Anouk Wipprecht: The science fiction world is much closer now

Anouk Wipprecht about her latest projects, transhumanism, three laws of robotics, the link between tech and fashion in the modern world, Sci-Fi and open source

Anouk Wipprecht is a Dutch fashion designer and future technologies inventor. Her works lay on the crossroads of fashion, science and technologies and are one of visible signs of the rapidly changing modern world. Anouk creates demo’s and showcases for top brands like Audi and Swarovski, with the other ‘hidden’ part of her work being R&D and beta-testing for big tech companies. She creates fantastic tech embedded stage costumes for big pop stars, and does projects for world leading shows like Cirque Du Soleil. This wide field of her multidisciplinary activities that combines the latest innovations in technology, science and fashion is called FashionTech.

We had a good chance to have an interesting talk with this talented and visionary powerhouse about the latest projects that she’s working on at the moment, pandemic impact on artists and inventors, her thought and feelings about current Black Live Matter protests in USA, potential danger of new technologies, main core and messages of her works and other important subjects.

Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov

Hi Anouk! Thank you very much for finding time for us in your super busy schedule. Will be interesting to know about the projects you are working on now.

Hey Dmitry! Hmm… yes so yesterday afternoon I just finished my last project, and I have sent it to Paris. It is a work for a big game company and for their new game that will be out in October or November this year. I cannot talk much about it before the official release; it is a secret now. But it’s a colorful and 3D printed one. A lot of colors have been rotating my studio the last 2 months. Normally I work in white, black and grey tones, but sometimes a client pushes me in new realms, in this project, I needed to get used to all the colors, but it also gets me out of my comfort zone, so that’s a good thing I guess.

Tomorrow I’m jumping on another project, it will be a work for Ars Electronica festival that will happen in Austria, Linz in September. This project will be more of a research than a design project: a combination of different technologies and will be based on measuring the brain signals and transforming them to data that you will be able to see on the dress through a headset. I mostly can’t really talk about the projects in detail before they are out, but it’s going to be an interesting one as well. Then, in September I am free for new explorations and projects again.

Usually, your work covers a wide range of spheres that stands on the crossroads of fashion, technologies and science. Do you define yourself more as an artist or as a future technology inventor?

I mostly work on projects and collaboration with companies and brands. Usually they hire me when they want to look into a new field, work on an body-related or sensor-related R&D project or to (beta) test or work with their new technologies. And sometimes it’s for an specific thing like a showcase, or an event. It’s always new and exciting, and never boring. I like it.

Working with these companies is really cool for me too as I have an opportunity to work with the new technologies and also help them with beta testing, or to work on developing and bringing to life their (and mine) ideas. A lot of companies let me work with their technologies or even in their labs using new high tech machines and tools, which for me is like a great playground to work in. If I do (beta) testing I use their products or technologies and create designs or code to check the boundaries of what things can and cannot do – and create a cool dress or headset or object in the meanwhile, so there is also an outcome, that we can then display or research. Some things I started to work with long ago and still embed into my designs or design process. So it’s a win-win situation.

The physical things—the dresses that you can see that I do for brand showcases and other projects is a more artistic part of what I’m doing. And a part my own research into sensors the body and the space around it. The less visible part of my work is research for a diverse range of companies and beta-testing and it lays more in the area of science meets engineering, that might not come out, but helps the brand or company to specify and decide which way to go with something or helps develop their product in a certain way.

Besides of working with companies and brands, do you ever work with private clients?

Mostly the things I do are my collaborations with tech companies and brands. Sometimes if somebody that I know asks me to make a dress, I can do a personal project. Usually, these projects are commissioned to me by people from the entertainment or musical industry. It can be a dress for a gala show or a musical video, just like the projects that I’ve done for Black Eyed Peas or Red Bull. Sometimes it can be very interesting projects, like the one that I’ve done for Viktoria Modesta, which was a really multidisciplinary thing that was made in collaboration with MONAD studio—it was a hybrid of a costume, and a musical instrument.

Very rarely I do a dress just for a private client. But in this case I must know the person well and understand them as it is a really custom design, and also feel inspired by something special about them that wants me to highlight something in them, and visualise an relationship with the technological garment or piece I build for them. There needs to be a technological narrative, or a story that sparkles my mind of the connection between this person and my technological thoughts that I think will suit them or will fit to their mindset or aesthetics.

The dresses that you are doing are exclusive, conceptual things that are made just in a few pieces. Do you think that there is a chance that your ideas and approaches will be soon used widely on the mass-market?

For sure. The human mind is set on the notions of technology that will help to sense our bodies and surroundings with the help of electronic gadgets, these kinds of ideas appeal to a lot of people I think. It also makes people look different at technology, when things are connected to their own bodies and surroundings. I receive emails every day from people that want to buy my dresses, specially the Spider Dress. There is a market for this, it’s only still on the cusp on being defined as to how and what this market would look like.

