CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

October 24, 2002 Electric plaid and other thermochromic delights



Joey Berzowska shows off a swatch of electric plaid.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Melanie Takefman

Remember those shirts from the ’80s that changed colours? Joey Berzowska does, with disdain. They “would change colours in your armpits,” said the professor of Design Art and DFAR (Digital Image and Sound and the Fine Arts). “That wasn’t cool!”

To improve on that fashion nightmare and commercial failure, Berzowska is creating a material that changes colours using thermochromic ink, or, in lay terms, ink that changes colour in reaction to heat. This time, heat comes from a battery, not the human body and can be selectively addressed.

She designs pre-determined patterns by weaving or stitching yarn and other conductive materials into textiles. The patterns emerge when an electric current is sent through the material from a power source and changes the colour of the material surrounding the stitching. The result is electric plaid. “It’s so simple, and yet has never been done before,” Berzowska said incredulously.

Her command of the scientific aspect of her art is what sets her apart from most visual artists.

“I am working at the intersection of two worlds,” she said. “Being able to understand technology and work with it is an intrinsic part of being creative with new media,” she said, yet in her experience in both worlds, no one is affirming this double-barrelled expertise.

“I was really frustrated with this division of the person with the vision [the artist] and the person who implements the project,” she said.

It also creates what she called gender tensions, as men usually implement the science of projects designed by women.

Concordia’s newborn DFAR program is the first bachelor’s program in North America to combine the two disciplines. Starting this year, students can take courses in computer programming, graphic design and 2D and 3D imaging as part of a specialization for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or as a double major in DFAR and computer science.

In the second option, students are eligible for a BFA or a Bachelor of Science (BSc). A minor in DFAR is a third possibility.

Berzowska began teaching in both the Design and DFAR Departments this fall and Jason Lewis recently became DFAR’s first full-time faculty member.

Through this program, Berzowska hopes that fluency in both design and implementation of technology will become the rule, not the exception. For example, fine arts studentd in DFAR learn to program elements of interactive Web sites, instead of using multimedia software. At the same time, computer science students explore the creative applications of programming code.

With only 40 students accepted out of 150 applicants, the program is clearly in demand. Only in its first year, the department’s administrator, Michelina Sar-della, hopes to team up with Concordia’s Inst-itute for Co-operative Education to give students experience in the work force.

The smoke rising from a brown and green fabric swatch during our interview shows that electric plaid is a work in progress. Yet Berzowska and her partner, Margaret Orth, hold a patent on electric plaid, as the first textile to synthesize thermochromic ink and conductive yarn.

Next to samples of electric plaid is a purse with a circular insert that changes color. It is one of the first applications of E-Ink, the electronic ink technology developed at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab while Berzowska was a student there.

E-Ink animated fashion modules can be incorporated into clothes and accessories and come with a small battery that lasts about six months. Unlike many display technologies, the animated fashion modules do not emit light, but instead rely on black and white ink particles that adhere to electrodes. Hanging on the wall is a heart that flashes red. It’s perfect for a rave, according to Berzowska.

People generally use the name “e-textiles” or “smart textiles” to refer to a textile that incorporates capabilities for sensing, communication (usually wireless), power transmission or interconnection technology to allow sensors or things such as information processing devices to be networked together within a fabric.

Since she began working with soft technology, Berzowska has been involved in several projects with e-textiles, including the design of a keyboard made of fabric. While she avowed that the invention was “geeky,” e-textiles are being studied for applications to military and police uniforms.

Berzowska completed separate undergraduate degrees in design and mathematics at Concordia and McGill respectively, at the same time. She then pursued a master’s of science in “computational expressionism” at MIT.

At Concordia, Berzowska recently challenged her students to find unusual conductors, like jewelry, to illustrate the potential for simple circuits and interactive objects in everyday life.

“ I try to frame technology in a fun way, in a way that underlines the cool things that you can do with technology.”

For more information on DFAR, visit http://digital.concordia.ca.