pulp fashion | wearable archi[ves]tectures

Essay by Susan Kozel and Thecla Schiphorst about whisper (2002).

[fabricating | datamining the whisper project]

wearable | handheld | intimate | secret | personal | expectant | response | system
wireless | heuristic | invisible | sensory | private | environmental | reproducing | system

networked | datamining | machine learning | archiving |
remote sensing | telepathy | physical response| invisible | desire
installation | performance| mapping | unearthing | dynamic database


This essay explores the conceptual, technological and physical processes of the whisper-project. whisper is a major collaborative art research project based on engineering small wearable devices and handheld technologies resulting in a participatory installation.

whisper is a [wearable, handheld, intimate, sensory, personal, expressive, responsive] system which constructs networked messages based on inferred states of carrier bodies - the hosts for small wearable devices. whispers are wearable body architectures.This essay elucidates the creative and collaborative processes which include collective first person methodologies, and our version of the 'sewing circle'; the phenomenon of the participatory installation as an emergent non-hierarchical performative form; the aesthetic of whispers which emerge directly from handworked fabrication of the materials: (sensors, circuits, electronics embedded in latex, silicon, rubber, and the body) in a play across the opaque, translucent, transparent; and reconfiguration of attitudes toward the body which allow for our corporeal selves to be seen as fluid, networked and dynamic systems with concealed information to be unearthed and mapped onto linked and networked devices.whisper appropriates the attention, breath, brainwaves, heartbeat and affective qualities of a community of participants, rewriting them as shared signals on the network, archived and reconstructed. Data flows are generated, represented and archived in intimate connection with the bodies that produce and alter them.

The concept of 'pulp fashion' is a metaphor for the impermanence of physical states. We borrow from Maurice Merleau-Ponty's concept of the invisible and pulp of the sensible. whisper 'pulps the sensible', defrocking the habitual, shredding our non-physical rationality and 'nips and tucks' at the subtleties of our bodies. As devices are designed to link our breath and gesture, pulp fashion also becomes a source of 'inspiration'. whisper devices intimate the invisible as tactile and kinesthetic. Flesh is the connective tissue spanning the organic and the inorganic.


"Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are encrusted into its flesh; they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body". (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1961:163)

whisper is a participatory installation based on small wearable devices and handheld technologies. whisper[s] are wearable body architectures. whisper constructs networked messages based on inferred states of carrier bodies - the hosts for small wearable devices. whisper takes place in an installation space and on the web. It generates and represents data flows in intimate connection with the bodies that produce and alter them, building a dynamic persistant data structure, a living learning archive of body and system state. whisper builds upon physical practices such as dance improvisation, and manifests cultural and scientific theories of embodiment.

In its research + development phase, whisper aims to unearth physical data patterns of the body, mapping that data onto linked and networked devices worn close to the surface of the skin. Collections of wearable devices will be networked together, between bodies, or traversing a single body. A range of physiologically based input signals will be explored: breath, pulse, brainwave patterns, electrical energy, and temperature. whisper appropriates the attention, breath, and heartbeat of a community of participants, rewriting them as shared signals on the network. whisper extrapolates from the body onto the larger collection of networked bodies: effectively a performance piece in a social space.

Both the input and output components are worn close to the skin, on clothing, around the neck, wrist, or ankles, like jewelry, attached to a piercing, next to the heart, or on one's sleeve. Through the use of small motors and sensors, the components can output vibrations, temperature changes, sound, light, color, miniature texts & images, even low-bandwidth video displays. Basic analogue devices will be used alongside more sophisticated components (including biofeedback - or brainwave - sensors). A wearer may configure their plugout device(s) to vibrate, tickle, or sigh when it receives data associated with a particular pattern set. Maximum configurability is accomplished by 'plugging in' components, by mixing and matching functions within this modular system.

whisper plays in an ironic way with domains of influence, visibility, and the shifting threshold between the tangible and intangible through the 'carriers' threshold of perception. whisper shifts our attention to this mobile threshold and introduces concepts of future memory as a function of mapping previous states and extrapolating them into present interactions. Future memory is represented within a dynamic living semantic data archive. As the whisper system evolves over time, it will be able to re-visit its past decisions, in the light of current intentions, and recover past potentials obscured by the initial instantiation of behavior at that time. Not everything can be known at the point of its initial enactment; the past is incomplete and the whispers can revisit and reconstruct past views as it progresses. The past is not replaced, it is augmented and restructured as the system perception grows. And the rediscovery of the past propagates into the future and the system's anticipated behaviors. Intention is constructed, communicated and functions to direct and apply whispered messages which range between direct and subliminal, suggestive and overt, seductive and definitive. Emerging behaviors are created and based on sharing sense-based communications between bodies that emanate their softly voiced messages within a space. The distributed network shares layers of messages within the future memory: deconstructing the notion of archive to 'shapeshift' temporal representation to include a representation of future (and past) as a function of present.

