Design And Performance Lab


The Emergent Dress: Transformation and Intimacy in Streaming Media and Fashion Performance


Johannes Birringer & Michèle Danjoux

(c) 2006


Performance wearables / wearable performance

It has become evident in the art and design communities of the 21st Century that the notion of "design", as it was understood in fashion and fine art, the graphic arts, product design, film and theatre, has expanded in many directions and is now infused with new developments in information and communication technology, ubiquitous computing, biotechechnology and nanotechnology. These mediating technologies have profound effects on our perceptual systems and the habituated knowledges to which we are adapting today amongst our highly technological living patterns. Designing our environments, and the tools through which we communicate with them and experience ourselves in the world, therefore must be considered to have vital cultural and political stakes. The role of fashion and clothing, although marginalized in contemporary critical theory and performance studies, cannot be overlooked as it directly relates, in our opinion, to complex social as well as theatrical concepts of "performance". The latter are also infused today by the impact of computer and video games on our understanding of participatory player culture (for example in Massively Multiplayer Online Games) and the various scripts that are followed by gamers to work with settings, characters, plots and the "modifications" of avatar appearance. The fantasy worlds of games are a primary example of shared design, and in some instances ("Second Life"), all the 3D content and appearances are entirely user-created. The sharing of fantasies is an activity we see encapsulated in fashion.

To give attention to the "fashionable" or to performing fashion does not necessarily mean talking about fashion styles or trends. Rather, in the context of highly technological living patterns under late capitalism, and thus under what Deleuze (after Foucault) has called "societies of control"(Deleuze 1990), performative fashion can be linked to disciplinary power in Foucault's sense of social organization, insofar as fashion coerces the body to shape and rearrange itself in accordance with ever-shifting social expectations. The skills required to adapt to such internalized expectations - including the ability to diet, apply facial cosmetics, arrange clothes, and wear ornamentation - are in the service of aesthetic innovations that continually reinvent subjectivity and body-image. Foucault's often-cited notion of the self-regulating "docile body" indicates how elements of a fashionable lifestyle, which also include the urban habits of reading fashion magazines, engaging in body-sculpting practices such as dieting, gym work-outs, cosmetic surgery, etc., are techniques for transforming the body into a commodity. We could even connect this performativity to the training standards (doping) amongst competitive athletes and the publicity standards of pop stars who embody the fetishized icons our societies like to worship and emulate. We might think of these celebrities as our avatars: we pay for the games in which our role models perform. The transformable body becomes a training site of aesthetic innovation, a projection site or tableau vivant for fetishistic desires, and like our other technological accessories is subject to periodic upgrading. Redesigning the look of the model is to give it a new lease of life, specifically by submerging its use-value into its appearance-value, and the notion of iterative design, common in prototyping of interactive products as well as interactive artworks, here echoes with strange ironies as body transformations or body prosthetics are now often critiqued within the political and ethical contexts of biotechnologies and genetics.(1) Redesigning life or human enhancement no longer look as innocent as the other spring collections on the scientific catwalk.

In the artistic context of wearable performance, mobile "control" of transformability subverts the commodity aspect. The wearable rather points to fashion in the sense of re-fashioning, not just "controlling" surface functionality in the interface but challenging digital transformation of the materiality of the body to provoke a new language through which discrete representations of the body can be generated and re-invented. Interface design, therefore, is contingent on many specific articulating systems.

The collaborative "Emergent Dress" project (2) has been initiated in a performance, media arts, and fashion design context, brushing shoulders with computer science, engineering and new developments in human-computer interaction design. It is equally fuelled by new material technology - new fibres, fabrics, and innovative processing techniques that allow the integration of sensors or smart functionality into clothing. This introduces the category of the "wearable" into the field of performance and choreography, drawing particular attention to the sensorial affect as interface, while it also alters the meaning of "designing wearability" for fashion, as we are here addressing cutting-edge developments in wearable computing at the beginning of the 21st Century. Since this area is still very much experimental, there are few mature commercial products with a wide user base that could be evaluated. Artistic works deploying wearables and reaching a wider audience are equally rare.(3) This essay therefore traces design principles involved in artistic projects and maps the ground for a speculative description of how performance transforms design strategies for wearable technologies, and how the wearable experience affects highly mediated performances.

The type of mediated performance we work with – telepresence or telematic performance - implies the experience of being fully present at a location remote from one's own physical location, generally involving a camera-based internet convergence (streaming media) between two or more sites. Someone experiencing telepresence would therefore be able to behave, and receive stimuli, as though at the remote site. The work requires networked audio-video convergence, with the scenes at two distant sites becoming one. The architecture of such convergences in a studio or gallery thus always involves multiple screens and surround sound in the projection of the live web streams and real-time 3D Virtual Environments. Such an ambient, immersive environment exponentially expands what we normally comprehend as our immediate sensory environment or "kinesfield".(4) The kinaesthetic space is extensive of the tactile experience of the garment as well, and we want to argue here that movement and gesture span multiple telepresent bodies, making fashion an intersubjective experience. At the same time, the wearer of the wearable acts to enframe digital information, giving body to digital processes and thus to her or his own intimately and affectively experienced sensation of "wearing the digital," of becoming digital(ized).

