reSkin Lab :: Michael Yuen

4 January – 4 February 2007, Canberra Australia

Black Tee prototype developed during reSkin

Black Tee prototype developed during reSkin

ANAT’s intensive Wearable Technology Lab, reSkin, explored the possibilities of worn technologies as an exciting, innovative area of artistic investigation. Gathering artists from around Australia and the world, the Lab traversed the many practices encompassed by wearable technologies including: fashion design, interactivity, weaving, printing, computing, toy hacking, wearable computing, jewellery, textiles, coding, bio-feedback, network art, metalsmithing, electronics, soft electronics, interactivity, sculpture and performance.

The multiplicity of artists and their practices assembled at reSkin reflected the broad assortment of concepts and skills that are indicative of a practice in formation. Arising from its premise, reSkin was a junction between art and craft bringing together many of the brightest talents in these fields.

Despite this premise, art-form divisions were largely absent from the artistic dialogue at reSkin, in part, because of an individual understanding of inter-disciplinary practices brought to the Lab by the artists: research-gallery, sonic-visual, jewellery-performance, computing-art, architecture-art, design-performance, metalsmithing-mechanics. The art and craft junction alone is not an interesting one in itself.

It is the nullification of such division – enabling concepts and skills to spread fluidly across new areas – that brings new, unrecognisable art practices into existence. One thinks of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage studying composition with electronic music composer Edgard Varese to extend concepts invested in sound into his mostly silent films. The reSkin Lab was a truly hybrid or cross art-form undertaking, rare even amongst the current exhaustive inter-disciplinary discourse.

The Lab focused on the practicality and materiality of the design and creation of wearable technology. Within the tightly packed reSkin schedule, a structured debate about why one (as an artist or a wearer) would want to reSkin and what is gain might be gain from reSkinning was not possible. Indeed, the artists tackled more fundamental issues about what it meant to wear, code, create with unfamiliar tools and interact. For example, the question what “does it mean to make art by computer code?” might be an important though known dilemma to a new media artist, yet, for an artist creating through weaving such a question poses a new significance. In this case, the obviously binary over-under tools of the weaver (especially as per the Jacquard loom), also, prepose a question back to the new media artist. Thus, the discourse about why one would want to reSkin emerged through individual projects throughout the Lab.

Fashioning unique tools for creation allows for distinctly new forms of expression. Ben Denham, Daniel Kojta and Danielle Wilde, through separate projects, touched the concept of creating one’s own mechanisms for generating one’s own art. Namely, the manufacturing of a purpose built interface between the artist and their art. To an extent, this is a desire to establish a direct flow between the artist’s concept and the outcome (predetermined or otherwise) by eliminating foreign tools such as the brush or violin. A performative and compositional object is created and explored. It is a type of instrument building relating in part to Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments and Conlon Nancarrow’s pianola music. It is a way of making that allows for creation free from existing known methods of production.

Personalising this performative aspect, Keith Armstrong and HighTea with MrsWoo realised that reSkinning was an opportunity to touch or retouch the ground. Through their collaboration, they created an object to sense the foot as it impacted on the ground redrawing our attention to the act of the walk, the step, the ground and the journey, pointing towards the sensing nature of wearing.

The struggle to integrate technology into wearables and wearability into technology was mirrored by the conceptual struggle of integrating of reSkinning into our existing practices. The concept of integration occupied a large amount of the creative space. The first, above-mentioned, challenge is a technical one, insomuch as the design aesthetic of integration does not satisfactorily address why one might reSkin, rather, it speaks to a method of reSkinning. The more interesting challenge for the reSkin artists was the second question of integration with one’s practice. Catherine Truman and Jonathan Duckworth are examples of two opposite situations. Truman with a highly developed sculptural practice creates in full awareness of the body. The challenge to integration was bringing technology onto or into the flesh and the mind. In contrast, Duckworth with an equally highly developed practice with technology encountered the integration challenge in reverse bringing the body to technology.

One must not exclude the need for play – serious (technologically enabled) play – as a motivation to reSkin. Artistic play within the context of the Lab presented artists access to equipment that would normally be outside of their reach, equipment that lay far outside one’s field of investigation (however broad this might be). This situation gave rise to serval interesting juxtapositions: conservatorium trained composers working in jewellery labs, jewellery makers creating code and garments creators building electronics boards. Access to equipment gave rise to access to ideas, giving rise to a play with new ideas. The joint investigation created a currency for the exchange of ideas between many disparate fields. The usual language divide was quickly overcome. Somaya Langley’s reSkin design for an elegant and fragile listening earpiece gave an electronic music framework to Susan Kohn’s TechnoCraft 1980’s sci-fi inspired jewellery combining the functional, the wearable and the desirable within a single object. Similarly, composer Alvin Lucier’s acoustical, process driven music was contextualised within contemporary jewellery making in Sean O’Connell’s performative neckpieces and resonating oil bowl.

Within this framework, reSkin was a unique opportunity to create in isolation to my existing practice. I separated myself from my usual tools of making. Leaving computer and installation art aside for the three weeks of the Lab, I completed two projects – a series of perpetually circulating silver rings and an integrated LED black t-shirt. The prospect of exploring an area completely outside of my practice was too tempting an opportunity to ignore. I spent the majority of my time at reSkin working on jewellery in ANU’s metalsmithing workshop.

The fantastic work and support of the key partners ANAT, the ANU and Craft Australia must be acknowledged. ReSkin was an ambitious undertaking of the highest order executed with extraordinary skill and experience offering some of the most innovative practitioners a reflective environment and precious access to both expertise and equipment. ReSkin will have a deep impact on the development of wearable technologies in Australia and is a significant part of the international discourse. I must also acknowledge the facilitators and fellow artists that took part in reSkin. Their generosity, diverse talents and open approach to the creative process was both refreshing and inspiring.

The following people were present at reSkin: Ben Denham, Andrea Fisher, Sarah Kettley, Tania Fox, Somaya Langley, Danielle Wilde, Leah Heiss, HighTea with MrsWoo, Elliat Rich, Robin Petterd , Catherine Truman, Keith Armstrong, Clem Baker-Finch, Sean O’Connell, Cecilia Heffer, Daniel Kojta, Jonathan Duckworth, Michael Yuen, Stephen Barrass, Elise Co, Joanna Berzowska, Susan Cohn, Cinnamon Lee, Alistair Riddell, Catrina Vignando, Gavin Artz, Alexandra Gillespie, Melinda Rackham.

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