A blind social practice artist, describes his own work—and play—in and around museums, and volunteers his services as access coordinator to any museum willing to rise to the challenge of his provocations.
Do you all really, really want to touch things when you're in a museum, or is it just me? Of course there are those objects that beg to be touched, like those lifelike busts with their tantalizing crevasses and contours, and those paintings that just tickle your palms, but then there is everything else—everything that you, for some silly reason, aren't allowed to touch. And I'm not talking about using Dali's lobster phone as a prop while you're posing for your next Facebook profile picture (although that would be rad, and I would totally "like" it), I am talking about all of the things that you, as a patron of the museum, and a patron of the Arts, do not have access to.
If you are not yet a patron of the museum, please take a moment to close your eyes and envision yourself with approximately $15 in your pocket.
If you pay admission, you gain access to the museum. Unlike an amusement park, after you pay admission, you aren't guaranteed to have fun, be thrilled or ingest sickening amounts of sugar and fried things. Much like an amusement park, however, there is a large list of things that you can NOT do while inside—although they aren't often as prominently displayed as they might be at an amusement park. A few sources online cite eating, drinking, running, dancing, sketching, photographing, touching and pets amongst the things that are NOT ALLOWED in the museum. These rules, for the most part, define a visitor's experience of the museum. I think that most of these rules are reasonable given the amount of money that goes into preserving the Art that museums show, but think that some of the rules that museums enforce should be revised, because, well, it's about time.
It's about time that patrons of the museum get an experience, besides a detached and alienating one, in return for their patronage.
To better understand this concept, let's first make a list of all of the ways that we, as patrons of the museum, can engage with a given piece of art. We already know that we probably can't eat it, drink it, dance against it, sketch on top of it, photograph it, touch it or show it to our pets. I know that running near art is seriously out of the question because I recently got in trouble for running through the Columbus Museum of Art during a game of Hide & Seek that I coordinated for teens and docents. My team was being pursued by someone who was "it" and I was being safely guided away by a responsible young man named Tommy. I didn't run into anything, but I could have. Walking in the museum is safer (for the art) than running in the museum—but what if it wasn't that way? What if you, as a visitor, were encouraged to run in the museum? What if the museum hosted events like, say, sock skating tournaments and put all that slick marble and hardwood to good use?
Currently, there are only a few ways that museum visitors can expect to engage with art in the museum:
- They can look at it — Yes, some of us can enjoy a piece of art by means of our visual sense. The museum is full of things that must be seen in order to be understood, and deep within its vaults are troves upon troves of things that will never be seen nor understood. May I be so bold as to say that the visual sense is privileged when it comes to ones experience of the museum? Well, it is, and our reliance on visual interpretation limits the ways in which we can know things, and, in turn, limits the things that we can know. I'm reminded of this cold, hard fact every time I can't touch a drawing in a museum and learn about line and form with my hands.
- They can read the wall text next to it — Yes, sometimes we can. Sometimes we can read and sometimes we know all the jargon language that is used in order to contextualize a given artwork. And, then again, sometimes we can't. Sometimes we don't understand the significance of a particular movement, person or theory—because it was only significant in 1964, to a small group of people in a small neighborhood in New York. Sometimes the things that are meant to bring us closer to a piece of Art, push us further away from it.
- They can learn something about it — Yes, if you have a computer that is connected to the internet, and you know the words that will make the museum's website appear in your search results, and you sort through all the press about the museum's current exhibitions, and you find the link to where the museum's educational programs are described, and you follow the link to the part of the website that advertises when docent-lead tours will be offered, and those times match the small window of free time in your busy schedule, you might be in luck. You're even luckier if that docent shows you a piece or two that you are interested in knowing about, and teaches you a thing or two. You are luckier still if that docent has a memorable personality and can engage you with his or her stories. You are perhaps the luckiest if that docent can include you in a discussion about a piece of art, and can accommodate your individual needs as a learner.
