The Other Limb
Prosthetic science looks at man’s need for wholeness, artificial limbs were developed for cosmetic appearance, function, and a spiritual sense of being complete but have developed to be so much more. Through storytelling, puppetry and object theatre this play looks at loss, life and coming to terms with a different form of completeness while tackling ableist views of the body.
Throughout my research week I have read articles, watched films, sketched, cut out shadows and collected images. Puppetry is a very visual art form and as such my research into any play is very visual. Over the course of the Belltable Connect research grant I have been collecting images. [Link]
I began my research hoping to find stories of prosthetic makers from the late 19th centaury and early 20th century in Ireland. However after digging through articles online and contacting professionals in prosthetic in Ireland, I found no documentation of prosthetics in Ireland prior to last 10 years. I contacted my friend Sue Meehan who works in this field and she told me that when she was an educational technologist in the School of Medicine in UCD she knew a researcher in prosthetics Muthu Thangaramanujam (Senior Physiotherapist / Adj. Asst. Professor / PhD Candidate (3D Printing in Medicine)). Sue put me in touch with him. Muthu told me that there was unfortunately no documentation about prosthetics in Ireland from the 19th and 20th Century that he was aware off. He generously took the time to share links to the Welcome Collection of Prosthetics and the Alternative Limb Project set up by Sophie de Oliveira Barate. Both of which where hugely inspiring.
Sophie de Oliveira Barate creates prosthetics that she calls ‘wearable art pieces’. Merging the latest technology with traditional crafts, Sophie’s creations explore themes of body image, modification, evolution and transhumanism, whilst promoting positive conversations around disability and celebrating body diversity. [Link]
I had originally set out to only look at old fashioned carved wooden limbs but realised that prosthetics had developed so much and with it what a prosthetic was and what it could do and be. It could be an art piece and an expression of your identity.
In 2017 I had created a puppet play Pupa performed at the Belltable ( which was the practice of my PhD). As part of the research Ivan Owen assisted by Tommy Baker, Gemma Morris and myself created an exo-skeleton for my left arm (which has a brachial plexus injury). This exo-skeleton was made of wood and leather and I wanted it to resemble a wooden puppet. I used it in the show to puppeteer my disabled arm and for my left arm to then subsequently puppeteer a puppet. This device was used as a storytelling device and to help me see how I saw my own disability. So, it makes sense to me that all prosthetics are storytelling devices that can tell a part of their owners identity.
My original idea was to develop one man’s story (the prosthetic maker) told through the prosthetics, however I realised that prosthetics tell the story of their owner and so my idea shifted. I realised that my prosthetics maker was the storyteller, as he makes prosthetics he tells the stories of the people that owned the prosthetics in his workshop. The prosthetics becoming puppets to be puppeteered to tell the stories of those they belong to. I was originally going to be set in the late 19th/early 20th century however it is now not going to be set in any specific time so there are both older wooden prosthetics as well as more modern sculptural ones. Over the years my central character will have developed skills, learns about a person to make their specific orthotic or prosthetic. He will have protypes of discarded limbs, prototypes, drawings and photos around his workshop. He could have a carving bench, 3d printed, Plaster moulds , a 3D printer, Plastic baths and an oven surrounding him, all the tools of the trade. He would also have prosthetics, orthotics and casts made from the human body of the person he is making the limb for.
I do wonder if the prosthetics maker is in fact based on me. I will collect these stories and these prosthetics to tell these stories. Do I wear an orthotic while I tell the stories, does the play speak about being part puppet. Puppet or cyborg or both?
I started to wonder about the relationship of puppet and prosthetics to the human body. When you use your body as part of the puppet are you the puppets prosthetic?
Obraztsov, educated as an actor in the Stanislavskii method at the Moscow Art Theater, uses hand puppets, which have a relationship to the manipulator, inverse to that of the puppets that hang from strings cited by Kleist. In this case, it is not the artifact that acts as prosthesis to the puppeteer, it is the puppeteer who acts as the prosthesis of the artifact to whom he lends his fingers. (Patrick McKelvey, 2016, p333, Link)
‘ Is two legs better than one’ question asked by Charles Manby Smith in An Essay on Wooden Legs with some account of Herr Von Holtzbein, (1854) ‘that is two live legs, be in understood, much may be said that the contrary is the case’. He argues that one is better, stating that men runs headlong into hurting themselves something a man of one sole would not do. This essay was very inspiring to me and currently it is my intention that sections of it will appear in the play.
