“Temporal ubiquity in a smart vintage wardrobe” It is common sense. It is art. It is a cautionary tale. It is a new materialist manifesto, ubicomp’s new mission to make nonhuman matter matter to humans. Once this goal is achieved, the smart wardrobe as a ubiquitous life support system for clothing is redundant. The humans are as smart as the clothes.
One day in 2008, Jonnet Middleton decided she wasn’t going to buy any more clothes. Ever. This gesture was deeply rooted in a refigured ethics of things. The essence of ‘thing-ness’ has baffled us at least since Heidegger pointed out how baffling ‘things’ are, but the mystery, and the mysterious appeal, is only intensifying as our lives become increasingly digital and immaterial. Seriously contemplating our social relationship to inanimate objects is a relatively recent phenomenon of post-humanism. In resetting her personal relationship to her own garment-things, Middleton came up with the idea of Wearlog. Rather than surrounding herself with a quasi-anonymous conglomeration of stuff that endlessly ebbs as things wear out, and flows when lovely new things entice, Wearlog helps her forge a long-term, meaningful relationship with each individual piece of clothing that she currently owns. In her words:
Patiently, I sew ubiquitous technology into my clothes. RFID tags, like penny-sized black buttons, join with needle and thread to lodge permanently in bikinis, aprons, party dresses and vests. Every last thing in my sprawling wardrobe is retrofitted with this sensor technology and linked to a network which datamines key events in the clothing’s life. Wearlog senses when a garment leaves the wardrobe, when it enters the washing machine and when it lands in the mending basket. And then Wearlog remembers exactly which items have been worn, washed and mended, when.
Middleton emphasises that she is taking a distinct, even subversive approach to ubiquitous computing (known as ‘ubicomp’), stating, “This essay steers away from the dominant notion of ubiquity as things in all places instead to consider ubiquity as things in all times.” While acknowledging Wearlog as ubicomp, she outlines a very different modus operandi from what might be considered peer technologies that revel in their intelligence and newness.
Strictly speaking, Wearlog is a smart wardrobe although its principles are at odds with industry standards of ‘smart’. Most early innovations in the Internet of Things cluster rather unimaginatively around its potential as a global supply chain management tool. Smart things move around the globe more cleverly than dull things and are better skilled at self-promotion. Smart things get smarter and smarter at finding the people that might want them, at making themselves indispensable, and at making unsmart things look so drab, so bereft of functionality that they must be replaced. Unsurprisingly, the development of the first smart wardrobes has followed the smart logic of capital accumulation by supporting cycles of decisions around buying, wearing and discarding clothes (see, for example, Dressipi n.d. and Tsujita et al. 2010). Smart wardrobes capitalize on the joy of newness. They are a celebration of vapid identity construction through shopping. They desensitize the wearer to the disappointment of a poorly performing garment or the grief of throwing a once-cherished item away.
Wearlog reappropriates smart wardrobe technology by disrupting cycles of divestment and by generating a resensitization to materiality, or the ‘mattering’ of matter (Barad 2003: 817).
The author introduces us to a host of ‘characters’ from her wardrobe: brown stripy jumper, bright green cardigan, Hungarian socks, tomato tights. While not fully anthropomorphising them, she establishes a window of life-history for each, and uses these stories to approach a number of issues around materiality, care, obsolescence and longevity. The underlying impetus is an advocation of prolonging the life-span of these, and other, things through a collaboration between humanity, computation, and vibrant matter. The concept of ‘vibrant matter’ is adopted from political theorist Jane Bennett’s book of the same title, which argues for the necessity of considering the influence of non-human forces in personal, local, and global events, from the topographical effects of landfills to neurological impact of fatty acids. The crux of prolonging the lives of garments, according to Middleton, is ‘visible mending’.
Visible mending reminds us of the materiality and the temporality of the thing. The delicate patchwork of repair is the narrative of its suffering and endurance. Each new darn declares the thing’s power; humans think it worth mending, it should not be thrown away. Visible mending flaunts any lingering pretensions towards ubicomp’s mantra of invisibility. Weiser, the father of ubiquity, would banish all technology from sight so as not to intrude on our consciousness (Weiser 1994). This long tarnished ideology (Suchman 1995) only serves to exacerbate ecologies of ignorance (Luhmann 1993; Rabinow 2004). What we cannot see, we cannot know so we assume there is nothing to know. Likewise we cannot sense what needs to be mended so we believe there is nothing to mend.
Wearlog prompts mending, which will inevitably become a visible aspect of materiality. This is what gives the technology its political vitality.
Wearlog is a system determined to prolong the life of things. Its activist agenda is to nurture an ethics of care towards the things we live with and upon which we depend. As such, it is a machine for generating mending gestures. It reconfigures the relations between sock, yarn, needle, human and hole to perform a small act of repair. The Wearlog mending basket datamines human/sock rela- tions through their mending encounters. It becomes a hive of industry and the data suggests that mending works wonders. Can this modest act really make sock and human a little bit more alive?
Day after day, living and non-living things assemble through Wearlog to disobey the laws of obsolescence (London 1932). It is domestic disobedience on a shocking scale. The thought that a human could survive without buying new things, even with a bespoke smart wardrobe at their aid, is counterintuitive to the masses of people who depend on newness in their lives. To placate the panic of those who still consume I assure you that ubicomped post-consumerism is so very easy to do. Admittedly, the challenges of making matter last will become more gripping over time but caring for things is a rewarding, non-confrontational and genuinely anti-catastrophic act.
It is common sense. It is art. It is a cautionary tale. It is a new materialist manifesto, ubicomp’s new mission to make nonhuman matter matter to humans. Once this goal is achieved, the smart wardrobe as a ubiquitous life support system for clothing is redundant. The humans are as smart as the clothes.
Jonnet Middleton is an artist and researcher at Highwire, a doctoral training centre for radical innovation in the digital economy, Lancaster University. She has a background in fashion design,prison art education, ethnomusicology and Spanish TV presenting. Jonnet is a mending activist working to bring about the Age of Mending as a deadly serious art practice, futuremenders.com, as a lifelong mission and as a Ph.D. In 2008 she pledged not to buy or acquire any more clothes ever so must mend those she has for the rest of her life. She runs pop-up mending shops to share mending skills on the high street, themendingshop.com, and is building an international mending research community, mendrs.net
Ubiquity is an international peer reviewed journal for creative and transdisciplinary practitioners interested in technologies, practices and behaviours that have the potential to radically transform human perspectives on the world. ‘Ubiquity’, the ability to be everywhere at the same time, a potential historically attributed to the occult is now a common feature of the average mobile phone. The title refers explicitly to the advent of ubiquitous computing that has been hastened through the consumption of networked digital devices. The journal anticipates the consequences for design and research in a culture where everyone and everything is connected, and will offer a context for visual artists, designers, scientists and writers to consider how Ubiquity is transforming our relationship with the world.
University of Plymouth
Edinburgh College of Art