The Sonified Textiles within the Text(il)ura Performance:
Cross-cultural Tangible Interfaces as Phenomenological Artifacts
by Paola Torres Núñez del Prado


Disruptive User Interfaces

This research is placed in between the fine arts, music, and interactive media design, in the area of human-computer Interaction. The terminology used pertains mostly to the latter when explaining their behavior on a technical level, as the discipline of e-/smart textiles within the arts is still rather new and there has not yet been much written from this field. I consider these controllers, a type of soft physical input devices meant to trigger events within the digital, essentially hybrid because they are artworks as well as prototypes of user interfaces, that is, devices that facilitate the communication between humans and computers or machines.

To begin with, I will place my exploration in the context a group of women of Latin American origin who have been developing smart textiles while referring to the technologies developed traditionally in our territories. These artists are Amor Muñoz (Mexico), Constanza Piña (Chile), Sandra de Berduccy, (from Bolivia, who has framed her own textile production as phenomenological) and me (Perú/Sweden). Patricia Cadavid (Colombia/Spain), deserves a special mention. She does not work with smart textiles per se. She develops tactile-based interfaces for live performances, akin to my own practice. Our work can be described as syncretic, sometimes touching upon identity issues related to our backgrounds (that of mestizo or mixed-race, as many other Latin American peoples, affected by coloniality, growing in an environment that is heavily influenced by the West yet not considered fully Western.) Our research can be considered as part of a bigger collective of e- or smart textile designers who have questioned the history of computing from a feminist perspective, where Charles Babbage´s Analytical Engine “wove algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom wove flowers and leaves”[2], placing particular emphasis on the connection with textile-making that was made very early by Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer (of such computer-models).

>Sandra de Berduccy

As mentioned before, our works also overlap with HCI, craftivism and the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement, as it includes electronics, fibers, interaction and even sound or light reactivity with the aim to create artworks that change alongside the viewer/user/interactor. Our point of departure is a phenomenological framework where change is constant. The interfaces developed are usually hand-made by ourselves. Craft plays a leading role in our practice. Textile-making itself, as an embodied phenomenon, is now presented as the origin from which other matrix-based technologies emerge.

My exploration regarding the Text(il)ura controllers consisted of studying the diverse traditions of my own ancestors as a Peruvian, referencing the three main geographical areas of my country of origin. First, the Amazon rainforest, when developing the Shipibo-Conibo Style Textile. Second, the Andes, with the controller The Unkuña of Noise. Third, with a cord-based controller in the style of the ancient fiber-based storage device, The Hanap Pacha Quipu, which takes its inspiration from the desert (the coast) area where most quipus, pre-Columbian fiber devices, have been mostly found. The technology of the quipu is particularly interesting as it encoded information using knots in a system that, according to some researchers, parallels binary writing. The quipu offers a completely different way to encode information. Here, narratives, symbols and meanings are embedded in textile fibers rather than appearing as written signs on paper or on clay tablets.

It is in the trans-disciplinary, cross-cultural nature of these devices where function, causality and semantics would become isomorphic. These two words, trans-disciplinary and cross-cultural, are here understood as concepts that are meant to go beyond the mere similarity between two or more objects, entities or ideas. Isomorphism here implies the actual mapping of these correspondences, so to speak, which in turn places the focus away from the original nodes (these the different cultures, the diverse techno-ontological historicities referred to, et cetera) towards the newly found connections. Transculturality then emerges from the cross-cultural once the latter is seen as process, now understood as an act in which the forms and activities of such exchanges turn into a dynamic structure reminiscent of neural networks – a similarity that implies an apprehending process.

Now, to understand one thing as having virtue over another, that is presented as different, is the essence of colonial narratives that arrange social structures in hierarchical, unipolar orders of magnitude or value, where the understanding is done from the hegemonic point of view. In the Text(il)ura a similar metamorphosis occurs in the interpretative act, but not from a eurocentric perspective; instead, the network dynamics goes beyond the hierarchical notion implicit in hegemonic readings that change the observed through domination disguised as a comprehensive intention. Here, I am highlighting the connective channels, emphasizing the fact that these allow backpropagation too (information flowing back and forth, so to speak) and thus are constantly changing.

Textile is a strange material to use in experimental concerts or electronic sonic acts, at the very least for being uncommon, but mainly, for its properties. In the case of this performance, while formally changing during manipulation, the material modifies the sound being emitted. This happens especially in the case of the Unkuña of Noise and its textile sensor´s characteristics: the physical stretching required to vary an electric resistance is in turn mapped onto digital signals to make them variable. The multisystemic exchange happens when the material transfigures the performance, while the performative act reshapes the material that ends up reformulating the sound as well.

