Digital Fashion as Praxis: Transformative Collaboration in a DH Context
NIRMA MADHOO, NOVEMBER 2017
This paper authored by N. Madhoo is a critical commentary to be read with a body of digital fashion work co-produced with BTech: Fashion undergraduate J. Shuttleworth. As fashion educator, researcher and fashion new media practitioner, N. Madhoo is the mentor and the mentee is Jessica Shuttleworth in the course of her BTech study in 2017. This rapport evolved from a mentor-mentee model into a much more fluid, collaborative relationship which saw the co-authorship of a body of transmedia work. The experimental approach and emerging methodologies as part of this practice-based digital fashion project re-contextualised both parties as collaborators in a divestment of traditional hierarchies in education, a paradigm that often typifies Digital Humanities (Burdick et al. 2012: 76-77). This project is underpinned by transformative learning theories (Mezirow 1991; Taylor and Cranton 2012) and Latour’s (2005) Actor Network Theory which are explored specifically in the field of education to support this Digital Humanities (DH) output.
DIGITAL FASHION AND DH
As relatively new areas of study, a brief literature review reveals a lack of sources that consider digital fashion within the context of DH. Definitions of digital fashion remain empirical with no seminality as yet achieved for the term. Broader definitions however acknowledge the practice of digital artists and designers who explore the computer as a medium and produce DH outputs which comment on digital cultures and expand on the application of digital tools (Nyhan 2015). According to Schofield, Whitelaw and Kirk (2017), it is important to acknowledge the significance of these producers of artefacts and this is accounted for by what is termed Second Wave DH. While First Wave DH was for most quantitative big-data oriented and infographic-minded; the second wave is “qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character”, also rendering from the digital toolkit while still adhering to the core of Humanities ethos which values “complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation” (Presner 2009).
It is understood that Digital Fashion is an area that emerged around the year 2000 (Harris 2012: 92). Around that time, designers and artists started experimenting with the application of digital methodologies derived from interdisciplinary fields in re-imagining the discursive body and the surfaces that adorn it (Braddock Clarke and Harris 2012). The body as trope for fashion is inherently political (Jobling 1999). As a fashion image-maker, I have observed that our transition into the digital era has democratised access to previously elite economies of media production. This has empowered previously marginalised groups into actualizing as agents of innovation and change. Women and people of colour are increasingly articulating and broadcasting their narratives and as cultural producers, subverting hegemonic ideals and advancing the agendas of decolonization.
DEFINING A TRANSFORMATIVE COLLABORATION
Decolonization as a broader term is most obviously read in context of race politics and postcolonial discourse. It is however noted that colonization is also a term that can apply to historically constructed relations of gender and applies to any system that may have used its power to entrench its beliefs as the norm (Jameson et al. 2010). As a woman and in my practice as a fashion new media producer in Africa, I would like to articulate that digital technologies have afforded me the opportunity to explore and output work in a predominantly male-gendered industry. It is widely documented that women and minorities in tertiary education contexts benefit from having mentors in order to address a number of challenges that may hamper success rates (Fries-Britt and Snider 2012). In the context of this project, I have been enabled to teach and share skills in an educational setting with another woman as a mentee in ways that may not have been possible in pre-digital times. This is deemed transformative as it indicates a decolonization of conceptions of gendered occupation within technological economies.
‘Transformation’ can be understood as a dual term in the context of education. In the previous paragraph the term is considered through the lens of decolonization as it indicates the destabilization of traditional structures of power in geographical and gender contexts. In this section, I consider transformation from an education theory perspective. Here power relations are still evident, but the analysis is process-oriented. Transformative Pedagogy essentially consists a shift in paradigms from informational to transformative teaching and learning (Taylor and Cranton 2012). Students are able to, through collaboration, anchor their learning in a ‘frame of reference’ (Mezirow 1991) and possibly use this grounding in order to imagine new narratives for an era defined by socio-technological change (Sala 2016). Zanchetta et al. (2017) posit that transformative learning can happen via intellectual partnerships between mentors and mentees. This was in context of a team of 21 undergraduate students and faculty members co-authoring an impressive line-up of peer-reviewed publications (Zanchetta et al. 2017). A similar model is adopted in the case of Shuttleworth’s BTech: Fashion study titled ‘Hybrid Craft: An Exploration of Handcrafted and Digital Fashion’. The study called for mentoring from someone with some degree of experience in the areas of fashion and digitality. As a practitioner in an intersection of these precise fields, I mentored aspects of theoretical development that subsequently underpinned practical development.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT), is a method that accounts for socio-technical processes; and can apply to creators who invest particular attention in technology (Sage Publications 2004) and therefore by extension, digitality. ANT is a move away from a socially or a technologically deterministic outlook, allowing the social and the technical to interact in equal ways in a network (Latour 2005). In this instance I will outline how the intellectual partnership with Shuttleworth, in the development of digital methods and media, resulted in this DH output.
