Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​F​C​M​.​9​.​2.8 | PDF

Suzi Webster interviewed by Katrina Sark

Suzi Web­ster

What inspired you to be an artist and fash­ion design­er, and your inter­est in fash­ion and technology?

S.W.: As a lit­tle kid, I used to spend hours mak­ing dress­es for paper dolls. My moth­er was a dress­mak­er for a while and I think I learned to sew just by being around her, a lit­tle bit like osmo­sis. My path to becom­ing an artist was very cir­cuitous, as I first got a joint law and lit­er­a­ture degree, and I had to over­come a lot of lim­it­ing beliefs about what art could be, or what I could be. When I first went to art school, I just want­ed to learn to paint like Rem­brandt, because I thought that that is what real art was. I have always loved fash­ion, cloth­ing, and its rela­tion to per­for­mance, iden­ti­ty, and the body. I find that there is a light­ness to fash­ion that is refresh­ing after an art world that takes itself very seri­ous­ly, that can allow for more play­ful­ness. Fash­ion and tech­nol­o­gy have an intrin­sic rela­tion­ship to the new that I find inter­est­ing as well as prob­lem­at­ic. I enjoy some of the rela­tion­ships and jux­ta­po­si­tions between ancient tech­nolo­gies like weav­ing and webs to the more cur­rent tech­nolo­gies, and I feel that as an artist liv­ing at this time of mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal change that it must impact the work that I make.

Was your approach to fashion—through art and through technology—unusual at the time when you were a stu­dent? What were some of the chal­lenges you faced in your journey?

Yes and yes—the chal­lenges have been many! I was lucky to have done some research on wear­able tech­nolo­gies while an under­grad stu­dent at Emi­ly Carr, and so when I went to Lon­don to the Slade, I was right in the cen­tre of what was going on in Lon­don at the time, relat­ed to fash­ion, tech­nol­o­gy, smart mate­ri­als, and more. Even though wear­able tech­nol­o­gy was not relat­ed in any way to the Slade, the art school there was very open and unre­strict­ed, and I had access to the Dana Cen­tre for sci­ence, all sorts of inter­est­ing talks put on by Cen­tral St Mar­tins Col­lege of Fash­ion, and I could meet all sorts of oth­er cura­tors, artists, and design­ers work­ing in sim­i­lar are­nas. As some­one work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of art, fash­ion, tech­nol­o­gy, and sci­ence, I have often been told that I am not a real artist, or a real design­er, or a real tech per­son, so that is frustrating—for exam­ple my work is often shown in sci­ence muse­ums or fash­ion muse­ums rather than art muse­ums. I have also found that it can be expen­sive and unwieldy to find inter­dis­ci­pli­nary teams to work on poor­ly fund­ed art projects, and so I feel very grate­ful to peo­ple like Dr. Wal­ter Karlen, who donat­ed some of his pro­gram­ming and research on heart sen­sors to help me cre­ate Elec­tric Heart. When I first began in this field of wear­able tech­nolo­gies, I was excit­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of tech­nol­o­gy that could be soft, woven, respon­sive to the body rather than rigid and hard, teth­ered to a screen. I have always seen that the best tech­nol­o­gy has a strong rela­tion­ship to mag­ic, as does fash­ion and art, but often the best visions become com­pro­mised by the lim­i­ta­tions of the engi­neer­ing, or the mate­ri­als, or of cur­rent under­stand­ing. I think that that is why I’ve always been inspired by peo­ple like Buck­min­ster Fuller and Nicholas Tesla.

What do you find most reward­ing and inspir­ing about your work?

I love the free­dom of being an artist, I feel that it is a great priv­i­lege, and the very best part of that is get­ting to share what I have made with the world and engag­ing in dia­logue around the ideas that are gen­er­at­ed. I also real­ly love the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with envi­sion­ing things that have nev­er exist­ed before and bring­ing them into reality.

Do you iden­ti­fy more as a mul­ti­me­dia artist or a design­er, and how do you dis­tin­guish between the two?

