Arie Altena

Take the Tweets Out There

Interview with Aram Bartholl by Piem Wirtz and Arie Altena


This text was published on the website of V2_:, 2009.

During the V2_ Wearable Technology workshop on May 19th 2009 Piem Wirtz and Arie Altena took the opportunity to interview the German artist Aram Bartholl. Bartholl had just finished the Tweet Bubble Series, four works that he developed during his artist in residence period at the V2_Lab. He presented the four T-shirts of the Tweet Bubble Series the next day at the Test-Lab Fashionable Technology.

Arie Altena: Could you explain how the Tweet Bubble Series came about?

Aram Bartholl:
The Tweet Bubble Series is about putting Twitter posts, so-called tweets, on clothing. Twitter a social web application that people use to tell each other what they are doing at the very moment. Twitter is in between chatting, blogging, text-messaging and email. Normally tweets are only on the web, by putting them on a T-shirt they they are brought from the digital platform to everyday life and physical space. That's the basic explanation.
    The Tweet Bubble Series relates specifically to Twitter, but it could also relate to another, similar service. Twitter is interesting because it is quite brutal in terms of privacy. On Twitter people are very private in public. Your tweets are public by default. You can hide your feed and make it available to certain people that you allow to see it, but most people do not use this option. Most twitter-feeds are just public. Every tweet is stored as a single html-page, Google will find and index it. It is just one of the examples of the increase in 'transparency' in our society.
     I have worked with speech bubbles before in works like Chat, and I always had the idea to bring the speech bubbles to clothing, to a shirt. I was thinking about making a small dynamic speech bubble that would display your latest tweet or facebook message. I wonder what it would be like if we had this in every day life, when you would walk around with your latest message on a t-shirt. Would it make any sense?
    A lot of tweets are about digital information, with links to other websites. Yet the main idea of Twitter is of course to state 'what are you doing right now'. In that sense Twitter is about everyday life. Therefore you have these classic tweets like 'I'm having a coffee'. Twitter is not about publishing information which is interesting, it is about presence and connectedness between friends, and other people you know, people with whom you have built up a certain relation, or have an emotional contact with.
    You can use these services in many different ways. But at the moment when you take a Twitter-message and put it on a shirt in the form of a printed label or a scrolling LED-bar, it questions the use of it. That is what I am interested in. Where is the connection between the message and everyday life? As always my main topic  is that the online virtual reality is a part of the real world. Chatting on the computer is as much part of daily life as crossing the road to go shopping. Yet there is also an important difference between chatting or twittering and meeting people on the street. There is a basic difference in how we communicate online and how on the street. I have the feeling that people are often not aware of these differences. Also the different ways of communication are merging in certain ways.

AA: Most people know your lo-tech takes on the virtual, like using the paper cut-out speech bubbles. What made you take the step to go into a technological development process for the Tweet-project during your residency at the V2_ lab?

AB: I work in the field of new media art, but usually I try to use as little technology as possible. For the V2_residency the approach was a little bit different. I set out to develop ways to actually show tweets real-time on clothing. The first idea was of a changing speech bubble on a t-shirt and I tried to develop the new technology for it. At the V2_lab there is the technological knowledge, that is why I started from the possibility to develop something that would work technically as well as conceptually. On the one hand I am a technology driven person, and I love gadgets. On the other hand I have become sick of being technological driven. That is why I want to take the digital language back to analogical devices and detach myself from technological thinking. Of course the project developed in different ways than I envisioned beforehand. The very first idea – the text bubble on the t-shirt not looking too technological – turned out to be quite complicated. Looking back I could say that I fell in the trap of starting a purely technological development process, to end up with the realization that simple approaches are the best way to show the concept. We now have a Tweet Bubble Series, four different approaches to the same concept.
    The first version is entitled Classic Tweets, and works with thermochromatic fabric that changes color or lightens up when you heat it up. We sewed leading thread on it, so you can put electricity on the thread to light up the areas where the thread is. First I hoped to make a segmented, pixellated display, so you could spell out words on it. I still like that idea, also because such a screen changes slowly and is really lo-tech, but to do 140 characters, with 16 segments per character, is quite complicated and the effort you have to put into making it doesn't stand in any relation to the simplicity of the concept. That is why I decided to go for different versions. But the Classic Tweets uses the initial idea, but there are only three static Twitter messages on it. You can switch between these three classic tweets: 'Having a coffee'; letting other people know what you are 'looking at...' (link) some and link a webpage on screen, and the 're-tweet'. (Just as 60 percent of bloggers just re-blog what others have written, people using twitter often only re-tweet what others put out on Twitter.)
    The second version uses a LED-bar, which in art is well known from Jenny Holzer's work. I had an LED-bar and we started to hack it. We connected it to the Twitter feed and the Arduino board. We call it Loud Tweets because it has this loudness of advertising to it.
    The Pocket Tweet starts from the fact that we already carry a screen with us: the mobile phone. There is super condensed technology in there, so why not use that as a display? The Pocket Tweet is very simply a shirt with a pocket, which has a speech bubble cut-out. You put your mobile phone in the pocket, front facing, to show the last message on your screen in the speech bubble. Simon de Bakker of V2_ wrote a java application to pull the Twitter-feed out of the net. The Pocket Tweet uses existing technologies and combines it with clothing we already have. That is already wearable computing.
    The Paper Tweet, finally, is meant for a big crowd, for a festival or conference audience. It is my favorite version. We have a set-up with a computer and a label printer that print small labels. On a conference you sign up, register with your Twitter account, and you get a label. The label has a RFID-tag embedded and during the event people with RFID readers can scan your label for new messages. If there is a new message, it is printed immediately at the desk. So you twitter your message during the conference, you are scanned, the message is printed at the desk, and you stick the new message on the badge. We will present it tomorrow and I am quite curious how it will work. I can image that Twitter-addicts will really like it. We will print the time code as well, as Twitter displays it (like '5 minutes ago"). That will be funny, because it disconnects the message on the badge from the internet-time display. The contrast between paper and screen is also interesting. So those are the 4 versions. The Classic Tweet hoodie, the Paper Tweet, Loud Tweets and the Pocket Tweet.

