reSkin Lab :: Sean O’Connell

4 January – 4 February 2007, Canberra Australia

Singing Bowl, by Sean O'Connell. Prototype developed during the reSkin lab.

Singing Bowl, by Sean O'Connell. Prototype developed during the reSkin lab.

Canberra, and even worse, summer in Canberra.  But in the normally quiet Textiles and Gold and Silversmithing studios of the ANU’s School of Art, something inspired and scary is growing. Six facilitators, some from across the globe and some local, are leading 20 participants into the vague and murky realms of wearable technologies, microprocessor programming, toy hacking and electronics design…. The three-week reSkin Lab brought together a broad range of participants, from hardened interactive arts practitioners, to softer crafts makers such as myself, musicians, fashion designers, and computer programmers. The mix of particpants was truly inspired – the ANAT staff know what they are doing.

The faciltators were likewise sourced from a variety of backgrounds so as to enable a broad communication of knowledge and skill bases, from those working as consultants in soft computation and reactive textiles, practitioners in the arts and design, to those lecturing in interactive media, gold and silversmithing, and computer programming. The fields of interest were laid open and there was more than enough room for all of the participants to run rampant with their ideas. And run we did.

For a week and a half we were lectured to, talked through, asked to discuss, demonstrated to, experimented upon and generally plugged full of every kind of information available.  Intense.  The repercussions of so much information can only make itself known months down the track as our work is changed and directed by the inspirations and possibilities that were opened up during this time.  It is a process of gradual integration.

The benefits to my personal practice of having been involved in the Lab are manifold.  Let me name some of them.  The development of close personal ties with practitioners in my field and across the other side of the arts fence.  A budding knowledge of electonics and computer-controlled processes.  A turbo-boosted evolution of the ideas and core concepts that drive my work.  The opportunity to work with, for, under, over and across others.  The opportunity to fail.  And the sense, as one of the other participants put it, that one is not so alone as one thought. As a jeweller and dabbler in kinetic sculpture, I am almost always shut up in my own studio. Even though it is close to the beach and the ceiling of my studio is the most perfect shade of orange, there are inherent problems – there are few people to interact with, let alone collaborate with. The reSkin Lab has afforded me with sort of intense interaction with fellow makers that will be felt as a warm fuzzy feeling in my belly for years to come.

The relationships that have developed promise long fruitful engagement, from makers in similar fields, and creators from diverse backgrounds, to close friends and future collaborators. The skills developed in the workshop were quite formidable considering the short time frame. I myself did not follow through on the microprocessor programming, but many others did, and went away with skills they had no idea of when they came. The real direct benefit to my work will not manifest itself for some months yet, but  the core ideas that drive my making have changed, and i believe that this will be clear in my next body of work. The pure intensity of working alongside 20 other practitioners, of learning and discovering and assisting and being assisted by, makes one see the possibility of other modes of perception and making. This is where the true magick lies for me – in being able to glimpse other ways of working, to see one’s methods anew and to gain some perspective of one’s practice and self and allow deep transformative change to occur. After weeks of intense study and making, days of making without any sleep, nights out clubbing it up in the fearless mecca of Civic, it is unavoidable to be changed forever.

The ability to work across media that I had never touched was something that truly made the Lab sucessful.  While others who had never touched metal made anodised rings, formed acrylic using heavy machinery, and soldered silver under the heat of a torch, I was shown the arcane workings of computer-generated noise by fellow participant Somaya Langley, at the eleventh hour, of course. Dr Stephen Barrass took us through the joys of toy hacking, from which I made enough stupid annoying noises to cancel out all the goodwill I had earnt with my home-baked chocolate cakes. And Joey Berzowska and Elise Co transformed the mundane task of hand-sewing into an entirely alternate realm as we constructed soft circuit prototypes from fabric and conductive thread and blinking leds.

And did I mention the opportunity to fail as one of the benefits of the Lab? I think I did, an opportunity which I took full advantage of at the time of reckoning, at our final critique, where my idea of an interactive piece to intimately connect two wearers of jewellery in a rippling pool of liquid fell far short of my expectations.  But this was a beneficial experience for me, who usually creates polished small controlled pieces of jewellery by myself in my studio.  The challenge now remains to be taken up – to evolve the ideas generated and to realise them fully in a way that does benefit to the experience of the Lab.  I am keen and capable.  And I now have some partners in crime….

The final part of the Lab was an exhibition in the School of Art with the particpants’ generated works, complete with generous amounts of bubbly liquids and an sizable gathering of local and interstate members of the arts community.  The WearNow Symposium followed on the Lab’s heels during the Saturday after, presenting a provoking and diverse range of speakers including CSIRO researchers,  SybioticA Director Oron Catts,  several reSkin participants, and other professionals in the field.

The reSkin Lab was, as I have said, transformative.  It has effected deep change in the way I view my practice, and this is due, I believe, to the diverse nature of the faciltators and participants, the length of the workshop, and the intensity of the involvement for all.  For the public, through the WearNow Symposium, it has helped to bridge the gap between the sciences and arts for many people.  My thanks go especially to the fearless Project Co-ordinator of resources, meetings and lunches Alexandra Gillespie, ANAT Exucutive Director Melinda Rackham, ANAT General Manager Gavin Artz, and all the other staff behind the scenes who have made the Lab possible. Thanks greatly!

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