Living Dress, Moving Questions

The dresses are like a futuristic species of couture jellyfish; swirls of phosphorescent threads glow as they hang on unmoving models. As your gaze passes over them, eye-tracking sensors set the fibers in motion. When you look away, they stop. The effect is organic, poetic, but quietly challenging: self-consciousness materialized. The quiet impact made by “(No)where (Now)here” is typical of the work of Ying Gao, an artist whose work spans the boundaries of contemporary art, interactive technology, and fashion. Born in Beijing, raised in Switzerland, and now teaching fashion design at the Université du Québec à Montreal, Gao creates conceptual “prototype” garments that dramatize the social forces that influence dress. Take, for instance, her “Living Pod” project: a dress moves in response to a beam of light trained on it, then a second garment imitates the motion of the first. A simple act of mimicry becomes a commentary on the trends that power the fashion cycle. In “Indice de l’Indifference,” a computer program processed the number of times test subjects answered that they were “indifferent” on survey questions about cultural and political issues. The data was then used to vary the proportions and patterns on a series of ten shirts. Is fashion driven by indifference or intention? Hard to say, but to see the question posed through clothing is fascinating.


From "(No)where (Now)here." Eye-tracking sensors set these garments in motion when viewed. Video by: Curious Montreal

What would you say to someone who claims that clothes are trivial, and it’s superficial to think about appearances?

Well, they are! I mean, let’s be honest, they are. But we have to remember that before mass consumerism and the fashion industry, there were some very interesting histories and thoughts and innovations. It’s something that we can’t stop; we have to live with the idea that fashion is a product now. But it doesn’t have to remain only a product, because it has not always been this way. Clothing is not fashion, and fashion is not clothing. Even fashion is quite different from the fashion system.

Do you think technology is affecting what we find beautiful?

I say quite often that fashion is a reflection of time. I think that the future belongs to people who take advantage of the technologies of their time. But the problem is that fashion and technology are the most volatile things in our society. As human beings we tend to like things that we know are fragile and ephemeral. So I think that people easily find fashion and technology beautiful, because unconsciously they know that they will disappear tomorrow.

What are some of the challenges of working with interactive technologies, as opposed to regular materials?

I think still the most difficult thing of all is the concept, the idea: why are we doing this? I mean, I don’t particularly like moving garments. I don’t think that clothing has to move, if there’s no reason! The second most difficult thing is to find the right team. I’ve been working with my robotics designer, Simone Laroche, for seven or eight years now. We know each other so well. For my most recent project, the two gaze-activated dresses, I think that the challenge was to adapt the high technology to our project, to find good materials, both on the fabric side and the mechanical, electronic side. The whole thing has to be very coherent. And then how do you make it look beautiful? And then it has to work!

Can you see elements of your interactive designs being worn in everyday life?

When I look at my garments, I always think that they still look okay even when they don’t move. This is quite important for me. I think that their strength is that we always end up finding very, very exceptional, interesting fabrics.

What are some of your favorite materials to work with?

One of them is the lightest fabric in the world, which is called super-organza, from Japan. And some others are made in Switzerland from very specific suppliers. I’m working on a capsule collection with two very weird materials. The first one is medical latex, and the second one is for burned people. This cotton is coated with silver: it’s very fragile, but at the same time it looks beautiful, it looks like light.

If you could design any kind of garment in the world, what would it look like?

Maybe fog! I would love to create something that is really free. Blurry, and free. My next interactive project will be made of water. This is really hard. We’ve been working on it for two months and I just can’t find a way. And I’ve been thinking, what would be the next step? So I thought of fog. I think that if I succeeded in making a project with fog, I would just stop everything. I would be so happy about it, it would be enough.

  • The nature of mimicry is explored in Living Pod, as two light-sensitive garments interact.

    The nature of mimicry is explored in "Living Pod," as two light-sensitive garments interact.

  • The nature of mimicry is explored in Living Pod, as two light-sensitive garments interact.

    The nature of mimicry is explored in "Living Pod," as two light-sensitive garments interact.

  • In Indice de l'Indifference, survey results processed through an algorithm generate variations on a shirt design.

    In "Indice de l'Indifference," survey results processed through an algorithm generate variations on a shirt design.

  • In Indice de l'Indifference, survey results processed through an algorithm generate variations on a shirt design.

    In "Indice de l'Indifference," survey results processed through an algorithm generate variations on a shirt design.

All photos by Dominique Lafond.

Ying Gao Conceptual Art