Socially Engaged Art and Tech at the Intersections of Ecology, Disability and History (2022-2023)


The future of human life on earth requires a transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature. This “new” relationship must engage embodied knowledge and imagination, and it must bring together diverse communities and distinct histories to form an ecological consciousness based on justice and care.

Art and technology that combine to explore the relationships between the human and nonhuman world are vital to helping attend to wounded ecosystems and fractured human relations. In particular, the art of puppetry offers a medium through which to investigate new ways of being in the world that prioritize consent, trust, accountability and reciprocity.

Project Description

This project team will explore ecological consciousness, disability and embodiment through the creation of an interactive, multisite puppetry installation that incorporates innovative technologies and site-specific histories, sounds and communities. Interested applicants can learn more about this long-term project by checking out Animate Earth (Orion Magazine, December 2021).

The puppet figure that is central to this artistic work is inspired by Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest existing literary text in the Western World. Humbaba was the Guardian of the Cedars, a giant protector of the sacred forest whom Gilgamesh kills by cutting of his “seven auras.” Through this severing, the embodied consciousness of the forest is destroyed and made a “wasteland.”

Through a team-developed research plan, team members will research possible locations for the puppetry installation, engage with local communities to learn about the history and ecology of different geographic sites, create a working installation model and help design and construct elements of the installation, such as responsive sensor-based silk flowers. The resulting installation will be accessible to disability communities and will be designed to tour to endangered and/or destroyed forests sites around the country.

Team members will work together along four research threads:

  1. History/Humanities/Ecology: Building on the work of a Story+ team, team members will identify seven historic and/or contemporary sites of deforestation in the United States that will powerfully communicate the colonial and ableist imaginary and the broken relations of consent, trust, accountability and reciprocity that constitute them.
  2. Design: The puppet-body will be designed with seven cuts, echoing the marks on Humbaba. Each cut relates to one of seven specific geographic regions, their histories, stories of the land and its people. Team members will consider how to tell these stories and work on multiple design iterations.
  3. Technology (communication architecture): Portions of the puppet-body will be made of silk-flower sensors. Team members will identify desired sensor behaviors through a user-centered design approach involving various stakeholders, including people with disabilities.
  4. Sensors and Accessible Interfaces: Team members will iterate and develop sensor prototypes after scoping criteria for desired behaviors. Sensors might be activated by volitional actions such as hand, arm and head movements and nonvolitional actions such as heartbeat, tremor, carbon dioxide levels, brain activity (EEG signals), and/or shifting light to activate flower functions such as open/close, sound and music.

Check out this teams downloadable project description and flyer.

Anticipated Outputs

Digital narrative map; aesthetic and technical design for multisite puppet installation; prototypes for flower-sensors and puppet-body; research models for ethical community-engaged artistic research

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3-4 graduate students and 6 undergraduates interested in disability studies, environmental studies, engineering, design, ecology, geography, history and/or visual studies. All team members should be flexible and creative thinkers open to self-reflection, making mistakes and research redirections. Students should be interested in understanding how environmental degradation is linked to ongoing colonial, racial and ableist structure and should share a commitment to anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-ableist research and practice.

Team members will form humanities and technology subteams, each with a graduate student lead. Subteams will be dependent on one another, and full-team meetings will ensure project cohesion, design ideation, creative problem-solving and open communication and reflection. The entire team will contribute to the conceptual, aesthetic and technical design of the installation as well as community engagement.

In Fall 2022, the team will meet on Fridays from 12:00-3:00 p.m. Team meetings will be a combination of lab sessions (once per month from 12:00-2:30 p.m.) and full-team meetings (three times per month from 1:45-3:00 p.m.).

Graduate students will have the opportunity to grow technical, conceptual and leadership skills. All team members will have the chance to contribute to a ground-breaking socially engaged artistic work.

A graduate student will be selected to serve as project manager.

See the related Story+ project for Summer 2022; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


Fall 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Fall 2022: Draft design and model of puppet installation; review critical disability studies literature on embodied disabled knowledges; integrate sensor/puppet behaviors and digital narrative map; build prototype control systems; draft schematics for sensor design replication
  • Spring 2023: Refine schematics; host community maker event; finalize design of puppet installation and communication architecture; develop control interface for puppet


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

See related Story+ summer project, Art as Relation and Repair Across Disabled Ecologies and Histories (2022).


Image: Dream puppet by Marina Tsaplina. Photograph by Brian Christianson (Orion Magazine, December 2021)

Dream puppet by Marina Tsaplina. Photograph by Brian Christianson (Orion Magazine, December 2021).

Team Leaders

  • Kevin Caves, School of Medicine-Head and Neck Surgery and Communication Sciences
  • Jules Odendahl-James, Arts & Sciences-Theater Studies
  • Marina Tsaplina, Artist, Kienle Scholar in Medical Humanities

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Torry Bend, Arts & Sciences-Theater Studies
  • Michael Klien, Arts & Sciences-Dance
  • Mark Olson, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Marion Quirici, Arts & Sciences-Thompson Writing Program
  • Leonard White, School of Medicine-Neurology

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Alan Macy, Founder and Director of Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology (SBCast)
  • Guy Meilleur, Historic Tree Care
  • Julia Watts Belser, Georgetown University