Exploring the Sphere of Sound - an essay + website

CDL member Alessandra Pearson shares her critical design project, Sphere of Soundwhich explores sound as a multi-sensory experience .

-Alessandra Pearson-


“It is perhaps not premature to suppose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active and more spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively than anyone else to an extension of the several sense fields…”

 – Rainer Maria Rilke


Just as the nightingale sings in order to define its nest and mark out its territory, so do we occupy and at the same time empty out the universe with our thunderous techniques. Like the submerged cathedral of old, the earth is engulfed by noise.

– Michel Serres

 [Image description: screen shot of website landing page with a cropped ear in the background, overlaid by white text saying “Sphere of Sound: Explorations of Aural Perception”]

[Image description: screen shot of website landing page with a cropped ear in the background, overlaid by white text saying “Sphere of Sound: Explorations of Aural Perception”]

What makes sound meaningful? Sound helps designate our place in the world. In Sphere of Sound, I wanted to explore creative representations of the aural dimension and how they help inform our understanding of hearing. Via sound-based installations and performances, artists such as Tarek Atoui and Christine Sun Kim have deconstructed our existing idea of what it is to experience sound. Keeping embodied differences in mind when creating art challenges how we understand perception and the senses with which we process information. As a response to the works discussed in this essay, I’ve begun a video vignette series that asks viewers to shift their embodied understanding of meaning creation. To view the videos and videos of the following artists’ work, visit the accompanying site (here.)


Philosophers since Aristotle have defined the five senses and the process of sensing as going from potentiality to actuality, from perceived to applied meaning.  While Jean-Luc Nancy reduced the body to “that in which sense is given and out of which sense emerges,” others such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty have more thoroughly unpacked bodily experiences via a grasp of the chain of physical and physiological events. I want to understand the body as more than just a signifier. Merleau-Ponty stresses that we are conscious of ourselves and our body via the world, and the senses are primary facilitators of this experience. We surge towards objects/entities in our search for their meaning/the meaning of their surroundings. This resulting, subjective meaning can in turn be influenced or supplemented by these very objects. With this in mind, we can look towards future instantiations of how the body will play a role in our interactions with the digital (and in this case, artworks that incorporate the digital to deliver their messages), particularly from a posthuman standpoint.

In her seminal work, How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles pushes this idea of subjective meaning creation further: “The posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate,” she claims, meaning that extending the body or replacing certain functions is inevitable (Hayles, 3). If the necessity for embodiment in order to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings is decentered in such a manner, more value is placed on external tools that assist with cognition and the application of meaning. From here, couldn’t we legitimize artistic approaches to new constructions of subjectivity and cognition in general?

Tarek Atoui is a hard of hearing Lebanese artist and sound composer. Since 2012, he has worked with Al Amal School for the Deaf in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates to gain knowledge about the Deaf experience of interacting with sound (Council, 2014). This collaboration lead to a long-term project known as WITHIN, which culminated in musical performances and instruments with and for Deaf people. Infinite Ear continued this research and provided a multi-sensory and exploratory haven for Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing visitors alike.

The exhibition was part of the 2016 Bergen Assembly, Norway’s triennial, for which Atoui was one of the Artistic Directors. It included several films, videos, artwork installations, sonic experiences, and innovative instruments all collected with the intention of providing an entirely new aural experience for visitors.  “Infinite Ear is an exercise in inhabiting hearings edge, hearings ‘other’ from without, and in inhabiting that which remains in excess of sound. It displaces, attenuates and substitutes the organs and sounding apparatuses normally responsible for hearing and speaking. Instead, Infinite Ear versions hearing, denaturalizes it, and creates a conceptual morphospace composed of multiple kinds of ‘hearing knowledges,’” Emma Goodhart writes in the online documentation of their explorations that led to the exhibition (Council, 2014).

While the auditory brainstem works with the inner ear to localize sound sources and parse out frequencies, people who are hard of hearing have reduced frequency selectivity and seek other, external resources to aid in perception of noise.  By choosing to work with the Deaf community, Atoui uncovered creative, novel methods for interactivity and sensory mediation. The materials in the exhibition (such as the instruments, the environment) are the what create this ‘hearing knowledge’ - revealing that how we perceive auditory information is relative, adaptable, and fluid. Council, a curatorial group that worked with Atoui on the exhibition, contributed an experience called White Cat Café, where visitors could choose from a menu of drinks paired with recordings of normally inaudible sounds ranging from a snowy landscape to the gravitational waves emitted from colliding black holes. Another collaborator, artist Thierry Madiot, created sound massages that visitors could experience by lying on designated tables and feeling carefully curated series of vibrations (Council 2016).

