Sparkles of Brilliance

One of the joys of attending the Interaction Design and Children (IDC’13) conference earlier this year in New York was meeting the incredibly inspiring and visionary Mexican artist and cultural activist Karla Saenz. Karla is a design professor at Universidad Iberoamericana (IBERO) in Mexico City and also is the founder and co-director of Kopalli Arte Publico. Karla has studied fine art and painting in Australia and her specialization is public art. In New York, she told me how she could not get the idea of returning to Mexico to give back to the people never left me, even when she had art openings and receptions in Melbourne. Eventually, she came back, got a teaching position at the university and set up her own NGO to do community outreach and social work.

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Karla told me about her amazing projects in Mexico and in particular told me about an art festival called “Yo Soy Arte (I am Art)” that she organizes with marginalized children in the state of Oaxaca each year. The festival has been run for 2 years and each year it has a different theme. Last year, the theme was “art and the environment” and Karla said that she is considering the theme of art and technology for next year. When I told her about some of my projects that combine technology and nature, she kindly suggested that perhaps we can collaborate for a workshop for the kids and invited me to visit her in Mexico. I was thrilled and after getting back to Toronto started thinking about ways that we can make this happen.

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After a couple of months of brainstorming with Karla and my supervisor, Melanie, about possible plans for the workshops, we drafted a proposal. Karla kindly invited me to also give a talk at the university she teaches at and Melanie provided support and guidance on how to make plans for the trip. I was happy to find out that Karla’s brother, Manuel, who is a solar energy expert, will accompany us and help with conducting the workshops. Finally, I arrived in Mexico City last week for the project: a dream come true!

At last year’s Yo Soy Arte festival, Karla had facilitated the kids designing and making their own alebrijes, fantastical Mexican folk art sculptures that since their inception in the 1930’s by the Mexican folk art legend Pedro Linares have become quintessential symbols of Oaxacan folk art. Linares first saw these creatures in a dream when he lying semiconscious in a sick bed in his 30s. When he awoke from the sickness, he immediately started to sketch and create the creatures using paper and cardboard, a practice that was taken up by many artists and is practiced in different parts of Mexico, but especially in the state of Oaxaca. The children are very fond of the creatures and believe that, despite their fearsome appearance, they protect them from evil creatures in their sleeps, similar in function to the native American dreamcatchers.

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Appropriately enough my visit started with an encounter with these creatures. After arriving from the airport, Karla and I went for a walk along a street that was lined with many large alebrije statues. It has become a tradition for many different art collectives and groups to create their own alebrijes and put them on display in Mexico City a week after the Day of the Dead, which was when I was visiting.

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A day after my arrival, I gave a talk at the university on technology and happiness and described my research projects to an audience of design students and professors. In the evening, Karla kindly invited me to give a presentation to her design sustainability class on community engagement and ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development).

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The next day, Karla, Manuel and I left for Oaxaca. This was my second time visiting this magical region and I was excited to experience this magical place. Oaxaca is famous among travellers for many things: a diversity of indigenous culture, some of the best handiworks and folk art in all of Mexico and unbelievably delicious food and unusual snacks, including Chapulines (grasshoppers), mole and Oaxaca cheese. I got to experience all of these (and more) in the next few days. One of the highlights was listening to an amazing Zapotec song being song live at a small local bar.

The workshops were taking place at a center in the suburbs of Oaxaca City. The children we were working with did not have access to a lot of technology and many came from families in difficult social circumstances. After a lovely breakfast of eggs and chorizo in the market, followed by traditional hot chocolate (which is served in a bowl and I happily found is used to soak bread to eat), we left for the centre. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a couple of kids and the head of the centre. The rest of the kids were at school and would arrive in about an hour. During this time Karla and some of the adults at the center exchanged updates and we setup a projector.

One by one the kids arrived and immediately ran and hugged Karla and politely introduced themselves to me and Manuel. They were excited and intelligent. Their eyes full of laughter and curiosity. Once everybody was in and after rearranging a few tables, we started our first workshop. At first, we asked the kids to tell us about last year’s festival and what they did for it. They told us about the alebrijes they had made and, also, about a movie about superheros and how they were going to save the environment. Last year, they had also made a PInata, which is a symbolic sculpture with seven pointed sections that symbolize the seven deadly sins. The piñata is filled with candy and sweets and is paraded around town where people hit it with sticks trying to break the sins and release the good energies. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Karla was applying Alexandro Jodorowski‘s psychologic method that involves creating rituals of transformation to facilitate healing.

When we were ready to start, there were about 25-30 kids ranging in age from 5 to 13 there. One boy of 7 had an unidentified speech impediment. While the kids had seen and some of them had briefly interacted with computers before, most of them were not familiar with them and, all, did not have computer (or tablet or smartphone) access on a daily or even a weekly basis. Recently, I have been experimenting with a method of teaching influenced by the work of Sugata Mitra and Simon Hauger of the Workshop School, in addition to influences by the Maker/Tinkerer/Hacker movement. The purpose of this specific workshop was to explore artistic self-expression through digital media. Our hypothesis was that the combination of the children’s ingenuity and the accessibility of new prototyping methods and our facilitation methodology would bring out the creativity in the children.

We began by the kids describing last year’s festival to me. They kept asking how do you say something in English and listened attentively when I described my complex origin (born in Iran but with an Arabic name and now living in Canada). I used a globe to show the different points and their distances.

