By Ellen & Kat
The POP team have been researching and living with (and in) masks in ways we did not fully anticipate at the beginning of the project. This multiple experience has made exploring the history of masks in patent archives, in all their remarkable problem-solving variation, pretty fascinating.
Getting up close to historic face masks
We’ve explored them in a range of ways….
Kat first wrote about masks here. She was thinking about how the news was filled with inequalities of PPE in healthcare’s first line of defence. The archives are FILLED with masks – there are (over) 16,000 of them from 1820 to 2020. This data clearly demonstrates how masks have been invented for centuries and yet not everyone is protected.
Kat and Katja then presented a paper on the history of mask inventions at the FACE OFF symposium hosted by Manchester Fashion Institute. This talk spanned mask innovations from the C17th plague beak mask through to pandemic PPE.
Again, we questioned why some faces/bodies/people get more protection than others.
Who gets protected? How and why do some bodies get more protection than others? Do these disparities map onto other forms of invisibility, inequality and injustice? Does this create (or reinforce) different kinds of political subjectivity?
We also expanded ideas about how and why people cover their faces – in addition to ideas around health and safety, they have invented and worn mask-type artefacts for work purposes, in relation to weather, for different forms of mobility, for beliefs and customs, for masquerade and for disguise.
Since then, we have been even busier researching the history of masks AND exploring inventive methods for the study of masks – in a pandemic…
These constraints got us thinking….
Things have obviously shifted since the start of the pandemic. At POP our main methods involve “making things to make sense of things”. We plan to make lots of these masks as part of our reconstruction methods and to get as many people as possible to physically try on the garments that we make.
Why make them?
We are making are mapping them across bodies. We are interested in clothing inventions as multi-dimensional arguments. In addition to being textual explanations, illustrative sketches and legal documents they are ALSO ideas, imaginings and material garments.
In patent form they are infinitely mobile. They are “immutable mobiles” (to use classic STS language). We are interested in analysing them in all of these multi-dimensional socio-political and time-traveling forms and exploring what emerges at the intersections and overlaps.
Do they actually work? How do they enable, constrain or organise bodies? How does it feel to move, breath, dance, stretch, swim and play in these historical inventions? What do we expect and how do they surprise? What else might they reveal?
This process of making and wearing will enable us to directly engage with the clothing patents in more of an embodied approach through their materiality.
Inventive methods for the study of invention
We started to question, what would it be like to reconstruct masks digitally?
How would it feel to translate from digital archive, to paper patent print out, material prototypes and then back to framing in online platforms?
What might emerge when we speculate on the possibilities of a flat illustration and then experience the realities of physical wear?
So, Ellen started to investigate ways to do this and suggested we collaborate with Yi Liu. They are a talented fashion designer whose practice revolves around questioning playfulness and telling narratives in the digital sphere.
You can check out more of Yi’s work at 2297<3 studio here.
How can we digitally experience historical wearable tech?
First though, we had to narrow down the enormous amount of mask data.
We started to explore a selection of mask patents from the archives spanning the globe and across 200 years. We narrowed it down to subset of 30 from the corpus of 16,000 mask patents.
Our criteria involved looking for a diverse range of abundant uses of masks for the purposes already identified in our (WP1) quantitative analysis, including (as mentioned above) for work, health, care, mobility, masquerade and performance, disguise, beliefs and cultural practices.
We printed them out, analysed the text and images and then cut them out, mounted them on card and put them on our faces.
Clothing in the digital sphere
Together, with Yi, we’ve created a randomly generated Instagram filter, based on a selection of mask patents we’ve found in the archive.
You can find the filter on POP Mask Filter on our Instagram page or scan the QR code here.
We are excited about this experiment.
Trying on clothing in virtual spaces is something that we’d like to continue exploring throughout the project.
It extends our ideas of “wearable technology”, which we view as more expansive than the usual notion of a smart device embedded in fabric (Jungnickel 2021). At POP we consider all clothing, and especially the vast and incredible range of inventions we are researching, wearable tech.
Please get in touch with any questions or feedback you have n this experiment. We’d love to see what people do with it and how it “feels” to digitally wear masks from the past.