Student of industrial design, Carly Ayres, picks the brain of Jie Qi, a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, on her experience working at the intersection of art and technology. The premed dropout turned sculptor’s intern finally found a home in the High-Low Tech group, where she has been finishing up her Master of Science degree. In her thesis, Qi explores blending electronics with paper and has created a toolkit to teach others to work with the materials.

A detail of Jie Qi's interactive painting Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting). Photo courtesy of Jie Qi.

Carly Ayres: I think the best way to start off is by asking you about life prior to the Media Lab. What were you studying that eventually led you to become a student at High-Low Tech?
Jie Qi: I started out studying biomedical engineering as a premed student at Columbia. I had this dream to become a surgeon because you get to work with your hands and help people.

For the first two years, I was working in a lab for tissue engineering research, but it drove me nuts. Every so often I would have a “make breakdown,” in which I would spend a whole night making flowers or something for no reason. It was a sign.

With the support of friends, I decided to try something new. I ended up getting an internship with a sculptor. I had so much fun that I changed my major to mechanical engineering so I could keep building in the machine shop.

A bit later, I found out about Eyebeam, an art and technology center in New York, and an artist named Ayah Bdeir, who was combining engineering and art in this project called Littlebits. Having little experience in actually building electronics, I came to work for Ayah and essentially spent a month tinkering with, and breaking, things.

After I got the hang of working with LittleBits, which are magnetic circuit boards that snap together, I started understanding, intuitively, the electronic side. I also learned about the Media Lab, where she had graduated from, and of a new professor there, Leah Buechley, who was integrating craft and technology in a research group called High-Low Tech.

In your master’s thesis, you focus on combining paper with electronics. What led you to explore these mediums together?
I love paper. I’m a total paper nerd. At High-Low Tech, Leah showed me how you could combine paper with things like circuits. I ran with paper because it was something I knew and had used so much.

Paper is a material that is relatively familiar to most people, and at the same time, it holds structures and forms, allowing you to construct and build. When you see something that’s made of paper, it seems more accessible, less expensive. You don’t feel as bad screwing up, which is important when learning something new.

What is the main goal of your thesis?
I’m trying to create useful tools, create project examples as inspiration, and then, through workshops, share them and see what works and what doesn’t. I’m trying to universalize electronics and technology as an expressive medium.

Do you think your tools will be able to bridge the gap between artists, engineers and technologists?
I’m optimistic. My bigger objective is to help people think of technology as a tool or as a means of realizing ideas. It’s somewhat cheesy, but that is my personal, pie in the sky goal. I think paper technology is accessible as a tool to accomplish this.

In your thesis, you talk about the expressive possibilities of technology in conjunction with art. What does it mean to put those two together?
My title, “The Fine Art of Electronics,” is a play on this book called The Art of Electronics, which is like the bible of electronics. Electronics and circuitry are already very creative, hence the title of the original book, but my idea is to also add personal stories on top of the physical layer of circuit interaction. I am trying to inject an expressive aspect into it.

It gets to the big question of what is art? My feeling is that if electronics is a medium, the result can be art, can be craft, can be a prototype. It is what the person does with the material that defines the outcome, not the means or the techniques themselves. Paper-based electronics give people the freedom to make that sort of creative statement, if they so desire.

How do you see these resources existing beyond these workshops?
I’m currently working on what is essentially a circuit-craft workbook. I have this vision for a book with templates that you craft right into, and, in the process of creating the book, you learn skills and electronics theory. By the time you are done, you have this encyclopedia of different interaction options that can be used as inspiration later.

I have seen so many electronics and craft books and view mine as a very happy intersection of both. I’m excited to make it and get it into people’s hands. I want to show that you don’t have to throw an entire computer or touchscreen at something to make it intelligent and interactive in an interesting way.