Review of current practice and associated literature
The use of technology including smart materials, wearable electronics, AR and VR technology has rapidly expanded in the field of fashion and visual art in the last 5-10 years to provide more opportunities for arts audiences to engage with what is broadly defined as ‘immersive’ experience. The term ‘immersive’ has been adopted by technologies that immerse the audience typically through an augmented or virtual experience but is is arguable that any experience can be immersive for an individual, dependant upon their personal experience of an artwork that enabling engagement on a deep level, blocking out other aspects of both the exterior environment and internal dialogue, to focus on the artwork and their relationship to it.
Fashioning the Voice developed from a starting point of a desire to explore the connections and synergies between styling the (dressed) body and styling the voice. The project engages with dialogues from public art, fashion, luxury, technology, performance and voice studies and the prototype could be developed for a wide range of outcomes that include stage costume, commercial luxury fashion and visual art. This potential breadth of application is both a challenge and an opportunity within the research and in order to take a rigorous approach to develop a meaningful, effective outcome we have, at this stage of the research, chosen to focus on developing an outcome for a visual art field. This review of practice contextualises our work within the field and emphasises why we have taken this route, through outlining both the continued public interest in the subject of fashion as well as how public art venues are increasingly prioritising ‘deep’ engagement, in alignment with the Arts Council England’s 2020 strategy (Arts Council England, 2020). This review demonstrates how this project builds on dialogues around embodiment, dressing and identity whilst providing an original experience of what we call the ‘styled voice-body’. With the potential to extend the research and practical application in a number of areas, this review could be much more extensive.
Exhibitions and artworks
The Fashion exhibition
Exhibitions that are fashioned themed, typically focusing on the work of a designer, design house, a movement or thematic area that brings a number of designers and styles together have demonstrated huge public popularity in recent years. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams drew more than 590,000 visitors, making it the most attended show in the V&A’s history. Though the 2015 exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, attracted 493,043 visitors but ran for just over four months (14 March-2 August). The number of daily visitors for the Dior was just over 2,800, while the McQueen exhibition had 3,470 visitors a day.(Harris & Da Silva, 2019). According to the Art Newspaper’s survey of exhibition visitor figures for 2018, the most popular exhibition was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, a Costume Institute show that boldly mixed religious works of art—including 42 ecclesiastical pieces from the Sistine Chapel sacristy—with haute couture, was seen by nearly 1.7 million people (10,919 visitors a day) It is notable that a further 230,000 people visited the show at the “comparatively sleepy” venue Met Cloisters, (Sharpe & De Silva, 2019). Sharpe and Da Silva attribute part of the Heavenly Bodies success to the growth in public appetite for exhibitions that consider fashion, whether that of a designers archive, such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, shows that incorporate fashion alongside other aspects of art and design such as the V & A’s most popular show of 2018 which displayed a number of outfits and personal affects of the artist Frida Kahlo alongside her artworks. Even exhibitions of items considered part of ‘everyday’ fashion vernacular such as MoMA’s most popular show of 2018 Items: Is Fashion Modern? have provided high visitor numbers evidencing a highly sustained public interest in all aspects of fashion: couture, everyday and the historic.
Art, fashion and clothing
Vanessa Beecroft ‘s practice for approximately the last 26 years has involved performance art working with (usually) professional models placed in a static formation or choreographed in what she has described as a living painting or tableaux vivant. Beecroft’s models are sometimes nude, sometimes adorned with body paint, wearing wigs and sometimes clothed. When clothed Beecroft’s models are often dressed by high end designers, she has worked with Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana, and Manolo Louis Vuitton, Knappa. Since 2008 Beecroft has collaborated frequently with Kanye West staging shows, music video, catwalk and tableaux vivant that in their location, contextual relationship to fashion brand and commercial opportunity have blurred the boundaries between commercial event and artworld occasion. Concepts of voyeurism and representation are prescient within Beecroft’s work and she has been widely criticised for narrow casting and reductionist representation of women (Ryallcontemporary.com, 2017; W Magazine, 2016). Beecroft’s work, however it is understood, brings high (luxury, high cost) fashion into an art context to be looked at and considered in relation to the (usually female) body.
