10 Minute ReadEsteban De La Torre, On Technology, Art, Science And Blade Runner 2049

Ricardo O' Nascimento interviews EJTECH co-founder Esteban De La Torre on his work on Blade Runner 2049 and how he and his partner Judit Eszter are pushing boundaries and creating a synergy between the digital and physical world.

Esteban De La Torre, an audio-visual artist and technologist from Mexico, and Judit Eszter Kárpáti, a textile artist and researcher in the field of e-textile from Hungary, are the creative duo behind EJTECH. Based in Budapest, EJTECH explores new ways of interaction between technology, art, applied science and craft. With the aim to push boundaries and create synergy between the digital and physical world.

EJTECH
Esteban De La Torre and Judit Eszter at National Salon 2017 Art – Kunst Budapest

I have known Esteban and Judit for some years. We first met at an e-textile summer camp in France. Their work has not only been exhibited in many countries, but Esteban recently worked on Blade Runner 2049 film. With so much going on at EJTECH, I sat down with Esteban to hear more about what they have been up too.

Can you tell me a little bit about you and Judit’s background? 

Let me start with Judit Eszter Kárpáti. She was born in Hungary and is a textile artist and researcher. Currently, she is doing her doctoral studies at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME) here in Budapest, the same place that she majored in Textile Design. She is focusing on the exploration of new materials and further experimentation/ recontextualization of fabrics and sensorial experiences. I am Esteban de la Torre. I was born in Mexico. I studied in the media design department at MOME as well. Professionally, I am an audio-visual techno-spirits. I work with tangible interaction, and I am researching further dimensions in technology.

How did EJTECH start and what are your main activities? 

We are a studio, based in Budapest, Hungary. We explore HCI (Human-Computer-Interaction) via alternative interfaces, e-textiles, and future materials. We focus our artistic research on the overlapping points between sound and textile, creating interactive installations and dynamic art pieces.

“We focus our artistic research on the overlapping points between sound and textile, creating interactive installations and dynamic art pieces.”

As for how EJTECH started out, it was born of our mutual love for experimental art and sound. It was Judit who introduced me to the universe of soft circuitry and wicked fabrics. She had created Chromosonic as her Master’s diploma work and was missing sound from it. We started collaborating, and I immediately fell in love with this medium. We applied for a scholarship at Kitchen Budapest, were we initially called ourselves OCHO TONOS. This money and time gave us the push to start smoke electronics in the name of art. OCHO TONOS remained with our first textile interactive table, and we founded EJTECH.

Blade Runner 2049
OCHO TONOS’ Soundwear 3

On to the Blade Runner 2049 Movie

How did you got involved with Blade Runner 2049 and what did you do for them? Did you work directly with Renée April? How was it? 

Getting to work in 2049 was an absolute dream. I have always been into heavy sci-fi aesthetics and dystopian foghorn soundscapes, so naturally, I loved Blade Runner.
It all began when we got an email from production, asking us for a meeting. Eventually, we learnt it was going to be either another studio in New Zealand who were going to be given this job or us. Then we were told we got the job. At first, we did not know what production we were being invited to work on, but we had to sign confidentiality agreements before the actual meeting took place. During the meeting, we presented some of our work, and they introduced us to some mood sketches and ideas of what they would like us to build. They kept referencing the first Blade Runner and its universe. At some point, I braved up and humbly noted that Blade Runner is one of my favourite classics, but this production maybe should also have a universe of its own. Renee kindly replied, “ This IS Blade Runner Two…”

Blade Runner 2049

In the end, I, not Judit, was working in the film studio. It was an incredible experience to be part of such a legendary production. Also, crazy demanding. I worked for five months on the movie. In the beginning, it was mostly landing concepts, and trial and error tests on the costumes. We vibed on how acid rain and thick fog pervaded of LA in 2049, and these humans like deep sea creatures should be able to navigate and exist in such conditions. Of course, I never knew the final script; I only got magical glimpses on the pieces of the story I was working on. It was a pleasure to work with Renee April and Martine Gagnon. Its mind boggling the amount of brain you need, to have so many costumes, in so many situations and still keep that hidden, underlining alchemy that made this movie stand massively as one masterpiece. The art department was super strict on aesthetics, silhouettes, colours, and shapes. It’s crazy how such a gigantic machine, with so many variables and working pieces, can harmonically ballet dance in the rain. Of course, this takes the vision and talent of a whole crew. I was lucky enough to meet and get the green light for my work from the director Dennis Villeneuve, as well as legend Roger Deakins.

Could you explain the tech involved? And in which scenes we can see it? I remember looking at a woman of the blade runner cast wearing a jacket with something like a blue EL tape, and also the earring of Luv seems to glow when she receives a message in the computer.

All my work can be seen on secondary characters. LAPD police officers, street people, sexy skinjobs in Bibi’s Bar, scattered in the city and the LAPD headquarters. They were very strict. I could not use any LEDs. I proposed all other solutions, from thermochromic to dichroic foil. They liked EL tape and wire best because it stood out and looked beautiful in the darkness. One of the challenges was the rain. Many of the scenes were filmed under heavy rain, so EVERYTHING had to be waterproof and durable, and as you know, electronics, especially soft ones LOVE moist, damp, wet, hectic environments. The scenes were also shot during the summer, which meant that extras always needed to take off their electronics and coats, because of the heat.

