Held in rock for millennia: the fossilized remains of a healed human femur, ridged in the middle across an old fracture.
Behold the first evidence of human civilization! A prehistoric leg—which was set, bound, and kept still—shows that multiple people acted beyond their individual survival instincts in order to care for another. That is, for each other. It’s a theory that uniquely situates disability as integral to the formation of community.
Hephaestus’ automatons return, hybridized with the shadow patients. They reach up to cradle the dark mass of packed soil and sand and stone…
Here lies a person who was loved so intensely, a new more empathetic world took root.
Em Kettner’s Doctor, Doctor began with a proposal to creatively manipulate a commercial accessibility widget (like UserWay, AccessiBe, or EqualWeb), such that one had to use the widget to engage the project at its fullest. The result embeds critical investigations of accessibility software within a surprising and intimate chronicle of disability history and its lived experience.
Confronting the long tradition of the fable, on the one hand, and institutionalized criterion of modern medicine, on the other, Kettner weaves together a multifaceted, multilayered story of startling revelations, which fluctuates between the long ago and immediately personal. Her goal in doing so was manifold: 1) recount a history of disability that does not, by dint of a compare-contrast methodology, simply reinforce normative ableism; 2) demonstrate the power—and malleability—of the phenomenon we call a story, and 3) collapse the categorical distance between superstition and diagnosis.
Whether a myth or a medical file, a story holds the unique power to disseminate perspectives that teach us how to perceive ourselves in relation to others. Community and segregation are formed from these perceptions, as are social hierarchies and categories that determine whose lives and bodies are seen or exiled. Thus, parallel to the question who is permitted to tell what and for whom? is a question about profound, unacknowledged absence. How can erasure be traced in a way that reinstates the missing without erasing the fact of erasure itself?
The x-ray effect serves to address this subtle, complex dilemma. Once activated, it reveals the missing unknown, and the reality of suppression detailed in the drawings comes to the fore with disturbing graphic clarity, rendering also real the violence and death employed to effect that removal.
Yet, by adopting the format and tone of a children’s storybook (this story is about children after all), Kettner measures out a somber lesson with tactics that inspire curiosity, aligning the project’s educational aspect with one grounded in play. “Take nothing for granted” is the prompt: cross lines, peek around corners, stare into depths. The broader implication is that what might seem like activities pursued in gleeful mischief can prove revelatory, for they have the potential to unlock new ways of sallying forth into the world and redrawing its fragile composition.
Situating play as essential to Doctor, Doctor’s bespoke widget emphasizes this philosophy. Disappearing text and x-ray vision are not, of course, ADA functions of the software reimagined here, but these novelties illustrate Kettner’s belief that disability technology, beyond simply making accessible an experience designed per ableist standards, harbors the potential to make accessibility itself exciting, wonderfully strange, and above all, enriching. With this in mind, we encourage you, visitor, to notice such technology in the wild because it is a part of daily life, whether one relies on it or not. Appreciate what it accomplishes, and wonder what else it could possibly do.
Patrick J. Reed
August 31, 2023
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Em Kettner makes miniature drawings, tapestries, and sculptures that seek the humor and power in our most vulnerable moments. Her recurring cast of characters is variously depicted performing on stage, under study in clinical settings, and merging together in sex, birth, and sickbeds—in each case insisting that nothing is too sacred to be comical, or to be shared.
Recent solo exhibitions include “Sick Joke” at Chapter NY (New York, NY) and “Slow Poke” at François Ghebaly Gallery (Los Angeles, CA). Her sculptures are featured in the exhibition, “Tender Loving Care: Contemporary Art from the Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 2025.
Em’s work has been reviewed and published in ArtForum, Art in America, Sculpture Magazine, Contemporary Art Review LA (CARLA), HyperAllergic, Institutional Model, and Sixty Inches From Center. From 2014 through 2018 she taught multi-level painting, drawing, and writing courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and currently works as an Art Facilitator at NIAD Art Center for adults with disabilities. Kettner earned her BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is represented by François Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles and New York.