47: Francesca Rodriguez Sawaya - designer and educator
Francesca Rodriguez Sawaya is a designer and educator, who uses her skills as a technologist and storyteller to create dialogues around topics such as culture, identity and community, either through crafting compelling narratives about socio cultural realities or developing projects that could turn into tools for empowerment. She is interested in thinking about how to create products and experiences that connect the digital and physical spaces around us, in harmony, as a way of bringing a more human approach to our digital world. She recently graduated from Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.
Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on September 28, 2018, in Francesca’s former Brooklyn apartment. Emma Noelle witnessed and photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
FRANCESCA: I grew up in Peru with my mom and my grandparents. The image of a woman in the house was very strong all the time. My mom was the queen of the house, the strong woman in charge. Everything I feel I am today is because of her and my grandmother. That’s why I really like that word [girlhood]. It was full of love. It was very warm and I think that really shaped how I am and how I relate with people.
It was a very magical place. Of course there were things going on; it was not the classical image of a family, but that didn’t stop my mom from making me understand that I could do whatever I wanted—in the sense of what I wanted to do with my life.
SOPHIA: Did you have any awareness of or connection to weaving or other artistic traditions in Peru
FRANCESCA: I grew up surrounded by textiles, though I never actually paid attention to them. [laughs] I feel I grew up next to them, but I never asked myself, “What are they? What’s beyond that fabric or the thread or the yarn they are using? What are they trying to transmit? Why have we been producing the same [traditional] textiles for so many years?”
I never asked myself that until I left Peru. I feel we as humans have this necessity of recreating our worlds wherever we go. I feel that once I was here [in New York], I paid more attention to the traditions I didn’t pay attention to before. I like handcrafted objects that have history in themselves, that explain where we come from, where our culture comes from, how was it formed, and why we’re here today.
SOPHIA: Are there types of handicrafts or specific artists that really encapsulate that for you?
FRANCESCA: I think we have to honor the work of traditional artisans around the world. In the case of Peru, you go and visit the highlands and other regions where our culture was forged. You see those people weaving, sitting in the top of a mountain, and it’s so beautiful how they do it. They work their own material. They take the yarn out of the sheep or the alpaca, and they prepare it to start weaving. That’s their way of communicating and keeping alive their traditions.
Before moving [to New York], my last trip was to Cusco. In Cusco, I went to this community that’s called Maras. I stayed with a family, and they invited me to participate in different traditional activities. One of them was weaving with corn leaves. This woman showed me everything she weaved and taught me how to do it. Why are they using corn leaves? It’s something you can just throw away. But they don’t; they create beautiful pieces out of them. When you start to understand the material, you start to understand the culture.
The second thing I did was to participate in a theatre play. The same woman that hosted us and cooked for us called upon people from the community to recreate a story that explains the community’s origin. They did it in Quechua, which is a traditional Andean language and also one of the official languages of Peru. I didn’t understand what exactly they were saying, and when it ended, the biggest question in my head was, “Why are you doing this?,” so I went and asked her. She said, “People are forgetting our own stories. People are forgetting where we come from. We need to start thinking about new ways of sharing them, because that explains why we are here.” That stuck in my head. I never forgot about that. I really think that idea became the motto behind most of my work. I moved to the United States two weeks after and started learning how to use all these technological tools, and I realized that I needed to find new ways of sharing stories—with new or old technology. We are always thinking about what new thing is coming; I wanted to think about what could we learn from what existed before.
SOPHIA: Could you talk about that?
FRANCESCA: When we think about technology, we usually think about the latest thing, but the loom was technology at its time. I started paying attention to that, and that’s how I randomly found this Masters program at NYU [ITP]. I felt that the classes had such weird names, but they combined everything I like.
FRANCESCA: I came to NYU on instinct. I came to ITP by an instinct. I felt like I had to be there, so I left my job and I went. It’s the best decision I’ve made. I think that technology is the best way to understand people, not only because we use it, but because we created it. I love learning technical things because I’m like, “Who designed this? Why is your interface like this? What do you want people to share with this medium? Why are we using VR? What's wrong with AI?” Somebody created those things.
I feel that sometimes we see technology as something that’s very far away from us. At the beginning I would think, “I have to program? The computer is my enemy.” But when you think more about it, somebody created the programing language you're using, and that somebody is a human. It means that there has to be a way for me to relate to this technological tool, because another human is on the other side.
SOPHIA: Could you talk about the connections between weaving and coding, and how you address them in your work?
FRANCESCA: I was learning so many new things in my program, but I also started seeing people using technology without any purpose. People were like, “I’m doing VR [virtual reality] because it’s VR.” And I would be like, “Yes, but what’s the story you’re telling?” And they’d be like, “VR is cool.” Like…no. [laughs]
I worked for many years producing content for television, so I’ve always had [the concept] very present that the story goes first, and the medium goes after. While studying, I started paying more attention to the stories being told. How can I preserve stories from the present with technology from the past? Or what can we learn from how stories were preserved in the past? Researching that, I started gaining an understanding of the connection between a loom and a computer.
The first computer was a jacquard loom—these old punch holes that you put together, and it will weave something. It was a very slow exploration of these connections. For example when you weave, you’re going up and down. That’s like a computer, which works with binary code, or ones and zeros. I realized I was learning to code faster than I would have before, because I was relating it to a handcrafting activity. I have crafted my whole life, so the language made more sense.
My friend, Renata Gaui, and I started doing some work with weaving, and decided to teach a class on it. People think that technology and tradition are separate things, and communities of coders and communities of crafters think they’re from different worlds, when actually they’re more connected than ever.