For current theories of embodied information processing, digital performance marks a significant shift toward a tactile, haptic aesthetic, away from an ocularcentrist mode of perception to embodied affectivity (Hansen 2004:12-13). Digital performance is also theorized today in terms of the disjunctions it opens up in the experience of reality, time, and digital space which no longer have an analogical basis. In the following, we examine how emergent design works with this and facilitates disjunction and continuity. First, we address the notion of wearable in movement, focusing on gesture and body movement; secondly, we describe the prototypes of emergent design within telematic environments for performance augmented by particular fabrics materials and motion analysis as well as by gesturally nuanced computational media.


[Fig.1] Translucent soft material with embedded microchip. Videostill © 2006 J.Birringer



Digitized Movement

Wearable computers are devices worn on the body. The convergence between the miniaturisation of microchips (nanotechnology) and the growth of wireless, ubiquitous computing emphasizes mobility: computing devices are small enough to be carried around or integrated into clothing or the human body at all times, providing continuous access to a personal wireless network (LAN) or internet and satellite networks. Industrial mobile devices are pret-a-porter, but our "Emergent Dress" can neither be industrially mass-produced nor understood as haute couture. Rather, it is intended to be mobile in a very personal and creative sense, practical and informal, ready-to-wear but also elusive and precious, evolving and changeable. It is meant to have a "digital" quality.

The research context which connects digital performance with new fabrics and interactive textiles therefore requires not only new fashion content or design proposals for wearable lifestyles and mobile creativity, but perhaps places the emphasis of design somewhere else entirely, namely to different qualities of "performance" addressing not functionality but character, emotions, memory, fantasy, and experiential or psychological dimensions along with a heightened kinetic awareness of our bodies as intimate communicators. These qualities, once considered a domain of theatre anthropology and social science research, now intrigue product designers looking at how artifacts elicit emotions. At the same time, there is a microscopic trend among live artists to devise very intimate transactions and exclusive one-on-one encounters with their audience.(5) The collective potential of intimate transformative ecstasy experienced in wearable fabrics (parangolés) enmeshing the participants, enveloping them in carnivalesque play of spatial and social relations, was advocated by Brasilian artist Helio Oiticica in the 60s. More recently, Lucy Orta reinvigorated these principles of intimate architectures of cloth, devising her "collective wear" into interactive shelters and modular habitations (Nexus Architecture) drawing in the collaboration of local participants. Extending the lineage of sound art, Kinetography (Laban), and contact improvisation, recent experiments in dance and music technology, using digital computation and interface design for choreography and sound programming, point to a stronger interrelationship between the analysis of movement/gesture (biophysical data) and the design of responsive architectures for "emergent behaviors". If musicians and psychoacoustics researchers speak of the subjective visceral nature of experiencing sound in the body, so is our interest directed at the intimacy of the wearable experience, the desire and erotic sensuality attached to the clothes we wear on our skin, the frivolous, extroverted but also secretive (even anti-aesthetic) dimensions of fashioning appearance, and the physiological processes and patterns through which the proprioceptive systems attend to the body's wearing of itself.(6)

Crucial for our interest in close-to-the-skin technology are the affective and perceptional processes working both ways in the interaction, as the wearable here is not only a garment but also the interface. While there is indeed a noticeable tendency in the West towards an "experience economy" and a cultural privileging of intensities and (emotional) participation, the question of what is meant by "experience design" needs addressing, as the increasing use of sensor technology in our environment reveals little about how people do make use of "feedback from an information technology" (Baurley), how they integrate the machine intelligence emotionally and cognitively, or how such intelligence influences clothing experienced from an expressive/psychological point of view (as protection, modesty, ornamentation, articulation of desire, etc). Linking fashion to the pleasure principle, one wonders how the interface becomes charged with elements from the catalogue of eroticism and seduction, and how a particular style of wearing it can be decoded if the "image-clothing" implies an endless number of ambiguous possibilities not determined through its semiological structure (as myth or message).(7) Roland Barthes' analysis of the “fashion system” points to the complexities of fashion’s mobility, for example if one looks at the vestimentary system ("dress") and its variant replications of attributes of the body (sexuality, desire), as well as at the circumstantial modes of behavior ("dressing") adopted by wearers (Barthes 2006: 9).

