Fashionablecanes.com (from Self-portraits series) (2017), drawing
Image and text excerpts from fashionablecanes.com
Design for disability has historically been approached with the goal of invisibility, perhaps best exemplified by flesh colored prosthetics. In his 2009 book "Design Meets Disability," Graham Pullin argues that this communicates disability as shameful and something to be hidden. But how can design celebrate instead of shame? He cites eyeglasses as a good example: originally designed to blend into the face, they have since become such a hallmark of fashion that people with perfect vision now choose to wear them- a true marker that they transcended assisted technology. However, not all design for disability has followed suit. In her recent search for a walking cane, artist Shannon Finnegan became mystified about what a cane for a young, fashion conscious person might look like. The closest thing she found was fashionablecanes.com.
For Tête-à-tête’s September exhibition, Finnegan has paired a drawing that spells out the URL for fashionablecanes.com with excerpts of product images and descriptions lifted directly from the cane retailer’s website. The drawing is part of her Self portrait series, which also includes phrases such as "Reinventing my strangeness as an art form that only I am the perfect practitioner” and "Choreography based on my everyday movements." The “h” in “Fashionable” hangs below the rest of the word inserted with a carrot, urging both the artist and the viewer to recognize the beauty of imperfections. The bombastic claims made in the advertising texts that float across the screen cross paths with images of the described canes, and humorously fall flat on its promises to “refresh and revitalize you everyday” or “make you too hot to handle!” Their absurdity is amplified for anyone using a screen reader, as Finnegan has used the retailer’s evocative language as the alt text audio for the sight impaired. Though comically imperfect, fashionablecanes.com is a step towards a future where canes are something to show off instead of hide.
This project continues a shift for the artist towards explicitly speaking to a disabled audience. Earlier this year at The Wassaic Project in Hudson Valley, NY, Finnegan installed Anti-Stairs Club Lounge (2017), a comfortable hang-out space for visitors who cannot or choose not to go up the seven stairs of its exhibition space, a renovated mill with no ramps or elevator above the first floor. She explains, “My intent is that the experience also operates on a metaphorical level saying to those visitors “you are welcome and valued here.” But additionally, these works share with non-disabled people these daily experiences that might float under their radar.