Of course there are more than three ways in which to engage with a piece of art in a museum. Admittedly, there are museums out there that do a really good job of engaging their visitors—like the few institutions that don't mind experimenting and taking risks. In fact, there are people who work at museums that get paid to make sure that visitors feel engaged and accommodated, and sometimes they do a really good job of it—like Allison Agsten, the Curator of Public Engagement at the Hammer Museum. If you are curious to know what good public engagement in a museum can look like, check out the residency that Mark Allen of Machine Project did at the Hammer—it's a better model for facilitating access to the museum than any of the museum access programs that I've experienced.
Some museums try to solve their problems with thoughtful iPod tours, fun activities in the galleries and digital fireworks—like virtual tours and archives of collections that can be experienced online. Some museums pack Art and educators into a van and try to bring the museum to people that aren't likely to ever step foot into the museum. Then there are museums that don't even try, and, even worse, museums that don't think that they have problems to solve.
Why do I continue to feel like community centers are far more important than museums are, despite their efforts to convince me that they are still relevant? Why do I continue to feel the hole in my pocket long after a museum visit, but think that upwards of $15 is a reasonable price to pay for a day of getting my hands dirty (seriously, they're full of germs) at a science center? Why am I constantly unimpressed by the major exhibitions that museums undertake, and feel like reading reviews about them is good enough?
It's all about access.
Museums aren't that accessible. Let's face it, they haven't been for a while. I've been working in museums lately as an artist and I know that some of the people that care about museums wish it wasn't this way. Some of these people are educators and some are curators. Some have a yearly membership to the museum and visit on weekends. Some are young people and some have only ever visited as a young person. Maybe you are one of these people. Maybe you care about museums. If so, I'm glad to know that you are reading this article. I'm glad to know that we are allies and that you believe in the potential of the museum. I'm glad that we know each other in this very important time in history.
In the following pages you'll get to know me a bit better. You'll read stories about the progression of my thought around access. You'll find out about the many ways in which I have worked through my limited access, promoted my own access and inspired others to consider their own access—within the context of the museum and not. You'll consider the benefits of user-generated creative process-based forms of museum access, and for museum accessibility initiatives to undergo serious renovation. You will keep reading because you know that the museum holds great potential as a site for learning, creativity, innovation, collaboration and cultural production. You will keep reading because you care.
I started thinking about my access to things when my access to things started changing. I was twenty one and in school at a small college surrounded by trees in Vancouver. It was the kind of place where you could learn from Marxist anarchists who didn't care too much about proper citation or a little thing called Standard English. You probably wouldn't recognize the name of the college if I told you, but going there reminded me that there is a world outside of the ivory tower that is full of things to care about, and that one could make change if one found something and started caring.
In my second year of college I really started to care about access—my own access in particular. It was hard not to care. I was coming to terms with a progressive vision loss that made it difficult for me to read printed text—which, at the time, I had to do quite a lot since I was an English student and a magazine editor. I remember giving myself a headache every time I struggled to focus on a poem, and, more often than not, stressing over more editing work than I could manage. I privileged my access to the visual world so much that it was bad for me.
I eventually chose to rely on the accessibility accommodations that were available to me as a full-fledged disabled person, but it soon became clear, even while accommodated, that my access was vastly different from that of my peers. Shopping for groceries with an assistant was weird. The audio description for movies sucked. I couldn't walk into a library, select a book and start reading. I constantly felt limited by the systems that I had chosen to rely on because I hadn't yet claimed agency and established a system for my own access.
In one of my first published poems about blindness (West Coast Line, 2010), I wrote a list of synonyms for the word "blind". It's a pretty accurate reflection of how I was feeling at the time.
heedless (ran into a pole)
inattentive (don't look directly)
inconsiderate (don't look directly)
indiscriminate (can't judge by appearance)
insensitive (have hurt the feelings of others)
nearsighted (used to be)
oblivious (addressed an inanimate object)
unaware (impeded on a bike lane)
unobservant (especially of visual cues)
hasty (I often cross too early)
inconsiderate (I often cut off buggies and the elderly)
reckless (I have walked without a cane)
have driven a motor vehicle)
wild (I have driven a motor vehicle)
closed at one end
Feeling all of these things, I started to use a white cane—a symbol that I felt good and bad about. On one hand, it was a tool that promoted my access and mobility. It showed me things and made my map a whole lot bigger. On the other hand, it institutionalized me. It was a symbol that was connected to an institution that wanted me to be a certain kind of blind person—the kind with huge sunglasses. The kind that was either a piano tuner or a masseuse. The kind that walks a certain way on a predetermined route, and that talks a certain way about his blindness. The kind that you never saw but which you knew existed.
