Bringing Paper to Life with Electronics: Q&A with Jie Qi and Natalie Freed

Every year, I frequent the Vintage Paper Fair (yes, this actually exists and it is quite a magnificent showcase of rare prints, photographs, and ephemera) and I marvel at what has been done in the past with paper at the hands of an artist. With so much of what we do based in touch screen technology and our seemingly natural tendency towards immediacy, Jie Qi and Natalie Freed offer an extraordinary arts practice that gives a new meaning to arts and crafts. I was lucky to ask them a few questions about their art practices as well as their thoughts on how they are combining old and new technologies for creative expression. Their answers as well as some of the current projects they are working on will simply amaze and delight you. Enjoy!

Based on the course description, students will learn how to use materials and techniques incorporating electronics and paper to create interactive works. What was the impetus for combining paper, programming, and electronics as a mode of creative expression?

Natalie and I approached paper electronics from different paths. However, we both love craft and have grown to love electronics as well. The combination is even merrier.

For me, I’ve always created papercraft on my own as a hobby, while I studied engineering. It was through working with my research group High-Low Tech at the Media Lab, that I was introduced to combining electronics with new materials. Paper is such a friendly material to make with– it’s soft enough to work with by hand, for one, and it is also plentiful. We can get it in raw sheets and notepads, but it’s also available as leftover magazines and packaging. So why not? On the other hand, to me electronics is plain magical. It lets us make things move, glow, make music and even think– through programming. These are all amazing tools for expressing things that are otherwise not possible, making things real that were only in our imaginations before.

Jie introduced me to paper electronics when we worked on a project together (an electronic sticker book!) We also recently helped facilitate a workshop with the topic “The Future of Books,” and had an incredibly fascinating discussion with people ranging from publishers to interactive fiction researchers about the properties of physical paper and those of technology.

Before that, I’d worked a lot in e-textiles – fabric integrated with electronics rather than paper. I’m really excited about the new possibilities of paper electronics. It’s possible to play with mechanisms and rigid structures, and you can prototype really quickly. Rather than testing on a breadboard and then designing and building a circuit, you can basically create and edit your final circuit as you go. The final circuit can be beautiful and accessible, so that anyone can look at it and see how it was made. You don’t have to separate working on the electronics/computation and working on an enclosure, which is awesome even for reasons as concrete as being able to make everything at a single workstation.

How did you start teaching with GAFFTA? Have you taught other courses or workshops?

Jie: This is actually my first time in SF, so I was introduced to GAFFTA as a cool place to check out by Mike Kuniavsky from Thingm. I’ve previously taught workshops on paper-based electronics to students back at MIT and RISD, and the 3rd Ward art space in New York. Most recently I shared these techniques as part of the Empowerment workshops at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin.

Natalie and I have also taught workshops together, in paper electronics as well as electronic textiles at the Grace Hopper Celebration.

Natalie: This will also be my first time at GAFFTA. I’ve helped teach workshops in e-textiles across the Bay at UC Berkeley’s CNMAT, and at the Grace Hopper Celebration.

What are some of the most innovative combinations of traditional (i.e., paper-based) and newer technologies (i.e., creative coding/computing) you have seen in the new media arts field?

Jie: A classic piece is the Fold Loud installation by Jooyoung Paek. She embedded electronic sensors in paper so that when you fold them, you create soothing tones.

Another really inspiring set of works is Marcelo Coelho’s Pulp-based Computing, where he added circuitry in the process of making paper, so that all of the electronics are embedded inside of the paper itself. It’s really beautiful to see the lights shine through the paper.

A more recent favorite is Anabiosis, which uses thermochromic paint and sensing to color in the wings of a butterfly when you touch the paintings.

Although paper based artworks are associated most often with painting, drawing, or collage, what is your hope in integrating technology with paper-based artworks?

