Em Kettner

in conversation with Wes Hardin on her solo exhibition Homebound

February 17, 2024

Em Kettner, The Echo Chamber, 2024

Wesley Hardin: You know, and I really can’t say that this is always the case, I feel the need to issue a sort of preliminary ‘thank you’ before we get started––[laughs] so thank you!

EK: [Laughs] What for?

WH: Yesterday at the gallery I found myself in the middle of a pretty profound conversation with a person I’d never met before about paternalism, medicalism, prenatal testing, genetic ethics, eugenics, all kinds of personal anecdotes, what the hell else did we talk about?

EK: Oh geez.

WH: Topics and discourses that outside the context of the academy, let alone in everyday life or in art can have these seriously high barriers to entry, for a whole host of reasons as I think you and I are both well aware. Perhaps we’ll get into those a little later. In preparing to talk with you today I found myself revisiting university research papers from years ago! And so there's an initial expression of gratitude that I have to put out there, which is to thank you for creating in Homebound such a careful and considered venue within which to approach good faith discussions about heady, challenging material alongside people with whom one might not initially expect or feel disposed to interact in that capacity. Definitely not dinner party talk, though perhaps it should be!

EK: That's so moving to me because it's kind of a hope that I have coming out of this show. These topics that you mentioned––I didn't know they were paper topics that you’ve written about!

WH: [Laughs] Sure are.

EK: In the show, this imagery from the medical world spills out into the gallery. For me these are both spaces for dissection, where we perform a kind of studied, clinical looking. And so I suspect there’s a foothold for most visitors, whether they’ve been in the position I'm coming from, which in this case is a vulnerable, observed care-receiver, or otherwise the privileged position of providing care, of observing. It’s lovely to think that the show might encourage people to talk about that dynamic in a way that isn't as fraught with, I don't know, the anger or fear that I began this project with.

WH: This actually gets to what was going to be my first question for you. On the one hand, it goes without saying the enormous and maybe irretrievable role that medicine, scientific knowledge-making, various apparatuses of expertise and epistemic hegemony, their societal invulnerabilities have played in orienting and abetting certain imaginations, not least of all along lines of gender, disability, sexual identity, race. The historical record really just goes on and on in this regard.

And yet, all of this notwithstanding I think it takes some determination to choose this particular discourse and history as your subject of artistic interaction or intervention. I suppose what I'm really asking about is a beginning. What’s inclined you in this show to make art about the scientific establishment, eugenics, medical knowledge, etcetera, and the places that they butt up against our everyday lives?

EK: I really love that question. The idea of the beginning, I think that's the crux of my questioning also. Each drawing could be an origin point. Lots of pregnant moments in these scenes, like we’ve arrived just before the action unfolds: curtains swinging closed on scheming doctors, figures poised to make a move, babies gestating. If I'm speaking literally about how this project started, it was with a personal experience that I don't know is all that unique. I had a routine checkup that was not about family planning, and as a casual aside my physician told me not to have a son. My physical disability is X-chromosome linked, so a son would inherit the same disease. Her full suggestion, the quiet part, was that another child like me should not be born.

Ouch [laughs]. It was incredibly painful, and I found myself wondering––where did this idea come from? I know that many of us were raised in a culture that favors the medical model, where disability is understood to be a lack or an absence, an inevitably lower quality of life. So I started down this meandering path through history, noting instances where the birth of a disabled child was actively discouraged, or being met with violent exile, eradication. Did it start with midcentury eugenics, with this sort of fascist, nationalist thinking? No. What about changeling folklore in the Middle Ages, did it start there? No. And further and further back we go until finally getting to Hephaestus, the ancient crippled god of craft and metalworking in ancient Greece. Craft gods are often depicted as disabled or deformed in some way… working with those materials you’d probably get pretty banged up. Hephaestus made all the weaponry and regalia for the pantheon, he reshaped the world from his exile.

So in the gallery, maybe the “beginning” is in one of the last scenes you’d encounter. In my drawing, Hephaestus in the Hollow (2024), he’s pictured assembling tripodal automatons which he built to assist him in his workshop and travel as envoys on his behalf while he stayed underground. I’ve stylized them to look as though they’re the prototypes for my doctor characters: simple armatures with rivets that look like spectacles, reflective discs to match the mirrored headlamps, and bodies like exam room stools. I was thinking, what if this crippled god had a hand in creating what would later become an adversarial force? In my re-imagining, Hephaestus makes these metal “doctors” to help, and a millennia later the doctors strive to unmake the children of Hephaestus. I thought this would be a surprising twist in the most distant origin point for my story.

WH: To segue slightly, though not totally, I want to talk about Doctor, Doctor (2023). It’s the interactive webpage you created with Fulcrum Arts last year, and the conceit of it is quite brilliant. The lower right-hand accessibility widget that for many people I have to imagine either goes unnoticed on digital interfaces, or simply unexamined, and also for many people is integral to their participation in digital spaces, becomes necessary not just in terms of interacting with the webpage, but being able to read the stories that you present in their entirety. What’s ‘written between the lines’ both figuratively and quite literally.

