Wearable Homes
A Project by Mary Mattingly

As part of our projects examining ideas of Shelter/Refuge and future readiness, we connect to the work of artist Mary Mattingly and her project Wearable Homes. Below Mary reflects on nomadic futures, survival, wearable technology, and notions of home and sustainability.

I grew up in a rural agricultural town without clean drinking water two hours outside of New York City. This made me aware of water waste, and the relationship between infrastructure and basic needs on a personal level. It was from this perspective that I started building Wearable Homes in the year 2001, and living in them to test do-it-yourself systems that could provide a modicum of survival. Almost 20 years later, the project has found increasing resonance.

The Wearable Homes were a response to the realities of living in a country where there is still not a safety net for so many people. As both a climate change prediction and an assumption that more people will lack access to basic resources, the “Wearable Homes” project bordered on an absurd dystopic commentary about what consumption could look like after most everything imaginable had been marketized and sold, and people navigated through desertified terrains.

The term ‘Voyager’ was one I used for a Wearable Home user. It was categorically broad: an environmental refugee, a wanderer, displaced worker, or nomad: anyone who was on the move. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a future in which most humans would be focused on survival, acclimation, and movement as a result of un-predictabilities surrounding climate change, and the resulting escalation of climate migration.

In designing the Wearable Homes, I examined the clothing from different cultures and groups around the world; from Inuit cultures and saris worn in India, to kimonos and workers uniforms, military attire and camouflage, to Western super-brands such as Gap, and the ubiquitous khaki overcoat. The projects ‘blanding’ of garments was intended to arrive at one generic look in an attempt to de-emphasize the self and specificity and re-emphasize ideas of survival and modularity. It was built around critique, but it was also based on a speculation that companies would eventually merge until an oligopoly for the Wearable Home would become a monopoly.

The Wearable Home consisted of three layers; a sub-tropic, or ‘desert’ layer, a water layer, and a sub-arctic layer. They were worn individually or in combination, but it was recommended that the sub-tropic layer be worn alone or with the water layer, while the sub-arctic layer would be worn as part of the whole.

The Wearable Homes were made from a combination of fabrics including a phase change material such as Outlast® or Adaptive Comfort®, a water proof Cordura, wool, a Solarweave UV protective fabric which forms the outer layer, and a Gore-Tex® like material to keep the body at a comfortable temperature in any weather. Encapsulated warmers (like those found in electric blankets) were woven into the innermost layer of the home and use sensors to adjust to the body’s temperature to keep the home warm or cool, counteracting the temperature outside. Electronic threads in the fabric connected to sensors (one at the wrist and one at the ear) and monitored both the health of the wearer as well as the outdoor conditions. This infrastructure received signals from satellite allowing for GPS mapping, Virtual Augmentation goggles, cel-sat and Internet.

Details: The mid-section of the home would be inflated in water, and would expand to hold objects of devotion, dedication or need. At the time I wondered, would humans have babies? Which ones? The mid-section of the Wearable Homes expanded to create space for a baby carried in the stomach region, like a kangaroo’s pouch.

Layers would be zipped off in hot climates and stored in a compact space at the back of the suit. Soft solar panels on the hood generated and stored electricity. Smaller batteries which charged on vibrations and body-motion were incorporated to power the individual sensor nodes and G-simpod, and 30 small pockets were provided to store the pills necessary for a month of mood and health monitoring. It was, I imagined, the best-case scenario for a dystopic future.

A water purification device was housed. The wearer would make their own with a few containers, some fabric scraps, stones, sand, and activated charcoal (Making activated charcoal worked by burning coconut shells, letting the fire smolder beneath leaves, depleting the oxygen and allowing the shell to ash. However, outside of tropical climates, almost any organic material was used to produce activated carbon, including raw wood). The diagram illustrated a method that uses iodine tablets, and therefore would work in any situation.

A hammock-like structure was attached, and folded into a long pocket at the back of the home. For protection, a mesh breastplate was sewn into the top portion of the home and similar protective layers were housed in the hood. The hood also protected the wearer from radiation and other harmful rays concentrated at the ear, such as a listening or speaking device that connected to the wrist, or a language translator, VA glasses, or a sensor node that specifically monitored heart rate and blood pressure. The Wearable Homes had ‘reachers’ and ‘receivers’ that extended from the suit’s back, and substituted for physical touch.

As the technology improved and became more accessible, the Wearable Homes were able to be reproduced by 3D printing, but this was more energy intensive and depended on harvesting of raw minerals for the printing devices, so eventually it wouldn’t be pursued and instead older machines would be repaired and reused.

The Wearable Homes were conceived as individual units, however, in reference to concepts of mobile architecture, the project evolved to become a ‘Wearable City’. A ‘universal attachment’ design was built in to the outer layer of the home allowing for individual units to be linked together in order to create a waterproof, weatherproof dome above a temporary community. The resulting structure mimicked a beehive, and allowed a colony of travelers to transform their wearable habitat into a larger architectural space.

While the Wearable Homes project assumed one set of dystopic future conditions based on a dominant extractive culture, it also fetishized alienation brought on by electric technologies and corporate control. The pandemic has created another set of conditions for separation. It at once strikes me that ‘reachers’ and ‘receivers’ on the Wearable Homes (so there would be no need for bodily contact with each other) would have been undeniably useful in the time of Coronavirus physical distancing.

During Coronavirus I started making and wearing the wearable homes again. These are simple, more monastic suits, and they don’t do anything special.

-Mary Mattingly

Mary Mattingly lives and works in New York City. She has studied at Parsons School of Design and received her BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art. Mattingly explores the themes of home, travel, cartography, and humans' relationships with each other, with the environment, with machines, and with corporate and political entities. She has been recognized for creating photographs and sculptures depicting and representing futuristic and obscure landscapes and for her ecological installations. She founded Swale, an edible landscape on a barge in New York City. Docked at public piers but following waterways common laws, Swale circumnavigates New York's public land laws, allowing anyone to pick free fresh food.

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