On her blog, We Make Money Not Art, Régine Debatty describes the benefit of these instruments created with D/deaf individuals, “By working together on the instruments, which appeal to both the hearing and deaf public, the aim is to convey to visitors from the perspective of deaf people how instruments and the sounds produced by them are perceived by the D/deaf community and how the instruments can be played in these circumstances.” These experiences flip the script by putting the nonhearing individual first, as they rely on vibrations and touch before audible noise.

 [Image description: still from video by Alessandra Pearson. Blurred image of the side of a face and an ear mixed with light-flesh toned distortion]

[Image description: still from video by Alessandra Pearson. Blurred image of the side of a face and an ear mixed with light-flesh toned distortion]

Similarly, artist Christine Sun Kim transcodes sound and meaning to produce unique artworks. Born deaf, Kim began her career making paintings. However, she wanted to “reclaim ownership of sound” by putting it into her art practice. Particularly due to her experiences navigating a world that is not build for her deaf body, Kim has considered how she has to adapt her own behavior to fit into a world of sound. She views sound as “social currency,” and by harnessing it in her art, she pushes back against normative exchanges of this currency.

Kim works with gestures, visual cues, sound, and other traditional 2-D media as foundations for creating her work. In Game of Skill 2.0, which was presented as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition in 2015, the artist hung a handheld device from lines hung across the ceiling.  Visitors are prompted to hold the device and move forwards and backwards in order to play the audio. However, the need for ‘skill’ lies in the fact that the handheld portion must be held in a specific manner for the audio to play in a decipherable message.  As users walk through the physical space to experience the sound, Kim provides a literal expansion of their auditory fields.

Game of Skill 2.0 requires both users and technology to work together to create meaning, a way of emphasizing the “mutually constitutive interactions between components of a system rather than on message, signal or information,” like Hayles wrote decades prior (Hayles, 11). This deemphasizes abilities or inabilities of components of the system and requires all parts, biological and mechanical, to work together to decipher information. And, just like the new forms of communication that emerged with the phonograph or the later, vibration-based instruments exhibited in Infinite Ear, such novel interactions with technology can bring about new understandings of how the senses enable those forms of communication. “It is through instruments that transformed perceptions occur and new ‘worlds’ emerge, but any new world is itself a modification of life-world processes,” Don Ihde mentions in his book Bodies in Technology. (Ihde 2002)

Historically, such artistic interpretations of auditory signal processing have not always been possible without what Ihde called ‘instruments.’ Technological inventions in the twentieth century such as the phonograph revolutionized the transmission of sonic information. Despite the apparent need for hearing to acknowledge its utility, this mechanism owes its genesis to Thomas Edison, who was deaf in one ear. In 1877, Edison’s original impetus for his work in recording sound was to increase the speed of processing Morse telegraph messages. The machine ended up recording frequencies, or, vibrations per second (Kittler 1986).

Initially, the phonograph was a way to simply record sound, but it provided the foundation for later, more modern data streams and recordings of everything ranging from psychoanalytical sessions and government propaganda to music and radio. In his discussion of the transmission of senses, Friedrich Kittler references Rainer Maria Rilke’s essay, “Primal Sound.” Here, Rilke mentions his first experiences with recorded sound, and how they have informed one conception of the senses that he illustrates as a sort of sphere. “If the world’s whole field of experience, including those spheres which are beyond our knowledge, be represented in a complete circle, it will be immediately evident that when the black sectors, denoting that which we are incapable of experiencing, are measured against the lesser, light sections, correspond to that which is illuminated by the senses, the former are very much greater" (Kittler 1986). These “abysses” between functioning senses seem to offer some sort of extrasensory potential for Rilke. This suggests that the way Infinite Ear or Game of Skill 2.0 bend prior notions of sound are very fruitful, for there is content and room for possibility in the ‘abyss’ between one activated sense and another.

         A few decades later than Rilke, scholar and philosopher Don Ihde explored the idea of the auditory field as shaped like a sphere even further in his book, Listening and Voice. “Were it to be modeled spatially, the auditory field would have to be conceived of as a “sphere” within which I am positioned, but whose “extent” remains indefinite as it reaches outward toward a horizon. But in any case as a field, the auditory field-shape is that of a surrounding shape" (Ihde, 1976). We are surrounded, immersed, penetrated by sounds such as symphonies and other forms of music. This ‘surroundability’ of the auditory field is what places us within it in order to find meaning in Rilke’s sensory abysses. The ambiguity of this field, or sphere, is what leaves it open to interpretation: Kim’s and Atoui’s artworks communicate the experience of the self, silence, and sound via non-normative means. Both artists convey this ‘surroundability’ of our exchange with environmental sounds, and take advantage of the ‘abysses’ between senses by requiring audiences to create meaning from their artwork in ways that might not be obvious.

