The revival of craft, particularly among a Miranda Julyian generation of female artists, is not super-new. Nor does it seem to care much for significance, which is probably why it’s so quirksome to so many people (also, me). Its applications to technology, though, still intrigue. Using craft to explain tech–as the artist, technologist and OCAD professor Kate Hartman does–isn’t just a cute way of illustrating the oppositional forces in our world (more “smart devices!” No, more “urban farming!”). It also reminds us who created all the electronickiness that we see sometimes as friendly and beneficent, sometimes as threatening. Devices. They’re just like us. To understand Hartman’s work, exhibited most recently at the MoMa (no big), you should do three things: 1) Watch her TED Talk. 2) Read this interview, thanks. 3) Go see her speak at TIFF Nexus Women in Film, Games and New Media Day this Friday, December 9. We have a deal, yes? What’s your primary identity? You’ve been called an artist, a designer, a technologist, and probably a nerd, but how do you define yourself? I guess as a maker, you know, someone who produces work from a variety of perspectives. I use technology as a medium and as conceptual inspiration. I feel like people often confuse technology with the things technology does. We think of ourselves as addicted to our phones, but we’re really addicted to communication, to “seeing ourselves,” and to social reassurance. What’s your own relationship with tech? Do you see your devices as separate from you, or extensions of you? I think both. More and more technological devices are falling into the realm of extension. They’re really, in effect, prosthetics that help us to do different things–they expand our abilities and assist our interactions. But in doing so, they have an effect, and they steer our interactions as well. I think that’s really interesting. People do have a tendency to anthropomorphize their devices, to develop a really intense personal relationship with them, even to develop emotional ties to them. A lot of my work is about dipping into that space and getting people to play with it more and maybe ask some more questions. I’m interested in the human-technology power dynamic. I think this is a moment when people feel like technology has a lot of power, or influence, over their lives.
Are we frightened? I don’t know if I would say frightened. I think we’re overwhelmed. It’s impossible to respond to all the material that comes through all these networks. We’ve reached a point of saturation that’s beyond what we can handle. I really like playing with the idea of the device and its ability to represent different aspects of relating. For every way in which we relate to each other and to the world, there’s a device. So I play with that; I make up fictional devices to express our ways of relating. Like the “Talk To Yourself” hat. What are the some of the different reactions people have to experiencing that piece of work? I always use bright colours and soft materials and toy-like things in my work, so that it feels playful. It’s not intimidating. In a way, it’s a private performance. [As they talk] they begin to reveal things about themselves they may not have been aware of before. It’s a new kind of art therapy. Are you nostalgic for any kind of old devices? Giant cellphones? Your work looks a bit nostalgic; it reminds me of making “telephones” with cups and strings. Yes, it is a bit like that! But I don’t have a lot of technological nostalgia. For me, I think, part of the reason I got into technology was that when I was growing up, I saw the shift in computers and in the aesthetic of computers. The biggest thing was being at an age when I could understand the internet coming into being, and being able to think about the implications of that as a teenager. Do you think teenagers now, those who were born post-internet, will understand it as well? I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it a bit. When I was living in New York, I was teaching grad school, but since I moved here I’ve been teaching undergrads [at OCAD]. As I get older, my students get younger, and working with these people who don’t remember there not being an internet is really fascinating. Because my parents were slow adopters, I remember more of the pre-internet time than other people my age. I remember enough of the old world to be frightened of how fast things are changing. For example, when I got the iPhone a few days ago, I got the 4 and not the 4S. And the primary reason for that is–in all seriousness–I think Siri is going to turn into Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I knew you were going to say that!
Is everybody saying that? I don’t know about everybody, but yes, this is why it’s really important for people to understand how technology works and be literate about how it’s built, so that it’s not like this completely abstract object. I’m the director of this Digital Futures program at OCAD, and we just had our big end-of-semester crit last night. One group of students is working on accelerometers, which are the sensors that make the screen flip when you turn your iPhone, for example. They’re building a whole interface from the microcontroller up, working with the sensors and doing the programming. It’s so immensely complicated. I had no idea how much you to think about with three pieces of data–X, Y, Z–to create a meaningful interaction. I think it’s important for people to understand their own agency with the technology they use. That’s why I have such a strong connection to making, to DIY, to open source. So that we retain power? Yes. So that you can open your phone and look at it and know whether Siri’s going to turn on you (laughs).