We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware. Sixth in the series is Sustaining Fashion: A Question of Ethics featuring artist and designer Professor Helen Storey MBE, (London College of Fashion), Professor Tony Ryan (University of Sheffield), and Philip Delamore (London College of Fashion)
Helen Storey and Professor Tony Ryan tell us how they’re changing the landscape of the fashion industry, why revolution won’t work and how the very clothes you wear could one day help mop up environmental pollution
Helen Storey and Tony Ryan combine art and science, collaborating to find real solutions to environmental problems. Their exhibition Wonderland brought together the worlds of art and science developing a number of projects, including dissolving bottles and disappearing dresses. A piece from this exhibition, Say Goodbye, 2010, features in GSK Contemporary – Aware.
Helen Storey, Say Goodbye, 2010. Science by Professor Tony Ryan OBE. Photo: Andy Stagg. “That’s called art”
Philip Delamore started off the discussion by inviting Helen and Tony to explain how they came to work together and the themes they wanted to provoke with their work.
Storey explained that she had been asked to do a project for Unilever developing ways for them to be green and profitable at the same time.
“I spent a long time wandering up and down shopping aisles thinking, ‘I’m going to have to give the money back because nothing comes to mind at all.’ And then on a Sunday afternoon I tried to teach myself quantum mechanics from an idiot’s guide and got quite stuck, but also quite fascinated. A few days later I heard Tony on the radio on ‘Material World’, and what I heard on the radio was his ability to make something really complex appear really simple.
“I rang him up with an idea I’d picked up from my idiot’s guide. If particles could have a relationship across a universe then why can’t a bottle have a relationship with its contents, know that it’s empty and just disappear? He invited me up to Sheffield University to meet him and some of his colleagues and the conversation started from there."
The initial idea turned out to be ahead of its time.
"As a science project it seemed too far-fetched and we ran it past a research council who said ‘on your bike’, but then - he says he had the idea; I say I had the idea - we thought, 'what if we could make dresses disappear?'
"The answer came back, ‘that’s called art, we’ll give you some money to do it’."
The pair secured funding for the project - a fusion of polymer nanotechnology and conceptual art - under the banner of science communication.
Tony Ryan: "Art is a Trojan horse for me. I am a scientist, I can be really geeky, but from my perspective science has always been outside culture.
"It’s quite respectable to be able to say you know nothing about mathematics, nothing of science. But if I turned up at a dinner party and said ‘I know nothing about poetry, I never read a book, I don’t listen to music,’ I’d be treated like a pariah. So science being part of culture was something I was really interested in... but also art as a Trojan horse to introduce people to complex issue that face our society.
"From my perspective most of those complex questions have a technological solution. That’s my raison d’etre for being here.”
Breaking down boundaries
Storey and Ryan displayed the dresses in Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield in order to spark a debate between the work and the consumer environment they inhabited. The work was seen by millions of shoppers and it is this which Storey sees as a major success of the project.
“Sometimes when people come into art galleries they come with a certain expectation of how they have to behave, so we’ve quite deliberately shown it in very public spaces where you wouldn’t expect to see it.”
Delamore asked about the dynamic of an artist and scientist working together. Could their type of collaboration be replicated or was it an isolated case?
Ryan: “I don’t think it necessarily has to be a scientist and an artist. There’s something in the colliding of seeming opposites where innovation seems to lie.
“Scientists often work in a cross-disciplinary way: biologists, physicists and mathematicians... Effective collaboration is based on mutual respect and trust. Both scientists and artists can become frustrated by the boundaries set up, often from a young age.”
Delamore asked whether these boundaries had been established by the disciplines themselves.
Ryan: “My daughter’s choosing her GCSEs now and she’s being forced to choose between art and science, which is a real shame because she has a Helen Storey sketch on her bedroom wall and we were doing calculus last night in between watching TV. It’s a tough call.”
Storey: “I wasn’t allowed in the art room. I never quite worked out why. I didn’t discover art until my foundation course, aged 19, so I was quite estranged from the thing I ended up being passionate about for many years.
“What we’re trying to do in our own little way on the MA ( in Fashion and the environment at LCF ), is that by the time a student decides they want to do fashion, or want to do science, that they’ve already got an openness that is naturalized within them.”
Delamore asked whether Storey and Ryan think they’ve crossed over into one another’s domains or they’ve learnt just enough to understand each other? And is it better to remain ignorant?
Storey: “Well, I remain ignorant anyway, I haven’t got much choice.”
Ryan: “I really like that I can contribute to Helen’s world and likewise. The things that I’ve learnt from hanging out at LCF about textiles and about fabric and the technique of devoré, and moving it into a medical technology field - that’s a direct input from the art world into my world. That certainly enriches my life.”
The psychology of desire
Alison Bracker and Helen Storey The RA’s Alison Bracker asked about the aims of the MA in Fashion and the Environment. What are the students trying to achieve?
