Response-ability in Times of Precarity

Surface Design as Embedded Critique

Abstract

This paper considers a hybrid approach to making fashion by looking at the creation of Reu Jacket, ‘a zero-waste responsive garment’ that drew inspiration from lichen1 as a model for adaptive resilience.2 The approach to designing the garment established an experimental, practice-based space to explore the undecided and emergent. In prototyping this approach, the work speculated on the value of growth through reconfiguration.

How can creative practice create space for the not-yet?

What kind of futures can we craft with what we already have?

Figure one: Reu Jacket. Image taken by Thong at Studio Raw Language, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Figure one: Reu Jacket. Image taken by Thong at Studio Raw Language, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Precarity is the defining quality of our time.

It is a two-sided coin.

The endemic precarity of the moment is that of the historical accident,3 linear progress accelerated to its logical conclusion. This kind of precarity is based on a fictitious, looming crash horizon, resulting in a ‘shrinking of the present.’4 Precarity here creates reactivity, grasping at certainties and extreme risk aversion.

But precarity has an alternative aspect. For creative practice, precarity has the potential to be an enlivening condition. Responding creatively to precarity would invite flow as a negotiation of unstable instants and unsteady moments.

How to practise with precarity as a response, rather than a reaction?

By looking at the approach underpinning Reu Jacket, I seek to address the asphyxiated quality in our present, the atmosphere that suggests a future negated. This atmosphere has a deep impact on creative practices. A harmful dynamic issuing from neoliberal systems manifests in a few key ways for creatives. Busyness,5 self-entrepreneurial reactivity, 6 and anthropocentric historicism 7 can induce a certain claustrophobia. In light of these issues, I would argue that we need to make time,8 do less, 9 and reclaim space for the undecided.

The Reu Jacket project addressed the phenomenon of asphyxiation in both imaginative and practical terms. Making time and doing less created space for the undetermined. To this end, the project drew on upcycling, zero-waste draping, and generative surface design. These strategies allowed for an approximation of scenarios not-yet available. Modelling a myriad of permutations imagined and configured alternatives as tangible and experienceable. Disrupting typical narratives in this way was an imaginative and speculative process.

Figure two: Cutting garment panels in Ho Chi Minh City. Global flows can determine and impose rigid structures on local making. Waste becomes a by-product of the inflexibility of a system driven by top-down design to satisfy financial demands. For workflows comprised of fixed and predetermined elements, waste is categorically othered. Systems operating in excessive registers have no place for (their) waste. In this equation, the making process can only ever be a reactive production of difference. Image taken at a CMT facility in Ho Chi Minh City.
Figure three: End of roll and damaged woven silk and blends.
 Recuperating value from waste is dependent upon subjective judgement. Acts of recuperation are often labour intensive, requiring intensive attention and consideration. Extreme volumes of waste textiles and garments are the by-product of automated, scaled systems. However, automating the recuperation of value from the waste produced by these systems is challenging. Image taken in the storage space of a weaving facility in Ho Chi Minh City.

Making space began by considering growth, growth through transformation, growth in complexity, growth of internal connections, growth elaborated from simple starting points.

A piece of uncut cloth, a cell.

The practice set out with the repetition of habitual known acts: observing grain line, centre, front and back, landmarks on the body, the hang of the cloth, establishing a loop, bringing it in relation to garment block landmarks. Through repetition in unlikely contexts, practice is moved into a space of quiet expansiveness.

Each strategy enacted a top-down decision to allow space for a bottom-up process. Configuring basic parameters through simple rules left the process open to divergence. A key point of departure was found in panels selected from end of roll and damaged silk sourced from a Ho Chi Minh City-based weaving facility. Form and embellishment emerged from a response to the shapes of fragments. Practice organised in this way is at odds with normative fashion design practices.10 Form emerged based on rules established to abstract, repeat and transpose information.

Zero-waste draping (ZWD), both with physical and digital cloth, was contingent on existing means and conditions. Form took shape from process. Zero-waste draping and upcycling allowed for emergent forms of creative reuse, taking inspiration from and working with the found as is.

Similarly, generative surfaces assumed simple starting points, allowing for complex elaboration to emerge. Surfaces arose independent of authored control. Computational surface design brought found dimensions and defined form into a responsive space. By simulating natural growth patterns across a surface, embellishment was grown.

These processes marked cloth with traces of gestures, registering folds, cuts, side-steps, adhesions. Assuming form from infinite possibilities manifested links originating from moments of pause. Of the various permutations suggested by bringing cloth in relation to a body, of growth over a surface, these are the moments that resonated. Here, traces implied a ‘factum’11—a provisional and evolving constellation of traces bound data to a local embodiment in material. Draped cloth became a digital record of a cascade of loaded gestures and resonant moments. Instability and implacability in these acts held the promise of futures unset.

Figure four: ZWD principles augment practice according to simple parameters. Drawing upon traditional draping techniques, they engage with a full uncut panel in its entirety. Shapes emerge through response and suggestion. Such simple rules allow space for the undecided.
Figure five: Digital ZWD. Digital draping is its own discrete craft, distinct from ZWD on a stand. Draping digital cloth on an avatar is contingent on moments of pause. The same simple rules apply, creating potential for the unexpected.

