The field of wearables is still relatively new and incredibly
broad, and the many contexts in which they are used/created are very diverse,
ranging from art projects and fashion shows to design and commercial products.
Thus, while the defining terminology abounds – called portables, e-textiles,
smart textiles, fashionable technology, soft circuits – a standard
definition that connects all the facets and current uses of wearables is
An example: can an I-Phone be considered a wearable, too? Small,
thin and portable, I-Phones are often worn by users as pieces of
clothing/fashion accessories and multimedia platforms, rather then being
used only as a phone, an mp3 music player or a web browser. Why it is not a
wearable, then? What aspects of an I-Phone do not match with the defining
characteristics of wearables?
Building a Definiton
During the Workspace, the participants tried to start building a
definition by narrowing the field and looking for those aspects that are
recurrent in wearable projects. Softness, flexibility, the use of
textile and interactivity were listed as the defining
characteristics of wearables. Nonetheless, a definition that works only in
terms of materiality and technique appeared limiting and somehow incomplete. In
fact, the different purposes for which artists/developers use certain
technologies and materials – and the multiple ways in which they are applied to
different artistic concepts – affect the definition of wearable and infuse
every project with a different meaning.
Art, Research or Design?
Moreover, any definition of wearables we could eventually put
forward, is influenced by the context in which each project is created and
presented. These contexts are very diverse: sometimes created and presented as
art, often as functional technologies developed by commercial Labs, and too
often as fashion design, wearables cannot be easily circumscribed to neither of
these fields and often cross more
then one in the process of their making. Most of the times, e-textile 2009 is
both art, research and design.
Why art and not only fashion, given the fundamental role
of textile, clothing and accessories in wearable projects? Because wearing,
in the context of e-textiles, always means also sharing – wearables create social relations
between people/with the audience that never evolve in predictable ways. In
fact, every projects sets a series of 'rules' for interaction and
interpretation – nonetheless the audience, by interacting with the wearable,
makes these rules their own and thus affects and shapes the final message of
every project. This results into projects that embody multiple layers of
meaning and relational dynamics: similarly to conceptual art projects, the
interpretation of meaning and communication are never pre-determined, immediate
Why art but also research and design? A wearable project always
includes testing and, very often, the development of new technological
solutions in order to make a concept work: this requires both the collaboration
with other researchers, ARt&D Labs and commercial producers of new
technologies. Starting a project
means searching for information in a variety of fields – from programming, to
fashion design, to textile design, to tech blogs on the internet.
Role of Labs
The research and development of new wearable technologies often
comes out from very different places, both from commercially oriented labs and
from ARt&D labs such as V2_. Sometimes, commercial Labs can make their
latest technological findings available to artists, that will then infuse these
functional tools with new meaning and change their identity of products into
something more meaningful.
The ARt&D lab, such as V2_Lab, for example, shares this complex
identity, by combining as well research, design and art, and is thus a
particularly suitable 'environment' where to work with/on wearables, and push
the research and discussion forward. While developing and testing new
technologies – as much as the means allow – the ARt&D lab aims at sharing
knowledge on these same technologies and at searching for novel ways to look at
reality through them. Technological innovation is not the ultimate goal, but a
mean towards the creation of new meaning and innovative artistic concepts.
The role of the ARt&D labs is thus to bridge the gap between
research, access to technology and artistic freedom: new tools and solutions
'that work' are developed and made accessible to artists while respecting their
artistic independence and not having the final aim of a commercial product.
Especially for artists working with wearables, the existence of such places is
very important, as projects often require collaboration with experts in
different fields, access to technologies that are not easy to find on your own,
the testing of prototypes and finding funding.
The problem of keeping artistic concepts and experimentation free
from commercial pressures, is one of the reasons that makes an ARt&D lab such as V2_ poorly
interested in collaborating on a regular basis with commercial labs, in order
to get samples of new technologies and materials to be tested and used for
projects – even if this would seem an easy solution to have the
state-of-the-art in wearable technology more accessible.
Presentation of a Wearable Work
Presenting wearables to a
broad audience is currently a complex issue, reflecting the lack of a standard
definition for the field. Nonetheless, analysing how wearables are perceived by
the public and presented to wide audiences, might offer useful points for a
definition. The popularity of the term 'fashionable technology' and the many fashion
exhibitions that feature wearable projects somehow prove that wearables are
often way too easily labelled as a branch of fashion design. Exhibiting
wearable projects should also try to show and transmit to the public the
multiple layers of meaning they can create/embody, and the relational dynamics
they establish among audiences – which makes them more complex to present then
a fashion show or a new design product.
In conclusion, trying to put a definition of wearables out
there too soon – for example, in this first session – could eventually bring
clarity, but can also make experimentation less free and narrow it within
certain 'borders'. A less vague
statement on wearables, that might help people read the work that is produced
in this realm, is likely to emerge throughout the sessions of this E-Textile
In the same way as electronic music, in its beginning, was a
confused field that included the most diverse expressions and experiments (from
commercial dance music to the more avantgarde experimentation), projects of all
kinds end up under the same 'umbrella' of wearables. Nonetheless, clearer
definitions will eventually emerge in the wearable community throughout time,
as it happened with music, where a sub-division in genres spontaneously brought
clarity over time.
- Piem Wirtz
- Melissa Coleman
- Anja Hertenberger
- Meg Grant
- Nicky Assman
- Ivana Hilj
Resources and further references that participants shared
during this first session:
- http://softwear.cc/ is a book compiled by researchers of the
University of Malmo, that explains the basics on wearables.
- http://www.kobakant.at/DIY/ is an
extensive database compiled by Kobakant, who tested several materials and components for their wearable projects and share this information on their
- Joseph L. Dvorak Bringing wearables into the
mainstream: Taming the Borg
The next session will take place on Thursday November 26, 2009, with a presentation on muscle wire.