Lindsey D. Felt and Vanessa Chang
August 4, 2022
By remaking the creative design cycle through an accessibility and disability justice lens, Leonardo CripTech Incubator scaffolds new forms of artistic access. In recent years, disability justice has emerged as a paradigm and practice incubated by queer and disabled creative practitioners of color like Patty Berne and Sins Invalid. A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met” (Sins Invalid, 2015). Lifting up the principles of disability justice, including cross-disability solidarity, Leonardo CripTech Incubator is rooted in collective access, valuing the exploration and creation of “new ways of doing things that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity” (Berne, 2015). Centering disability innovation, this approach aims to shift the fields of media art and technology.
Bringing a disability justice lens to art-and-technology research practice and to this incubator’s design, we position ourselves as facilitators in this vibrant ecology, calling up other critical voices in this process. We acknowledge that our multiple positionalities indelibly shape and inform our work as facilitators; Lindsey is a deaf scholar and educator who researches the history of disability-driven technological innovation in American culture, and Vanessa is a nondisabled curator, scholar, and educator of media art, culture, and technology. In this commentary, we invite key members of Leonardo CripTech Incubator’s network to reflect on their understanding of this work, and their role in this emerging ecology.
Leonardo CripTech Incubator allows for greater diversity of aesthetic experiences by taking an anti-ableist and intersectional approach to media arts practice that builds in access from the beginning. Most simply, artistic access is a form of communication for everyone, yet standards of access for program patrons—audio description, closed-captioning, display heights—tend to minimally address accommodation as a form of compliance. Grounded in commitments to accessibility, crip aesthetics can be, as disability scholar and design historian Aimi Hamraie suggests, an exciting disruption of artistic norms (Hamraie and Fritsch, 2019). For this reason, artist Yinka Shonibare contends that disability arts is the last avant-garde (Bragg, 2007).
We are guided by Hamraie and Fritsch’s Crip Technoscience Manifesto, which calls for a “non-compliant knowing making;” a practice by which disabled people and communities dismantle existing technologies, infrastructures, and materials (Hamraie and Fritsch, 2019). This charge builds on the provocation of “crip,” a position that disability is a desirable part of the world. CripTechnoscience, or CripTech for short, takes root in crip theory, a field of research invested in re-centering the skills and knowledge disabled people cultivate to remake inaccessible worlds (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2015; Kafer, 2013; McRuer, 2006). By cripping art and technology praxis, CripTech Incubator seeks to expand the creative horizon of accessibility.
Our approach is also informed by an earlier iteration of CripTech we first explored in Recoding CripTech, a multidisciplinary art exhibition at San Francisco’s SOMArts in 2019-2020. Designed for, with, and by the disability community, our commitment to make this show accessible raised core questions for us about access: how could we think about access not as accommodation or a measure of minimal compliance, but instead as a creative practice or an underlying aesthetic and design principle of the work?
What might this look like in an artist’s practice? As curator Amanda Cachia (2019) notes, ”With access at the center, vital new approaches to art-making and thinking will thrive” (p. 116). One work that exemplifies crip aesthetics is Descent, a wheelchair dance duet performed by disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light. Descent is staged on a large architectural ramp with slopes and curves co-created by designer Sara Hendren, Yevgeniya Zastavker, and Olin College engineering students. While ramps are usually understood as accommodation, Descent’s ramp is a performance space for virtuosic choreography that transcends utility and embraces play, aesthetics, contradiction, and a new way of moving and being in the world. Descent is a shining example of disability-led innovation that takes an anti-ableist approach to technology: it resists entrenched uses of technology that aim to cure or fix disability, and casts into sharp relief the functional, prohibitive, and inhibitive design of access ramps.
Artist Jennifer Justice’s “The foot knows the foot when it touches the earth,” which premiered at Recoding CripTech, embodies the processual and interdependent mode of crip arts practice. Justice’s interactive installation, composed of three columns of stacked pallets topped by a surface of multicolored moss, dirt, and 3D printed animal footprints, invited visitors to engage with her piece through touch, smell, sound, and sight. By responding to the diverse capacities of disabled bodyminds, the installation offers multiple sensory modalities and challenges the ocularcentrism typical of museums and galleries. Justice’s work exemplifies what it means to build in access as an interrogative design, or, as Sara Hendren (2020) explains, to make “things not only for solving problems, but to ask questions” (p. 202). Framing access as an interrogation, Justice’s piece underwent several iterations from conception to implementation, evolving responsively in conversation with fellow disabled artists, designers, and our curatorial and exhibition installation team. Building on the interventions in this exhibition, Leonardo CripTech Incubator is a program that seeks to lift up and amplify these approaches to aesthetic access.
