Conversation between Taavi Hallimäe and Kärt Ojavee
Taavi Hallimäe: As a textile designer, do you relate in any way to the people who once worked at the Narva Kreenholm textile factory?
Kärt Ojavee: We visited Kreenholm when I was in school, while the factory was still operating, and I saw hundreds of women leaving the buildings at the end of the working day, as well as a few of them taking smoke breaks in the stairwell, wearing headscarves and smocks. There was something enchanting and at the same time appalling in this huge system. In addition to the machinery rooms, we had the opportunity to visit the textile patterns archive, voluminous catalogues with small samples of fabric. I clearly remember these images. However, this romanticised view of factory-life did not make me want to work there. Today, I might see this opportunity in quite a different light.
T.H.: Interdisciplinarity has always been central to your work. How have you managed to engage people from different disciplines? Has it sometimes also caused some difficulties?
K.O.: I had my first major collaboration while I was working on my bachelor’s thesis (2004) at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA). I wanted to combine textile and sound. I knew that my own skills would not be enough, so I went and knocked on the door of the Institute of Mechatronics at Tallinn University of Technology and introduced my idea (to Mart Tamre). Fortunately, one of the students (Maido Hiiemaa), who had previously built synthesizers, was immediately interested in cooperating. This was the first experience and it turned out pretty well. Later, collaboration with the Centre for Biorobotics (led by the inspiring researcher Maarja Kruusmaa) followed, and currently, there is a minor cooperation in the field of material development. For the most part, however, I have worked with electronics engineers and programmers both for my creative work and research. For example, at the Centre for Biorobotics as part of my doctoral dissertation.
The field of textiles can in its diversity be associated with so many different disciplines. Designing a textile or material requires systematic thinking. Weaving or designing the construction of a fabric calls for you to be tech-savvy—you need to think through the crossing of the yarns, the density of the fabric, the application on the loom, etc. It also requires patience to repeat the same movement hundreds of times (e.g. when weaving on looms). For these reasons, finding a common language with an engineer might not be that difficult.
I have self-educated myself in the field of soft electronics, which is a new field also for engineers (at least it was back then, around 2008–2012). Thus, we improved each other’s knowledge and over time we developed a common understanding of what a soft controller or soft electrical system is. We managed to talk about the same materials and use the same language. It took time to get there, of course.
T.H.: You have been working with interactive smart textiles, but in recent years also with more experimental materials. What is the common link between these two directions?
K.O.: Both are forward-looking, although dealing with materials today is in many ways also looking for answers from the past, getting to know heritage craft technologies again. I have always been interested in how material changes, whether through time or in the moment, and whether it is in symbiosis with the surrounding environment. My interactive electronics-based materials and installations, which speculated about future possibilities, were often characterised by changes over time. Also, bio-based materials are constantly changing over time, they are alive—perhaps this is the link between the two directions. And, on the other hand, also interest in what material solutions could set the base for our living environment and consumer goods in the future.
T.H.: Interactive smart textiles respond to human touch, to changes in light, heat, etc. Could it be said that, unlike interactive smart textiles, bio-based materials could themselves influence human behaviour? The agency falling on the material itself.
K.O.: Yes, it can be taken that way, it’s true. I have recently delved into how to use algae and seafood to create materials. This is a popular topic that obviously needs to be looked at critically as well. By interfering in any ecosystem, we interfere without understanding the real consequences. Undoubtedly, we affect different ecosystems. However, bio-based materials are not a substitute for synthetic materials.
I am interested in raising questions through experimenting with materials and objects, not so much offering product solutions. I rather see these experiments as critical objects or material that could provoke discussion. In the long run, materials that degrade or disintegrate rapidly are not always reasonable, depending on the intended use. At the same time, there is a certain charm in it, if the material is not designed to last forever and dissolves over time.
For several installations or while experimenting with materials, I have tried to create links with nature. For example, SymbiosisW—consisting of wool, silver-plated yarn, and electronic components—responded to human proximity and changed according to it. When building the different layers, with Ezster Ozsvald, we studied how changes take place in nature, how plants move or change. For many works where I used electronics, the original impulse came from nature, only the output was “synthetic.” Synthetic with reservations because most of the slow screens still consisted of either wool, silk or cotton—and it was the electronic components that made the material react. SymbiosisO: Voxel was also a living organism. It was in Issey Miyake’s shop in New York for a month, and the person who was responsible for maintaining the installation said he felt like he was taking care of a living organism. He had to make sure that the room temperature was right so that the material on the wall could change very slowly. In the case of these textiles, Eszter and I were interested in how the environment can change very slowly, as usually occurs in nature, not immediately reacting to the push of a button.
