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Articles - 28 March 2007
Under the Skin - ANAT reSkin media laboratory on wearable technologies
ReSkin was an intensive three week workshop held in Canberra in the heat of January 2007 and early February. ReSkin's goal was to interrogate the emerging possibilities of wearable technologies. To this end a dynamic cohort of artists, designers and technologists descended upon the textile workshop at the Canberra School of Art - a space sadly damaged by recent hail storms in the nation's capital. This became a light-filled home for three weeks of concentrated creativity which commenced with structured classes in programming, electronics and weaving and evolved into studio-based unbridled making.
During the first week participants were introduced to a range of skills via the diverse expertise of the facilitators. These included basic electronics, programming, weaving, printing, soft circuits, and toy hacking (pulling apart those irritating digital toys and harvesting their interactive innards). Canberra was hot and dry, never dipping far below 30 degrees, except in the evenings when impromptu gatherings were held on balconies. Most participants were staying within the ANU campus, enjoying morning walks to Lake Burley Griffin and leisurely evenings discussing ideas over a glass of wine. For many of us this week was a little like a holiday from our usually hectic 24/7 working schedules. This pace of relaxing interaction, though, was not to persist.
There was an interesting shift that occurred at the beginning of week two which will be familiar to educators at most levels. The learning process starts out in a unidirectional manner, information being transmitted from facilitators to hungry participants. At some point this directionality scatters and knowledge is shared in a non-linear fashion, erupting at points into unstructured brain storming sessions on balconies, in hallways, over sandwiches.
Testament to the success of the selection panel the participants had around two hundred years of collective experience in problem solving, creating, making - the practice of getting art/design/stuff happening. This experience network pulsated with energy, it was alive and feeding on the ideas that were evolving by the minute. Ideas were born through the unlikely marriage of printing, electronics, programming, silver smithing and sewing. In isolation these activities spawn socks, t-shirts, computer programs, electric jugs, and earrings. In unison they bring to life interactive garments, inflatable limbs, and emotionally responsive jewellery.
It has been suggested that at the eye of the storm exists a strange kind of quiet, stillness at the epicentre of chaos. reSkin was in part like that. During our third and final week we had knuckled down in our own projects, desks overflowing with wires, fabric, computer cables, motors, sewing machines and a living debris of micro components. This space of extreme creativity and sleep deprivation was ideal for the triggering of outbursts or paroxysms. Instead, the atmosphere was of a kind of energetic trancelike productivity, with occasional fits of laughter, or tears of frustration at the disobedience of physics or programming languages.
ReSkin achieved a wide range of things that may, or may not, have been part of its original agenda. Firstly, it created community. For those who are in the practice of making wearable technologies Australia can feel very isolating. You can palpably feel the tyranny of distance that Geoffrey Blainey refers to in his 1960s text.1 ReSkin provided respite from the potential isolation of solo practice, it allowed like minds to nut out solutions to wearable issues. It also developed very strong bonds, similar to those born from experiences of shared intensity in air raid shelters or on desert islands. Perhaps this has something to do with the uniform temporality that exists in a space of shared intensity. Time has a different texture when you are in a space of collective concentration, thought processes are not disrupted by meetings and daily distractions, and you are submerged wholly in brain-expanding innovation.
Secondly, it seemed to make time slow down, at least for a few weeks. Ernst Mach writes "The boundaries between things are disappearing, the subject and the world are no longer separate, time seems to stand still.",2 which suggests a kind of fused state in which the viewer and the viewed no longer inhabit different time envelopes but are utterly attuned and in synch. Strangely, this seemed to occur during reSkin, especially in the second and third week. Stillness came in the form of the freedom to create. Unshackled from the demands of our regular day jobs and household chores we were able to focus intently on the creative process. Such monism demands great energy and attention but has the effect of stilling the mind and facilitating immense productivity.
The projects that were born at reSkin achieved many goals. Some investigated extension beyond the physical body, others allowed for the user to sense hitherto occluded information. Projects transcended technical competency and questioned larger issues such as experience sharing, augmented perception, and synthetic sensing whilst simultaneously dealing with user comfort and material detailing.
I will discuss several projects that, in their own way, focus on intimate environments, personal understanding and mobility. Somaya Langeley's project Mobile Patters explored "the imperceptible world of radio frequencies, mobile phones and semi-private worlds created by individuals in metropolitan spaces." The ornate 'ear cage house' houses technology which converts mobile phone activity into a series of random percussive clicks. The ear piece renders perceptible the thickness of frequencies that surround us in daily life. As with most of the projects Mobile Patters can be read on a number of levels - it is body adornment, a comment on the tenuous relationship between the public and private when we engage with our personal technologies; and sensory augmentation device.
The intimacy of personal environments was investigated to poetic effect by Sarah Kettley's Stile project and to some extent my own project Inner. Both projects were concerned with intimate body related environments. Kettley writes "Stile is a neckpiece which explores the boundary between intimate space and public performance. It attempts to capture that moment when we gather ourselves, perhaps find some kind of inner space, before a performative event." As the wearer moves the head from side to side small sounds are emitted from the collar, audible to the user but not perceptible to the surrounding world. Kettley, a native of Scotland, was inspired by the richness and diversity of the Australian aural landscape and collected such sounds as magpie calls, the sound of water flowing through drainpipes after a very rare downpour, and the sound of surf and cicadas on the south coast of NSW. This sonic texture informed the sounds incorporated into the neckpiece. As such it becomes a mnemonic device, allowing Kettley to re-experience her time in Australia; a personal environment; and a performative garment.
My own project Inner deals with issues of intrapersonal understanding - focussing on foibles, oddities, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that may allude to emotional state. The garment senses a nervous habit - in this case touching the sternum - through the sensitive gingko brooch at the neck. This information is transmuted into an internal output - softly activating solenoids which tap against the ribcage; and an external output - subtle pulsating optic fibre along the stomach. It allows for an awareness of our non-conscious behaviours and is the continuation of a series of projects which investigate delicate technologies which augment our relationship with the world and people within it.
One resounding legacy of reSkin is that it has constructed an immaterial network that is located around ideas, concepts and projects. Our correspondence since the workshop flows in fits and spurts, people are back in their lives making and doing things, but with new knowledge of some part of the creative process. It might be garment construction, jewellery making, resin casting, or programming a micro-controller. We have big plans - symposia, exhibitions, publications, and workshops in the dessert around Alice Springs. Whatever the outcomes are we have shared a very intense experience and have developed bonds that hopefully will transcend the tyranny of distance and time.
Leah Heiss is a lecturer in Interior design at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her artistic practice and research focus on enabling garments and artefacts through the agency of technology, with a focus on social cohesion, health + emotional connectivity. She has presented and published her work in books, journals and conferences locally and internationally and exhibits her work regularly.