But the white cane, with all of its problems, did promote my access.
I was guaranteed a seat on the bus.
I had the power to make dense crowds of people part like red seas.
I could pass for a Paralympic athlete.
I could talk my way into museums and movies.
I was a focal point.
Once I realized my power as a blind person I began to revel in it. This is a photo of me using a twelve-foot mobility cane. I walked with it, on occasion, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver—a densely populated neighborhood that is full of old Italian cafes, hip kids getting brunch, designer and non-designer dogs, and hippies just hanging. I called it my "long cane" and when I used it my reach extended across an entire span of sidewalk. Whereas people might have politely side-stepped out of my way when I was using a regular white cane, they dramatically ran away from me (as if from some 40-foot monster) when I was using my long cane. With my long cane in hand, I was a real force to be reckoned with.
Walking with a twelve-foot mobility cane, although enjoyable, was not the most productive way to engage others in caring about disability or access. I admit, antagonism was at the heart of the action. I wanted to become an obstruction for others because I was faced with so many obstructions. As problematic as it was, using my "long cane" was a necessary step in my progression toward making useful art. It was coming from a place of sincerity. It represented my first attempt in sharing an aspect of my disability experience with others.
Years later, in grad school, I revisited the idea that I could change public perceptions around disability by open sourcing my own disability experience. I was turned onto Social Practice—a participatory, non-object-based contemporary art practice in which importance is placed on the experience that the artist creates for the viewer / participant. I started to develop participatory artworks on the topic of disability and access. It wasn't long before I realized that a Social Practice methodology was the strategy that I had been looking for in college, while trying to make change.
During my first term as an MFA candidate at Portland State University I developed the Blind Field Shuttle—an experience in which I offer fifty people the opportunity to walk with me for an hour with their eyes closed. I tell participants to line up behind me, to link arms and that opening their eyes is considered cheating. The group trusts me to take them to their destination safely, and I trust them to participate given the terms of the project. After using their non-visual senses for a prolonged amount of time, participants begin to recognize sight as one of the many ways in which to interact with and interpret a place. They begin to recognize how their reliance on the visual sense limits their access.
I have led fourteen Blind Field Shuttle walking tours in eight cities as part of exhibitions, conferences and events. This is a photo of me leading a large group in 2012 on the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts. Each walking tour route that I choose for an instance of the Blind Field Shuttle is a reflection of my own access, and my intention in inviting others to share in my experience is to encourage an awareness of the access that we allow ourselves as users of public and private space. I say, "allow ourselves" because I think of access as an open invitation. Each instance of the Blind Field Shuttle is an invitation to explore the possibilities for learning and knowing that become available through the non-visual senses. It shows that shifting ones perception can be as easy as closing ones eyes.
Here is a photo from a project that I have been facilitating at museums in the United States and Canada called See for Yourself. It depicts a guide describing a piece of art to a person who is closing their eyes.
You are closing your eyes. You are holding the elbow of a friend and being lead through an art gallery. Your friend stops in front of a piece that he finds particularly interesting and you feel the large thing hanging overhead. Your friend begins to describe the work as if he is telling a story and you begin to relax and listen. Each spoken word becomes an object that slowly materializes into an image in your mind's eye, and as it refines, each image fills the span of canvas that you have conceptualized. You imagine the figures that were described to you as people that you know, and the setting as somewhere that you have been. Your friend stops offering description and the fragments coalesce into a whole image. Soon you find yourself immersed in a story for which you are the author, and you enjoy the satisfaction of knowing something in a way that is meaningful to you. Finally, your friend interrupts your focus by telling you the title of the work, and the image that you have conceptualized becomes the thing being described—just out of sight.
