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DisTopia Transcript: Recording CripTech

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[Woman’s Voice] From DisArt, it’s DisTopia.

[Jill] Welcome to the DisTopia Podcast! We are thrilled to share a conversation we had recently with the co-curators Vanessa Chang and Lindsey D. Felt about their upcoming exhibition Recording CripTech. This is the first exhibition they have curated together and it’s going to be an exciting one. Recording CripTech will be exhibited at the SOMA Arts Cultural Center in San Francisco, California from Friday, January 24 – Tuesday, February 25. The exhibition (quote) “reimagines enshrined notions of what a body can be or do through creative technologies, and how it can move, look, or communicate”.(end quote) We hope you enjoy learning about this exhibition and the thought processes behind its creation as much as did.

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[Vanessa] What is it when vision is touch or what is it when hearing is touch or what is it when all of these kind of perceptual encounters that are understood as a norm and often happen are kind of turned ascure artistically? I think that’s kind of how I see that term Crip Aesthetics doing some work for us.

[Lindsey] That was much more articulate… (both laugh) Yes, Vanessa!

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[Lindsey] So the funny thing is, it’s actually probably kind of a meandering introduction because Vanessa and I go back quite a ways. So we met in graduate school at Stanford University when we were both graduate students and we took a class together in the Communications Department on media and technology. Simply put. And we found very quickly that we had a lot of shared interests, shared intellectual interests, shared personal interests and we really bonded quickly over that and over the next few years we collaborated on a number of projects including putting together a panel or an academic conference on media studies and had great success with that among other things and so we really loved that idea of collaborating. I’m kind of going into the story of how this entire curatorial experience came about before even introducing myself. (laughs). Vanessa actually came to me and she said, “Lindsey, I found this really interesting call for curatorial residencies at a place called SOMArts and they target or they’re trying to spotlight underserved communities in the arts that they can feature and support and highlight emerging artists and I think that your work on disability” (in other words, my work on disability because I have quite a background in that) “would go really well with my experience in technology.” And so we came together in that fashion but we both have experience. Vanessa has done research on disability and I’ve also research on technology as well.

[Vanessa] Yeah, I did my PhD as like Lindsey said at Stanford and I worked on movement and interface and technology in the arts and it soon came to my attention and a lot of that has to do with working with Lindsey that you can’t really do deep research there and not take the history of disability and technology into account. And a lot of Lindsey’s research as well is at that intersection of disability and technology particularly in science fiction, actually. And so we had this deep sense of this longstanding history and I’ve been doing some curatorial work in other spaces around art and technology and I really sense that this was a crucial conversation and it was already being had in a few different spaces but it wasn’t, I hadn’t seen it in a really kind of exciting artistic collection of works and people that kind of brought the communities together in what was kind of a sexy way. So that’s kind of, I think, what brought us here.

[Lindsey] Yeah. I spent a lot of time in the Communications Department doing research on the history of science and technology and so my research, as Vanessa said, it is anchored in trying to trace, re-trace a history going back to the post-war era, really the Cold War era when scientists were starting to develop technologies specifically, for example, a prosthetic limb that could be connected to the nervous system. I wanted to show that actually a lot of the technologies, specifically the communication technology and the human machine interfaces that we deal with today are anchored in innovations made by folks with disabilities both as subjects but also as makers and hackers and crafters. And that really is the heart and soul of this show. In many ways trying to spotlight the ways that artists use technologies as well their own artistic and aesthetic practices to highlight that creative nature of disability or those alternative perceptions or ways of seeing or moving around the world.

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[Vanessa]: One of our artists’ M Eifler who also goes by the name BlinkPopShift is an artist who has collaborated with someone to create a prosthetic memory using a bespoke artificial intelligence. So, when they were young they acquired brain damage that meant that they no longer had long-term…Was it long-term memory? I think it is long-term memory and so using material generated from their 4-page a day writing practice and training this bespoke AI on it, they built this installation which looks like a workspace, their private workspace. It involves using a camera to recognize those materials and to pull up videos and documentation from their life to kind of really be contoured to their own personal kind of experience to memory. It’s extremely contoured to their body and their private experience and I think what’s really striking about that particular installation is how intimate it is as well. You kind of walk into the space. You see the desk and all their notes and get a real look into their private life and it’s actually one of the major spaces we’re creating in the exhibition, right? The personal and the intimate. But some of the other works and the way we’re organizing some of the other works are around other themes of space. So, private space and intimate space are I think really crucial and an important part of the stories that we want to highlight around disability but the interventions that the other artists are making also engage with other incarnations of space. We’ve got work that’s very much about dealing with the built environment and the street and how that historically has been a sight of, very fraught site in the history of disability and also we’ve got artwork that deals with the natural world and the environmental space. So, these are all very much, I think, entangled.

