Elements of Style: getting a charge out of a bag | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Elements of Style: getting a charge out of a bag 

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Roommates Jane Palmer and Marianne Fairbanks were eating breakfast in their loft one Monday in January, discussing a deep frustration with feeling powerless. Though it would be another month before George Bush would liken the millions of protesters around the world to a "focus group," the futility of appealing to a president bent on war was already becoming apparent. "Decisions were being made, and it didn't really matter what an individual was saying or a group of individuals was saying," recalls Palmer. "We started talking about how power can be given to an individual."

The conversation eventually veered from political power to what Palmer calls a "more tangible and physical" kind: "What if you could carry your own power, and you weren't really dependent on the wall socket?" An idea was hatched--solar garments and bags that could charge cell phones, GameBoys, Walkmans, and the like. These "mini power units," they figured, could be a small step toward eliminating "our greed and dependency on oil" while keeping individuals connected to the larger culture.

Palmer and Fairbanks, both in their late 20s, have been collaborating on art projects since 1999, when they met as MFA students in the School of the Art Institute's Fiber and Material Studies program. They've worked with alternative energy before. In one installation--centered on the idea of individual labor "coming together to create a larger whole"--they hooked up generators to the back wheels of six stationary bikes. When guests pedaled, small lights suspended by wires lit up around them. The effect, says Fairbanks, was of people powering their "own little constellation of stars." If enough guests rode at the same time, they "powered a little solar system."

Last summer their friend Brett Bloom invited them to participate in an ongoing public art project in which artists dispense free art through newspaper boxes. Palmer and Fairbanks attached solar panels to their box so that it would dispense light as well as a booklet containing drawings and photos of objects "reflecting the need for our sun." They were able to pull it off with the help of a local electrician they found on the Internet, Vladimir Nekola, who installs alternative energy systems for a living.

Last winter they contacted Nekola again, for input on the solar garments and bags. He helped them figure out details like voltage and wiring. With borrowed money, the artists ordered small, flexible solar panels from a distributor in New Hampshire and went to work on prototypes, rigging a child's jacket to power a GameBoy and designing bags that could power cell phones. They spent the next several months refining the bags, which now carry the brand name tiMoun (Palmer says the name is "Haitian-Creole" for "little one").

On Sunday, six of the bags will be on exhibit (and a few will be for sale) at the Bucktown boutique where Fairbanks works. The bags come in three different styles: messenger, tote, and "large envelope." Each is one of a kind, made out of a resilient recycled material--high-tech nylon, vinyl, or rubber-coated canvas--that can withstand the elements and easily be wiped clean. The solar panels, in weatherproof sheaths sewn to the outside of the bags, connect to a small battery inside, which connects to a cigarette lighter socket. "Anyone with any kind of cell phone, as long as they have a cigarette lighter adapter, can use the bags," says Palmer. "As long as the sun comes up, they start to absorb power--even on an overcast day."

But if the phone is completely out of juice, "you'd need direct sun to get it to work again," says Fairbanks. "If you set this in your window of your office during the day, it would charge up."

She considers the bags "an investment into the idea of being able to power yourself"--and with prices between $200 and $400, "investment" seems like the right word. For all the designers' talk of making power accessible, the bags are likely to keep power in the hands--or slung over the shoulders--of people with money, at least at first. Palmer and Fairbanks say the prices are so steep because the solar panels are expensive, and while they cut the pieces themselves, they're paying professional sewers to put them together.

"Working in a fashion boutique," says Fairbanks, "I see how much women spend on bags that don't do anything. This is functional. This does something."

"We're hoping that solar power will trickle down into daily life," says Palmer, "and the technology will be able to grow and develop and continue." When that happens, she says, their prices will come down.

Palmer and Fairbanks plan to hold workshops at Mess Hall, a storefront in Rogers Park that was recently donated to the collective art group Temporary Services, when it opens in August. "For example," says Palmer, "if you had a bag you loved and wanted to outfit it for solar, you could bring it in and we would have a skill-sharing workshop on how you could do that."

The tiMoun trunk show takes place at Robin Richman, 2108 N. Damen, on Sunday, July 27, from 1 to 4 PM; call 773-278-6150. Bags can also be commissioned by contacting Palmer and Fairbanks at jane@jamwork.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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