Maxwell’s Equations Channels Physics and Poetry


Commissioned for the 2016 Subtle Technologies Festival, Maxwell’s Equations is the first collaboration by artist-designers Barbara Layne and Lauren Osmond. The front of each of three interactive garments is embellished with a diagram of an electromagnetic field, made by the 19th century Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell. Made of conductive silver thread, these emblems function as a directional patch antenna that wirelessly connects the garments to one another. When the movements and orientation of the wearers are aligned, the strength of the signal will trigger various messages that scroll through the flexible LED displays on backs of the garments. These texts, equations and poetry reference the work of Maxwell, whose theories in electromagnetic radiation led to the development of all wireless communications today.

Barbara Layne is a faculty member and the Director of Studio subTela, one of the research labs at the newly formed Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology at Concordia University. Lauren Osmond, who has been trained in Fashion Design and Studio Arts, will soon be leaving her position as Head of Operations at the Milieux Institute to embark on a Masters in Art Conservation at Queens University in Kingston, where she will be focusing her studies on contemporary new media art and textiles.

Q. Tell us about Studio subTela. What is its focus and mission?

BL: Established in 2001, Studio subTela is focused on the development of intelligent cloth structures for the creation of artistic, performative and functional textiles. Working with a team of graduate researchers in Studio Arts, Design and Engineering, the research is focused on new methods of combining digital technology and traditional textile materials to create interactive garments, objects and environments. The research includes touch-sensing systems, wireless technology and most recently, flexible antenna systems.

Q. The embroidered designs on the dresses are inspired by James Maxwell’s historical electromagnetic diagrams. What is it about these diagrams specifically that attracted you?

LO: When beginning the project with Barbara, there was a steep learning curve. In the past I have worked with very simple electronics, but never with antenna design. Tahseen Mustafa, a PhD student in electrical engineering that is working at SubTela, was a great resource! It was crucial for me to understand the theories behind the technologies that we were using, and so in our initial team meetings he would explain as much as he could, which Barbara and I would supplement with information from Tahseen’s books on electromagnetic fields that were actually illustrated quite beautifully. This became our source of inspiration, and contributed to both the antenna design and the shapes in which each garment took.

Q. What challenges or difficulties did you overcome to make the dresses functional?

BL: The research involves diverse areas of technical specialization, and since we are working in a university setting, the turnover of student research assistants each year would be the biggest challenge for this project. We recently brought in a new circuit designer, Donna Legault who first had to become familiar with our particular – and sometimes peculiar – systems. Once the circuit was determined, we needed to bring in a new programmer, Martin Peach, who built on code previously developed by Hesam Khoshneviss and Sareh Majidi. Ryth Kesselring, also new to the team, is an undergraduate student whose meticulous handwork was indispensable to the project (there are 576 LEDs hand stitched into the arrays). Antennas were mathematically proven and tested in an anechoic chamber by Tahseen Mustafa and produced by Genevieve Moisan, a virtuoso on the Tajima Laying Machine where ideas become materialized. The team was continually going back-and- forth with Lauren to accommodate the various electronic components in her developing designs. Given the many new team members and the pioneering technological developments, I was quite surprised that the project was completely finished, tested and debugged in time for the event.

  • Studio subTela research assistant, Genevieve Moisan making antennas with the Tajima Laying Machine

Q. What did you learn/what surprised you? What would you do differently next time?

LO: I learned a lot about antenna design and theory, but also about how to work on a team where each member is specialized in their respective areas.

Next time I would ensure that there is more time! We conceptualized, designed and produced all three garments in a little less than four months. As Barbara mentioned, it was a surprise that the project was completed on time, and so smoothly. More time would have allowed for a more thorough understanding of what each team member was doing, which would allow for a more elegant integration of the technology into the actual design of each garment.

Q. Do you have any advice for people just starting out in designing fashion tech?

BL: At the moment, an incredible amount of information and source materials are becoming available for the development of wearable technology. It is useful to take a workshop, not only to gain knowledge, but to become integrated into a community where knowledge can be shared. Start with smaller, manageable constructions, but quickly become aware of what is out there and who is doing what. You should eventually define a niche in which to delve deeper and not just replicate what is possible, but to expand the field in innovative ways.

Q. Tell us about the experience of showing your collection at the Subtle Technologies festival. What is the attitude among the fashion tech community in Toronto?

BL: This was our first time at the Subtle Technologies Festival, having been invited by the Director, Zach Pearl. He cleverly amassed an incredible support team and we were impressed at how smoothly everything was run. Since this was the premiere of the project, it was the first time we had 3 models wearing the pieces. Interference can create a major disturbance for antenna technology, so it was a great relief to see how well they functioned in the Gladstone space.

Audiences are becoming more used to seeing light emissive technology on the body, so it is no longer unexpected as it was 15 years ago. The intense craftwork and detailing – such as the unique silk ribbon cables that move through the inside of the garments – cannot be perceived on a catwalk. However, I think there was an appreciation of the sophistication of the overall designs and the potential for live interaction.

LO: I agree with Barbara. It was great to be able to showcase these works in a live performance setting. We look forward to brain storming ways in which we can exhibit the work in a museum setting, yet still be able to express the interactive qualities.

Q. Have you noticed an overlap in technology development and fashion design or are the two fields still very separate?

BL: Great techno fashion still requires artisanal handcrafting, which is contrary to the fast changing styles of ready-to- wear mentality. The enormous attention garnered by the 2016 Met Gala may have an influence on future techno fashion, although we can expect mainstream projects to be simplistic and perhaps even cheesy if they are to have quick commercial success.

Q. Where do you see fashion-tech going in the future?

LO: We are already seeing a lot of electronic and 3D printed fashion objects products, which I think will drastically change the modes of manufacturing in the near future – we will have engineers, software developers, scientists, artists, artisans, and designers working shoulder to shoulder. What is really interesting to me is bio textiles. Beyond its medical applications there is more and more research being done on how to grow textiles for apparel which has both creative and sustainable outcomes.

Q. What is the next step for your designs? What do you have in mind for your next project?

BL: At Studio subTela, we will be expanding our antenna investigations to include not only garments, but objects for the development of a responsive environment. We have amassed a large archive of gold and silver laid textiles observed in some of the great textile collections of the world. By studying the techniques, materials and meanings of these objects, we hope to develop new ways in which people interact with textiles, with objects and with one another. I would also be delighted to have the opportunity to work once again with Lauren on a future project.

LO: I’d be thrilled to continue working with Barbara!