Body Augmentation and Prosthetics at Make Shift

I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a panel at the Craft Council’s innovation conference, Make Shift, which took place this November at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

We had a very small amount of time to cover a huge amount of ground with three smart and interesting guests. So to make up for that, here’s some follow-up notes and links.

The panelists and their projects

Graham Pullin: Hands of X
Mika Satomi: Artificial Skins and Bones
Hannah Perner-Wilson: A Wearable Studio Practice

Panel Q&A

Before the event, the Crafts Council asked me to introduce the panellists’ work with some quick Q&As. These should be published on the Crafts Council website soon. In the meantime, here are Graham and Hannah’s responses:

Graham Pullin

Graham is a designer and researcher whose current project, Hands of X, sets out to make series of prosthetic hands – through a nuanced investigation of materials, an exploration of fabrication technologies, and prototyping of services that might deliver the hands to wearers.

Andrew: Do the choices of materials for prostheses tell us something about the way we see humans, disability or body augmentation?

Graham: Yes, in so many different ways. Silicone gloves that imitate human skin seem to embody a medical model of disability, even a pressure to hide disability, whilst carbon fibre ‘bionic’ hands illustrate the narrative of the cyborg, the post-human. What seems missing are materials that embody a stance of “no triumph, no tragedy”, whilst still reflecting the intimacy of a hand. It is this notion of the everyday that we are exploring in Hands of X.

Andrew: When we look at materials we wear, is innovation always forward looking, or can we rediscover or reimagine already existing materials?

Graham: We are intrigued by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison’s notion of the Super Normal, despite (alright, perhaps especially because) the term itself is unexpected, even controversial in this context. Which creates a tension: we wish to challenge the anatomical realism of cosmetic hands, but at the same time there seems a value in reassuring familiarity, in other ways. So we are revisiting pre-silicone prosthetic hands and materials: woods, leathers. Not for nostalgic reasons, but in order to tap into something timeless.

Andrew: What does digital fabrication offer the prosthetics designer?

Graham: Digital fabrication could allow prosthetics to be ‘made to measure’ in ways other than the clinical fittings involved (I hesitate to use the word ‘bespoke’: perhaps this refers more to the wonderful – but very different – Alternative Limb Project). In other words, wearers could choose from a palette of materials from which their hand was made, for them. Issues not only of identity but ownership are really important. Of course this is digital fabrication in a broader sense than direct 3D-printing. Although 3D printing might form part of the workflow––perhaps forming a last over which leather is moulded, perhaps a mould into which rubber is cast––alongside CNC milling, laser cutting, water jet cutting etc. etc.

Andrew: Are there lessons that we can take from prosthetics materials and design and apply to performance, casual or haute couture clothing?

Graham: At the moment at least, we are more interested in traffic in the opposite direction: it feels as though, if prosthetic hands are to draw more deeply on material culture, on the fabric of our everyday lives, that there is much to learn from fashion designers… and we are pursuing collaboration, even co-branding.

Hannah Perner-Wilson

Through her work, the artist Hannah Perner-Wilson imagines new relationships between our bodies, our tools, and our clothes. Her practice is rooted in the contemporary ‘open-source’ maker ethos of documentation, sharing, and working in public.

Andrew: Is innovation always forward looking, or can we rediscover or reimagine already existing materials?

Hannah: Progress and innovation are words that imply a sense of moving forward and leaving the old behind, but we are constantly remixing what already surrounds us. Working in technology, it is easy to loose ourselves in playing with technology for the sake of discovery. This can be a very focussed and creative process, but there is also great value in pulling ourselves out of our forward floating tech bubbles to look around at the heritage that surrounds us. Looking backwards as we go forwards adds value to our ability to remix and create new stuff.

My own process is often driven by an urge to look all around, simply for the sake of not wanting to look in the most predictable places. This approach often leads me to discover traditional materials and ways of making. It is inspiring to read the histories of these traditions, and sometimes even get to meet people who still practice them. But also, from a purely technical perspective, these traditional techniques provide so much inspiration because they contain so much human ingenuity and skill.

