Inside the Prosthetic Imaginary: An Interview with Sara Hendren

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.

People working within disability studies also think about the ways that bodies and lives get commodified by notions of independence, autonomy, and economic productivity. So there’s a larger conversation there to be had about measuring worth and the ideally productive body. Defining who is “able” has everything to do with assumptions about the market economy.

What started Abler for me was a desire to stay away from this notion that only people who are disabled have a political interest in their own rights. There’s something really interesting and provocative about looking at disability politics and technology within these larger questions about economic structures and power dynamics. It makes us ask: what’s the kind of future we want to create?  What kinds of bodies and minds do we want to foster and create greater possibilities for?

Floral Leg, The Alternative Limb Project

When I was reading your work on Abler I was most excited by the idea of what role the artist or designer has in this field. You present the idea of the artist as an amateur that is in a perfect position to go into a prosthetic field that is technologically specialized and add input.  You also look into the notion of the role of an artist in society in a broader sense, that instead of just conjecturing and aiming critique at things, artists can have a real, generative, and purpose driven change in people’s lives. I was wondering where you place yourself in that spectrum?

I am really interested in what my own amateur background as a visual artist brings to what critic Brian Holmes has called “expert cultures” in medicine and biotech. The way I am interested in working in those communities, as you said, is not only in a critique from the gallery about a dystopian technological future. What I am more interested in doing is working alongside experts in engineering, science, and medicine in a collaborative way.

I’m also getting trained in building low-tech adaptive technology. I started working with the assistive device center at the Perkins School for the Blind, who I found through the Adaptive Design Association in New York. They collaboratively develop and build tri-wall cardboard devices, mostly for children, all highly customized. A number of these users have multiple, complex atypicalities in their bodies beyond blindness, so these designers work with tri-wall, which is incredibly physically robust, to make these provisional, temporary prosthetics with a single user in mind. They’re totally custom and they’re low cost. There’s so much radicalism there: It’s not the kind of industry-driven, high-tech engineering and gee-whiz- manufacturing that you normally see in prosthetics. It’s a low-tech practice that’s an overlooked, undervalued corollary to high-tech design.

Next I’ll be trying to think what other more speculative cardboard devices could be made, how else they might point outward from their diagnostic uses. In this way, the artist is partly a fabricator, partly mediator, between the formal and informal cultures, linking specialists and labs where there’s a lot of cultural caché and an ability to drive the agenda for development, and then these low-tech engineering practices that are really off the radar. With Abler and my other projects, I want to construct devices, situations, and critical conditions by which people who tend to be invisible in these conversations get a more public voice.

In one of your articles you mention eyeglasses as one of the most successful prosthetics that either hide or reveal difference. Your Abler article about hearing aids has a great quote that touches on this same tension:

“[T]here’s presuming that a hearing impairment is an inherent lack, and therefore asking, ‘How well can we ‘hide’ a functional hearing aid, to blend in with the flesh surrounding it?” And then, instead, there’s asking: “What would a visually striking hearing aid look like? What would make you want to wear it? If we grant visibility to this kind of aid, how does it alter our view of its user?” And, most provocatively: “What else might a hearing device do, that’s so far not been imagined?”

Could you talk more about the importance of granting visibility to disabilities as a tool for changing perceptions?

People ask me that a lot—what is the goal of the design research here, is it to provide most discretion possible so they feel that their disability is sort of masked, or is the design research really for making these things much more outward?

I think for eyeglasses you take it from being this deviation from normalcy to being this positive, original trait. I think that is important in transforming our notions of abled and disabled bodies, and how these are assigned negative and positive labels.

Eyeglasses have become so naturalized and desirable to people because you think of them purely as a handbag, as an accessory; they’ve really become quite transformed. So it’s interesting for instancwwe that hearing aids still carry so much stigma. People report being treated as if they know less than they used to, or as if they are cognitively disabled when they are not. There are assistive technologies that we register as this really medicalized need and these other technologies that we completely take for granted as being prosthetic tools. Graham Pullin, who wroteDesign Meets Disability, wrote that this is one of the most interesting and productive tensions to think about—in what situation is discretion desirable, and in what situations is a much more performative and visually striking product desirable? Ideally there are places for both, where people can make choices.

Beyond practical tools, I’m particularly interested in finding ways to temporarily estrange ourselves from our received ideas about technologies, to reconsider how we are using them. Artists are particularly good at doing that work: repositioning, hacking, inverting technologies to help us see them again. What experiences we’re gaining, what experiences we’re shutting off from ourselves—I’m interested in a truly open-handed posture towards how we implement technology in our lives. Not with a kind of suspicion or paranoia, and also not with a submissive and thoughtless consumption.

One of the things that piqued my interest most when I read your work is your ideas surrounding the cyborg. What is the cyborg to you, and what does this cyborgian future entail?

There tends to be either an overly sanguine story about the cyborg self—like, in the future, there will be no disability because, “Oh these legs don’t work anymore? I’ll just strap on new ones.” Or, conversely, there’s a kind of dystopian fascination with our dependence on technological proxies. People either imagine the liberatory cyborg, where we merge bodies and machines in a way that is clean and utopian, or where: Yikes! We’re all going to die, because the machine overlords—they’re coming! But both of those stories make a big leap over harder questions.

One of the things I say a lot when I lecture is that people with disabilities who are using assistive technologies every day are our richest resource of wisdom about the cyborg-self, about how we integrate technologies into our lives. They’ve been doing it in significant ways already, everyday, for a long time. But because we have these notions of assistive technologies as medicalized, and a kind of a medical-tragedy story we tell ourselves about these people, we have ignored them as a knowledge resource. We’re too busy consuming and replicating this very futuristic idea of the cyborg monster.

With Abler, I’m trying to engage a nearer future that is manifestly open, to suggest that there’s always contingency. We choose what to do with what we make. We should enter the post-human with our wits about us, with our critical eye on these things. Feminist and disability scholars have both long asked: Where is there recognition for experiences that involve dependence, or inter-dependence? How do we make a culture that affords space for those experiences, instead of continuing our obsession with one kind of useful-able-bodied-autonomous-unfettered self? I’m not sure interdependence is a thing we want to wholly eradicate from the human experience. I want an alternative to the idea that absolute autonomy is the only desirable state of being.