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Thursday, June 8 • 5:00pm - Saturday, June 10 • 7:00pm
Social Prosthesis

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Social Prosthesis is a moving appendage designed as two headpieces made from rigid and soft structures. The soft skin of the prosthesis curls and contracts when triggered by touch on the face.

Referencing the definition of prosthetic sociality, written by Mimi Thi Nguyen in the 2003 essay Queer Cyborgs and New Mutants, Social Prosthesis is an exploration of how technologies enhancing the human body create meanings that extend past the merging of biological and artificial—that must contest with the social and political contexts of its time. Specifically, Social Prosthesis asks the question of beauty: Who do we determine as the beautiful in our society? Why do we deem beautiful things as worth protecting and preserving over others?

We alter our appearances in attempt to protect and preserve ourselves, and we recognize each other socially through these presentational physical identities.

In Mimi Thi Nguyen’s 2003 essay “Queer Cyborgs and New Mutants,” Nguyen posits that prosthesis is a social concept, and that technologies enhancing the human body have social and political contexts that extend past the merging of biological and artificial. The essay deconstructs the Marvel comic character of Karma, a queer Vietnamese “mutant” with a prosthetic leg, and Nguyen suggests that the true nature of Karma’s “mutant” identity is due to her race and sexuality, rather than her cyborg prosthesis.

To me, physical beauty—especially cosmetic—is a “social prosthesis” to identity, and one in which I have often contested my Asian-ness and American-ness. This social prosthesis determines how I communicate with others, and how others communicate with me. We alter our appearances in attempt to protect and preserve ourselves, and we recognize each other socially through these presentational physical identities.

Social Prosthesis questions the sociality of physical beauty and appearance—the change and movement that happens when we alter our appearances in contact with others. When we add technological wearables and digital enhancements to the mix, how does that build or mask identity?

Prosthetic makeup (also known as special effects makeup) is the use of prosthetic materials for cosmetic or makeup effects to extend the skin and features. Common materials used in prosthetic makeup include latex, foam latex, silicone and gelatin, and these materials are often colored and painted to look in conjunction with a model or character’s existing skin and features. Most existing prosthetic makeups serve to add a 3D structural element to the face or body, but they stay static and in-place once applied.

Social Prosthesis is a research project that explores the possibility of moving, robotic skin in cosmetic prosthetics. In this project, 3D resin printed structures suspend a dyed cosmetic “skin” on the face. When a capacitive touch sensor is triggered, an embedded shape memory alloy in the silicone will contract, causing the skin to curl and move. The shape of the prosthetic will be visibly altered, creating a new appearance or style through the bunching of the silicone.
Social Prosthesis was created at the Hybrid Body Lab at Cornell University, as an artist residency research project which merges makeup technique and on-body miniaturized technology. Social Prosthesis is a starting point for further research on moving prosthetics and robotic makeup using new materials and different methods of creating movement in prosthetics.


Morgan Chen

New York University

Thursday June 8, 2023 5:00pm - Saturday June 10, 2023 7:00pm EDT
Steuben Gallery