Art and the [extended] body
In addition to the fashion exhibition it is necessary to understand the history of artworks that engage with the body through technological intervention and extension. Both The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics, shown from July to October 2016 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection in London, July – October 2012 combined scientific objects with those that had emerged from more speculative art and design practice to provide a version of the history of explorations of the extended body.
“We have an inherent desire to go beyond our capabilities, to push beyond our limits. We study to increase knowledge, make machines to produce more than we can with our own hands, create devices to go faster, see further, speak louder and, when our bodies refuse to do what we think they should, we find ways to supplement them and exceed our corporeal boundaries.” (Lisa Le Feuvre, 2019)
Le Feuvre succinctly describes a human drive that throughout history has led to scientists, engineers, inventors, artists, designers exploring how we can go beyond the bodies we have seeking to extend, improve improvise and play. Historically we might look at the work of artists such as Rebecca Horn including Mechanical Bodyfan(s) (1973-4) and further back Oskar Schlemmar’s Triadic Ballet (1926-29) as artworks that we could map as part of a historical discourse of working with body, performance, technology and the associated concepts of what it is to be a person in a body, furthermore how that sense of personhood might shift when the body is extended using available technology to do something more or other. Schlemmer’s costumes designed for the Triadic Ballet are particularly interesting to analyse in relation to the aspirations of Fashioning the Voice, using equipment from physical education he attempted to lengthen the dancers limbs, forcing them to “empathise with their own mechanics” (Le Feuvre, 2019). In early audience testing with the second prototype trenchcoat we have provided users with the opportunity to extend their voice in a range of ways and in exploring this; one user commented “the experience made me concentrate on my body, thoughts and feelings rather than what the coat looks like from the outside” (anonymous participant from testing at the Showcase Gallery, 2019). Whilst Horn worked primarily producing body sculptures that she fitted to herself and Schlemmer performers, the audience are allowed to look at the sculptures and documentation through photographs and video of them in use, but they do not experience the work on their own bodies, the art experience is, at a distance, through viewing the work.
Art and embodied experience
Following on from works that extend, explore and intervene with the body for audiences to view, some artists have focused more specifically on the [embodied] experience of the audience. Embodied Encounters was curated by David Familian and Simon Penny at Beall Center for Art and Technology, October 2016- January 2017, the exhibition was staged in conjunction with the Body of Knowledge conference at University of California, Irvine. The conference focused upon interrogating “discourses around arts practices that deal with emerging paradigms of Embodied (and Enactive, Situated, Distributed, Extended) cognition”. (Familian and Penny, 2017)
Included in Embodied Encounters Rhona Bryne’s work Huddlewear (2015) comprises of loose structures akin to a cape or tent with several hoods attached in a bright yellow fabric contained within a matching bright yellow carpeted space. Participants are encouraged to put on the Huddlewear and in doing so have “an opportunity to explore the person-environment relationship and the unstable conditions of place and affect”. Huddlewear is an artwork that provides an art experience that is designed to facilitate feelings of connection that is ‘in real life’ (IRL) rather than online or virtual, an alternative to putting on a VR headset which can be isolating as an experience.
Also included within Embodied Encounters, Sha Xin Wei’s work Time Lenses (2016) provides an art experience that requires the art gallery visitor to be physically active in their engagement with the work. The work is described by Sha Xin Wei as “not a performance but the condition of performance: it conditions an interior space such that ordinary activity can acquire poetic or rhythmic (musical) charge”. Any activity in the space, removing the need for the participant to have a required level of competence produces a different set of rhythmic projections. These works and the conference accompanying the exhibition sought to provide new ways of thinking about “intelligence in action” that puts embodied experience at the centre of the enquiry.