The stylistic choices made are intentionally culturally embedded to result in yet another level of transformation when such initial otherness (the non-Western stylistic qualities) turns into the main subject, creating a new situation in which hegemony and its thought systems become the objects of appropriation. Within this framework, the West becomes the new otherness that is not dismissed but acknowledged, reorganized, and incorporated. Power structures are thus reconfigured.

With respect to the performance itself, gestures become unique, yet sometimes they can still evoke more usual imaginaries in music contexts, such as expressivity of the hands, when the pianist is playing. In any case, even if one would preclude explicit social referencing, a divergence from conventional gestural repertoire would always be present if the instrument´s design is based on the properties of the material, of the textile fibres themselves and what they allow (rubbing, stretching, tying, et cetera), and not on plain imitation of already existing musical instruments using such materials. In the end, it is in these ever-changing structures in which orders are constantly flipped, in both content and form, where the transformative locus is found; for, in the Sonified Textiles performances in general, also meaning metamorphoses, not only aesthetics, behaviour, function, and sound.


Phenomenology and Decolonial Analysis

Within the broad area of utilitarian design, it is imperative to reflect upon the nature of the material with which the designed instrument shall be composed, one that will allow it to function in the best way while also taking into consideration that it is made for humans in such a way that details such as anthropomorphic factors or weight of the device designed should be always considered [3]. Textile always brings us back to the body; the soon-to-be performing body that perceives and feels and can feel discomfort if the material is too heavy or rough, if it makes gestures too complicated, or if it is too slippery or big. The experiencing body becomes the main subject as one is ultimately designing for it. Thus, when thinking about the condition of the interface itself, one could almost take it as if it were the blueprint, a reflection of the body that will play the textile controllers. This fact is more evident in the case of Wearables (an important area of e- and smart textile application) as the technology developed is used to make garments to wear. Nevertheless, the issue is still relevant for controllers that are meant to be manipulated in real time and in front of an audience.

I need to point out that I am talking about a body that, even if embedded in one cultural context or the other, possess somewhat the same faculties, as we all have a shared existence beyond culture, in the sense that all people are, ultimately, human. The awareness of a mutual experience (that of having a human body) is a thought that has been present throughout the design process: the devices are made to be appealing to the human body in more than one aspect. As such, the three textile controllers referred to in this exposition are pleasurable to touch, they are extremely lightweight, and they can be folded to occupy little space – a characteristic that makes them intentionally portable (as it was the original function of the unkuña textiles in Andean culture). Unfolded, these devices can occupy a large area, a detail that contributes to visual impact. The electronics required for them to function are also very small, and most often embedded in the textiles themselves.

When referring to the human that moves in the world, the philosophical discipline of phenomenology seems adequate for analyzing the relationship between these devices and the performance itself. Now, following the power reconfiguration that I spoke about earlier, there is a decolonial turn implicit in my work, as I am openly appropriating and applying a thought-system that originates from the masculine, from the West, from the Modern, and, hence, from Coloniality. Yet, when framed as an appropriation, there is another metamorphosis that occurs: I apply these thought systems for disentangling a part of the transcultural experience, but have as a starting point the decolonization of technology and art embedded within the design and its function. And I depart by examining the devices, their stylistic qualities rooted in a very particular notion of lifeworld, usually defined as “cosmovision” or cosmology, when talking about the thought systems of indigenous people and their lived experience. Having the body in mind indicates the adequacy of Phenomenology, and Merleau-Ponty’s concept of embodied experience. The concept is useful to clarify the complexities found within the field of human-computer interaction. Should I disregard the extensive body of work on the subject because it was coined within the hegemony?

“It is doubtful that the way consists in the simple negation of all its categories; in the dissolution of reality in discourse; in the pure negation of the idea and the perspective of totality in knowledge,” says Aníbal Quijano, the Andean father of decolonial discourse. According to him, there would be “nothing less rational, finally, than the claim that the specific worldview of a particular ethnic group should be imposed as the universal rationality”.[3]

Here lies the relevance of decolonial discourse: it is inclusive in its essence, and, for Quijano, intercultural relations will free us from the prison of coloniality.