Dressing-performance in the digital context is all about articulating such mutability and exploring subtle or frightening exaggeration. Some fashion designers, like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, have also contradicted the idea of decorative intensities and proposed unexpected, deconstructive designs which complicate the conventional premises of congruence (measurements that follow fit, like the glove to the hand), proportion, vertical axis, and the contouring of the body's outlines. For example, in 1998 Kawakubo produced a collection of disconnecting parts; the clothes were broken up, fragmented and incomplete, sides and backs missing, left and right not matching etc. This strategy points to a diffusion and metonymic fragmentation of units which capture the sense of the digital we experience in the interface. We need more critical investigation of what we might call "feedback design" and its effect on "dressing" in movement, and although Barthes' fashion theory has been criticized for privileging the "written garment" over "real clothing," his inventory of elements ("Variants of Existence") provides many insights (Barthes 1990: 111-43). His "variants of movement" are particularly helpful in understanding how the body animates the garment (e.g. he considers movement values such as rising, upsweeping, hanging, plunging, falling, swaying, etc).

For wearables to become meaningful in creative and playful, artistic and social settings, the affective experience in human-computer interaction needs to go beyond simple "actuators" and those expressive interactions often referred to in terms of sensorial qualities (touch, sound, taste, smell) which are outside of the visual but whose significance is not brought home. How do we make sense in a haptic relationship to a certain material (glass, soft fabrics, leather, metal)? What is sensed? And what cognitive and aesthetic processes are engaged when, for example, a garment can measure the beat of your heart or transmit your emotional disposition towards your partner? When it hangs loose or plunges forward to "act" like a magnetic or chemical attractor, playfully dominating the partner or the voyeur, toying with excess, then withdrawing, swaying and folding?

In our examination of the kinaesthetic wearable we started out with a particular interest in remote communication (telematics) and the proprioceptive relations to the virtual (projected digital media). We refer to this sensory relationality as "exo-processing", and ScreenDress (Prototype 1) represents current performance improvisations by Helenna Ren and Nam Eun Song with a particular garment material and the motion graphics which are digitally printed/projected onto them. The graphics also represent the continuous, infinitely changeable feedback design, in line with the fluidity of the moving shape of the body. We focus increasingly on the dancer's immediate experience of sensors on the body, and the wearer's proprioceptive relationship to sensorimotor and internal biophysical data (heart rate, pulse, breath, etc), analysed and transmitted in collaborative telematic "play" with interacting partners. This sensory relationality is called "endo-processing", but the performance of course involves both an internal and an externalized dimension, as the dancer is pushing the data into the visual screen displays and image flows. FantasyWear (Prototype 3) presents an outlook on our investigations of the subjective experience of the garment when touched and "exposed" in dance. The experience of the dancer is modeled for the camera but also activates an avatar for a game environment which playfully invites participation in the game-fantasy. The Kluver installation of Prototype 3 (shown at Dartington College of Arts, September 2006) and the live game See you in Walhalla provide the context for our reflections on emergent design and the audience's empathetic relationship to the emotional character of the body-garment interface.


Emergent Dress

Our ideas on intimacy evolved from Helenna Ren's telepresence performances with partners in Arizona, Italy and Japan over the past two years (2004-2005). She tested all of the versions of the transformable body-garment and the digitally manipulated garment-body. In the development of the new prototypes, the "corset" became our main vehicle – conceptual metaphor and material object - along with other parts and fragments of pink, yellow and black cloth that Ren put on, assembled and dis-assembled in performance, and composed into her improvised choreography of wearing, gesturing, folding, stretching, unbinding fabrics and needles, moving and re-moving gloves, shifting elements of the garments into and out of focus, while interacting with the "physical camera" (moved in close proximity by the camera operator). In these performances, created in real-time telematic contact primarily with performers Natalie King, Keira Hart and Joe Willie Smith in Tempe, Arizona, "characters" also emerged gradually as the dancer began to shape the information composed with the corsetbody. We called them "Zorro", "Houdini," and "Kluver." While Ren moved with the garment, her filmic image was sent to Arizona’s screen environment (constructed as a "garden" of large hanging leaves) and projected onto the remote screens as well as onto a luscious white Victorian dress suspended from the ceiling and functioning as the centre-piece of our partners' experimentation with memory.



[Fig.2 & Fig. 3 & Fig. 4] Keira Hart behind Victorian dress (left), Helenna Ren in front of Victorian dress (middle), and merging her movement with it (right). Videostills © 2005 J.Birringer


Helen Raleigh, AJ Niehaus and Galina Mihaleva (Arizona) devised the conceptual strategies with which our partners used this memory-rich garment as a “stand-alone” sensory sculpture which could be projected upon, and then stepped inside and worn, which the Arizonan dancers did during the rehearsals shedding their other clothes and embedding themselves inside an older (historical) concept. One might say they inserted themselves into a kind of "habitat", but clothing is also concept, and Raleigh suggested in her notes on the telematic rehearsals that is not clear where the wearing is.