My next step to develop this play will be to interview people who have created their own limbs or been part of the limb design and use these testimonies to inform the play. The prosthetics makers story will be part of it and link the others together. I would also like to incorporate the stories of people I have read about this week, such as Samuel Decker who in the 1860s came home from war with two arms from the elbow amputated. He designed a prosthetics that his wife build which had spoons at the ends of them. The band Soundgarden would later write a song about him titled ‘ Spoonman’ [Link]. Also dancer Lisa Bufano who creates beautiful dance pieces with prosthetic stilts. [Link]
Objects hold stories. Christian Boltanski created art work with personal objects of his own such as biscuit tins, he stated the biscuit tin did not only hold his childhood memories but summoned the memories of the spectator while looking at the object. His holocaust memorial piece with rooms of shoes speaks of all those who have been lost, each shoe is the person that wore it.
In his installations and mixed-media works, the French artist Christian Boltanski uses photography and found objects to question memory and individuality. An awareness of mortality, and of the general tenuousness of human existence, haunts his art. (Art Space Editors ,2017, Link)
I have always been fascinated by objects and the stories they can tell of the people that owned them, also the shared history and connotations the audience has of an object and the stories of their own lives that are connected to the object. Prosthetics are made to be part of us but yet are removable objects, they are temporarily given life, they are designed aesthetically to speak of who we are, the puppet is also designed in this way. Similar materials where traditionally used and both prosthetics and puppets have now developed and are both made from multiple materials. There are many similarities between the puppet and the prosthetic so I will use the prosthetic as the puppet and what better object to talk about your life then one that has been part of you.
As you grow so do your prosthetics and orthotics, in the last seven years with the emergency of 3d printed hands, some children have been helping to design their own prosthetics and then taking over and building them themselves. Each time they need a bigger size of shoe they need a new prosthetic. Could the story of a life be told through the prosthetics one wears?
Throughout the week I have played with shadows to see how the prosthetic and orthotic limbs would move through space. On their own and if they joined up with other prosthetics to create a figure. I wondered if they would have faces, but I don’t think they will unless it’s the faces of the three performers.
Possible questions for next stage
- How do you feel towards your prosthetics or orthotics?
- Does it feel like part of you, an extension of you?
All of the cast will be actors and puppeteers who use either prosthetics or orthotics and the play will be adapted depending on casting.
- Prosthetics Maker
- All other characters will be prosthetics puppeteered by two puppeteers.
A old prosthetic maker makes wooden legs and arms in his workshop, he is all alone bar the prosthetics. As he sits and carves legs he tells the story of his life and the stories of the lives of the people his prosthetics and orthotics have been made for. He goes between making and telling the stories. As he talks shadow animations and the prosthetics being puppeteered help tell the story. There will be an array of wooden, metal, plastic prosthetics in his workshop and plaster moulds, and drawings.
The play will use real testimonies of people who wear prosthetics and orthotics. Their stories will be performed using their prosthetics/orthotics or recreations of them.
Example of possible scene’s and ways to use the prosthetics and orthotics.
- We see two sets of legs walking dancing sitting together.
- Prosthetic maker reveals their prosthetic leg or arm and takes it off, they starts to talk to it as if it is their dying partner, they lay it down on the floor and lie down beside it.
- Going off to war: As he tells this he stands up and begins to march, an animation of shadows of marching legs appears on the back wall and the wooden legs hanging above him start to sway up and down. He talks of losing friends and we see legs fall, he drops the leg his working on and reacts as if it is his fallen friend. How when he first took up his trade as a prosthetics maker he made legs and arms for friends that had lost theirs in the war.
I realise that my research has many strands and ideas at the moment. My process is to gather large amount of information and then start whittling it down. During this week I have asked myself many questions, my next step is to find those answers, interview others and experiment with puppeteering prosthetics and orthotics. A huge thank you to the Belltable for giving me this gift of time to develop my idea further and spend a week diving into the world of prosthetics.