From Hermeneutics to Phenomenology

The return to the body brings phenomenology forward and places hermeneutics somewhat in the shade, yet not completely aside. This is clearly demonstrated when considering Don Ihde’s hermeneutic phenomenology as framed within a philosophy of technology. Ihde justifies the need for a change in focus between phenomenology (embodied experience) and hermeneutics (interpretative act) depending on what we require in our analysis:

““(…) One can now see that hermeneutic relations vary the continuum of human – technology – world relations. Hermeneutic relations maintain the general mediation position of technologies within the context of human praxis towards a world, but they also change the variables within the human – technology – world relation. A comparative formalism may be suggestive:

General intentionality relations:


Variant A: embodiment relations

(I-technology) ➔ world

Variant B: hermeneutic relations

I ➔ (technology world)"

The insert is included in Idhe´s “Technology and the Lifeworld” book, and displays the dynamics between Phenomenology (Variant A) and Hermeneutics. (Variant B)[4] Idhe considers that the standpoint of embodiment relations works best when there the relation itself is the most important component of perceptual and bodily action.

As mentioned earlier, such isomorphic mappings – the dynamic relations themselves – are also relevant when studying the implications of these tangible tactile interfaces for sound: the Sonified Textiles. Hence, what he designates as Variant A, foregrounds the perspective of the body and how it relates to the interfaces. Therefore, the phenomenological take seems suitable.

There have been examples of other types of textile sound performances in which the controllers looked like ‘familiar’ musical instruments: for example, a piano. In this case, the designated material (the textile) has no meaningful connection to the sound associated with the original device; a piano is a percussive instrument, and touch is only relevant as it “hits” the keys. In the case of the Sonified Textiles, they only work in relation to the human hand, as they are calibrated for their conductivity and for their abilities. Factors such as contact area (the amount of skin that touches the textile) and pulling or applying a force, change the behavior of the interface, that is, the sound emitted. It is true that the Sonified Textiles work upon a sonification, which is the use of audio beyond speech to represent information. They maintain, however, a solid mapping in-between the tactile, material and symbolic qualities of the textiles as well in how they function. They are meant to be rubbed, pulled, or just held as one would grab a handful of ropes. As exemplified in the case of the Hanap Pacha Quipu, these are the ways our body would approach textiles or ropes normally. But there is more: on a conceptual level, sound and textile are connected through historicity and narrative; as pointed out before, the tradition of the pan-Andean area to embed symbols, images, and in the case of the quipu, proper codes, in fibers and textiles, offers an epistemic connection through the interface itself that has a meaningful existence in the way Merleau-Ponty proposed: this functions transversally, but not only beyond its physical components or its embedded meanings (the “metaphoric existence”), but also beyond time (as they can be seen as retro-futuristic) and culture. Here is where the need for a transcultural ‘phenomenology of the interface’ comes to light. When analyzing the Sonified Textiles, it is clear that they are as much functioning physical devices that look like specific cultural artifacts from specific human groups, as devices that allow the possibility of a certain action (by how they are “played” and its difference with conventional set-ups for electronic music) while also referring to these cultures metaphorically/conceptually, both visually and sound-wise, from the standpoint of a fellow Peruvian with shared ancestors, who nevertheless created them within the contemporary framework of globalized technoculture.

The truth is, through these artifacts, I was ultimately defining my own subjective, embodied experience as a cultural and ethnic hybrid.

The Shipibo-Conibo Style Textile (2015)

Auristela Brito´s voice brought the bird song and the sharp sounds of the rainforest from the Amazonia to the city of Lima. I was a witness of such transformation when she was singing in a cultural center’s auditorium, seeking to be recognized by the gift which made her win local competitions in her community in Ucayali[5]. These are the melodies known as Ikaros, the Shipibo songs that are key during the intake of Ayahuasca. These chants metamorphoses into the rope that keeps the participants within the limits of consciousness during the shamanic ritual ceremony, thus taking the role of the participants´ guide so to take them safely through the human mind’s imaginary labyrinth. When she lived in Lima, in a Shibipo settlement, I went to visit her to talk about the traditions of her community. “The rhythms of the Ikaros can be graphed,” says Auristela in a conversation that marks the start of longer collaboration between us. Then she proceeds to grab a paper so to draw on it while singing [6]. She explains than these were the basic designs seen repeating all over, what each stroke-style is called, what it represents, and how it is connected to sound. There have been some academic studies related to this subject that acknowledge the connection. The academic paper written by the couple Brabec/Mori, called “The crown of Inspiration” [7] states nevertheless that this connection had been made up entirely by the community in order to make their textiles more attractive to potential buyers, and that it did not involve a proper “code” at all. This text motivated me to try and understand how this system worked, and if in fact the case was as such as proposed in their paper. I had seen some Shipibo women singing while touching their embroideries or textile paintings: it seemed as if they would be following the song’s threads with the tip of their fingers, in a fascinating synaesthetic gestural experience [8].

Was this just a theatrical performance?