Is it really on the body? Nothing new here... Merleau-Ponty's invisible being situated elsewhere, non-figurative, tactile, kinesthetic...I want to address how we continually forget the wearing is happening in our minds. Clothing is control, is coverage, a bind, shame. Remember that story so many people taught about being in a beautiful garden having a pretty good time until some moron points out that your are naked and introduces you to shame? So your bush is suddenly on fire, you're embarrassed and once you connect naked to shame to embarrassment there is little chance of reprogramming that out of your system. So, we unilaterally grab fig leaves and repress all generations to come... Okay. So often when my mind has time to idle around I wonder what I would wear if I didn't have any clothes on and I had to fashion something out of what is present in the immediate environment (email, 26 November 2005).


The telematic performances challenge the double bind of the literal and the virtual garment: we experience the suspended dress as a receptacle, a sensory surface which functions as a mnemonic landscape and an instrument responding to touch, its built-in sensors producing a sonic text (words recorded in Joe Willie Smith's voice). The "Victorian" dress flares into temporary focus, historical images or fragmented film stills from a natural landscape appearing on it, then all discrete traces disappear again, and now as Ren's telepresent body-image remobilizes it, distance and proximity become interwoven. John Mitchell, who directed our partner team in Arizona, suggested that such a dress is viewable from the inside out; its porous quality "evocative of ancient shadow plays and early cinematic devices that created viewer intimacy through subtle perceptual and sensual shifts. The resulting experience is expansive, contractive, enveloping and yet non-enclosing" (email, 1 December 2005).



[Fig. 5] Helenna Ren manipulating her partial garment in performance. Videostill © 2005 J. Birringer


At our end of the telepresence, it became apparent that Ren’s movement itself contributed to this evocation of a living dress-sculpture or vessel. Wearing pink corset and rose-colored stretches of fabric, she used her breath to work with contractive and expansive rhythms, continuously changing the shape of her body as the tight-laced corset shifted flesh and muscles, inflating the shoulders, exaggerating the wide-narrow-wide silhouette of the female form. At the same time, the compressions and deformations of fleshy tissue were distracted by the layerings of fabric which Ren whirled around herself, and as the camera captured her movements and stretched the fabric into the virtual space of Arizona’s suspended dress, we began to see Ren animating the distant garment: her body clothed in undergarment streamed into the latter’s faint blue apparition, the outer wear in the distance. Silhouette intermingling with silhouette, real and virtual bodies compounded into an illusion of a (digitally) composited whole. These rehearsals prepared the ground for the development of the ScreenDress prototype which elaborates the real-time compositing effect of the digital media.


ScreenDress: The two forms of the garment

ScreenDress is constructed from Chromatte, a technical light-reflecting cloth for chroma key production in TV and film. This material, designed to work dynamically with a LiteRing (a camera mounted device featuring LED's) utilizes the retro-reflective properties of its fabrication for live effects/image replacement, fusing motion graphics with onscreen performance.

The technological garment is a real garment, the physical form of the garment, existing in the real world, and in its isolated state (uncoupled from the LiteRing), is a gunmetal grey. Here the focus is on the material facts of fashion, the applied aspects and technical solutions to produce an artistic result. We are concerned with the cut and the fabrication, the detailing and finishes and the overall silhouette statement, the structure of the garment and how the body engages with the piece, i.e. how it is worn/performed and is choreographed into movement. Pleats, expanding and contracting, layers, seams and a modular approach to garment construction are used, and garment and movement are inseparable, in that one extends the other, becomes the other. The moving body has an impact on the form of the design and the form of the design has an impact on the moving body.




[Fig. 6 Nam Eun Song with ScreenDress, Photo © 2006 M. Danjoux

The garment, according to Barthes’ analysis of the body-garment relation, is extended as a body.(8) He discusses this through his study of Erté’s fashion drawings and specifically the Ertean silhouette where the woman becomes the garment, is somehow biologically fused into the woman-garment. The body can no longer be separated from its adornment and decoration. The woman and the garment become one. ScreenDress, with the morphic mandate of the motion graphics, is extended as a body, poetically shifting its surface of moving patterns and textures. It invents and substitutes, simultaneously masks and reveals, is animated, becomes alive and organic with multiple juxtapositions of image and color. The filming and "camera eye" remove us from one reality into another, one where dancers (Song, Ren), organic tissues and animation become fused into expressive visual statement: an indissociable mixture of body, garment and graphics, bleeding forms, one into the other. This is a dialogue between the natural and the artificial, brought together in an intimate relationship to create a new object or artifact, the iconic garment. The iconic garment becomes a spectacle in its own right, a mechanism for display and experience.





[Fig. 7] Nam Eun Song with animated ScreenDress, Videostill © 2006 M. DanjouxJon Hamilton


The Design Process: engagement with cloth and partial design states

Generally, the process of design begins with the design sketch and the static form. From here ideas are developed two-dimensionally in preparation for 3D realization. Working with the Emergent Dress, we do not start with the design sketch or static state, instead we choose movement, introducing partial garment structures and cloth to the initial frame: inviting the dancer to move with the cloth, exploring and experiencing the qualities of the cloth (in front of our eyes/the camera eye), its potential and design possibilities. We observe the movement reactions initiated by the tactile stimulus of the cloth and consider how garment form and structure might begin to emerge.