Storey: “The students we’ve been attracting, some are theoretically based, some are interested in writing, some are practice based but what they have in common is that they are perhaps the first cohort of students in the world who’ve taken on every dirty story that the fashion industry has behind it.
“We’re one of the world’s biggest polluters and yet we deal with this thing called glamour. Somehow we’ve got to reconcile these two things. We’re also responsible for making people addicted to something.
"This constant urge to either reinvent ourselves or buy something that alters our mood… We can’t keep consuming in the way that we are, so the next generation of students really shouldn’t be getting a job unless they can be part of that solution.”
Ryan: “We won’t really learn how to consume less until we’re on the brink.”
Delamore argued that people seem to be consuming more, much more quickly and the full effects of this are yet to be seen.
Storey explained that the psychology of this desire has led her to an interest in neuroscience: “Unless we understand why people want things we can’t ask them to do without. You need to look at everything from true need to addiction to all the phases in between.
“We’re the best-placed industry to be able to do something about that because in our most potent years, economically and intellectually, we tend to be the most selfish. It tends to be about our career and our immediate family.
“We have to continue to make beautiful things, they might just have to last for longer. And I think with science and technology we can make that even more potent.”
Ryan argued that it is so important to understand desire because deferring gratification is so difficult. “The lemon tart I had when I got here, I didn’t really need it, it looked so beautiful and tasted so good; but I knew when I walked up to the counter that I shouldn’t have one. And that’s what we have to get our heads round as a society.”
An audience member suggested that, as consumers, we’re not necessarily feeling the cost of our cheap, fast fashion.
Ryan: “You can’t have revolution; you can’t just stop consumerism. But I would venture a guess that everyone in this room recycles. Why do you recycle? It costs you effort, it’s more work, but it makes you feel good. We need to have more of these things.”
Another audience member proposed that there needs to be more stick as well as carrot.
Ryan: “Absolutely, there needs to be more stick, more regulation and more taxation. I was speaking to somebody from an energy company the other day and they don’t think Americans will start driving less until the gas price goes up by a factor of five. If gasoline costs $10 a gallon in the US the rest of the world's economy is going to be really hurting…
“And this industry [fashion] is made to manipulate people’s feeling and their wallets.”
Third from left: Helen Storey, far right: Philip Delamore
A question of ethics
An audience member asked how the project came to be an artistic metaphor rather than a fashion collection.
Storey explained that the irony of the piece is that it disappears (“which has made touring it really difficult”) but that being 'art' allowed the piece to have more time for reflection and more power.
“I was attracted to attaching it to the notion of art rather than fashion because fashion changes every six months or every six weeks.
“It’s been interesting how misunderstood the work has been by the fashion industry because on the one hand they like it because it’s suggesting there is a way to be sustainable and fashionable, and at the same time they get stuck on its impracticalities, whether it would dissolve as you sweat or how it could be washed. They just miss the point.”
An audience member asked whether technology can be ethical.
Ryan: “It is a complex relationship; that technology has allowed us to feed six billion people, but that these six billion people are causing the depletion of resources.
“There are always dilemmas. As a scientist or an engineer you might have invented something, but then once you’ve invented it you have no control over what happens to it. The same person that created the invention of fertilizer also created chemical warfare. So, it’s really difficult - once you’ve let a bunch of ideas become something somebody else can use, the ethics of its use are taken away from the creator.”
Alison Bracker asked about denim. Could there be a less resource-heavy way to make it, given that it is probably the most popular fabric on the planet?
Delamore explains that denim is an incredibly resource-heavy material due to the amount of water it uses in the washing process and the toxins it can leave behind in rivers and water sources.
Storey: “What’s interesting is when you come up with a solution that no one wants to use. There was a catalyst that was blue in itself which meant that you could cut the dying process out because a huge percentage of the water usage is in the dying and then the rinsing, and that’s also where a lot of the rivers get polluted.
"But they can’t get any take-up on it. It’s a bit like genetic modifications - in some areas we're nervous of it. So it brings up another question, as Tony says, we probably could come up with a solution for everything but whether we’re happy about how these things are arrived at; whether we want to eat it, wear it or use it is something else entirely.”
Ryan suggested that this comes back to “whether you’re driven by environmental impact or appearance. If you’re driven by environmental impact you’d only wear nylon trousers. I have a pair of nylon trousers, they’re 20 years old, I’ve worn them hundreds of times and they’ve had far less energy expended on creating them than the 10 pairs of cotton jeans I’ve worn out in that time. So it depends on what basis you’re making your decisions.”
Delamore suggested that these issues also depend on how well informed the consumer is on the environmental impact.
Ryan mentioned a book he bought for Christmas for his colleagues, called How Bad are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee which looks at the carbon footprint of everything you do.