Meanwhile, other anthropologists have speculated that the system worked almost as musical notation. According to Auristela ́s aunt, interviewed as part of the “Decoding the Camouflage of the Serpent” [9] research, it is not the lines that are encoding the song as such. Rather it is the myth behind the embroidered design that can be sung. This statement implied a third possibility not really studied within the Academia to date.

Since the Shipibo-Conibo lived in the same city where I was born and lived then, living in conditions that, at the time of the making of this interface, were so dire that a fire destroyed most of their dwellings some years after, Auristela and I started a collaboration in what would later become an extensive project. She explained to me her communities’ traditions. Some of her experiences were very different from mine, as her original cultural traditions had been different. Yet we shared others by having grown up in the same State, sharing a common nationality, a city, the same language (as she also spoke Spanish besides Shipibo-Conibo) and the identity of being Peruvian. This suggests Merleau-Ponty’s proposal of the cultural world having a carnal basis: as an intersubjective world composed of subjects which are at the same time a self and an other[10].

>Auristela Brito with her aunt and niece

I wanted to reflect on this experience and embed it in the Shipibo-Conibo style textile: the embroidery, handmade by myself, evokes a Shipibo composition – yet it is not exactly such: its designs refer to transcultural motifs of mathematical origin. On a technical level, I made a working prototype/Artwork/Sound Controller that, upon touch (using Capacitive Sensing), triggers a series of processes that, in turn, start a selection of .WAV sample chants (Ikaros, the Shipibo traditional songs, interpreted by Auristela Brito herself) recorded mostly in the Peruvian rainforest by me. The mechanism is simple: embroideries of conductive thread connected to an Arduino Lilypad Microcontroller that in turn is connected via an FTDI cable to the computer.

The Hanap Pacha Quipu (January, 2019)

The Hanap Pacha Quipu is designed in the manner of this data storage system based on ropes and knots of the pre-Columbian era [11]. The interface allows the user to reinterpret the first stanza of the polyphonic composition written in Quechua in the 17th century in Perú, “Hanacpacha Cussicuinin”, a baroque piece that is characterized by its syncretism and its references to both European beliefs and common symbols in the Andean worldview.

>Hanap Pacha Quipu

The electronic system is similar to the Shipibo-Conibo Style Textile, as it works with capacitive sensing, this time connected to a small Raspberry Pi computer. I have omitted the circuit for this piece: I am using the Raspberry Pi Capacitive Touch HAT electronic board that serves to communicate my controller to the small computer. It works both by touching certain cords, or by putting these (two or more) overlapped, in such a way that you can either hold them with your hands as if you were grabbing a handful of small ropes, or leave them placed one on top of the other, to sustain the sound in loops.
The Unkuña of Noise (June, 2019)

An unkuña is a small weave used by Andean inhabitants who still maintain their traditional belief systems (not all Andean inhabitants do). It is used either to carry sacred coca leaves in its interior when rolled up, or, when unrolled, as a base for placing the various objects required for the “payment to the earth” ceremony. This is a pan-Andean ritual that places various delicatessen such as sweets, alcohol, small decorations, and, most importantly, coca leaves, to give as gifts for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

>The Unkuña of Noise

The base textile that I am using in this case is the only one I have not made myself, but acquired and intervened: being sold as a souvenir for tourists in Lima, it had lost all its meaningful functional and meaningful qualities. The people selling it did not know what it was, and just offered it as an example of old textiles. I aim to challenge this epistemic silencing from the side of the market economy. It reflects my own experience as a mestizo: colonialism had erased my ancestors’ knowledge from my upbringing. I connected such a textile with a visualization of Quechua phrases, while applying a special textile on one of its sides, that changes its resistance once it is pulled. This, combined with a Flora micro-controller on its back and a small resistance, allowed me to map the changes in conductivity onto numbers that in turn, served to distort and apply noise onto the sounds manipulated by both the Hanap Pacha Quipu and the Shipibo-Style Sonified Textile.

The Search for a Proper Ontology for framing Cross-Cultural Tangible Interfaces

As I am framing this study within phenomenology, I could draw a parallel of this life being like die Lebenwelt (the Lifeworld) in the Husserlian sense, as the body is not a mere object that confronts the natural world; nor is it reduced to an object in the world. Instead, the world of life takes new relevance in animistic worldviews such as the Shipibo Conibo or the ancestral indigenous communities that designed the quipu.

