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BRIDGES AND HIGH WIRES
by Louise Poissant, translated by Timothy Barnard
The expression "media arts," apart from its reference to the electronic media, implies an idea of mediation, of intermediaries and bridges. The function of media art, we sometimes seem to forget, is to create a bridge between the perceptible (aesthesis), the intelligible (some would say the spiritual) and technology; it is understood that the sensible, the intelligible and technology develop in an enactive manner in relation to each other. That said, it remains to examine how these bridges are built and how they emerge.
The tactile and the audible, concatenated and augmented by the visual, cover a vast range of distances, from the near to the far. From the second skin which conceals and reveals us, up to the acoustic apparatus that connects us to the "song of the world," a whole series of displays and works of art suggests other postures and generates a new sensorium. Bridges are thus established between within and without, the self and others, the local and the global, and between ecosystems and infosystems. These bridges also guide the manner and locations of connection and the forms of exchange.
Clothing, the most direct link between the intimacy of the flesh and its exterior conditions, between the form of the body and its observation by others, has always been a bridge between art and science, between artisanal and industrial production. By incorporating the keenest, most advanced technologies, interactive clothing extends a long tradition in which creativity and inventiveness combine to produce know-how, "patent" machinery and found sciences such as chemistry (dying, tanning), organic chemistry (through work on artificial silk in the nineteenth century in particular) and computer science, the direct descendant of the weaver's craft.
We have known since Barthes,1 of course, and even since Balzac,2 that clothing "connotes" and supplies information about the social status and personality of the person wearing it. Every piece of clothing carries with it a semiological layer as deep as its surface is shallow. Some kinds of clothing are now designed to communicate the body's thoughts, moods and reactions as it enters into exchange with the environment. We encode clothing with messages or, better yet, it displays data about electrical and thermal signals and vital signs (our heartbeat, respiration, level of stress, perspiration, cutaneous conductance) and lets them be decoded and interpreted. Artists explore various approaches, depending on whether they choose to intervene in the fabric itself or to add trimmings, accessories or layers to the garment.
Ying Gao's outfits explore some of the properties of clothing as interface and bring to mind the various functions of the skin described by Didier Anzieu,3 particularly those of arousal-shield and inter-sensoriality. She also returns to folding techniques perfected by the Egyptians, who in addition discovered the dynamic virtues of pneumatics, a technique she too uses. Her garments dilate and inflate in reaction to the environment or the proximity of viewers. They react to and control the zone of proximity. Her dresses in particular seem designed to illustrate the milieu-interface that Régis Debray and Patrice Hugues discuss with respect to fabric, "a material penetrated with spirit in which the intelligible and the sensible, caresses and harshness, and inconstancy and resistance blend."4
The series of interactive skirts developed by Thecla Schiphorst in her work exhale: breath between bodies explores the inter-subjective and non-verbal dimension of clothing, often unbeknownst to the person wearing it. Breathing and heartbeats are digitized and converted into sounds and vibrations which make possible exchanges self-to-self, or between individuals and in a group. A "biological semantics"5 thus takes shape on the garment, revealing somatic data about the subject. Breathing, that emblematic element of presence, but also of life and feelings, often serves in this context to bring the garment to life and engage in communication, as if the tactile sensitivity associated with fabric must be lightened and aroused by a more spiritual aerial principle.
In Electric Skin, Suzi Webster also uses breathing as an agent for setting interactivity in motion. A sensor converts the rhythm of the subject's breathing into pulses of light by activating a device which illuminates two broad bands, reminiscent of a liturgical stole equipped with LEDs. Worn during a performance, the outfit "creates an experience of that liminal space," Webster remarks.6 The experiment is even more interesting in that it is on this barely perceptible threshold, in this ultra-thin space, that sensual arousal arises. This transitional space which breathing reveals and dramatizes, this indeterminate and open space says much about the properties of the garments that conceal us and reveal us to the other's gaze.
Barbara Layne returns to the long tradition of weavers by incorporating new techniques for weaving optical fibre or conductive thread equipped with LEDs, making it possible to display text, images or video depending on the kind of encounter and the lighting conditions. These "pixelated fabrics," to adopt Michel Sotton's expression,7 are also sensitive to the environment, through sensors embedded in the weave of the fabric. They convert the garment into a living, mobile screen and its wearer into a wireless connected agent, displaying information about the environment or the state of the body and thereby opening up possibilities for experimenting with new codes of mediation and new ways of being connected.
Joanna Berzowska, in her series Skorpions,8 is especially interested in the delicate dialectic between humans and their extensions, the second skin with which we clothe ourselves. Employing a variety of techniques, including shape-memory alloys, electronic fibres, magnets and electronic circuits, she reproduces the instrumentalism of women's bodies dictated by fashion through the ages: shaped and corseted bodies, exhibited and constricted bodies which move in response to a program incorporated into various layers of these animated outfits. This clothing conceals and reveals the performers, seduces and controls them, while it spellbinds its viewers.