Jie: For one, I hope it reaches wider audiences– so that more people can start crafting with paper, and crafting with technology. In the long run, I hope it reminds us all of the possibilities of the physical world around us. To help us take a break from the digital (screen, that is) but still use technology to bring interesting, beautiful, and inspiring things to our world. Speaking of more things, paper-based things are also pretty easy to take apart and reconfigure… maybe it will help us make fully recyclable electronics?

Natalie: I’m really interested in how these materials enable new applications of technology. For example, techniques for embedding electronics into paper and textiles mean they can be seamlessly integrated into products that are soft, flexible, and rich in beautiful materials. Paper based artwork is associated with many different shapes: maps that can fold up and be put away, incredibly complex 3-dimensional origami, structurally strong yet flexible pieces such as paper furniture. I’d be really excited to see expert paper artists and designers have the opportunity to become comfortable with the technology part and incorporate it into their work.

Where do you think this particular art form is headed? Although I’m not too keen on labels, would you consider this a new type or form of craft?

Jie: I’m not sure– there’s so many possibilities that it’s really up to those who make with it. My main hope is that many more people begin to make paper circuits. If nothing else, at least as a stepping stone toward understanding the electronic devices that are everywhere around us. In some ways, It’s like a little brother to the E-textiles movement in craft– except with papers instead of textiles. Overall, it’s more of an extension of the craft that we already do– it’s just paper with a few more rules (the laws of electronics + physics) but also a lot more possibilities (the magic of electricity).

Natalie: Art has always combined media, but this is a new combination and an exciting one in the context of the current DIY movement. More and more people are taking the technology and products in their lives into their own hands. Expanding the range of materials and techniques one can use to play with electronics and computation is a great thing. I personally think these techniques are wonderful because they let me use processes and materials I enjoy the feel of, and I love that there are more and more options out there so that more people can find one that they are drawn to.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve seen done with the tools you will be teaching?

Jie: Hard question! One work that I really love is a dandelion poster made by participants at an earlier workshop:

Interactive Light Painting: Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) from Jie Qi.

When you blow on the glowing picture of the dandelion, the LED seeds fly away. Really surprising and elegant. And it brings out all sorts of sweet memories of playing with flowers. I thought that was such a cool idea I created my own version (see last question).

Natalie: I love the paper speakers people have been making, for example, these by Hannah Perner-Wilson! They’re quite simple, but there’s something that still blows my mind about hearing music come out of a flat piece of paper and only a few materials. I also think Jie’s butterflies activated by muscle wire are absolutely magical and a good example of seamlessly integrating electronics into the other materials.

Would it be possible to share the types of programming or coding you include in your creative and design processes?

Jie: Absolutely! One of my goals is to make this all as accessible as possible, so I’m building this website to document paper electronics.

I have some code up already but I will be adding more content to this for quite a while… Please let me know if you have suggestions!

If you don’t mind sharing with our readership, it would be great to learn of any new projects you have in the works.

Jie: Actually, the website is one of my projects. I’m also hoping to create a book that shares these techniques– since some folks prefer a physical volume with all of the options compiled together. I was really inspired by the Elements of Pop up by David Carter and James Diaz (I read a lot of pop-up tutorial books) and how they placed working examples in the book. Perhaps I can make a book with the example circuits already in the pages. I’m also hoping to continue experimenting with paper electronics myself. Lately I’ve gotten really interested in making paintings and murals with the circuits.

These artists challenge not only paper-based media and historically painted artworks, but also they continue to revive digital media through hand-crafted forms that invite bodily participation in unexpected interactive experiences.

Jie Qi and Natalie Freed’s recent works include:

Telescrapbook– made by Natalie, Jie, and colleague Adam Setapen

Pu Gong Ying (Dandelion) painting by Jie, based on the workshop poster

An earlier project showing paper sensors and outputs in a pop-up book

Dorothy Santos

Dorothy Santos is a freelance art writer, blogger, and photojournalist based in San Francisco. She is the arts contributor and curator for Asterisk SF Magazine + Gallery and blogger for GAFFTA and zero1. She holds Bachelor degrees in both Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisc... more