Piem Wirtz: What is you opinion on wearable technology?

AB: I am not really from the wearable technology field. I am very interested in the connection between the body and technology, but maybe in a different way than most people from the wearable field. What interests me for instance is the relation between the body and technology in role playing games like World of Warcraft, where you have an avatar which represents yourself. What is the relation between your body and the representation in the virtual world? Characteristic for the wearable technology field is rather the incorporating of electronics in clothing and how that creates a relation between your body and technology. Obviously that is very interesting, and very relevant right now. The question is also why is it not taking off on a much larger scale. For me it is clear that clothing is a very old concept, it has a long tradition, has developed over tens of thousands of years, and that development is closely connected to a social evolution. Clothing has a lot of personal and social meaning to us. And the moment you put electronics in clothing, you go against that. Where it works best now is with sexy products like iphones and ipods with their nice surfaces and nice feel. They are the best extensions of the human body, yet they are not clothing, but devices.
    My four versions of the Tweet-shirt are also meant as a way to open up the discussion about what exactly counts as wearable computing. Of course, the industry is waiting for the killer applications, but maybe it is good to think about basic connections. It is not so interesting  what the next technology is that I can use. It is obvious that you can put an mp3 player in a jacket, it is more interesting to think about why people have problems with it. There are a lot of cliches about wearable computing that derive from the 1980s. They are the classic images of cyborg life: Steve Mann's work is an example, and Stelarc of course. Such images have become cliches that do not help to promote the field of wearable technology to a larger market. I see the term fashionable technology as an attempt to bring the field to another level. Technology and clothing are very different, and are difficult to combine. It is not as with blue lights on cars that can suddenly become cool. Or the hype of making your computer blink. The Philips jacket is nice for the disco, but not otherwise.
    A recent project of mine was a performance piece in which four people play Wii-nintendo. The audience just sees them play, and does not see the game. On top of that another person was lecturing about one hundred web 2.0 services in fifteen minutes. He read out the advertising messages. Computergames have been around for a long time now, as well as motion control sensors. They have been used in new media art since a long time too, but it is only since a year now that motion control sensors are also a very successful consumer product. People are standing in their living rooms in front of their screens and make these funny movements. We change because the interface changes. That is fascinating. Maybe that is more an interface discussion than a wearable discussion, but there are a lot of connections and analogies too. Because in both instances it is the body itself that gets involved. We get away from the keyboard.

PW: The body as an interface is then the theme, not wearables?

AB: That would make a lot of sense. The performance piece of Kobakant, the Perfect Human is also very much about the body as an interface. Having an mp3 player embedded in my jacket or simply loose in my pocket does not make a big difference. If I can wash the cables, that is handy. It would be different if I could use it by making a gesture. It would be different when social interaction comes into play. Then it changes and becomes meaningful. The Wii and the Wii-fit have introduced people to the concept of motion control. Maybe from there it will become interesting to embed technology into clothing.


© 2009 Aram Bartholl / V2_

Arie Altena