Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

The Space Between Conference

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Enriching our understanding of the textile, artists are crossing disciplines, drawing inspiration from science, math, dance, theater, and technology.

The term “textile” encompasses a breadth of materials and structures. It can refer to the minutia of a stitch as well as the fabric of a building. Increasingly, the individuals that contribute to textile discourse are situated not only between extreme shifts in scale but also diverse shifts in disciplines. As more of the creative work put into the world around us defies categorization, interdisciplinary approaches to the textile demand consideration. Art and design have obvious connections to the textile, but science, mathematics, theater, and technology also command increasing relevance.

This fluid relationship with disciplinary boundaries in both research and making is often defined as “hybrid” practice. The concept of hybridity has been made popular by the postcolonial theory and its attention to cultural displacement. But the term rings familiar for other reasons. Hybrid roses adorn our homes, and our tax forms offer us rebates on the purchase of hybrid cars. In the examples that follow–from an international conference, The Space Between, held in Perth, Australia, in April-hybrid textile practices are an inescapable reality. Rather than creating ambiguity, hybridity can clarify existing concepts and challenge misconceptions. Such varied approaches enrich our material and conceptual understanding of the textile.

Textile + Science

Tissue Culture & Art is an artistic research group initiated by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr and committed to the creation of “partial-life” or “semi-living” objects. Working from the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, TC&A uses living tissue technology to create sculptures in the science laboratory for public display in art galleries. With a background in design rather than science, the team aims to provoke discussion about the exploitation of living systems, such as the use of leather by the garment industry, and the ethical responsibilities of consumer culture today. Projects have included a quarter-scale human ear and, in response to the expression “if pigs could fly,” “wings” for pigs. The group’s most recent venture, Victimless Leather, suggests the development of a garment cultured from living cells grown in a laboratory. A literal second skin, this next generation of bespoke tailoring could offer the perfectly fitted garment, no seams or stitching necessary. Such provocative suggestions for the future of the textile are intended to stimulate meaningful dialogue about the moral and ethical questions raised by science, but also find themselves well within the considerations of contemporary textiles discourse.

Australian Julie Ryder (featured in the summer 2004 issue of Fiberarts) also uses the science laboratory for research, predominantly working with natural fermentation processes that inform her textile practice. Recently, while using a microscope to investigate the stability of her organic dye experiments, Ryder found new inspiration in the computer-generated palette required to color-code the black and white images from the microscope. What resulted was a dramatic shift in Ryder’s design sensibilities; she’s now creating both digitally and hand-printed yardage based on the patterns viewed through the microscope and on the vivid colorways generated by the digital palette. In this new generation of work, magnifications of Ryder’s dyed textiles are color-coded on the computer and returned to the textile as repeat patterns. Moving between the science laboratory and the textile studio, Ryder creates a synthesis of both worlds, the textile ultimately enriched by its time in the laboratory.

Textile + Math

British researcher and lecturer Sandy Black understands knitting to be a hybrid of textile design and fashion, craft and industry. Black notes that recent innovations in knitting technology make the production of increasingly complex structures possible. Such technologies allow designers the opportunity to create fully realized garments straight from the knitting machine but demand that the knit be understood and conceived of in three dimensions. Drawing on an early interest in mathematics, Black approaches her research of knitwear through the mathematical concept of geometric topology. Orientation, ambiguity between interior and exterior, and the ability to distort and transform the knit are all attributes of geometric topology and increasingly necessary concerns for the contemporary knit designer. Black is able to articulate and convey the complexities and possibilities of the knitted structure through the language of mathematics. Borrowing terms and concepts from another discipline, she deepens and clarifies our understanding of knitted three-dimensional textiles.

Textile + Dance

Australian Lucie Verhelst’s background in theater and dance informs her recent series of paper and thread sculptures. Frustrated by the transient nature of dance, Verhelst turned to textiles in a desire to capture the energy and movement of performance. Her accordion-pleated constructions effectively evoke the compressed energy of the dancer’s body. The colored threads that partially contain the pleats drape around the shapes and act as visual trails of the kinetic energy contained in the paper forms. In Verhelst’s case, an intimate understanding of the beauty and limitations of one discipline has inspired her to capture the experience of movement in static fiber forms.

