Verslag Fleshing Out
— Technologie die dicht op de huid zit.
Fleshing Out: Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials and Living Fabrics, 10-11-2006 Workgroup ‘Grow Your Own’ with: Tobie Kerridge, Ionat Zurr and Suzanne LeeMonika Auch, Josie Steed, Michel van Agteren, Parv Tincuta, Lina Kusaite, Caryn Simonson, Alexander Schmetz, Anton van Dellen, Nicolo Giacomello and Howard Boland
Mash up or mix up?
Following their introduction, it became clear that the Fleshing Out speakers are drawn from all kinds of disciplines, from textile and fashion designers to autonomous artists, to scientists working with biotechnology or conducting materials research. Most of the practitioners are also working across disciplines and professions.
The group began with an unscheduled discussion of these different disciplines, and Symbiotica as a collaborative environment. Ionat Zurr noted that practitioners should maintain a critical approach towards other disciplines, such as the military field where a lot of research is done in the development of smart textiles and biotechnology.
Artists as developers
Alexander Schmetz from the Technical University Delft, noted that growing skin and bacteria into fabrics is not new. The TU Delft is already doing experiments with concrete that can heal itself with the help of bacteria, and in ‘growing’ buildings. Though architecture is an applied art, there are similar processes, the same framework and the same issues between artists and scientists in this field. Alexander asked: what can we do with it? He thought that artists could be used in development, creating new ideas for the use of materials discovered or made by scientists.
Ionat Zurr felt this to be a very limited view about art; art is more than just being creative and thinking of innovative things. It is about creating a social debate, which is what she is trying to do with her projects. Others in the group agreed, adding that this is especially true for the borders of the new hybrid forms. A vital function of art is to criticise innovation and promote thinking critically about whether and if so, why we would need such innovations. By doing so, artists create a richer debate. Artists have their own discourse and so have the scientists. If the same ideas and methods are accepted by more disciplines, they become stronger - so be critical and suggest different options. If there is a product, what can we do with this and who is going to use it?
When art & science collide
Alexander found what his university is doing also almost artistic, because they invent new things, such as a new material, and start playing with it, looking for new possibilities to use it. Lina Kusaite noted that when art and technology intermingle, the different disciplines mostly don't know each other very well and most of the time there is a prejudiced image about how artists work by scientists and vice versa.
Tobie acknowledged that it is not about the programs, but more about power; what the roles should be and how the hierarchy is established between the different disciplines. Ionat noted that sometimes research should just be left as research and artists should be open to this new working field, but should also be free to go any way they want with this new field — though she conceded that it doesn't always work like this. It is she - an artist — who is teaching scientists about Symbiotica. The arts and sciences are not the same, and their differences should be respected, otherwise you create bad scientists and bad artists.
The fate of outcomes
Monika Auch noted that we shouldn't keep re-inventing the wheel, and that there is already a book on this subject written after a symposium about crafts in the USA. It's good to team people up, but let them be themselves in the process of collaboration. Tobie agreed that this discussion is not new, but added that we should think about how we are going to structure the outcomes. What is done with the innovation artefacts, with the discussion, and what is the outcome? Where will it go? In a Journal? A gallery? The media?
Monika agreed: we are beyond the point that we should match things, but the question is what should be matched? What's the usefulness, how is it going to be marketed, and how is it going to be presented? Funders don't even know that we are here - this discussion might as well be being held on another planet. Suzanne agreed that it is important to look at the role of the funders, because they push for outcomes and suggest what the project should be about.
Is it art — or thesis?
Tobie said it is important to think about how collaborations are being formed and what the outcomes will be, because the process is determined by its outcome. Should it be art or should it be a thesis? Ionat noted that MIT is oriented towards industry, and collaboration with this institute will form itself to that. Monika thought this too extreme a view; you don't have to agree with everything, but you do have to be able to present yourself and communicate within any collaboration.
Alexander noted that outcomes are not always affected by commercial goals in collaboration with industry, and illustrated this point with the example of Dow, one of the world’s largest plastic makers, that sponsored a project at TU Delft. They were asked to make memory shaped plastic, which could form a chair by itself. Dow knew that it would not yield anything immediately profitable, but was happy that it might become something interesting they can use later.
We all have to make a living, agreed Ionat. She just wanted to point out the hypocrisy and that we be aware of it at least. Suzanne acknowledged that there should be contracts between funders and artists as to how the outcome is going to be used and for what. In any collaboration, each party thinks it is ethical correct, said Ionat, but they have different ideas of what ‘being right’ actually is.
After lunch, this 'Grow Your Own’ group separated into smaller groups of 4-5 people. The goal of the workgroups is to understand more about what the (un)successful factors are in a collaboration between disciplines. There should be a brainstorm session at the start of any collaboration project to pose questions like: what does this project have to be to get done? What project do we have in the group and which one do we think is best? There should be a ‘gossip session’ to explore potential discomfort and conflict within the project. This has to be written down, since such critical points can be useful in future for people who are going to be in similar collaboration processes - something also interesting for the Virtueel Platform to address.