T.K.: Different new materials are constantly being developed, but also ways to use existing materials in a different way. How can we find new applications for existing materials?
K.O.: An interesting trend is that many designers today are engaged in material design looking for ways to make new materials from already used materials or industrial residues. In other words, a product cannot be seen only as an item or object, but a material. This movement has been more active over the last 5 or 10 years and there are no signs of it coming to an end. Designers have been engaged in industry work and intervene in the production process, more and more designers are also involved in research groups alongside materials scientists. In fact, it is import- ant that the designers are involved not in the stage where the material already exists and needs to find an application, but in the initial stage of creating the material to recognise its potential in different stages or to understand and influence its properties.
It is interesting to monitor these processes. For example, Katrin Kabun, a doctoral student at the EAA, deals with residual wool as a resource, looking for possible applications. Wool is a very smart material, and at the same time it is a problem for the meat industry. The exhibition Material I, which we put together with Annika Kaldoja and Marie Vinter as part of Design Night, also brought to light some other hidden local residual resources. The exhibition included, for example, recycled fibres from the Defence Forces’ clothing, from which a new non-woven material was made. Usually these uniforms are simply eliminated.
There are so many residual materials around us that people are not aware of and these topics are not discussed. In my opinion, it is an interesting and responsible challenge for a designer to think about which materials to use and for what purpose.
T.K.: Have you also developed materials that could be used for creating certain products?
K.O.: Most of the work I have recently done is on the fringes of design, art, science and technology, and could be seen rather as speculative objects that keep an eye on the future or reflect the current situation. So far, I have not experimented with nor developed a material with a perspective in mind that it could be used in a wider context. My focus has been mostly on experimental research. However, this does not exclude that in the future or in the process of some work, a long-term and more widely consumed material solution might not be formed or developed. Like interactive textiles, which in many cases remain speculative objects, material developments also provide an opportunity to experiment and try out what could be possible.
T.K.: What could be possible? What is the future like in your head?
K.O.: This year has been a good example of the unpredictability of the future.
I have imagined different scenarios, depending on the situation. In 2002, I made a collection of protective masks, thinking about the future, various viruses and air pollution. Now, years later, it has become relevant globally.
This spring’s experience made me think of different senses in a closed environment. I could never have imagined that touch could turn into a deficit. In quarantine, during the first wave of the pandemic, it was precisely touch that turned out to be missing. I developed a psychological barrier to touching things outside the home environment and realised how important this sense is on a daily basis. During Zoom meetings, I was thinking that I would like to transmit and experience physical impulses through the virtual environment using a “mediator” or a tool that would be as sensitive as human skin.
T.K.: What role could textiles play in solving major problems?
K.O.: I just read an interesting book about how textiles have played an important role in the history of the world, threading through different times. Textile technology has enabled great changes in the world. For example, allowing ships to navigate the seas thanks to sails. It has been interesting to study how the Vikings, for example, made their durable sails. Or how the fibre in yarn was spun, which enabled things to be tied together, which in turn made it possible to travel around or to construct houses by interweaving objects, until the present day, where modern materials—such as carbon fibre or kevlar—allow us to create lightweight, yet durable constructions, facilitate fast movement, and so on.
One of the latest works I did with Johanna Ulfsak, which was exhibited at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, but also for the first time at Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, was a large hand-woven fabric. It consists of carbon fibre, fibre optic, fibreglass and PVC, materials that are designed to last forever and are therefore characteristic of today. Although each of these materials has a clear, distinct function, we hand-wove them together into one sole fabric. We “extracted” the materials from their original function and context. It resulted in a fabric with huge potential, but we presented it more as an installation object. These materials are not usually combined industrially, and this artisanal technique, with which we intertwined them, also brought out all the human flaws, the imperfection of the created fabric. If a certain part of the tissue would be cut, the fabric would simply fall apart. The materials used are separately very solid, but as a whole, they form a very delicate structure.
T.K.: Was the purpose of this work to address the permanence or rather the impermanence of material?
K.O.: It can be interpreted on different levels. One of the purposes was to bring to light and reflect on the materials that surround us, which is also referred to in the title of the work Save As. All the materials used in the work are designed to last forever, unlike biomaterials, which I also deal with, and which are often designed to disintegrate. Disintegration can be part of the design process, a part of it dissolves and another is preserved, the original state is not the same as the final state. The material lives like human skin, it breathes, dries and is in constant change.
T.K.: Do you think enough emphasis is given to material in the framework of art education?
