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wear and tear : Fashion Sensing / Fashioning Sense
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Fashion Sensing / Fashioning Sense
A conversation about aesthetics with International Fashion Machines' Maggie Orth
by Anne Galloway

Textiles are one of humanity's oldest technologies, and costuming has always been central to cultural and personal identity. Clothes and accessories mark and communicate our similarities and differences. In terms of social interaction, cross-cultural encounters are both facilitated and constrained by fashion, be it external body modifications like tattoos and piercings, or clothing and accessories like jewellery, bags and - increasingly - technological devices like mobile phones.

Social and cultural researchers often approach the question of consumption in capitalist societies as a primary way for people to express and negotiate identity, preferences, and social status. As computing and communication technologies become increasingly mobile, they also become increasingly wearable. That is, we can personalise the looks and sounds of digital devices, and use them as fashion accessories. The practical functionality of these devices is increasingly being augmented by their ability to explore and express our aesthetics and identities.

Maggie Orth is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of International Fashion Machines [www.ifmachines.com/] - an artist and technologist who designs and invents interactive textiles in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her doctoral work at MIT's Media Lab (1997-2001) included patents, research, publications, and design in new physical interfaces, wearable computing, electronic textiles, and interactive textile musical instruments. Orth describes herself as someone who "looks forward to the challenge of making beautiful, practical, and wearable art fashion and technology products a reality". I spoke to Orth in July, 2004 about how mobile and wearable technologies are being used as aesthetic or expressive - rather than purely functional - devices, and what is at stake in these increasingly fluid relations between technology, art, nature, and culture.

Anne Galloway: As mobile and wearable computing becomes increasingly common in everyday life, I wonder how our relationships with technology are changing. Historically, computing seems to be more concerned with function than form - what a machine could do was more important than how it looked. But now, for example, mobile phones can be personalized with different faceplates or ring tones, leading some people to describe them as expressions or extensions of our identities.

Maggie Orth: This is a complex area. In most computers software is the function - the form has for a very long time been neutral beige, with little identity. I recently heard a discussion in which someone said that that was because computers are extensions of our minds, our selves, and as such we want them to have no separate visual identity, to be neutral. I think that computers have managed to remain neutral beige for so long because their function is based on their interiors, their software. But I also find it intriguing to think that, as extensions of our mind - which is invisible to ourselves and incorporeal - they have had, up until recently, little visual identity. Software can change a computer's function or meaning with the push of the button, but the form remains neutral.

AG: I'm really interested in this neutrality. I tend to see it as a way to naturalize or normalize technology - to make it appear innocuous and somehow beyond critique. And that makes me feel powerless, or at the mercy of technology. In other words, I don't see my hopes and dreams reflected in most computing technologies.

MO: Well, artists are striving to change that, to de-neutralize the beige box. I think that de-neutralizing technology provides people with more choices, and also humanizes it. It reflects our need for experience and feeling. We are not merely productive or functional - like so much computing - and de-neutralizing technology makes it more a reflection of our aesthetic selves.

AG: I like the idea that a de-neutralized technology is more in line with my aesthetic self. It seems softer, more human - not so hard and machine-like.

MO: I think soft computing, like e-textiles, adds an important new dimension to how humans think about, react [to], and interact with technology. From a more traditional aesthetic perspective, it expands people's interaction with technology. Personally, I am drawn to it because it is perverse - it is "other". What I mean is that it is not hard or fast, but rather a surreal transformation of what we have come to expect of computing technology. It allows for a much broader range of expression.

AG: When you say that soft computing is perverse, or "other", I automatically think of voluptuousness and women. Patricia Lather talks about the kind of voluptuous knowledge that goes out of bounds - just as soft female bodies and feminine experience resist the confines of hard male bodies and masculinity. Arguably, hard computing is more masculine in the sense that it reflects and represents scientific objectivity. Voluptuousness refers to the types of knowledge and experience that have traditionally been left out of those ways of describing the world.

MO: To me, the "perversity" of soft computing refers to its surreal and artistic roots. I am putting things in and on computers that aren't supposed to be there. I am making computing things out of materials that aren't supposed to be electronic. I am making people rethink their expectations of technology by creating a surreal version of it - the soft and fuzzy version.

AG: Yes, exactly. This version of computing resists the traditional confines - and, as you said, allows a broader range of expression.

MO: This gesture is also for me like the glass house: houses were supposed to be private, but the glass house made everyone rethink the house, by changing its materiality. The e-textile makes everyone rethink the materiality of technology. I pursue soft technology because it has also the capacity to be beautiful. I think this is an important aspect of being human - the pursuit of beauty. There is also beauty in the very electrical function of these textiles, how different structures and materials behave differently. For me they are sublime.

AG: The sublime stimulates our imaginations. It challenges us to think differently - perhaps even to think critically.

MO: Artists can use technology as social, critical tools - as a form of intervention. I see my own intervention as one of aesthetic transformation: one that tries to turn technology toward artistic or creative purposes. Making it into a soft textile makes it human scaled, accessible, humorous, and beautiful - it makes people rethink their conceptions of technology. If technology as a product and tool for production or efficiency is represented by the hard plastic computer and electronic device, then the soft, handmade e-textile computer might be able to represent a different, more aesthetic and personal side of the computer. For example, my two year old is obsessed with soft textiles and has used a variety of them as security items. It is enormously fetishistic: her favorite item is her "soft shirt", a piece of silk long underwear she carries everywhere, stroking it and rubbing it all over her body. This kind of intimacy with electricity is what textiles provide to computation. It can be fetishistic, fantastic, and intimate.