In the case of the Chromatte cloth, Song was invited to discuss with the designer how she felt about the cloth; what type of movement behaviors it began to generate; structures and scale. Song found the touch of this particular cloth somewhat harsh and aggressive, it felt hostile to her movements and unforgiving. We explore slashing of the fabric to ease the restriction/the sensation of restriction and try coiling and wrapping cut lengths of the cloth to produce rudimentary sleeves and other garment features. The designer responds to the cloth's structural dimension with pleats, creased stitched folds in the fabric which create an even more structural surface; one that can now expand and contract, open and close with each affected move. There is a blending of designer and dancer in this process based design methodology of iterative design.

Song experiments with different movement qualities and energies to explore how the "digital sketches" - incorporating the digital graphics into her movement consciousness and proprioception - affect her ability to frame the constant flow as time-image and image-movement. A particular screen poetics has evolved, and although Song's unconscious experience cannot be verbalized here, it is apparent that she investigates the ScreenDress as an interaction instrument, a kind of membrane between the real and the projective, between herself and her other. However, the relative stiffness of the chromate material and its dull appearance in real space gain mysterious textures and luminosities in the animated screen graphics. The fabric material thus creates a contradictory pleasure. Or, rather, the motion graphics behave in an almost contradictory manner, concealing the true nature and identity of the fabric and revealing a more organic, biological, emotional response. And control shifts from fabric to dancer, and the experience becomes visibly more visceral and sensually involved as the relationships shift in motion.

In one particular improvisation, Song decided to use her voice (to spit words out and suck them in) in a complex breathing pattern to modulate the dressing-performance, to emphasize the contradictory interplay between inside-out and outside-in motion. Her movement is a mixture of ballet-inflected soft-flowing phrases and harsher martial arts punctuations, and throughout her dance with the wearable, she carefully allowed her sensory perception to guide her. Rather than looking at the screen and the transformed digital images of herself, she performed through being touched (by the motion of the stiff chromate fabric) and through kinaesthetic sensing of the pulsating digital graphics – almost as if she could viscerally feel the digital animation. The kinaesthetic sensation of this dance is primarily proprioceptive (inner), which astonishingly becomes quite visible in the screen images of her movement. Her "dressing performance" looks entirely different from Ren’s much more extroverted, sardonic and outer-directed movement, which tends to toy with the voyeur-camera and also exaggerate both the stereotypical associations one might have with sensual/erotic gestures and the more grotesque aspects of her volatile characters.

In a separate study involving Ren, we explore further the impact of garment form constructed with Chromatte. Here Ren’s interest lies not in the quality and characteristics of the fabric, but in the constricting corset structure she wears (tightly laced and reinforced with spiral steels) and the fragments of cloth that begin to adorn her body and the influences these begin to have on her movement behaviors. She rotates her hips, displaces her weight seductively and uses her hands to further cinch in her already diminished (effects of corset) waist. The clothed body becomes the eroticized body: clothes are the form in which the fashioned body is made visible.(9) Ren’s response is equally important and enlightening to the designer, as it observes the intense kinaesthetic stimulation of the garment or accessory, in this case the corset, for her. It demonstrates the “touch” of the garment, the relationship between body and garment and how this permeates the surface beyond skin deep. Ren’s movement also acknowledges some of the conditioned movement behaviors we carry within our bodies and social expectations of dress. She is communicating to us her own erotic fantasies, the private lived experience of wearing the corset, whilst also displaying learned movement behaviours; the way we move in a tightly laced corset, or a loosely fitting pair of combats, an identity-concealing hooded top (as we avoid the continual gaze of the surveillance camera), a fluidly cut silk dress – all those countless internalized movements and knowledges.

The process is taken one stage further with the integration of the motion graphics and the dancer’s intimate engagement with her own animated self, the likely interaction of control and submission. The garment becomes capable of mediating interaction and encouraging new social relationships (between online partners). ScreenDress is ornamental and expressive, a union of design and technology. Transforming patterns grow and contract, interstitial forms, pulsating rhythms move across the surface, digitally emulating the biological body, the nerves and membranes and natural flows of energy. It is a shape-shifting kinetic form, constantly morphing, moving from concave to convex, one minute the dancer is wearing herself, her own emotions, the next she is displaying a (remote) partner's imagery, becoming interwoven and intermeshed. Positioned as progressive fashion, this is not conventional clothing, but clothing for display and experience.(10) ScreenDress is interested in the notion of watching and sensing, the intrigue of knowing more, of seeing beneath the surface. ScreenDress enables us to engage with ourselves and to touch the other (and be touched) intimately at a distance.




