Episode 1: Contra* design with Sara Hendren

In this first episode of the podcast, we talk to design researcher Sara Hendren, who teaches at Olin College of Engineering, about disability, critical design, and poetic creation. 


Critical Design

Theory of critical design revised by disability

Writing as/part of critical design 

Disability politics in relation to design 

Translational work and science communication; critical design as a “friendly Trojan horse”

Things as an index of ideas

STEAM, knowledge, and power


Sara Hendren (https://sarahendren.com)

Abler blog (https://ablersite.org/)

Adaptation and Ability Lab (http://aplusa.org/)

Wendy Jacob and Temple Grandin, Squeeze Chair (https://patient-innovation.com/post/1047?language=en)

Sketch Model project at Olin College (http://www.olin.edu/collaborate/sketch-model/)

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/253076.Tools_for_Conviviality)

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (https://www.dukeupress.edu/Meeting-the-Universe-Halfway/)

Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/building-access)


Introduction Description:

The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”

An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound. 

The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction. 

Credit: Kevin Gotkin

Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid



Episode Introduction: 

Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing. 

I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie .  I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory.  Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are hoping to put into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl 

In this first episode of the podcast, we talk to design researcher Sara Hendren, who teaches at Olin College of Engineering, about disability, critical design, and poetic creation. 

Sara and I talk about her work in the fields of critical design and assistive technology, including how she came to this work, how she is thinking about strategy and practice, and also her current work on bridging the humanities with STEM education. 

Aimi Hamraie:              Sara is one of my oldest friends and colleagues in disability studies, and she's also the person who first taught me about critical design, so I'm really excited to talk to her. Welcome, Sara.

Sara Hendren:              Thank you. It's so good to be here.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah.

Aimi Hamraie:              So for the last couple days, we've been here at Olin. I just want to point out to our audience that we're in the library right now, which is a really just spectacular place. It's a place that's full of books, aquaponics, aquariums, a wood shop in the middle of a bunch of book stacks.

Sara Hendren:              3D printers.

Aimi Hamraie:              3D printers, sewing, all of this stuff kind of lives together. What a just spectacular design this place is.

Aimi Hamraie:              I thought we could just start out by talking about your intellectual journey because you have such an interesting set of skills and ways of approaching material culture in the built environment, so do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about how you ended up here doing what you do?

Sara Hendren:              Yeah, absolutely. This is about a 25 year span that I'll tell you about in a short amount of time.

Sara Hendren:              I was a visual arts, fine arts, and painting major in college. I ended college with a certain set of dissatisfactions about the limits of studio art and gallery-based art, but I didn't really quite have a language for that. After I spent a few years working, both teaching and in educational research, I thought, "Well, what I really need is some training in the history of ideas. How do we get to the assumptions that we do in making culture?" And this was a kind of move on my part to engage my curiosity about social politics, but I didn't really know it at the time. I thought, "Okay. History of ideas, cultural history is probably where that lives." So I did a master's and got an ABD intellectual and cultural history at UCLA.

Sara Hendren:              Diving into history like that taught me some absolutely critical modes of thinking about the world. It gave me an introduction to critical theory. It gave me an introduction to the notion of a constructed self and constructed nature of knowledge. And also, I went abroad to do my dissertation research in the Netherlands. I, through a long process of nagging doubts, I eventually named that I was dissatisfied with what was going to be come the output of that academic career. So when I would go to conferences for historians and give a paper, I would think, "Is this all there is? Am I sure that this is where I want the end result of my work to be?" Because of course I'd studied painting, and objects, and artifacts in the world, so I was longing to get back to that. And here I'd had this transformative experience in history and all that that implies, and the de-politicization of that, the invention of democracy. But I wanted something to show for that, to grapple with those questions.

Sara Hendren:              So without knowing what I was going to do really next, I dropped out of my PHD program. I was probably 30-ish at the time, and then just was very under-employed. I pieced together a number of jobs in a kind of patchwork. I rented a studio, started making paintings. About that time, a couple years later, my husband and I decided to start a family, and my eldest of three children was born, and he also has down syndrome.

Sara Hendren:              I started to pay attention to ... While I was making paintings, and having shows, and doing kind of studio-based work again, I started paying attention to all the material culture that was in his life and was now suddenly in my life, so orthotics, and therapy toys, and sensory blankets, and all these kinds of things. My imagination was just captured by the way that things are an index of ideas because I was watching the world make sense of who my son was and who I was as his parent. And I should also say, my family has a number of folks on the autism spectrum, and lots of atypicality in general, but it was really my child's birth that brought this home so powerfully.