I mostly don’t produce these dresses in bulk, I mostly custom create them for a certain occasion, brand or event. And often they end up in museum as a commissioned piece, or several pieces being duplicated that are shown in different museums depending on the request. Currently 10 different pieces are in different museums over the world: the Smoke Dress at Autodesk Gallery, a Spider Dress and Agent Unicorn in the Computer Museum in Paderborn, another one at the Museum of Industry in Chicago (Wired to Wear exhibition), another one at the ‘Hello Robot’ exhibition, the Audi collection is in a museum in Italy for another week, and the Intel-Edison based Synapse Dress just came back from a museum in Arnhem, the Netherlands. They travel all over the world. I either go there for the opening, to install it and sometimes showcase it with a model at the opening, or I sent it with instructions how to install.

I would like that to change of course over time, to make more easier pieces that can be sold, but the pieces also take long time to build and are very personal. And when I showcase them it’s also research for me: how do people react to it? How smooth is the interaction? What can I tweak? While my model is walking around – I am thinking of all the things that things can interact in new ways. It’s fun. It’s a lot of work that includes design and software, engineering and constructing and putting everything together. It’s like building a robot, and also reinventing the wheel every time because every dress mechanics is different, and I would rather prefer to spend this time on creating something completely new than have to focus of the asset of production. I rather use my creativity and time to make new crazy ideas. But am interested in producing some things, I just haven’t gotten to it yet I guess, as I am always busy.

It’s interesting that the Spider Dress that you have made in 2011, have just got a new, relevant context in our pandemic times with the importance of keeping social distancing.

Yes, it is so. And I have just made a new dress—Proximity Dress. It has a special meaning and purpose too in our COVID-19 pandemic times. It is based on a robotic space defender principle like Spider Dress and reacts and defines for you four kinds of space, when somebody comes close to you- the public, the social, the personal and the intimate space that surrounds us. I made the Proximity Dress for myself as it is really useful in the USA where I live now because people don’t always take their distance. And I don’t think that is always on purpose, but sometimes people (and also me) simply forget. In this case it is a great feature to have a system on your body that can detect presence and also react to it by creating a physical barrier. People sometimes don’t take measurements for such an important social distance, and this dress really helps with the issue.

The Proximity Dress I created for myself as a personal project but I got a lot of reactions to it, and also requests. You really see that a lot of people are really into that notion of a ‘different’ kind of technology – and one that they can wear. And now, with modern technologies it is in a way easier to produce such things. The science fiction world is much closer now than it was 20 years ago when I was just starting. Because of the new technologies, and electronics getting smaller we live in an amazing time. Where I was strapping big computers to the body in the early 2000’s – now the microcontrollers and components are so small that they can easily be integrated. The designs we create ourselves are smart, and intelligent, and can help us in new ways. We caught up with all the sci-fi gadget like stuff and start to see what else is there to create using new technologies. And more and more people are getting more and more into these things.

Do you put different kinds of messages in the core of your projects or we can say that they are united by some basic concepts?

For my research of the notions of fashion, science, technology and the body, it is always very interesting to discover what kind of dresses certain people need for certain reasons.

For example, Spider Dress was more kind of a conceptual thing with a complicated, 3D printed design. It had a clear badass statement that says: «Hey, stay away from me». Usually, people that live in big cities have an interest in it and want one. They see it as an optimal outfit for wearing in crowded, public spaces like subways in our time of awareness of the importance of keeping the social distance.

Proximity Dress looks simpler as I have created for myself. It is really easy to put it on, it is comfortable to wear it, and it is really effective as it has proximity and thermal sensors in the neck part and the mechanics on the hips. And it is still based on the same notion of awareness for keeping the distance using that proxemics research.

The Smoke Dress has a social distancing message, too, but it is brought in a much more friendly way. Very organic. It is very elegant and more classical almost. And doesn’t attack you like the Spider Dress; it just gives gently a boundary of smoke when somebody comes too close to you. It is suggestive.

Also, I like when my work helps people with some kind of restrictions or differently-abled. An example of this kind of work could be my project Agent Unicorn—a unicorn horn shaped headpiece that is designed especially for children who have problems with attention // ADHD. The headpiece has a camera inside it to analyse the brainwaves. When the child is concentrating, the camera starts to work. This really helps to analyse and understand what really triggers the attention of these children.

There are many different people gravitating to different kinds of dresses, and the kind of dress they choose depends much on the geographical location of the places where they live and their psychophysical condition. And that is interesting – how these interactions are being perceived differently due to culture, geographical, emotionally, socially, and so on.

In your projects you are dealing with a lot of new ground-breaking ideas and technologies. Do you patent them as your intellectual property?