 [Image description: screenshot of video by author featuring a cropped image of the profile view of a face and ear. White text overlaying the image says: “Silence in the great theatre,"

[Image description: screenshot of video by author featuring a cropped image of the profile view of a face and ear. White text overlaying the image says: “Silence in the great theatre,"

From a biological perspective, our ears transduce sound vibrations into electrical energy that can be translated into meaningful information. These artists use external tools to supplement this flesh-based, biological process to illustrate just how fruitful understandings of our posthuman relationship with technology and tools can be. In deprioritizing the able, un-aided body as key for the delivery and perception of sensory information - boundaries between the five senses can be broken down in so as to guide us further into the sphere of sound.



Atoui, Tarek, interview by Stephanie Bailey. 2014. The Art of Resonance: Tarek Atoui in Conversation with Stephanie Bailey IBRAAZ, (May 8).

Bergen Assembly. 2016. Infinite Ear. September. Accessed October 1, 2016. http://bergenassembly.no/en/tarek-atoui/infinite-ear/.

Council, Forms of. 2014. Tacet. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/30_tacet.

Debatty, Régine. 2016. We Make Money Not Art. September 8. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://we-make-money-not-art.com/infinite-ear-on-the-practices-of-un-or-para-hearing/.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. 1999. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, Don. 2002. Bodies in Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ihde, Don. 1976. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Kim, Christine Sun. Artist website. Accessed February 27, 2018. http://christinesunkim.com/work/game-of-skill-2-0/.

Kim, Christine Sun. “The Enchaning Music of Sign Language.” TED Talk. August 2015.  Accessed February 24, 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/christine_sun_kim_the_enchanting_music_of_sign_language

Kittler, Friedrich A. 1986. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: The Humanities Press.

Narrative and Design: Remembrance as Memory Fades

CDL member Rebecca Rahimi meditates on a new art project in which she curates objects for elders with memory loss

-Rebecca Rahimi-

Upon joining the Critical Design Lab, I knew I had wanted to focus on the elderly population, specifically those with memory care needs, and was hard-pressed on choosing a final output. Originally, I had wanted to create a book of photos and interviews of the ways that patients in nursing homes interact with their spaces. I found it important to show how stark, sanitized medical spaces could be decorated and lived in in a way that created a type of "home." I committed to volunteering at the memory care units of local nursing homes, not only to see the ways in which these institutions are operated and maintained, but to also interact with and form relationships with the individuals who live there.

What I had initially envisioned – lengthy conversations, linear interviews and memories of the past – had to be quickly adapted to accommodate for the individuals' needs and abilities. What I continued to notice, however, was that their spaces varied from being bare of additional decorations to being completely customized to the individual's likes and desires. And when they had these items that reminded them of times in the past, or of hobbies or interests, they were more likely to brighten up and become more engaged with the conversation. By altering my process, I realized that material objects play a large role in maintaining the patients' individuality, autonomy, and cognitive skills. Rather than taking a photographic approach, I turned towards industrial design as a way of bringing this notion of "home" to individuals who may feel isolated from the things and places they once found solace and happiness in.

I take inspiration from Caitrin Lynch and Sara Hendren who created Engineering at Home, a project that centers on Cindy, a woman who underwent amputations of both arms and legs following a heart attack and organ failures. Lynch and Hendren focus on Cindy's adaptations to her altered way of life, and the ways she engineers objects to accommodate her needs.

 [Image description: Placed side by side are objects and tools modified and adapted for Cindy's ability and use. The top row, from left to right, has a red metal car assistance tool, an open ended carabineer attached to a black strap, a black rectangular card holder with playing cards, and a range of multicolored coin purses with clasps. On the bottom row from left to right are a pair of hyper realistic light-colored cosmetic hands, round cosmetic sponges, a fork attached to a leather loop for eating purposes, and 3-D printed fingers attached to a light-colored stretchy fabric.]

[Image description: Placed side by side are objects and tools modified and adapted for Cindy's ability and use. The top row, from left to right, has a red metal car assistance tool, an open ended carabineer attached to a black strap, a black rectangular card holder with playing cards, and a range of multicolored coin purses with clasps. On the bottom row from left to right are a pair of hyper realistic light-colored cosmetic hands, round cosmetic sponges, a fork attached to a leather loop for eating purposes, and 3-D printed fingers attached to a light-colored stretchy fabric.]