Sara Diamond works with clothing as a surface containing a variety of communication devices—a cell phone, earphones, wireless sensors—making it possible to connect. But these garments are more than wired-up surfaces: they are also captors of emotions which unleash various reactions: a flashing light on one part of the garment or comforting music for oneself or others. Calling to mind two other functions of what Didier Anzieu calls the "me-skin",9 this clothing can bear a true "libidinal charge" by maintaining the subject's energy tension. They can also facilitate "inter-sensoriality" as a place of exchanges and sensory concatenations.
With three dresses inspired by the story "Peau d'âne",10 Valérie Lamontagne adapts and renders an image of the present state of our technological progress. Wireless mini-fans connected to a meteorological station inflate and animate the Sky Dress according to shifts in the wind. Conductive thread and the heating of thermo-sensitive ink through resistance enable the Moon Dress to vary its colours and motifs according to the cycles of the moon. LEDs creating a variety of motifs are incorporated in the Sun Dress. Apart from their role as examples of technological progress, however, these dresses illustrate an increasingly pronounced desire to be in phase with the elements and the environment.
Clothing has always revealed something—sex, age, climate, era, social class, profession, event or personality. Interactive and intelligent clothing seeks precisely to explore every form of linkage and mediation. How does clothing articulate the complex relationship between the body and its environment? A remark by Steve Mann, the Toronto cyborg, seems appropriate here: "The wearable computer allows me to explore my humanity, alter my consciousness, shift my perspectives so that I can choose—any given time—to see the world in very different, often quite liberating ways."11
A few words, finally, on the only sound installation, by Grégory Lasserre and Anaïs met den Ancxt, mentioned here for the way it takes up some of the same tactile and visual sensations produced by interactive clothing. Akousmaflore, an orchestral garden, or plant orchestra, invites visitors to touch living plants to produce sounds—an infinitely variable music triggered by the users' fluctuating and unpredictable contact with interactive devices. When close enough, each visitor's magnetic field, so dear to André Breton, is sufficient to set off an unexpected, otherworldly song that lets us hear what our eyes can't see: the invisible aura around each of us. The effect of this revelation is magical, reminiscent of an enchanted garden in a fairy tale whose plants are endowed with peculiar properties. The visitor's promenade is transformed into a musical exploration and performance, letting them discover new sounds and the astonishing powers of plants and their own touch—a metaphor worth considering with respect to our technological extensions.
All these interfaces lead us to conclude that these technologies condense the thing human beings have built which most resembles their sensibility. Two things confirm and reinforce this phenomenon: on one hand, sensibility is fashioned or fashions itself out of these extensions, as Marshall McLuhan saw quite well; and on the other, it finds responses or an echo in the world it helps parcel out and construct. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarked, "What makes the weight, the thickness, the flesh of each color, of each sound, of each tactile texture, of the present and of the world is the fact that he who grasps them feels himself emerge from them by a sort of coiling up or redoubling, fundamentally homogeneous with them: he feels that he is the sensible itself coming to itself and that in return the sensible is in his eyes as it were his double or an extension of his own flesh."12
Louise Poissant is dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where she has headed the Groupe de recherche en arts médiatiques (GRAM) since 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on media art. Her current research focuses on the use of new technologies in performance art and on biotechnology and the arts.
1. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward & Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. The original French volume was published in 1967 but was begun in 1957 and completed in 1963.
2. Honoré de Balzac, Treatise on Elegant Living, Adelaide, Australia: Wakefield Press, 2010. Balzac's Traité de la vie élégante appeared in five installments in the Parisian weekly La mode from October 2 to November 6, 1830.
3. Didier Anzieu, Le Moi-peau, Paris: Dunod, 1995.
4. Régis Debray & Patrice Hugues, Dictionnaire culturel du tissu, Paris: Fayard, 2005.
5.The expression is Mark Marino's on the site http://www.turbulence.org/blog/archives/001607.html
6. See http://www.suziwebster.org/electricskin/index.html
7. Michel Sotton, in Dictionnaire culturel du tissu, op. cit., p.137.
8. The technical information provided here is taken from the site http://www.xslabs.net/skorpions/
9. Didier Anzieu, op. cit.
10. My description of these dresses is based on a text by Renee Baert at http://www.oboro.net/pdf/publication/depliant_Peaudane.pdf
11. Quoted by Angela Joosse in "DZIGA VERTOV AND STEVE MANN: The Embodiment of the Master Metaphor of Vision", http://www.yorku.ca/topia/docs/conference/Joosse.pdf
12. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort and trans. Alphonso Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968, p.113-14.