Sara Hendren:              I discovered in the process of kind of watching my son navigate, even in his early life, all the therapy and all of the medicalization of who he was. I was watching his identity form, and I was also watching the way the material culture of his world was shaping that identity and was projecting an identity onto the world. I thought, "Well, there's a real mismatch here." There's a story about disability, and especially about cognitive disability that is what we call in education a deficit model of personhood. That he is someone to be therapized, and someone to be normalized, and someone who was going to be forever lacking in his assets. So I thought, "Gosh, what would a designed world look like that would project a counter-narrative to that story? What would it look like for people to see the deeply dimensional person that he is?"

Sara Hendren:              So in the process, I discovered an artist named Wendy Jacob who worked with Temple Grandin, who's a quite famous autistic self-advocate, on a squeeze chair that was based on Temple Grandin's hugging machine that she built for herself. I'll just give you the very quick version of that. Grandin had designed a machine that she could get into at the end of her work day that would give her a deep pressure sensation. It was a machine that she could climb into. So imagine a piece of furniture that has a big hollow on the inside. You can get in, and it will clamp its arms around you and give you deep sensory expression that for Grandin is a kind of proxy for human touch that she was not interested in.

Sara Hendren:              And so her collaboration with Wendy Jacob was to make squeeze chairs that might be therapeutic for other people who identify on the autism spectrum or the sensory processing challenges, but it also might be a cultural object because Wendy made chairs that give you ... reach up and around and give you a hug powered by a kind of foot pump that another user presses on to create that experience for you. So if you can imagine a chair that gives you a hug, just imagine that. Suddenly then, a piece of furniture, a designed object, is alive with all kinds of quests. It was based on a therapeutic object that was self-designed by a woman who was designing for her own world, and her own needs, and her own sensibility, and it also then became a poetic object that had lots to say to the culture.

Sara Hendren:              So what would happen if the furniture of the world became animated? When I saw this work I thought, "Oh, this is what the world could be. We could have instruments that provide therapies when they're called for, and the function in the gallery as symbols and metaphors for our shared life." Like, "I can't believe this is so magical, the idea that this could happen." And indeed, if I'm not mistaken, Wendy's chair design has gone into classrooms that are populated with kids on the autism spectrum. But it's mostly ... That work has mostly had its life in the art world. For her, it's more important to frame that as art. She was not interested in therapy at all; she was fascinated by this alternative kind of entry to the sensory world.

Sara Hendren:              When I saw that, literally in between having three kids in five years and just spending a lot of time at my laptop going, "What am I really doing," I thought, "There's a way to make stuff that is deeply resonant with questions." Right? Then I'm making this gesture where my fingers are locking on top of one another and the kind of clarity of the kaleidoscope where I had studied the making of things in painting and drawing. I had gotten this rich context in history, and then I thought, "Oh, this is the way that all this stuff lines up." All the questions about economic worth, and personhood, and everything that's so resonant in disability politics could be alive in things. So I thought, "I need to figure out a way to do this."

Sara Hendren:              The end of that story, which could be elongated but I won't, is that I did go back to school to get an MFA at Harvard GST that has a program called Art Design in the Public Domain, and it's specifically for people who are trying to do politicized design work. I thought, "Well, this is a way to bring this stuff together," and so I took classes in anthropology at Harvard, but also at the media lab and making things. In the process of that, realized, "Well, I can make objects that look like prosthetics and assistive tech, but that also do the work of art. And eventually I pitched myself to an engineering school as someone who could work in adaptive and assistive technology, but not the stuff that you think. So maybe we can dig into that a little bit more, but that is my not so short, medium size history.

Aimi Hamraie:              I was thinking while you were talking about how I first came across your work through your blog, Abler. I remember the first time I read it, and I read the entire blog, every single post, which was by that point two or three years a post, I think. I had that experience of like, "Wow. This is magic," and the kind of sense of wonder around the ideas that you have exposed me to that I just never thought about before, which were that material production doesn't just have to be functional. That it has all these other social, and cultural, relational purposes.

Aimi Hamraie:              I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the strategy of that sort of tech journalism that you were doing through Abler, and how that maybe related to some of the critical design stuff that you were working on maybe? In your graduate degree.

Sara Hendren:              [crosstalk 00:10:27]

Sara Hendren:              Absolutely.

