Social Fabrics: Wearable + Media + Interconnectivity

by Susan Elizabeth Ryan
With Phil Winfield and Jill Thomas

Today we know that art can be many things and cannot be pinned down by medium or format or even context anymore. Yet despite the phenomenological freedom enjoyed by art in recent years, when worn on the body art has often struggled for recognition, despite the frequent references to garments and fashion in contemporary art. In fact, works that are wearable abound and contribute to an unknown history of projects people do not necessarily link together or think of as part of a cohesive practice even though there are many similarities between garments and art as normatively considered, including, for both, dependence on commercial infrastructures and resonance in cultural literature. Artists working with the living body as their vehicle and the social environment as their frame have for decades produced works that go beyond fashion and commerce. Still, the aesthetic and cultural potential of garments is often overlooked.

Arguably, it is with the rise of wearable technology--mobile media--that artists working with wearables have begun to achieve critical mass. This is so despite many encumbrances--for one, artists working in "wearable media" navigate a tough path for their work, between commercial fashion, theatrical costume, or craft project, on the one hand, and engineering device or commercial prototype, on the other. But there are some strong unifying ideas: this work is worn on the body, it exists in the complex multidimensional realities of contemporary social discourse (often simultaneously on line and off), and it engages with a world transformed by varieties of "media." Additionally most importantly of all, the work is deployed critically in terms of viewer interaction and experience.

The creative synergy of wearable technology art (WTA) is also fueled by the exponential rate of developments in mobile media technologies and industries and, in the academy, the corresponding rise of social theory concerning mobile networks, virtual societies, and web 2.0 phenomena. As media become a more intuitive part of our experience as humans, and the technologies themselves vanish into furniture and walls as well as pockets and fabrics--as technology merges reality with the bubble of virtuality (Microsoft's Surface Technology, for example)--WTA will continue to do the opposite: make connections with the palpable, the fantastic, the self-consciously mechanistic, and the intractably organic aspects of the body as dynamic interface.

Social Fabrics: Wearable + Media + Interconnectivity was a time-based exhibition presented as a modified runway show of art works utilizing wearable media and technology. The venue was a ballroom at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown Dallas, Texas, and the show was sponsored by the Leonardo Education Forum and held at the at the Annual Meeting of the College Art Association on February 22, 2008. Co-sponsors for the event were the University of Texas at Dallas, and the College of Art and Design and Lab for Creative Arts and Technologies, both at Louisiana State University. The exhibition was curated by myself and my colleague, Patrick Lichty.

All the works shown in the exhibition are wearable. But more than this, they enlarge the conceptual potential of wearable media in specific ways. The exhibition was intended to demonstrate convergences between individual expression and statement making, on the one hand, and the nature of "network society" on the other. Technological garments and accessories with social capabilities were presented alongside works that, while not employing technology outright, comment or critique the implications of our digital media-infused and fashion-driven lifestyles. Most of the participating works are garments but at the same time the pieces interface with multiple systems of technology and discourse. Some of the pieces are mini performances or events and, at our event, interacted in various ways with the audience.

Works shown in Social Fabrics enable social communication on distinguishable--but multiple and overlapping--levels. Some encourage the formation of social groupings in their vicinity: examples are Kristin Nyce’s Conversation Loom, Beaudoin and Jo’s BFFM and Ear Buddies, and Kostova and Robinson’s Negotiations. Other work--Kurback, Nascimento, and Shizue’s Taiknam Hat and Anke Loh’s Wearable Patterns-- communicate with others by visualizing data. They index wearers’ bodily functions or environmental factors and make these visible to others. A third group of pieces in the exhibition perform social critique: these include Teresa Almeida’s Space Dress, Cat Mazza’s knitPro Logoknits. Still others (XS Labs’ Skorpions and Bruce, Cook, and Noble’s Digital Mallarme) communicate through metaphor and formal inventiveness. But most works combine discursive techniques. For example, Matt Kenyon’s IED, which appears to be a masculine, almost military-looking accessory, accesses, culls through, and displays US Military casualty data for everyone in the vicinity to see, as an ongoing critique of war. Sarah Kettley and Frank Greig’s Speckled Jewelry are pieces that sense human proximity, so potential social encounters become intentional choices. In all, Social Fabrics demonstrated the intuitiveness and hybridity of wearable technology as a reassertion of the body in the digital world.

Updated 22 July 2009