Andrew: You are a prolific documenter of projects. What is the value you see in working ‘in the open’?

Hannah: I like this question. And I can think of three distinct motivations for putting time and effort into my documentation.

When I document my work, I’m not just interested in sharing the outcome, I want to share the process I went though to get there. As I just mentioned, we’re constantly being fed input by our surroundings, and I find research, ideation and design processes fascinating. To show where ideas come from, that they are not the product of isolated individual genius. Tracing inspirations and influences back to their origins gives you a sense that you’re part of the larger human knowledge bank. I like feeling part of this whole.

I want to see my work copied. What will somebody else do with the train of thought that I started? As soon as somebody picks up one of my designs and copies it, they add their own ideas, skills and effort to it. They will modify and improve it to create something I could not have imagined myself. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy. I want to take away the negative connotation we have of copying somebody else’s work. The act of copying is just the beginning of something new.

As a member of the e-textile community, which is spread all over the world, documenting my work is not only about publishing my designs for others to understand and copy, it is also my means of participating in this community. Our practice is extremely physical, but the Internet is not. Documentation adds a layer of detail to what I have made that opens up discussion with my peers. In an effort to find more appropriate ways of sharing the physicality of the work that we do, I started organising the E-Textile Swatch Exchange as part of the E-Textile Summercamp. The exchange is a platform for sharing physical works samples among the e-textile community. Each year everybody who participates produces multiples of their design, these are collected and compiled into books, and everybody receives a book full of real physical copies of other people’s work. Browsing through these swatchbooks really demonstrates the value having access to the real thing. So much information is embedded in the physical artefact that can’t be captured otherwise.

Andrew: Does your own tool use influence your work?

Hannah: Definitely. Some of the very first software tools I used in electronics were open source and shaped my belief that information should be made easily accessible and shared freely. I’ve also had the chance to work with some very traditional textile techniques, that taught me about the cultures and contexts they came from. More recently my own tool use, of a mix of electrical engineering and textile crafts tools, has inspired me to make tools for myself.

Andrew: Do craftspeople – skilled users of tools – have a privileged insight into the application of wearable technology?

Hannah: Maybe. Learning a new skill and accompanying tool, you are hyper aware of the tool as a foreign body. Something you must learn to master. Once the tool becomes familiar it disappears as a foreign object and is simply an extension of your self. This experience of learning and mastering tools definitely gives you a sense for the ability of the human body to work in close contact with tools and technology.

I’m generally skeptical of the affordances of embedding technology into our clothing just because it’s possible. But when I started thinking of my own tools as possible candidates for wearables, it made click, and I felt a real desire to make and use wearable tools. Having my tools with me, at hand, makes a huge different in my practice. This last year I’ve been thinking a lot about the possibilities that a wearable studio practice opens up, not just as a means to manipulate, but also to experience the world. I will talk more about this during Make:Shift 🙂

Andrew: What are the adjacent fields that provide rich opportunities for collaboration?

Hannah: Anthropology and material science.

Anthropologists have done many different and detailed studies of the fields of making. From scientific research to crafts and hackerspaces. Reading this work as a maker, provides such a great way to understand that your practice does not just result in what you make, but also how you make and communicate your work.

The few times I’ve gotten to talk with a material scientist, have ended in extremely nerdy conversations. While the anthropological report pulls you out of your studio and provides you with a wider view, talking with somebody doing very specialised science pulls you down to a fantastic level where impossible things become probable.

Andrew: Who do you collaborate with?

Hannah: I enjoy collaborating with individuals who want to broaden their own skill set and not just pass tasks back and forth between experts. Not that I expect us all to learn everything, but we should be open to the possibility of mastering new skills at any point, from any direction. For example in projects that merge electrical engineering with textiles, I find it frustrating when the textile designer shuts off when confronted with Ohm’s Law, and the electrical engineer shows no interest in understanding weft construction.