“The worst thing, the absolute worst thing I do is get on an airplane. The rest my life is actually pretty cool, I’d be about a 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year person if I didn’t fly. But because I fly, because of my job I’m a 97 tonnes a year person. It’s more than a factor of 10 worse than the rest of my life. The book’s a fiver, it’s written on recycled paper… and I’m not taking any commission.”
An audience member brought up the issue of how to educate adults, especially older generations and suggested that the media should take a greater role in this.
Delamore argued that there are some attempts to put this message across, such as the TV programme Blood, Sweat and T-shirts where teenagers were sent to see what it’s like to work in sweatshops.
The audience member replied that although there is a lot of information aimed at young people, there isn’t enough for adults, especially older adults.
Delamore: “I think there’s a lot to learn from the ageing generation who can probably still remember having clothes made for them. There’s a generation gap between this generation and the younger age group who’ve only experienced mass-production.”
"You see fashion, I see a high surface area to volume ratio"
Tony Ryan Storey and Ryan are now working on a new project to create catalytic clothes. These which would absorb the nitrous oxide produced by diesel engines, a major source of environmental pollution in big cities.
Audience member and designer Tonia Bastyan asked whether this was something that the fashion industry will eventually be able to buy?
Ryan: "I hope so."
Storey: “We’re looking at all ways of delivering it. We want to try to make it like fluoride in water. We want everybody to be able to be part of the solution - because everyone moves, everyone walks, everyone wears clothes.”
Ryan: “more than that, we can retro-fit it too. This idea came about because to a scientist clothing is a catalyst support. You see fashion, I see a high surface area to volume ratio.
"If you took all the fibres that your clothes are made from and laid them flat it’d be like sheet of glass that’s 10m square. So basically your clothes are the size of a tennis court. So you cover that with a catalyst and you cover that with the stuff that’s on self-cleaning windows, you actually start to have quite an impact.”
Delamore explained that these are grand challenges. How is this affecting our thoughts about design?
Storey said she sees this in the students coming into LCF: “Somehow we’ve got to marry that part that should be celebrated, a young person’s creativity, with what the world actually needs. Because I’ve been in the industry quite a long time I can intellectually afford not to get distracted by glamour, because I am only interested in the grand challenge. For me, my design work is in the service of science and I’m almost not interested unless I can pull something off in that way.”
Delamore asked Storey whether that’s something that comes with experience?
Storey: “No, I think if I look at some of the students on the fashion and environment course they’re turning up with this need to do it … they don’t know how to do it yet but there’s a real hunger to do it and they’re willing to make mistakes and completely commit themselves to it.
“We need a braver set of designers who are willing to go into a space that they don’t know very well in order to do some of those fathoming, to follow some of those mistakes to where the bigger success are.”
Ryan: “And no one will use it if it’s not beautifully designed. So there’s no point in solving the next challenge if you can’t get it out there.”
Ryan said it’s all about spending more and consuming less.
“The fashion industry knows how to manipulate people’s desires and is great at getting people to spend a huge amount on materially very little so it’s how you can push that luxury out to make it more democratic. If people become satisfied by having a small number of very high quality garments that last a very long time, that would be one step on the way.”
Bracker asked whether this is a cultural divide, that fast fashion is very much part of the US and UK but is maybe not elsewhere.
Storey: “By buying so much stuff it’s like we’re trying to satisfy something but the buying of it never satisfies us, you buy another one, it’s a real addictive thing.”
Ryan: "It’s not “a coincidence that consumerism rose at the same time as cities and the industrial complex so perhaps people are trying to replace something; that happiness that comes from living at one with nature on the land and escaping the misery of the city.”
An audience member brought up the point that the common perception of clothes made from synthetic fabrics is that they're not environmentally friendly.
Ryan argued that a wool suit creates far more damage to the ozone layer than a nylon suit - sheep, after all, produce methane etc. "But one needs to look at the lifestyle. If you buy a wool suit as a 40-year-old with the ability to let it out, and you have only four suits in your life, that’s quite good for the environment."
Delamore asks, finally, how we can expand consumers’ knowledge?
Storey: “One of the ideas we’ve had is the notion of a people’s research council. We shouldn’t be working on things that people aren’t going to use out there.
"There is potentially quite an intelligent public who probably have their own ideas about what we should be doing so that would open it up to ask what they want. It can be anything from getting birdsong back into people’s lives, to getting catalytic clothing to exist. It can be highly technical or it can be people just wanting to reconnect with nature.”
Ryan: “I’m very optimistic about the future because children are very aware and they know the damage we’ve done to the world and they know that they have a responsibility for future generations.
“Through our collaboration we’ve gone out and talked to children and what we’ve been able to do is engage children in these issues from a very non-confrontational perspective where it doesn’t make them feel bad.
“I think that’s key to collaboration, It has to be optimistic that together we can solve a problem that we’ve created.”
Supported by Bastyan.