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Friday, December 20, 2019, 14:33
Making pure magic out of pollution data
By Chitralekha Basu
Friday, December 20, 2019, 14:33 By Chitralekha Basu

Textile designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng draws inspiration from the rhythms of the natural world and replicates them in art to spread greater awareness about eco-sensitivity. Nexus, her big data-powered interactive installation that translates pollution data into stunning moving images, is going places. In an interview with China Daily, Ng shares her thoughts on using Artificial Intelligence in her projects — but naturally. 

Textile designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng at her studio workshop, The Fabrick Lab, in Kwai Chung. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

In September you presented the newest iteration of Nexus (a big data-powered interactive installation that gives a comparative reading of air pollution data in a number of cities worldwide) at the London Design Festival. Would you like to tell us how this invention of yours works?

The Nexus project came from a dialogue between UBS and me about how art can inform sustainability. I see art and design as informative. The features and abilities of a material — tactility for example — convey a message. One of my previous sculptures created for Hong Kong Stock Exchange involved numbers and how numerical values can be very playful and even transformative. Then I received an invitation from UBS to find a creative and interactive presentation for the data collected by Evidence Lab, UBS data research center, to instigate conversation between smartness of living  and sustainability. 

The idea was to use this information to help enable people to live smarter. 

Everyone talks about AI but not many seem to know that the data used in AI was mined using old intelligence systems reflecting human behavior and how we consumed energy with other living beings. 

Achieving sustainability is a development goal of the United Nations. Air pollution data compiled by the UBS Evidence Lab serves as an introduction to the entire supply chain of business. 

Would you like to give us an idea of how this visually represented in Nexus?

Data and the internet are a network of information and sustainability depends on how a network of people collaborate more with each other. For example, in a forest the nutrients are shared among all living organisms to allow a balance of eco systems. When trees are about to die their remaining nutrients will spread out and be shared among others through underground movement. This is what inspires the shapes and forms I create.

Is that what you call bio-mimicry?

Exactly. So in Nexus the information or the data that participants have chosen are shown to be travelling through the roots, represented through the movement of lights. The audience gets to choose their own data sets and create their virtual clouds, which is unique. Hopefully this will provoke people to think about the way pollution data has been used in the recent past. The data sets we used in Nexus’s London iteration are quite recent ones.  

Would you like to give us an idea of Nexus’s interactive features and the experience of interacting with it? 

Indeed, we don’t want the artwork to come across as just pretty or decorative. There is an information kiosk that helps guide participants through information on pollution in 71 cities in 14 different countries between 2016 and 2018

And then they can choose the cities they are interested in to formulate their own virtual cloud, take a picture of it and share with a friend. 

Although we all live under the same sky we never really get to appreciate the different climatic conditions in different cities. We compare weather notes with friends living in other cities but never get to experience it simultaneously. 

The sculpture is 3D printed, with parts of it encased in jacquard fabric. The embedded LED light seeps through to form virtual clouds. The composition of the virtual cloud is designed by the audience who get to watch the data passing through the arms of the sculpture and then filtered into the virtual cloud.

On entering the kiosk you are given a choice of “get involved” or “know more” buttons. Choosing “know more” leads you to background information on the UBS Evidence lab, the sculpture and me. By clicking on “get involved” you get to pick a city of your choice, and a neighborhood in it. You can pick up to 10 of these…

Do you see Nexus getting any closer to reading and interpreting air quality-related data in real time? 

We already have the technology to do so, as long as we are given access to real-time data. 

Being able to read pollution data in real time was the point of investigating this art project. For us Nexus is more of a prototype solution investigation. The light interacting with the environment in Nexus is actually giving signals and warnings. 

If it were marketed, Nexus would be much like air purifying machines — static but quite intrusive. Then it’s possible to give this machine the form of an artwork that integrates into the environment. It could even be made somewhat playful while providing information.  

Where does textile figure in all this? 

Technology has always been part of weaving. Jacquard weaving makes use of computer technology that can be traced back to the 18th century. The first computer is a jacquard command and it is related to bitmap. 

By bringing together jacquard and the technology UBS has I wanted to create a very warm, touch and feel representation of AI. Technology can’t really be utilized well until it has been analyzed, or been in good hands and helps us to live smarter. For example, the jacquard loom I use is computerized and also human. So every single piece of textile that you see on the sculpture is actually hand-woven. 

You have been showing different editions of Nexus over almost a year. It was shown in Greater China Conference in Shanghai, Taipei Dangdai art fair in January, Art Basel Hong Kong in March and most recently in London. Is Nexus something of a developing project for you or would you rather move on to other things now?