The Engineering at Home project strikes me because of the way in which it uses one individual's story to show the realities of others who may require the same types of access. I realized that like Lynch and Hendren, I could focus on one individual's story and memories in order to shed light on people in similar situations with similar needs. Lastly, by melding narrative with tangible representations of lived experiences, the objects take on a multi-sensory quality that allows for further conversation and comfort.

Criptic Innovation

CDL member Cassandra Hartblay reflects on the values and priorities assigned to assistive technologies, coining the term "criptic innovation," to describe "design innovations that a crip user immediately sees as privileging ableist values over others."

-Cassandra Hartblay-

Not long ago my friend and colleague Louise Hickman tweeted about a wheelchair design that was advertised as able to go up stairs. Louise is a power chair user herself, and often complains about inaccessibility that she encounters in her daily life.  So, it was a surprise that rather than laud the innovative design, apparently already in production in the UK, her tweet posed a critique.

“It’s frustrating to see another stairclimbing wheelchair designed and brought to the market when simple improvements to batter longevity (among others) would benefit so many people,” Louise wrote, linking to a BBC story about the “revolutionary” new wheelchair.

 [Image description: A screen shot of Louise Hickman’s original tweet. Louise’s twitter icon, a black and white circular photo of her (a light-skinned woman with glasses and shoulder length brown hair) and her twitter handle @_louhicky. Her tweet text appears in large script above a photo of what appears to be the wheelchair user getting on or off a bus in the Scewo wheelchair, which is blue and black. The person’s feet and legs are visible seated in the chair, but the rest of their body is cut off. A headline and link to the BBC is below the photo. The tweet is dated 9:13PM - 11 Feb 2018.]

[Image description: A screen shot of Louise Hickman’s original tweet. Louise’s twitter icon, a black and white circular photo of her (a light-skinned woman with glasses and shoulder length brown hair) and her twitter handle @_louhicky. Her tweet text appears in large script above a photo of what appears to be the wheelchair user getting on or off a bus in the Scewo wheelchair, which is blue and black. The person’s feet and legs are visible seated in the chair, but the rest of their body is cut off. A headline and link to the BBC is below the photo. The tweet is dated 9:13PM - 11 Feb 2018.]


Battery life for power wheelchair users is a significant limiting factor to mobility. If you want to be out and about all day, you have to factor in how many hills you’ll encounter (going uphill takes more battery power) and how far you’re likely to travel. And, like your laptop or cellphone battery, a wheelchair battery loses its capacity to hold its charge overtime, so a battery that can go for six hours or so when new, may only be able to last for half that time as it ages - and replacing one is expensive.

Designing a better battery, however, is an expensive prospect, requiring better-resourced labs and high investor input. So, it’s no surprise that designers innovate for what they perceive to be a problem.

Louise’s tweet highlights what is for those in the loop (disability advocates on Twitter) already a familiar problem: a profound mismatch between what people with disabilities perceive to be a problem, and what designers working on prototypes intended for disability markets think are problems.

I’ve taken to calling this kind of mismatch criptic innovation, that is, design innovations that a crip user immediately sees as privileging ableist values over others, and, in a play on words referencing cryptic, as in, difficult to discern. In one widely-reported example of this mismatch, a design team developed a pair of gloves intending to translate ASL (American Sign Language) into spoken words. This is a great design innovation for the hearing person who doesn’t understand ASL. However, it offers less functionality for the ASL user, for whom wearing the gloves would not offer any new way to understand the spoken English of the hearing interlocutor. The gloves privilege the hearing person's point of view over the experience of the Deaf user, suggesting an underlying ableism. Of course, as a design innovation, it’s a fascinating technological question – how would you design a glove capable of tracking the subtle motions of a signed language and translating it into words? The design-thinking challenge was exciting in terms of the technical problem, but, designed for the wrong problem.

The Scewo wheelchair, according to the BBC story, was designed by a group of university students, who came up with the idea as part of a competition, and then funded the prototype through crowdsourcing. Now that the design has won a British design award, they hope to bring the chair to market.

Lauding the innovation, the BCC asserts that, “the chair allows disabled people to easily reaching a location that previously would have been inaccessible: a game-changing, retractable set of rubber tracks allows the chair to manoeuvre [sic] up and down stairs.”