”In German the verb leben becomes the verb erleben, which has a transitive meaning (as does vivre in French): it means to experience, to feel, to perceive, and thus refers to an object, either immanent (one can vivre or erleben an emotion, as in having a passionate love affair) or transcendent (vivre, erleben a situation). This duality corresponds exactly to the duality between life as the object of biology and life as a dimension of the transcendental flow, that is to say, as constituting the world. To ask about the subject of the Lebenswelt is to ask about life – life for which and by which there is a world, and this is to call into question the duality of the natural subject and the transcendental subject, to look for the unity of the subject beyond the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental levels.” [12].

Building upon Husserl, Merleau-Ponty expands these concepts to inquire about the movement by which a living being transcends its materiality to achieve a meaningful existence. He describes experience as an “interior creative process of nature” – as if nature would be what allows us to perceive things by living them. He concludes: “in order to perceive things, we need to live them” [13].

The trans-sensorial, kinesthetic mapping technique developed by the Shipibo Conibo (so intimately related to the action of path-making of the body in the world, understood in Western phenomenology as Lifeworld) and the craft of its reflective materialization, showed me a possible path for decolonizing phenomenology.


Human Computer Interaction and the Path to Re-encounter with the Natural World

Our condition as humans has been shaped by the tools we have developed: we designed them as much as they designed us. The Encyclopedia of Human Computer interaction states that:

“Cognition extends to processes in the environment, to processes involved in our use of technical instruments that support our cognitive activities. Our handy use of pencil and paper not only facilitates our calculations, it can, in part, constitute our cognitive process (…) tools and technologies can facilitate our cognitive processes. the cognitive process is in some cases constituted and in some cases simply facilitated depending on the nature of the body-environment coupling.” [14]

As I mentioned earlier, I usually place the Sonified Textiles over a table in a way that resembles the set-up used in an electronic music show, but also how a seller offers textiles to customers, like many women do in Peru when they want to have an income out of their handcraft-making abilities. I often use a camera placed over my forehead or on top of the table, so the audience can see what I am actually doing, if I am in a big auditorium, with the video captured from the camera being projected behind me.

Operational Performance: Action shaped by the Artifact

>Text(il)ura Live Performance

The Hanap Pacha Quipu function in various ways: one can touch each of the conductive areas within the cotton cords individually. If this is done for just a moment, a part of the first stanza of Hanac Pacha Cusicuinnin, sung by Lorena Casas, will be heard. If one has learned what cord is the one associated with each portion of the stanza, one could play the whole first stanza, and understand what it says, if one speaks Quechua, that is.

>Playing the Hanap Pacha Quipu

Another possibility is to grab one cord to make the sound last. For example, if the cord is touched quickly, one can hear, say “H-aaa-nan Pacha, Cusic-uuu-nnin”; however, if we grab that same cord, the sound will be sustained, in such a way that one would hear just an “-aaa-” that loops. One can keep the sound as long as one wishes. This can also be done with two or more cords at the same time: one can hold the ropes and then multiple portions will play simultaneously. If one puts two of the sensor cords stacked over the other, one does not need to touch them anymore: they will both trigger and sustain their associated sounds at the same time, but due to latency, the portion of the sound file triggered will be a bit longer than if one grabs the cord to loop and sustain the sound. All these properties give complexity to an otherwise rather uncomplicated system.

>Sustained sound

The Shipibo-Conibo Sonified Textile consists of four different sensor areas, and each of these triggers a set of .wav samples from Auristela Brito’s singing and/or recorded environmental sounds from the Amazonian rainforest. Depending upon the time and/or the area of skin that has contact with the conductive thread working as a capacitive sensor (touch sensor), the sounds can turn into an amalgam of environmental sounds or they can be “singled out”. This means that if the touch is fast and the event of contact is short-lived, and, if just one area of the four is touched, one can listen either to just one song or to the environmental sound of monkeys, insects, et cetera. If one does not touch the area again, the complete sample will be heard until it ends. For the textile to be more sensitive, it is better to touch it with the complete palm of the hand; passing the palm over to trigger many sounds simultaneously, evoking the life of the rainforest. One can change the sounds in a sudden manner by placing the whole hand in one of the areas. Then if one stops touching the textile, sounds will still play for some minutes, usually leaving only the sound birds singing, until it fades. Even if the system is simple in its functioning, it allows for a wide range of variations.

>Playing the Shipibo-Conibo Style Sonified Textile

The Unkuña of Noise simply modulates the application of a distortion (reverb with specific parameters) onto both the sounds of the Hanap Pacha Quipu and of the Shipibo-Conibo Style Sonified Textile. Depending on how much you stretch the textile sensor the original sounds will be either less or more distorted. If the sensor is fully stretched, then the distortion becomes total. If there is no further incoming sound for some time, that is, if neither the Shipibo Style Textile nor the quipu has been played for a minute or so, the resulting distortion will gradually disappear. This is how I usually conclude the performance: with noise fading into silence.

