Curious Corner, June 2011
Our second guest for the Curious Corner is Valérie Lamontagne, the Canadian digital media artist-designer, theorist and curator researching techno-artistic frameworks that combine human/nonhuman agencies. At the end of her 4 months stage to do research for her PhD “Performativity, Materiality and Laboratory Practices in Artistic Wearables” at V2_, she curated one of the most interesting Test_Labs. On the occasion of this event, the Test_Lab: Clothing without Cloth, we've invited our online audience/designers/artists to send their comments and questions they would like Valérie Lamontagne to answer. The first part will future the questions from Evelyn Lebis & Melissa Coleman. We will continue with the questions from Francesca Granata (Fashion Projects), Syuzi Pakhchyan (Fashioning Tech), Deborah Hustic (Body Pixel), Simone de Waart (Material Sense). Stay tuned!
"When organic/synthetic materials become clothing, become aware, active, changeable, and are entwined in our own set of senses, we may indeed discover that we have extended our sensorial capacities!"
Evelyn Lebis: Why do we create clothing without cloth? Are we trying to protect ourselves more efficiently? Is it an attempt to open up the limits of tactility?
Valérie Lamontagne: The concept of the V2_ Test_Lab’s Clothing without Cloth event came from a kind of frustration with finding the “perfect” or most advanced wearable technology. Instead of looking for a work or designer who, for example, had the garment with the most advanced integration of technology (such as LEDs), we decided to explore materialities in wearables from different research and production angles and perspectives, such as industrial design, fashion, textiles, and speculative and environmental design. So, in fact, the event was not so much about a “clothing without cloth” – a future of nongarments – but was more posed as a questioning as to what the new cloth substrates of the near and distant future will be and how we might reconceptualize and rematerialize certain practices related to fashion and technology.
Though a lot of research in wearables and clothing has touched upon “safety” and issues around protection – for example, from suits designed to travel in cars, planes, and space rockets to military clothing, firemen’s protection and, increasingly, distance monitoring for those in need of surveillance (the sick and the elderly) – I do not believe this next wave of research is about efficiency only. I see the works being showcased in Clothing without Cloth as being much more concerned with aesthetics, the quality of experience (Grado Zero Espace), the harnessing of organic materialities (Emily Crane and Carole Collet), the opening up of new design and fashion production possibilities (Pauline van Dongen and Freedom of Creation) and addressing the overlap between traditional and innovative practices from a political and ecological point of view (Christien Meindertsma). How and if this will ultimately translate clothing into a “new tactility” or a kind of porous second skin remains to be seen. When organic/synthetic materials become clothing, become aware, active, changeable, and are entwined in our own set of senses, we may indeed discover that we have extended our sensorial capacities!
"In a way, we have “tamed” technology – we’ve invited it into our homes, our governments, our bodies – and we can no longer live in opposition to it."
Melissa Coleman: What questions do new materials raise?
Valérie Lamontagne: This is an exciting moment in wearables and in technology in general. This V2_ Test_Lab, Clothing without Cloth, addresses two main themes in terms of wearables: 1) our relationship with “technology” and 2) the potential of various materials to play into changing our relationship with the technological. Let me address the first point: our relationship with the technological world is, on a simple scale, becoming increasingly intimate. Technology is no longer considered as “alien” to the lived world. In a way, we have “tamed” technology – we’ve invited it into our homes, our governments, our bodies – and we can no longer live in opposition to it. Bruno Latour has written extensively about this artificial divide of human and nonhumans as being a modernist trope, a conceit and illusion which never really existed.
The second point is a rethinking of materialities, and it relates back to the first. If there was a time when we could divide what was technical and nontechnical, what was organic and synthetic in the material world (and this certainly applies to textiles today) – we are increasingly seeing an entanglement of materials, a cross-pollination of various substrates, and the idea that there are distinct or autonomous categories when it comes to materiality is increasingly difficult to substantiate. What is being brought up in the discourse of an event such as Clothing without Cloth is not only new materials per se but a new ontology of where to situate the material world in relation to the human world.
"Though we may often, from the media side of things, preach for environmentally friendly and nonexploitive production practices, we don’t necessarily oppose literally “buying” into them when it comes to our pocketbooks. We are, at best, highly schizophrenic in our consumer habits."
Melissa Coleman: Are there societal needs for organic or synthetic production methods, or is this simply a way for designers to push the limits of our perception of clothing?
Valérie Lamontagne: I believe that there are urgent societal arguments for rethinking our use and production modalities of textiles, be they organic or synthetic. Obviously, we are looking at a future where both organic and synthetic materials will coexist; however, the societal “need” basis for the production of certain materials (notably synthetics) has to be closely considered and monitored. The first and likely most referenced concern is a looming ecological crisis, which is a solid argument against petroleum-based textiles. A second is the ways in which fashion is an exceptionally materially wasteful industry, with tons of discarded textiles and clothes often thrown directly into the rubbish. We can no longer, as a society, tolerate waste on such a grand scale. And a final concern, which I think should also be part of the conversation, is how the human factor involved in the production of textiles plays into the societal “bigger” picture. Factory workers’ daily practices also need to be rethought, and this will surely impact the kinds of materials we need! I.e., if we “need” them, at what environmental and human cost do we really need them?