After introductions, we had an interactive presentation (with video, images and sound) that explored technology and its relationship to us. For my presentations, I use a style that I have called “poetic presentation” where I use metaphors, personal stories, different narrative techniques and humour to communicate concepts. We began by asking the kids to give us some examples of technology. All the examples involved consumer objects from cars to appliances. We used Marshall McLuhan‘s idea of technology as “extension of (hu)mans” to expand this notion of technology to include tools that are not necessarily digital, for example wheels, candles and knives. This approach allowed us to then question what is the purpose of technology, a theme I have been exploring in my research for several years. Through questions and answers with the kids, we identified the purpose of making tools as objects that are designed to help people, make life more comfortable, allow people to express themselves (for example, in the case of musical instruments), among other examples. We also touched upon the idea that bad design can lead to accidents and problems (we illustrated by showing a Charlie Chaplin clip from the Modern Times where a worker gets sucked into a factory line).

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This introduction was necessary to slowly shift the children’s understanding of technology as something to be consumed to something to be designed. The idea of the workshops were to use digital tools (and more importantly digital design process) to engage the kids in co-design and, thus, it was necessary to prepare them for hands-on activities that were to follow through a playful introduction to theory and examples of how to apply that theory. In addition to being influenced by McLuhan’s idea, the theory and design philosophy we use is highly influenced by value-sensitive and reflective design that emphasis the importance of incorporating positive values in design. This approach aims to utilize technology and digital design to facilitate empowerment, inclusion and eventually happiness in both individuals and community at large.

We continued the workshop by giving examples of my previous projects, as well as, other similar projects, that ranged from designing interface to help people communicate if they can not speak or write and an alarm clock that runs when it rings so that the person using it has to get up and turn it off. The children liked these projects very much. We also showed them small microcontrollers that can be sewn into clothing and work like little brains, using sensors like our senses and actuators like limbs or other tools. Following this, the kids were given a break, followed by a session to draw technologies.

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Many of the kids’ drawings were interpretations of the technology and confirmed that they understood the concepts. A couple of notable exceptions already expanded on the ideas: for example, one child drew a clock that could drive him to school and another child drew a clock that hugged him and put him to sleep rather than wake him up! The drawing phase of the workshop is essential because it helps internalize the concepts and gives the kids a chance to customize the ideas and take ownership of them.

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After the session, the drawings were put up and the children were shown a wearable project, HugBug, that gave them the idea that you can add new senses and powers (light, sound) to your projects. This session was followed by a first design of alebrijes. The kids added lights and speech recognition to the alebrijes and also gave them other super powers. They drew very detailed designs of the creatures with wires that they said were like parts of a nervous system (an excellent extension of the metaphor and a confirmation that it was understood and internalized by the children). The outcome of this step was about 14 drawings or design proposals. 

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The next day, we put up the pictures of the creatures of the day before and talked about how electricity works, demonstrating what a blinking LED light connected to a battery looks like. The kids were then directed to draw new alebrijes or improve on their previous designs by adding glitter to the areas that they wanted illuminated. Finally, they were instructed to select a single point in the design where they would like to have blinking lights. After this step, they were given a blinking LED light and a small battery and instructions on how to connect them to their drawings. This part of the exercise was a bit challenging for the smaller children and the older kids were given instructions to help the younger kids and the facilitators both helped the kids setup the lights.

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The kids were given the choice between a fixed light or one that was activated by touch, effectively, a touch button . The only difference between a button and a fixed light was that the in the case of the button the LED light was not attached firmly to the battery and the connection would be made when the child presses the area close to the light. Most of the kids (10 out of 18 who finished the project), opted for the button. This in itself was an introduction to an interactive piece where the art work responds to your actions directly. After the session, the children were excited to show their work to other people who worked in the house and a couple of moms who came to visit their kids at the end of the day.

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We decided to minimize the use of material that could not be found in the children’s immediate environments (for example, we forego the use of Playdough, sharpies and sticky notes, in favour of, simple colour pencils, scrap paper and cardboard). For the electronic material, we used simple battery and LED blinking lights. We found these material easy to understand for the kids and also capable of can withstanding some strain. We broke the day to play with Makey Makey and connect bananas to the computer to play a musical game. After describing the way the interface works, we let the kids help each other play with the interface and make music. The older kids understood that the wires had to be connected to the module and that once the connection was made a sound can be generated. Reflecting after the sessions, we brainstormed around the idea of creating a mural that could be interactive and when different parts of it are touched music or voice samples are played.

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This methodology was a true collaboration in the sense that my experience with digital design, making and hacking could be combined with Karla’s expertise in working with children and facilitating art. Thus, while I (and Manuel who also has technical background) could come up with technical solutions that facilitated the children’s designs and allowed them to understand what the tools can do, Karla, helped them express their ideas in drawings and crafts and combined aesthetic aspects into the design. Also, Karla’s methodology of asking the kids for outcomes (paintings, crafts) and then giving it back to them and presenting them to the class was essential to the process of internalization that was evident from the initial recollection of the previous year’s festival that was done by the children. Finally, since Karla already had a close relationship to the children, she was able to facilitate a smooth transfer of authority to me and Manuel who were meeting the kids for the first time. This element is essential as part of the initialization of any child-adult interaction.

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After a long day at the school, we took rest in the hotel. I was on the rooftop thinking about the workshops and the kids and how sometimes this work is difficult because of deep invisible emotional ties that develop between one and the kids even during a two day workshop. I was pondering what is the impact of this work in the long term when fireworks started over the city and the dark sky was filled with bright and short-lived sparkles. I couldn’t help but think of the children and the beauty and innocence of their existence. I felt our encounter, going beyond barriers of language, age, culture, etc. was like the little bright sparkles in the dark sky of life, magical, perhaps short-lived but beautiful non-the-less. I am forever grateful for being given this chance to see the fragile incredibly delicate beauty of life in all of its glory in Oaxaca.

I would like to thank the amazing children and my absolutely wonderful colleagues Karla and Manuel!

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