Meet the Maker: Phillip Stearns and His “Binary Blankets” (We LOVE Them!)
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Meet the Maker: Phillip Stearns and His “Binary Blankets” (We LOVE Them!)

Today’s edition of Meet the Maker might be the ultimate intersection of tech and making. Phillip Stearns of Glitch Textiles (see the shop here) started with a simple idea. “Transcode glitches in the cold, hard logic of digital circuits into soft, warm textiles.” What does that mean exactly? He takes visualizations of code from your favorite digital apps (Google Chrome, iTunes, Microsoft Word) and turns them into gorgeous blankets. Who knew code could be so beautiful?

While the root behind these products is especially geeky (consider us guilty), the colors and patterns are pretty enough for even the analog-obsessed to swoon over. I’m especially digging Phillip’s Binary Blankets collection. He creates these blankets to “allow you to experience the fabric of this otherwise invisible and intangible side of our digital world.” Just take a look at the iTunes editions—so rad.

Alright, ready to hear from Phillip? Here’s his story.

Tell me about yourself.

I’m an artist working primarily with electronics, electronic media, and digital technologies. Though I hold a BS (University of Colorado @ Denver ’05) and MFA (Cal Arts ’07) in Music, I’ve always tended towards a multidisciplinary approach, favoring installation and sound art as well as more experimental performance based work.

What first gave you the idea to transcode glitches into textiles?

The big “aha! moment” came when a colleague of mine, Jeff Donaldson, moved into my studio building just down the hall from me.  He had been working with Melissa Barron, who was weaving screen captures from Apple II computers on a TC-1 Jacquard loom, and was transferring his own Nintendo glitches to these sharp looking knit scarves.  I was working on a series of images (DCP Series) and was inspired to find a way to have these woven into a fabric instead of being displayed on a screen or printed by traditional means.  A quick Google search brought up custom photo blanket weaving services, which are no different than any other online photo printing service, except for the fact that you have the image as a blanket instead of on a piece of paper.  The connection I had been trying to draw is that digital imaging (digital photography) is a computer based process, and somehow going back to the Jacquard process resonated with the connection between textile based image making and the birth of computer technologies.  That connection is the punch card.

What does the making process look like?

The Glitch Textiles are made using computer controlled industrial Jacquard looms and knitting machines.  I’ve not had a chance to visit the mills where the blankets themselves are made, however, I did have an opportunity to work with some industrial looms at the Textielmusem in Tilburg, NL.

The Jacquard looms themselves are both quite complex, and yet elegantly simple.  It’s difficult to explain, but try to imagine 6000 or so threads running the length of the machine, held at a very precise tension and advanced by large rollers.  Each warp thread is passes through a loop (heddle) which is connected to a cord that is raised and lowered by the Jacquard loom head positioned about a meter and a half overhead on a massive steel frame.  The weft threads are inserted using rapiers at about 200 times per minute, rotating between 8 colors chosen by a thread presenter.

To put this all in motion: The Jacquard head raises/lowers the warp threads.  Then the weft is taken up by one rapier from the thread presenter and passed halfway through the shed where it is taken up by the second rapier and pulled the rest of the way through.  The beater comes forward to press the weft into place and retreats in the blink of an eye, while the measured weft feeder queues up the thread for the next pass.  All this happens in about a third of a second and produces a fantastically loud rhythmic sound.

What is the design process like for you?

The design process varies, but perhaps is most interesting for the camera based designs.  When working on new designs, my desk is typically covered with dissected digital cameras, prototyping boards, wires, electronic components.  My soldering iron sits to one side with curls of smoke wisping off.  Short circuiting the camera’s electronics with a single piece of wire is just the start.  Recently I’ve been building out parasitic circuits that augment or interrupt the camera’s normal operations.  It’s a real hands on mess at this point, and then it all does into the computer and we all know what that looks like.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that woven textile design has for the longest time been grid based. Little has changed when it comes to digital imaging, so right there is the strongest link between digital art and textiles, the fundamental common language of the 2D matrix or grid.  This has allowed me to think of the textile as a digital medium, literally a storage medium for digital information, but visual, and probably more limited than the 3.5″ floppy disks from days long gone.  This is the idea behind Fragmented Memory, the piece I completed at the Textielmuseum.

What other types of materials are you interested in repurposing?

I would really like to get my hands on a load of discarded electrical wiring or data cables. When I first arrived in NY and was working out ideas for neural network based installation projects, I discovered that bound wire behaves very much like vines or tree branches. Though obtaining enough wiring to experiment on larger scales presents its own challenged (the value of recycled copped for instance), I haven’t lost sight of those potential future projects of sculpting wire into massive organically branching structures.

Which project are you proudest of?

I do take a lot of pride in my work, which makes it tough to choose just one. Also, recently my work has covered a lot of ground. Of course there’s Year of the GlitchGlitch Textiles, and recently Fragmented Memory, but a 3D printing project with collaborators and friends Gene Kogan and Dan Tesene, Listening to the Ocean on a Shore of Gypsum Sand, received some press. Retinal Pigment Epithelium and Other Vision Technologies, Real or Otherwise Imagined, was a lot of fun to do with then studio assistant C. Alex Clark. I would also like to continue working with electronic neural networks as with the Entity I project.

What other creative hobbies do you have?

Though I haven’t been up to it much, I really enjoy gardening on a large scale. There was a time in grad school when I completely burned out and felt like I had to get back to the absolute basics. There was this idea that I had to understand how the world around me shaped itself before I could continue doing anything else. It goes hand in hand with gardening but I also enjoy cooking quite a bit. There’s a bit of improvisation in every meal, which is quite a lot like my creative process anyways.

How do you think the analog world is changing as the digital world continues to boom?

What I find interesting is the idea that there is an analog world and a digital one, and what we could possibly mean by making this distinction. These two worlds are both worlds of representation, where meaning is ascribed to appearances, and these appearances are fashioned from some treatment of a material as a medium. The digital world is impressed upon material substrate the same as analog, however, its the nature in which these two notions represent to world marks their primary difference: analog represents the world via analogous mappings of variations in certain physical properties, where the digital represents the world by assigning numerical values to physical properties.

What is changing as digital technologies develop is the sophistication and complexity of the mathematics used to manipulate numbers. The problem of meaning in the digital age is closely linked to the role and nature of representation in mapping to sets of numbers and mathematical transformations performed on them.  What is clear to me is that analog representation provides a place beyond pure mathematics, where the world which has not entered into our equations can assert itself as a creative force. Glitch Art is a similar intervention in digital systems, which brings us to the materiality of digital culture. There is a dynamic between analog and digital technologies, one in which each shapes the other. I can’t clearly state how this dynamic operates, however, only that it does so in a massively parallel and independent fashion.

Don’t forget to check Phillip’s shop to pick up an amazing blanket for fall. Prices start at $150 and there’s a sale happening now till September 22nd!

What are your favorite examples of the intersection between tech and making? Tell us in the comments below.