We see that Disability culture and community crystallizing very much in this space of the installation, in the show and hopefully even during the opening night and in the other events. When we were putting out our call for artists, we were very much mindful that it was already a pretty small but robust community and we asked almost each of our artists. Or we asked anyone who was involved in this show, “Do you recommend? Would you like to share some names of other folks whose work you would like to see featured in this show?” because some people were much more plugged into a particular aspect of the arts community than we were. And, so, it was very much kind of a community-based project, I like to think. We very much are conscious of the geographic location of where we are in the Bay Area and how just over the bridge you’ve got Berkeley which was one of the birthplaces of the Disability Rights Movement and how you have also all these other sites kind of cropping up around the Bay Area where you see that kind of energy. And a lot of that movement now, that political work is happening online. It’s happening on Twitter with hashtags like CripTheVote, so on and so forth. And Alice Wong is a major part of that work too, I’d like to say. So, I think we want to find a way to take that political work that’s happening, the sort of third wave, if you will. It’s hard to even say which wave of Disability Rights we’re in now at this point and bring it back again to kind of a physical space just to kind of remind us about that, to create a gathering space for those voices who are being heard online to come together. Because there aren’t very many places where we can do that. Not many safe places where we can do that in this day and age. 

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[Lindsey] So I think we’ve shifted into a time where the way we’re thinking about disability is a lot more complex, it’s a lot more nuanced, right, because we have political and legal protections in place but we want more than that. Now we want to be recognized as people with an identity, you know, that’s not stigmatized. An identity that brings value, that has new ways of thinking, that has its own history and its own language. In many ways I think our show is trying to honor that. And the lens of technology allows us to bring in a much broader audience to demonstrate that, I think, in many ways. 

Yeah, the community that I’ve been and the communities I’ve been a big part of over the past couple of years have very much been this art and technology community in the Bay Area. And it’s been really striking to me how…On one hand there’s kind of these expansive claims about what that is but, also, as we kind of put the show together there has been this missing, missing narrative. In the history of disability activism and art in the Bay Area but also just in kind of recent iterations of the arts and technology and how that’s being shown around here. So, in reaching out to my networks and highlighting this show and really refining and being careful about how we talk about this show and what it’s aims are, I think those connections have become more and more clear and it’s our hope that that will be an intersection or an overlap that is not just highlighted but reinforced that will kind of keep building on these communities as well.

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[Vanessa] Yeah and one of our central commitments in curating this show has been to center the voices and the agency of the people who we’re showing. You know, we have a vision of how we want things to fit together and the themes we want to highlight but so much of that has really emerged in conversation with these artists and their artworks as well. When we’re thinking about Crip Aesthetics we’re trying to think about some of the central political work around art and the senses that a lot of these artists are doing. So, if you look at exhibition spaces in art history they have been dominated by particularly visual precepts and so a lot of our show and early on in our show is asking visitors to think about what it means to reflect on what that is and how you navigate space visually or what it means to interact with aesthetics and art in a different way or, you know, we’re showing the work of a few blind photographers Sonia Soberats and Pete Eckert. And because vision was not so central in how they’re staging those photographs, the aesthetic experience that they ask people to have is about asking them to reflect on their own perceptions and how natural they and how they bring them to their kind of artistic encounters.

[Lindsey] We really have done a lot of deep thinking about who our audience is for this show and, of course, it is targeted to the Disability community, but it’s also targeted to designers and technologists and folks who work in the heart of Silicon Valley because we really want to draw those folks in to show them the possibilities of what technology can do so that they can bring that back to their businesses or their companies and reimagine some of those products for more accessible possibilities. The disability and the tech communities but also, of course, the arts, the existing vibrant arts community we already have in the Bay Area. Those are the three main communities but, of course, beyond that we’re both educators too and so we would love to see students in universities and colleges and classes come and visit this exhibit and spark those kinds of conversations.

One of the frustrating things we’ve encountered during this whole process is that accessibility is expensive. Making things accessible is expensive and if you don’t have those funds, then it can be really difficult to execute that and we were really aggressive in our grant writing and our fundraising so that we could make that vision come to fruition and we’ve been very fortunate that we’re able to do that. But even then I’m sure there’s going to be obstacles or things that we hadn’t quite considered but we want, we invite that because we want to take that back with us and hopefully produce some sort of document or documentation that we can distribute and carry forward and share with other curators, other artists, etc…

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