing results by following papers. Mainly the direction is toward non-toxic, low temperature process and high temperature process, but all in DIY level. During the Hacker Lab residency in Hackteria this time, for example, the hot UV sintering for the TiO2 porous layer in dye sensitized solar cells and sintering TiO2 porous layer on mineral fibers are showing positive results for manufacturing the photo-electrode of dye sensitized solar cells at DIY level. The other important direction is to create transparent conductive film with silver nanowires which is also crucial for making flexible solar devices. Silver nanowires are relevant to many applications such as photovoltaic devices or smart contact lenses, therefore it was a very valuable time to learn about its properties with proper science equipment and experienced people around you.
You also talk about woven computers with Photonic Integrated Circuits, I want to know more!
I believe this pertains to a methodology for generating art pieces that contribute to the conceptual discussion in our project focused on ancient textile culture. The trajectory from the history of core rope memory in the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) to contemporary computing serves as a recurring model in the e-textile scene. Spanning from past collaborations to the current “H.Om.E” Project with my partners Satoru Sugihara, Maria Jose Rios, and Ricardo Vega, our exploration delves into the concealed connections among several remote communities we’ve engaged with, including the Taiwan Atayal, the greenhouse project in Qinghai, and the I_C project in the Atacama desert.
I see the aesthetic value in redefining “home” by revisiting our surroundings with broader perspectives. The notion of optical computing evolved from the history of AGC and intersected with the earlier earthship architecture project in Qinghai, giving rise to the concept of computing integrated with solar textile architecture. In simpler terms, the photonic integrated circuit (PIC) is envisioned as a conceptual archaeology tool, allowing us to visually represent the philosophical idea of translating historical time into a quantifiable and comparable element.
Crucially, the aim is to decentralize our identity from regional political affiliations, enabling relevance within a larger context which is not able to be done by the anthropological method. A woven optical computer application becomes instrumental in facilitating further discussions, a narrative, by incorporating climate data as philosophical materials, envisioning, perhaps, a livable solar woven earthship with its own consciousness. I am happy to keep you all updated!
What was the purpose of your residency in Zurich? What did you learn from it?
In addition to my pursuit of practical solar applications, my most successful DSSC prototype currently produces only around ~2.5 mA per square centimeter. The significance lies more in the opportunities to collaborate with scientists and engage in visits to the laboratory at ZTH. This experience has served as valuable training for me, offering insights into how scientists work with nanomaterials. Understanding the conventional applications and purposes, as well as the established protocols for synthesizing nano materials, has been a rare and precious experience for artists. It raises pertinent questions about the relationship between art and science, and how these two domains can and should collaborate effectively.
On the organizing perspective, this hacker residency organized by friends might be hard to scale up. We cleverly utilized all available resources by parallely coordinating this hacker residency with another exhibition and workshop organized by the Regenerative Energy Community (R.E.C) and the We Are Awareness in Art (AIA), known as the Energy Giveaway Humus Punk Library. As well as another workshop took place in the Luzern Fablab “Medizintechnik DIY” organized by Marc Dusseiller. This approach effectively eased the pressure of the financial side of independent residencies organizing. Although it was a fantastic experience for artists to work with scientists with complete freedom and full access to knowledge, I wonder how we can repeat the model without any funding to support the free sofa accommodation and the efforts from volunteers. On the other hand, I believe this is a great model that differs from those residency organized by institutes and centers which always comes with political requirements and demands. The property of the community plays a big part too. During the residency I have met many community members in Bitwäscherei, the role of them are usually very mixed, like chemist with musician background or artist with scientific degree, or engineer with profound knowledge for history of analog computer, the people are a great library and the culture was naturally provided by the community. This dynamic is relatively rare in Taiwan, where career roles tend to be more singular, and scientists typically don’t serve other fields in the same integrated manner. This difference could be linked to the local economic environment or culture differences.
You’ve been active in the HlabX network of Hackteria. What inspiration do you draw from the workshopology method developed in this network? What are the main obstacles and how do you see the future?
From 2017 to 2021, I actively took on the role of an organizer, consistently seeking to bridge the networks I knew with the art and institutions in Taiwan. Over time, I found myself contemplating the distinction between “international networks” and the “Taiwan art system,” although I’ve realized the potential pitfalls of defining them without due respect and objectivity. It became apparent that the focus should be on developing better protocols to connect the global and local scenes, fostering opportunities for shared experiences and collaborations without rigid distinctions.
My primary source of information comes from the networks in which I participate, where schooling seamlessly integrates with my daily life experience. Typically initiated by vibrant gathering events, participants connect, sharing interests and knowledge. Afterward, ongoing exchanges of ideas and information occur on platforms like Telegram or social media. I find these invisible or “underground” networks, along with the inter-hierarchy connections within them (more participants with different professionals), to be undervalued and underestimated. Knowledge flows openly, transcending hierarchical structures.
In the art industry and training, there tends to be an overemphasis on utility thinking, creating a divide between learning and life. While some utility thinking is acceptable in the art industry, it should not dominate the education development process. This is where alternative systems play a crucial role, providing knowledge within broader cultural contexts. Perhaps the discussion is about how to formalize a decentralized learning system or platform, scaling up organic networks with sustainability in mind.
What are your future projects? The next chapter in your Grätzel cell research?
Like I mentioned in the previous answer. For the conceptual part, In the H.Om.E Project we are going to develop a conceptual woven architecture which can serve the local environment. Solar systems will definitely be part of the design, of course other systems like fog collector net are discussed too. The PIC system is a very challenging part and I think it will be glass substrates, the main task will be looking for “what to compute?” and how to embody the philosophical relationship between 3 communities located in 3 disconnected geography with optical conceptual computing. Aesthetically, the screen printed pattern within the solar glass will produce the performative computation by implementing the logic gates.
On the engineering side, I am also very interested in improving the efficiency of DIY solar cells. I am very curious to find out if I can reach product-level efficiency with a home level laboratory. Additionally, making DSSC is great training for making 3rd generation solar cells. From DSSC I believe I can switch to organic cells or perovskite, which share the similar coating technique in the manufacturing process. But everything is still speculative now.
Read the first part of this interview.
Documentation of Shih Wei Chieh’s residency at Hackteria in September-November 2023.