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The Future Lab: Hannah Perner-Wilson

Make:Shift brings together an extraordinary group of makers, thinkers and scientists

In the current issue of Crafts, we met some of them for a taste of what to expect. 

‘If you look at the production process for traditional electronics, the whole thing has been streamlined, but in electronic textiles a lot is still hand-made.’ I’m talking to Hannah Perner-Wilson, or Plusea to use her professional moniker, over Skype – she is currently working on a project in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Over the years, her research into wearable technology has taken her all over the world, and among smart and e-textiles specialists her reputation – as Plusea and one half of the collective KOBAKANT – is established. While it’s still a ‘small community’, as she puts it, Perner-Wilson is in the vanguard. ‘I think part of what draws me to it is that there aren’t ready-made solutions yet, it’s unknown,’ she reflects. ‘And a set of tools doesn’t exist, you have to make everything yourself from scratch, so they’re custom-made. I like that about it.’

At Make:Shift, Perner-Wilson will appear as part of a panel on the theme of augmented bodies and prosthetics. Her expertise relates to the first concept, namely how the electrical properties of materials might allow technology to become more expressive – a comfortable extension of our bodies, a continuation rather than an adjunct. Though high-tech, it relies on her facility for a host of time-honoured craft skills. ‘There’s a whole industry looking at this stuff, but I’m part of a group and we’re makers,’ she says. ‘We do a lot by hand, often inspired by very old textile techniques like Turkish lace-making. It’s an opportunity to combine newer concepts and structures of technology with tradition and hand practice.’

Manual meshing - a process of approximating geometric domains normally done by computers. Photo: Hannah Perner Wilson

This special hybridity in Perner-Wilson’s skill set means she enjoys a self-reliance out of reach to most. Accustomed to developing the implements she needs herself because they do not yet exist, she even maintains a website, Tools We Want, with three collaborators. Here, they share prototypes and sketches – of designs like wire-stripper thimbles and e-textile chatelaines – which wonderfully amalgamate the ancient and the avant-garde. Her understanding of both electronics and textiles is also mostly self-taught. One senses that, while she relishes the company of collaborators, her magpie-like ability to pick up new techniques makes them somewhat dispensable.

Travelling tools

It’s independence that also characterises her latest project, born out of a field trip last year, accompanying a group of ant researchers to Madagascar. Perner-Wilson realised she needed what she calls ‘a wearable studio practice’. ‘I travel a lot with my work [after Slovenia, there is a month-long residency in Brighton] and I end up packing everything into bags; then when you get there, everything is lying around.’ While for most of us it’s a frustration experienced on holiday, hunting for a stray pair of sunglasses, for Perner-Wilson every tool serves an essential purpose, and it’s a hindrance she’d rather do without.

The travelling toolkit has an obvious practical function, saving Perner-Wilson time unpacking and repacking with every trip, but it also puts paid to her dependence on a bricks-and-mortar studio, something she sees as opening up a range of possibilities. Taking your practice out and about allows you to experience, as she puts it, ‘a different environment where you have to improvise... It will change the way you work. Then the question is, how will it change what you make?’ It echoes the enquiry that fired her original curiosity in electronics: ‘If we built electronics differently, changed the culture around it, and changed who is involved in making it, then what different things would we make?’

Making at the Montessori

Until now, it’s a question that has lead her down different paths, each challenging our existing relationship with electronics. Most high profile is her work with the British musician Imogen Heap, helping to develop a pair of gloves enabling Heap to compose electronic music through gesture. Her next will take her and her KOBAKANT partner, Mika Satomi, to Brighton, where the pair will spend a month working from a classroom in a Montessori school – important, she feels, because making has become invisible, ‘removed from our everyday lives’.

For now, they are unsure about what they will work on at the school. True to their usual form, they are keen to let things evolve on a natural course.

We return to her new portable studio, and the rewards of working in a field without precedent. ‘Sometimes it’s a bit like a frontier mentality, that you want to go where it’s still wild and there’s no path, like going on an expedition... It’s not quite clear what it will become, but you stick to it, and you always find something interesting comes out of it.’

Hannah Perner-Wilson will be in discussion in the Conversation Space, 3-3.30pm, Thursday 10 November

Make:Shift is at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester m3 4fp. 

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