Piem Wirtz is the person responsible for the exciting wearables fashion which has been coming out of V2_Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (where I’m also presently working on wearables research). She has an eye for design, functionality, presentation and material culture in wearables – and is all at once a maker, thinker and manager. She also initiated the series of E-Textile Workspace meetings with Melissa Coleman (a Fashioning Technology regular), which take place on a monthly basis at V2_.
What is your background?
I studied Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology, so I’m trained as a product designer. I graduated in 2004, and looking back, my graduation project is not that unrelated to the things I am involved with nowadays. “The Pogi” is a playful object, developed for children with ADHD. It can be described as a three-dimensional hoop, which is connected to the floor and the ceiling with elastic straps. The design and construction of the Pogi allows children with an excess of energy to let off steam while they play with it. It is constructed out of a metal frame, covered with textile upholstery. After my graduation I approached Janssen-Fritsen, the Dutch market leader in gymnastic equipment for schools, to see if they were interested in putting my graduation design into production. In 2005, the first Pogi was produced and it has been available in the JF catalogue ever since. The next few years I worked at Fabrique, where I got to understand the basics of web design. I combined this job with a freelance design practice, developing playground materials for school-age children.
Besides having a love for design and user experience, I am a passionate dancer. In 2002, we founded the dance company Dattah. Contemporary dance, improvisation and performance define the wide scope of our projects. We feel free to experiment, and to share the results with an audience during festivals, in theaters or in unusual locations.
Since 2008 I have been working at the Lab of V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media. My official title is project manager, but my daily practice involves hands-on research, developing and building working prototypes, coaching artists, leading the team of hardware and software developers as well as organizing events. Industrial designers are extensively trained in problem solving and group dynamics. These skills have proved to be very useful in many scientific/artistic collaboration projects at V2_Lab.
The beauty of wearable technology is the combination of technology and textiles and the two different worlds it brings together.
What led to your interest in fashion and technology?
Before I started working at V2_, I was unfamiliar with this field. I had worked with textiles and had created costumes for Dattah performances, but none of these involved technology. When Di Mainstone did her artist-in-residence at V2_ and developed “Sharewear” (2008) I became a wearables enthusiast. The beauty of wearable technology is the combination of technology and textiles and the two different worlds it brings together. It gives the perfect opportunity to work with fashion designers and engineers, an (at first sight) unlikely combination. For me, this field of research provides an excellent combination of creativity, practical skills, academic background and performing arts.
Please introduce V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media. In general terms what is V2_’s focus and how did wearables become part of the V2_Lab?
V2_ is an interdisciplinary center for art and media technology in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Our activities include organizing presentations, exhibitions and workshops, publishing books on art and media technology, and developing an online archive. At the V2_Lab, artists, technicians and scientists work together to produce art projects that make use of new technologies. We call this process “artistic Research and Development” (aRt&D) and one of the focus points within the Lab is wearable technology.
V2_ was founded in 1981. Since the early nineties, V2_ has featured media art that can be considered as wearable computers. The topic has had our interest for a long period of time. When V2_Lab was founded, approximately 15 years ago, we were able to also create wearable technology artworks. Wearable technology has been addressed at V2_ events in various definitions, ranging from Stelarc’s unpolished “Ping Body” at the DEAF96 festival to bio-couture in the “Fleshing Out” seminar (2006) and eventually evolving towards fashion in 2008. Over the years, in parallel with the developing technologies, the bulky wearable hardware has evolved into soft and integrated fashion items.
What is unique about V2_ is the fact that we cover the whole production and process, from idea to working prototype to the presentation of the end result.
In light of V2_‘s history and interest in wearables, how does the centre approach wearables differently than other media institutes or industry?
What is unique about V2_ is the fact that we cover the whole production and process, from idea to working prototype to the presentation of the end result. We do not only invite artists to show their work, which was the case when the Lab was not yet founded, we also create new artworks. At V2_Lab we not only support artists on a practical level by assisting in the development of hard and software, we also stimulate discussion about the work. And last but not least, we are aware of the impact of various presentation formats, due to our 30-year experience in presenting media art.
The Lab looks like an office space with mannequin dolls and soldering irons.
Describe V2_Lab in terms of available technologies and working technologists?