But this thinking leaves another aspect of critical disability thinking – or crip theory – out. Disabled people have long argued for the application of universal design principles that facilitate wheelchair access to be built into the physical infrastructure of public space. In many countries, new constructions must by law meet accessibility guidelines, such as providing accessible bathrooms, ramps, elevators, and doorways wide enough for wheelchair passage. Yet, disability access is unevenly implemented – even if new constructions are accessible, many older buildings or public spaces have to be retrofitted, and institutions and business owners are often adept at putting of access renovations (in the US a recent bill even seeks to reduce penalties and make it easier for business owners to avoid such renovations).

The Scewo wheelchair attempts to bypass the problem of inaccessible infrastructure by using a new technology – a device that can climb stairs – to endow each wheelchair user with a way to literally “overcome” obstacles in the built environment. From a crip perspective, this presents several problems.

The chair doesn’t actually make the built environment more accessible, but instead, focuses on an individual solution to a social problem.

Once the chair is produced, it is likely to be expensive and available to a limited number of people – this means that those inaccessible spaces that Scewo chair users can now access will continue to be inaccessible to others who do not have the new wheelchair.

One important idea to emerge from the Disability Rights movement and crip knowledge production is that changing attitudes about disability is as important for access as changing the built environment. And, attitudes and accessibility are co-emergent. Disability stigma dissuades people from thinking or caring about access. By addressing stigma and attitudes, advocates can lead people to think about access more. And, better access means that people with mobility impairments are out and about more often, and that visibility can help to shift attitudes and chip away at stigma.

This chair would be great for a place like Russia, where I do research, and where there are many many unrenovated public spaces. But, the proliferation of a chair like this would also abet those who say that public funds should not be spent to make the built environment more accessible – and instead wheelchair users should raise their own funds to get a super-wheelchair that can climb over barriers.

A hero-chair like Scewo is an example of a mismatch between what designers think a problem is and what actually disabled people think is a problem. No doubt, some people who do use the Scewo chair will find it to be a great experience.

But, from a critical crip perspective the chair is just another example of a neoliberal solution that ultimate contributes to social stratification in which some people have it all, and others have very little at all (for more on neoliberalism and crip theory, see Robert McRuer’s recent book, Crip Times). In contrast, an accessible design solution that focuses on public infrastructure, while more difficult to achieve bureaucratically (often relying on the state to enforce laws and regulations), can have a greater effect for more people, regardless of their individual impairment and personal financial resources.

Thinking about this problem has led me to imagine an alternative future for innovative design that starts from an ethos of crip consciousness (what Sara Hendren has called vernacular "virtuosity").


Mapping Access in Cultural Spaces

CDL member Alessandra Pearson shares her thoughts on the process of designing a project on the accessibility of cultural spaces, including how accessibility mapping methodologies and specific digital tools can inform ways of thinking about accessibility as a right and obligation of public amenities.

-Alessandra Pearson-

Access to culture is a civil right. Such a generalized sentence could refer anything: Physical access to a museum or play? Internet access to a transcript of a panel discussion? How can we define ‘access’ within the context of cultural spaces? And how can we make others outside of our field understand why access is important in the first place?

Increasing access to cultural institutions with individuals with embodied differences in mind is mutually beneficial. Institutions can welcome more people through their doors, and disabled people can experience cultural programming. Of course, there are multiple methods for exploring this intersection, but this particular project stemmed from my interest in understanding what the Critical Design Lab’s Mapping Access project could look like from a cultural standpoint and when implemented in a different geographic region (such as Denver, where I’m currently located).

I was curious: what does a comprehensive overview of current local cultural accessibility teach us? And, what can cultural organizations learn from this? I was hoping to create a map could increase the understanding of the importance of cultural accessibility, particularly for those who don’t necessarily consider access as key to/necessary for cultural experiences. With an overall visual of various institutions that advertise certain accessibility features, perhaps we can search for gaps in access and influence institution- and city-wide improvements.

Another challenge I am exploring with this project is approaching what a non-visually-prioritized map looks like. How do you decrease prioritization of the visual in mapping? What information is most helpful to users who rely on screen readers or their other senses to take in the information?

As with Mapping Access, one influence for the project is Vancouver’s Radical Access Mapping Project (RAMP). This project provides guidelines for accessibility audits and uses the Google MyMaps tool hosted on BatchGeo to list local organizations. Viewers of the map are linked to Google docs listing full audits of the spaces to find information about ramps, accessible restrooms, parking, and more. The open source features of this resource and the extensive detail of the listed access features for each space on this map make it useful for most disability communities.

