It sometimes seems like technology is at odds with the art world — a tension between brain and heart. But plenty of artists, from Da Vinci to Cory Arcangel, have proved that’s not true, and continue to prove it as technology evolves. In Technographica, we explore how contemporary artists are using technology in unusual and unexpected ways.
I’m standing in a massive warehouse studio in New York City, wearing a grey jumpsuit that’s randomly vibrating as I walk around. Sometimes, nothing happens, and the outfit just feels like an extra-thick space uniform that slightly restricts my range of motion. But every now and then, small buzzers near my shoulder blades and back will hop around against my skin. The jumpsuit, called Ceres, is connected to NASA’s Near Earth Object API, and those vibrations I’m feeling are indications of asteroids near Earth’s orbit.
The suit is just a prototype, but the creators eventually want anyone to be able to wear it anywhere. It was created by Wearable Media, a fashion tech studio based in New York City. Wearable Media’s founders, Yuchen Zhang, Jingwen Zhu, and Hellyn Teng, want to change how we interact with our clothes, and by extension, the world.
Wearable Media is filling a gap in the wearable industry, and it’s not just an aesthetic one. Their work pushes against popular ideas about what wearables are supposed to do. Where other wearable companies measure and track our bodies, Wearable Media wants to use our bodies to track the world.
“A lot of our concepts are coming from the idea of ‘How do we build awareness with our environment?’” Teng says. “How can we bring the imperceptible to the physical in garments?”
Zhang, the CEO; Zhu, the CTO; and Teng, the creative director, have been making clothes together since 2016, but Wearable Media didn’t officially launch until April 2017, when they were accepted by the New Museum’s New Inc. incubator project, which gave them the studio space, creative tools, and workshops they needed to expand.
Now, Wearable Media has three main prototypes, which range from physically interactive to more traditional design: Ceres, the buzzing asteroid jumpsuit; Audrey, a neoprene, Instagram-connected shirt that uses augmented reality to reveal a wearer’s “aura”; and Project Reefstone, a flowy, loose-fitting vest that’s supposed to resemble a bleached coral reef and was designed using climate science data.
Compared to other wearables like Toshiba’s AR smart glasses or any of the dozens of fitness trackers available, Wearable Media’s prototypes are a fashion-first — or at least a fashion-simultaneously — enterprise. Each piece looks like something you might see in a high-end or slightly experimental clothing line. “A lot of times when people want to utilize technology for wearables, they focus on technology,” Zhu says. “But we want to bring the beauty of technology into fashion.”They take design inspiration from runway shows, and their use of materials, like neoprene, follow recent trends in the fashion world. For Wearable Media, wearables aren’t just about tracking our bodies, but determining how our bodies look when they’re interacting with our environment. “We want to impact people on a psychological, emotional level with our designs, not just telling people how many steps they walked,” Zhang says.
The Ceres jumpsuit definitely had a psychological impact on me. I don’t think about asteroids on a daily basis, but in the jumpsuit, I have no choice but to be aware of objects hurtling around near Earth on a minute-to-minute basis. “Ceres is basically an exploration of turning our human form into a celestial-sensing body,” Teng says. “Space in many ways seems imperceptible to us. So we wanted to think of a way to bring the story onto our bodies and know that we live in a greater cosmos.”
By contrast, Audrey is a crop top that’s supposed to reflect our aesthetic online, in no small part because it connects to the wearer’s Instagram account. While it looks good in meatspace — a black neoprene shirt patterned with lines and shapes — Audrey has a second design that’s only viewable through Wearable Media’s AR app. When the shirt is connected to Instagram and viewed through the AR app, the printed pattern on it appears to float around the user in different colors. Because the different colors are pulled from the photos in the wearer’s Instagram account, Wearable Media calls this a “digital aura.” When I tested out the shirt, it was connected to Wearable Media’s Instagram account, but eventually Wearable Media wants it to be personalized for each wearer. It’s more fun than function, but it’s not hard to imagine Instagram influencers buying it in droves.
Project Reefstone takes an even simpler approach. It’s composed of many wavy panels of light fabric that have been laser cut to different sizes to represent the global land-ocean temperature index data collected by NASA over the past 40 years. Lain flat, each fabric panel represents what one year of global temperature change looks like on a graph. “That one was probably the most analog out of our garments, because the software that we created basically made the patterns for the garment,” Teng says.
Zhang, Zhu, and Teng mostly rely on a process of rapid prototyping to create their garments, and they’re constantly testing different ideas. Teng describes their process as “pretty organic,” and says it’s mostly a matter of seeing how far they can take new technological concepts, while keeping it human. Other than that, “it just kind of magically happens,” she says.
Wearable Media isn’t focused on one particular kind of technology or clothing. Each garment is a distinct project that attempts to explore one facet of our world, whether its social media, climate change, or the cosmos. And technology heightens the concepts behind the garments, and provides a way for Wearable Media to experiment. Because it’s a young company, Wearable Media’s collection of prototypes is small, but they don’t want to put a limit on the products they could eventually release.
The founders of Wearable Media say they want to change what self-expression looks like, and create concepts that explore how humans interact with technology. “We’re working with the body, so you’re literally intimately connected with the technology and the textile that’s on you,” Teng says. If you’re aware of the concepts behind them, it’s impossible to wear a Wearable Media prototype without being physically aware of the world around you.
The problem with a lot of current design-forward tech clothing, even when it’s made with real humans in mind, is that the designs are often only available to an elite group, often people with a lot of money. “We see that a lot of fashion technology projects, they’re only for runway shows,” Zhang says. “There are only a very small number of people who can wear it or try it on. For us, we want to make a wearable that everyone can experience.”
The Ceres will be available to buy in a limited collection this summer, if all goes according to plan. Zhang says that custom orders of the jumpsuit could run up to $4,000. Within the next year, Wearable Media plans to launch a widely available and “much more affordable” ready-to-wear line.
“We realized that what was most important about integrating technology was not the technology itself,” says Zhang, “but how you tell a story, how you create a look, and how you create a whole lifestyle behind this technology.”