Case Study: Suzi Webster and the Interaction of External and Internal Processes

One of the projects that I found to be extremely interesting this week is the work of Suzi Webster. Webster is from the UK and received her BFA at Emily Carr University of Art in Vancouver and is now faculty at the university. Her work is “concerned with exploring and critiquing the ways in which technologies impact and shape our experiences of being human.” (from her website, suziwebster.org). The project that I found particularly fascinating is called Electric Skin, conducted in 2006. In this project, Webster conducted research on how humans and technology interact by creating a wearable, responsive garment that reacts a certain way to a natural body function. For this project in particular, the suit turned the intimate breath of the wearer into pulses of light using LEDs. The wearer’s inhalation and exhalation triggered sensors in the suit to dim or brighten the LED lights within the garment. Interestingly, the lights on the garment actually faced in towards the wearer’s head so that the lights would directly illuminate their face and eyes. While the steady in-and-out of breathing and light fluctuation usually calms a person, this experiment successfully did the opposite. The garment worked in such a way that the breathing in the experiment never became second nature, and the wearer was always aware of the breaths that they were taking. This in turn created the feeling of danger and unease. I found this project so interesting because of the human interaction that existed throughout the whole project. It wasn’t something that Webster simply built and pressed play; it was instead a dynamic piece that changed as time passed and the wearer interacted differently. It successfully eliminated a barrier between inner human processes and the external world to bring the two together in a whole new space. When looking into this project, I couldn’t help but think of its intimateness; the suit was able to eliminate the outer world of the wearer to create an individualized place of meditation. Once the suit is activated, the only conscious effort is controlling breathing.

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In another project, Webster incorporated another wearable garment with sensors, LED’s, and an iPhone to create Electric Heart. This garment did the same thing as Electric Skin, but linked the LED behavior to a heartbeat. More importantly, the heartbeat was not from the wearer, but from a distant beloved. As the wearer wore the garment, a distant beloved had an iPhone heart sensor that was connected to the garment. This project is interesting because it incorporates an aspect of human nature that is uncontrolled, the heart, instead of the controlled, the lungs. It took modern technologies of medicine to create beautiful light displays. Furthermore, the project merged two individuals into one. Since the pulses of light came from the wearers beloved, they eliminated the separate space between the two to create an incredible sense of intimacy. Thinking about these two experiments in a broader social setting, I think Webster is illuminating a dying aspect of human nature, no pun intended. Through these projects, she exposes an idea of closeness and intimacy in a work-driven world. Since the world is becoming more technologically developed so quickly, Webster urges us through these projects to slow down and enjoy life for what it is: simply living.

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And since we saw a bunch of videos about sound and creation of music, I had this on my mind the whole time.

-Sam Ozenbaugh

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