The arrival of the first cochlear implant was deemed a major feat of science for inviting the deaf community into the hearing world. Yet, within debate surrounding deafness and matters of identity, the dialogue around it has become fraught with conflicting opinions – a device considered an ableist development by some, and crucial communication tool to others.

Co-commissioned by Sydney’s Powerhouse museum, short film The Device That Turned Me Into A Cyborg Was Born The Same Year I Was, explores actor and director Chella Man’s relationship with the cochlear implant, and the nuances of life on a continuum between the deaf and hearing worlds. Fed by his experiences as a deaf, transgender, gender-queer creative, the film traces his journey to a strengthened understanding of his identity, and the multitudinous social convergence points he has been forced to navigate as a result.

Animated through the stories they tell, objects from the Powerhouse collection are told by those who have the most intimate and personal connections to them. Home to the prototype of Dr Graeme Clark’s ‘gold box’ cochlear implant and its subsequent modern advancements, the collection also explores the complex contradictions that exist between science, disability and identity. Debating the constraints of machinery, The Device That Turned Me Into A Cyborg Was Born The Same Year I Was investigates the immobilizing feeling of living and breathing as a cyborg, and the identity conflicts that can occur as a consequence.

By studying how something seemingly life-changing can, in fact, limit progress, The Device That Turned Me Into A Cyborg Was Born The Same Year I Was considers the cochlear implant’s existence as a symbol of integration and assimilation. Concluding the device can be used as a neutral tool, at times it is liberating – other times, constraining. Oscillating between daydream and nightmare, as Man steps into his autonomy as a deaf adult, the film explores the embrace of devices developed with ableist intentions, and the complicated journey that accompanies the experience of hearing through them.

What message did you most want to communicate through the film?

Chella Man: It was extremely important to center this film to be received by my own community. Often disabled, queer people of colour have to twist themselves into a narrative the mainstream world would understand, and this is something I was not willing to give into. That could result in some confusion, but that’s exactly the point. The people who really understand will relate on a very deep level, but there are messages of humanity anyone can understand. I want to convey how I experience the world as my deaf identity. The mainstream world has a lot of stereotypes around deaf identity: someone who is non-verbal, who predominantly uses sign language. I’ve always been in between the hearing world and the deaf world, but at this point I’m discarding that – I’m not between anything, I’m in my own world, and I wanted to share the story of that. Navigating getting a cochlear implant and how jarring it was to watch surgical videos when I was twelve years old, and make these life-changing decisions; how I perceived the rest of my life if I consent to this surgery. I just wanted to tell this piece of me that has never been told in mainstream media, and share with people how deaf individuals live on this ginormous continuum. All our experiences are very different.

When did you start to question your relationship with the cochlear implant?

I think I’ve always questioned my relationship. Growing up, my mum would ask me if I wanted these surgeries and, as a six-to-twelve year old, I didn’t really understand the impact of what that would do. I didn’t know what the right decision was, and I’ve come to realize there is no right decision – it’s just preferred. How you end up navigating the world. When I lost my cochlear implant at the Venice Biennale, I had gone the longest time I’d ever gone in my life in complete silence. That made me question my relationship with the cochlear implant because I expected to be more immobilized, surrounded by these different hearing people, but I found a lot of my energy was preserved when people began to type out their messages, or use live transcription applications. Instead of straining to hear in these different environments, I felt more liberated, and felt I had more energy. I was truly wondering, what is the best decision here – is it to take off my implants forever? This film was basically a meditation on that, which I essentially realized is a tool. It’s something I will probably oscillate back and forth between for the rest of my life.

From personal experience, in what ways have you seen assimilation hinder improvements in access?

I think when the goal of the assimilation is to cure, or to fix, then it’s always toxic. It seems to be not about welcoming others’ perspectives, and how their bodies may even be more adaptable and better in certain situations. So, anytime assimilation centers this hierarchy of bodies rather than seeing all bodies as people and encouraging curiosity of their differences, then that kind of assimilation becomes dangerous and toxic.

Has your understanding of this debate shaped your own community?

There is so much pain and grief from so many many disabled and trans people of colour about the way their bodies should be and one of the greatest rites of history is this deep initiative to fix or cure a body, or transmute or change that body, essentially into one that is better. Creating hierarchies that way is how we essentially dehumanize other people. So it shaped my own community because I think it’s at the core of every single fight of every single community I’m a part of.

What have been the most valuable developments in helping you understand your own identity?

Understanding the continuum. All my work centers around this parting of highways – of gender, sexuality, race, disability – and validating that you don’t have to fit in any kind of binary. Even seeing your experience represented somewhere else means you can be that representation for yourself, and validate that your life is real, you are real, your thoughts and feelings are true, and that they deserve to be respected. I don’t even care if they’re understood often, I just care that they’re understood by the people I love, but beyond that I just want that foundational respect. So, coming to terms with the continuum of all things, little more mundane things – thinking so existentially and extremely about “I need to get this done”, or “Things have to be this way”. Just being able to see the nuances, the layers, the continuum, the possibilities, the expansion – there’s so much fun in that!