I always enjoy working with interactive designs. Nexus was a great R&D project for me. The challenge was to be able to integrate technology and handloom. In this project for the first time I managed to combine 3D printing, programing and weaving. 

It seems creative people from other fields -- writers and artists, for example – are using AI to rework existing material or traditional forms of art with the help of newest technologies. The idea ties in with the light-sensitive carpet you made this year for the newly restored Haw Par Mansion. What was your experience trying to recreate a traditional design in a newer form using a new, sophisticated technology? Did the old design lend itself well to new technology? 

Technology is often a way of presentation and communication. If we use technology wisely it can help to captivate audiences and increase interest in history and heritage, give people an idea of lost cultures, hence it is important to bring the two together. 

Currently we have started digitally archiving traditional weave patterns from Guizhou. I think the most important thing about using technology is not to be led by it but try to build an equal partnership, Otherwise we will be left with identical, soul-less products.

Any plans on the anvil regarding projects involving AI or robotic technology? 

I use AI or robotic technology as one of the key processes in most of projects. It’s so integrated in our daily work that we do not feel the need to promote our projects as AI-driven. The interface between humans and robotics informed all the installation pieces we put on in the last two years. We have been using computer technology for building weave archives and jacquard weaving for years. 

One of the concerns around increasing use of AI is about the depletion of jobs as a result. How do you see the future of the textile industry and indeed your own work in a largely AI-enabled and AI-powered world? 

Today the use of AI is a must in textile manufacturing, whether it’s for mass production in big factories or in the prototyping stage. To be able to keep their jobs in textiles industry workers will have to get smarter and keep up with the progress in technology. AI can help make mass production more efficient and accurate, and reduce costs. To survive in this environment, laborers will have to educate themselves about the new technologies, and think smartly how their yearns of experience can ‘guide’ the technology and not allowing the technology to replace them. This is a great opportunity to learn.

I would like to think of my projects as AI-enabling. However, at the end of the day only the fittest will survive in an AI-driven factory set-up. It has no place for half-hearted workers producing low-quality work. 

Do you think AI, perhaps in a not too distant future, would be able to develop feelings, make selections with a sense of righteousness and learn to co-exist with humans in a way that's mutually beneficial? Would you like to share your thoughts on this subject in the light of your own evolving relationship with the technologies that you apply?

As a designer and maker, we need to study the fundamentals of a technology, or, in other words, need to know the machines well in order to use them well — be aware of their boundaries to be able to break them in order to achieve excellence in one’s work. 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect AI to solve all possible problems. After all, the human brain is far more complex than AI. AI can be used to speed up the process and be better at making selections from an enormous pool of data, but at the end of the day it is a reflection of data collected from past performances. I do believe it is important to learn from the past as well as use developed technology in order to excel. Hence I use both a manually-operated loom as well as a digital jacquard loom, as each piece of equipment helps me to arrive at a different understanding of weave structure and yarn performance.

In your earlier projects — Climatology, Naturology, Sensus — you seem to give a new life to yarns, wood and other natural fibers in an astonishingly spectacular way. You sourced them from the natural world and re-invested them with the rhythms of nature. Would you like to tell us how advanced technology has made this possible? 

Biomimicry has always been a very strong design philosophy and discipline reflected in my design journey, particularly as I felt nature has a smart way of living. They can decode when their lives are in danger. And this is something human beings try to hack and mimic. Dandelion has properties akin to Velcro and we use it as water repellant in swimsuits. Lilies leave waxy layers that could be turned into water repellant paint. If we’re already using such technologies in our daily lives, why not use it in art? 

Climatology is one of my early works, developed in 2013. I was trapped in flood-hit Beijing. The water came up to my knees, my phone battery died. The next morning when I woke up the road had dried up completely, there was sunshine and it was rather hot. That was my inspiration: What if we could create materials capable of adapting to the four seasons? 

And then I decided to analyze the natural behavior of veneer itself, how the grain goes naturally in the direction of sunlight. I thought how I might create a logbook of how it will react to different temperatures, weather and in response to (varying degrees of) sunlight. It took me over six months to get an idea as to how this particular piece of wood would behave before I could start creating my recipes of material. In parallel I was researching different types of fibers, and how we might create a composite to laminate the tween, secure a smart veneer. Climatology is a piece that reacts to changes in humidity, rise in temperature and sunlight, and therefore “dances” in response to the natural environment. 

I wanted to promote the idea that things you cannot see, touch or smell are constantly changing. There are a lot of invisible phenomena around us. Creating materials sensitive to those provide a reminder (of their existence). The installation functions as a thermometer while having forms and colors like a piece of art.