In both cases, elaboration was non-predetermined. Growth, in form and surface embellishment, was a response to parameters and conditions. A reflexive conversation with the situation at hand iterated a shifting, provisional stance. This stance created conditions to ‘hone the craft of doing nothing, slip [sic] below the threshold of action.’12 Practice inhabited a reality grasped at in the dark, ‘Creative practice is always moving into the darkness. It’s always assembling unknown elements… without those chance connections you wouldn’t have a practice.’ 13 a not-yet stumbled across and leaned into. What emerged was often a surprise.

Figure six: Growing traces in a 3D-modelling space. Each loop in time adds another cell, mimicking the growth pattern of lichen. The position of each cell is dependent on conditions—the position of its neighbour and the surrounding environment. A pattern emerges in relation to the garment block and its landmarks, such as pocket bag and box pleat. This set up enables embellishment to be grown across a parametric garment block.

The processes that emerged share similarities with a practice of bricolage. The process was a patchwork of approaches, a hybrid space. Bricolage enabled active reconfiguration of the habitual, the tacit, the memory of change. It framed acts of assembling, dismantling and rearranging, recuperating value in unexpected spaces. The lichen-esque quality of growing ex nihilo arose through a repairing and remaking protocol. Bricolage-like practices made a habit of establishing space for considered response. Responses elicited elaborations without finite conclusion or teleological endpoint.

Critical imagining unfolded in the act of composition itself, not as passive, reactionary, entrepreneurial subjectivity, nor as sole author. Response was constituted as part of an evolving composition where moment-to-moment departures, revisions and transpositions created a hybrid, pieced-together cloth. Adopting a new position through continued elaborative change wrote the conditions for an active now. It is in this way that simple acts refused a set historical account, a predetermined chronology.

Figure seven: Pause facilitated transposition of the varied permutations of growth. Traces were defined through sensed limits.

Mediation14 can associate and entangle creative practice with acceleration and optimisation.15 Used uncritically, this can lead practice into alignment with the pre-determined. To counter this tendency, I used modelling as a strategy to suspend disbelief, disarming pressure to react. Modelling approaches the problem of how to imagine the troubling of things outside our immediate realm of influence.16 Staging a suspension of disbelief through mediated visualisation enfolded material and process in potential. This process created space for undecided outcomes. It allowed for errancy to emerge from arrangements that defied preconfigured meanings. 

Reconfigured habits unified time as plastic. The difference of the familiar moment recalled the memory of past leaps into the unknown. Defiant acts of the past fused with stabilising repetition, forming the ground for a divergent present. The making process rewrote time as ‘historial,’17 as an active ongoing project, as response-ability. 18

Finally, the work collapsed all traces into a single, synthesised surface. An assemblage of moments coalesced attesting to the errant and tangential in an asynchronous flow of time. Cloth assumed form as lacing by hand revealed gestures and traces transposed.

 Figure eight: Collapsed traces, stitching out. Designing for uncut panels of upcycled silk allowed for a degree of automation. This strategy allowed for precision and complexity. These characteristics define making that would otherwise necessitate an excessive production narrative. Functional and decorative details merged to define garment panels, written in just under a million stitches. Image on the left shows a phase of embroidery digitisation. Image on the right taken while stitching panels out at an embroidery factory in Ho Chi Minh City.
Figure nine: The final garment shown and exhibited.
Image on the left taken at Reshape Forum, Barcelona.
Image on the right taken by Matteo Viscogliosi at Altaroma, Rome.

The work sought to refute dystopian narratives through the active articulation of a viable alternative. In practical terms, Reu Jacket explored an alternative to dominant making practices in a tangible, concrete way. Surface-centric and detailed, the piece is customisable, responsive both to local textile waste realities and the wearer’s requirements. The approach underpinning the making process is flexible and adaptable. It invites engagement within parameters, allowing for unique iterations. Specific material-based conditions become foundations, not inconveniences. Simple rules gave rise to behaviours that played out in unexpected ways. Designer became ‘artist gardener,’19 cultivating conditions for the unintended and undecided to arise. The approach hinged on the agency of an algorithm, physical and digital materials, dimensions, the body, and the fluidity of relationships. These conditions destabilised the role of designer as the central protagonist, where authoring via soft acts of feeling and noticing invested care in errant moments.

The just-in-time responsiveness of the making process was permissive of flow. It showed that flow can only create resonant connections to the degree that they are felt. This approach apprehended potential links before they were signified and fixed. Speculative design took shape as a constellation, a fiction that senses and makes sense. To do less, to make time, is to avoid flooding our ecology with senseless excess. Following this approach is to only allow what we can hold through poiesis.

Designing in this way articulated a response-able relationship to its time, open to configuration as a patch-worked unity. This unity may be local, contingent, provisional and precarious, yet in its imperfection attests to the possibility in the present.

