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TEMPT One: Tempt, 2011; at SOMArts Cultural CenterRichard Lomibao

The disabled artists using tech to defy their bodies’ boundaries

In Recoding CripTech, artists with disabilities celebrate the diversity of human bodies through sensory and social interactions with technology

In 2011, Tony Quan became the first graffiti artist to create an artwork using only the movement of his eyes. A Los Angeles-based artist with degenerative nerve disorder ALS, he is now fully paralysed except for his eyes. After receiving the diagnosis, the artist continued to produce new works, becoming a living inspiration for artists affected by other disabling disorders. In a world that still sees disability as taboo, Quan’s story showed how art can help people with disabilities to move beyond their physical limits.

This month, Quan is just one of the artists on display at Recoding CripTech, a showcase featuring the works of more than a dozen creatives with disabilities: the exhibition – running until 25 February at San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center – breaks with the mainstream narratives surrounding disability to show the unique visions of artists who have re-invented themselves through different art practices.

Using technology to dismantle barriers to access, the artists explore how bodies can move, look, and interact with the surrounding spaces. Featuring both visual and audio artworks, Recoding CripTech aims to present visitors with multisensory experiences that challenge preconceived notions of disability.

In the exhibition, technology is not meant to compensate for, or correct, disability. On the contrary, all artists on display use technology as an art tool to freely express their creative visions and demand recognition from non-disabled populations.

“We’d like our audiences to reflect on and question for whom technologies and spaces are built, and to whom they deny access. By engaging a variety of senses in their interactions with museum spaces and artworks, we hope for them to understand how certain bodies have been privileged over others,” said curators Vanessa Chang and Lindsey D. Felt.

Among those whose works are on display are visual artist Todd Edward Herman, who challenges visitors’ gaze in a meditative 15-minute video exposing a bizarre reality. “When I Stop Looking” (2013) presents the audience with subjects living with significant facial and cranial conditions, encouraging us to critically reflect on how we look at things and what our sight captures of what surrounds us.

Also on show are two works by M Eifler and their collaborator Steve Sedlmayr. Eifler, aka BlinkPopShift, is a non-binary XR designer and researcher whose memory was permanently damaged following a brain injury. His work combines performance, sculpture, video, and augmented reality technology to make art embodied. In “Prosthetic Memory” (2020), the artist relies on custom-designed artificial intelligence (AI) to create a prosthetic long term memory featuring daily videos and a handmade journal. Resembling Eifler’s working space, the installation retraces the moments they collected over time as a customer service reads pages from the artist’s journaling practice. 

“We’d like our audiences to reflect on and question for whom technologies and spaces are built, and to whom they deny access” – Vanessa Chang and Lindsey D. Felt, curators

Taking a break from technology, Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi and Jillian Crochet’s creations rely on manual practices such as sewing and knitting. PhD candidate in disability studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and founder of Crip Couture, Yi designs clothes that celebrate the lived experiences of disabled bodies. Shedding light on the impact that memory, medical, and surgical interventions have on people with disabilities, the artist emphasises the diversity of human bodies through the acknowledgement of their physical profiles and needs. Featured in the exhibition is her work “Dermis Footwear” (2011), a latex boot including cut-outs to accommodate wounds on the wearer’s feet. 

“Each wearable item is designed based on an individual’s medical experience, physical position and state of mind,” reads Yi’s website. “Rather than rejecting the notion of physical alteration, I provide intimate and empathetic bodily adornment, not as a correctional physical aid, but as a tool for remapping and engaging with a new physical terrain, one embodied with personal standards of physical comfort and self-defined ideals of beauty.”

California-based artist Jillian Crochet explores the forms of human anatomy in a heart-shaped interactive installation named “My Beating Heart” (2014). Made of red yarn and metal construction, the artwork is a reference to crochet family heirlooms examining the historical relationship between female identity and manual craft. Re-defining space within SOMArts’ main gallery, the sculpture embraces visitors and invites them to step inside for a more cathartic experience.

Recoding CripTech opens on February 24 at the SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco