Interview with Sophie de Oliveira Barata
by Chiara Pussetti & Francesca de Luca
Coming from an art background, Sophie de Oliveira Barata (UK) worked as a sculptor for 8 years at one of the UK’s leading prosthetic providers, making realistic, bespoke prosthetics for amputees. She started experimenting with artistic prosthetics in her spare time, until she set up her own studio and launched the Alternative Limb Project.
In THE ALTERNATIVE LIMB PROJECT Sophie uses the unique medium of prosthetics to create highly stylised wearable art pieces. Merging the latest technology with traditional crafts, her creations explore themes of body image, modification, evolution and trans-humanism, whilst promoting positive conversations around disability and celebrating body diversity. These art pieces have been shown in international exhibitions such as in The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, UK (2019), the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, USA (2019), in the Museo de la Cuidad de Cuenca in Quito, Ecuador (2018), and have circulated worldwide in the exhibition "Human+. The Future of our Species" (Singapore, Italy, Spain and Ireland).
Sophie’s background is in fine art - including in special effects make-up and prosthetics for film at the University of the Arts London - but she gained her limb-making prowess from an early job creating prosthetics. Currently, her work can be split into two areas, the realistic limbs and the alternative artistic highly stylised limbs. Sophie's artwork reflects and expresses many of the theoretical issues that support the EXCEL research. In particular her alternative personalized prosthetics reveal an interest in the technological capacity to transform and manipulate human biology and functions, showing that the body is not a destiny to which we should surrender and adapt, but rather an individual and profoundly creative project.
In the Excel project we explore the relations between contemporary biotechnologies, bodily image, subjective experience, futures of humanity and self-modification, highlighting as - since early prehistory - we humans have been steadily shaping our bodies and minds, constituting and reinventing ourselves through technological innovations (the stuff we made and the skills we develop in using them). As in body hacking, Sophie’s creative approach overcomes human limits, blurs the line between everyday prostheses and body modification and changes the face of the prosthetic industry. Her designs allow amputees to celebrate their individuality with personal style and taste, transforming their body with crystal encrusted arms, bionic futuristic or delicate delicately painted legs and each piece is completely unique.
In line with this perspective, Sophie's work reflects the idea of a human evolution that is not necessarily directional, linear, binary, but inherently creative. Celebrating the diversity of bodily possibilities, her creative engagement with technology and the materiality of the body indicates a sense of becoming, not in predefined, but in free and open directions.
We have addressed Sophie to know more about this relationship between her imagination as an artist and her clients' self-making projects. Both the actors on the stage (she and her customers, that included Paralympic athletes, music performers, models) are self-conscious fabricators of new kind of bodies that redefine ideals of beauty, designing and anticipating the futures of humanity.
We would like to start with the creative negotiation between you and your interlocutors, both in the production of alternative limbs and realistic limbs. How do you incorporate desires, images, taste, style and body ideals of your clients? How do your projects start? How do you develop them?
Usually I will start with a moodboard. The client collects imagery that they are drawn to, weather it is the mood, theme, colours, materials or something that they are connected to in another way.
We talk about the board and look for patterns and discuss the practicalities of the piece; when they will be wearing it and for how long for.
I generate ideas based on this information and from those initial sketches. Some clients have a clear idea of what they want, others need to explore further and so I offer more choice and a chance to mix and match elements form one idea to another.
Depending on what skills and materials are needed for each project I will pull a suitable team of people together, this could be anything from electronic or mechanical engineers to CAD model makers and product designers to wood carvers and metal and plastic specialists.
The client / wearer will be kept in the loop through out and asked to trial pieces for fit purposes and to check if they are happy with the progress. Tweaks are made to both the design and function of the piece.
Your prosthesis are pieces of art that retain an anatomic quality or, to say it differently, they seem to dialogue and question anatomy. Even including those pieces that do not resemble a limb (like Vine or Spike leg), they all have a sort of fusion point where they mould into the bodies wearing them. In this perspective, they create a sort of new anatomy, or tech-anatomy. If anatomy deals with the structural organization of organisms and their part, your prosthesis deliberately deal with new structures and creative organisms. We could say that your prostheses are anatomical despite being out of any anatomical iconography.
How do you relate with anatomy when designing and realizing your projects? How do you relate with the human body as it has been portrayed and fixed in anatomical texts?
The Majority of the time clients /wearers choose to have a limb that fits in the boundaries of the mirror image of their other limb. I think this is due to body balance and what we find easier on the eye (the expected).
However I am interested in asymmetry and also not necessarily hiding the natural end of their limb. In the piece ‘Synchronised ‘ we deliberately highlighted the shape of Kelly’s natural arm by electroplating the socket in gold, the rest of the limb was transparent. She is proud of her natural body and this piece communicates this. I hope to explore this approach further. The limbs themselves are beautiful in their own right, but take on a kind of power when being worn, it’s the interaction they have with the body that makes them appear as if they somehow belong.
Looking at the broader collection of your pieces, your work range from the incredibly verisimilar quality of silicone skin (the Realistic Limbs), to the totally non-human features of your other creative piece (the Alternative Limbs). But it is especially in those prostheses where both these aspects are present – the natural-like and the purely artificial - that we, as observers, are destabilized. Prostheses like Materialises, Anatomical Leg, Snake Arm, Brass, mimic “sameness” while also stating total “otherness”. They mix what is familiar- porous skin, hair, nails, with unexpected, powerful ruptures.
In these pieces, it seems that your work seeks to destabilized normative models of corporeality, by impinging on the “natural” body itself. The prostheses challenge the natural, yet they engage with it. How do you see your work in relation to what is generally conceived as the “natural body”? What about “nature” and “artificial” in your work?
I really enjoy the merge of reality and the imaginary, the expected and the non-expected. These pieces are a great way to trick the eye. You think you understand the piece but then you have to look again to work it out. The wearers I have made such pieces for have enjoyed watching the confusion on other people’s faces. What in the past may have been an interaction with pity or the other person deliberately avoiding looking at the limb to complete fascination?
One chap said to Ryan wearing the anatomical leg “ I can see your foot is there but how does all that happen above it? “. He responded with “well that's not my foot mate” ...the guy was left with his jaw hanging.
Regarding the materials you use, silicone seems to be particularly versatile in biotechnology, being used both in the prosthesis industry and in surgery. Can you tell us more about your experience with silicone?
I used to use silicone when I made prosthetics for film, however that was a pourable liquid type for moulds. The silicone I use now is medical grade and is solid but soft, it is sculptable, and needs to be passed through a rolling machine to mix with the catalyst and colours and to form sheets. The silicone cures with heat, so If I need to spend a long time on a piece I will put it in the freezer when I’m not working on it. I will then bake it slowly in an oven to cure it. So I have a freezer and an oven for body parts!