There’s this really incredible symbolic poignancy, this succinctness in the parallel between the format of the project, veiled through certain omissions and invisibilizations that only reveal themselves over time, or through successive rereadings, and the stories themselves, which center disabled people and conversations around disability that, more often than not, have been relegated to the historical periphery. In some cases social pariahs, or people whose place in society has been deeply conditional and it takes some legwork, some parsing through extant narratives to really access their side of the story. Once we get there, to the points where these characters and people who have been denied the right to narrate are telling their stories, we find an exceptional insight into the way that societies have been organized around them. I think of the Saxon bog mummies of disabled children who were thought to be able to tell the future. But of course if their prophecies didn’t pan out…

EK: Absolutely. The fall is very far when you fail at the very task that’s used to justify your place in society.

WH: It’s an incredibly sad story. I guess this is all to ask, where does the idea for the project come from?

EK: Well I wanted to reorient us in relation to the presumed center, to who we think of as a “default” audience or narrator. On most websites, the accessibility widget is tacked on to alter the existing interface from how it’s “meant” to be received. Typically, the widget can change the contrast or the color, or read aloud what's there. It provides accommodations, but, quite often, it’s decidedly not site-specific. And it’s not fun or complex or whimsical, as though those qualities are too luxurious. So when brainstorming with my collaborators Patrick J. Reed and Nick Cimiluca, we talked about an experience that would both require and reward a user for engaging with our story-specific accessibility software. And in this way, the default audience becomes folks who already depend on it.

Absent the widget, the text and drawings are incomplete, full of redactions. You can’t complete the story on one go-round. And the title hints at this — “Doctor, Doctor” references the doubling, the shadow layers, the perspective the user embodies, and the two definitions of doctor: to heal and to deceive.

WH: And as we learn, the first iteration is an incredibly unreliable narration of the story. It's an incredibly one-sided history-telling.

EK: Exactly. So often these groups we’ve mentioned — othered by sexuality, race, disability, gender — they’ve been considered unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Their firsthand accounts aren’t considered valuable, and then they’re lost to time. I wanted to demonstrate how a story is most unreliable without that perspective included. And so at first in Doctor, Doctor the true subject is secretly missing, and other than the scenes being strangely empty there's no real clue that there's been this violent erasure. Until you find the x-ray headlamp widget. And, as you said, Patrick put it really beautifully in his afterword.

WH: It’s brilliant. Something to the effect of asking how one makes visible the figure who is erased without inadvertently denying the fact of their erasure.

EK: You have it memorized!

WH: [Laughs] I do my homework.

EK: The widget reveals narrative context for these disparate images — it’s no longer just alt-text image descriptions and chillingly bare environments. Plus once you scroll to the bottom of the page, you realize that you’ve just read the story backwards. And if you go climbing back up, collecting all the hidden, embedded information, there may be a key to break free from the loop. This is similar to the effect I was going for in the physical gallery space too, a type of whiplash as you spiral toward a conclusion that turns out to be another question, or an alternate beginning.

WH: It's so interesting because I've been in the gallery talking with people about your drawings, which are innately quite illustrative, and so I think that for many the intuition goes that there’s a sort of cohesive narrative to the project. And I guess from my vantage it's true that there's a story, but you're also doing something different. I think I have an idea about what that difference is, and I think it's quite vital within the context of talking about medical knowledge and the position, the sort of power structure of the expert and the subordinate, or not the subordinate, but the person who is reckoning with the way that information is presented to them and asserted. A  reckoning with the way that they fit in between levers of power, which is itself a kind of subordinacy. And I want to call that difference something like orthodox ‘history-telling’ versus a Foucauldian, ‘genealogical’ approach.

I don't know if you’ve had to read bits and pieces of him, but he's pulling all throughout history, across political regimes, social practices, power structures to trace origins and developments along the lines of a connective, relational thread. And so within the context of medical knowledge and the way that medical models of disability, also of race, of gender and sexuality, what have you, as well as some of our most powerful tools for critiquing them, which are more often than not these sort of social models, I wonder that Homebound exemplifies the prescience of the ‘genealogy’ as a mode of consideration with much more “teeth,” if you will. Especially just in terms of how the cards are stacked. The power disparity between physician and patient or layperson and the way that the medical and scientific establishments become judge, jury, and executioner in terms of where we think problems begin and end, where we think we are apt or capable to intervene.

EK: [Laughs] I'm just nodding until my head rolls off.

WH: Perhaps this turns into a question about genre and organization. What are Homebound and Doctor, Doctor? Are they stories, or stories within stories? Genealogies, or historiographies––studies of how we tell and record history?