Sara Hendren:              I very instinctively ... I had very small children, including one that just needed some attention in those early years in particular, and I was trying to think, like, "How do I migrate my practice given what I have found out?" And I've dropped out of my PHD program. So literally, it sort of grew from a kind of necessity. Being the mother of invention, I had a lot of physical and bodily material constraints. I thought, "What do I have?" I wanted to reinvent my own personal website, but I didn't want it to be a gallery site online. I thought, "How can I make this into a place that is actually collegial and doing things that will connect me to a community of people? And also it was a way to just think out loud, the way so many blogs did in 2019, '10. This is before Facebook was absolutely monolithic and taking over the way people shared stuff.

Sara Hendren:              So I was looking at blogs like Building Blog. So that, Jeff [inaudible 00:11:25] was looking at architecture is an index for all kinds of weird cultural stuff. "Architecture is the frame, and I'm going to call it that." What's Nicola Twilley's blog called? About food-

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah, I don't know that one.

Sara Hendren:              I'll think of it.

Sara Hendren:              Nicola Twilley now writes for The New Yorker and stuff, but she started also as a food blogger, but food and politics. Not food as recipes or even food and travel, but food as politics and infrastructure. And then Pruned, that looks at landscape architecture the same way.

Sara Hendren:              So I was like, "Wow." I was thinking, "Wow. What I'd actually like to do is to write some texts about prosthetics and assistive technology, but not quite in the way you think, and to mix by the magazine style of the blog and made adjacent to one another some of the mainstream prosthetics that you see in the world, so like prosthetic robotic limbs and the kind of futuristic ... the promise of that technology that everybody thinks of when they think of prosthetics and assistive tech alongside the stuff I was seeing in my son's life, like body socks that are these stretchy fabric envelopes that you get into to kind of regulate your sensory apparatus. That's a really interesting, low tech, much more enigmatic prosthetic, but a prosthetic nonetheless.

Sara Hendren:              And then I was mixing those alongside artists who were dealing with the body and the politics of body, and making wearable stuff. So this could be any number of people, like Lucy Orta, Mary Mattingly. There are all these people who are making wearable kinds of gear, Lauren McCarthy, people doing kind of critical design work and objects and artifacts that had to do with the body and about the weird predicament of being a body in the world. I thought, "If a blog could do this mixing thing where you started to see unlikely resonances between the high tech kind of breathless, futuristic prosthetic and then this other like one off, really weird, poetic kind of wearable gear, would you also then see politics in those things as connecting?

Sara Hendren:              And let me just tell you. This is so important. I had in my mind very clearly, a reader, and that reader was an AVID, WIRED Magazine, and like Gizmodo reader. It was probably a software dev working in Silicon Valley who eats lunch at their desk. I was really imagining, like there's a giant, smelly sandwich on the desk. And this person is clicking around on his or her blogs and the kind of feeds, and thinking, "This is a gadget person." I kept thinking, "Can I entice that person to read this stuff?" Where they going to like, "Oh, I got here because you were writing about exoskeletons. And then I got into some weird ... this other, much more enigmatic gear." And now we're talking about disability in a way that's not about a redemption narrative, and not about heroic technology, and not about these poor souls getting saved by technology, but about people in their bodies navigating the world with stuff, just with gear. But all of this was very intuitive, in a way, to write myself into a way of working.

Sara Hendren:              So at some point my colleague, Jeff Goldenson, said to me, "Oh you know, [Rem Koolhaas 00:14:52] wrote a lot at the early part of his career. Found a way actually to work by naming and theorizing, and then made a space for him to work." So then I was able to ... We can talk about this more if you want to, but it was Abler that actually laid a path for me to go, "Oh, there's a way of doing this stuff," and having a point of view, and being really strong-headed about it.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It makes me think of conversations that we have in academia a lot about how writing is a type of making and thinking. There's actually quite a bit of psychological research and stuff about that behind the ... It's a justification for why writing every day is important, but writing can also take many forms. It's kind of like the easiest experimental modality for some people in certain ways.

Sara Hendren:              Yeah.

Aimi Hamraie:              I wanted to kind of think about critical design with you and maybe just define what it means both to other people and to you, and to think about some of the ways that your practice may be approaching this a little differently than some of the traditional models for critical design.

Sara Hendren:              Okay, yeah.

Sara Hendren:              I often tell people you can think about design, and engineering, and art living on a shared narrative ark. So think about the way a narrative starts, where there's a kind of premise at the setup. You go upward toward a climactic moment, right? Where some critical conflict is happening or a question's in the air, and then you resolve at a denouement.

Sara Hendren:              So if you can think about the beginning of a story, of a designed artifact, as identifying challenges in the world that peak at that climactic moment at questions, and then they resolve themselves typically we think of in mass manufactured products. We think, "Okay. What is a useful solution to that problem? And it only counts as a solution if it goes to scale, and it becomes a widget that you can make a hundred thousand or a million at a time."