E-textiles can also provide new visual aesthetic possibilities, and [the means for] personal expression in fashion. This can provide either a more ergonomic result, or it can create something strange. E-textiles can offer a range of sensing for computers, depending on the electronics they are attached to. They can [be constructed to] sense touch, pressure, and motion. They can flex, bend, and heat in some cases. And with proper application they can sense heart rate, pulse, etc. On the other hand, they can also allow us to sense the computer differently: by virtue of their unique tactility they can allow us to experience technology as something fuzzy, soft, etc.

AG: Interesting. I'd like to talk more about how these different experiences of technology relate to our understanding of our selves and the relationships we have with each other and the world around us. What do the unique properties of electronic fashion afford?

MO: E-textiles and computation make meaning in fashion mutable, as well as spatially and temporally relational. Unlike traditional clothing, electronic fashion has the potential to allow us to change our identity at the push of a button. E-textiles allow us to manipulate data, and this can change the meaning of a human action, a gesture, or a word... E-textiles and electronic fashion can speak to places and people [directly from] our body.

We know that personal identity is expressed and shaped through fashion choices. If clothes can change and mutate, then identity can change faster than the change of an outfit. This can also allow us to more clearly express something about ourselves - like mood or achievement or status - and all on a moment-by-moment basis. Softer computing can also express a hidden or private piece of information, [as with] the Ambient Orb, [http://www.ambientdevices.com/cat/orb/orborder.html] which is reprogrammed by people to express personal information, like how many of the user's books are selling on Amazon.com.

AG: But one of the goals of ambient computing is to render the invisible visible, which can sometimes be problematic.

MO: Yes, there may be a contradiction between public expression in e-fashion and private information - and this could create an interesting dichotomy or tension. I would also like to point out that my goal is not to render the computer invisible - the goal is to make it visible. I would add that this is a distinction based on the different traditions from which "electronic fashion" and "ambient media" come. The ambient media movement - led by MIT's Hiroshi Ishii [http://tangible.media.mit.edu/people/hiroshi.php] - really comes out of the computer-human-interface tradition, which is very different from design traditions including art, product design, and fashion. I have had many discussions about the use of the word "invisible" with people in the ambient media movement. They see the word as referring to "blending in" with the environment, and they often have a romantic idea about natural materials, etc. But they are very concerned with design as well, and often their work is not as invisible as one expects. It is definitely a misunderstanding of my work if people believe I want to make technology invisible, more natural, or "nicer". But in my collaborations with people working in ambient media, I find that our work has similar goals focused on creating something new.

AG: Thanks for that clarification. In addition to personal expression and use, how do you see electronic fashion acting socially and culturally?

MO: Well, the ability of networked clothing to express a group identity or idea is a powerful possibility. [Something as simple as] a hat with a programmable [text display] that can be chosen by the user, or a neighbor, could have powerful effects in a public space.

AG: I assume that you are talking about their potential to bring people together. How might e-textiles and soft computing be used to mark difference or separate people?

MO: I'm not sure that they have any particular uniqueness in marking difference, other than their structural relationship to the body. People use all sorts of devices and fashions to express their difference, and e-textiles can broaden their ability to have different aesthetic expression. But I think you're hinting at something darker here. For example, I don't think of an exoskeleton as an e-textile, but e-textiles could play a role in exoskeletons, say, for obese people. In that case, the product goal might be to make obese people invisible or innocuous, to make them seem less different. But I think the goal of a product for people with a medical or physical condition that may be seen as "other" is much different than people choosing to express their difference through fashion.

AG: Good point. I was thinking that access - or lack thereof - could indicate and organize differences between people. And in my dystopian imagination I envision the technological equivalent of scarlet letters or yellow stars marking those members of society who are being punished or controlled. I also wonder what role the military has in funding so much e-textile research. It seems so opposed to the more artistic applications we've discussed so far.

MO: Well, I also do military research. Military research in wearable technology is both application driven, such as for soldier systems, and focused on fundamental technological and scientific research. My own work is on the fundamental technological and scientific understanding of e-textiles. Participating in this research lets me keep up with what is happening, stay technically current, and develop new e-textile capabilities. It enables my artistic work.

You may be surprised to know that there are a lot artistic people working on this type of research. When artists master computing technology they can transform it to create new types of technology that scientists might not. On the other side, there are incredible technologists who are also artists, and they too transform technology into something entirely new. All these people are hybrid people, working with hybrid technologies.

I also want to point out that the funding of e-textile wearable systems by the military is not necessarily as extensive as you think. Many of the programs lose funding before they are complete, or are never even funded to begin with. If the military were really funding wearables on a large scale, we would have seen a lot more development in products and new technology in the last few years. My guess is that if you compare military funding to industrial or business oriented funding of wearable systems and technology, the military funding comes up short. Business is driving the development of a lot of portable, wearable devices, and the medical industry will very soon be a major research and development player. Actually, artists and designers are already working with companies to improve and change their products. Whether they can redirect them into entire new areas of functionality is yet to be seen.

AG: All good points - and a good place to wrap up our discussion. Here's hoping that talented hybrid people continue to make voluptuous technologies. I'm convinced that we have much to gain, and I look forward to seeing where we go. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Maggie.

Anne Galloway is currently completing her PhD dissertation, Intimate and Playful Technologies: Ubiquitous Computing, Space, and Culture, at Carleton University in Ottawa. She keeps a research Weblog at www.plsj.org, and looks forward to the day her clothes start changing colour.

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