This paper concerns two dominant but oppositional agendas at work in wearable technology research and practices today. One of these conceives of wearables in terms of display and functionality—products are worn by subjects that intelligent systems sense and manipulate. This approach, which bears the stamp of its origins in military research, has been more recently advanced under rubrics like “Smart Clothes,” “Responsive Clothes,” “Computational Garments,” and “Fashionable Technologies.” “Smart Clothes,” etc., explore innovative marketing concepts and coordinate with invasive regimes of control societies based on the speculative reach of digitized global capitalism. Examples include Scentsory Design’s aromatherapy clothing, Philips Technology’s mood-activated luminous dresses, and a wide range of other innovative applications based on sensing and piezoelectric technologies, such as Yoel Fink’s acoustic and color-changing fabrics which can be used to monitor autonomic body functions. So-called smart wearables, however beneficial their intent, advance a notion of subjectivity in step with neoliberal agendas.
By contrast, the second viewpoint, put into experimental practice in design institutes and by independent practitioners around the globe, might be classed as “tactical dressing.” This work is structured as time-based events, in line with Paolo Virno’s notion of virtuosity: works created are performative (ephemeral) rather than prototypical (productive in a market context). They use digital technologies’ potential to amplify already perennial capabilities of dress to solidify social sectors and roles, signal cultural/ideological positions to others in a larger community, and demonstrate the irruption of ubiquitous technologies in our lives. In doing so, they execute actions or “dress acts”—an extrapolation of Searle’s (and Deleuze’s) notion of “speech acts.” Examples include Komalski & Weiser’s sonic Echo Coats, Berzowska’s electronically malfunctioning Skorpion dresses, and Nascimento & Martins’ microblogging Rambler sneakers.
The paper considers the questions: 1) what are the ideological differences, and what might be the relations, between “smart” and “tactical” approaches to wearable technology? and 2) what is at stake —in other words, how important is wearable technology, anyway? What is the real potential for wearables as performative acts—dress acts—in a world where communal space (the traditional context for dress) is increasingly fictionalized, factionalized, and virtualized?
- Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Ph.D., Professor of Art History at Louisiana State University, USA, and Fellow of the LSU Center for Computational Technology (CCT). She teaches contemporary and new media art history and has helped found an interdisciplinary Art/Engineering undergraduate minor at LSU entitled AVATAR. With Patrick Lichty, she curated Social Fabrics, an exhibition sponsored by the Leonardo Educational Forum, for the College Art Association, Dallas 2008 (http://www.socialfabrics.org/). She has lectured internationally on dress and creative technology, and contributed articles to Leonardo and the online journal Intelligent Agent. She is currently writing a book on wearable technology art. artistory.us