I love this ques­tion! I feel that cur­rent­ly the bound­aries between art and design are quite blurred, par­tic­u­lar­ly with con­cep­tu­al design and the way retail fash­ion mim­ics the aes­thet­ics of the art gallery, but I would say that I iden­ti­fy more as an artist because I am not set­ting out to solve a design prob­lem for a client or to cre­ate a line of repro­ducible gar­ments. In the past I might have said that art asks ques­tions, and design pro­vides solu­tions, but this line has also become more complex.

Can you please describe your design process?

One of my very first sculp­tur­al pieces as a young art stu­dent was an “enlight­en­ment machine.” The idea of turn­ing breath into light is not so far from that notion, and I have long been inter­est­ed in the eli­sions and inter­sec­tions between mag­ic, con­scious­ness, and tech­nol­o­gy. One of the biggest hur­dles to over­come in the piece was the means to turn breath into light. The breath sen­sor required a bit of a hack­er approach to repur­pose exist­ing tech­nolo­gies for a dif­fer­ent func­tion, and I was lucky enough to find elumin8. LED tech­nol­o­gy is very advanced and afford­able today, but elumin8 was the clos­est to pro­vid­ing a flex­i­ble matrix with their silkscreen process­es. The com­pa­ny was also very sup­port­ive of young artists and design­ers, which was amazing. 

Can you please describe how you con­cep­tu­al­ized the Elec­tric Heart?

Elec­tric Skin was the first in the series, fol­lowed by Elec­tric Dreams that looked at turn­ing thought into light. This was both tech­ni­cal­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly way too far ahead of its time to ful­ly real­ize. When I start­ed on Elec­tric Heart, I was think­ing not only about the rela­tion­ship between the wear­er and the gar­ment, but about how a gar­ment might reflect the rela­tion­ship between two indi­vid­u­als. This was just before the advent of the smart phone, and I think that if we look now at how this tech­nol­o­gy has impact­ed how we inter­act this was part of the impe­tus behind the cre­ation of Elec­tric Heart. I have become increas­ing­ly con­cerned about the ways in which tech­nolo­gies are becom­ing more and more dis­em­bod­ied, more and more isolated/isolating, which is a strong coun­ter­point to the evo­lu­tion of the gar­ment. With this piece I was com­plet­ing the trilogy.

You are based in Van­cou­ver and have worked and taught at sev­er­al art schools there. How would you describe the Van­cou­ver fash­ion scene, its fash­ion schools, and the cut­ting-edge design that is pro­duced there in terms of eco-fash­ion and inno­v­a­tive technology?

I was instru­men­tal in assist­ing Emi­ly Carr Uni­ver­si­ty to set up its wear­able and inter­ac­tive prod­ucts lab, and taught the first inter­ac­tive wear­ables class there for a few years, but that was more through the lens of art than fash­ion. There are a num­ber of insti­tutes in Van­cou­ver offer­ing diplo­mas in fash­ion design, but to the best of my knowl­edge the only four-year fash­ion degree pro­gram is offered through Kwantlen’s Wil­son School of design. Despite the preva­lence of yoga wear, there is a keen inter­est in fash­ion in Van­cou­ver, par­tic­u­lar­ly in alter­na­tives to main­stream fash­ion, with events like Vancouver’s Alter­na­tive Fash­ion week and Indige­nous Fash­ion Week that show­cas­es First Nations’ designs and models.

How would you describe the emerg­ing fash­ion schol­ar­ship and fash­ion com­mu­ni­ties in Canada?

As a mem­ber of the Cana­di­an Fash­ion Schol­ars Net­work, I have been real­ly inter­est­ed in the diver­si­ty of peo­ple com­ing togeth­er around fash­ion, whether as fash­ion schol­ars from a range of dis­ci­plines from lit­er­a­ture to soci­ol­o­gy, to artists and design­ers, to cura­tors. I think that many region­al fash­ion con­ver­sa­tions are fair­ly well estab­lished, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Toron­to and Mon­tre­al, but a nation­al dia­logue is still very nascent, and I see it as a field where there is still lots of opportunity.

What advice would you give to young fash­ion designers?

