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wear and tear : Between the Skin and the Garden
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Between the Skin and the Garden
New Modes of Interaction in the Wearable Data Environment
by Katherine Moriwaki
With current developments in wearable computing and "smart" environments, one might envision a future heavily branded by major technology players dictating not only market forces but also experience paradigms. Running parallel to this commercial approach, an emerging body of wearable artistic work is developing which continues to challenge and inform computational design. While the technology field generally acknowledges the ongoing contributions of artists, it is still worthwhile to examine artistic projects that address emerging areas of research and development. This work provides new perspectives and radical reinterpretations of the way in which information, individuals, and their environments are connected. With the commercialization of technology infiltrating everything from Coke cans to garment tags, the need for creative renderings of the human-technological condition increases. The following artists and their projects have emerged from varied practices and disciplinary groups. However, all claim a stake in fashion, computing, and responsive environments. With their varied approaches and conceptual foundations, their work illustrates an acute prescience of ongoing trends in computational design.
In the interstitial space between the "wild" and the cultivated, there exists a boundary where both elements thrive. It is in this zone of possibility that TGarden operates. The project is a collaboration between two artist collectives, FoAM [http://f0.am/tgarden/]
and Sponge, [link no longer active www.gvu.gatech.edu/people/sha.xinwei/topologicalmedia/tgarden/] with the support of several major art and technology centers (Georgia Institute of Technology, Ars Electronica, V2, The Banff Centre) and the involvement of a variety of independent artists. TGarden uses wearable sensors incorporated into whimsically designed garments to trigger video and sound via the wearer's gestures and interactions with one another. In addition to input provided by installation participants, the architecture of the system contains its own rhythms of decay and growth, which are modified and affected by the participants' activities. Visitors to the TGarden are given no objective or goal during their visit. Instead, they are invited to simply explore. The result is a built environment that serves as an entertainment centre, research lab, and art installation. Unlike many "smart" environments, which might track identity or consumer choices, TGarden uses feedback and response to create a way by which we might see our everyday experiences and social interactions through a different lens. Inside TGarden, environment is the focal point.
Similarly, Whisper, [http://whisper.surrey.sfu.ca/index2.html] another large collaborative project headed by Vancouver-based media artists Thecla Schiphorst and Susan Kozel (and involving numerous other artists, designers, computer scientists, and hardware/software engineers) uses skin as the metaphor for the boundary between external and internal relations, bringing the activity contained within individual bodies out into a shared domain. Whisper is a set of networked garments that track physiological data such as heart rate, galvanic skin response, and breathing patterns. Biometric sensors are embedded in the garments, and these trigger different visual and auditory display patterns - both on the clothing (via LEDs embedded in the sleeve, for example), and throughout the environment (via video projection and audio speakers). Individuals wearing the Whisper garments can decide what data to share, and with whom. Like TGarden, the Whisper project creates a liminal area of activity within which participants can focus on their incoming bodily sensations. It also serves as a testing ground for modes of interaction with the potential to integrate emotive and intimate elements into the network communications of the future.
Whereas TGarden and Whisper construct installation environments within which particular garments function, other artists choose to work with the syntax of everyday activity in its natural setting. In Medulla Intimata, [link no longer active www.thisisclutch.com/medulla.html] a project by Tina Gonsalves and Tom Donaldson, galvanic skin response drives a small video screen embedded in a piece of jewelry. Designed to look like "normal" jewelry, the project consists of a deliberately ostentatious necklace. The video display consists of the wearer's image - but, depending on the affective input of the wearer (biometric measurements of their emotional state, or the dynamics or tone of their conversations), the video doppelganger expresses contradictory or unintentionally revealing emotions. The uncontrollability of this alter-ego highlights the dual nature of one's public persona and private emotions, creating an accessory which disrupts conditioned ways of presenting the self. The artists refer to Medulla Intimata as both a "foil" to the wearer and, perhaps most tellingly, a "wound" - for its expression of the way repressed and hidden emotions can leak into the managed world of "polite" conversation, creating undercurrents of unspoken thoughts and accusations. In most cases, wearable computing applications attempt to assist the individual in covering such lapses. Medulla Intimata posits instead that these small, everyday deceptions might be propelled toward a forced reckoning by a fashion accessory. Ultimately, the artists are asking whether a greater control over, or ability to manage, perceptions is indeed better in the end.
