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...
Cecile B. Evans, You May Keep One of Your Children (2011)
Many of your works reference and seem to be derived from popular culture icons, from Paula Abdul and Meryl Streep to Jean-Luc Goddard and J.D. Salinger. What is the role of popular culture in your work? Do your works attempt to comment on our conceptions of these cultural references or are they simply a point of departure?
One thing that is important to me in the work I’m doing now is to get to where several points of reference can exist on the same plane, with equal weight. In this world, Paula Abdul goes with Pina Bausch, Meryl Streep with medical instruments, and an array of other elements in each piece that vary in their visibility. I’m interested in reaching a place where the high blends into the low, the earnest into satire (and vice versa) and making a complex constellation of elements that winds up as something that’s really simple aesthetically. As I write this, I’m gluing nail art rhinestones to spell out a quote from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? in Braille to spill from the tear ducts of a vintage photo a friend emailed me of her parents kissing. I’m simultaneously editing a video that features a semphore version of Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing on sleeping pills that unfolds while a Lucinda Childs-like ghost floats around dying golden embers. At the moment, we exist in a culture that lets me use these very different values to refer to the same emotions. It’s as though we’ve entered a 2nd wave of New Sentimentality where it’s as appropriate to relate loss to an Aaliyah song as it is to do so with Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and either can be done sincerely or ironically… at least I’ve always equated things that way.
I enjoy using broad references in popular culture as a reflection on how different industries have created universal conduits.
Your past works seem to levitate around notions of intimacy and relationships. Some of your projects imply that intimacy doesn't necessarily require physical closeness and can be instead experienced through connections made in internet or other forms of technology. Yet, in the age of tweeting and texting, social networking creates this constant yet increasingly vapid communication between people that feels anything but intimate. How do you think recent technology affects our perceptions of intimacy? Do you think physical closeness can be replicated within a technological frame, or do these new forms of connecting force us to reevaluate what we deem “intimate”?
In the past I’ve been interested in the internet as an intimacy generator, using its content as source material, without judgement. One thing that I’ve found since I’ve started is how blurred the lines between the virtual and real have become, to the point where it isn’t a big deal. There are feed relationships that can cross over to a more direct form of contact, either as an extension of what you’ve created or used as supplements to wish fulfillment- from rejection to validation. The volume of people and easy access serves as a lubricant either way
The danger isn’t with ourselves- I don’t think those of us who have the filter to realize what’s ok and what isn’t will lose that. It’s more how flippantly we display our feelings. The faith in an emotional utopia was decried in 1994 by Carmen Hermasillo (aka humdog) who warned that the spilling of our guts on the internet would result in the commodification of our feelings by large corporations. That’s happening now. I fear that the companies are mirroring back what we unknowingly feed them in ways that will reevaluate the meaning of intimacy for us...
Realigning My Thoughts on Jasper Johns (screenshot) 2011
You seem to be preoccupied with the viral spreading of your work (in your website, under the social media “like” count, you wrote “Seeing these numbers rise is my drug.”) Why is this such an important consideration to you?
For me, the number of likes/+'s/mentions/views are the closest thing I have to renumeration for work that is currently difficult to commodify. The means in which we are able to sell digital work is still very much loose and up in the air. I can take solace in these numbers. Know that the work is reaching people, even if the specific metrics are a fools game, an addictive comparison mechanism where the only impossible successful outcome is a continual rate of increase.
Is the possibility of the rapid spreading of your work one of the reasons you choose new media or video as a medium for most of your works?
It's less about rapidly spreading my work than about the possibility of widely spreading it. And cheaply. My technologically formative years were in the 90's when the internet was revolutionizing the idea of ubiquitous publishing and communication. We were using modems measured in baud, emailing around a tiny video of a cg dancing baby, not streaming the latest feature-length film wondering if a single service was going to have 1 billion active users. The 90's were a transitional period, and I think we're in another one (yes, yes, we're always in a transitional period). But unlike the technological idealism of the 90's led by thinkers, tinkerers, and artists, we seem to be in a confusing "what the fuck just happened" period where we're scared/uneasy/apprehensive about where technology may be leading us ...