Digital clothing takes center stage at S.F. Exploratorium

At the opening night of an exhibit celebrating digital clothing, designers show how fashion can be high-tech and how high-tech can be fashionable.

A man wearing a costume covered in green LEDs at the Exploratorium for the opening night of the 2nd Skin digital-clothing exhibition. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

SAN FRANCISCO--A man wearing costumes covered head to toe in LEDs. Another man wearing a suit made of bubble wrap. A woman in a skirt made of Snickers wrappers. And a woman in a dress that generates power when she moves.

This was opening night of the 2nd Skin exhibit, a celebration of "imaginative designs in digital and analog clothing," at the Exploratorium here. And if the best and brightest in clothing embedded with technology and pure cacophony weren't on hand tonight, I can't even imagine where else they might be.

I didn't know quite what to expect at this event. But within minutes of walking through the door of this wonderful science museum, I was participating in one of the oddest group circles I've ever encountered. Known as ok2touch, a project by MIT Media Lab members Jay Silver and Jodi Finch, it was an outfit that was the central element in a circuit that can be made up of almost anything, as long as human skin is a part of it.

The idea, explained Silver, is that the outfit--which is designed with special metallic-based conductive thread--turns people's bodies into musical instruments, along with the bodies of anyone else around who is touched.

That's why Silver organized myself and a bunch of others into a big circle and then proceeded to explain how, as long as we all held hands, our collective movements would produce music on the outfit being worn by a model who was also in the circle.

And it didn't have to be hands: we could bump foreheads, and music would erupt from the outfit.

Adrian Vanallen poses with her dog in a dress that honors 18th-century anatomist Robert Hook Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"The project is about designing more human-to-nature contact," said Silver, pointing out that it works with water, flowers, and skin-on-skin, and that, for example, the circuit can go through water without any kind of danger. That's why, when I first walked up, Silver was having people run their fingers through some water on the ground, and the model's outfit was breaking out in music.

The larger message behind the project? That it's OK to touch each other.

"We learn so much about when it's not OK to touch," Silver said. But "touch is just such an important part of our humanness."

Next, I wandered over to a different area at the Exploratorium where a photographer was getting those people taking part in the evening's fashion show--the central event of the exhibition--to pose for pictures.

Amisha Gadani shows off her self-inflating dress during the opening of the 2nd Skin exhibition at the Exploratorium on Friday night. The dress is meant to be reminiscent of the actions of a blowfish. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

As Adrian Vanallen stepped down from the photographer's lights, I grabbed her. That's because she was wearing an outfit adorned with some sort of complex outline of the human anatomy--and she was carrying a small dog whose internal anatomy was also pictured on an outfit it was wearing.

Vanallen explained that her outfit represented an 18th-century anatomy circulation system created by English scientist Robert Hook, whom, she said, theorized that there were mini-humans inside our cells. Her outfit and that of her dog, then, were odes "to the history and the future of anatomy."

Nearby, Amisha Gadani was showing off her self-inflating dress. At least a couple of people seemed to see it as a dress that would autonomously re-enact the famous Marilyn Monroe scene from The Seven Year Itch, but Gadani said it was about something else entirely.

In fact, she said, the dress was based on blowfish behavior.

"Whenever I'm intimidated," she said, speaking in the guise of a human playing a blowfish, "I blow up. And I deflate when I feel like I'm safe again."

She said that someone had told her that the dress--which she actually inflates with a little control button she holds in her hand that operates a couple of fans built into the fabric--might be more like a mating ritual than something that scares people away.

"I'm OK with that," she said, "but it's definitely inspired by a blowfish."


For those interested in people watching, this was an evening to remember. Everywhere you looked there were men, women, and children dressed to the nines in all manner of outlandish outfits. Some were just for fun, and others were for the fashion show.

Some were dressed in various forms of circus attire, while others were adorned in what looked to be many, many, many layers of orange pom-poms.

And then there were the three people walking around together in matching full-body outfits of dozens and dozens of protruding circular foam pieces.

In the fashion show toward the end of the evening, my favorite piece might have been Amanda Parkes and Adam Kumpf's Piezing, a dress that is able to generate its own power based on the model's natural gestures while walking. The way it works, according to the evening's program, is that it "converts mechanical strain into electrical voltage as a person walks."

Another interesting piece in the digital part of the fashion show was Leah Buechley and Hunter Ewan's Reconfigure, a dancing outfit that creates music with the wearer's body motions. As the model wearing the dress strutted her stuff on the catwalk, the outfit broke out in all forms of music, a very odd experience.

Jill Haefele walks around the Exploratorium with her raining umbrella. It is covered with nasturtium, and has a reservoir filled with water on her back, which pumps a spray of rain onto the plants. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Back off the catwalk, however, I ran into Jill Haefele, who works in the Exploratorium's living systems department, and she talked to me about her Portable Nasturtium plant, which was doubling as a rain-producing umbrella.

The way this works: Haefele had a container of water strapped to her back, out of which came a tube that was pumping water up into the air. It would then come down as "rain" on her umbrella, which was made with Nasturtium, a lovely green plant.

A man working with electroluminescent wire, otherwise known as EL wire, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on Friday night. The EL wire was part of a larger creation he was making. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

As she walked around, the system was producing the rain and she was forced to keep on moving lest the water puddle up around her feet.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. Everywhere you looked, someone was wearing an outrageous outfit, often adorned with some form of lighted technology. In many cases, it was electroluminescent wire, or EL wire, a form of thin, battery-powered, wire somewhat reminiscent of neon.

As a longtime Burning Man veteran, I am very familiar with EL wire, and that annual countercultural arts festival is one of the first places the colored wire became well known.

But these days, it is cheaper and much stronger and brighter than it used to be. So all over the place at the Exploratorium, I was almost blinded by the intensity of the EL wire necklaces, hats, and other garments people were wearing.

While the opening night exhibition was a lot of fun, visitors can enjoy some of the pieces from the evening throughout the full 2nd Skin run, which lasts until Sept. 7.

 

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