Cool and Trendy: New Materialism

by Anneke Smelik

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In case you think that cultural
theory and academic thought are behind the times, think again. For a few years
we have been teaching theories and concepts within the framework of ‘new materialism’ at the Department of Cultural
Studies, and guess what? This autumn the famous trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort announced a new trend for the next
year, in fact for the next decade: NEW MATERIALISM.

In capital letters.

Her trend forecasting skills show that
we academics are quite trendy and ahead of times.

What does new
materialism entail? For Edelkoort it involves a return to the materiality of
fabrics and craftsmanship in fashion design: “We are in an age of new
materialism, the making of materials comes first before form, colour, function”.
However, as cultural theorists we think new materialism goes much further than that. At the
heart of it all is ‘matter’. New materialism takes seriously the notion that objects,
art, fashion, even people, are made out of matter. Materiality thus refers to
quite different ‘things’: the designer’s and the wearer’s body, the garment, as
well as the fiber and fabric.

Matter ‘matters’, because
it has a certain force and agency. In other words, matter is not inert but vibrant, as Jane Bennett claims. New materialism looks
at how material powers affect our daily lives. Such a
perspective is productive for the study of art, fashion and culture, because it helps understand
cultural objects as active and meaningful actors in the world.

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This is even more
important because of the pivotal role of technology today. Take the phenomenon
of ‘wearable technology’, as in the designs of Pauline van Dongen and Iris van Herpen. Clothes usually hang on the body, moving
along with it. But technologies, like solar cells, LED lights, 3D printing, or
electronics, enable the garments to move autonomously irrespective of the
wearer. As Kaori O’Connor aptly remarks: ‘Man-made fibres are not inert, they
have been created to do’ (2005, p.
53). Clothes then take on a life of their own, acquiring non-human agency, entangled with the human body. The
notion of material agency highlights the fact that the technologies establish
interaction between the garments and
the body, between human and non-human entities. Material agency, in other
words, is not located exclusively in the technology, or in the human body, but
in an assemblage of wearer, fashion, and technology.

The body, clothes, and
technologies: all of these things are made up of vibrant matter that ‘act’ and
‘do’. They do so in interactive and interdependent ways; together they become ‘creative entanglements’, as Tim Ingold calls it. To fully
understand the complexity of new materialism means to take into account not
merely the materiality of fabrics, as Lidewij Edelkoort suggests, but equally
the materiality of the humans that design and wear them. New materialism thus points
to a dynamic notion of life in which human bodies, fabrics, objects and
technologies are inextricably entangled.

Cybercouture: twitteren met je trui

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Door Anneke Smelik

Zou het niet geweldig zijn als je stroom kan
opwekken met je colbertje? Je mobiel kan opladen in de achterzak van je
spijkerbroek? Of kan twitteren met je trui? 

‘Draagbare
technologie’ is de nieuwe mode. Mode-ontwerpers en wetenschappers verwerken elektronica,
vitaminen, microprocessoren, zonnepanelen, LEDs, of interactieve interfaces in kleding.
De toepassing van zulke ‘slimme materialen’ in modeontwerp staan aan de basis
van wat ik ‘cybercouture’ noem. Dat klinkt misschien als toekomstmuziek, maar in
Nederland wordt hier al volop mee geëxperimenteerd. Kunstenaars en ontwerpers, zoals
Pauline van Dongen, Iris van Herpen, Bart Hess, Daan Roosegaarde, Marina
Toeters en Anouk Wipprecht, vormen de avant-garde in het internationale veld
van cybercouture. Toch zien we de cybercouture nog niet terug in de mode op
straat. ‘Wearables’ (zoals draagbare technologie in vaktermen heet) komen
zelden verder dan het laboratorium of de catwalk en blijven te veel hangen in
de sfeer van ‘gadgets’ en ‘gimmicks’.

Daarom zijn we vorig jaar aan
de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, samen met de Technische Universiteit
Eindhoven en de modeacademie ArtEZ in Arnhem, een interdisciplinair
onderzoeksproject gestart, ‘Crafting Wearables’, waarin mode, technologie,
industrie, en wetenschappelijk onderzoek samenwerken. We willen wearables
ontwerpen die duurzaam, modieus én commercieel haalbaar zijn. Een ‘nerdy’
outfit mag dan wel een technologisch hoogstandje zijn, maar het moet je ook
goed staan en lekker zitten. En het moet iets toevoegen aan de volle klerenkast
en de vele technologische apparaten die je al hebt. Zou het niet ideaal zijn
als mijn favoriete spijkerjasje op festivals tegelijkertijd als telefoonoplader
dient of als mijn trui warmte afgeeft wanneer het aan het eind van de dag
frisser wordt?

In cybercouture
versmelten het lichaam, de kleding en de technologie. Die intense en intieme
verbondenheid tussen mens en technologie doet iets met onze identiteit. Daarom roept
cybercouture ook filosofische vragen op: word ik me door het t-shirt dat mijn
bloeddruk in de gaten houdt niet ineens veel bewuster van mijn lichaam? Wat
doet het met mijn vriendschappen als mijn jurk mijn emoties weerspiegelt zonder
dat ik ze hoef uit te spreken? Wearables creëren een weefsel van complexe en
mobiele relaties tussen de mens en haar lichaam, technologie, en samenleving.
Zo helpt cybercouture om die relaties te verdiepen, veranderen en
tegelijkertijd kritisch te bevragen.

Image ‘Iris van Herpen’ by Zack Balbino via  https://www.flickr.com/photos/94329551@N07/8832556696 under Creative Commons

What if wearable tech were truly wearable?

