Work In Progress: Kathleen McDermott

It is nearly 5 p.m. on a Friday when I meet Work In Progress resident, Kathleen McDermott, in the Textile Arts Center’s Manhattan studio. West 8th Street is already beginning to hum with weekend activity as Happy Hour begins, but TAC is humming with a different kind of energy: McDermott’s creativity. This Brooklyn-based media artist is spending her Work In Progress (WIP) residency working on her signature wearables. Combining textiles and tech, the pieces are playful experiments that often make social commentaries. This month, McDermott is focusing on making a red velvet and tulle skirt full of speakers. Why? So the wearer can go into the street and play recordings of karaoke performances from New York City. McDermott plans on adding LEDs under the speakers so they light up when the recordings play.

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“Absurd—that’s a word I like,” says McDermott, citing Dada and Surrealist humor as major influences.

McDermott first started toying with tech-driven wearables while an MFA student at City University in Hong Kong. Her piece “Personal Space Dress” garnered international media attention in 2014. The dress expands anytime someone gets too close to the wearer.

“I’m very interested in public versus private spaces,” she says.

Prior to her MFA studies, McDermott had limited experience with textiles.

“Though I did win ‘Best Home Ec Student in 6th grade,” she laughs.

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McDermott admits that she used hot glue for many of her earlier wearables. Now she is working on improving her sewing skills and recently learned how to follow a pattern. While living in Troy, New York as a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), she took an alterations class at the local community college.

Before McDermott made wearables, she made sculptures and installations. After graduating from Cornell University with a B.F.A., she worked in fabrication and produced props for theater and film. Her sculptural background gave her a strong foundation for mold-making, which she says she greatly enjoyed. Yet mentors warned her that the prevalence of CGI would phase out their line of work and encouraged her to develop new skills. That was the impetus for McDermott going back to school. Her interdisciplinary M.F.A. program taught her the fundamentals of programming and wiring, among other skills that she still uses in her art practice.

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Now McDermott is teaching her skills to NYU Tandon School of Engineering students. Concurrent to her WIP residency at TAC, McDermott is a visiting professor in NYU’s Integrated Digital Media program. She uses her art practice to model creative approaches for her students.

“What I do is build up experiments,” she says as she motions to the studio full of speakers, LEDs, tulle, and red velvet.

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The TAC team is excited to see the results of McDermott’s WIP experiment: the speaker skirt that sounds like Koreatown on a Saturday night.

You can visit Kathleen’s studio installation for Work In Progress from September 1-30, at TAC Manhattan (located at 26 W. 8th St.), and learn more about her work and process during Artist Open Hours, on Saturdays from 2-5PM. Kathleen will also be giving a free workshop in creating DIY Light-Up Badges and Signs on Saturday, September 29th — learn more + RSVP. 

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