The V2_ Lab team consists of software developers, hardware developers and project managers. They work together with external artists on specific projects, which range from computation to physical prototyping. Many Lab team members run their own art, design or engineering companies besides working at V2_. This fact gives them a good understanding of collaborating with artists and meeting deadlines. Not only is V2_ interdisciplinary, so are its employees. Project managers have hands-on skills and developers can run a project independently. The Lab is fully equipped to work with electronics. We can design and create custom-made printed circuit boards and write software to operate them. But we can also create garments, since we have all the relevant sewing equipment at hand. The Lab looks like an office space with mannequin dolls and soldering irons.
The design process was intense, since our insights into the properties of the foil changed every week, and so did the shape of the dress.
V2_Lab has recently developed two important wearables — one in collaboration with Studio Roosegaarde – “Intimacy” — and the other “Pseudomorphs” with Anouk Wipprecht. Please describe the collaboration process in both cases. Did the designers approach you, or vice versa? Why did you choose to collaborate with them in particular? What was the work flow process and time lines for development? And how much did the original “concepts” become transformed by applied testing?
In the case of “Intimacy” (2009-2010) , Daan Roosegaarde approached V2_ to set up a collaboration. He had an idea to create a transparent dress from an e-foil material that he had recently discovered. The realm of fashion was new to Daan, so he invited V2_ for a partnership. We have known each other for many years, and V2_ seemed like the logical partner to work with since we are experienced in developing wearable technology and interactive artworks. However, neither of us being fashion designers, we invited two young and talented designers to work with us: Maartje Dijkstra and Anouk Wipprecht. The project started with a pilot, to explore the possibilities of the e-foil and to see if it was actually possible to create a 3D shape with this material. By that time, we were able to control the transparency behavior, but we never tested if the foil could withstand cutting and sewing. The pilot project lasted only three months, in which we performed many tests and learned a lot about the material.
The design process was intense, since our insights into the properties of the foil changed every week, and so did the shape of the dress. The original idea (dress becomes transparent when the wearer is approached – i.e. via a proximity, or a flash camera sensitive sensor ) did not change much, although we had many discussions about the presentation context and the concept. For example: fashion on a catwalk with press photographers is all about exposure, however with the model being at a safe distance from the audience. But what reactions would Intimacy provoke when worn on the street or at a party, in the middle of a crowd? This illustrates the value of collaborating with V2_: we do not only realize a prototype with an artist, but we also seek to discussion and challenge a work of art to be developed further conceptually.
The project “Pseudomorphs” (2010) was developed as part of the Summer Sessions 2010. Summer Sessions are brief themed residencies that allow promising young artists to collaborate with V2_Lab developers. V2_ invited Anouk Wipprecht to fill in the wearable technology position. Anouk visited the E-Textile Workspace once, and we were impressed by her work. The time frame of the Summer Sessions was even shorter then the Intimacy pilot. Only six weeks should result in a working prototype, ready to be presented at an international media festival. Anouk wanted to work with ink, which would stain virgin white dresses. The technological aspect was not too complex, so the focus could shift to the design. A point of attention was which materials to use to create a balance between fashion and craft. It should have a highly finished look, despite the fact of time pressure. The development of the neckpiece with integrated tubes was crucial. The neckpiece with pneumatic control valves distributes the ink, thus becoming a factory that produces a series of uniquely dyed pieces. In this process the technology is co-creator of the work.
Moreover, wearable technology projects can be quite complex, demanding specialized technical skills and expertise in fashion or textile design. They need each other to obtain the best result.
In your opinion, what does technology bring to fashion? And vice versa, what is the advantage of including tech-fashion within the milieu of new media practices? I’m also particularly interested in the human factor involved and how fashion and technology might bring different communities together.
Fashion and technology are of course closely related, if not only from the production process point of view. But if we speak about ‘wearable technology’ we mostly mean the addition and integration of technology in textiles. However, it is such a broad field that you can endlessly argue which definitions should or should not be included.
To put this discussion aside, the most inspiring thing to me is the fact that people from different backgrounds meet in the middle. Software developers who are tired of staring at a screen all day decide to work with their hands. Fashion designers who see the challenge that technology can bring start to explore electronics. And they get to work together on a wearable technology project. The very diverse participants of our E-Textile Workspace illustrate this fact. I think both groups benefit a lot from each other’s knowledge. Moreover, wearable technology projects can be quite complex, demanding specialized technical skills and expertise in fashion or textile design. They need each other to obtain the best result.