Leonardo CripTech Incubator is a disability-led, collaborative, interdependent art and technology incubator unfolding over 2022-2023. Our design process in co-building this incubator is consent-informed and highly responsive to the needs of its artists and partners, embodying a crip politics of care. Artists choose their own “contingent and continuous processes of consent in which they co-determine the time frame, space, and audience for their art” (Rice et al., 2018, p.258). From our submission process to our meetings, our access choreographies reflect our commitments to collective access. Working along the rhizomatic axes of crip time (flexible, non-linear time that resists economic imperatives), the program challenges traditional art-and-technology research and practice paradigms that often privilege ableist notions of productivity. We center the exploration of creative process alongside the work of prototyping, recognizing that ephemera can tell stories about the frictions artists encounter in their processes.
This year, artists began their residencies across several California sites in concert with Ground Works to document and archive their creative practices; in 2023 the incubator will showcase artistic, research, and educational outcomes in exhibition and publication. CripTech Incubator builds on Leonardo/ISAST’s global network and commitments/imperative as an enterprising non-profit think tank for the 21st century that emerged from leading arts research journal Leonardo.
Historically, arts funders have not centered disability nor ensured disability representation, resulting in project outcomes that cannot honor the full diversity of disability experience and creativity. As artist Alice Sheppard and Ford Foundation funder Lane Harwell wrote in a recent op-ed, “To build a new future, funders must collaborate with disabled creatives to reimagine such fundamentals as application and review processes, restricted and unrestricted funding, time, process and product, as well as other creative support structures” (Sheppard and Harwell, 2021). In alignment with this vision, Leonardo CripTech Incubator is building a crip-centered arts ecology that honors its commitment to ensuring cross-disability representation at every node of this network and transforming research infrastructures. Our key actors in this ecology are disabled artists; residency partners ThoughtWorks Arts, Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology, Berkeley Disability RadMad Lab, and Beall Center for Art and Technology; multimedia arts and research documentation platform Ground Works; community partners who are arts practitioners, designers, activists, scholars, and curators; disabled and/or BIPOC jurors; a disability and intersectional inclusion consultant; Leonardo staff; and creative leadership.
In our effort to highlight this emerging ecology, we have invited some of our partners to meditate on the co-development of the incubator:
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Representing perspectives from across the incubator’s ecology, together these commentaries highlight its grounding in existing networks in disability justice and activism, global art and technology communities of practice, academic institutions, and the twin engines of imagination and innovation that drive these collaborations.
This commentary reflects our first effort at a synthesized reflection at an early stage in this incubator’s unfolding, and it will serve as a touchstone for us to revisit at later points in our timeline. At the time of writing, we had selected our cohort of six artists, and will continue to develop the incubator’s ecosystem for 2022-2023. In the year we’ve spent building this community, we’ve already begun to learn where the gaps in the art and technology pipeline reside for the communities we seek to serve.
Berne, P. (2015). “Disability Justice - a working draft.” https://www.sinsinvalid.org/curriculum
Bragg, M. (2007). “The last remaining avant-garde movement.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2007/dec/11/disability.arts
Cachia, A. (2019). Reflections on access: Disability in curatorial practice. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. 8(1), 98-117. https://doi.org/10.15353/cjds.v8i1.472
Hamraie, A. (2019). Art in America. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/shannon-finnegan-aimi-hamraie-access-art-architecture-1202671288/
Hamraie, A., and Fritsch, K. (2019). Crip technoscience manifesto. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. 5(1), 1-34. https://catalystjournal.org/index.php/catalyst/article/view/29607/24772
Hendren, S. (2020). What can a body do? How we meet the built world. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Lazard. C. (2019) “Accessibility in the arts: A promise and a practice.” https://promiseandpractice.art/
McRuer, R. (2006). Crip theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, L.L (2018). Care work: Dreaming disability justice. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp, Press.
Rice, C. et al. (2018). Cripping the ethics of disability arts research. In J. Macleod, et al. (Eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Ethics in Critical Research (pp. 257-272). Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan Press. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3295200
Sheppard, A., & Harwell, L. (2021). “Arts philanthropists need to change the way they think about disability. Let’s start by collaborating with disabled artists.” https://news.artnet.com/opinion/op-ed-disability-futures-1989555
Sins Invalid (2015). “10 Principles of Disability Justice.” https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/10-principles-of-disability-justice