Case Study: “Fibre Reactive” by Donna Franklin

I was amazed at the project “Fibre Reactive”, living fungi on fabric, shown in the lecture as an example from the SymbioticA laboratory. I first had a mixed feeling about this piece as “clothing”. Could it be wet and uncomfortable when people wear it? Is this realistic? I went to search more details about this project and did extended readings on more wearable bioarts. I found this project and various debates on it very thought-provoking. The west-Australian artist Donna Franklin was once a resident at SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory engaged with the life sciences, in the University of Western Australia. Her work “Fibre Reactive”  (2004-2008) has been exhibited in several places, including:

BEAP 04 Bio Difference: The Political Ecology, at The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery;
Hatched 05 PICA, Spectrum Project Space;
“Second Skin” ENTRY 06, at Zeche Zollverein, Vitra Design Museum, Essen, Germany;
BEAPworks 06 at Curtin University.

From the picture, the piece looks like a fashionably designed evening dress. In fact it involves microbiology. The living garment is made of the fungi Pycnoporus coccineus, also known as orange bracket fungus. When I first saw the picture, I was questioning how all the fungi stick together on the dress. As I did more research, I realized that the organism was manipulated to grow in this way so that they are naturally tied together without any glue. It is the mycelium of fungus that has been grown to the woven surface. The orange surface of the dress is encrusted with growing fungi’s fruiting body. These results from the artificial manipulation within the laboratory. The relocation of the fungi into a new pseudo-environment subverts its function and expression. Since it’s a living dress, it is supplied with nutrients it needs as in the natural environment and relied on technology as well as human interventions. The pattern of the dress changes over time as the fungi grow and develop. I collected different images of this dress for your reference.

VIS 159 Week 4 Art_Body_Medicine(1)

According to the artist, the main idea of this project is to raise questions about the commodification of living entities. In this age, technologies are extensions of human bodies. When thinking about wearable technology, most people will think about wearable gadgets and electronics. However, the things we have been wearing forever, like clothing, are all wearable tech, we are just so comfortable and familiar with them. This is our cultural constrain to our environment. Traditional clothing are mostly made of fibers from living organisms and animal skins or furs. Unlike these “daed” or lifeless tissues that people normally accept, the living clothing like a fungi dress challenges the ethical issue of wearing dead animals. Other concerns rises as well: could it do any harm to the human body, is it consuming human body or is human body consuming the dress? This work express the disassociation to the origin of natural material through the juxtaposition of the familiar fashionable dress with the innovative fungi composition. It is a complex act to wear this dress and experience through the relationship between the wearer and the fragile living clothing to question the commodification and disposability that we deal with nature.

More recently, Donna Franklin works collaboratively with an Australian research team Bioalloy and comes up with a process of making dresses from wine, utilizing fermented bacteria in the red wine. Apparently, more improvements and solutions need to be applied to the new product, such as dealing with the smell and challenging public perception. Meanwhile, the product itself and the eco-friendly concept behind it are amazing. Here’s a short video of the wine dress.

Donna Franklin’s new technologies through interdisciplinary research in the fields of culture, fashion and science, will potentially impact the construction of the culture. We should always realize the potential of the technology in the future, think critically and help the environment.


-Siyi Ye


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