My best advice is to stay true to your own vision, to unearth your own voice. Get the best train­ing you can, whether at Ryer­son or KPU, trav­el as much as pos­si­ble to see what is going on in the rest of the world, and don’t be afraid to try for things like the Toron­to Fash­ion Incu­ba­tor, which hosts an annu­al com­pe­ti­tion with a prize val­ued at $90,000, Re\Set Fash­ion, Fash­ion­Can, and the Cana­di­an Arts and Fash­ion Awards, which help to rec­og­nize, nur­ture, and men­tor Cana­di­an talent.

And what advice would you give to young fash­ion scholars?

Fol­low your pas­sion, your curios­i­ty, and your crit­i­cal analy­sis; find that place or ques­tion where those three inter­sect and start to mine your ideas there. Even if we are liv­ing in a time awash with infor­ma­tion, wis­dom and orig­i­nal thought are in as short sup­ply as ever.

What are you cur­rent­ly work­ing on?

For the last year and a half, I have been work­ing on two com­mis­sions for the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Muse­um of Sci­ence and Indus­try in Chica­go and for an upcom­ing exhi­bi­tion on the future of wear­able tech­nolo­gies. The muse­um was inter­est­ed in Bark­ing Mad, which is an urban sur­vival coat that helps shy, stressed peo­ple deal with sit­u­a­tions of urban over­crowd­ing. Prox­im­i­ty sen­sors respond to infringe­ments on per­son­al space with the sound of bark­ing dogs. The coat barks like a small poo­dle if the space infringe­ment is not too severe, if a rot­tweil­er or some­one gets too close. This piece was first shown in Van­cou­ver for the 2010 Olympics. It has been an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence to revis­it this work ten years lat­er and to see the improve­ments in tech­nolo­gies that are now avail­able, such as laser sen­sors and much faster micro-pro­cess­ing capac­i­ty. Of par­tic­u­lar excite­ment to me is the pos­si­bil­i­ty to final­ly ful­ly real­ize Elec­tric Dreams with the assis­tance of the Muse­um. When I first cre­at­ed this work, the tech­nol­o­gy was not yet avail­able for me to do what I want­ed to do, but it seems that it is now with­in reach. Elec­tric Dreams is a hand-mold­ed felt head­dress and gar­ment that makes the rela­tion­ship between light and thought tan­gi­ble and vis­i­ble. EEG elec­trodes mon­i­tor the dreamer’s brain­waves and the pri­vate and fleet­ing day­dreams of the dream­er are trans­formed into a shift­ing and ephemer­al dis­play of light and colour. Side-lit fibre optics car­ry these light impuls­es into the body of the gar­ment to empha­size the dis­trib­uted and net­worked nature of the ner­vous sys­tem through­out the skin of the body, not just the head.

My piece Dis­trib­uted Net­works was fea­tured in the “Cod­ed Threads” exhi­bi­tion at the West­ern Gallery in Belling­ham, curat­ed by Seiko Pur­due. It’s a depar­ture from the tech­no­log­i­cal aspects of my work and a response to some of the chal­lenges I expe­ri­enced in real­iz­ing Elec­tric Heart. Weary of dis­em­bod­ied hours spent on the com­put­er, and the grow­ing tech­no­log­i­cal alien­ation that I see all around us, I want­ed to visu­al­ize the com­plex web of infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and data flow of the inter­net in a tan­gi­ble, tac­tile way. The work draws from the dia­gram of a dis­trib­uted net­work designed by Paul Baran as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work that would sur­vive a nuclear attack, and that formed the schemat­ic for the inter­net. The net­work was assumed to be unre­li­able at all times and to oper­ate while in tat­ters. The work uses upcyled text/ile waste to weave a com­plex web of phys­i­cal engage­ment with the space and invites the view­er to enter and play with notions of ten­sion and release, con­nec­tion and dis­con­nec­tion, entrap­ment and motion. This instal­la­tion was a visu­al med­i­ta­tion on the rela­tion­ships between bod­ies, tech­nolo­gies, and the poten­tials and respon­si­bil­i­ties of interconnection. 

If you could col­lab­o­rate with any­one in the world, who would you like to work with?

Alexan­der McQueen, Nep Sid­dhu, and Husseyn Chalayan.