DEVELOPING DIGITAL METHODOLOGIES
Stage 1. Fashion Digital Prints and Artefacts
Shuttleworth’s study aimed to explore digital fashion in combination with handcrafted technique. This was premised on the basis of contemporary discourse on digitality that pre-empts a loss of the tactile senses in humans brought about by screen culture (Edelkoort 2012; Openshaw 2015). Shuttleworth firstly macro-photographed natural textures that were then digitally modified using the CAD programme, Adobe Photoshop. This process was directed by principles that seem to guide aspects of digital art such as digital mirroring and compositing; symmetry in digital mirroring also appeared in an analysis of digital fashion in the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen (1984 - ) and British designer Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010). The digital artwork was developed in a system to fit exact pattern pieces and a digital lay. This was also developed in CAD software not traditionally meant for digitising patterns and is therefore a hack for a more accessible and easier means to an end. Digital textile printing was done on a large format digital printer on unconventional material such as leather and neoprene which have draping properties that emulate the sculptural effect of 3D printing. Pattern pieces printed were life-size and could then be cut for an application of both handcrafted embroidered surface design techniques and digitally designed and 3D printed trims. Shuttleworth experimented with various methods and techniques that broadened her knowledge in the development a hybrid craft for digital fashion.
.Figure 1. Figure 2.
Figure 1. shows on the left-hand grid, original macro images of crustacean, arachnid and fungi photographed by Shuttleworth (2017). The right hand side images show artwork developed by Shuttleworth by means of digital mirroring and compositing to produce abstracted placement prints. Figure 2. shows a visual map by Shuttleworth (2017) as a hack for placement print development in a digital pattern lay. More of Shuttleworth's processes can be seen on her page.
The principle that digital methodologies are a re-interpretation and re-mediation (Bolter and Grusin 2000) of analogue technologies inform both experimental processes of digital/handcrafted artefact production and discussion of fashion digital media production in the next sub-section.
Stage 2. Digital Fashion Images
The designs developed by Shuttleworth had a signature that flagged my interest in digital aesthetics (Cubitt 1998; Harris 2012) and in my own practice as an image-maker. Reflections on what had been achieved ideated a further collaborative intellectual partnership in respect of the conceptualisation of a fashion photographic shoot which I creative / art directed. Here it was planned that images would be treated to echo aspects of the methods adopted in the development of the fashion prints and artefacts. In that vein, the shoot was conceptualised to image Shuttleworth’s range drawing from principles of digital aesthetics characterised by mirroring (Hoy 2010). While actual digital mirroring was done in post-production, a large analogue mirror surface in-studio was created using construction waterproofing material and water to make a shallow black pool that would reflect light and capture in a mirror effect, a subject or objects placed in the surface. A production company was approached to rig up the experimental set.
Digital fashion new media is post-production intensive with the computational capacity to obliterate traces of the real world in its renders of a perfect environment. This series of fashion images was however conceptualised to show the three outfits from the BTech project and to intentionally disclose the studio environment and analogue and digital glitches as features in the final digital images.
The digital fashion images visualizing this interdisciplinary collaboration and revealing Shutttleworth’s body of Digital Fashion work can be seen by clicking here.
CONCLUSION AND REFLECTION
At the culmination of practical processes we are reminded according to ANT as framework, of the location of technology as an actor in the network (Sage Publications 2004) – the role of digital technologies in the process of development and execution of the fashion range and image. Here a symbiotic process was originated whereby all actants, human and non-human, construct and are construed via artefacts that encode meaning in relation to each other. The practical outcome of Shuttleworth’s digital fashion range is conceptually extended by the digital fashion imagery as a result of the techno-social network of practice set up by myself and the emerging designer. This demonstrates a process of intellectual mentorship and partnership in an education context with a process of participatory learning that became decentred and inclusive; it concretises a digital contribution across different typologies of technological practice.
The relevance of this project to a DH context is potentially threefold. A body of transmedia digital fashion work which forms part of Shuttleworth’s BTech: Fashion study was produced. This was underpinned by transformative theories of learning. The conceptualisation of a fashion photographic shoot which further extends the digital fashion range as transmedia is framed using Latour’s (2005) ANT and can be viewed as emergent socio-technical methodology. It is hoped that this co-produced contribution adds in some ways to scholarship of a Second Wave DH which acknowledges the significance of digital tools and digital forms of culture and artefact production to the Humanities.
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