Talking to potential users of this tool, I found that it is most useful as part of a larger suite of access-related resources I am compiling for my thesis project at University of Denver. One person, Damon McLeese from Denver’s Access Gallery, specified that having easily-viewable links to accessibility features on organization’s websites would be great to have all in one place. Another potential user, Jenny, specified that it would be helpful to have directional information about the entrances to organizations, since she would be accessing the information with the help of a screen reader and thus will not use the visual map component.

I began by testing various substantial mapping tools online like MapBox and OpenStreet Map. These provided complex features but are harder for both creators and end users of the map. Then, I tested free and user-friendly mapping tools such as Google MyMaps. I ended up focusing on this tool given its simplicity and the fact that I was able to get something up and running quickly. (Check out the first draft iteration here).

To ensure that I have comprehensive accessibility information about each location, I chose to do a few test audits with an accessibility checklist provided by Vancouver’s RAMP project. I modified their open source checklist to suit this project by removing checklist sections specific to events or restaurants, for example.

After doing my first audit, though, I realized that spending so much time reviewing organizations might not be the best use of my time on this project. I’d like to keep adding organizations to the existing Google MyMap that I’ve created so far – but I am currently deciding where to go next with this project. While thorough access audits are important for disability communities to get as much information as they need about a space, I also want this resource to be a call to action for cultural organizations who need to make access feature improvements.

We’ll see where the project goes from here! This could mean reaching out to organizations to inquire about performing internal access audits, since not every place lists even has an ‘accessibility’ page on their website listing features that help disabled people access their programming.

Further, I’m hoping to continue exploring the non-visual component of the map by testing out a few basic HTML-based maps that feature directional information and links to the organizations’ websites.

Co-mentorship Dispatch: Patches, Circuits, and Metronomes


CDL members engage in regular, structured co-mentorship, with members pairing off to discuss and workshop projects every two weeks. We do this to distribute expertise and power, share unlikely skills, and theorize new possibilities for academic work. CDL member Maggie Mang reflects on a recent co-mentoring experience with artist-in-residence Kevin Gotkin, which offered her the opportunity to dabble with coding in Max7 as she worked through a project on crip time. 

-Maggie Mang-

In early February 2018, Kevin and I were paired up for the week and I was fortunate enough to learn some new concepts as they related to coding and music. Kevin and I started off talking about crip time and what “hacking” time might look like in the vein of critical design. From there, Kevin introduced me to a program called Max7, which allows the user to do video, audio, and visual manipulation through patch cords. Its programming style, which allows one to code through attaching patches to one another – kind of like circuit boards – allowed me, a beginner, to visualize what I was doing. To give you a sense of what this might look like, here is a screenshot of one of the first small projects that I put together with the help of online tutorials:

Mang Image 1.png

[IMAGE 1: Image description: A screenshot of a small Max7 project. The background is light grey. Scattered around the background are darker boxes, some square-shaped, others rectangular. The square boxes have X’s and O’s on them while the rectangular ones have words such as “Hello World” or “metro 1000”. Some of the darker boxes are linked to others to represent a closed circuit. There are some pieces of text on the grey background describing some of the functions of these patches, such as “object perform a function” or “left hand – activating; right hand – receives data but does not activate”.]

In other words, I was able to visualize how connecting one button to another would result in a metronome flashing at different beats (the left and right columns) or a comment box producing text (the middle part). I don’t have other user testimonials to support this, but I can imagine how the very process of this type of visualization can really help conceptualize the cause-effect relationship present in coding.

As one becomes more familiar with the tools provided in Max7, one can do more complicated projects such as programming animated notation for a Mobile Phone Orchestra video; creating audio files and clips using Max tools, such as one project that created “an ethereal shrieking sound reminiscent of church organ in the high register”; or audio visualization like this project dubbed “Singing Sand.” The reason that Kevin pointed me toward Max7 is because it also has a clock function where you can create your own clock and manipulate the rate at which the clock ticks, which might prove useful if I end up focusing on questions related to crip time and ways of manipulating representations of time vis-à-vis this program, as one example.    

As we were talking through Max7 and ways of learning how to work within the program, Kevin sent me in the direction of William Turkel, a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who makes open-access tutorials for a variety of programs, Max7 included. I viewed his website, work, and general philosophy as a great example of design, making, and accessibility. He takes the time and energy to put forth pretty detailed tutorials (I was only able to dabble in the Max7 one), including the raw code itself, online as open-access. Of course it doesn’t contain everything, but it is in contrast to more capitalist ways of learning how to code. Some of these programs, though extensive, also are attached to pretty high ticket prices, which again got me thinking about access and barriers to access.