When I walk through an art museum, a friend will describe art objects, architectural details and other museum visitors to me, and will offer information that informs my art experience. The things that a particular guide will focus on vary based on the guide's interests, his or her own personal experiences, and, simply, on the way that the guide is feeling at the time. My friend Elliott for example, who is thirty and works as a doorman at a dance club, might interpret a gallery space (and the things in it) differently from my sister Veronica, who is twenty one and a pastry chef. Each guide is drawn to details that are unique to their expertise, which makes the museum experience, for me, a wonderfully subjective one.
It took me years to learn how to close my eyes, but I started to benefit from the practice once I realized that there was so much more to devote attention to than what is visual. Walking through museums without sight has helped me realize that I, someone who experiences my surroundings non-visually, am aware of aspects of the museum experience that go unnoticed to the average sighted visitor. The comforting feeling of a cozy gallery, the smell of an ancient collection and the chatter of excited visitors as they peruse a particular show are elements that represent my access to museum spaces, and uniquely inform my perception of a given work or exhibition. To see the museum without sight is to rediscover it.
In my overall understanding of a given artwork, a description offered by a friend is just as valuable as a description offered by a docent, or anything on a wall label. Each description (art-historical or not) helps me conceptualize the work being described, and, as I settle on an understanding of the piece, what I have conceptualized becomes the piece itself. My non-visual interpretation of the work is just as relevant and interesting as any interpretation that was derived by means of a visual experience, and is a productive, although undervalued, way of seeing art.
I remember going to a small art opening at the Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver with my good friend Aubyn early on in college. I forget the artist that made the work, but I remember that there were collections of objects lining the walls—everything from tooth and hair brushes to those honey containers that are shaped like cartoon bears. Most of all, I remember the loud chatter of people in conversation and the crowd that made it difficult for Aubyn and me to move through the space with ease. Our initial intention was to view the installation, but, as we tried to navigate through the bustling crowd, our focus and attention quickly shifted toward the gallery as a social space.
Aubyn handed me a glass of wine and pulled me close to describe the crowd as if he were describing the collection of objects on the wall. He picked out details that caught his eye—like familiar faces, interesting clothing details and women that he found particularly attractive. After his sweeping description of the crowd, Aubyn began to jokingly describe an acquaintance that he spotted as he might describe a performer engaged in a performance. As I listened, I began to imagine that particular acquaintance as a performer, and quickly felt immersed in a piece for which Aubyn and I were a roaming two-person audience. Bits of conversation and the convivial atmosphere became my main points of interest, and I soon forgot about the objects lining the walls.
After he described the person that was pouring wine for guests, Aubyn began to explain the architecture of the gallery as if it was an installation. Again, his tone and word-choice shaped my perception, and I quickly became aware of the position of my body in space and how it related to this new, art context. He described the exposed pipes on the ceiling and how they meandered above the crowd, and I soon understood the crowd and my self as part of the architecture of the gallery. As I stood in the midst of this system: the artwork on the walls, the swarm of intermingling conversations, and the gallery's architecture and design, I started to think of the exhibition experience as encompassing more than the installation that was barely visible through the many moving bodies.
Each visitor to the museum sees and understands things differently, and brings a valuable lens to the art experience—although these perspectives are not often acknowledged as relevant ways of knowing. This overlooked spectrum of ways in which one might understand and appreciate art reflects the spectrum of ways in which people learn, and represents the many paths that lead to the production of knowledge. Still, very few methods of interpretation are endorsed by museums—which makes the interpretation and appreciation of art a specialized activity for the educated, able few.
It took a while for me to settle on language that I am satisfied with (and I'm still not completely satisfied) but here is a statement about what it is I do:
Access is an entry point to experience. My projects serve as models for change that contribute to a productive understanding of accessibility—where each entry point to experience is recognized as a worthwhile path to follow. My own access, which is dictated by a visual impairment, serves as the basis for sincere, participatory projects that investigate individual access with regard to public space, the art institution and visual culture. I produce temporary solutions in the form of walking tours, workshops, public interventions, museum projects and art objects.
When developing a project I seek methods, platforms and venues that will promote my own access and mobility as a disabled person*, and which will bring visibility to the topics that I explore in my work. My projects require those involved to embody aspects of my own way of being—a gesture that establishes trust, empathy and interdependence between myself and my participants.
*a disabled person is a person that experiences limited access and mobility as the result of systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society.