Barthes’s historical theory of the different structures involved in the fashion system – the real garment, the iconic structure, and the written garment – can now be extended to include the digitally animated garment and, inversely, the intelligently worn film. The shifting between forms of the garment in our project is effected by digital technology and real-time transformation: the garment is transposed from cloth to moving graphics and a fluid, sculptural, kinetic and cinematic form that resembles the visual kinetics of earlier experimental film (Moholy-Nagy, Léger) but also breathes the spirit of contemporary futurisms in the world of hip hop, games, power advertising, kung-fu and sci-fi novies.

The notion of "wearing the film" was first used by Jane M. Gaines in her analysis of specific film dresses that draw attention to the elaborate design in excess of the narrative or diegetic function (Gaines 2000). In our case, FantasyWear is a garment constructed with intelligent fabrics (sensor fabrics) allowing the motion with the garment and the body to transmit wireless signals to the computer. Rather than re-appearing as an iconic garment in the screen environment or virtual space, FantasyWear allows the dancer to animate and edit filmic scenes from a responsive database environment now activated, ruffled and moved in real-time. The garment here becomes the interface in the sense of a metaphor or bridge, producing a new live film.

What does the dancer control? How is the dancer’s experience "controlled" and affected? In the expanded kinesfield of a three, four or five-dimensional "unstablelandscape"(11), the dancer is wearing and carrying the fabric of the film, so to speak. Her body, clothed in a sensor-rich garment, directly mobilizes the image-movement, the camera eye/perspective, and thus also our eyes. As the first-person eye (like the shooter in a game world), she controls the "camera eye" in the in the programmed environment of the virtual world, through her own body motion and manipulation of fabric on skin, the underfabric of the digital data. The underwear, corset, silk-cloth, lace, is the touch of sensors, but in the interactive world of this performance, the lace also is the camera or the “controller” of the movement-images, and thus the tilts, the swoons, the falling and rising, the drift of the 3-D world that projects itself. When the dancer turns in a 360-rotation, the filmic motion enacts the same rotation. The corset, or rather the underwearing of the shifting, moveable, moldable corset reveals and dispels a world of images that floats, turns, collapses and rises. Motions of floating forms, sometime congealing to a recognizable Gestalt, sometimes flowing as graphic and geometric abstractions, anamorphoses, distortions of space. The lace and the silk become prosthetic impulses, the carnal projections hovering between the phenomenal and the biocultural, leaves of grass, leaves of sounds, colors and folded cloth and bodily animations feeding back from the screen world, the digital modulations of her figure in a suspended landscape.



[Fig. 8] Helenna Ren in Klüver. Videostill © 2006 J.Birringer

The dancer is the sensorimotor actor of the movement-image, but the question of control, in the sense of cause-and-effect, can never be fully answered, as the programming of the interface allows the sensor-rich dress to move the frames (forward, backward, fast forward, slow down, freeze-frame, jitter, etc) within algorithmic parameters that also allow the computer to interpolate or generate movement/stillness and various "masks" that act as overlays or filters of the images. The audience has the illusion as if they are floating into and through the landscape, perceiving the dancer’s kinetic movement in fluid contact with the audiovisual landscape, but of course the actual sensors are invisible (incorporated into the garment) so that no particular triggering motion can be discerned. Movement is continuous, subtle behavior as if becoming one with the film, a diver submerging in water and becoming indistinguishable from the liquid environment.

Ermira Goro, during separate rehearsals for a live computer game, enacts her role of a real/physical avatar in front of a 3D projective urban environment. The avatar and the remote players (streamed into the triptychon video projection architecture) are participants in the game which consists of hundreds of scenes filmed in several European cities merged into one (“Walhalla”). Goro is wearing 14 different sensors distributed all over her body-suit, from head to toe. In performance, she is re-choreographing her movement continuously, incorporating the sensorial processes on her body which allow her an immediate, direct relationship to the virtual worlds (digital film and animation) in front of which, into which, she literally moves and navigates. As one would navigate an avatar in a game, the dancer in this new work is navigating her own character into the digital world, and she is also responding to the programmed interactions she does not control, such as the appearances of the other players streamed in from the remote webcams.


[Fig.9] Ermira Goro as Avatar in Walhalla. Videostill © 2006 J.Birringer/Christopher Brellis


Her vocabulary and the subtlety of her gestures direct her first-person perspective into the animated world manipulated through her body and garment. This requires a deep practice (rehearsing with the sensorial fabric). At the same time, the FantasyWear itself is partly responsible for the affective and responsive proprioceptional processing of the dancer in action (her physical and affective relationship to the garment and the image of "character" created in the wearer). The emotional relationship and expressional exchange between dancer and garment, in turn, effect the projected world and its behaviors. It directly affects alterity, the other person or persons in the same space with the performer, and we do not distinguish here between "real" temporal space and disjunct real-time space. Our work takes place in tele-presence. The other persons or filmic image-scapes partner the effect, respond to the gesture, modulate perceptual experience, as in any call and response situation in a social context. The wearer is the caller, responding. The behaviors of the responsive environment are keyed to the motion in wearing.