The overall aesthetic of whisper emerges through work with materials. Explicitly stated: The aesthetic of this project is generated by process and practice. We deliberately avoid conventional wearable aesthetics, such as cyberpunk or the current sports accessory look. Our aesthetic comes from designing for invisible connections. It is emergent and ambiguous, almost a 'reconstructed feminine', but with hard edges; it is a juxtaposition of what seems like the 'soft organic' with the 'soft & hard inorganic'. The look and feel emerges from our materials: latex, silicon, rubber, paper, circuits, wires and exposed sensors. Colours include: amber, white, clear, milky, some black and pink. The transparent, translucent and the opaque converge with skin.

"I cannot deny a taste for the overlaid and the incised: translucency as well as total transparency". (Hawley, 1998:169).

Skin is the richest source of inspiration: marked, mapped, extended, exposed, nurtured and celebrated. Ultimately, our devices will be fetish items, things people will desire to take home with them to relive their experience of whisper.

"My flesh and that of the world therefore involve clear zones, clearings, about which pivot their opaque zones, and the primary visibility". (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:148)

Research & devising [fabricating] process

The research+development fabrication process for whisper is based around the simultaneous creation of hardware, software, movement, and textural, material vocabularies. This process simultaneously and consciously refines and develops iteratively in relationship to itself. This reflexive turn is fostered through physical acts, motivations, fabrications and processes. We are committed to social design, performance design, and technical design through materializing the whisper project. We craft collective first person methodologies as processes and strategies for collaboration across scientists, technologists and artists.

The 'first person' of these methodologies comes into play through emphasis on design that is intimately connected to the body. Like phenomenology, collective first person methodologies are based primarily upon physical experience, but emphasis is shifted to the collective rather than the individual unit. Each stage of the research period is linked to exploration in the (movement + electronic) studio. Physical improvisation techniques determine emergent movement vocabularies and inform the design process. The process is not simply to import pre-fabricated devices into the studio. All materials and devices are tested physically so that the body knowledge and the hardware/software design occur simultaneously. The creative development of the wearable devices is an embodied and performative process.

We call our process the sewing circle. Generally attributed to groups of women, domesticity and textiles, the term is associated with 19th century social and creative processes. This term is employed in the interests of rehabilitating a largely dismissed creative activity. The implied message is of shaping and building an artifact according to an inherently social and collective design process. Like the members of sewing circles and other creative collectives, we are building our own vocabularies, physical techniques and methodologies. We are also committed to working with textiles and mapping the skills of knitting and stitching onto device design. Our sewing circle may stitch latex and knit with rubber, but we will also wire our bodies into wearable devices and physically improvise fabricate and engineer in the studio.

"The effort to create apertures became much more deliberate, and the pathways of both heat and light emerged as an essential component rather than as the result of applied aesthetics." (Hawley, 1998:173)

The whisper design process iterates across physicalisation, conceptualisation, device construction, and software development. These are no longer first generation wearables which were basically 'one-liners' (strap them on and get the point immediately). The whisper devices awaken in us the knowledge that we dwell in/with/through our bodies, and with dwelling comes a commitment to building relationships. Learning any physical technique is a process of building relationships between our centres of gravity, visual perception, kinaesthetic perception, muscle tension, and communication with others. We become liminal beings as our layers of subtle body knowledge reconfigure with any new technique, orchestrating the internal with the external until these distinctions dissolve.

"movement that touches and movement that is touched". (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:148)

Pulp fashion

The concept of 'pulp fashion' is a metaphor for the impermanence of physical states, and as such, is for us vastly innovative and seductive. To fashion is to engineer, create, to sew, to ergonomically render, through a process of nips, tucks, slices and stitches. Enough has been written about commericalization and commodification of the fashion object (and more can always be heard about fettishization). The opulent is fundamentally not about cost but about sensuality. Fashion is the painstaking crafting of the changeable, or the ephemeral. Our bodies are ever changing fields: chemico-perceptual shifts, mood swings, neuro-physical peaks and valleys, kineto-tactile data feeds. Stasis is a myth. We can hardly keep up with ourselves. The suggestion that we are a nexus of information flows is accurate, but only partial. We are these, but we are flesh at the same time. Flesh is not the 'meat' of cyber-lore. Flesh slips through and smothers the tired dualities of mind/body, consciousness/meat. We exist in a network of flesh.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's enigmatic understanding of flesh encompasses bodies, organic and inorganic objects and what used to be known as space.

