Textiles and tensegrity

Elizabeth Murton has joined UHArts for a summer residency, culminating in a symposium and exhibition on 1st October. During her residency, Elizabeth will be investigating the similarities between textiles and the fibres that hold the human body together.

Elizabeth has been inspired by the discovery that the body is not made of separate parts, neatly divided as they are in an anatomical model, but rather, an interconnected collection of tissues and fibres. Her project takes cues from architect Buckminster Fuller, whose work explored tensegrity: structures such as geodesic domes that spread tension through their parts rather than resisting gravity through simple, vertical compression. The human body is an example of biotensegrity, that holds itself together by balancing the tension of its many component parts. No single part of the body rests entirely on another part. Instead, all parts float within a sea of inter-supported fibres.

Elizabeth hopes to explore during her residency “how the structures we can make in textiles relate to the structures in our bodies, and vice versa”. She has observed similarities between textiles and the netting that wraps around our bones and muscles, connecting, organising and separating our body parts. This fascia is both protective and strengthening.

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During a recent trip to view anatomical models in the university’s physiotherapy labs, she began to envision how biological structures might be inspire the installation. The kneecap, for example, a floating “sesamoid” bone, could be imagined as ceramic objects suspended in threads. The visit revealed similarities and differences between different fibres within the body and fibres that might be used in textiles. In “sheet fascia”, a thin layer of tissue that encloses all muscles like a stocking, contains fibres that run in parallel. In contrast, “superficial fascia” have an irregular structure. In tendons, fibres join together in tiny bundles.

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This initial stage in the investigation focuses on materials and structure. Elizabeth has begun to draw parallels between biological fibres and those that she might use in her work. Three different kinds of protein that appear in our bodies – reticulin, elastin and collagen – have different degrees of elasticity and strength, with elastin being the most elastic, and collagen the toughest. These can be compared to the range of fibres and materials used in textiles, ranging from wool to wire. As in textiles, fibres that are not individually strong achieve strength through structure. Fibres in the body work together as they do in spun or woven textile fibres.

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The potential for internal fibres to be duplicated outside of the body in arts practice has been evidenced in projects such as Neri Oxman’s series of 3D printed masks, adapted from digital scans of bone and tissue, for Icelandic musician Björk. Such examples form part of wider discussions about the intersection of science and art, particularly how the relationship between scientific and creative disciplines are enabled through new technologies such as rapid prototyping. Elizabeth’s project will contribute to ever-expanding interdisciplinary practice by examining contemporary medical knowledge through craft.

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