By Lianne Toussaint

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“Smart clothes are hot,” stated the Een Vandaag news item last October. According to the television programme, a revolution is taking place in the fashion industry. However, as Anneke Smelik noted in a previous post on this blog, wearable technology is not something that many of us are actually wearing. The question is: why would we?

Currently on show at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam is the exhibition ‘The Future of Fashion is Now’ (until January 18, 2015), which includes several designs that can be described as wearable technology: the famous laser-beam hat by Hussein Chalayan, the cell phone charging ‘Solar Dress’ by Pauline van Dongen and sound-activated clothing by Ying Gao. These projects are displayed in the museum for a reason: they are visually stunning, technically complex, highly artistic and all raise question as to what fashion is and could be. Yet, although fascinating in its own right, this is not the kind of fashion that you and me would be able to buy and wear. The one-off pieces are but prototypes of a future yet to come and designed to be looked at, rather than worn. Recent developments, however, indicate that wearable tech is on the verge of a breakthrough in a more mundane context as well.

Last December, the collaborative project ‘Zorgzame Bedrijfskleding’ (‘Careful Corporate Clothing’) was presented during a health care conference in Rotterdam. The projected resulted in a collection of sustainable and supportive garments for nurses, including some designs with a posture sensor, gas sensor and antibacterial coating. The posture sensor helps healthcare employees – who often perform physically heavy work – to be more aware of how they use their bodies and prevent any overburden, while the gas sensor can warn them of any harmful gases. Another inspiring example is the ‘Mesopic / Light Jacket’ that Pauline van Dongen developed in collaboration with Philips Research. The jacket contains several LED ribbons that increase the wearer’s visibility and safety in a dark environment. The light strips have been integrated in such a subtle way, that the jacket has a desirable and fashionable look during the day, as well as an aesthetically pleasing functionality during night-time.

Projects like ‘Zorgzame Bedrijfskleding’ and ‘Mesopic’ indicate that the field of wearable technology is rapidly maturing. These examples imagine a time at which technology and fashion have will truly have become one: a time at which clothing will protect, support and care for us, in addition to being a form of expression and adornment. Yet, even if technology will help fashion to become a form of intimate caretaking rather than conspicuous consumption, the key to a proper revolution in the fashion industry is the wearer. Ultimately, if our future clothes will actively nurture, support and soothe us, how shall we treat them in return?

– Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution: LED Dress by Hussein Chalayan in collaboration with Swarovski, Autumn/Winter 2007, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LED_dress_by_Hussein_Chalayan.jpg

Cybercouture: emotional jeans or a twittering sweater

By Anneke Smelik 

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could generate electricity with your jacket? Or load your mobile in the pocket of your jeans? Or wear a sweater that can send a tweet?

‘Wearable technology’ is the new trend in fashion. To create ‘wearables’ (as they are called), fashion designers and scientists wire complex systems of microprocessors, motors, sensors, solar panels, (O)LEDs or interactive interfaces into the fabric, textile or clothes. Designers experiment with these ‘smart materials’ to create thrilling examples such as a dress that connects you to twitter, a catsuit that visualises your emotions, jeans that change colour or measure your vital functions. This is what I call ‘cybercouture’. Interestingly, Dutch artists and designers like Pauline Van Dongen, Iris Van Herpen, Bart Hess, Daan Roosegaarde, Marina Toeters, and Anouk Wipprecht form the vanguard in the international field of cybercouture. It may all sound like the far future, but it is actually already happening – that is, in the lab or on the catwalk. But wearables hardly appear on the streets or in the shops. While the future of wearable technology has been announced time and again, the praxis lags behind.

The question then is how can we get beyond the stage of mere gadgets and gimmicks. At the Radboud University Nijmegen, together with the Technical University of Eindhoven, and the fashion academy ArtEZ in Arnhem, and six private partners, we have started an interdisciplinary research project, Crafting Wearables, to advance wearable technology to the next stage. The research project is funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and brings together people from fashion design, technology, industry, museums and universities. The goal is to develop ‘wearables’ that are robust, fashionable and commercially viable. A nerdy outfit may be technologically cool, but it should also make you look pretty, be easy to wash or comfortable to wear. Moreover, it should add something fundamental and functional to your full wardrobe and the many technological devices that you already own.

As the body of the wearer becomes some kind of interface, there are also some philosophical implications of cybercouture. We have now entered an age in which we use technology with the idea that we can control, improve and enhance both our lives and our own bodies. Technology is one of the major factors in affecting our identity and changing the relation to our own body, and wearable technology even more so because of its closeness to the body. By wearing it directly on our bodies we relate intimately to technical objects and materials, further blurring the boundaries between body and technology. Integrating technology into our clothes will therefore have an impact on how we experience our bodies and our selves. For example, will the t-shirt that monitors my blood pressure make me more aware – or even self-conscious – of my body? How will it affect my friendships if my dress reflects my emotions without me having to express them? It is certain that cybercouture offers an encounter between fashion and technology, opening up to a future world where garments are merged with human skin, body and identity. The research program Crafting Wearables allows the Department of Cultural Studies to explore how wearable technology creates a web of new, complex and dynamic relations between the human being and her body, technology, and society.

=> For information on the research programme, see: http://www.craftingwearables.com/

=> You can download Anneke Smelik’s chapter ‘Draagbare technologie: cybercouture en technomode’ from the book Ik cyborg (in Dutch): http://www.wearable.nl/e-fashion/gratis-download-hoofdstuk-over-wearable-technology-uit-ik-cyborg/

Image credits: Kate Perry CuteCircuit Catsuit for E.T. Live at the American Idol 2011 . Photos by katy-perry.net via: http://cutecircuit.com/media/