Espionage films with heroes à la James Bond or movies adapted from comic books such as Modesty Blaise have got us used to seeing (and desiring...) a wide range of special gadgets and weapons that extend the capabilities of the wearers' body or are designed to help them in difficult and risky situations.
Current trends for wearables, hybrid devices, camouflage and miniaturisation have actually turned espionage gadgets into desirable items for our modern mobile lives. Yet it is not just the rhythms of modern lives that sparks an interest in such pieces, but also what's in the news and the complex geopolitical situations we live in.
Cleverly moving from such topics, artist, inventor and shoe maker Benjamin John Hall created unique footwear exploring notions of espionage in our times. The Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London) has recently launched an exhibition - entitled "Laboratory 12" - entirely dedicated to these designs, commissioned and curated by Ligaya Salazar.
Multi-media displays accompany the seven pair of shoes in the exhibition, introducing visitors to the main inspirations behind them, but also to the lengthy research Hall carried out to make his designs.
Hall's starting point for this project wasn't indeed fashion or technology, but the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. The title of the exhibition is indeed taken from the name for the KGB's secret poison laboratory where colourless, tasteless and odourless poisons - such as Polonium, Litvinenko's silent killer - are developed.
There's both men and women's shoes in the exhibition: designs go from cumbersome platform sandals to elegant boots incorporating a trompe l'oeil T-bar shoe. All the pieces look stylish and modern, but X-rays reveal the gadgets - electric match heels, Coke can detonators or recording devices - hiding inside them.
The shoes are fully functioning and wearable and they were developed in collaboration with an architect and material scientist, a wearable computing and tangible design researcher and a 3D print and CAD designer.
Yet Hall's main point is not merely technological: the designer hopes indeed to cleverly prompt visitors to think about which governments could or already are securing their best interests in uncertain political and economic scenarios, or how far governments are prepared to go to maintain the balance of powers by bending international law and manipulating the media to hide this from the public eye.
Miuccia Prada may have invented the "ugly chic" concept, but Hall is more settled on a sort of chic and disquieting fear to alert us all about key issues such as subtle psychological warfare. And he does so rightly: after all, while flexible tools help heroes in films to defeat the villains, unfortunately in real life it is often the villains who prevail.
Can you tell us more about the inspirations behind "Laboratory 12"?
Benjamin John Hall: The shoes I produced for "Laboratory 12" are an experimental work which was part of a design residency and was inspired initially by the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. For me "Laboratory 12" (a secret Soviet poison Laboratory) was a myth or something that was unlikely to be real until Mr Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium in 2006.
In which ways do you explore current geopolitical issues and notions of espionage through your designs?
Benjamin John Hall: Through my research I unearthed various ideas around geopolitics and how closely linked it can be to espionage. One such theory with regards to geopolitics was that of Friedrich Ratzel a German geographer that equated geopolitics to Darwinism where if a state was not actively seeking to expand then it was effectively diminishing, similar to the survival of the fittest theory. This raised questions about the decisions governments make and the morality involved in how far a government should or would go to secure its country's best interests. This lead to further research around espionage and some of the darker methods employed by governments to really secure their objectives. Some of the shoes are 'operational' objects that touch on a few of these methods.
Which of the seven pairs of shoes on display fascinates you the most and why?
Benjamin John Hall: Conceptually I think the Zersetzung shoe is the most interesting. Zersetzung was a very dark psychological technique employed by the Stasi and was used to manipulate political opponents and also any civilians that might have ideas about rebelling against the state. Essentially they would infiltrate your life and organise difficulties for you. It could be anything from bursting a pipe in the flat above, to setting you up with minors, hoping you might be seduced and then enabling them to pursue criminal charges. The Zersetzung shoe illustrates this concept by emitting a negative smell from its sole whilst the wearer is unaware. It's operated wirelessly by sending a text message to the shoe from afar, the bad smell throughout the day would eventually reduce the confidence of the wearer. Obviously this is not something I would intend someone to wear commercially but rather it opens up ideas about susceptibility to outside influence, for example how aware are you of how your Facebook feed is controlled? How much is your opinion formed by the media you read? and so on.
What kind of technologies did you include in your designs?
Benjamin John Hall: In terms of technology I had three collaborators on this project: wearable computing and tangible design researcher Nanda Khaorapapong (Queen Mary, University of London) who managed all of the electronics; 3D print and CAD designer Martyn Carter (B-Made) and architect and material scientist Richard Beckett (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL) who worked on the 3D printing. Most of the technology is custom built and involves wireless Xbee transmitting modules, and also mobile phone/text message.
You're a shoe maker and an inventor as well: do you think that in future we will see more designs/installations/products by creators with a sort of hybrid background suspended between art and technology/science?
Benjamin John Hall: I do and I think this will produce the most interesting work. Categorising work rigidly into art, fashion or science contexts isn't really useful. Sure some people like to say what is or isn't fashion, art, science and so on. But, while people are worrying about this conundrum, there are plenty of artists, scientists and fashion designers collaborating to make new and interesting work. After working with my collaborators, I truly believe anything is possible with the right mix of people and I aim to use my research for some slightly less dark outcomes in the future.
"Laboratory 12", Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, 20 John Prince’s Street, London, UK, until 16th July 2016. The exhibition will be accompanied by an events programme of talks, workshops and masterclasses. For further information check out this link.
Image credits for this post
All images courtesy Benjamin John Hall/Fashion Space Gallery
1. Geiger shoes by Benjamin John Hall, 2016. Materials: 3D printed components, equine leather with chrome plating. Make-up compact: 3D printed components, embossed leather and metal plating.
2. and 3. X-Ray of the Geiger shoes and Make up case by Benjamin John Hall.
4. Kompromat shoe by Benjamin John Hall, 2016. Materials: Optic white goat leather with gloss Italian box calf, gunpowder fuse trim and printed components.
5. X-Ray of the Kompromat shoe by Benjamin John Hall, 2016.
6. Zersetzung shoes by Benjamin John Hall, 2016. Materials: 3D printed wedge with equine and goat hair on calf.
7. X-Ray of the Zersetzung shoes by Benjamin John Hall, 2016.
8 - 12. "Laboratory 12" exhibition by Benjamin John Hall. Fashion Space Gallery, London. Photographs by Emmi Hyyppä.
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