The way these “instruments” look and feel and how they are approached by my own body is completely different to a conventional electronic music set-up. In my gestures, divergent actions related to touch are involved. As the sensors are haptic, not only the tactile is involved, but also the kinesthetic perception. When “playing” the Hanap Pacha Quipu and even more in the Unkuña of Noise, the awareness of the relative position of my limbs is pivotal to proper execution. I need to move my body in a specific way to make the sounds come out as wanted; moreover, I could completely omit the visual: I could close my eyes and play, relying exclusively on my kinesthetic and my tactile perceptions. These operational actions end up being radically different to a conventional music show.

Building upon the thinking of Merleau-Ponty, Matthew Ratcliffe, from the University of York, asserts that touch is a matter of relatedness between body and world, rather than of experiencing one in isolation from the other[15]. The bodily experience of touching something is also a perception of something other than the body. It is through this tactile experience that the world and the body may be united again. This is how my Sonified Textile Controllers may be understood to reunite cognition, body, and the natural world through the interface.

Performing Interactivity

An embodied experience

When I began to develop this series of devices, I asked concrete questions, such as if circuits could be aesthetically pleasing, and if they could have visual similarities with certain textile designs such as the Shipibo embroideries, or if the quipu could be taken as a memory-storage device, akin to computation. All of these cross-cultural wanderings, diverse imaginaries that nevertheless reflected my own position (having a mixed “technology heritage”) worked well within a hermeneutic framework, and had a clear decolonial take. Nevertheless, as I arrived at the design phase, my approach changed. I need to point out that, although the textile controllers have been used mostly for sound performance, all but the Unkuña of Noise started as artworks to be presented in gallery spaces. This is why I refer to a user/interactor who ends up performing interactivity: this user/interactor was originally an art gallery visitor that was confronted by interactive art works that made sounds when touched. The term “interactor” was put forward by Joan Soler Adillon in his paper “The Intangible Material of Interactive Art” where he talks about the dialogue between two agents. With the Sonified Textiles, a sonic-tactile dialogue occurs, that defines the agency of the gallery visitor and also my agency as a performer.

While the two agents are conversing in sonified tactility, the analysis can also branch into two parts: one that focuses on the interface itself (the element offering the possibility of interaction) and another that focuses on the standpoint of the user. This exposition include both parts. Phenomenology allows me to grasp this complexity: if starting with the subjective body of the user/interactor-now-performer, then the interface reflects the very same body, both by being designed for it and because its shape changes with it, through pulling, pressure, et cetera. According to Mark Weiser, considered the father of ubiquitous computing, the tangible Interface designer’s goal is to weave digital technology into the fabric of the physical environment[16]. I could have taken this motto very literally then: the body of the interactor/user/performer was just as interwoven with the world as the textile controllers themselves are. Consequently, when immersed in design, I had to think about how this interweaving occurred, especially when both agents would be “engaged in sensing one another” – what Merleau-Ponty would call the “intertwining” (entrelacs) or “chiasm” of body and world[17].

Soler-Adillon defines interactivity as “a series of related actions between two or more agents where (1) at least one of them is an artificial system that (2) processes its responses according to a behaviour specified by design and (3) takes into account some of the previous actions executed by them.”[18] Following his definition, we could say that what frames my Sonified Textile Performance undoubtedly as interactive is the addition of the third controller, the Unkuña of Noise, as it takes into account and applies a transformation to the sounds being triggered by the other two controllers. This does not mean that the event would not have been interactive without it: that sounds could be sustained or looped indefinitely does meet Adillon’s third condition.

Soler-Adillon mentions that, when designing interactive artistic artifacts, the approach to interactivity is different from user interface design, which aim towards robustness or ease-of-use. When creating artworks that fit in this line, the artist does not need to constrain to this. Now, the particularity of my Textile Controllers is that they fulfill many of the requirements of such canon, especially as they are meant to work somehow as musical instruments. Nevertheless, I wanted to design interactive systems that could be approached intuitively, without a pre-existent scheme that the user must learn to be able to “play” the “instrument”. Hence, there is a pinch of chance present, due not only to the fragility of the assemblage of the textile interfaces themselves, or because of their condition as prototypes. The randomness also makes the sounds from the Shipibo Style Sonified Textile and the Hanap Pacha Quipu aesthetically pleasing, even if one does not know how to manipulate them well. The performing body may approach the devices with doubt, with the intention to explore rather than to execute, but then, by touching the devide, its function manifests itself (“I touch it like this, it makes sounds like this;” “I touch it like that, the sound changes”) and rapidly it is decoded. This gives the element of “surprise or poetry” that Soler-Adillon talks about when referring to interactive art: the equilibrium between what is predictable and what is not – a quality found only in artistic artifacts. He also points out that the relevance of interactive art lies in its performativity, as the device´s goal is to bond with the interactor-now-performer in a “meaningful way” and provoke exploration of behaviour from even that one-time user. This is the intangible material of interactive art, and it was what I sought for: when learning how to “play” the Sonified Textile Controllers, I had to grasp and understand this intangibility as well, as I gradually achieved some sort of virtuosity the more I played/performed with the controllers. Even though I designed the controllers myself, I did not become aware of all the possibilities that my embodied experience could offer until I started a physical dialogue with these interfaces. I went beyond my own creation while performing interactivity, starting from the subjective experience of my own body learning by using the devices.