Sara Hendren:              What I often say to people is like ... You've arrived at the other end of the arc, at mass manufacturing, "Just rewind," right? "Rewind back up that arc and land between questions, and mass manufacturing." The output of the fine arts tends to be questions. That is the deliverable. What do the arts do really well? They juxtapose multiple realities. They defamiliarize and estrange us from our normative life, and give us life re-enchanted and new. They let questions hang unresolved in the air, questions that have different kinds of answers, and there's probity, and deliberation, and all that. That's what the fine arts do. They are enigma that way.

Sara Hendren:              Critical design lives maybe just some degrees down from that, pure questions, and it traffics, I think, in the realm of use. There are tints and shades of adhering to some of that denouement where there's a little bit like, "What's the look and feel of this thing? What would playing with functionality actually offer to this question?" Why? Because when you suggest function and use, you're in the realm of the practical, and the necessary, and the ordinary everyday features of our lives, and so you don't get to dismiss it the way you can a fine arts piece of work or a performance. And by the way, a piece of art and a performance can live in a gallery, and you don't have to go there, right? People who go to those things are asking for that enigmatic experience and asking for those questions. But if design lives in the world, then you can make an unignorable spectacle in public and still have those questions really resonant.

Sara Hendren:              Not only that, but for me, I really ... It did matter to me to have some of the output of what I make. I'm motivated by the liberatory politics around disability. And we can talk about whether that's a problematic statement, but I guess I'm broadly signaling I'm trying to work with many allies and self-advocates to say that disability is a natural part of life and that it's coded as disability because it's dynamic between bodies in the built environment and that people with disabilities have historically been marginalized, oppressed, abused, any number of modes of diminishment. So I'm working against that. What it means is that if I can actually work in design, in the useful realm of infrastructure, and stuff we all need, and furniture, then I can suggest the necessity, and the urgency, and the ordinariness of everyday life, but still have questions. I just think it's a really fascinating and fun exercise to do that.

Sara Hendren:              Now, I think critical design has come under fire, and appropriately so, in the last half dozen years or so because critical design has been lotted as this place of pure speculation and designed fiction, and so you'll see a lot of the art schools and design schools saying, "Yes, yes, yes," living in questions, and, "Oh my goodness. Useful objects, but that have dystopian or utopian futures around them, and they have the magic of enchantment," and so on. And so people script out these scenarios like, "What if? In a world ... " You know? And the criticism as come from people going like, "Well, for one thing ... " Very often the blinkeredness of young designers in rich art school contexts or design school contexts play out scenarios that are very much realities for people right now that they ignore are happening, so their dystopian narratives can actually be happening in very concrete places right now in the culture. And so there's a way of ignoring those narratives precisely by making them into the speculative.

Sara Hendren:              But the other thing is that I think the use value that you could inflict in some critical design stories is often missing. So there's this celebration of the slick and seductive storytelling mode of that work. It has no chance of going out and being [reappropriatable 00:21:05] by people. So I'm very influenced by ... I have a [inaudible 00:21:07] notion of convivial tools. I want there to be the what if questions packed in there, but I also ... For Illich, convivial tools are open, and non-coercive, and appropriatable, so they're ... They have a kind of open source disposition, and that to me shades a little bit more into the realm of pure function, but I feel like I ... I feel like critical design owes its politics to at least trying to be more grounded there, if that makes sense. I mean I would like to hear your assessment of critical design and the debates in it.

Aimi Hamraie:              Something that's interesting to me about Illich ... Let me back up a second and say I remember the first time that we talked about this. My reaction at the time, because I was very steeped in kind of the history of technology and thinking about how disabled people are denied access, and so it seemed like a luxury to think about design as interrogation. But something that I came to understand over time was, one, that disabled people have been doing critical design for a long a time, and in fact are some of the biggest critics of existing built environments, and also makers of environments and technologies that are not recognized in history.

Sara Hendren:              Yes. Yes.

Aimi Hamraie:              But the other thing, and this goes back to Illich, is that ... So Illich positions design for conviviality against the sort of instrumental logic of capitalism, and kind of like function that is always in the service of making productive bodies. Something that I've come to understand from the Disability Justice movement and also from the history of the Independent Living movement, the radical disability movement of the '60s and '70s, was that disabled people have also been some of the biggest critics of capitalism and capitalist demands for creating productive bodies. And so that assumption that assistive technologies need to exist purely to make people into better workers has been contested.