Coda: Participatory design

New ethnographic and critical design research into the impact of human behavior on design and design practices suggests that typically we do not realize how and to what extent we are participating in and therefore shaping culture. It also suggests that the products of design engage humans both through their utility and their cultural location – their situatedness (Plowman 2005: 31). While such context-dependency and the high social variability in the connotations of dressing performance are obvious, the question of how sensorial design is experienced and interpreted has barely been answered. But our performances point to sensorial and tactile affect as primary experience of movement within the body which inhabits intensive (internal) and also extensive space. We also know that the artistic use of fashion and game scenarios can create its intimate complexities precisely through the way in which it modifies or perverts the codes it seems to be using.

At a time when we seem to move casually between real habitats and digital, virtual domains, busily reconfiguring cultural differences and boundaries, it is useful to pay attention to small details, especially when microelectronics become fused with the tissues of the human body as exotic add-ons or when iPods become cool personalized jewelry enabling private listening expression. In the realm of clothing and sensor performance, the small, minimal cues can have large consequences. Blatant erotic messages can turn into their opposites, the dialectics of gestures become blurred. In the Emergent Dress, our explorations focus on extending the process of design, ideation, and garment realization in order to further enhance experiential and emotional aspects of sensorial engagement which can inform kinaesthetics and image-making. We position not only the use, but also the design of artifact as cultural activity, continuing the shift away from the traditional approach of individually centered design activity towards a participatory activity, extending across different disciplines and different (online) communities, sharing the very acts of designing and of performance interaction.




1 Cf. Finkelstein (1997), and also Lingis (2005) and Smith/Morra (2005). For an analysis of iterative design, see Birringer (2005).

2 "Emergent Dress" has been in prototype development at the DAP Lab, a research partnership between Brunel University and The Nottingham Trent University ( The prototype collection under development includes ScreenDress, featuring collaborative design concept for garment by Michele Danjoux (fashion) and Jon Hamilton (motion graphics). "Explay" features collaborative design concept for garment by Michele Danjoux and Demosthenes Koutsogeorgis (microelectronics); “FantasyWear” is developed by Michele Danjoux, Johannes Birringer (choreography, sensordesign), Paul Verity Smith (sensordesign), with Helenna Ren and Nam Eun Song (dance), and additional corset design fabrication by Susanna Henson of Eternal Spirits. "Walhalla" is an avatar design for a live game performance developed through "I-Map", a Culture 2000 European Framework Program, with garment concept by Despina Makarouni. Test rehearsals with dancer Ermira Goro took place in the summer 2006 at Interaktionslabor Goettelborn (

3 For a provocative concurrent experiment in wearables, especially focusing on the somatic aspect of sensor technology integrated into fabrics, see Thecla Schiphorst’s description of her exhale exhibition (Schiphorst 2006). Jane Harris' work, on the other hand, explores the presence and portrayal of characters through dress and textiles in the realm of 3D Computer Graphic visualization. The digital animations (Potential Beauty) she exhibited in the UK in 2002-2003 focused on the poetic and dreamlike movement of the dresses alone, insofar as the actual wearer of the garments is "deleted" in the final screen version. However, one could argue that the body is not deleted as much as it is implied as the "source code". The dancer's movement for the animations was motion-captured, and the animation of the dress rendered through making the physical/real body invisible. See

4 Gretchen Schiller (2002: 190), in describing the installation architecture of her collaborative work trajets (with Susan Kozel), speaks of the particular "kinaesthetic responsivity" in highly mediated, sensitive and interactive environments which integrate movement and digital media. Refering to Laban’s definition of bodyspace or kinesphere, she suggests that in contemporary interactive, performative installations bodyspace extends from Laban's kinesphere or personal reach to a "kinaesthetic dynamic across material forms, forces, space and time," and she is not even including the telepresent dimension of co-present remote spaces and actors. But her theorization is evocative, as she argues that the dynamic and interaction between 2D and 3D spaces collectively fall into a new conceptual bodyspace (kinesfield), concluding that "digital technologies can bring our awareness to qualitative variations and inhabited dynamics between spaces in this kinesfield. These mediated installations, like video dance, create new physical realities offering alternative forms of intersubjective and community embodiment." See also Susan Kozel/Gretchen Schiller (2006).

