To live in a city is to endure stress at all hours of the day. There’s the crush of noise and buildings and bodies, the surveillance cameras, and then the more overt invasions of the personal bubble. Like the person with her face in your armpit during rush hour. Or that guy who puckers up his lips and spits at you on the street. And then there’s that creep who gets handsy on the train (which is definitely sexual harassment; if that happens, report it).
But maybe it’s possible to carve out more personal space if you’re wearing a dress with mechanical jaws that can expand to poke away invaders. That’s one of the items in Hong Kong-based artist Kathleen McDermott’s “Urban Armor” line, which also features a robotic scarf to ward off cigarette smoke, and a special veil to disguise your face in front of CCTV cameras.
McDermott moved to Hong Kong two and a half years ago from New York; the project is part of her MFA. But she started thinking about public space while volunteering with elderly homeless people. “We were chatting with them about their daily lives, and they were explaining how the smallest things become difficult, like finding a place to use the toilet or a place to lie down,” she writes by email. “Most of people in cities don’t spend their lives living in public space, most people have a private space they go back to, but it got me thinking that even during the time we spend commuting through public space, there are so many forces affecting our minds and bodies. (For example: advertising, pollution, traffic, other people). I became interested in the idea of creating a force that acts back.”
In doing so, McDermott’s determined to keep Urban Armor DIY. No commercializing the Autofilter, or the dress, which required using empty deodorant cases to build a motor. Now she’s inviting others to modify her designs, or submit to the Urban Armor project library.
One day, though, we might need more than just physical barriers. “There are some people who believe we will become less reliant on our physical bodies in 100 years, because we will become so technologically augmented,” McDermott writes. “If that happens, perhaps issues of personal space will be more related to ‘mind space.’ (Get out of my head!)”