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exhale: breath between bodies at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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exhale project At Siggraph 2005 in Los Angeles, one set of skirts stole the e-tech show. The line of techno-couture, exhale: breath between bodies by the whisper(s) research group, takes embodiment seriously in ways that our purely electronic (ARGs and biowriting aside) approach to digital character art often does not. What we see here is not just the exercise of novelty or experiments in electronic composition, but a collective of theoreticians whose hands are busy at the work of stitching communal interaction.

What do the skirts do? They allow your body to communicate through passive (autonomic, if you will) and active means. The ensembles (for they are more than just skirts), using breath bands and vibrators, translate your breath and heart rate into digital signals and transmit this information, only to have it be decoded as sound or vibration. In essence, your breath and heart rate become a language. Your body signifies in its biological semantics. With respect to WRT, the digital character of this art resides beneath the exhale.


The whisper[s] research group based out of Simon Fraser University’s Interactivity Lab has designed, threaded, and painted this “a-wearable” technology, allowing bodies to communicate on an autonomic level. Within this project are three levels of interaction: self-to-self, self-to-other, and self-to-group. First, the wearer can access their own data. Second, through contact with sensors, a wearer can activate a connection with another person, allowing them to receive the senders somatic data. Finally, the wearer can transmit their breath data to a wall of speakers, which then transmits the information throughout the room aurally.

the diagram of the garmentThe enmeshed product is melange of cyborg connectivity, future-fashion, and intimate transmission, reading your body and sending the signals through your air, reminding you that your breath has been doing this for quite some time. As the whisper(s) website describes,

the aesthetic of whisper(s) garments is unique and deliberately ambiguous. Fashion for us is vastly innovative and seductive. Prosthetics are creepily creative. The opulent is fundamentally not about cost but about sensuality. Skin is the richest source of inspiration: marked, exposed, nurtured, celebrated.

This is a playful work and yet serious as flesh.

This is group of engaged theoreticians. Thecla Schiphorst of Simon Fraser University is listed as lead on this, but I first heard about it from Susan Kozel at the (dis)junctions: theory reloaded conference at UC Riverside, a talk co-sponsored by the UCR Mellon global_interface workshops. At Riverside, Kozel spoke of the body electric, or wrapped in electronic paraphernalia and research conducted with soldering iron. If you visited their booth at Siggraph, you no doubt saw a team stitching, wiring, and programming going on. Here was the seamstress-programmer-critic, some fulfillment perhaps of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

Seeing the workers with their conductive paint and pdas, I was reminded again of the work behind hand-made interfaces and how different life is behind the technoculture runway. These researchers were up night and day with needle and thread and paintable wires. They seemed materially connected to the process of making and, of course, the technology, not just because they (wearers male or female alike) had to stand still (like proper Victorian ladies) while a technician, usually female, worked on their transmitters but because they were adjusting connections by hand. This is not a women’s project, since among the women (Camille Baker, Diana Burgoyne, Gretchen Elsner, and Sang Mah), were such presumably male names as (Calvin Chow, Jan Erkku, Norm Jaffe, Robb Lovell, Lars Wilke, and Adam Marson). But their does seem to be a purposefully womens’ tech-art aesthetic here. My own tour guide was Lone Koefoed Hansen, the Danish researcher who is in residence at Simon Fraser this fall.

This project is in an engaged networked women’s theoretical praxis. I call this women’s theoretical practice not because all of those who worked on the project were women, but because of a kind of sensibility behind the project that links bodies, seams, and circuits. It is to say, that the project sews itself into conversations of embodied female networks of art (and many other combinations of those five words).

We-make-money-not-art recently featured an “Empathy Vest,” which seems on the face of it to share affinities with this project. The choice of styles, the “sensually evocative skirts worn close to the body” compared to the more androgynous Empathy Vest (with its evocation of Kevlar and circuit boards) might give some sense of differences between the projects. Perhaps one foregrounds gender difference and play while the other offers to break through our bullet-proof physical alienation.

More WRT on Siggraph.




6 Responses to “exhale: breath between bodies”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    Interesting observations Mark. I attended the ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology) open day a couple of days ago. The rooms were littered/decorated/bursting with sewing machines, circuit boards & screens. Screwdrivers lay beside knitting needles. Rather than a female place, are wearable technologies the place where what is conceived as ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ meet? The blog of the open day has pics of the gadgets & tools sprawled around, and pics of some mates who each do great stuff: Tim Barrass, Tony Reck, David Wolf and Shiralee Saul.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

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    Your figuration of “boys toys” and “girls toys” seems productive, Christy. I’m reluctant to ever narrow an endeavor to one gender, but I don’t want to lose the purposeful engagement with notions of women’s spheres, such as fashion, sewing, and modeling, even if (and no doubt also calling attention to the fact that) fashion design itself is heavily influenced by male designers. Further, the project of locating embodiment in digital technology seems part of a larger engaged feminist project in works of critics such as N. Katherine Hayles. Again, I don’t want to reaffirm gender binaries here, but I do see connections (speaking of networks) between this work and certain nodes of specifically feminist critical discourse on new media.

    Re: another Pandora’s Box: I used “women’s” instead of “feminist” because feminist does not seem to be (and perhaps never was) a universally accepted term among critics who work have theorized along these lines– and perhaps at this point critics have given up on a notion of a “universally accepted” term, especially given the problematic history of a “feminism” that has in the past predominantly spoken to and for white middle-class feminists. Writers Recommend Terms here…

  3. 3 Christy Dena

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    I agree. I’ve read feminist views of new media writing and so on. And I have seen new media writing as bound in ‘the other’. I just like looking for the points of transgression. And I found the inclusion of tools that each gender has been associated with on the same table as being a good sign. I’m wondering what factor is the binding element. I don’t think it is technology, but perhaps creation, more specifically, hand-crafted creation.

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

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    Christy, I think you are absolutely right - the cultural category of “craft” / “crafts” in general is the gender ambiguous territory here - in fact, ambiguous territory in general, without the strident claims of engineering, or art, or design. Craft is about the personal pursuit of what works, aesthetically or mechanically.

    Readymade and Make Magazine belong on the same workbench.

  5. 5 Jeremy Douglass

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    Mark, some thoughts on followups, perhaps merging my “lightwriting / biowriting” interests with your “wearable” thread into something even textual:

    LED Tank Top which plays the game of life.

    The Soft-wear: Active Materials workshop of Open Lab.

    Some of the contents of the we-make-money-not-art wearable category.

  1. 1 Feature Extraction » Blog Archive » Wearable Data Architecture

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