Looking for space: Aboriginal culture and fashiontech.
In September 2017 I had the honor to participate in the “Tribe against machine” event. Shih Wei-Chieh idealized this event as an opportunity to exchange knowledge and insights between artists from the Atayal tribe and a selected group of international designers.
We spent ten days at the SiangBi Village taking and facilitating workshops about new materials, weaving techniques, fabric making, and traditional methods. “Tribe against Machine” was a wealth of experience for me in several aspects. After the period in the village having our hands dirty, it was time to go to Taipei for the symposium entitled: A Nomadic Art-Society Project with Ethnic Culture & e-Textile community.
Using the words of the organizers:
The core proposition of Tribe Against Machine is: how future and traditions can help to repair each other, and also aims to create a networking environment among these fading culture groups, as an alternative to furthering the use of future technologies that used to serve capitalism only.
During the colloquium, I was invited to participate in a table together with Aniela Hoitink, Mika Satomi, and Mr. Huang Po Hsiung. Our topic was “e-Textile movement and the possibilities of new cultural/commercial model.”
I have been working in the field of wearable tech for over ten years, and my focus has been on the artistic side of it. However, despite the fact that mass production and big profits do not drive my practice, we all have to find means to survive and position ourselves somehow in a market. I have been supporting my living by teaching, facilitating workshops, giving talks and lending my pieces for exhibitions and performances. I do not sell my production, not because I do not want, but somehow that was not my main effort so far and who would buy a weird costume that moves its skin according to the sound level?
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After I shared my experience , there was a presentation of Mr. Huang Po Hsiung, Product director at Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI). He is an award-winning inventor that is creating amazing things in the e-textile realm. During the event, he was wearing a t-shirt that can detect heartbeats and send this data via Bluetooth to a smartphone. According to him one of the qualities of this invention is that it is completely washable. A fascinating device but we have seen similar products and several companies are nowadays struggling to position themselves in the market with this type of technology.
At the end of the presentations there was a roundtable discussion and from the audience popped out a question that is crucial for the wearabletech business:
When will the wearable technology hit the market and become mainstream?
I have been asked this question so many times, and it is natural that people are curious about this. We have seen illuminated clothes since the 80’s ( and the history goes way back on that, but that is a topic for another article). I remember when I was a child that color change t-shirts were a fever. Color changing materials are old friends with clothing. Nothing new there too.
My point is that fashion technology is around since a long time ago, and it is pretty advanced right now. But yet it seems that fashiontech is cursed to live only in catwalks and concept exhibitions that insist on talking more about the future than about the present or even the past.
Trying to answer the question Mr. Huang Po Hsiung was emphatic that in 3 years people would have connected clothes in department stores. His company has been working on the technology for some years, and they are not alone. There are lots of research companies doing the same thing. Maybe he is right. Maybe the technology will be mature and stable enough in 3 years. I hope so. The Google/Levis jacket was released already (after a hiatus of almost two decades from the first interactive Levis’ jacket by the MIT fellows).
However, I believe that the answer to this question does not reside on the technology advances but on the design, to be more accurate on the User Experience design.
People buy things because they see a reason for that. The nature of this reason can vary, but it has to exist. Why would you need a t-shirt that senses your heartbeat? Why would you need electronics in your clothes?
I believe that for fashiontech hit the masses we need storytelling; we need a reason to have electronics embedded in our clothes besides of the cool factor. The time of the wow effect with clothes that glow and transform its shape is over. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be room for showpieces and outer spaces prototypes, and I love them, but I am talking here about mainstream. I am talking about having fashiontech on department stores and used in large scale. If the brands and fashiontech companies do not come up with the desire factor, the wearable tech is very unlikely to go mainstream no matter how advanced the technology is.
To conclude I would like to point out an astute observation made by Mika Satomi that brings us back to the Atayal tribe and the context of “tribe against machine.”
The entire initiative of the event relies on the attempt to find a place for the Atayal culture in the contemporary world. We discussed a lot about their wish to make their traditions relevant for others and to find a way to communicate, survive and grow. It seems that the struggle is very similar to the wearabletech effort. Both are trying to find a place in the world that does not organically embrace them. Maybe the future of wearable tech is more connected with the past than we dare to imagine.