Seven Mile Boots
In the case of Seven Mile Boots, [http://randomseed.org/sevenmileboots/] it is precisely a lack of control that provides a sense of excitement and discovery. Laura Beloff and her collaborators Erich Berger and Martin Pichlmair have created a pair of shoes that allow for physical wandering through virtual space. Deriving their title from a folktale about a pair of boots which allow the wearer to walk seven miles with one step, the striking red shoes allow the wearer to cross vast distances on the Internet by browsing through active chatrooms while the wearer walks. A text-to-speech engine broadcasts the contents of the online conversations out loud, allowing the wearer of the boots to eavesdrop on them while stationary. The wearer does not know where each step will take them, yet a sense of opportunity and surprise springs to the fore as the person becomes, in the artists' words, a "digital flaneur". In likening online Internet chatrooms to the urban spatiality of the city, Beloff and her collaborators present a novel method of browsing information, and create a compelling relationship between the activity of the online world and the physical world surrounding our bodies. The open channels that the boots create are referred to as "holes" that provide vantage points from which to view distant activity - and yet, these connections also become ingrained in the individual wearer's identity and experience.
Acoustic Survival Kit
The artists Miki Yui and Felix Hahn operate within a similar phase of the urban and contemporary condition. In their project Acoustic Survival Kit, [http://www.khm.de] human stress caused by urban noise exposure is countered using small, sound-emitting devices embedded in articles of clothing, as well as other ambient acoustic devices which play sounds of different frequencies in response to varying light levels. Yui and Hahn are concerned with the effects of oversaturated urban environments that grate at the psyche, causing individuals to "close windows" to the outside world, or cover it up by playing loud music. Their garments, which emit subtle sounds that interweave and fuse with the sounds of the surrounding environment, are meant to create "bridges" between the internal and external - not only protecting the wearer from overstimulation, but also teasing the shell-shocked city dweller into communicating more actively with their environment. The fluctuating aural frequencies react to existing environmental conditions, and so create a feeling of playful fluidity and sensuous form. Meanwhile, the wearer/broadcaster remains anonymous because the devices are invisibly integrated into regular articles of clothing. The intimate and personal scale of the work is a novelty, in the sense that many current new media projects tend to encourage forced interactions between people. In the case of the Acoustic Survival Kit, small changes in individual perception and subjective experience can be created using the urban environment itself as the impetus.
Embodied Interaction and Responsive Environments
In fashion design, clothing is often referred to as a "second skin" or "final layer". The act of dressing is a deeply personal act, and determines not only the appearance and presentation of an individual, but also their movement and subjective experience. As wearable and ubiquitous computing technologies exert greater pressure on the ability of the human mind and body to accommodate new information flows and interaction schema, artistic projects that address these changing subjective states and environments will increase in relevance. Each of the projects discussed in this article presents a merging of the individual and their environment. The interface is the body, mediated and directed by clothing.
Whether they operate as installations or built environments (TGarden and Whisper), or as more open ended garments or accessories (Acoustic Survival Kit, Seven Mile Boots, and Medulla Intimata), these projects act as propositions which suggest a highly malleable and intimate relationship between individuals and their surroundings. The data environments represented in these projects sometimes have an external source (Acoustic Survival Kit and Seven Mile Boots), but they also involve the manifestation of internal processes into visible and tangible experience. In TGarden, Whisper, and Medulla Intimata, human movement, gesture, and physiological response are translated into affective output, whereas Seven Mile Boots and the Acoustic Survival Kit use urban metaphors to initiate discovery and exploration. All of these projects take phenomenology as a starting point for interrogating and exploring social and environmental relations. The "data environments" which they present pose material, social, and urban challenges for embodied interaction and ubiquitous computing, and thus illuminate an alternative point of focus for future applications and experiences of technology.
Katherine Moriwaki is an artist and researcher who investigates the relationship between wearables, fashion, and the experiential resonance of technologically mediated urban public space. Currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, her work has appeared in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, and has also been presented at numerous festivals and conferences, including Siggraph (2000), numer.02 at Centre Georges Pompidou (2002), Break 2.2 (2003), Ubicomp (2003), e-culture fair (2003), Transmediale (2004), and CHI (2004). She is a 2004 recipient of the Araneum Prize from the Spanish Ministry for Science and Technology and Fundación ARCO.