Cyber-Jewels and Techno-Gadgets was delivered by Susan Cohn as part of the WearNow symposium held in Canberra in February, 2007. The symposium was held in association with reSkin Wearables Lab, a three week intensive research and development laboratory exploring wearable technologies. Susan Cohn looks at the reconfiguation of boundaries between function and fantasy and how the potential of clothing has provoked new exploration into material and construction techniques.
Technology captivates us, translating the imagination of science fiction into reality, and reconfiguring the boundaries between function and fantasy. Communication, health care, lifestyle, mobiles, MP3-s, cameras, organisers: these are our new world and clothing has offered an ideal way to wire us directly into it. Clothing as potential for technology has provoked new explorations onto materials, construction techniques, applications before: military uniforms for protection, corsets for enhancement, spacesuits for travel. Today too, designers and engineers, scientists and chemists, artists and technicians are implanting a host of such technologies into what we wear. But jewellers aren't doing the same thing.
Mainstream trade jewellery still controls mass taste, with jewellery marketed as a serious personal investment. This despite the Contemporary Jewellery Movement (CJM). Lasting from the sixties to the mid-nineties, CJM was the most radical spirit in jewellery history. It interrogated almost every aspect of traditional definitions, meanings and styles. Mass production was shunned but materials were democratised through appreciation and use of their non-precious varieties. It was also recognised that jewellery could be precious because of its personal association rather than just its intrinsic value. In the process jewellery became an art form, celebrating individual makers. Technology has been a research tool for new materials and new techniques: anodised aluminium, industrial plastics, electroforming, laminating, injection moulding, computer-aided modelling and so on. In this way, technology helped fulfil the skill-orientated ideals of the CJM jewellery's movement and supplement its status as art object. Yet, jewellers still bypassed technology as a strategy for ideas.
Even today, jewellers see technology as functional not ornamental, and they see jewellery as ornamental not functional. Where fashion and industrial design have developed dialogue between designers and technologists - for example the work of Joanna Berzowska and Elise Co - to bring experimental ideas to fruition, contemporary jewellery has not. Substantial financial resources are lacking along with ready access to state-of-the-art technologies. There are some signs of change, spearheaded by a handful of universities who are linking art and design students with IT media labs and science technologies.1 The reSkin lab has provided a rare opportunity for artists, craftspeople and designers to explore the potential of wearable technology with technologists and jewellers. And it will be interesting to see which projects move from idea to reality. But once students leave, it is more difficult for them to set up necessary connections with multimedia and science research industries. It's early days yet and the results remain limited. A flipside of the problem lies in the interaction between idea, technology and marketing. Jewellers, especially computer savvy makers, readily adopt the internet for promotion and marketing to reach a larger, younger and hipper audience. But, ideas are generally still about style rather than invention. Technology is not being integrated into ideas about jewellery, yet technology is already creating jewellery in the street with every piece of wearable hardware.
The precedents for wearing technology as jewellery goes back to the eighties. Cyberpunk arrived with the 1984 publication of William Gibson's sci-fi novel Neuromancer.2 In those pages, cosmetic surgery and genetic alteration met implanted circuitry and brain-computer interfacing. Electronics mated with hi-tech medicine. Technology invaded the body, often disguised as accessory. Cyberpunk filtered into street culture and fashion, where it juxta-positioned state-of-the-art technology with found industrial waste and holographic fabrics, until it finally mutated into the mainstream. The following year saw instant celebrity of Donna Haraway's essay 'The Cyborg Manifesto'.3 Unlike the hybrid superheroes of simple science fiction, a cyborg is a cybernetic organism: 'self-regulating organism that combines the natural and artificial together in one system'.4 It is the literal, physical embodiment of high-technology media-information culture. If cyberpunk was supposedly science fiction, Haraway used the cyborg to underline the extent to which science was making such fiction ... fact.
As the body is translated into digital information, high-tech medicine becomes cyborg medicine, digitising and modifying humans with increasingly sophisticated instruments and systems: artificial implants, embedded electrical stimulation systems, exoskeletal prostheses, self-powered cybernetic limbs. Medical science perforates the body, opening up choices for wearable technology and new sites for jewellery. And it's worth noting that jewellery, like clothing, can in fact be removed: wearables can respond to a social, or personal compulsion rather than irreversible physical modification, as is so often in medicine, and sci-fiction.
I close with some examples that I hope are as suggestive for others as they are for me. There are watches that monitor blood-sugar levels by analysing the chemistry of perspiration. The same technology could be adapted to identify other chemical imbalances in the body; perhaps we will see Olympic athletes wearing such devices. Jewellery could diagnose and administer medication through the skin without the wearer noticing. There are garments that already do this why not jewellery? Cancer specialists working in research labs - for example Georgia Institute of Technology - are developing 'a wearable cancer diagnosis system that will transmit data to remote analysis computer via a wireless network.'5 Using a sensor glove to scan a patient, physicians could detect malignant cells or abnormal tissue growth. But the system could also guide treatment to the exact area of the body as well as monitor the patient's response, which could allow for follow-up treatment to be administer outside the hospital. There is much research in remote diagnostic technology with many problems still to be resolved, but if patients have to wear medical devices why not provide the enjoyment of jewellery. The hospital bracelet could have a whole new meaning. The functional becomes ornamental and the ornamental functional in a new fusion of the two.
The medical body is a new use for jewellery, opening up a world of possibilities to enhance people's lives. But jewellery as wearable technology is not restricted just to medical body, it extends to any application intelligent clothing presents for businesses and the workplace. Mobile phones are already multimedia devices: calculators, organisers, cameras, videos, televisions, GPS systems. And as they converge with ever smaller wireless sensors, the nature of common everyday devices - security key fobs, blue-tooths, name badges, just to mention a few - changes, narrowing the gap between function and ornament. The Apple iPod Shuffle, and now the new smaller clip version, offers the wearer an individually programmed digital world of sound in a crisp white hip device. It is a successful piece of technology jewellery. Here, then, is where esthetics may marry technology to give birth to a new race of jewellery: techno-gadgets or cyber jewels. Not ornament or function, not precious or common, but high-function adornment, which is both precious and common.
Susan Cohn has exhibited extensively in Australia and overseas. Her work has been collected by National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, National Museums of Scotland, Alessi collection, Cruisinallo among others. During 2001-2003, the National Gallery of Australia celebrated her work in a touring 20-year survey exhibition. Cohn is currently completing a Doctorate of Fine Art Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.