In search for a Phenomenology for Transcultural Interfaces

In the introduction I pointed out the issues related to using phenomenology to describe transcultural devices. There is a risk when an analysis is based on a line of thought that is born from the the eurocentric tradition of modernity and coloniality. To attempt resolution, I expressed that I would openly appropriate and apply such a thought-system, aware that it must be framed upon a transformation with decolonization of technology and the philosophical tools used to understand it, such as Phenomenology, as its ultimate goal. I depart from stylistic qualities rooted in a very particular notion of lifeworld, a wisdom that is rarely defined as philosophy (only as “cosmovision” or cosmology). My work refers to the thought systems of indigenous people. Their knowledge offers a path to communion with nature, which is extremely needed now in this time of climate crisis.

I aimed to go beyond mind-body dualism and reconnect with the natural world by choosing a phenomenological framework for this exposition: I consider that the point at which we started the process of distancing ourselves from nature was the moment when the mind first conceived of itself as separated from the body. If this was the trigger for the all-important conceptual separation within us that culminated in Cartesian thought. On a more practical level, the development of tools would equal the technological breakthrough that initiated such divided view of existence and which facilitated the split between our mind-and-body and the environment in and through which we conduct ourselves. Once we became aware that we can re-sculpt the natural world, this planet, it was inevitable that we should come to think of it only as a malleable receptacle for the imposition of our will.

In the interfaces between these various seminal moments, I propose that the process of separating the mind from the body started with the making of tools. What we now understand as dualism, originated with the development of human technology, with the structuring of a methodology of tool-building and the passing on of that knowledge to others. This is an idea already put forward within archaeological studies[19], where early human cultures were defined by the way they made their tools, and the style of the tools themselves. When shared among a group of people, the tools became what ultimately defined them as a culture. In this respect, the various techniques and knowledge systems associated with tool-making, resulted, over time, in the planetary cultural variation that we have today. Therefore, we must find common grounds again through those same tools that have been the interfaces between our bodies and the world throughout history. In the light of the climate crisis, ther is an urgent need to develop technologies that do not oppose the natural world. We might even express this urgency in terms of a human and societal crisis, speculating that the body became the tool of the mind because we as humans eventually learned that everything (and everyone) can become a tool, and that, within that framework, our body started to be treated as the perceptual interface between the world and “the mind”.

The truth is that the world and I are understandable only in the light of each other. I can touch objects, grab them and use them for my benefit; in that sense, not only am I conscious of the world by means of my body, but the world impresses itself on me through the objects I employ. Once we started, as hominids, to hit one rock against another to shape a blade, that stone-blade also started reshaping our hand over time. Culture-as-techné shapes our cognitive processes, but that shaping is always an embodied experience that changes in a continuous dialogue with reality. We could treat this as the constant, as the factor shared by all humans. It is true that there are cases in which people lack a sensorial ability, or have suffered an accident and lost one or many limbs; but even if our bodies don't look the same or have the same abilities, they are still human bodies.

Once we enter the realm of phenomenology, we can start talking about what lies beyond culture (or technology). The concept of embodied experiences allows us to understand how we experience things with and through a body that possess characteristics shared with other human bodies. It is in the first instant of interaction, at the pre-cognitive or pre-conceptual level, when we are confronted with the entity with which we are about to engage, that we may go beyond cultural precepts. This is the phase when things are still in the realm of action-reaction. Yet what also lies beyond culture is nature, and, within South American indigenous thought, these two clearly correspond and are also in evident dialogue. This is why I refer to these interfaces as transcultural: they go between cultures at their first contact and, in the process, go beyond culture itself.

