Calgary couple marry art with technology
19, Feb, 2020
EDMONTON, Feb. 19, 2020 – Art and technology, sometimes viewed as the two solitudes in the professional arena, have made a successful marriage thanks to the ingenuity of Kathryn and Ryan Blair. The Calgary couple have been collaborating for years on designing interactive wearable art.
Kathryn Blair, a PhD student in computational media design at the University of Calgary, has participated in seven local MakeFashion events since 2013, showing wearable smart art that utilises an exciting range of effects to explore humanity’s relationship with technology.
For example, one of her pieces, Common Experience, involves a model wearing a NeuroSky EEG headset to measure brain electrical activity. The data received by the EEG controls the colour of the lights and changes the tension in origami pieces on the collar piece.
Another, Positive Feedback, is connected to the internet and monitors a specified account’s Twitter activity. The hem of the garment’s skirt is raised and lowered, and the lights attached become brighter and more animated depending on the account’s level of activity and popularity.
A dress entitled Tune uses electromagnetic field sensors to detect ambient electromagnetic activity and represent it on a network of lights. The more electromagnetic activity the sensors detect, the more active the fire-inspired animation on the garment becomes.
For any artist, one of the hardest aspects is making imaginative ideas like these a reality. Blair was able to create many of the desired effects herself using the open-source, accessible Arduino platform. But when she wanted to make her garments move, she hit a snag.
“Electronics and fashion are not natural partners. Bodies move. And if there’s one thing electronics hate, it’s being moved in unexpected ways,” said Blair.
To realise the complex motion she wants in her pieces, she relies on the expertise of her husband. Ryan Blair is an ASET member and certified engineering technologist (CET) who, during his day job, is a mechanical engineering technologist, serving as a project manager and designer within a cross-functional, multidisciplinary team.
This poses some interesting challenges for him. The first is that he is designing projects on a completely different scale from what he normally does in his job. Since the parts are mostly 3D printed, the design must be optimized for that instead of more traditional manufacturing processes. Consideration must also be given to the aesthetics.
The second challenge is discussing the project with someone who doesn’t have concrete technical requirements in the same way that his regular clients do. At first, he found it difficult to ensure that he had a clear understanding of what was needed. As a result, some of his initial designs resembled what he would create for a heavy industrial setting.
Ultimately, the process has helped him learn what clarifying questions to ask, and how to present options for review. A benefit is that it forces him to think about a problem in a different way. He routinely finds himself using functions in his computer-aided design (CAD) software that he otherwise wouldn’t explore, so it allows him to develop those skills.
He admits this is his first foray in the arts. Though he considers himself creative but not artistic, he sees no reason why a person with technology skills can’t participate in artistic pursuits.
“I think these arts-based projects allow people like me to take on different challenges we may not usually experience,” said Blair. “They can also give us the chance to explore theories and methods that are different from what we do for a living. And, of course, there’s the fact that work like this offers a means for self-expression.”
“While the perception may be that technology and art often exist in isolation from each other, we’ve seen over time that technology facilitates new tools for artists to use to express themselves. It’s a natural harmonization of interests. The wearable art created by Ryan and Kathryn Blair are a fascinating example of this,” said ASET CEO Barry Cavanaugh.
ASET is the professional self-regulatory organization for engineering technologists and technicians in Alberta. ASET currently represents over 18,000 members, including full-time technology students, recent graduates and fully certified members in 21 disciplines and some 124 occupations across a multitude of industries.
Michele Penz, Calico Communications for ASET