How to Present Wearables to an Audience
Second E-Textile Workspace, November 26 2009, focused on the complexity of presenting wearables in sensible way to a broad audience.
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Main topics and structure of the session
The second E-Textile workspace session took place on November 26 at the V2_Lab. In the first part of the workspace a short introduction to V2_Lab’s current research in wearable technology, by project manager Piem Wirtz, welcomed the participants. The introduction featured a small tour of the working space, and a brief explanation of Intimacy, a project that V2_Lab has been developing over the past five months in collaboration with Studio Roosegaarde and fashion designer Maartje Dijkstra. While visiting the Lab space, participants could have a look at both the design of the first prototype dress, and at the innovative material used in the project.
A consistent part of the Workspace was dedicated to the demonstration of participants’ own wearable projects. In fact, invited once again to bring their own projects for hands-on work, some of the participants held a brief demonstration for their colleagues. The informal short demos featured current work by Meg Grant, Melissa Coleman, Anja Hertenberger and Marina Toeters (see photo documentation).
The workspace was then concluded by a debate focused on the complexity of presenting wearables in sensible way to a broad audience, a topic that had been touched already in the first pilot session. The following questions were the kick-off for the debate and were touched upon throughout the discussion:
- For whom is the experience? For the wearer, the audience or both?
- How to effectively convey to the audience the experiential, relational and participatory aspect of a wearable project?
- How to put the focus on the conceptual and technological innovation of a wearable project, and not only on its technological aspects?
- Presenting wearables: on the catwalk, in the ‘white cube’ or in the aRt&D lab/institution?
- What are the current ‘trends’ in presenting wearables? What definition of wearables do they (un)consciously put forward?
- 'Please don't touch' VS. 'please touch (and interact)': can wearables fit into the traditional art museum, where the art object is 'sacralised' and offered to the audience for pure contemplation?
The complexity of presenting wearables to a broad audience
For whom is the experience that we aim to present? Is it for a single individual? Or is it for a group of people? Who is the target of the presentation: a large, general audience? Or is it a public of experts familiar with technological research? How to keep things open and accessible for a broad audience that can include both?
Participants pointed out several new questions and practical examples throughout the debate, further proving the complexity of discussing and finding effective strategies for display of wearable projects. These questions and examples remarked that a standard strategy of display is nearly impossible to apply to all wearable projects, and that traditional exhibition modes often fall short when presenting wearables (the museum setting, the White Cube of a gallery space, or a dance performance, for instance). In fact, wearables feature several specific aspects that make them a complex exhibition matter for public displays.
While most visual artefacts are somehow ‘made’ for public fruition (for example a painting, a sculpture or an interactive media installation), the fruition of a wearable project is, most of the time, a very personal and intimate act, built around a single viewer/wearer (or a small group), and around the act of wearing – by definition an intimate and personal experience. Moreover, multiple layers of meaning inform most wearable art projects: the artistic concept, technological research and craftsmanship all play an important role for building up both the final ‘object’ that shall be displayed, and the meaning that shall be conveyed to audiences.
These different layers – the technology, the craftsmanship and the concept – will emerge in different ways in a presentation setting according to the curatorial decisions and artist’s choices, but also depending on the type of audience that is experiencing the viewing/wearing. In fact, a public of experts in the wearable field will certainly focus on different aspects, and perceive the technology in a different way then a general audience composed by non-experts. With the latter, it might even turn out that unveiling the technology that makes a project function ruins the ‘magic’ and uncanny atmosphere of a viewing/wearing experience – as it would happen if theatrical tricks get revealed to us while we are watching a performance on stage!
Finding answers (and new questions) through examples
Charlie, a project recently developed by Melissa Coleman and demonstrated during this session of the E-Textile workspace, is a good example of the complexity of presenting wearables to a wide audience, as the participants pointed out. The project – a Burberry trench coat that can read punch cards and make stories audible to the wearer – can be fully experienced only individually, by having one person at the time wearing the coat, listening to the stories and trying out the technology. This builds a very intimate and personal experience for the wearer/viewer, which cannot be effectively and fully conveyed by any other means then by letting the audience try Charlie on, one at a time. Moreover, the coat is beautifully crafted and the technology embedded into the garment is the result of a longer research process – two layers that are definitely worth showing in an exhibition setting.