In these interfaces, there is also an important change to consider when talking about art: computer art, taken as a sub-group of conceptual art by critics and historians, would be the category to which the interactive art that I speak of in this paper would belong. In conventional interactive art, the focus is placed upon the interaction as an emergent event that includes two agents in dialogue with one another, and upon the meaning that come from that dialogue. The interface is just the facilitator of the event. When thinking about interactive art we could already extrapolate to a future beyond conceptual art, but this is in what I could now call the art of the interface, where that translation tool is the locus of transformation. As stated earlier, once the focus is not on the information being translated and how it changes, but on the translator/transducer itself, on the device allowing the inter-communication, then that is the moment in which meaning-decoding becomes secondary. This is because this first approach is always pre-conceptual: our body wants to figure out how the artifact works, first, with our limbs; if there are any ideas expressed linguistically in our thoughts, at this point they will just relate to our discovering of how the device functions, not on what the device conveys in terms of symbolic or metaphorical meaning.

Technology is linked to culture through technique. When I am confronted by an unknown device, my gestures (my usage-technique, so to speak) work in a radically different way as sets of controllers. The fact that they reference another technoculture turns out to be secondary, and yet relevant in the way that, through interaction, it guides the body to perform differently. Following Merleau-Ponty, and taking the body is the main agent, intentionality always starts by being a motor. And, as we make sense of the world through our bodily actions, these actions are also shaped by the object with which we are interacting: our core relation to the world and its objects is an embodied relation where our hands and motor systems necessarily play a leading role.

I have used a phenomenological framework to go the beyond mind-body dualism and to facilitate a reconnection of Western thought with the natural world. It is relevant to mention the importance of textile as a material and the reason why I use it for the Sonified Textile Controllers: in our early human days, when we wove cloth to be used as a soft tool for protection, or as a net to catch fish, or as a bag to carry things, textile became an interface in between our bodies and the world. This is how a transcultural tangible textile-based interface not only conveys a different set of meanings but also forces the body to behave differently in order to work: it does so not only because of its design, but also because of its material. The change is radical as it operates not only on a conceptual or cultural level but goes deep down to a very low level: that of our core movements. This is where the cross-cultural, cross-technological event occurs. Such an event has implications if the technology attains the disruptive condition. In “Technology and the Lifeworld” Don Ihde points out that the adaptation of a transferred technology (by a cultural group) depends upon its capacity to fit into an extant praxis, as one is potentially receiving a set of cultural relations that will create a situation of dependency upon the incoming culture. This is relevant because the harmonious relationship with nature found in South American indigenous knowledge is reflected in its technology. This relationship is also to be found in the interfaces I propose now, and this is something that our whole planetary culture, starting from the hegemonic West, needs to manage and incorporate urgently as it is one of the main producers of technology. Thus, learning from knowledge that is embedded in a harmonious relation with the land and the environment is key. In “Technology and the Lifeworld”, Don Ihde states that technology has allowed contemporary humans to "inherit" the entire earth:

“The mode of expansion is not merely physical but cultural and is embodied through the various artifacts, particularly those of communication, which link a whole earth into a network. The very conditions of monocultural existence have been breached. Not even some current attempts to create what amounts to "culture museums" will work to save these monocultures. The condition for the stability of a monoculture is analogous to that of a habitat for a specialized species. If that habitat is destroyed, either geographically or culturally, the condition for the monoculture is removed and it either dies or adapts. This is appreciated and understood by what I have called the "culture museum" movement among some anthropologists who would like to preserve such habitats, however unrealistic this might be in the present situation. (The unrealism relates more to the lack of a concentrated and powerful environmental impulse directed towards varieties of conservation than to a negative evaluation. Such a movement would need a deep cultural conversion to become effective.)”

This deep multi-systemic conversion is what I ultimately seek. Cultural manifestations (in which I place technological developments) should not be seen as opposing nature as there exist human groups with cultural systems based on harmonic interrelations with their environments. I think there is an urgent need for reformulation, starting with the acknowledgement that human cognition would not be what it is without the ability to develop technology, interfaces, tools: the mediators between the human body and the natural world. The Sonified Textiles, made of organic materials and designed in the intertwining of history, myth and culturally diverse traditions, become an amalgamation of human knowledges and experiences aiming for a type of universality that does not impose one thought system over the other, but metamorphoses from the cross-cultural to the transcultural. The interfaces’ design proposes a different approach regarding tactile manipulation of electronic sound instruments within electronic music concerts, where it is common to find controllers made of metal or plastic, and where the aural and tactile sensitivity with which they are first made, transforms the performance itself. The Sonified Textiles aim to redefine musical interfaces, both conceptually and design-wise within the e-textile realm.

Listen to the Sonified Textiles

>Austvågøy (Live Performance in Lofoten International Art Festival)

>Re(a)signaciones Temporales


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