The clicking heels of Ayah Bdeir’s leather boots echo across the concrete floor at Eyebeam in Chelsea, New York’s contemporary gallery district, doing away with the Friday noon lull. As Bdeir gives a cheerful tour of the spacious art and technology center, where she is currently a senior fellow, she enters the R&D (Research and Development) Lab, a glass-paneled workshop on the ground floor. Her desk is wedged among laser-cutters, a 3D printer and work-benches. “This is after I cleaned it up,” she apologizes, gesturing towards her workspace, which is packed with various mechanical gadgets and trinkets. On the desk are parts from her current multi-collaborative project LittleBits (2008– ), a kit of small electronic components pre-assembled into miniature circuit boards, which enables users to create prototypes of simple electronic objects, such as light switches or coin-cell batteries by snapping together the pieces’ built-in magnets. As she fiddles with the parts, Bdeir expresses her belief that electronics should be easily accessible to those who want them to be part of their creative process. “The notion of the ‘lonely innovator’ is a myth,” she remarks. “The time for that has passed.”
In a dimly lit conference room, several of Bdeir’s projects rest on a long table. The most striking work is Teta Haniya’s Secrets (2008), a line of women’s lingerie made in collaboration with graphic designer Luma Shihab-Eldin. Each garment is inspired by an Arabic saying related to seduction and comes with a mechanical component. Picking up a model called Make His Brains Fly, she activates a switch and a pair of large feathered wings attached to the underwear flap back and forth. The series was inspired by a group of elderly women in Syria who make and sell provocative, untraditional underwear. Bdeir rummages through a large box full of their craftwork and pulls out a pink G-string with a toy cell phone stitched onto its front. “People think that all Middle-Eastern women are inhibited, but it is not true,” she says with a smile.
Born in Montreal in 1982, where her family moved to escape civil war in Lebanon, Bdeir spent her formative years in Beirut, although she claims to have never contemplated her Middle-Eastern identity until 2004 when she attended the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Addressing her identity became integral to Bdeir’s projects only after she was exposed to Western misconceptions about the Middle East through the media. Opening up her laptop, she plays a video documentation of Arabiia (2005), which conveys what Bdeir believes are the two most common stereotypes associated with Arab women: “Belly dancers and women in burkas,” she says, as a woman dressed in a belly-dancer outfit performs on the computer screen. As the music changes from seductive to solemn, the woman presses a switch on her garment, prompting motors to transform her skirt and headdress into a burka.
Back at the R&D Lab, Bdeir explains that she has always been interested in art and technology, and learned to combine them during her Masters program at MIT’s Media Lab. “I was taught to question identity and technology, and how they factor into one another,” she reflects, crediting professor and new-media artist Chris Csikszentmihályi as a major influence.
Now a mentor at both Eyebeam and the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, Bdeir holds seminars and workshops for budding designers and new-media artists. The soft launch of LittleBits took place on April 30; plans for its official product release are in the works. “Engineering should be democratic,” Bdeir says. “I want people to be able to apply the technology that I use for their own ideas.”