Curatorial Studies

P is for Prosthetics

Arno Huygens

The Curatorial Vocabularies Glossary is an expanding collection of terms derived from the seminar of the same name. This seminar serves as a dynamic platform for contemplation and discussion, with a primary focus on pertinent issues within the contemporary curatorial field. Through a keyword-based approach, the seminar delves deep into curatorial discourse, actively engaging with current knowledge and ongoing discussions surrounding curatorial practices. The aim is to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the profound artistic, economic, and political transformations unfolding within the art world, and how these affect and transform curatorial practice.


In 2010 the artist and critical theorist Joseph Grigely gave a talk at the Architectural Organisation in London about what he calls ‘Exhibition Prosthetics’. He uses this term for the various conventions that go into the making of exhibitions, which include “press releases, announcement cards, checklists, catalogues and digital-based media,” amongst others.

Grigely brings into focus the habitual practice of supplementing artworks with these exhibition conventions. He states that “moving closer to an artwork involves moving away from the artwork.” Any given artwork is surrounded by information in its margins and representations. And the spectator, who might want to get a more complete overview of a given work, is given this extra information around — away from — the work itself.

Grigely recognises the term ‘prosthetic’, for what he sees as an understudied field in the practice of the exhibition-maker. He accuses exhibitions for lazily resorting to conventions when using anything outside the artwork, and wants us to think about where an artwork or exhibition begins and ends. Much in the same way that a text does not hold the same meaning when it is published in a different place, an artwork does not emit one invariable interpretation, regardless of its surroundings. Where does this artwork begin, and where does the exhibition start to meddle with it?

The use of the term ‘prosthetic’ for these conventions brings, in itself, an array of connotations. For Grigely, this term refers to a desire to make whole something which has been lost, while including the realisation that the lost thing can never be perfectly replicated. The prosthetic in this metaphor is an inorganic limb, added to a body that — according to a certain perspective, wether medical, societal or personal — lacks an organically grown version of this limb.

The step from a prosthetic leg or hand towards something like exhibition labels is by no means a small one. Why does Grigely speak of this term specifically? He proposes the alternative term ‘paratexts’ early on in his lecture, a word that is usually used for text-outside-the-main-text, like footnotes and appendages. However, Grigely recognises a more conjoined relationship between an artwork/body and its extensions. The relationship between an artwork and its accompanying label, for example, can change the artwork itself. In some cases, the label can change the artwork’s material condition. During the talk, the example of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ practice comes up. His work “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is usually exhibited alongside a label that encourages visitors to take the candy of which it consists — changing its size and weight.

Mutual metamorphosis

The word ‘prosthetic’, etymologically, stems virtually unchanged from the Ancient Greek ‘prosthesis’, which can be translated as ‘to add’, with a common connotation at the time being: ’to give additional power’. The implications of this connotation, even if still apparent within a medical discourse, reflect Joseph Grigely’s definition, but not the use of the word in a cultural context. This can be called into question by looking at the writing of Elizabeth Grosz and Paul B. Preciado.

In her book Time Travels, philosopher Elizabeth Grosz devotes a chapter to ‘Prosthetic Objects’. She defines those as “parts of the material world that we are capable of accommodating into the living practices (and experiences) of the body.” She views human, animal and insect — living — bodies as fundamentally prosthetic, by which she means that we have a tendency to acquire and utilise supplementary objects and have those function as their own bodily organs. A relatively common example of primates using sticks to accomplish tasks, but just as well the tendency of many species to adorn themselves — with seeds, feathers, shiny objects or makeup — to enhance sexual attractiveness.

This introduces a dual view of what prosthetics can be. Neither of them necessarily stems from a ‘lack’ of the body, but rather actualises new properties and abilities. This prosthetic supplementation induces “mutual metamorphosis”, transforming both the body supplemented and the object that supplements.

At this point, Grosz asks the question: “are architecture, makeup, clothing, food, and art natural extensions of the living body through an accommodation of external objects?” Here she opens up the narrow medical definition of what a prosthesis can be. Simultaneous to a replacement for a limb or organ that is lacking according to a certain norm or ideal, the prosthetic becomes any extension to the body, regardless of current needs and desires. While the first view accommodates the body to the already existing, the second perspective sees the prosthetic as making space for that which cannot yet be imagined or lived.

Paul B. Preciado, philosopher and curator, expands on Grosz’ notion of the prosthetic as a way of making space for unforeseen capabilities of the body. Preciado, in his seminal book ‘Testo Junkie’, describes his intake of testosterone in gel form as a “molecular prosthesis” towards his “low-tech transgender identity” . This echoes Grosz’ sentiment of mutual metamorphosis. As the supplementation of a certain gender identity with hormones produces change in the receptive body, which in turn changes the ingested chemical into a signifier of gender.

To this micro-scale example, Preciado then opposes the macro-scale: in our day and age, the individual human body seems to function as an extension of global communication networks. Here, the roles are reversed, with the body acting out the role of the proverbial stick. They do still transform one another, with the individual human body appearing as e.g. a commodity within the global communication networks, and subsequently changing its appearance to appeal to the algorithmic gaze. By changing the way the prosthetic mass of individual humans present themselves, global communication also changes again, in an infinite feedback loop. In this latter example, the mutual metamorphosis becomes a productive potential for the construction of meaning.

Body and Language

Chloé Chignell bridges the views on the term prosthetic of Elizabeth Grosz and Paul B. Preciado with those of Joseph Grigely. Chignell, an artist working across text, choreography and publishing, cites both Grosz and Preciado in Language as Prosthesis . In this text, she searches for a reconciliation between the words ‘body’ and ‘language’ — trying to see how the terminology “Body and Language” is entangled from her dance-and-literature inspired perspective.