I have a lot of ideas and sometimes I rather focus on creating new projects rather than to sit on the old ones. ‘Patents’ are a fairly old system, which made a lot of companies thrive back in the days but it also sets a lot of restrictions to many creative communities. If you see the 3D printing industry – until a certain period it was stuck because of certain patents. When those expired – the industry could really thrive and move into unexpected ways with new technologies. Yes it sucks when someone walks away with your ideas or markets them, and as a creative you make many new ideas that a less creative person that took those ideas cannot produce, as they are not dependent on their own creativity but rather run away with that of others. Creatives create ideas by the minute. Are they always good ideas? Probably not. But then you start to investigate it, and go into depth with it of that aspect that triggers your interest, and that can be a really pretty outcome. When that gets stolen in any way, it feels like your baby, than that is not an nice feeling. So there is an emotional side to things and an professional side I think. A lot of start-ups are being formed nowadays that have the aim of ‘being bought’. For me that is a strange idea as designs and projects are really personal for me from my ‘artist’ side, even if I work on a project and deliver it to a client, it feels like I am giving away something really dear. So I also understand it from the ‘business side’ that this happens, that’s life in a way. But still I think the world has an abusive relationship sometimes with the way it correlates to patents and IP rights. This is why I am a supporter of the DIY and Open Source movement: keep what you want to keep and put online (open source it) what you don’t need for another person to enjoy and learn from.

Think it will be correct to say that most of your projects are based on transhumanism ideas that stand for transformation and development of the human condition with the help of new technologies and electronic gadgets. Many people are scared by these ideas as they see in them the visions of dystopian future from noir science fiction—like total physical and mind control of the people through big data. How do you feel about it?

Yes, in some ways my work links to transhumanism ideas as I work on a lot of topics around the interplay between robotics and the body. In science fiction movies we can see good things about the technological future and a lot of dark dystopian visions of people living in a society with total mind control. And I think it is our mission and choice as humans to stay on the good side, not on the evil one. There are many things happening now with new technologies, and it is up to us which way it will all go.

In the field of robotics and working with robotic technologies there is the assumption of the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ that were devised by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. They are the basic principles and the notions of what a robot can and can’t do —First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I think we must have strict restrictions and clear understanding about what we are doing and where we are moving with all these new technologies that can be potentially dangerous. As a developer I would like to have my hands on all the data that I can gather, it helps me with my technologies and makes the robots that I use better and smarter. But as an artist and designer I stand for privacy, because that’s the most human thing we can have. This is why we build houses for ourselves, and it is the main core of our society. This sense of privacy is very important. The technological side always wants all the data and the human side wants privacy. And it is a very serious dilemma that we are dealing with at the moment. In my projects I like to use only non-invasive technology options; where can you use a sensor instead of a camera? How can you get in a more creative way more sensible data than in a blunt way ‘easy’ data? People don’t feel safe in the modern world when they see cameras as they might be recorded and it will be saved in big data that could be used for whatever purposes. I try using proximity and temperature sensors instead of camera’s where I can or if I do – I store data anonymously or not at all (just use it on the spot) – you can always make a difference there. So, you always have a choice which way to go. There is a lot of talk now about it in the transhumanism community, and it is a really interesting topic. It is good that there is a big discussion, it will help us to find a solution.

For sure it is one in the bunch of the serious questions that we are facing in our turbulent times. Think of recent events that happened in the last months like Black Live Matters movement, riots in the USA, COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns brings a lot of questions to humanity too. What are your feelings and thoughts about all these dramatic things and how do you live through these strange days?

I think there are negative and positive features in all of this. There are a lot of problems in the USA, and it is really dramatic. I think Black Lives Matter is awesome and needed. It has made a lot of changes in the community already and shed light on many problems. The community has more voice now and it is good because the USA is the land of free speech in a way and if there is some community that has not been treated well and not been listened to in many occasions. The demonstration and riots are good as far as they are not too harsh and not damaging anybody. I feel that for sure we are passing through a very interesting time in the USA, and it is like a mini revolution in many ways.

All this period will be for sure marked in history books like Pandemic 2020, so we are leaving now through really historical times and there are many emotions about it. I’m happy that (most of) my family, friends, creative partners and colleagues have been safe and sound. I think the lockdown also created a space for many creatives to explore new territories or work on personal stuff. A lot of creators started to put their works online. At last we got time for very personal and passionate projects. Suddenly, a lot of us had a chance to switch from working all the time to doing things that we wanted to do but didn’t have time for. Come up with new inventions or look into new endeavors. But on another hand, I had to postpone a lot of plans. I finished a 4 month project for Cirque Du Soleil in March, but the project didn’t come out yet because of the lockdowns. I am sure there will be a right time and place for them to release it, but a lot of companies go through difficult times at the moment. Especially the entertainment industry got a big hit due to Covid-19.

Also, for many of us travel habits change: I haven’t stuck in one place for 20 years like during this lockdown, as my projects take me all over the world normally. Which is eerie and weird and nice and crazy at the same time. I bought a house in the Miami area not so long before the pandemic and I haven’t stayed in one place without moving, like I’m doing now, for a really long time… But it was the right timing to have a property and a studio, and I have all the machines that I need for work, like 3D Printers and a new laser cutter, here with me. So I am not necessarily dependent on anything, which is a good thing for me so I can still keep my projects rolling.

In the end everything is relative: good things and bad things, but one thing is sure: this is definitely an interesting time of transition in many ways. And I hope we can form it into creating awareness around the things that care and are healthy and innovative for humanity and the broader world around us.

Hope life will finally get back to normal soon and you will be able to get back on the road with traveling around the world and working on new exciting projects. Thank you, Anouk for this really interesting talk.

Thank you, it was a pleasure!

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