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intelligent fabrics, organic attire

jemima kemp: coded cloth, samstag museum, adelaide


 Fibre Reactive (2004-08), Donna Franklin, Coded Cloth Fibre Reactive (2004-08), Donna Franklin, Coded Cloth
photo Mick Bradley
ROBERT COOK’S MELANCHOLIC MUSING ON THE PASSING OF THE ONCE BRIGHT CYBORG FUTURE (RT61) TRIGGERED MY OWN. AT A CERTAIN MOMENT A CYBORG TRANSFORMATION SEEMED INEVITABLE. SECURE IN OUR SLEEK, IMPENETRABLE SKINS WE WERE TO BE HYBRID, MUTABLE AND INVINCIBLE—HARDWARE TO THE CORE.

Amongst the beautiful but resolutely soft and human objects of Coded Cloth at the Samstag Museum, it’s apparent that we’ve abandoned this dream of glossy exteriors for ones pervious and porous, acknowledging the permeability of skin and cloth. Clothing, always intimately coded with social meaning, continues to offer itself as the interface, the second skin, between body and world. More flexible and adaptable, these skins in Coded Cloth are for weaving code into, transmitting, embedding and wiring.

And so the cyborg has been stripped down through the development of what started variously as installation art, game theory, design, computing, engineering, textile work and science of every description into wearable computing, locative media, bio art, cyborg tech, bio-tech, portable platforms and social networking, dispersed into tags, locators and nodes—pliable, conformable to our bodies and brushing up against our skin.

Coming out of ANAT’s reSkin 2007 wearable computing lab [RT78], Coded Cloth exhibits diverse objects that initially, aside from their material base, seem unconnected. There are few embedded devices here and the connectivity is unwired. The show is, in fact, a sampler of the huge web of intersecting transdisciplinary fields of enquiry around bio art, wearable computing, intelligent textiles and so on and on. What these objects share are operational logics and particular modes of use that extend beyond the interaction of individual and object. The coding here is not necessarily in the weave of the cloth.

Elliat Rich’s Yala Sofa (2008) is made of simple plywood forms. The Yala flowers are invisible until the heat of a seated body makes them bloom—the upholstery is richly printed with thermo-reactive ink. Gathering the Yala, a type of sweet potato, is a communal event for the Pintupi people of the Western Desert that symbolises the connections between people coming together for an action as simple as drinking tea. Even without this knowledge, the flower’s blossoming in the body’s heat suggests a trace of habitation and an intimate event.

Alice Springs-based Rich creates objects and spaces around which events can occur and social practices be sustained. Her Urban Billy (2006) is a self-contained glass billy can that makes a tea event possible anywhere. Rich’s utilitarian objects focus on the spaces and connections created in social moments. In their creation of memory maps and ephemeral traces, her works are themselves a kind of locative media.

Woven of 50% cassette tape, Alyce Santoro’s 2008 Sonic Sails (The Tell-Tail Thankgas) are coded at many levels. The Texas-based artist integrates an almost obsolete technology into the very fabric, doubling the coding with a personally significant sound collage. As the sails lift and shimmer the collage of samples on the tape are played with a tape head decoder producing a densely layered sound tapestry.

In the making of her Sonic Fabric Santoro activates networks keeping skills and tools alive, from the rescue of a specialised loom to cloth production by Tibetan women. Like Rich’s practice, sustainability here goes beyond material choice and connectivity is achieved via eloquent objects.

High Tea with Mrs Woo is a cult Newcastle clothing label with a distinct, almost Edwardian fashion aesthetic. Hidden (2007) is a modified coat dress for the intrepid female, equipped with invisible pocket warmers to enable the wearer to travel light and warm. There’s a touch of steam punk about Hidden, both in the style and in the expressed love of design, innovation and over-engineering. Unlike other wearable computing where integrated devices embed the wearer into the network, Hidden is a very self contained, private kind of wearable connecting only to the body of the wearer. Creating a closed loop, Hidden hints at the hermetic world of the traveller and historical ideas of the properly feminine—stitched down and hidden from view.

Fibre Reactive (2004-08), by Perth-based Donna Franklin, is a simple organza evening dress that provides the base for a tactile skin grown out of the orange bracket fungus. Its unusual elegance overlays a subtle and sophisticated examination of the bio-technological manipulation of living things. Wearing it is a complex act that places the wearer in the position of guardian of this fragile living thing and creates a relationship of equivalence between both lives, questioning, through our relationship with clothing, the commodification of and disposability with which we treat nature.

All of the works in Coded Cloth mine and are part of rich fields of enquiry that are fluid, overlapping and driven by experimentation. Clearly, in the video clip of the ReSkin lab, the participants were having serious fun, yet that sense of productive play hasn’t translated here, due largely to a traditional installation. Located in a dimmed room with spotlit objects on plinths and polite “Please do not sit” signs, Coded Cloth presented as very serious indeed. The show isn’t really about the objects but about their potential in connection with the body. However, interactivity here is limited to just one square each of the Sonic and Yala fabrics. A less reverential presentation might have made for a more engaging experience with what is fascinating work.

Writing about why technology hasn’t democratised the blogosphere, academic Saskia Sassen argues that it’s not the internal logic of the technology that matters but the social logic of the users (Networked Publics Symposium, California, 2006). That social logic changes and subverts the inbuilt logic of the technology. It’s not the wires or the technology but the unwired invisible logic embedded in our brains that counts. Understanding this, the artists of Coded Cloth seamlessly harness and connect internal and external worlds through our second skins.


Coded Cloth, New Media Textiles, curator Melinda Rackham, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Oct 30-Dec 19, 2008

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 29

© Jemima Kemp; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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