Inside the Prosthetic Imaginary: An Interview with Sara Hendren

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Gloves for Two, Sandie Yi Crip Couture (2001)

 

Sara Hendren is an artist, researcher, and writer who explores how design and art practices can inform techno-scientific research and knowledge-building. She is the writer-editor of Abler, an online ‘think space’ where art and design are linked together with high and low-tech prosthetics, both practical and speculative, to explore questions about ability, disability, the normalized and medicalized body, and more. Abler juxtaposes posts featuring assistive technologies normally relegated to the field of rehabilitative medicine with questions concerning smart cities, cyborg transhumanism, and the future of democratic communities.

I Skyped with Sara about the politics of abled and disabled bodies, the artist as amateur, and our hopes for a cyborgian future.


 

Ana Avarez: You’ve written that Abler is one big umbrella project for your work. Can you talk about the ideas driving the site?

Sara Hendren: Abler brings together four streams of interest: First, an interest in the innovations of the high-tech prosthetic fields. Second, I’m interested in tracking the tradition of artists who have been working on prosthetics very broadly defined—a more metaphorical notion of the “prosthetic” as an extended tool that becomes a proxy, or a substitute for experience. For artists, the prosthetic becomes very subtle and associative, pointing to tools for needs we don’t even know we have. Third, I’m looking at ideas about the cyborg and the future of bodies: how we negotiate our dance with machine parts of all kinds, and whether the enhancement and augmentation they promise is tempered enough by good critical conversations. And then fourthly, I’m pointing to what are commonly called “assistive technologies”—the very medicalized devices that lots of people use but that don’t get much analysis as design or culture. Everything from crutches, to wheelchairs, walkers, ankle braces.

Those four fields tend to exist in more or less separate worlds. But all these things have much to say to one another. Abler puts them in adjacency online, along with critical writing, in a form that juxtaposes these ideas against one another and creates cross commentary to try to mix those categories. And ultimately to ask: Who is being assisted by what kinds of technologies? And what kinds of assistance do we want in the future?

The whole project has been to create a blog that’s not just a story-chaser, a popularizer of technology; neither did I want it to become an academic exercise, denouncing the politics of technology development as inherently oppressive. I wanted to take some of the really interesting questions about normalcy and abnormalcy, dependence and independence and look at artworks, design, and engineering work that all address these issues. I wanted all those conversations to exist in one place, to be rich and generative and ultimately really exciting because of what they provoke in the imagination and also the critical conversations they spark about abled and disabled bodies.

It seems like we are going to be using the words “disabled” and “abled-bodied” quite a bit. I want to first ask you, not necessarily for a definition but more of a complication of these terms: what does it mean to be able or disabled and how is that tension addressed in your work?

People who work in disability try to keep raising the idea that being “disabled” is not a fixed and assigned identity. It is not about a body status or a capacity level, but much more about this very complex, changing, evolving, and perhaps temporary, perhaps longer term, political state—in some ways, similar to how we’ve come to understand the slippery designations of race and gender. The built environment and socio-political institutions all make allowances and disallowances for certain kinds of bodies and capacities, and those affordances have ripple effects in cultures, creating abled-ness and disabled-ness. And disability is a status that is always in flux: you enter into different seasons in your life where you are more or less bodily and cognitively able to access those institutions, avenues of social mobility, and so on...

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