Aimi Hamraie:              What is really interesting to me about the projects that you've worked on, and they've really inspired me historiographically to think about design histories and also contemporary projects where art is facilitated through the creation of what is otherwise a sort of utilitarian object like a ramp. I'm thinking about the work that you did with Alice Sheppard in DESCENT. We're going to have a podcast episode with her as well.

Sara Hendren:              Great.

Aimi Hamraie:              That is a way of recognizing the value of disability culture outside of demands for productive labor, and that this is also something that the mainstream of critical design has not considered and kind of ... It often has like a de-politicized orientation toward what it means to be alienated by technology. There's a lot of emphasis on user-centered. "User-friendly design is bad. We should alienate people and create kind of like misalignments." To me, that's like a disability simulation that's deeply problematic, and it doesn't recognize the work that people who are already misaligned with their environments have done to appreciate them. Yeah, I just think that this is a really fruitful thing for us to claim and manipulate a little bit.

Sara Hendren:              I want to just respond to a couple of those things. It's actually been your work that's helped me go like, "Whoa." Yeah, all this stuff exists in a lineage and a history that's been completely erased from, certainly from design history, right? But I also think people have failed to ... I mean there's been a lot of coverage, iconic images of people climbing the steps of the capitol to insist on the Americans with Disabilities Act and all the movement that was associated with, but not the hacking culture that you have also really surfaced.

Sara Hendren:              I think I've been guilty of working in an ahistorical way because I just haven't known, and also because I was so focused on the making, and the doing, and the positioning against engineering. And now I'm in a mode where I haven't been doing any design work for a year and writing, and I'm reading your book and lots of other books that are just like massive catch up for me to go like, "How do I actually acknowledge the lineage that this lives in?" That wasn't called critical design. That's been a learning curve for me. So I can name some of those critiques of critical design in the present, but I also have failed to recover enough proper histories to see this work as design work. And some of that is because design has also just not included in it ...

Sara Hendren:              I've been saying a lot recently that you have to remind people that design is making, and also unmaking, and also remaking. That is all activity that's included in design, and I think those activists in the '70s making their own curve cuts that that was an active design. That was a very material situation of this work.

Aimi Hamraie:              Speaking of your book, do you want to talk a little bit about what that project is and how it relates to design? I'm sure that the listeners will be interested in the scope of the book, but also how you are designing the project around it.

Sara Hendren:              Yeah.

Sara Hendren:              This is the circuitous route kind of continuing in the sense that I think my inner historian is coming back a little bit. I thought that was just an experience in grad school, but now I'm feeling the pendulum swing. I spent a lot of years doing intensive making collaborative making cultural objects, critical design work in an engineering context and constructing a kind of emergent point of view that that making practice was also participating in and embodying. And then I found myself really in possession of witnessing all kinds of stories that I was not going to be able to engage in a design way. So a man who has advanced ALS who designed a residence for himself and for other people with ALS and MS here in Boston and the origin story of how he got to do what he's doing. He got an early diagnosis in his 40s. He immediately thought, "What's the place that I'm going to want to live in 10 years? What does that environment look like?"

Sara Hendren:              And so it's a really interesting story just from the interior architecture. What's going on for making a meaningful and dignified life for people with ALS? And ALS, of course, is at the center of the life worth living debate, right? Talk about ways that bodies get coded as, when does life become non-life? It's this, "It's about economic productivity," absolutely. And then also about activities that we cherish and hold dear, that they're ... So I'm writing about the design, but I'm also writing about people facing very particular moments where they're asking these really tough questions about, "If I go on a feeding tube, is my life no longer my own? If I go on a ventilator, is my life no longer my own? And who's going to make those decisions?" Steve Saling, this landscape architect who became the designer of his own residence, is embodying in form a powerful counter kind of prototype of an environment to say, "This is also life. This is a life." And not just about the design and the technology, but about the ecology of care that he built there too, and about the quality and the dignity of that life.

Sara Hendren:              So I felt like, "Gosh. These are things that I could ... " I could invite Steve as a guest in my classroom, but I really wanted to know for myself like, "Where do Steve's values also line up with the kinds of design for anticipatory design for ... " He was anticipating a temporal scale for his life that he had not imagined and that other people don't imagine, and guess what? A lot times people expected him to live maybe three years, and he's now 11 years into his diagnosis, and what that means. But more like anticipating a time of life that's fundamentally altered, but is life nonetheless. I mean I just can't get over how profound that is.

