New York Times 'Cybertimes'
by Matt Mirapaul
February 5, 1998
If money is power and power is an aphrodisiac, then the stock market's peak performance in
recent months must be quite a turn-on for some. It certainly is for Nancy Paterson, even
though her portfolio holds bits rather than bonds. Paterson is an electronic media artist
in Toronto. Her latest work, "Stock Market Skirt," explores the intersection of
high finance, high technology, high fashion and low urges. "Stock Market Skirt"
lends currency to the notion that the women's fashion industry responds to fluctuations in
the equities market by hiking or lowering hemlines. When economic times are good, the
theory goes, fabric shrinks. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average falls, as it did during
the two-year bear market that began in January 1973, a more conservative climate dictates
the return of the maxi-skirt.
Despite its name, Paterson's "Skirt" actually involves a fancy party dress. Made
of black velvet and blue taffeta, it rests on the shoulders of a seamstress's mannequin,
known to everyone in the trade as "Judy." She is surrounded by five computer
screens that display stock quotations gathered from the Internet; like a ticker in a
brokerage, the data scrolls from right to left.
As share prices change, an elaborate apparatus inside the gown raises and lowers the hem
of the dress. Tiny up- and downticks cause the garment to rustle, flirting as it were with
visitors to the small Toronto art gallery where the work was unveiled on Jan. 15. A
persistent run-up in value will reveal Judy's, er, underwired structure.
"Some people are intrigued by the slight changes in the hemline - it actually quivers
quite seductively - and others are impatient. They want to see some action," Paterson
related in a telephone conversation earlier this week.
"I like the subtleness of the hemline when I'm in front of it. When people turn to me
and say, 'Give me serious up-and-down movement,' I think, yeah, this is for the people who
want to look up her dress. She's got this motor hanging down. It's very androgynous, and I
love it for that reason." Others are more circumspect. "Some guys want to look
at the motor and they'll ask, 'Is it OK (to sneak a peek)?'" she described with a
Due in part to these unseemly elements, "Stock Market Skirt" resonates with
meaning. It can be viewed as an embodiment of the erotic thrills that may come with
investing in a hot market. It also can be seen as a symbolic rebuke to the worlds of
business and technology, which have traditionally marginalized women by imprisoning them
in cute outfits.
Paterson called the work a "cyberfeminist fashion statement," a reflection of
her belief that gender roles in a virtual realm like cyberspace are more likely to be
liberated than in an office space.
Laura McGough, an independent curator in Washington, D.C., who tracks the work of women
multimedia artists, said, "'Stock Market Skirt' can be read in so many ways. It's
playful, it's political, it's sexy. There's a lot for viewers to sink their teeth
Paterson, 40, conceived "Skirt" as an Internet-based work two years ago,
undaunted by the unavailability of real-time stock quotes through anything except costly
subscriptions to proprietary systems. It usually takes her two years to realize a piece.
Having witnessed the Internet's regular and rapid evolution since she first logged on in
1982, she felt confident it would be ready when she was. She was right.
The project, her first for the Web, is considered to be a work of telerobotic art, a genre
that typically allows users to manipulate an environment (a garden, for example) by
issuing remote commands over the Web.
"Skirt" departs from this definition because it is controlled by information
provided by, and not just through, cyberspace. While online trades can cause the hemline
to ascend, so do stock purchases made through more conventional means.
"I wanted to make an art work that dealt with the Internet as an emerging intelligent
thing itself, because it is," she asserted. "Granted, it's a mile wide and an
inch deep. It's a lot like watching [the game show] 'Jeopardy!' There's a thin veneer of
information with not a lot of depth or context to it."
For those who like to watch, Paterson has trained a digital camera on the dress that
transmits images to her Web site. The page is refreshed every five minutes, and the two
most recent images stay present for comparison.
Paterson had been using a composite index from the staid Toronto Stock Exchange to alter
the dress. Starting today, she is using the share price of Yahoo! Inc., the Internet guide
and content provider, in the hope that it will yield more dramatic movements. "I
realize it needs bigger increments for the webcam," she said.
(Diane Hunt, a Yahoo! spokesperson, offered a buttoned-down response from the formerly
T-shirt-clad firm: "As an SEC-regulated, publicly traded company, it is our policy
not to comment on Yahoo!'s stock price or performance," she said in an e-mail
Paterson employs software to query the Internet every 10 seconds for stock-price changes,
which are received with the standard 15-minute delay. When no real-time data can be had,
the system defaults to a foreign exchange or runs on quotes from the day before.
A custom-designed program analyzes the data and another emits the impulses that drive a
stepper motor, with 600 increments, to direct the hem to move north or south. The hoisting
mechanism is a miniaturized version of the cables and pulleys employed in theaters to open
and close the stage curtain.
If Yahoo!'s shares soar in a robust market, the skirt is designed to roll up to waist
level, then unfurl to the floor and restart its climb. "It's not likely that any
stock is going to do that. And if it did, I'd be worried about more things than just the
dress," Paterson said.
"Stock Market Skirt" will be exhibited until March 15 at the Bell Centre for
Creative Communications, a multimedia training institution where Paterson is an artist in
residence. After that, it may be shown at the SIGGRAPH and Ars Electronica conferences if
juries accept it.
But one place "Stock Market Skirt" will not be seen any time soon is on a human
figure. Paterson said the work would require expensive modifications to become habitable,
including a wireless transmitter from the computer to the motor.
This has little material impact on Paterson, who favors jeans and slacks. She said,
"It's been a long time since I've worn a skirt, I'll tell you."