It makes a huge difference if a work is presented on a mannequin doll in a gallery, whether or not accompanied by a “Don’t Touch Me” sign, or if it is presented on live performers strolling the streets and inviting the public to interact with the garments.
V2_ is also an exhibition venue, with a keen consideration for presenting work. I know you host a series of Test_Labs were works in progress can be shown to the public. Is this the context in which wearables developed at V2_Lab in the past have been presented? And if so, could you further explain the concept of the Test_Lab?
Indeed, almost all the works developed within V2_Lab are presented within our bi-monthly Test_Lab program. Test_Labs are informal evenings in which artists present work-in-progress or finished works to a public. The audience can ask the artist questions and literally test the works, which are in many cases interactive and only work by the grace of a live audience. The feedback of the audience can stimulate the artist to further develop the work and fine-tune the concept. Media art is never really finished in that sense.
However, Test_Labs are not the only setting in which we present wearable technology projects. V2_ organizes the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF), which is a much larger event than a Test_Lab. But we present as well in galleries, museums or at festivals such as the “Museumnacht 2011”, ISEA 2010, Transmediale 2011. Each setting demands a different approach to the presentation format. It makes a huge difference if a work is presented on a mannequin doll in a gallery, whether or not accompanied by a “Don’t Touch Me” sign, or if it is presented on live performers strolling the streets and inviting the public to interact with the garments.
Have you encountered challenges in presenting wearables to a new media audience? Do you see a resistance in having “fashion” – which is often considered frivolous, trend-oriented and “feminine” – presented to a media arts audience?
The challenge is not so much about the expectations of the (new media) audience. It is just a matter of choosing your presentation format wisely. We are still learning here. You cannot just set-up a catwalk and expect it to be a fashion show. You have to understand the culture around it, and respect it. And if you understand it, you can start to play with the format and tease or confuse it a little.
Wearables, in my opinion, are at their best when shown on bodies – and possibly also experienced on one’s own body – has V2_ experimented with performance-based presentations, and how?
Yes, we have. The best example I can give is with “Sharewear”. We experimented with a few different formats. Di Mainstone, the artist, made a choreography for identical twin sisters. The choreography was filmed and edited into a beautiful documentation of the work. The same choreography was performed for a live audience, which explained the concept well but was not so playful or interactive from the public’s standpoint. At last we decided to leave the choreography behind and just blend in with the crowd. The twins invited the surrounding people to touch the dresses, manipulate the lights, pull levers and re-position modules on the dresses. This actually worked best: people got a close understanding of the work and could ask the sisters how they felt wearing the dresses and being in the spotlight.
Since a garment is worn close to the body, one could argue that the wearer’s body is the center for the interaction and perception of the piece.
How do you see the interactions at play between the body, technology and fashion?
That depends a bit for whom the garment is made. Or stated differently: who is your audience? Since a garment is worn close to the body, one could argue that the wearer’s body is the center for the interaction and perception of the piece. The wearer is the one to enjoy (or simply experience) the technology-enhanced clothing. On the other hand, many wearable pieces are created to attract the attention of an outside spectator. “Intimacy” is a good example of this. The dress responds to proximity; it will become more transparent when somebody comes closer to it. When you wear the dress, the model wearing it is hardly aware of her body being exposed. As opposed to the audience, which is not only the spectator but is also responsible for the amount of skin that is revealed. It is interesting to explore how the perception of the wearer will change when you add, for example, a buzzer to the dress, which makes the model physically aware when she is getting more exposed.
Clothing therefore is not only close to our body; it is also close to our brains.
Do wearables, in your opinion, have the ability to transform the way we perceive, present, and use our bodies?
Yes, definitely. Clothes change the way that you perceive your body, even without being enriched with technology. Think about the simple effect wearing high heels has on body posture and self-confidence. Wearable technology can literally transform our bodies. We had a very interesting discussion about ‘transformation’ in one of our E-Textile Workspaces. Take for example the “feelSpace” (2005) project. This wearable compass helps you navigate spatially when blindfolded with the help of haptic feedback. The body gets accustomed to it within a few days, and when you take it off you experience a temporary loss of direction. Technology is mostly presented as enhancement, as an addition to our capabilities, where I think it may be thought of as re-routing our capabilities: you win some, you loose some. Clothing therefore is not only close to our body; it is also close to our brains.
Rotterdam, March 2011