"... the flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term 'element,' in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire ...". (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:148)

Flesh contains within its very fabric the connection we feel with the environment, the perceptual play of light and shadow, our embodied selves and the bodies of others. It is impossible to understand our flesh as it enters into an exchange with the whisper devices without the related phenomena of the invisible and the hidden. The goal, when accessing the invisible (or 'subtle') is not simply to bring it to the surface so that it becomes visible, just as the point of whisper is not to de-frock the subtle but rather to work in an ambiguous territory, within the realm of the physically and semantically tentative. This approaches the state between waking and sleeping, allowing oneself to remain in that state to witness one's own participation in an alternate flow of activity. A rendering 'literal' of deeper body knowledge would be a simple translation into language and would strip it of its essence. The whispering between devices based around the pluggable/unpluggable and reconfigurable inputs and outputs, give us the choice of acknowledging the invisible while retaining its hidden, or subtle, qualities. Merleau-Ponty again gives shape to the subtle through his consideration of the invisible.

"the invisible is

  1. what is not actually visible, but could be (hidden or inactual aspects of the thing - hidden things, situated 'elsewhere' - 'Here' and 'elsewhere')
  2. what, relative to the visible, could nevertheless not be seen as a thing (the existentials of the visible, its dimensions, its non-figurative framework)
  3. what exists only as tactile or kinaesthetically, etc ...".
(Merleau-Ponty, 1964:148)

Participatory installation

The space of the installation can best be described as a networked ecosystem containing input and output devices. Up to 12 participants may move and browse in and out of the space with access to a set of devices which may sewn into a jacket, cape, hang from the grid above, or may be lying on the floor waiting to be picked up. Sound is generated on the body and is affected by the networked data as it begins to be transmitted. The devices will resemble a cross between cyber-jewellery, exquisite art objects, creepy prosthetics, peculiarly ornate theatrical costumes and body sculpture; they will be a weave of analog and digital components and circuitry. Participants visiting the space enter a community of bodies and objects, which have a functionality that is not yet manifest. They will be invited to take their place within this ecosystem.

Instead of situating the participants within the flow of a pre-scripted event, they will be involved in a conceptual, physical, aural and visual journey that unfolds according to their participation as a body, as a system. Their responses will drive the experience, and encourage the development of other senses within our synaesthetic matrix of sensory perception and proprioception. It is for this reason that we have coined the term 'participatory installation' to describe form of whisper. Merleau-Ponty has described "a being by porosity" wherein our bodies and the distances between ourselves and others "participate in one and the same corporeity or visibility in general" (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:148).

Emanating relationships

Interaction in whisper is based on creating and emanating relationships through subtle exchanges between the small devices. Each whisper device emanates their state to the other whisper devices that are within range. The receiving whisper perceives and incorporates the state space of the other(s). The state of the whisper device is a direct function of the body that wears it, along with the memory and future memory. Emanation is abstract but perceptible, it implies a sender (source; originator) and a receiver (of the abstract and perceptible thing), and suggests outgoing and incoming signals.

Each device has a whisper device-state, and the collection of devices defines the current global whispers system-state. Device states emanate from or are whispered to other devices within proximity of the range of influence. whisper devices also 'perceive' these emanations based on their current state, and alter their own state, based on incoming perceptions. whisper device states are learned and emerge from living on a specific body, and begin to represent that body. The whisper devices also remember past bodies and states, and these past lives influence their behavior. These states form the basis for the persistent database archive.

The device is a gadget, tool, apparatus, mechanism, appliance, gear, invention, analytic tool, metaphor and literary technique; the device is gendered, an extension of the self, an interface, prosthetic and fetish object. It is an object of industrial design. The design of the device incorporates dominant cultural narrative within its functional and aesthetic properties including the displacement of taboo and desire; the device is a network object, a browser, a search engine, a system and theatre, the device is thought, is telepathy, is our own body.