Sara Hendren:              The book is about those kinds of in depth stories where I'm trying to link what people are doing, what disabled people are designing and co-designing for themselves, how those line up with the design history in ways that we tend not to think of. We tend to think of the disability experience is fundamentally other, but it's not. And then the structure of the book is to orient this around scale. It starts wearables, prosthetics on the body. It goes to products, furniture, housing, urban planning, and ultimately to systems. And I'm trying to ask in all of that, "If design is the magical thing that we say it is, and it is nothing more and nothing less than what Maxine Greene called social imagination, it is act of making, unmaking, and remaking. Greene would say that social imagination is the process of thinking as though things could be otherwise, and that I will never tire of documenting the moment at which people thought, "The status quo is not acceptable, and I'm going to prototype a way into the future," not as a plucky, clever bootstrapping story, but as a just a profound determination to wade through a thousand bureaucratic details to see a different universe realized in stuff. I mean I just can't get over it.

Sara Hendren:              And to demonstrate two things. One is that you should see disability differently than you already do. And look, disability is at all scales, and it effects every lifespan. But also that design is operating at multiple scales. People think of design as the shape of your glasses and the façade of a building, even if they kind of dabble in critical design. It's still powerful to think this is operating on the body and then absolutely at the level of infrastructure and system.

Sara Hendren:              Anyway, that is the project of the book. And the project of the book the way all writers will tell you they're writing to figure stuff out, right? Not to transmit certainty. So I feel like I'm asking myself, "Which is the scale where my work can be efficacious in its allyship and in its collaborative design work, and I do I want to ... I have son entering an economic order for which his gifts and capacities will never be recognized, not really, not fully, so should I be working at the level of systems because of that? Should I work on jobs? Should I work on housing? Those are very real questions in my personal life and very real questions in my professional life. I wonder, how has the trajectory of your book changed your own situated practice?

Aimi Hamraie:              In a way that I think is similar as to what you're describing. Something that I've observed in kind of thinking about your work is that it's tuned me into where to strategically put pressure to change something, even if it's just a slight turn. That whole idea of designing and writing to figure something out as a interrogative process, and then to go back and think, "How is a reader going to interact with this object that I'm making?" So I wonder ... What's the publisher for your book?

Sara Hendren:              Riverhead.

Aimi Hamraie:              Riverhead. Are there going to be photographs and things like that in your book?

Sara Hendren:              Not many. I think we'll have to be really creative with the online companion to that book because we're trying to keep it at an accessible price, and it's hard to do that. I think I'll have eight or 10 photos, something like that. Maybe I'll do some blueprint style drawings.

Aimi Hamraie:              So there are these questions of book design. Creating a book that has an accessible price so that it can have the greatest dissemination, or an accessible length, or format, or even page design. All these things are so interesting. Academics do this stuff all the time, but we don't often think of our work as design, so it's been interesting to kind of take a step back and say, "Okay, but what if we did critical design as the methodology for designing a book. And what are the ... Trojan horses was the term that you used earlier, friendly Trojan horses that can be brought in and do some sort of work?

Sara Hendren:              Yeah. Podcasting remains a really interesting ... not just podcasting. I think now we're in a moment where people are doing limited run audio essays that are just ... I've heard an author say, "I wrote this book, but I wasn't quite done with the topic yet, so I'm having six conversations about that." Radiotopia is doing Showcase now, which is not meant to be a series that goes on in perpetuity. It's like, "Here is an experience via the audio." And I think, "Gosh, we are in a moment where if you're trying to reach key audiences ... " And I think that has been my choice of positionality a lot.

Sara Hendren:              In the same way that I was writing Abler to reach a technical reader that I knew was deep, deep inside industry, it mattered to me because I thought, "These folks have a disproportionate amount of authority about the shape and tool of a lot of the technological gadgets that we use all the time and the stuff like iPads that kids like mine will be using in the future. So I want to reach that person right where they are, and I'm willing to make all kinds of linguistic and rhetorical choices to try to reach that person including emphasizing the friendliness of the Trojan Horse, that I try to use humor, enigma, and the joy of design, and the spectacle of it to be like, "Oh yeah, see? Now we're together, and we're smiling, and we're enjoying the wonder of this thing." And there is wallop of politics coming around the bend right now, but I'm choosing in all those ways.

Sara Hendren:              And I think academics, yes, are doing this all the time, of going like ... I don't think my book is targeted at the WIRED reader exactly, so I'm figuring that out, like who are the ... I have several kind of constituent readers, but I think paying attention to that stuff really matters. It helps you write toward those things, but not everybody wants to do that. I mean a lot of my work is translating disability studies that's much more sophisticated than I will ever do for a general reader. In academia, that's a negative term, being a popularizer. I wear that openly. I think that's kind of part of what I do is the sort of ... I'm not actually ... I don't have the full mind of the scholar, but I do love representing complexity in accessible language. I love it all day long.