[Some examples of the work Francesca mentions are:
Texere, in which she developed digital patterns by analyzing oral stories that highlighted the commonly hidden context around spoken works. These patterns were translated into a handwoven piece.
Quipu, a physical installation inspired by a knot-based recording device used in the Incan Empire to reperform and capture elements of Oral Traditions.
Puente Encriptado, the interactive installation ‘Encrypted Bridge,’ a hand-woven hanging bridge mathematically developed to encrypt letters in a knot system.]
SOPHIA: I was going to ask you about your workshops, too. You’ve taught them for over a year and in several countries—
FRANCESCA: We had two big ones in New York, and then we facilitated one in Santa Fe [New Mexico]. Renata is doing some stuff in Germany now. I’m here. But we are constantly trying to come up with new ideas of where to go next.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about anything that surprised you while teaching these workshops, or any particularly memorable stories about its impact on your students?
FRANCESCA: I think people are eager for learning. That's an unconditional theme. We just want to learn. We just want to see new things. I feel that those moments where people are like, "Aha!" are the best feelings ever when you're teaching. I think what [students] like the most is when we actually share how we applied what we're talking about in our personal projects. In terms of interesting applications, we had this woman in Santa Fe who came with a lot of data regarding climate change, and was looking to weave a piece that transmits that data. That is a very interesting way of approaching this work.
When we gave the workshop at Stony Brook University, a very interesting conversation emerged about how to be more inclusive of women in the technology world. At one point, weaving was also a women’s empowerment tool. Women would weave to keep the stories they wanted to keep, but also to talk about the things they wouldn’t be able to talk about otherwise.
I think that’s what makes weaving such a powerful thing. Throughout history, there have been so many things that we weren’t allowed to say, but that we could weave. During the Second World War, women would just keep data; every time they would see a train pass, they would perform some movement [while weaving]. In that way, they were putting information in these textiles, then transmitting it to other people.
In Peru, we learn history through the eyes of the Spanish people because they conquered us and brought writing. Our way of keeping our own stories was handcrafting objects. That’s why all those handcrafted objects that I mentioned at the beginning are so special. They’re the things that preserve our culture, because they tell the story of where we come from.
SOPHIA: I want to ask you about the accessibility of your projects. A major difference that I see between coding and weaving is that the products of coding are cheap and can be accessed no matter where you are. The products of weaving are usually really expensive because of the labor, and because they forever remain that specific object; they can't replicate themselves.
I know in a lot of ways, the point of the work that you do is making intangible data tangible, and that the value of tangible objects is that they’re so limited. But, of course, I imagine that you want to make this kind of work accessible, as well. Do you have any thoughts about the accessibility of coding and weaving, and what could be done to make both of those things more widespread?
FRANCESCA: I’m not making utilitarian objects. I don’t think about them as tools that people can take. But if weaving a story produces new thought, then that’s useful. Of course with coding, you can actually share it and spread it around the world. That’s amazing! That’s why whenever I design patterns, I share them, so everyone can have them. But I think the knowledge that comes from handicrafts is the ability to touch and feel.
Something that I do try to make accessible is these small looms in kits that we give to people who come to our workshops. We’re trying to tell them that although [weaving] may seem foreign, you can just do it. But I think in the end, it’s about making people think in a different way. That’s the purpose of it.
SOPHIA: You described your project, Texere, as something that “tries to look back to old and traditional ways of sharing information and analyze what we can learn from them.” This is a big question, but could you start to describe what some of those lessons are?
FRANCESCA: First, I think a huge lesson is the way we create things. When we think of technology or even the current culture of entrepreneurship, the way we create things is very focused, very individualistic. But I think a positive trend is the rise of human- and humanitarian-centered design, where we’re building something together, and thinking about its impact on a community, and how it reflects the community that it comes from.
That's something I love about textiles. When you are weaving, you're trying to represent things that are related to your identity, but also things that are related to someone else's identity in your group. When I interviewed the woman [Elba Ambía] for my project, Texere, she showed me in the Quechuan dictionary how the linguistic quality of the language is much less focused on the self [than English], and instead is much more community-driven. How did we remember things in oral societies? It was through repetition—an act that a community performed and kept alive together. That tradition of sharing, a focus on community, and an emphasis on repetition through pattern make weaving a particularly good way to tell and preserve stories today.
SOPHIA: As you continue to do this work, are there any questions that you still have, or is there anything you’re unsure about?
FRANCESCA: So many. If I put one of these [woven] pieces somewhere, how can I make someone read it? I know what it says, but that’s because I made it. If I put something in a museum or a gallery and someone comes to see it, how can they understand what's being said? How can I work with rhythm in a way that’s going to be very explicit for the viewer? Maybe they don’t understand exactly what you’re weaving, but they should at least be able to feel, “Oh my God. She was so excited when she made this,” or, “This is probably a love story.” That’s where you connect. That’s when I feel humans connect with each other. And, as you said, what's the next step? I’ve been weaving stories and designing patterns and trying to understand more how materials work. Where can this be taken to? If I’m trying to make pieces that talk about the need to preserve language, then what’s the next step I have to take to do that? It’s something I’m constantly thinking about.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women either need or can do for one another presently?
FRANCESCA: They need a community. They need to know they’re on the right track. I feel like people need this in general, but I think women in particular need to know that [what they’re doing] is okay. It’s completely okay to be emotional. It’s completely okay to feel the way you feel. It’s completely okay to behave the way you want to behave. I think that’s the best thing. A woman that knows it’s okay and knows what she wants is probably one of the most intimidating things that could exist out there. Women need to be each other’s best friend, but they also need to be best friends with themselves. I feel like sometimes we forget about that.
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