Textile + Theater

Dutch artist Maria Blaisse also activates the energy residing in seemingly static objects such as the rubber tire. Through countless experiments, Blaisse has found the ideal rubber and synthetic compounds to sculpt dramatically pure forms that both enhance and limit the movements of the human body. Blaisse’s forms can be understood as sculptures or costumes. In many instances, it is difficult to determine which is in control: the body or the form. (Often it looks to be a little of both.) Perhaps more clearly than any other artist, Blaisse resides firmly between the disciplines of art, design, textiles, and fashion. Her work is an investigation of form and material. The results have found homes in the theater, on the fashion catwalk, and in the art gallery.

Textile + Technology

In contrast, British artist and textile researcher Jane Harris constructs virtual garments for an invisible or absent body. Projected onto the gallery wall, Harris’s translucent garments seem to be dancing for an unseen audience, activated by an unseen subject. This technology-driven research can be read as a commentary on the flesh-eating values of the fashion industry as well as the beginnings of a cyborg reality. As in British artist Caroline Broadhead’s ephemeral garments, a haunting beauty is captured by the material translucency of Harris’s virtual garments. But unlike Broadhead’s gossamer work, Harris’s “material” investigations are entirely virtual.

The technology Harris uses to make her technically complex works is, at least conceptually, decoded by American artist Rachel Beth Egenhoefer. Not unlike Tissue Culture & Art’s use of the gallery, Egenhoefer’s art challenges our inclination to relegate types of information, in this case digital technology, to an invisible and unfathomable realm. Egenhoefer demystifies some of the mechanics behind digital technology through her constant reminders that the textile is a simple binary code and as such, the basis for digital technology today. While her work is often classified as “new media’,’ she argues that the basis of technology can be viewed in basic textile structures.

Finally, for the past twenty years the celebrated Japanese textile company Nuno has been bringing together tradition and technology. Reiko Sudo, director of Nuno Corporation, is pragmatic about the benefits Nuno has gleaned from the research and development departments of many Japanese corporations. This close working relationship with various industries allows Nuno to remain committed to the latest technological innovations available while drawing inspiration from Japan’s rich textile tradition. As in the previous examples, Nuno strikes a fruitful balance between traditional modes of textile practice and the opportunities new areas of research can offer designers.

In each of these cases, the textile has benefited from a dialogue with seemingly disparate disciplines: science, math, dance, theater, technology. The hybrid practices of these makers and researchers expand what is defined as textile. The results deepen, enrich, and, perhaps most important, challenge our understanding of the textile.

Jessica Hemmings, a frequent contributor to Fiberarts, holds a BFA in textiles and a Ph.D. in Modern Literature. She teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

note:

The examples compiled for this article were part of an international conference, The Space Between, in Perth, Western Australia, April 14 – 17. The conference investigated the “new creative and theoretical potentialities that have emerged from the blurring of the boundaries between art, fashion, textiles, and design.” Keynote presenters were Reiko Sudo of Nuno Corporation, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of Tissue Culture & Art, and Maria Blaisse, and a plenary session was chaired by Marie O’Mahoney, author of <I>Techno Textiles.<P> In conjunction with three packed days of conference presentations, numerous textile-related exhibitions were organized to coincide with the conference, including The Space Between and Material Witness at the John Curtin Gallery, Maria Blaisse’s retrospective at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Seven Sisters: Fibre Artists Arising from the West at the Central TAFE Art Gallery, and Lining Material at the Breadbox Gallery. The West End area of Perth, where conference participants stayed, also hosted a catwalk fashion show by retailers in the area and a show titled “per square metre,” in which works that investigated the inextricable links between the textile and retail were installed in ten window displays. The conference website is www.thespacebetween.org.au.

FiberArts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2004: 22-27)

image: Trans>Port, TERMINAL Victoria Quay