Mechanical Ears – a Critical Potential in the Art of the Deaf

Dedicated to the hard of hearing, the technologies of hearing – no matter how intensely present and familiarized in the everyday life – rarely constitute a material of the visual arts. One of the few examples is the work My Father’s Hearing Aid Cast in Gold (2012) by Neil Goldberg, who covered his father’s hearing aid in gold after his death, “transforming the mundane device into a jewel-like relic”. For Goldberg, the prosthesis his father was using on a daily basis merged with his body into a consistent whole, which becomes easier as modern prostheses blur the boundaries between the users’ bodies and the extensions – which are ever smaller and more discreet. For Goldberg, a hearing aid proved to be an object so intimate and marked by his father’s individuality, that it could not so much act as a keepsake reminding him of the late father, but rather, as a relic – an object whose power comes from the ontological compatibility with the body of the remembered and honoured person.

For the Deaf – deaf people who identify as a separate language community – the hearing technologies also have a symbolic dimension (although they are rarely being elevated as in Goldberg’s art work). Usually, they represent the normalising efforts of the hearing majority and medicine, directed at solving the “problem of deafness”. However, for the Deaf, deafness is not a problem, but a valued and protection-worthy element of human diversity – including cultural diversity. An American researcher, R.A.R. Edwards, points out that resistance towards the hearing technologies fits into the well-established Deaf tradition of contesting medical technologies that pathologise deafness. Hearing aids and cochlear implants are rejected as hostile objects, distinguishing the deaf from the social “norm” as “technological stigmas”, as defined by the hearing psychologist and ally of the Deaf, Harlane Lane. This rejection is also reflected in the artistic activities of the Deaf, especially in the De’VIA movement (Deaf View/Image Art) initiated by the Manifesto in 1989, during the Deaf Way Festival. Making use of the deaf experience in the creative work became the landmark of this artistic movement, and involved the lived experience of being reduced to “hearing impairment” and being “fixed”. That is what makes De’VIA subversive and political. As pointed out by Patricia Durr, a specialist in Deaf Culture, choosing “Deaf topics” enables the artists to assume the active, commenting role, instead of victimization, which often occurs in Deaf Art – the art of the non-hearing artists.

A recurring motif in De’VIA is a technologized ear: enormous and taking control over the body, symbolically expressing the reduction of the deaf to a sense of hearing that needs to be fixed. The organ is violated by metal, technological add-ons, external to the living tissue: perforated caps, similar to the earpiece, knobs, gears, and gearboxes. Betty G. Miller, a Deaf artist and art lecturer, uses this trope in her self-portrait. Her face, squeezed into a square in the centre of the composition, is “attached” to an overscaled ear, tangled up in jumble of pipes, full of nodes, jumpers, and gearboxes, some offshoots ending in a cochlear. The auditory organ, dominating the artist’s face, is an element of a huge, heaped up – though a little sloppy – hydraulic structure. In Chuck Baird’s work, Mechanical Ear (1973), the ear expands over the entire surface of the painting. The attached wires, batteries, and gearboxes are also hyperbolically over-scaled. Over-exposed artificiality, externality, and the dominance of technology have a critical dimension, mainly due to the excess and messiness: pipes and wires are tangled up and sloppy. These are not smooth, compact, and ‘friendly’ devices we know from the consumer market (including the prosthetic one). It is the mechanicalness turned inside out – the opposite of what we consider a safe and desired interference with the body.

The image of the hearing aid is exploited with particular intensity – almost obsessively – by Betty G. Miller, who entangled it with the memory of an oppressive education oriented towards speech rehabilitation. In the result, she proposes a painful story about the deaf education. Miller frequently draws children in school uniforms with hearing aids – wires (that used to connect separate microphone, processor, and earphones) wrapped around their necks (Now Say It With Your Hands), their hands clasped like little baskets, twisted and shackled so much that they cannot communicate using a natural method of sign language. In Education Deaf, the hands of the hearing-aided schoolgirls are locked in stocks, and their lower jaws look like the jaws of a ventriloquist’s dummies. It was typical for Miller’s representations of the deaf trapped in the oral education system: lips curved in a perpetual fake smile, passive, and speaking neither in their own voice, nor with their own content. Miller’s works present a deaf person as a technologized and passive object of colonisation and submission.

A French deaf-blind visual artist Arnaud Balard comments on the deaf experience through other objects: round, shiny, slim batteries, utilised extensively by hearing aid and implant users. The batteries, in one way, fit into the recent eco-critical perspective on the relation between disability and technology, one that highlights the environmental costs of over-engineered prostheses. The critical potential of Balard’s works is, however, mostly realised on the ground of the Deaf experience. The artist himself uses hearing aids, and struggles with their materiality – including the need to change batteries, pay for them, and making sure there are always spare ones at hand. He uses waste batteries in his works: Stroke Ear (1996) is a collage made of batteries, showing an international logo of deafness, a crossed out ear, while since 2008 he has been carrying out a series “Baby-batteries”, in which he covers baby dolls’ heads and bodies tightly with batteries. These installations make a very disturbing impression, since the familiar childish features of the dolls are turned into ghostly masks – cold and shiny, as if infected with a strange disease, or like insects. The meaning of the battery babies repeats the thesis of many amateur works exploiting the technologisation of the deaf child: it is a form of violence and deprivation of their humanity, an expression of non-acceptance and rejection of the Deaf Culture heritage, based on sign languages. Balard, however, goes still further: in one of the works, the batteries on the doll’s torso are arranged in a contour of the Superman logo, and the doll itself is wearing a red superhero cape, which shackles its hands. The little superhero has to speak, not sign, and during the course of the oral education, he/she is forced into the culture of the hearing, which is available to him/her to a small extent. The task to fit in that culture is often beyond the capabilities of deaf children, while their heroic effort (as well as their parents) is not always rewarded with equal treatment and respect.

De’VIA is filled with anger, but also celebration of the sign language and Deaf cultural identity, that provides the emancipatory impact. Patricia Durr considers the works within this movement as a resistance art, whose social and political impact lies in exposing and condemning the exploitation and injustice – both past and present. Even though many hard of hearing people see prostheses as emancipating and friendly technologies, for many Deaf people they remain a tool of normalising oppression – aimed at sign language, the core of the Deaf community.

Magdalena Zdrodowska – cultural scientist, PhD in art sciences; assistant professor at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts of the Jagiellonian University. She currently focuses on the mutual relations between deafness and technology, including innovation and inventiveness of deaf people. Her book “Telephone, cinema and cyborgs. Relationships of deafness and technology” will be published in 2021.


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