If the language above is familiar to you it's because it was lifted from the definition of the Social Model of Disability—a concept that proposes that disability is not a quality inherent within me as an individual, but is something cast upon me and defined by the choices of people in positions of power. For example, if I, a person who learns about his surroundings through his non-visual senses, experience limited access to a museum exhibition because there are few opportunities for me to engage with the material being presented in a way that is not visual, it is the institution, in its failure to accommodate me as a non-visual learner, that disables me as a museum visitor. With my limited access to the museum comes a limited access to cultural learning and culture itself. With my limited access to culture comes a host of limitations with regard to the things that I can learn and the things that I can know. If a museum exhibition, for whatever reason, limits the things that I can know, the museum, as an institution, is promoting inequality.
But my poor visitor experience is not unique to me as a disabled person, it is unique to me as a museum visitor. A lot of museums these days promote inequality, and this inequality is reinforced by the few ways that the museum chooses to make itself accessible to the people who live in the communities that surround it. When I asked my non art-educated friends to share their reflections on their last museum visit as part of the research for this paper, I heard, time and time again, that they felt alienated and confused by the art on display in museums. The friends that happened to go on a tour (live or audio) told me that they learned a lot, but that they didn't think that they were any closer to knowing what art is because of it. They considered the interpretations that were presented to them in wall text as fact, and felt like their own interpretations were incorrect and of little value. They felt, as one friend put it, as if they had invited themselves to a stranger's dinner party.
In other areas of our lives we challenge ourselves to be well-informed consumers, but we willingly accept the mystery and confusion that goes hand-in-hand with the museum experience. Before we become patrons of a restaurant we tend to consider: what the atmosphere of that restaurant might be, whether that restaurant's menu will feature the kinds of things that we can, or might like to, eat, how the food that will be served might make us feel, what the quality of the ingredients used might be, and where those ingredients might have come from. The people that work at restaurants, from the bussers to the chefs, try to ensure a satisfying experience for their guests, and the managers that oversee the entire operation try to ensure the continued patronage of their clientele.
As a museum visitor I seldom feel like the museum cares about whether they can make a returning customer of me. Of course they have a visitor experience that they can offer me as a non-visual learner, but, as is the case with so many public institutions, the experience that I am allowed as a disabled person is a bad one. Sure I can go on an "accessible" tour once every week or so, or put on a pair of headphones while I walk through an exhibition, but, still, my experience of the museum is a derivative of the experience that the museum offers other visitors. If a touch tour is available, it is presented as a way for me to "see" the material that is on display. It is a means of facilitating the privileged, and singular, visual art experience.
Berkley-based author Georgina Kleege tells of an experience in which she had the opportunity to touch a sculptural maquette that Matisse used in order to produce a two-dimensional figure. The moment is of particular interest to the blind author since it describes how the tactile sense can be used in order to understand a thing visually. This image, of the blind accessing and receiving visual culture non-visually, has been represented and mythologized in paintings throughout history, and even served as the subject for Jacques Derrida's "Memoirs of the Blind"—a 1993 project in which the theorist used depictions of the blind from the Louvre's collection as the basis for writings on vision, blindness, self-representation and drawing.
The image of a blind individual engaging in a tactile art experience represents the possibility of an unmediated and unbiased experience of art—a position that has attracted the art practitioner, the viewer and the critic for centuries. However the idea that blind experience is unmediated and unbiased is a fallacy: as any person engaged in interpretation exists within a unique cultural context, and therefore within the realm of subjectivity. What this provocative image does illustrate is the uncharted territory that is non-visual interpretation—a method that, if practiced within the context of the art experience, has the potential to expand what is currently understood as visual culture.
In 2012 I was asked by curator Amanda Cachia to produce documentation of the Blind Field Shuttle walking tour for a show entitled "What Can a Body Do?" at the Canter Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College. I had shown prints of the Blind Field Shuttle prior to Cachia's invitation, but I remember being largely unsatisfied with the prints and with my choice to show them. Not only were they shortcomings as representations of the Blind Field Shuttle, the prints were shortcomings as documents that were useful to me as a non-visual learner.