As for perception, for now, organic and gentler uses of materials are still a niche industry. Though we may often, from the media side of things, preach for environmentally friendly and nonexploitive production practices, we don’t necessarily oppose literally “buying” into them when it comes to our pocketbooks. We are, at best, highly schizophrenic in our consumer habits. However, the perception of what it means to wear organic/fair trade/humanitarian clothes is something which can be harnessed for a greater good. Sites such as Ecouterre have daily examples of new and innovative ways of creating eco-conscious fashion from re- and upcycled materials, local fabrication and gentler production practices on an environmental level, which makes this shift both more alluring and accessible.
What is inspiring at this moment is that questions in the textile industry and fashion are being raised, even if a critical stance on this eco-/environmental shift towards new (gentler, better for the planet and workers) production practices is perceived as a passing fashion. I believe this shift can only have beneficial outcomes. There is a wonderful introduction by Tom Wolfe in sociologist René König’s book À la Mode: On the Social Psychology of Fashion, where he writes about the influence of “black” fashion in America in the late 1960s and the “cool” factor that came with it. Wolf’s conclusions are that the fashion cachet of the “cool” African-Americans of the ’60s directly propelled a shift in black politics and economies. Of course, one could argue that it is a chicken-and--egg kind of situation, where the social terrain prompted this change. However, it is a change which happened from the outside in, from perception to action. Wolfe cites the specific example of the Black Panthers – a political activist group of the late ’60s that recognizably dressed in black pants, leather jackets and berets – as a fashion which became highly emulated by other socioeconomic classes. This rise in perceptual popularity, in the “cool” factor of the Black Panthers, created an actual change in society, resulting in a more positive integration of African-Americans in society due to their rise in social status.
Thus, a proactive reading of how to better improve, from an environmental and social stance, the textiles industries is to simply change the perception of textiles. The more we know about processes and fabrication impacts, both environmental and social, the more we will be swayed to reconsider our “needs.” In this way, perceptual change will engender a material change.
"... envision a future when the making of objects will become akin to other forms of printing (i.e., photos, books, etc.), thus reducing the carbon footprint of international shipping."
Melissa Coleman: How do these new production methods differ from conventional production methods, and what is their potential sociocultural impact?
Valérie Lamontagne: The new production methods proposed in the V2_ Test_Lab Clothing without Cloth highlight technical innovation as well as a global production shift. The “global” textile and fashion economy shifted production from the West to the East very quickly and in a very radical way in the late 20th century. What this has meant is that textile and fashion practices being taught in Europe and North America are dependent on systems which are socially, technically and to a certain extent (though not completely) economically divorced from their origins. Simply put, conventional production methods are done at a distance, at a low cost and with an alarming disregard for environmental and social impact. Where do we go from here?
What many of the projects in Clothing without Cloth suggest, as an underlying thread, is that we take back these production methods and better them in some way. If “we” are to critique foreign exploitive production practices (and flat-out render them illegal in “our” homeland), we need to come up with a better solution. For example, and this is a very speculative project, Emily Crane questions with her Micro-Nutrient Couture what might happen if we had zero resources. She proposes that we use what is at hand and turn our kitchens and food – everyday, functional labs and materials – into garments, suggesting that we may want to look, literally, closer to home for solutions. Christien Meindertsma has an equally localized approach to materiality and to production practices. By harnessing the potential of a local (Dutch) herd of sheep to make a series of custom sweaters, she explores how a kind of one-mile-diet or slow-food philosophy can be applied to textile and fashion processes. In the case of her One Sheep Sweater project, the uniqueness of the original base material (wool) is highlighted in the use of exactly one sheep per sweater, impacting on the size of the final garment. What’s more, the quality of the wool rests on the health and well-being of the sheep, which are apparent in the final product through variegated textures and tensile strength. She interfaces this material with the most highly advanced knitting technology, 3D knitting done at the local Tilburg textile museum, to propel the raw and local material into a fully industrialized product. Finally, Freedom of Creation who also collaborated with Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen on her 3D-printed Morphogenesis shoes, propose that production methods should become increasingly networked and thus localized. They envision a future when the making of objects will become akin to other forms of printing (i.e., photos, books, etc.), thus reducing the carbon footprint of international shipping.
Ultimately, the sociocultural impacts of these new production methods rest on a) better working conditions, b) better use of local materials and technologies and c) an increased networked fabrication wherein the “factory” becomes a dispersed site of production.
to be continued...