K.O.: I think that education, thus the curriculum, should ensure the opportunity to gain experience working with different materials, both bio-based materials and different synthetic materials, so that you can make a conscious choice and have an awareness of the different materials. Of course, young people today are very interested in bio-based materials as an alternative. Who would want to work with synthetic resin today if it is possible to achieve a similar result with bio-based materials? The only disadvantage might be that the result is more ephemeral.
Many art academies provide this direction, which takes into account the environment and awareness of materials as an option. I recently attended a meeting with different people involved in textiles education around the world, and it turned out that in the autumn of 2019, the most popular among textiles students was to deal with plant dyeing, to turn to skills from heritage craft technologies. This summarises quite well the current state of textiles education and global trends.
T.K.: How much do you use heritage craft technologies in your own work?
K.O.: I think enough. It is important for me to work with the material, to be in contact with the material. Textiles is tightly linked to heritage craft technologies anyhow. The techniques of weaving or braiding fabrics has not changed for thousands of years. Also, the technology for processing natural fibre, such as flax fibre or wool, is still widely used today.
T.K.: How do heritage craft technologies fit in with different global challenges? Could they be an alternative to synthetic materials?
K.O.: When we talk about natural fibres, they can be very stable over time. The oldest spun fibre that archaeologists have identified is flax. The question is, in light of today’s challenges, how are flax, cotton or other natural resources grown, later processed and turned into products before they reach the user. An interesting new cellulose-based material, Ioncell, has been developed at Aalto University in Finland, which also provides a solution for cellulose-based residual pulp in the future. The natural source materials can be synthetically processed in a way that the end result is many times more environmentally friendly than is the case with some so-called eco-materials.
T.K.: You also have an exhibition at the Kai Art Center this autumn.
K.O.: Yes, they are hosting Shezad Dawood’s exhibition Leviathan: the Paljassaare Chapter, where some of my works and also some works by EAA students, and a new collaboratively produced work are presented. The exhibition deals with marine ecology and the local context, it explores the links between climate change, migration and mental health. Shezad conducts collaborations in various locations as part of this project.
In this project I mainly, but not exclusively, work with algae. Algae has been a relatively unpleasant matter for me since I was a child. Without much further analysis, I have avoided contact with algae for years. Now, working more closely with them, I have completely overcome this barrier. A biologist’s or materials scientist’s approach to all this would be quite different, but I am interested in direct experiences with materials—even in unpleasant ones. When thinking about design, there is too little use made of the potential to make a person perceive something through the experience of material, to activate any impulses in the brain through material.
Through the objects and materials that are specially developed for the exhibition at Kai Art Center, I am questioning the possibility of a non-anthropocentric future scenario. These objects open up questions regarding the inherent value of materials, traditional knowledge, and techniques and the relationship between fragile ecosystems and the human societies that are part of them.
For instance, there is a hat that is made to last until it is exposed to water—an eco-luxury object with a predetermined shelf-life. Its shape is combined by a tricorn (pirate hat) and a fisherman’s hat, which habitually is intended to be practical at sea. The leather look-alike material consists of crafted sea-sourced raw materials, which are highly valued in the food, cosmetics and medical industries (polysaccharides from local algae, ink from cephalopods, charcoal from seaweed and plant-based glycerol).
Also related to the marine context is one of my previous works Live-Streams, which was on display at HOP Gallery and was made in collaboration with Johanna Ulfsak. It responded to the level of the waves and wind force in real time. The end result of the installation was unexpected even for me—in the exhibition space together with the created material, one could follow weather changes from a distance. From a technological point of view, this was quite a complicated work, but only people familiar with the field can see and understand this. The fabric was programmed as sensitive by my long-term collaborator Jaan Rebane.
T.K.: Do you consider yourself a speculative designer?
K.O.: Actually, I did not understand that I could call myself that, but years ago I stumbled upon an article that called me a speculative designer. Only then did I delve into speculative design and realised I could indeed categorise myself as one. I do not know where the line between design, art and everything else runs exactly. I like how Olafur Eliasson writes that uncertainty is a luxury that society has not been able to appreciate enough. This freedom might be interesting. Freedom that does not oblige anything in particular.
I remembered recently that as a child for a long time I dreamed of becoming a ship’s cook. Unfortunately, I cannot remember why. Finally, it is not that far from the activities I am committed to now. Working with seaweed and mixing together materials, my work is not that different from that of a cook.
T.K.: There must be a link between the sails and working as the ship’s cook.
K.O.: Yes. (Laughs.) It is a prevalent theme, exploring and conquering lands.