Aimi Hamraie:              I think it's sort of related to science communication, and translational research, and those types of things. I think something that's so striking about your work and why at that first encounter I read every entry of your blog, and then immediately wrote you a fan mail about it was that the sort of ethical and political moves are both apparent, and subtle, and effective ways.

Aimi Hamraie:              I think about Karen Barad, who's a feminist physicist, and she says this thing about the political or ethical move, which is that all you're doing is pointing out how differences get made and why they matter, and that's really clearly the project that you had. It was, "Here are the different ways that the world got constructed. Here's why this matters," and that's really all it is when we talk about the ethics or politics of design, and it's really easy to get caught up in jargon and specialist language, but at the end of the day we're literally just asking the question, "How did this difference get made, and why should we care about it?"

Aimi Hamraie:              So it's interesting to think about strategies for addressing that and figuring out the sites where that happens. And we've been here for the Sketch Model pedagogy workshop that you've been organizing. So I wonder if you could just say a little bit about Sketch Model as a project and sort of the philosophy and intervention, and then if you have any reflections on the pedagogical conversations we've been having.

Sara Hendren:              Yeah. I think it's a perfect follow-on to the thing that you just said, which is that it's as simple and as profound as like, "Where are the differences?" And especially in design or art, where do we see the differences? Where's the material evidence of those differences, and why did they matter? Making that available to people is the work of culture, right? It's certainly the work of critical design, that's a particular inflection, but it's also the work of the arts, and that is the other big animus, I think, for what I do, and that is continuing to valorize, and defend, and absolutely hold space for questions. How does difference get made, and why does it matter? But also what is the value of questions and believing in the power of questions to actually move a culture? And I think some people are just not constitutionally ... Engineers tend not to be constitutionally capable of ... Start this over, [Kevin 00:39:06].

Sara Hendren:              Engineers, I think, tend to be not constitutionally inclined to value unresolved questions. For them, the measure of impact is arriving at solutions that go into the world and scale. And I can see on an efficiency logic why that matters, but I still believe at the end of the day, and I believe it more that I've been four years in engineering school in the work of culture. And what does that mean? It means being really existentially at peace with saying, rearranging the synapses in brains so that they think about things differently, and that mode of estrangement also shapes their behavior in aggregate. History shows that it does. History shows that cultures are moved by the work of artifacts and the fine arts.

Sara Hendren:              And so Sketch Model was a way for me to just inhabit more comfortably my training in the fine arts. I spent a long time sort of saying, "I'm in design, and so therefore you can recognize me in engineering. But I found an engineering culture that was also hungry for the language, and the tools, and the literacies of art. So the Mellon Foundation came to us on their own initiative because they were told ... The Mellon foundation exists to defend the liberal arts and humanities.

Sara Hendren:              They don't fund engineering, but they said, "Folks said that we should come to visit you because there's a kind of approach to what you do that's in line with what we're trying to do in arts education and the things we support." And we had a really nice connection with them. They said, "Oh, we expected this to look like bench science or something, but we found studio culture here. You've just described it. It's in our library and also in our maker space."In other words, engineers when we do it, at least in our curriculum and in increasing number of places, engineering also is iterative prototyping, social imagination, studio culture. It's not that far from art school actually, if you sort of take a bird's eye view.

Sara Hendren:              So they said to us, "We're trying to figure out integrated learning." And we said, "We really are too. And we are not the kind of people at an engineering school who secretly believe that the arts are the handmaidens of science and tech." Right? That they're doing the kind of communications work, or the complimentary critique work, or the ethical seminar work, but that actually that it's modes of inquiry in the arts that influence, powerfully influence engineers to alert them to the fact that what they make in technology is automatically culture whether they want it to be or not, so they need to be actually much more conversant in those languages.

Sara Hendren:              But also I think just to ... We laid out a project Mellon Foundation and said, "Look, we all in this room can agree that the handmaiden fallacy, this idea of STEM privilege ... STEM at the top of the hierarchy. Arts and humanities as serving those ends, or reacting to those ends, or critiquing those ends, that that's dissatisfactory for everybody. So, we can agree in this room that the hierarchy doesn't serve anybody." We can also say, however, there's a kind of pitfall in the practice of the humanities that doesn't want to walk toward the deep part of making technologies either. There is a complacency and a mode of critique that has its limits also. And so we said, "What would a walking toward one another scenario look like? What if we could build this kind of structure?"

