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 second part will future the questions from Deborah Hustic (Body Pixel) & Francesca Granata (Fashion Projects). We will continue with the questions from Syuzi Pakhchyan (Fashioning Tech), Simone de Waart (Material Sense). Stay tuned!
"The beneficial impact of this is the reduction of the carbon footprint incurred by the shipping of goods over long distances. This is a new way of rethinking the factory."
Francesca Granata: What are the implications and potentials of these new technologies for more sustainable practices of garment production?
Valérie Lamontagne: The answer to this question depends on where we situate “technologies.” “Wearable technology” and “sustainability” do not materially go hand in hand. Technologies such as electronics, though having the potential to be very beneficial to our well-being, create a great amount of toxic waste when discarded due to their use of heavy metals and limited reusability. To envision a future with seamlessly integrated electronics in textiles – which could not be subtracted in a process of re-or upcycling – has the potential to condemn textiles to nonrenewable materiality! And there are even very subtle ways in which adding “smart” technology to textiles can result in very environmentally destructive outcomes. For example, antibacterial fabrics have added silver, which leaches into the water when they’re washed. This is a very corrosive thing for the environment. So better practices in terms of eco-goals have to be in place before industry can go down the road of mass integration of “smart” textiles.
However, if we are to investigate how new technologies can contribute to new uses of natural and sustainable resources, we can envision a technology which is being used in a process as a means of enhancing natural material substrates, and this is very exciting. Another functionality of new technologies is the potential for modalities of production to become increasingly networked, hence distributed, and hence localized. The beneficial impact of this is the reduction of the carbon footprint incurred by the shipping of goods over long distances. This is a new way of rethinking the factory. Already, the localization of work and of teaching institutions is becoming increasingly distributed, with people working from home or taking advantage of e-learning possibilities. There is a potential for production practices to also become more localized and hence create technical expertise in new regions.
It should be mentioned that a number of organizations are contributing to the changing role of textile production on the manufacturing scale. The Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical (NICE) is both a conference and information hub; Textile Environment Design (TED) has a very hands-on approach to problem solving, sending researchers to third world countries’ textile manufacturers to educate and collaborate with them on environmental issues; and finally, sites such as Fashioning Tech and Ecouterre are making techno-eco-fashion so very cool!
"Anyone who has not experienced the humiliation of human conceit by the material world has missed a valuable lesson in material culture."
Deborah Hustic: Valerie, your approach has been set up from many perspectives: as a maker/designer, as a researcher and as a curator. Could you explain a bit how these perspectives intertwine?
Valérie Lamontagne: Aha! I’ve been found out. To be honest, I’m not always certain if this legacy of roles and positions in the field of art, design and technology simply makes me a jack-of-all-trades or somehow expands my horizons in different ways. I know from a personal perspective that I’m easily bored and enjoy being able to engage in art, science, fashion, theory from different angles, and I can speak to qualities of each one. My background is in art history and fine arts. At the start of my studies, I was fragmented as to which to pursue, so I did both, hoping one would win out (which it never did). One fundamental question, which remains, is how to speak of something if one has not materially engaged with that field – how do you talk about circuits if you’ve never made one, or fashion if you’ve never tried to sew your own garments? There is a knowledge in action which I value tremendously – the clashing of will with the material stubbornness of things. Anyone who has not experienced the humiliation of human conceit by the material world has missed a valuable lesson in material culture. All of the failures of plying the material into what we want it to be teach us a kind of respect and negotiation towards the material world. On the other hand, I always question how one can act intelligently (i.e., with the aim of contributing to a certain canon of aesthetic experiences) without some kind of road map of the history and theories around a practice. Hence, reading and writing have the added value of informing our future actions. Finally, curating is a very social endeavor. My first job out of undergraduate studies in fine arts, which made me unsuitable for almost any form of employment, was as an art critic. The art history, combined with a small magazine I had started at university, gave me an entry point into the world of art. It was and still is a great way to learn. Meeting artists and designers face to face (better than online!) and having the privilege to ask questions is something which I still value. I was never one of those artists who found herself so very interesting – I enjoy having heroes, muses and even tangible enemies! Curating is more than social, however; it is also a way of creating a visual and experiential argument. We are able to understand the artistic and designed world when we can witness its nuances side by side.
So essentially, I just rotate between these three axes: theory and writing; making; and curating – and each one feeds a different need and unique interest. I’d be hard pressed to choose one!
"I believe that we are going to move away from the kinds of engineering practices we know today (the metal age of engineering) and see computational and engineering merging with the biological world."
Deborah Hustic: Recently you presented a variety of projects from the field of biocouture at the V2_ Test_Lab. What excites you most in this area, considering the fact that the public might perceive bioart- and nanotechnology-related fields as not so approachable or affordable compared with other DIY fields?