Meg Grant’s demo further proved this complexity. In Meg’s project, the technology is embedded into the garment with a beautiful finishing and the textile is carefully crafted. Nonetheless, these details are only visible to the wearer that opens the garment and tries it on. How to expose them to the attention of the audience, together with both the technological research and the interesting concept behind the project?
In Daan Roosegaarde’s Intimacy, on the other hand, a lot of attention is focused on technological research, as the participants remarked: the concept of the project is shaped around the innovative smart foil researched by the artist and by the exploration of its possibilities. The very specific context in which Studio Roosegaarde aims to place the project, the fashion world, also determines the way Intimacy will be presented to the public and the interaction scenario with the audience – in fact, the project was presented on a catwalk and demonstrated by a professional model.
Another good case-study, mentioned by the participants, is the exhibition ‘The Art of Fashion’ in the Boijmans Museum (Rotterdam), which featured several wearable works by internationally renowned designers, presented in a traditional art museum setting. In this example, the focus of the exhibition was clearly the finishing and the technique of the textiles, and the craftsmanship of the designers. Even the garments that featured technology were presented in the tradition of the ‘please-do-not-touch’ art museum setting, and only a video would show the functioning of these technologies to the public.
How to show the concept, the craftsmanship and the technology at work in a wearable project, then?
How to effectively communicate the meaning while showing the beauty of the object in a presentation setting? How to exhibit a personal experience of wearing within a public display? How to present all the layers that inform a wearable project, and what to focus on when planning a presentation setting? Answers and solutions vary depending on the type of project and on the context in which it is created (is art, fashion or design?), on the context in which the artist/designer aims to place the work (is it a fashion show, a museum or an aRt&D demo?) and on the target audience of the presentation (is it an audience composed by experts, by non experts or is it a mixed, broad audience?). The different layers – the concept, the artists’ craftsmanship and the technological research – will emerge in different proportions, and be more or less highlighted, depending on these variables.
Demo vs. performance
Two quite common ways of presenting wearables to audiences are demonstrations in an aRt&D context, and performances. Dance performances in particular often feature wearable technology. In both cases the technology is shown while ‘at work’ – and yet there is a quite substantial difference in the message that is conveyed to the audience and in the layer that emerges with more strength in each of these presentation modes. As participants noted, there is a shift in focus from highlighting the concept of the wearable project itself and its functioning – in the case of a demonstration – to using the technology and the wearable as a tool for something else, in the case of a performance. In the latter, in fact, audiences can certainly see the wearable and its technology ‘at work’, but cannot fully experience it. Most attention is drawn towards the performers and the concept of the performance itself, making the wearable almost secondary and functional to a choreography and/or story.
Complex technologies vs. complex concepts
An interesting point that got raised by the debate, and that influences the presentation strategy of a wearable project, is the decision – by the artist or by the curator – on how much attention has to be directed to the functioning of the technology embedded in a wearable project. This can implicitly decide if the focus of a presentation is on the concept and artistic research behind a project, or if the main focus is to ‘make things work’ in the best possible way. In an artistic context, the perfectly smooth functioning of a technology is very important, but not fundamental nor the main point. As one of the participants pointed out, a good story behind the project and good documentation about the artistic process is, most of the times, the main ‘attention catcher’ for the audience, and is central to the success of a project and its presentation. In a design and high-tech research context more attention will be certainly devoted to the effective working of complex technologies rather then on artistic concepts on how to use them.
Fashion looking at wearables – wearables looking at fashion?
To conclude the debate, a few points were raised on the future directions that wearable technology might take: art, research or design? From soft interfaces to high-tech fashion garments, a whole range of possibilities is open for the identity of e-textiles and their future use. Currently, the contexts in which e-textiles are used are as varied: from special high-tech sportswear to fashion, to art projects. As a participant remarked, the fashion world will probably start to look more closely at what is happening within the research on wearable technology and high-tech textiles, in order to find new refreshing inspirations and new creative material for the fashion industry.
- Piem Wirtz
- Melissa Coleman
- Marina Toeters
- Anja Hertenberger
- Meg Grant
- Nicky Assman
- Ivana Hilj
- Dorith Sjardijn