I dedicated the rest of my evening not to my piling grad school readings but to tinkering around in Max7, utilizing free tutorials from Turkel and YouTube. I also dedicate this blog post – and attribute all of it, actually – to Kevin for showing me these spaces and for encouraging these lines of thought. The process itself was incredibly insightful and beneficial for someone who has never even come close to dabbling in programs that dealt with these types of audio and visual tools. It was also hopefully mutually exciting and generative for Kevin, too, who had not touched Max in a while and could pick up new things as we both investigated and explored.

Kevin and I had a conversation near the end of our meeting on the concept of artistry, where I expressed to him that I didn’t feel like I had a place at the table because I have never once considered myself an “artist”. Kevin responded in kind about how artistry is a concept you must continue to explore and carve out. For me, then, if only it was a mere dabbling in code (and also as someone new and shaky to the field of art and design, largely construed), it was still effective (even if not efficient, per se) as a space of possibility and learning. That, too, helped me see the process of dabbling (of exploring and learning as acts that produce joy) itself as perhaps a small counter to the “productivity regime” that the Critical Design Lab seeks to contest.  

Though I don’t have a specific end project in mind outside of the small projects that allow me but a mere introductory handle on the Max7 tools, the process of learning new skills was, at least in my mind, itself a personal example of design and the making process.            

Ethnography Looks Back at Design

CDL member Cassandra Hartblay discusses new work in design ethnography, including her co-edited series, Keywords in Ethnography and Design

-Cassandra Hartblay-

In recent years, artists, writers, and design-thinkers have turned to ethnography as a methodology for unpacking an insider’s point of view about a space, social issue, or moment in time. Ethnography, in derivation, is the flagship research method of cultural anthropology. Its principles have been adapted to a wide variety of qualitative research practices, including Human Centered Design. As it is practiced by anthropologists today, ethnography remains unique in that it involves long-term fieldwork in which the researcher lives in or as part of the community of study for months or years at a time. For example, for my current book project on disability in Russia, I spent about 12 months total living and conducting research in the city that is my fieldsite. This is a very different approach to research than the kind of rapid qualitative work that many design researchers do – even though techniques like participant observation, card sorting, or asking research participants to draw maps or describe photos were originally developed by ethnographers. And recently, there’s been a growing interest in the ethnographic as a genre of fictional or semi-fictional writing in literature, in auto-ethnographic writing in ethnic studies, disability studies, and gender studies. An interest in ethnography as a technique for documenting practices and processes has emerged in the fine arts. While theater (in the Euro-American tradition) has recognized the importance of “the ethnographic” – that element of realist theater in which playwright, actor, and director focus their artistry on the reproducing some truth of the minutiae of daily life on stage, new kinds of collaboration are emerging between ethnographers and theatrical designers.

With all of these ways in which ethnography has been exported to design-related disciplines, recently some anthropologists have turned this question back to anthropology. Can anthropology also learn something from design practice? How ought cultural anthropologists think about design? Should ethnographers follow designers? Critically trace the complicity of design in systems of global capitalism? Or think about the design of ethnography as a social practice? These questions, in seeking to speak back to the cultural anthropology space, are different from the work that many cultural anthropologists are already doing in the design field itself. The UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design, a research network for which I worked as a postdoc from 2015-2017, represents a range of very different kinds of thinking about and collaborating with design embraced by cultural anthropologists.

Building on an international conference hosted at UC San Diego in the fall of 2017, we recently published a subset of the ideas to come out of the first two years of the research network. Keywords for Ethnography and Design, a collection of short essays on an open source series of the journal Cultural Anthropology, explore issues facing ethnographers working on or in collaboration with design as a field. It begins from the proposition that the intersection of ethnography and design is not merely a topical convergence of subject matter, but a provocative point from which to theorize what it is that ethnographers do. After all, as coeditors Joe Hankins, Lissa Caldwell, and I write in the introduction to the series:

Humans are bricoleurs. By improvising with that which is at hand to make the worlds in which they live, bricoleurs are designers, manipulating the material environment in intentional and meaningful ways. Both ethnographers and designers have observed that these relationships are coconstitutive: “We shape objects, and objects shape and transform our practices and us in return,” write Elisa Giaccardi and colleagues. And, both ethnographers and designers understand the project of making as being fundamentally future-oriented, even imbricated in the changing of things over time. Perhaps more so than design, anthropology has been invested in thinking with and about differences across cultural, vernacular, or ontological worlds, which fundamentally shape what is thinkable and define the possibilities of the real.

