Joanna Berzowska’s work exists somewhere between industrial patents and intimate clothing. How do we account for the smelly or dirty or provocative elements of the body and of design? Speaking about the MIT Media Lab, Berzowska notes that there was a gender divide between how wearables were tackled by male researchers and how female researchers were more invested in embodied interaction: “they were interested in textiles and the surface of the skin,” she says, “and what I now call beyond-the-wrist interaction.”
According to Berzowska, it’s precisely that space that’s missed by a mostly male-dominated research agenda into wearable technology, which focuses on head-mounted displays, such as Google Glass, or in creating protective, exoskeleton-like shells. But what about the rest of the body? What about the sweat, tears, and the spaces of the body that don’t “fit easily into an Engineering research model” as Berzowska puts it. In short, “how can we embed computation in textiles rather than attach devices to our bodies?”
The solution is more straight-forward than one might think—it involves looking at “simple kinds of interactions or simple kinds of functionality that are more interested perhaps in well-being or pleasure or just everyday experience or communication.” That resonates with the name of Berzowska’s research space, XS Labs, which stands for Extra Soft, in part pointing to what’s considered “hard science” and what’s considered “soft,” literally, we could say, that space beyond the wrist.
Joanna Berzowska’s resumé is impressive. Previous to XS Labs, she studied and worked at the MIT Media Lab and she co-founded International Fashion Machines with Maggie Orth. Berzowska holds a BA in Pure Mathematics and a BFA in Design Arts, and her work has been shown at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the V&A in London, and at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, among others. XS Labs is part of the textile cluster at Concordia’s newly coined Milieux — Institute for Art and Technology, a cluster which, by the way, has an across-the-board female helm, with Barbara Layne of Studio SubTela and Kelly Thompson whose studio boasts a Jacquard loom.
Berzowska’s project, though “soft,” though intimate, does not exist in the realm of whimsy or art-for-art’s sake, in fact, Berzowska does not even see herself as an artist or any sort of solo creator, but rather one part of a team of people more closely aligned with design. “For me,” she says,
design fits a lot better into this research model where we have multiple authors for each project. It’s almost like thinking of the research work as a theatre performance, or a play, or an orchestra . . . design is perhaps a little bit more concerned with the tools, the materials, the processes, rather than the final moment of showing the piece.
What is the outcome of this theatre performance or play or orchestra? It isn’t always clear, and is perhaps the wrong questions—her work exists, as Berzowska says, more in the realm of process: her garments tend to act as thought projects, such as the Reclaim dress, fitted with silicon balloons that can be inflated should the wearer find herself needing more personal space, or the Accouphène blazer, which is embroidered through with touch-activated soft speakers to create a three-dimensional sonic environment around the wearer. There is, however, a “harder” product at play here, and this came out when I asked Berzowska how she spends her time these days. “I’m writing a lot of patents right now with OmSignal,” she answered. “And those aren’t artefacts. That’s IP [intellectual property] that has a high monetary value.”
The level of intimacy Berzowska engages with in the creation of her wearables may not easily be equated with something like a patent. But this is the reality of her work, this is one of its central design products.
And a patent is a memory, in a way. It’s the memory of a practice, and, as Berzowska says, her practice always comes down to the practical, the everyday—even the way she uses the word “memory,” she notes, has to do with “memories of our own experiences, the very kind of concrete experiences, meaning the sweat, the hairs, the food stains, the coffee stains.”
What experiences get lost when wearable technology focuses only on extending the body rather than being in it, “improving” the body rather than existing in imperfection? Most of Berzowska’s work, such as the Skorpian dress, is meant to cause discomfort, to draw the wearer’s attention to a state of constant change, constant alive-ness, and all the messiness this entails.
“I remember working with somebody at the ICA conference in Vancouver,” she says at the end of our coffee, “it was like this brainstorming thing we were doing — and one of the ideas was a shoe that grows out of your own foot fungus. There’s a lot of potential in those kinds of things.”
What is beyond-the-wrist? Look no further than the intimacy, the everydayness, of your own foot fungus.
Quotes taken from an interview held with Joanna Berzowska in December 2015.