Valérie Lamontagne: The works presented within the framework of Clothing without Cloth spanned a number of disciplines, which did touch upon how the biological and laboratory practices might, and do, inform future developments in the field of wearables. First of all, we wanted to take a sideways glance at what technology is and to consider the different temporal and physical incursions of the technical in wearables production. The two presentations which are most related to biocouture are those of Emily Crane and Carole Collet (who, as it turned out, was an external advisor for Emily’s fashion MA at Kingston University London). To answer the first question, what excites me most about biocouture is the way in which it has the potential to merge the synthetic and organic worlds. I believe that we are going to move away from the kinds of engineering practices we know today (the metal age of engineering) and see computational and engineering merging with the biological world. Already, DNA computing is being experimented with, so why should we stop at metals if there are other, perhaps more environmentally sustainable ways of making circuits? We know the limits of that material (metals are not particularly eco-friendly and are hard to reuse, rigid and difficult to integrate in, for example, textiles), and there are many good reasons to look at other substrates, which, especially for textiles, hold solid arguments. The work coming out of Textile Futures is all about this kind of speculation, looking at biomimicry and different design models for the implementation of “smart” technologies in second skins.
To answer your second question in terms of the accessibility of bio- and nanotechnologies, one only has to look back less than a century to find the same criticism of engineering practices. Of course, now the field of electrical engineering has been democratized (especially in the field of art and design) through the combined efforts of academic institutions (MIT pioneered the Fabrication Laboratory, or Fab Lab, which is now proliferating across the world to render technologies more accessible) and industry (we can now send out a render file and have it printed as a circuit as easily as printing photos) and the networked distribution of knowledge (don’t know how to make something? Likely someone has posted the info online!). So who’s to say that the bioart and nanotechnologies of our very near future will not borrow from this example? What I really enjoy about Emily Crane’s Micro-Nutrient Couture is the blatant accessibility of the materials (all cooking and food byproducts) and laboratory (a kitchen with the regular cooking implements of eggbeaters, trays, freezers, spatulas, etc.). It is so very accessible! And the viability of how revolutionary these experiments might be is seen in how, for example, The Fat Duck’s head pastry chef, Jocky, and manager, Stefan Cosser, exchanged information with Emily to develop an edible tablecloth! In fact, I see bio and nano as being democratized very quickly!
"...I am not per se interested in stage-based, dance or other forms of technological translation of human movement as performative. I am, however, really interested in how the body moves, acts, interacts and engages with technology and especially with technologically enhanced garments."
Deborah Hustic: How would you describe the use of wearables in a performative context? Of course, taking into account interactive design, motion-capturing systems, Arduino, open source…
Valérie Lamontagne: What I’m interested in terms of performance in relation to wearables is how a technical object (such as a garment) overlaps with the body. I consider these two entities, one human and one nonhuman, to have equal agencies, which converge to make a wearable. So just to clarify, I am not per se interested in stage-based, dance or other forms of technological translation of human movement as performative. I am, however, really interested in how the body moves, acts, interacts and engages with technology and especially with technologically enhanced garments. A simple example could be the costumes in Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet and how, though not signal-based, they alluded to the technical and transformed how the performers moved.
Also, the word “performance,” the way I use it, looks at the full spectrum of influence, from linguistics (Saussure and Austin) and the sociological (Turner and Goffman) to science, technology and society (Knorr Cetina, Pickering). I am interested in how the performative in the social and scientific sphere has an impact: i.e., how do we perform our identity? How do we perform “with” science? How does the material world “perform”? So, my perspective is quite adventurous, and perhaps I need to finish my Ph.D. dissertation (on that very topic) to fully explain this position.
"...Hence the lineup, which featured no integrated electronics – this was not by accident!"
Deborah Hustic: Has fashion learned something from the geek DIY scene in the last few years? For years, we all looked at the work of Hussein Chalayan (who did a remarkable thing in pioneering tech in high fashion), but now it seems like the scene has opened up more into different research possibilities. What do you think?
Valérie Lamontagne: Interestingly enough, one of our first ideas for the V2_ Test_Lab Clothing without Cloth was to invite Moritz Waldemeyer, the technical brain behind many of Hussein’s interactive garments. This proved to be a bit difficult, since Moritz does not in fact own the designs made for Chalayan and does not have firsthand access to them. We could have invited Moritz to do a PowerPoint presentation, but we really wanted to see the real thing, the real wearable, since this is the premise of the Test_Lab. Then the event took a different turn, and we began to look at other ways in which technology was impacting the field of fashion, which may or may not involve the integration of electronics into garments but may be more related to the production processes. Hence the lineup, which featured no integrated electronics – this was not by accident! So I think it’s an interesting moment in wearables, because we’re gaining access to new forms of production technologies which are transforming the landscape of fashion, textiles and technology. What’s more, many of these new modalities of production are putting designers and artists in relation to technologists and small-scale production venues in new ways. It’s a bit like the desktop revolution, except it’s a pliable-world revolution (Rachel Armstrong)!
to be continued...