Figure ten: Reu Jacket. Image taken by Thong at Studio Raw Language, Ho Chi Minh City.

All images copyright of the author unless otherwise stated.

This project would not have been realised without the help and support of Tran Thi Hong Tran, Nhi Dang, Elena Ryleeva, Toan Xuan Pham and the 33s team, as well as the teams at Fabricademy and Noumena. My deep thanks to you all.

Lucie Ketelsen

Lucie Ketelsen is a designer and sustainability researcher. Ketelsen’s practice considers notions of risk and control in digital, automated and industrial textile production, as well as through subverting traditional practices with unlikely processes and materials. Her creative practice is a vehicle through which to gain purchase on some of the issues of our time in a grounded, connected way. Ketelsen has an M.A. in Textile Design by practice-based research from RMIT University, Melbourne, and a Bachelor of Fine Art with Honours in Design. Recently, Ketelsen was a finalist in ReShape, Barcelona, and Mondo Digitale as part of AltaRoma. Ketelsen is currently doing a residency at SymbioticA UWA, looking into the growth of the biological structural colour for worn objects.

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Binkley, Sam, Happiness as Enterprise: An Essay on Neoliberal Life. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.

  • Chapman, Jonathan, Emotionally Durable Design. New York: Earthscan, 2005.

  • Fletcher, Kate, ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change.’ Fashion Practice 2, No. 2 (2010): 259-265.

  • Krauss, Annette, ‘Lifelong Learning and the Professionalized Learner.’ In Unlearning Exercises: Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018.

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  • Lehmann, Ulrich, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000.

  • Malik, Suhail, ‘ContraContemporary.’ In The Future of the New, edited by T. Lijster, 247-278. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2019.

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References

Lichen have unique qualities that may point to ways of thriving in an increasingly complex world. By studying lichen, we can create our own critical, speculative design models that: Grow without depleting; exist in dynamic relationships; are sensitive and responsive; and operate at the seams and float on surfaces.

Jonathan Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design (New York: Earthscan, 2005) and Kate Fletcher, ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change,’ Fashion Practice 2, No. 2 (2010): 259-265.

A speeding train headed for a crash as a metaphor for human progress ‘... a nihilist alternative to the otherwise positive view of the engine.’ Lehmann, 2000, p. 388.

Lubbe quoted in T. Lijster, ‘The Trash of History,’ in The Future of the New, ed. T. Lijster (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2019).

Annette Krauss, ‘Lifelong Learning and the Professionalized Learner,’ in Unlearning Exercises: Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018).

 Sam Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise: An Essay on Neoliberal Life (New York: SUNY Press, 2014).

Suhail Malik, ‘ContraContemporary,’ in The Future of the New, ed. T. Lijster (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2019).

To think of our practice as temporal cloth, thus actively constructing the now through a moment-to-moment negotiation.

To do less of the same, less happiness as enterprise, less folds of addiction, less busyness. Configuring practice in order to step back.

Timo Rissanen, ‘Zero-Waste Fashion Design: A Study at the Intersection of Cloth, Fashion Design and Pattern Cutting,’ Doctoral thesis, UTS Sydney, 2013.

Michael Schwab, Transpositions. Aesthetico-Epistemic Operators in Artistic Research (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2018).

A. Pont, ‘Philosophising Practice,’ in: Practising with Deleuze, ed. S. Attiwill et al. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), p. 16.

Stephann Makri et al., ‘“Making My Own Luck”: Serendipity Strategies and How to Support Them in Digital Information Environments,’ Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65, No. 11 (2014): p. 2185.

Technologically mediated simulation through 3D modelling.

J.P. Bergen and Peter-Paul Verbeek, ‘To-Do Is to Be: Foucault, Levinas, and Technologically Mediated Subjectivation,’ Philos. Technol (2020). Accessed August 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-019-00390-7.

Cultural lag allows us to believe we still have sovereignty within the social fabrics of our local contexts. However, as Bauman clarifies, community has been transmogrified such that ‘community considers you as its property, whereas your network hardly notices your existence.’ Bauman quoted in Simon Tabet, ‘Interview with Zygmunt Bauman: From the Modern Project to the Liquid World,’ Theory Culture & Society 34, No. 7-8 (2017), p. 143.

Schwab 2018.

Haraway defines the ‘feminist ethic of response-ability’ as a capacity to respond framed within ‘an affective ecology in which creativity and curiosity characterize (sic) experimental forms of life.’ Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 68. This is in contrast to a ubiquitous ‘“game over, too late” discourse, in which both technotheocratic geoengineering fixes and wallowing in despair seem to coinfect any possible common imagination.’ Haraway 2016, p. 56.

‘The computer tirelessly, succinctly varies the aesthetic object and can do so quickly, easily, and endlessly. Propelled at speed through generation after generation, the artist enjoys an exhilarating excess of choice, as new objects/creatures appear and are left behind.’ M. Whitelaw, ‘Breeding Aesthetic Objects: Art and Artificial Evolution.’ In Creative Evolutionary Systems, ed. D.W. Corne (London: Academic Press, 2002): p. 135.