Featuring essays by Lucy Suchman, George Marcus, Keith M. Murphy, Joe Dumit and coauthors Kevin O’Connor, Duskin Drum, and Sarah McCullough, and more, the series demonstrates the range of different critical engagements with design that cultural anthropologists are thinking with today. In conversation with Arturo Escobar’s new book Designs for the Pluriverse, and with the diverse works of our contributors, we see the collection as reflecting a new moment in thinking about design in cultural anthropology, not only as a human activity to study, but as a dialogic interlocutor of ethnography, and generative critical practice.

My coeditors, contributors, and I hope that the Keywords for Ethnography and Design series will be useful not only to cultural anthropologists, but to those thinking and making in critical design spaces.

protocols for unfinished technoscience

Critical Design Lab director Aimi Hamraie meditates on the uses of "protocols" for destabilizing the typical "checklist"-style approach to accessibility.

-Aimi Hamraie-

A protocol is an outlined procedure for action. Protocols can be prescriptive and bureaucratic, medical and normalizing. But, as I will outline here, protocols can also serve as design templates. As such, they can be re-iterated, re-designed, tinkered with, and hacked to produce a new state of things. 


Disability activists often point to accessibility as a quality of built environments that is often produced through technical protocols, such as checklists. As Mia Mingus argues, the checklist approach to accessibility renders "liberation" as "logistics."

But protocols also have a history in activist technoscience. In Seizing the Means of ReproductionMichelle Murphy describes "protocol feminism" as a set of practices through which technoscience is made "accessible, routinizable, and do-able." For feminists in the women's health movement, protocols defined shared practices of knowing, perceiving, and making health beyond the expert domain of male-dominated medicine.


Outlining a protocol formalizes our practices. But protocols also place us in the middle of things. Writing or drawing a protocol helps us understand our ongoing projects as comprised of iterations and prototypes. 

Critical Design Lab members have been experimenting with defining protocols for our ongoing, unfinished work. We were inspired by the design collective spurse, particularly their "eat your sidewalk" protocols. Their diagrammatic meditations on human-nature entanglements, including one called "tools to make tools," inspired us to map the processes and flows in our own work, including the methods we hope to disperse through the Lab's projects. 


Protocols can be accountability measures. Often, I am asked to share protocols for Mapping Access with others who want to replicate the project. These requests are often for reading materials. "Is there a Mapping Access syllabus?," a geographer recently asked me. But these ideas are very much in formation. There is, of course, research to review (and I have an article on Mapping Access that will be in the journal American Quarterly this fall). To simplify things, I offer a brief methodological overview, which in its simplicity eliminates the messiness of access for the sake of transmitting information.

 Image description: In the messy middle of things, a hand-written diagram on lined legal paper. Circles, squares, and lines connecting words and questions: Mapping Access: protocols for spatial inquiry --> Where do I go? Where can I find x? Google, access maps. Okay, but where can I find an accessible bathroom? Back to the original question. Now we look at what counts as access, for whom, and under what conditions? The questions go on like this, circling back on themselves, until finally we arrive at: "let's imagine a new world, not just reform this one." A bright turquoise sticky note on top of the diagram reads "depoliticized access. compliance-centered."

Image description: In the messy middle of things, a hand-written diagram on lined legal paper. Circles, squares, and lines connecting words and questions: Mapping Access: protocols for spatial inquiry --> Where do I go? Where can I find x? Google, access maps. Okay, but where can I find an accessible bathroom? Back to the original question. Now we look at what counts as access, for whom, and under what conditions? The questions go on like this, circling back on themselves, until finally we arrive at: "let's imagine a new world, not just reform this one." A bright turquoise sticky note on top of the diagram reads "depoliticized access. compliance-centered."

But to me, the answer to the question of how to do accessibility mapping is more conceptual. Above, I am sharing a diagrammatic protocol that I recently drew while trying to explain the project to two anonymous reviewers, who read an article that I am trying to publish. The protocol focuses on the questions that Mapping Access begins with, produces, and returns to. It is a messy sheet of lined paper covered in boxes, thought bubbles, cloud shapes, and arrows. The paper is folded and crumbled. A turquoise sticky note rests on top, with two scribbled notes: "depoliticized access. compliance-centered." 


Critical access theorists often point to the messiness and gestural qualities of access-making: that we ought not follow standardized formulae, but rather reach for creative access solutions, recognizing access as an open-ended and unfolding process. Protocols strike me as an alternative to accessibility checklists in two ways: first, by focusing on the doing of access, they destabilize the idea that there is a single type of disabled user, access need, or way of achieving inclusion; and second, they provide a tangible map to follow, fulfilling the desire for a "how to" that nevertheless leaves us restless, with questions that reach toward (but also problematize) the ideal of an accessible future.