I remember expressing this frustration to my mentor Harrell Fletcher months before I was asked to participate in Cachia's show, and the flood of realization after he asked me how, ideally, I'd like to experience my own work in a gallery setting. My response was to-the-point and immediate: "I'd like to listen to it." With Fletcher's question I realized that each invitation to exhibit my work is an opportunity to promote my own access and mobility, and, after our conversation, I started to use the resources that are available to me through the institution in order to achieve that goal.
In the following months, and with the help of sound artist Kai Tillman, I developed a ten-channel sound installation that presents audio documentation of two walks that I led, on consecutive days, through a park in Portland, Oregon. Each walk that was recorded follows the same route through the park on the Portland State University campus, but the soundscapes that were captured are in stark contrast to one another. One recording depicts a group meandering through a bustling farmer's market on a sunny afternoon, while the other depicts a quiet stroll through a park on a grey and breezy morning. While each acoustic experience is different, sound, in each instance, serves as the material with witch the viewer can develop a sense of place.
I wanted the installation to refer, as much as possible, to the experience of being a participant during an instance of the Blind Field Shuttle walking tour. Here are the project's installation guidelines:
The Blind Field recordings should be experienced in a corridor that is as narrow as the shoulder-to-shoulder width of a person's body. The corridor should be as long as ten to fifteen people standing single-file with their arms out-stretched, and their hand's holding the shoulder of the person in front of them. The brightness of the corridor should reflect the experience of closing one's eyes in a dimly lit room. The corridor should be made to block any outside noise so the listeners can become immersed within the sound experience and imagine themselves as a participant on the walk for which they are experiencing documentation. Two sets of five speakers should be built into the two longest facing walls of the corridor and should be positioned directly across from one another and at the height of a person's ears. The speakers should be positioned at an equal distance from each end of the corridor, and, from one another, at the distance of an outstretched arm. The five-channel sound document of the Blind Field Shuttle should be played through both sets of speakers at once and on a loop with two minutes of silence after each play.
Making the installation for What Can a Body Do? allowed me to think a lot about access. I used the process of developing the piece as an opportunity to explore: how I can facilitate access to an experiential work, how I can build certain kinds of access into my work, how I can represent my own access to others, how I can promote accessibility, and how I can challenge perceptions around access through my work.
My dedication to the cause of accessibility has lead, naturally, to me envisioning myself as an access coordinator in a museum—but not an access coordinator in the traditional sense. Think curator of public engagement meets artist-in-residence. Instead of ensuring that access initiatives are up-to-date and by-the-book, I would develop gestural site-specific projects on the topic of access within the museum. I would approach museum access as a creative process and promote an ever-changing, and textured, visitor experience.
Below is a list of the kinds of things that I would do if I were an "access coordinator" at your museum:
-I'd lower all the paintings in a particular gallery so they were only inches from the ground—a gesture that would promote crouching and crawling, and which would make the viewing of art objects a physical activity.
-I'd arrange a "human escalator" on a staircase so visitors wishing to explore upstairs and down would have to be carried by another person in order to do so.
-I'd enlarge some wall text so I could read it.
-I'd offer lights off, exploratory flashlight tours of certain galleries or the entire museum.
-I'd replace a work with a text description of that work.
-I'd coordinate tours lead by guide dogs or other service animals.
-I'd make objects that weren't previously touchable, touchable.
-I'd develop tours of areas that are normally considered to be "off limits" to visitors—like vaults, offices, locked doors and secret rooms.
-I'd host museum-wide games of Hide & Seek.
-I'd designate areas with interesting floor textures as shoes-off spaces.
These days, when I visit museums, I find myself getting closer and closer to objects—not just so I can see them better, but because I have convinced myself that the moment I find the courage to cross that forbidden threshold the entire system will come crumbling down. But I know that it's going to take more than a touch. It's going to take a strong, unapologetic push forward.
Carmen Papalia is a Social Practice artist living in Vancouver British Columbia. He makes participatory projects on the topic of access as it relates to public space, the art institution and visual culture. His recent writings can be found in Stay Solid: a radical handbook for youth (AK Press, 2013). Papalia's upcoming projects include a solo exhibition at the CUE Foundation in New York, an exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and a creative residency at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California. He can be reached at: email@example.com.