My group consists of Suzanne Lee, Anton van Dellen (a design technology student from the HKU), Lina Kusaite who works for FOAM (an institute for art and technology based in Brussels), Monika Auch (member of the board of Dutch designer organisation BNO, who also has a medical degree), and myself. Suzanne said a bit more about her BioCouture project, then we started to formulate ideas for a project proposal.
Critical attitudes to the living
Lina said she asks herself: 'Why are we doing that?' when seeing Tobie’s BioJewellery and Suzanne’s BioCouture projects. Maybe now is a good time to ask why? Lina’s idea is to criticise the fact that we don't utilize animals completely when we kill them. She used to collect the claws of crabs and let her father make necklaces from them. But then she thought: what if this idea was marketable and became a commercial success — would we be killing crabs just for their claws? Are we missing the point of criticism when we are selling it? Do we create more danger for animals or do we actually help them, and where is the border between those two? Is using dead things causing harm to living things?
The group decided to share all our questions and ideas, then try to blend these into a single big idea. Anton had an idea about clothes (working with bacteria) that eat themselves, so that you won't have to throw them away. Monika wants to devote more attention to the reason behind collaborations. Art and science working together as a mere gimmick is not good, it should be used to address environmental problems. We should put all our effort and intelligence into something useful while we are making these collaborations and think about giving back something to the environment.
Synthesis of ideas
Suzanne's wants to attract more attention to sustainability of materials and the environmental threats of the textile industry today with her BioCouture project in which she is making new fabric out of bacteria and sugared tea. I didn't have an idea for a project but noted that all four ideas seem to have similarities. Lina's is about communication and ethics, Anton and Suzanne's ideas are about sustainable design, and Monika's desire to use collaborations in a critical and useful way can all be put together in one project. The question is in what order the ideas should be addressed in the process of this project.
Starting with a dress that eats itself, incorporating bacteria that eat CO2 and therefore produce cleaner air, approaches the idea of Anton and the notion of Monika that the project should give something back to nature. It also goes beyond ‘sustainability’ because it is not about creating a textile/garment, but about destroying it. It is also about communication and Anne Galloway’s idea of ‘ethical aesthetics’ or ‘aesthetical ethics’. Do we want to make something pretty while we are criticising the contemporary throw-away culture, consumerism and the temporary textile industry, or is the final product coincidentally a beautiful product of our critique?
Fetishists for product testing
After the brainstorming, the smaller groups came back together to discuss the different outcomes. Tobie’s group (Alexander, Caryn, Michel and Nicolo) came up with different ideas for creating fetish wear and swimwear, both making use of the behaviour of skin tissue. Specifically, the self-healing capability of tissue — for example, how you can make thicker skin at the elbow, when you are hurt. Via biomimicry, how about a stiletto shoe that can adjust to the surface it is walking on? The group considered letting people with a fetish for swimwear test new products, to create a relationship with its users. For the wet wear, embedded tissues control or become controllers. The intelligent tissues need neurons and have to live in a moist environment, so that is why swimwear is a good starting point.
Ionat's group (Josie, Parv and Howard) has come up with a living garment. They too want to use cells for growing another skin, or maybe a crash helmet from your own skull that will exactly fit. They also thought of the practical problems; that you need a sterile environment and nutrition for the cells. The group came up with the idea to maybe feed it with your own blood and grow a thicker skin. An advantage of bio bacteria is that you can dry it out and then re-hydrate it, so you can put it in a hibernating stasis until you need it again.
Live and let die
The issue of living and dying is an important one in all of the projects. You have to take care of your garment, bacteria die easily. Ethics and sustainability seem to be important keywords in all the projects too.
We then returned to the topic of the outcomes. There is a difference between the thinkable and do-able. We can imagine, but can we produce? How do we bring it into practice? How you innovate is also political. The group agrees that it is possible and desirable to combine ideas and make them happen at one site, but while some of the outcomes are going to be produced, some will only create a deeper understanding of an issue or idea. The brainstorm continued by discussing spray on clothes, with nutrition that makes it organically disappear. You become a living, walking cosmos. We found so many similarities between the projects that we decided to curtail the chit-chat and try to put all the ideas together.
The grand synthesis
The group project is then called Second Skin and is mostly about living, interacting and disappearing materials. Keywords that summarise the project included: living, ecosystem, copying natural systems, magnetic attraction, infection (it would be nice if clothes could infect or change each other), self-healing, memory, cross fertilization (brushing each others shoulders would create new garments).
Responsibility was another keyword, along with maintenance, adaptation, selfish clothes, breathing in and out, communication. Deeper keywords included: management of institutional ethos, support of unconventional collaborations, allowing artists/scientists to do what they are good at, extend and encourage curiosity, interventions become new institutions. Risk assessment balanced against playfulness (avoid the arrogant assumption that you know exactly how nature works)
Maybe the thing we made could be a bio-terrorism project - hack a 3-D printer, put a bio mechanism inside and create horrible things? How do we achieve skills from different disciplines? What scale of value can we make within the collaboration? Remember that different countries have different rules and regulations as well. More flexible programs through collaboration, and also policy shifts and funding councils.
Special thanks to Jules Marshall