Embodied experience and fashion
Dress, not merely to protect or preserve the body, also embellishes it “the materials commonly used adding a whole array of meanings to the body that would otherwise not be there”. (Entwistle, 2000). The concept of embellishments could also be applied to voice, our voice does not merely reflect our natural body, we make a range of choices that are both conscious and unconscious in the way that we stylise our voices appropriate to both the situation and our identity preferences. Pitch, accent and intonation can be digital as well as physical inflictions, we are familiar with this digital manipulation of voice through popular music.
The voice emerges from our vibrating vocal folds, and then our exquisitely responsive and malleable vocal tract sculpts the sounds that emerge. This process is dependent on a wide range of variables – biological, emotional, cultural and contextual – and as such, it is ever-in-flux, under a strange combination of conscious control, unconscious learned habits, and physical limitations and potentials: we fashion our sound. Findlay (2016) contends that clothing intertwines with imagination, self-perception and embodied experience, to co- fabricate a sense of being-in-the-world. Our garments that ‘make’ voice, that shape voice, that project voice, and that literally vibrate with voice, echo the agency we use to choose, shape and move in clothing – grounding it in a dialogue between the ‘biological’ (or more fixed) aspects of embodiment and the tactile, visual and choreographic qualities of clothing. Using ‘voiced’ clothing we stage identity and mark a marginal space that can be played with (Kaiser 2001). Our research examines body/identity/performance relationships through a prototype garment: a trench coat with monitoring sensors used to harness and tease out the synergy between material clothing and internal body, potentially dissolving the boundaries of sensations in fashioning body and voice. Sensors gather data from the body’s interaction with the coat; gestures, movement, EMG, and touch. We then apply different mapping techniques including artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a unique voice for the user that resonates between fashion, performance and voicing. The project engages with debates in fashion and technology to consider future of luxury, fashion and costume that furthers its power to create imaginary worlds and extend the self.
Jessica Bugg’s work developing methods for embodied clothing design and communication is an example of how design process over the last 15 years has been reconsidered through employing a research processes that uses knowledge learned through considering embodied experience. Bugg’s work develops garment design based on analysing body movements on video and then refining the design on the body(Bugg, J 2002-2004) . Made for performance and exhibition outcomes working with professional dancers or performers wearing the clothing the final outcomes Bugg proposes that if design is approached with the body, the embodied experience at its core it can provide an alternative dialogue to clothing developed through more traditional design process. Our project extends this opportunity through developing garments and the environments they are situated within not for the ‘expert’ or ‘professional’ but for broader publics to experience and embody. By designing for general publics, rather than professionals we extend the enquiry by allowing a broader range of people, without specialist knowledge to encounter an experience that provides an opportunity for them to explore their extended voice-body. Through working with diverse audiences the research can have a greater impact.
In terms of conceptualising the art experience we are developing in relation to commercial fashion experiences, as a team, we have been influenced by considering Efrat Tseëlon’s chapter in the collection Fashion and Art (2012: 111–20) entitled Authenticity, as a way of thinking about how the experience we might be providing could be understood and developed for different audiences (this builds upon Bonenfant’s previous work with Curious Replica’s (2018)). Using Tseëlon’s theory of Authenticity we can consider how the experience of wearing our tech enabled trenchcoat (or other garments yet to be developed) might allow a user to participate in a sort of vocal styling of the self that goes beyond ‘mass fashion’, in terms of pret-a-porter (sold as ready to wear, standardised sizes we buy ‘off the rack’ as opposed to made to measure clothes). Although the coat is the same coat for all the voice is what we might refer to as ‘bespoke’.
“The body [in contrast to digital technology], though, is analogue and driven by the senses, and we have long built palpable extensions for it. Often the best way to understand something is to try to make it. What happens, then, if we try to make a body?” (Le Feuve, 2019). Le Feuve’s comment sums up where we are currently in creating and testing these prototypes and exploring how audiences respond – what can happen if we try to make a voice body and invite people to try it on?
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