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Interview: Helen Storey’s ‘Dress for our Time’ at the Science Museum

Tuesday 30 August 2016
Words Alice Bell

Helen Storey is an artist, designer and fashion professor. Her current project, ‘Dress For Our Time‘ uses the power of fashion to evoke an emotional response to cold, harsh data relating to climate change. When Helen learnt that we consume 30% more resources each year than our planet can replenish, she decided to create engaging and innovative ways to educate us about the urgent issues affecting our time.

The exhibition displays a dress, which is a decommissioned refugee tent, that formerly housed a refugee family in Jordan and was gifted to the project by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ‘Dress For Our Time’ transcends both data and fashion by humanising the numbers to tell the wider story. Helen partnered with technology agency Holition to work on the data side of the project. Heather Spindle caught up with Helen on the opening of the current exhibit at the Science Museum.

How did the partnership with Holition and the Science Museum come about?

I’ve been working with the Science Museum for a long time with Holition. I went to see them – must’ve been 2 years ago now – to show them my work, to say that I wanted to get involved with data and technology but that wasn’t my specialism. What I’ve done over the last 15-20 years is I always worked in collaboration with someone who does a thing I can’t do. The reason that came along was the refugee crisis, and that’s how we got together.

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Where did your interest with uniting data evoking emotion come about?

Most of the big issues in the world now have data behind them, but one of the issues we have is that if it just rests in numbers or ends up in a screen-led surface; there’s a part of our brain that never really wakes up to it so we stay partially asleep. I think there is something about dresses and the fact that it is normally women wearing them most often, and we’ve experimented with dress in the street for many years. So we are putting those two things together – something that’s very alive, very immediate – with something that people already have a vested interest in. That is what they wear… and that is where when you put fashion, technology and a reason together you can usually get quite exciting things to happen.

What is the one message you want spectators to leave with?

Find their message. I don’t want to tell people what to think, I think change only happens in the world if people find their place in it. So this is an opportunity for people to find their place in maybe an unexpected way.

What do you think is next for data? Are we becoming less creative and more data driven? How do you think this is going to change for the greater good?

You could probably get 100 different answers depending on who you ask that, but because I’m not in the data sector as such; I use it as a way of using the truth. Then it is what you do with that truth, and by that I don’t mean distort it, but it is a very good way to know that something is absolutely true. This then gives me a level that I’m working with something thats worth working with. An artist might say that, but if you speak to someone who’s trying to sell lots of washing powder they would likely say something completely different.  

“It is trying to put the special into the ordinary life, and that maybe by discovering something you didn’t expect to see, that thing has more resonance.”

What’s next for the project?

It is going to keep moving, but the next location is secret at the moment.

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Are there plans to travel it globally?

Well it’s interesting because everybody said why don’t you take it back to Zaatari, but I thought it would be completely inappropriate. You know – I’m wearing your house is not really a good message. So it seems to find appropriateness depending on where it’s going. It certainly has a massive impact when a woman walks extremely slowly through the street wearing it. I think that is because the cities themselves are moving so fast that the fact that someone is moving slowly is an object in itself worthy of attention. Then to realise what she’s wearing – what I like to try and do is interrupt people’s everyday lives in different ways. When it was first shown it was at St Pancras Station, and that’s because all life is there, all classes, creative cultures and we’re all travelling somewhere. So it is trying to put the special into the ordinary life, and that maybe by discovering something you didn’t expect to see, that thing has more resonance.

“Serendipity I think plays a big part in peoples lives. But I also think you have to get in its way.”

I totally agree, it’s the less you force something upon people, the more likely they are to take ownership and enjoy the art of self discovery. So tell me a bit about your career, any specific advice you have for our readers just starting out in the industry?

I failed at school very badly, I just about got into an art foundation, and then was spotted at Kingston (when it was then a polytechnic). Then I was on a windsurfing holiday and someone said if you can get to Rome in a day there’s a job there. So I turned up looking like a hippy; there was a girl in tears, leaving… and I got her job! Serendipity I think plays a big part in peoples lives. But I also think you have to get in its way, you have to place yourself in situations where you might not be comfortable and they’re the ones that stretch you and reward you with opportunity.

Today is really nice for me because I get to hear what other people think. What do you think?

It is such a great concept, so interesting, bringing in Holition who use the data to evoke people’s emotional feelings was fascinating, and merging the fashion aspect as well. It visually represents what would’ve been a number on a business paper. As a number on the business paper there is something cold about it, but when you see it visually like that as a population… you really empathise with that.

Even the news does that, you see the wars going on for the last five years and it is still sad but it stops affecting you.

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And that is the issue with the refugee crisis we have. The crisis is still happening, but in the current environment people are detached and trying to make decisions based on numbers rather than really looking at the peoples lives. People just see the refugees in terms of numbers crossing the borders rather than visuals – and the news stops showing visuals because they want to get to the new stories.

‘Dress for Our Time’ makes us think through the data, past the numbers, it represents what data can do in an emotional way; it makes you think differently about the decisions you make. So if it was about sustainability you would look at how companies’ wastage is affecting environments.

‘Dress For Our Time’ is a free exhibition at the Science Museum is on until 4th September.