EK:  I’m struggling to find that word that exists between them too, because I do think it’s a story about history, or a history of stories. But if I had to choose… there’s something really potent about the agreed-upon malleability of stories: all you have to do is tell a story differently and it’s changed, it’s expanded. This is how you can shatter a belief that over time ossified into fact. And you can move that fact back into myth by telling it slant. It’s a dangerous power to wield, but adhering to the power structures and constructs you mentioned is dangerous too.

I hope Homebound and Doctor, Doctor cast doubt on the age-old process of codifying a fragmented story into the whole truth. There’s a thread tying religious and ritual practices to modern medicine, but we can snip it. And now that the order isn’t fixed, we might notice we’re missing something, or how easily these chronologies can unravel. Here’s a curtain obscuring half of the image, forever. Here's a figure fractured into component parts through a window. Here’s a delicate ink drawing that magically warped its own immutable wooden frame.

For me, the drawn figures are trying to reclaim some space by pushing through their containers, but even I don't know what's on the other side. On the back wall, the patient in The Second Act (2024) throws off their shroud and turns to confront the doctors that have been studying them. It’s the dramatic moment for this person to take agency, but then what? Which direction should they go? There’s a temptation to play into and effectively flip this observer-observed dynamic, or alternatively to take the opportunity to escape.

WH: Ellen Samuels from University of Wisconsin, Madison teaches and researches in disability and gender studies, and she writes at length about the agency reclaimed in this idea of ‘returning of the gaze.’ I think it's in the journal Signs where she's talking about the McKay sisters, who were black twin sisters that were conjoined and lived in antebellum America. From a very early age they were made visual spectacles by sideshows and also the sort of Victorian medical establishment of the time, who took these wildly violating and violent photos of them. For Samuels, a vital point in the piece becomes how these images are still readily available on the internet today, especially because of their being codified within medical systems, systems of expertise and epistemic authority. You can find them in university archives, which insist on having this really terrifying legitimizing power over such criminal, discriminatory, and misanthropic transgressions against personal autonomy. 

And in the same breath, it’s critical for Samuels to identify the return of the gaze in these moments, these kind of ruptures in what we obviously can read is an incredibly violent and coercive environment. But these instances where they are each able to sort of reassert their subjectivity, resist being made–

EK: Passive objects.

WH: Precisely. This is to say that you’re definitely not alone in your hunch that there’s more to glean from the particular gesture of trying to counter or ‘meet’ the medical gaze.

EK: Yeah, you know I’ve definitely got mixed emotions. Recently I’ve been thinking about Joseph Merrick, who was known as the ‘Elephant Man’ when he toured with the sideshow circuit. He was, similar to the McKay Sisters, famously a medical anomaly and also an incredible artist and human being and all of these things. There are photos from his time spent living in a London hospital, but the image that really sticks with me is from the David Lynch film. I think the camera's positioned behind the curtain in a lecture hall so we only see Joseph’s shadow, but the focus is on all of the doctors marveling, just absolutely wide-eyed, gawking at his physical state. They look so satisfied to accept the fragment as the whole, eager to reduce the human to a specimen of study. In several of my drawings, I lift imagery directly out of that scene… it’s etched on my memory, the sort of hungry medical gaze that haunts me.

At the same time, I know there are wonderful ways to be a doctor. Come to think of it, I actually had a really nice doctor named David Lynch when I was little [laughs]. Anyway by design there’s an invitation to take on the role of a good doctor, an empathetic observer when you explore Doctor, Doctor or visit Homebound. And I think this is how we change the course of our collective story: by revisiting moments from the past and bringing to the fore perspectives that were systemically silenced or obscured. 

WH: There’s something there just in terms of strategy. What do you do when you are confronted with this serious terribleness of a discipline or of individual people, with history or the present, and yet any one vantage is wildly insufficient to even begin to actually consider the whole? What do we do when we get the opportunity to sit down with the doctor or sit down with the establishment and talk about wrongs to be righted, or sometimes wrongs to be wronged? How do we begin to talk about what we owe each other? And so a story with many points of entry, I wonder that it’s efficacious in the way of, say, good faith––thinking, quite necessarily, about the proximal and the short term, without forgetting to hold space for imagining futures.

I wonder also that empathy is something quite integral to your work and to the show. A collection of opportunities to literally just be exposed to a part of the spectrum of human feeling and human life that maybe you haven't encountered before or that you just don't deal with frequently enough, and the power contained in that to reorient your appreciation of humans as they are. 

EK: I just totally agree with this, I think it's about imagining the future into being. That’s a task I feel proud to try to take on: proposing a joyful or humorous way forward. And community has everything to do with that. I've loved moving this series from the virtual reality of a website into physical space because it gave me another opportunity to change the story. Everything is installed very low to prioritize my loved ones who use wheelchairs, or who prefer to sit, or who are shorter in stature. It’s essential and creatively invigorating to consider the many ways we can make space for each other.

Even subconsciously, I think the installation engenders a lot of empathy: people come to see the work and decide to crouch down to look at the drawings. That's such a simple, meaningful gesture. I’m trying to set the stage for those countless compassionate moves that people are so willing to make.