“Then there was that one glorious moment when the main shot with Ryan Gosling and two cops was being filmed. And one of my costumes started to flicker. Faulty connection? Battery? Who knows.”

It’s easy to keep track and make sure everything works with one or two pieces, but when you are shooting with 25-30 working pieces on set, it can be nerve wrecking. When I asked how long should these lights be working for, how long will a shooting be, they told me I should calculate 27 hours per day. I had to have standby pieces for every time something broke. I had to learn how to solder under ‘acid rain’! I was assigned a couple of people to help me, but still.

ALSO READ: Blade Runner 2049, Will Hyperfuturistic Fashion Speak Fashion Tech?

Then there was that one glorious moment when the main shot with Ryan Gosling and two cops was being filmed. And one of my costumes started to flicker. Faulty connection? Battery? Who knows? But the WHOLE set stood in the pause while I changed the inner wiring and battery. It was probably about half a minute, but it seemed like 12 years. Awesome.

Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049

In the Blade Runner 2 movie, the clothes seemed to be retro noir-inspired, but there was not a robust fashion tech presence, either in aesthetic or functionality. How do you see dystopian of fashion tech and what we can learn from it?

I think raw “functionality” pervades the feel of “realness” in this murky film. We also have to take into account that Blade Runner 2049 takes place on the dumpster earth, where “real” wool is a luxury. In the future / now, technology is edging to be less invasive and less apparent. Kind of like organic “technology” found on plants. Fruits and sweet roses have a reason and purpose. Nobody just wants to walk around looking like a Christmas tree. On the other hand, I am also a big fan of Gaultier’s view on future wear for Luc Besson’s 5th Element. Super excessive and Rococo. If you take a project such as Irene Posch’s “Embroidering A Computer”, hardcore functionality is inherently connected to royal golden embroidery. There is a balance. I could picture future royalty prancing around in a computing gown.

You had a show at the Budapest Design Week. What were you presenting?

We presented an exhibition called CU4TRO TIEMPOS. It was based on four compositions referencing time. Three of these “pillars” were interactive, two of them as experimental musical interfaces, grown from crystals and crystalized textiles, woven carbon and fibreglass and copper/silver leaf interventions, all dealing with granular freezing, beat repetition and looping. The third pillar was yet another variation on our loved Laser Hitzusendo, the practice calligraphy over time. The fourth component was the sonification of a banana going brown. Using CV and MaxMSP, we droned the slow, yet sure pace on how this banana peels start to get brown over time.

Esteban De La Torre
Esteban De La Torre’s exhibition CU4TRO TIEMPOS at Trafó House, Budapest, Hungary

There was also a short presentation / Q&A. Kristi Kuusk was also invited by the Estonian Embassy to present her AR work. And in the end, I played a musical piece revolving around CU4TRO TIEMPOS, as a closing statement. Very Loudly.

I have seen EJTech working with photochromic inks, conductive paint and even growing crystals. What is your favourite material to work with? And why?

I believe it is always changing. We usually grab a material or component and play with it till it becomes boring. Flip it, twist, pop it. Then leave it on the side, and fall in love with something new. Eventually, we will go back past materials, and pick them up again with fresh eyes or new knowledge and the dance starts again. When it comes to this, Judit is the better half that is usually researching and finding all these new exiting surfaces or materials. I try not to fry them.

“I think its pretty lame that it took Google/Levis so many years to come up and package something that the e-textile/wicked fabrics community has been successfully doing for years.”

Do you envision a commercial application for the interfaces that you develop? What could it be?

There is a commercial application, in a sense that clients hire us to develop and create a specific custom solution for their needs. Maybe it’s a high fashion brand that wants an extra kick for the opening of a new store, or display, or an architectural space they need to be dynamic, maybe even a casino. In that sense, these interfaces are commercial, as a service. When it comes to plug and play product, I do not see a future. Maybe its because it is not our target or aim, perhaps because we don’t find a real purpose of packaging these interfaces and selling them.

Soft interfaces are becoming more popular. Recently the Levis/google jacket was launched. It incorporates a fabric sensor on the wrist. From Esteban De La Torre’s perspective. How do you see this product and the developments and use of soft interfaces in clothes?

I think its pretty lame that it took Google/Levis so many years to come up and package something that the e-textile/wicked fabrics community has been successfully doing for years. For instance, you’ve seen Maurin Donneaud’s soft matrix working for so long, on an open source soul. It’s interesting how these projects, like Project Jacquard or even google glass seem unusual, yet continue to flop and be unsuccessful. I don’t blame it on capitalism or karma. I don’t know if its the law of accelerated returns that will eventually make all these technologies fully available, hence disposable to the more significant audience. I would not pay for that jacket as is. Maybe if it had something embedded. Or if it was wool lined from electric sheep. Maybe then EJTech would be on board.

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Ricardo O'Nascimento

Ricardo O'Nascimento is the founder of POPKALAB - a design/research studio focused on innovation in the field of wearable technology. He is an artist and researcher in the field of new media and interactive art. He investigates body-environment relations focused on interface development for worn devices, interactive installations, and hybrid environments.