LSU Professor Defining New Field of Wearable Technology

(Baton Rouge) – Imagine a plumed hat with feathers that react to the radio waves emitted by cell phone activity. Or an arm band that administers a pin prick to its wearer each time a soldier dies in Iraq. Those are just two examples of what‟s being called “wearable technology art,” an exciting new field of digital art that is being shaped and defined by an associate professor of art history in LSU‟s College of Art and Design.

“I kind of made up the term ‘wearable technology art’ to define this field,” says Susan Ryan, an expert in contemporary art history who is one of the leaders of this cutting-edge, international movement. “It had been used before sporadically but I‟m trying to give it some heft and some real meaning.”

To that end, Ryan is organizing exhibitions, producing catalogs, compiling essays written by herself and others, and shopping for a book publisher. Her goal is to help create a discourse that will shape this nascent movement, which fuses art, technology and fashion with social consciousness.

If that sounds a bit intangible, consider some of the specific examples from a recent exhibition called “Social Fabrics: Art + Media + Interconnectivity” that Ryan staged at the University of Texas in Dallas with financial support from the LSU College of Art and Design. Among the pieces on display at the February show:

  • A necklace from a Scottish artist that senses the presence of other human bodies and notifies the wearer by lighting up.
  • The large, plumed hat, created by an Austrian artist, with feathers that stand on end when they come into the proximity of the EMF waves emitted by cell phones.
  • A bra, worn proudly by its Texas creator, that lights up in reaction to excessive noise pollution.
  • The aforementioned arm band that was linked to a data mining sequence. It‟s activated each time a soldier is killed in Iraq, pricking its wearer with a pin and displaying the name of the fallen on an LED window.

“There are so many exciting things going on around the world by these people who all consider themselves to be intervention artists,” explains Ryan, who first became interested in this field in the early 2000s. “They all have a social purpose.”

That means their works are not likely to be collected by museum curators and gallery owners, at least not yet. Nor will they be shown off by runway models. For now, they‟re being worn by their creators, who all have a message they‟re trying to send with their smart-fabric slacks and solar-panel jackets. Ryan is trying to make sense of it all and give it some structure.

Her efforts are being well received. Already, she is recognized as one of the leaders in this field around the world. She is extensively published in the on-line publications and scholarly journals that cover emerging art forms. She is delivering a paper on the topic of wearable technology art in Singapore this summer, and is hoping to help organize another exhibition in the fall.

“There are a limited number of places these artists can show because of the nature of the pieces they do,” Ryan explains. “These are artists who are driven to do what they do because

As a contemporary art historian, Ryan has always been interested in cutting-edge artistic movements. Because contemporary art changes so rapidly, she found herself studying new trends almost every year. That rate of change accelerated rapidly in the 1990s with the proliferation of the internet, and by the early 2000s she had become aware of the development of the movement she now calls wearable technology art.

She first wrote about it in an essay published under the title “Computer Couture.” That was in 2004. The following year, Hurricane Katrina wiped out her Uptown New Orleans home, destroying her computer, her documents and her all of research. Like so many of the storm‟s victims, she regrouped, relocated to Baton Rouge, where she was already working at LSU, and decided to devote her energies to something that she found truly meaningful.

“This was something I just really felt I had to do,” she says. “Clothing design is a creative activity that has always been devalued by society because of gender bias. But it turns out that people who are designing clothes have been contributing ideas to what we think about and nowhere is that more true than with digital fashion.”