5 Cf. "This Secret Location", an exhibition of performances and installations at the 2006 In between Time Festival, Arnolfini, Bristol, or Kira O'Reilly's performance Untitled Bomb Shelter at the 2005 New Territories/National Live Art Review in Glasgow. Similar one-on-one encounters have been devised by choreographers Willi Dorner and Felix Ruckert, amongst others. Microscopic intimacy was revealed in's Image-controlled sound nanospheres, an installation at the 2005 Digital Cultures Lab featuring emergent behavior and movement of cells. The growing interest in the sensorial and in emotional affect in design dominated the 2006 Design and Emotion Conference at Goeteborg's Chalmers University of Technology (

6 Sharon Baurley (2005) provides a broader context by introducing some of the advances in technical textiles production but especially in pervasive computing and the shift towards wearables, mobile devices, and the embedding of computer intelligence within everyday objects and environments. Referring to scientific research in affective computing and interaction design, Baurley points out that pervasive computing indicates the dissolution of electronics into the material environment where the interface is constant, while "affective computing," grown out of wearable computing, aims at educating intelligent systems to recognize physical and physiological patterns and translate these into emotions.

7 Barthes’ SystŹme de la mode first appeared in 1967 and has been much overlooked in performance studies. Within the emerging context of digital performance and wearable technologies, a re-viewing of Barthes’s semiological study seems long over-due, while it must be kept in mind that Barthes himself later revised his "brutally inelegant" structuralist approach, aware of the complexity of ambiguous undercoding through which fashion continuously modifies what it seems (not) to be saying. In the 1970s, Barthes’ interest also increasingly turned to the body and away from the "written" garment.

8 Whereas Hegel seems to have preferred a formless surface as "ideal" in clothing the body for the expression of the "spirit," Barthes voices his critique of Hegel by way of the silhouette in Erte's alphabet-drawings of women. "Hegel has noted that the garment is responsible for the transition from the sensuous (the body) to the signifier; the Ertean silhouette (infinitely more thought out than the fashion mannequin) performs the contrary movement (which is more rare): it makes the garment sensuous and the body into the signifier; the body is there (signed by the silhouette) in order for the garment to exist; it is not possible to conceive a garment without the body" (Barthes 2006: 153). The body, in other words, is the support for the garment.

9 On the subject of fashion and erotics, see Wilson (1985: 91-116).

10 For progressive fashion, see Hussein Chalayan (2005) and Lee (2005).

11 The term "unstablelandscape" is used by Marlon Barrios Solano to describe generative hybrid performance systems (for humans and computers) for digital real-time interaction in which dancers or participants complete the feedback loop improvisationally and all the elements in the environment are inherently changeable and unpredictable within computational parameters (Solano 2005).



Solano, Marlon Barrios (2005) "Designing Unstable Landscapes," in Johannes Birringer/Josephine Fenger (eds.) Tanz im Kopf/Dance and Cognition, Münster: Lit Verlag, pp. 279-91.

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Barthes, Roland (2006) The Language of Fashion, Andy Stafford and Michael Carter (eds.), Sydney: Power Publications.

Baurley, Sharon (2005) "Interaction design in smart textiles clothing and applications", in Xiaoming Tao (ed.) Wearable Electronics and Photonics, Cambridge: Woodhead Publishers, pp.223-43.

Birringer, Johannes (2005) "User Testing for Participatory Artworks," International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 1:2:147-73.

Deleuze, Gilles (1990) "Society of Control", L'autre journal I (May) (accessed 20 September 2006)

Evans, Caroline (2003) Fashion at the Edge, New Haven: Yale University Press. Hussein Chalayan (2005). Groninger Museum catalogue. Groningen: NAi Publishers. Finkelstein, Joanne (1997) "Chic Theory," Australian Humanities Review 5 (accessed 20 September 2005)

Foucault, Michel (1995 [1975]) Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage.

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Kozel, Susan and Schiller, Gretchen (2006) "passus: A Choreographic System for Kinaesthetic Responsivity," in Philip Beesley/Sachiko Hirosue/Jim Ruxton/Marion Tränkle/Camille Turner (eds.) Responsive Architectures, Toronto: Riverside Architectural Press, pp. 98-101.

Lee, Suzanne (2005) Fashioning The Future, London: Thames & Hudson.

Lingis, Alphonso (2005) Body Transformations. Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture, London: Routledge Marshall, Lee (ed) (1987) Erté at Ninety-Five, The Complete New Graphics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Plowman, Tim (2003) “Ethnography and Critical Design Practice”, in Brenda Laurel (ed) Design Research, Methods and Perspectives, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, pp. 30-38.

Quinn, Bradley (2003) The Fashion of Architecture, Oxford: Berg.

Schiller, Gretchen (2002) "Interactivity as Choreographic Phenomenon," in Soeke Dinkla and Martina Leeker (eds.) Dance and Technology/ Tanz und Technologie: Moving towards Media Productions - Auf dem Weg zu medialen Inszenierungen, Berlin: Alexander Verlag, pp. 164-195.

Schiphorst, Thecla (2006) “Breath, skin and clothing: Using wearable technologies as an interface into ourselves", International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 2:2:171-86.

Smith, Marquard and Morra, Joanne (eds.)(2005) The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Summers, L. 2001, Bound To Please, A History of the Victorian Corset, Oxford: Berg.

Wilson, Elizabeth (1985) Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity, London: Virago.