Principal Investigators: Conny Groenewegen, Adam Nocek, Stacey Moran Nocek, Officina Corpuscoli, Mediamatic, Daan Rongen
The fashion industry is a beautiful and polluting business. The fast pace of clothing production accounts for overwhelming amounts of material and immaterial consumption, global-labor exploitation and environmental pollution. Fashion Machine is an interactive installation and laboratory that intervenes in the lifecycle of the fast-fashion industry through one of its most characteristic leftovers: the fleece sweater.
This garment is enormously popular among outdoor lovers and has gained recognition as an up-cycled product made from PET bottles. However, the realities fleece’s role in the fast-fashion industry are becoming shockingly apparent. Recent audits have shown that the supply chains of even the most “sustainable” producers of fleece are guilty of global human trafficking and forced labor. The afterlife of fleece is just as troubling. Research shows that fleece garments shed synthetic micro fibers (an average of 1.7 grams per wash) that find their way into the Earth’s waterways and are having a detrimental effect on the health of marine and (now) human ecologies. And now, scientists confirm that 85% of shoreline debris comes from microfibers (Browne et al. 2011). Adding to the problem, fleece that is not consumed or repurposed in the Western world (it does not fare well in the second-hand industry, for instance) finds its way into landfills, incinerators, or it is shipped to the Global South where it is of little use. Fleece’s neglected lifecycle is having a devastating impact on living ecologies.
The researchers are engaged in a multi-stage design research project that gives concrete expression to fleece’s lifecycle and speculates about a new afterlife for the garment. The first stage of the project involves collecting an enormous quantity of unwanted fleece and then systematically cutting it into strips to create large balls of yarn. Mediamatic’s Panorama Studio functions as a “sweatshop” that makes fast fashion’s mechanisms of production tangible for the many volunteers and employees working on the project. The balls will then be fed into basic wooden knitting benches to produce monumental knitted flags that will be draped over Mediamatic buildings. The dramatic scale of these garment flags will bring the overproduction of this unsustainable material into sharp focus for both participants and viewers.
In the second stage of the project, Conny Groenewegen and the Laboratory for Critical Technics are collaborating with Officina Corpuscoli and other designers, scientists, and researchers to reimagine the afterlife of fleece. The project leverages the important work that Officina Corpuscoli has already done with white-rot fungus Phanerochaete chrysosporium to decompose plastic in order to take concrete steps toward decomposing this harmful synthetic garment. In this way, the research team transforms the representational and performative aspects of the first stage of the project into sites for laboratory experimentation on the future of fast fashion. Fashion Machine gives tangible expression to the lifecycle of fleece—from production to pollution—and then uses the biology laboratory as space for speculating about the new potentials for this garment.
Ultimately, we envision many different afterlife scenarios, with different research teams working on different aspects of fleece afterlife. The LCT will work closely with Conny and Officina Corpuscoli to research and develop the fungal future of fashion over the course of 2017-2018. We will also be publishing a book on the project with an art press in the Netherlands in 2018
Installation at Mediamatic + Fungal Decomposition + Design Research
LCT Research Manager and Geography PhD student, Angela Sakrison, interned with Mediamatic and the Fashion Machine team during Summer 2017. During that time she curated a project called Material Diaries.
The Material Diaries is an attempt to explore the limitations and implications of asking a man-made material, fleece, to reveal itself through collaboration. Can we actually collaborate with matter? Or are we just using it to tell our own stories? I spent the month of June, 2017 as part of the Fashion Machine team, living on-site at the installation and interacting daily with the materials as the massive garment of recycled fleece grew to engulf the building. Inspired by the narrative aspect of Fashion Machine and the ways that global cycles and processes of ecological significance can be translated through site specific art practices, as well as the work of Isabelle Stengers on staging, I recorded their daily interactions with the fleece, and executed small-scale experiments designed and aimed at “uncovering” stories from the material. Does fleece burn? What does it look like under a microscope? Can the process of transforming plastic bottles into fleece be replicated in house by melting plastic and stretching the plastic goo into fibers? The “experiments” were inspired by pseudo-science and curiosity, with a desire to let the materials reveal themselves and respond on their own terms, with a recognition that these stories are inevitably narrated by the designer of the experiment. How can we avoid the traps of “storied matter” that place our own narratives on top of materials? Analogous to the way literature works to expand empathy and convey in subtle ways what it’s like to be another person, are there ways to convey what it’s like to be another material? Can we understand what it means to be a piece of fleece, non-speculatively and without relying on language? And ultimately, does this framework of collaboration help us talk about the materiality of climate change in new and transmittable ways?