I think the best part of the experience is seeing the rhythms and core principles of sustainability driving the natural world reflected in these pieces. 

We wanted it to be as human as possible. The woven material is entirely natural – paper, metal, gold leaves, also minerals and natural fibers. I used paper because the concept came from trees, forests and I wanted to use the natural tactility in them.   

Hong Kong has a rich textile legacy. Is there anything about this heritage that informs your work? 

I think that is exactly why I wanted to move (from the UK) to Hong Kong. Hong Kong in the Eighties and Nineties was the place where many amazing fashion designers created their own fabrics. Then all the factories were moved to the Chinese mainland and there was no more trading and manufacturing in Hong Kong. 

The Fabrick Lab is the only weave studio in Hong Kong functioning as a design and sampling place. We’re the only one having a TC2, which is a high-spec jacquard prototyping loom from Norway. 

I believe Hong Kong should now be considered as part of the Greater Bay Area — part of the government policies that include its neighbors. If you ask me how I am connected to Hong Kong I would say it’s not just Hong Kong but Hong Kong Plus. A lot of the people working in the factories in Dongguan actually moved to those areas from Hong Kong. And (after the opening of the high-speed rail link) Shenzhen is only half an hour away. 

I really want to revive the concept that Hong Kong has (its own variety of ) textiles. I am a huge fan of and believer in micro manufacturing — the idea being that we downscale everything, and have the different departments in a manufacturing unit all next to each other like the one you see here in this 1,500 square feet area.   

What is the biggest hurdle in the way of conservation of traditional yarns like cotton and preserving the traditional weaves? Is there a long-term and sustainable solution you can think of?

Working with the ethnic minority women in Guizhou I found the designs are passed on to the next generation through practice. There is no formula showing how this is done. The only way to keep a record of these textile designs is by preserving embroidery samples and use these as a library of information. 

This year we started a campaign called pixel play. Traditionally, the fish eye pattern is one of the most well-known patterns they make. They’ve been using hand and feet to muscle-memorize the way it is done.  

I’ve simplified this to create a similar version. So I change it one step at a time to arrive at a new pattern, from fish-eye to fish, for example. . 

And this is what we’re celebrating through our shoes collection. All of them are fish-eye pattern made by chaining different yarns. This is how we try to preserve heritage textiles. 

I spent two years trying to gain the trust of (the artisan women of Guizhou) who now work with me and my team. Early on in my career I learnt that inspiring trust in people is a fundamental part of craft, for craft is also about making connections with people from the present, past and future. I used a grant from Design Trust to start a study called Unfold Heritage Air Research Initiative, which looks into how we create new eco systems for indigenous villages to help them understand the value of their own heritage craft and regain pride. This is a village (pls insert name) the artisans had left when they lost faith in (the viability of) their indigenous crafts. So the village was deserted. When they decided to return the local government built new, modern homes for them.  

The challenge for me was to present these artisanal products in a way so that potential buyers seeing them on a shop window might think it would integrate well with their home decor. Having their works purchased will give these women the confidence that it’s possible to see their craft in a new light. For example, the textile you see in this cushion displays a weaving pattern used in their clothing, and they never thought of using it in a cushion. It’s just a matter of changing the scale in which the fabric is woven…

It’s probably also about unconventional use of fabric. Who would have thought jacquard-woven fabric could be a part of an AI-driven installation that reads pollution data? 

Yes, newer applications. It’s about women empowerment as well. We created a new hub in the village, where the craftswomen gather to speak with each other, exchange notes. It’s not stopping them from working as farmers, or cooking for their families, looking after grandkids and at the same time making a bit of income. 

You have been reaching out to young people, trying to familiarize them with our textile heritage… 

We offer internships and mentor programs to provide insights to students. We also work with schools and university toward developing integrated programs within their semester which includes workshop visits and learning about our weave facilities.  

You also work with young Hong Kong designers. Would you have any plans for offering long-term support to talented, upcoming designers?

 I love collaborating because I think collaborations can bring new ideas to the table. I am in fact working with four designers from the US, Chinese mainland and Hong Kong and I have shared with them my textile philosophy and my research in the Chinese mainland and we are hoping to explore a new way of presenting textiles on an e-commerce platform. They come from different backgrounds and really struggled a lot in the beginning. There was too much information and they did not know which one to go ahead with at first. But then the results of our collaborative projects have turned out rather beautiful and all very suitable for e-commerce. 

So I think as long as you’re cross-disciplinary in certain areas, collaboration can open new doors for your thinking. 

Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu


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