Our body as system creates a metaphor for the operating model of whisper. Our bodies are composed of multiple networked systems, which communicate autonomically to and with each other. So do the devices in whisper. Our bodies are shaped with multiple thresholds that operate in stealth at one moment, overtly at the next moment. These thresholds lie at the liminal boundary of our perception. Our bodies are fluid, networked, and dynamic. Our bodies have secrets, contain multiple intelligences, conceal information in unlikely places, and develop strategies for the expression of current and archived states. So do the devices of whisper. Our bodies surrender things to one another. Our bodies learn, habituate and unlearn by applying directed attention. So does whisper. Any one of our bodies is a 'we'. When our bodies are together they can operate as an 'I'. So can the devices in whisper.

The whisper system consists of a group of interconnected, autonomous wearable sensor | actuator collections combined with a local processing module which gathers the data from multiple sensors and whispers to it's neighbors, and a central whisper server, via low-power radio frequency (RF) transceivers. The server, database and micro-controller systems together determine the response to the actuators. They provide feedback in the form of sound, graphics and tactile feedback devices that are worn on the body, along with the sensors. The whisper central server also visualizes and displays a dynamic representation of the system-state both on the web, and projected onto a series of heterogeneous projections displayed within the installation space.

Future memory

In whisper, the concept of future memory is represented through the dynamic visualization of its own system state within a living semantic data archive. whisper maintains and displays a dynamic representation of its memories, the computational equivalent of precognition, electronically augmented telepathy. The whisper devices and participants, through their behaviors anticipate potential future behaviors and state. The state flows from the past to the future; the intentions are always dynamic, as velocities and accelerations of behavior. The distributed network shares layers of messages within future memory: deconstructing the notion of archive to 'shapeshift' temporal representation. This includes a representation of future (and past) as a function of present.

As the whisper system evolves over time, it will be able to re-visit its past decisions, in the light of current intentions, and recover past potentials obscured by the initial instantiation of behavior at that time. Not everything can be known at the point of its initial enactment; the past is incomplete and the whispers can revisit and reconstruct past views as it progresses.

The past is not replaced, it is augmented and restructured as the system perception grows. And the rediscovery of the past propagates into the future and the system's anticipated behaviors.

In whisper, communication is characterized by its context: whispers can be qualified (in contrast to quantified). Qualified communication deals with intent: gesture, tone, pitch, repetition, redundancies: are all qualified elements of communication because they provide context.

Unearthing | anarchiving

whisper is a foray into the cultural study of telepathy and of mapping techniques: impressions are transferred invisibly, mediated both through body and technology. The research process explores invisible datastreams as wireless networks and suggests, both playfully and literally, that telepathy is the ultimate wireless network. whisper builds wearables for the telepathically impaired: as 'aware-able' devices, they make bring to awareness functions of embodiment and perception that were previously ignored.

The concept of mapping as a dynamic unearthing knowledge is critical to the design of this research and is related to the 'aware-able' device. Mapping is a technique that can help to reveal or define underlying patterns of processes and information. Mapping offers a new view on an idea, a process, an event, an object or a place. Maps provide a means of visualization that might unearth patterns within one of these views. Mapping is a discovery: it may reveal new knowledge within an area thought previously to be known, or it may help in the acquisition of knowledge or experience of what is not known. Rediscovery within known areas is often achieved by combining views which might, at first seem irrelevant to each other, like mapping processes that are not normally regarded as important. This research will map data signals from collected and networked bodies, using sensors that collect physiological data. This reflects the awareness that our bodies are subtly evolving maps of our identities and our lives. whisper excavates the invisible, is a search for lost things.


whisper is a collaborative co-production with th eRotterdam Production House: V2_ and the Rotterdamse Schouwburg (Rotterdam City Theatre). The project includes a range of skills and competencies from movement and performance and physical design, hardware and electronic design, to software engineering and programming, physical space design, data architecture design, sound design, industrial design, and mathematical visualization. The whisper team of collaborators include: Thecla Schiphorst, Susan Kozel, Andruid Kerne, Kristina Anderson, Julie Tolmie, Norm Jaffe, Diana Burgoyne, and Sang Mah. The V2_ co-production collaborators include Anne Nigten, Stock, Erik Kemperman, Stephan Drescher, and Ruben de la Rive Box.


Hawley, Christine. 1998. Invisible Lines, in The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice, ed. F. Hughes. MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1961/1985. Eye and Mind, in The Primacy of Perception, ed. J.M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964/1987. The Visible and the Invisible, ed. C. Lefort. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

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