There are more than seven different ways to wear the artist Elizabeth Tolson’s new performance-art dress, which features a stunning three-dimensional, expandable LED-lit attachment. At the debut of “In the Presence of Myself,” a performance premiering this weekend at Bushwick’s Open Studios, the dancer Emily Smith will demonstrate them all. Tolson built the costume’s focal point by crafting rings with plastic boning. When Smith pushes the exoskeleton out, the viewer is forced to see how it juts out, like a tiered wedding cake; but when she pulls it back in, it collapses flat against the body. Tolson also tucked a hundred lights inside the sack dress’s silver and white sheer cotton, and the layers of fabric diffuse the battery-powered LEDs and illuminate Smith with a fuzzy white-yellow glow. “I wanted the lights to shine toward the body instead of out,” Tolson says.
Tolson and Smith, who met at Alfred University, have both since moved to New York, where they now regularly swap critiques of each other’s work; when it came time to bring her dress design to life, Tolson turned to Smith. “We have similar thoughts about making the body the centerpiece in different atmospheres, and that’s where our voices cross over,” Smith says. At the show, Smith will be changing the dress’s shape in slow motion as she navigates through the audience. “It’s instinctual,” Smith says. “We talked about how having the light on my stomach feels vulnerable, but when I move it onto my head, it’s almost like I absorb the light so I make more powerful movements.”
The piece, Tolson explains, explores self-image; though it’s certainly innovatively designed, to simply call the dress “wearable tech” doesn’t capture its expression of the inner conflict between self-acceptance and shame. “I keep thinking of it as the elephant in the room,” Tolson says. “By using the dress as an object to discuss how you become obsessed over a certain aspect of yourself that makes you self-conscious, it shows the beauty behind those imperfections.” Tolson and Smith discussed how to transform the dress into a tool for self-exposure — or as a shield, albeit one that still lets you glimpse the woman underneath in a flesh-colored bodysuit. It even stretches enough for Smith to crawl inside and cover her whole body — “like a turtle shell,” Tolson explains. “If people are staring, the dress can convey that need to hide.”
“In the Presence of Myself” takes place Friday, June 5 at 7 pm at The Loft Show, 248 McKibbin Street, Apt. K, Brooklyn, artsinbushwick.org.