Absurdist electronics : design explorations of the physical body in relation to wearable technology

McDermott, Kathleen
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Other Contributors
High, Kathryn
Lawson, Shawn A.
Vamos, Igor
Young, Samson
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Electronic arts
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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States
This electronic version is a licensed copy owned by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. Copyright of original work retained by author.
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This dissertation formalizes the term “absurdist electronics,” an approach to technology design which references both avant-garde art and critical design strategies. Drawing on the Dada principle that absurdity and shock can be an appropriate response to technologically-enabled feelings of alienation, absurdist electronics seeks to jolt audiences out of a cycle of anxiety associated with technological change (Toffler, Future Shock) through playful, strange inventions; while simultaneously casting a critical eye on commercial design tropes which present technology as a solution to all of life’s problems. Wearable and mobile technologies are especially well-suited to an absurdist response, because the body in relation to technology has historically been subject to conflicting narratives, often limited to the utopia/dystopia binary.
Through a series of case studies and workshops, the absurdist electronics method has been applied to consider how absurdity may subvert principles of control and rationalism in wearable design; evading the impulse to design technology that may make the body more machine-like, and promoting technology that may make the body more transcendent and strange. In contrast to narratives of the future that are disproportionately focused on virtual bodies and bodies represented by data, the electronic inventions in this dissertation emphasize real-time physicality by deliberately intervening in physical space in ridiculous and socially relevant ways. All of the items are worn publicly, either by myself or a proxy, and the documentation has been edited into narrative videos and GIFs, taking cues from infomercials and advertisements. In addition to exhibiting the finished works, the videos have been shared online, which has allowed the work to reach an audience beyond the academic sphere. Each of the case studies is accompanied by a thorough set of instructions for technical recreation, and the tutorials are distributed online and through workshops, in an effort to contribute to Critical Making, a larger DIY movement that is expanding the scope of electronics design.
August 2019
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Dept. of the Arts
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Rensselaer Theses and Dissertations Online Collection
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