Sara Hendren:              So we built a three part and three and a half year set of experiments including a creative residency program. So we have Mimi Onuha who's coming in the next year, '18, '19. We created four funded fellowships for engineering students to go to internships in the summer in arts venues. One's at Club Passim in Cambridge, a decades old music venue and music school, just fabulous. One's a museum exhibition design. One's at the metal lab at Harvard doing artistic, also a kind of exhibition design. One's at a sustainable fashion and textiles lab ... company. So they're doing all kinds of deep in the heart of arts, non-transactional summer experiences.

Sara Hendren:              And then we have what you and I are doing right now, which is gathering counterparts, people who we know are like-minded and like-hearted in this work to come to campus and for us to convene, and kind of affinity finding, and consensus building around people who are trying to do, not complimentary interdisciplinary work for the sake of breaking down silos or connections. That's a kind of tautological argument that I think is tired out, but who are seeking to recover the past unification of these disciplines, who are seeking to do the really probing and difficult work of getting either young technical people or young liberal arts sort of folks to make good sense of the future of technology deeply situated in power, and politics, and context.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah, it's been a really great couple of days. The method of kind of figuring out your dissatisfactions, and then staking a claim, and figuring out solutions at all different scales has been really useful. I've also just been struck by these sort of like epistemological and methodological quests that everyone seems to be having around ... like how do we change these broader university or other industrial structures that then guide what kind of knowledge is valued and what practices are valued?

Sara Hendren:              Yeah. Because so many of these conversations start and end with, "Why doesn't my institution value photography?" Or, "Why can't my tenure track status also include this other stuff?" Right? When actually we're asking much deeper questions about epistemic infrastructures as I think James [inaudible 00:44:50] calls it. But yeah, these much more ... It's symptomatic of steam and this kind of thing is much more symptomatic of the kinds of questions we could be asking about knowledge and power.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah. It seems like when we ask those questions that are sort of like, "Why doesn't my tenure depend on photography?" What we're asking is why is photography not productive? In a kind of like capitalist university sense. But a lot of the work that we've been doing, and I think that this is fundamentally the work of pedagogy, like liberal arts pedagogy too, is it's closer to critical design to say knowledge is a good in itself, and it does cultural work, so how do we shift the coordinates of that? And then what effects does that have? And how do we value that differently? That's a really helpful thing to think about, and it's been great talking to all the engineers who are just so thoughtful about this.

Sara Hendren:              It's a beautiful thing to meet people. I mean the status quo is working so well in engineering right now, so it's a beautiful thing to meet people who are precisely troubled by that status quo when they have so much to gain from just benefiting from it, so it's nice to talk to people who also see themselves as civic actors and with a lot of dissatisfactions about how their work is done.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah, I wonder what the future holds.

Sara Hendren:              I do. I do too.

Aimi Hamraie:              It seems like we're designing it right now.

Sara Hendren:              I hope so, yes. And I do, I think you're right that writing it into the future and making statements, those things have effects. They go out. They do it, an act of design and world building as you say. Yeah.

Aimi Hamraie:              Thank you so much. Sara, this was a really productive conversation and a really beautiful conversation. I'm glad that we finally got to record one of these. I'm looking forward to seeing how your book goes and Sketch Model. Do you want to tell our listeners what your book is called?

Sara Hendren:              Well, I'm not sure what it's called yet. The title's under construction, so I can't do that. I will say as a coda, Aimi, it is beautiful that you and I met through the online space, and I would encourage people to reach out to people whose work you connect with because that also has powerful effects, that kind of collegiality. And doing your work in public online makes this kind of thing possible because we've been friends now for probably eight years or something.

Aimi Hamraie:              I think so. I think we met in 2010, and we've sort of been part of constructing a field of work around this with a few other people.

Sara Hendren:              Yeah, but in tandem with a lot of changes in our own lives.

Aimi Hamraie:              Oh yeah.

Sara Hendren:              That is how the work gets done. Sometimes I think academics are a little loathe to put their work out there on sort of fears about getting scooped or somehow their work getting co-opted. I'm sure there's some legitimate fears around that, but doing more in public helps you actually build the world you want.

Aimi Hamraie:              Yeah, it definitely helps you reiterate that world, and that work too.

Sara Hendren:              That's right. And stay shored up.

Aimi Hamraie:              Awesome. Well, thank you.

Sara Hendren:              Thank you.


You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, Leah Samples, and Rebecca Rahim. Kevin Gotkin created our intro and Cassandra Hartblay designed the logo. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com

If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. 

The Contra* podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike International 3.0 license. That means you can remix, repost, or recycle any of the content as long as you aren’t making money, you don’t change the credits, and you share it under the same license.