She starts from the basic preposition that 1. language has always needed a body to exist, and 2. simultaneously, the body is always already language. The first point is evidently enough, as the word ‘body’ can expand to accommodate anything capable of uttering language, including inorganic matter as the ‘medium’ for this language. The second she derives from Preciado, who writes in Countersexual Manifesto that “the body is a living, constructed text, an organic archive of human history.”

In her practice, Chignell uses this notion of bio-text in her own scoring of performer’s bodies. Through giving a dancer sentences to act out — something like “say what you are doing and do what you are saying” — she calls into question the textuality of our body, making the linguistic (thought) process behind certain movements visible. Lifting an arm, turning the head, walking, sitting,… Meanwhile the making-public of an internal thought process also disrupts the performer’s flow of thoughts, effectively changing the thought process and thus enacting another instance of mutual metamorphosis.

Chignell thus recognises a prosthetic relationship between “Body and Language” in which both are inextricably entangled in an endless feedback loop. She uses this loop itself to construct situations in which choreographies can be enacted in surprising ways. With the statement: “The function of any prosthesis, be it plastic or linguistic, will always exceed its anticipated situation.” she quite neatly wraps up her predecessors.

The point of attachment

Chloé Chignell devotes special attention to the and joining “Body and Language”. As to combine the two, she writes, the and has to make a cut, has to insert physical or temporal space between the two words. This point is a defining trait of any prosthetic relation, according to Joseph Grigely. the prosthesis is an attachment, and the point of attachment becomes pronounced, awkward. Something Grigely calls “clunky hyphen syndrome.” , a linguistic term which again blurs the distinction between body and language.

At this point, let’s add the adjective ‘exhibition’ back to the noun ‘prosthetics’. Or is it a compound? ‘Exhibition and Prosthetics’, as inseparable as Chignell’s ‘Body and Language’, divided only by the act of joining. Where does the exhibition begin and end? Where does the artwork begin and end? Do the two concepts feed off of one another, transform one another?

Exhibition and/- Prosthetics

The conjoined relationship between exhibitions and artworks becomes apparent in the conventions that Joseph Grigely calls ‘Exhibition Prosthetics’. Artworks and exhibitions and their labels, captions, titles, marginalia,… belong to one another in ways that are hard to think them apart. Deleting the caption for an image changes the image. It might make the image feel contrived and awkward, but after a while, can become interesting, it can remind the viewer how ambiguous an artwork is when it doesn’t have words to sustain it. Dixit Grigely: “Exhibitions sometimes have a bad habit of saying too much, and the labels and captions and wall texts that characterise contemporary exhibition practices have a way of doing just that (…) a caption works in a way that narrates, even chaperones the image.”

Both the affordances and constraints of exhibitions prosthetics lie in this point. Employing a certain text next to an artwork or its representation can resolve unwanted ambiguity. It can even glue artworks in succession together, or aid a viewer with hard to grasp information. What’s more, a large portion of prostheses function as a sole way in for audiences of exhibitions that would otherwise not find the art accessible, for any reason. Protheses can serve as mediation, in a form that aids visitors in understanding the exhibition-makers’ vision, or any other thing the prostheses-maker wishes to convey. However, therein lies precisely its pitfall, its constraints. Because of the conventionality of presenting artworks with information-rich marginalia, and the intellectual connotations of exhibitions, the prosthetics hold an authorial power. Wether deliberate or not, “we construct meaning on the basis of our beliefs about those labels.”

Exhibition Prosthetics can be a tool that give additional power to mediation. They can help construct the meaning of artworks. As extensions of the artwork, they don’t necessarily need to remain identical for multiple exhibitions and can thus vary the messages an artwork conveys towards an audience. However, the act of showing becomes subsumed by the act of telling in instances when the prosthetics become too prominent. Even if they might help towards building accessible exhibitions, both intellectually and physically, they are best use with care and attention. Prosthetics are joined awkwardly onto artworks and can alter their meaning in a process of mutual exchange.

Grigely, J. (2010). Exhibition Prosthetics: Some Stories, Various Questions, Bedford Press (p. 7)
Ibid. (p. 8)
A note: As an able-bodied person who is not educated in that field, there is not much that I can write on the topic of medical protheses. Many great scholars with disabilities have a better view of this subject — in fact, Joseph Grigely is a great place to start in that respect. Within the scope of this paper, I do not wish to stay clear of this subject in any way, but I do want to say that I stand behind a ‘nothing about us, without us’-adage, which means I will speak only in the vicinity of this subject, but not about the experience of any disabled person or even the vocabulary used. This as a disclaimer that I use the term ‘prosthetics’ in a broader sense — including, but not limited to, artificial human limbs. In fact, the subjects overlap in such a way that advocating for accessibility within cultural spaces is inextricably tied to prosthetics in the larger sense, because the function of exhibition prosthetics works in an ‘accessibilising’ way.
Grosz, E. (2005). Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power. Allen & Unwin
Preciado, P. B. (2013), Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Feminist Press.
For the purpose of this text, mutual metamorphosis is presented as a binary. If examined in depth however, the reverberation between the two is not only an endless back-and-forth, but also includes numerous stakeholders, which fall outside the scope of this writing.
Chignell, C. (2020), The complete text would be insufferable / Language as prosthesis. A. Pass & Uh Books
Preciado, P. B.; Dunn, K. G. (2018), Countersexual Manifesto. Columbia University Press (p. 25)
Chignell, C. (2020), The complete text would be insufferable / Language as prosthesis. A. Pass & Uh Books (p. 37)
Grigely, J. (2010). Exhibition Prosthetics: Some Stories, Various Questions, Bedford Press