January – March 2015Born in Vancouver, Brittish Columbia in 1981, Carmen Papalia is a Social Practice artist who makes participatory projects on the topic of access as it relates to public space, the Art institution and visual culture. His work has been featured as part of exhibitions and engagements at: The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, the Museum of Modern Artt in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the L.A Craft and Folk Art Museum and the CUE Art Foundation among others. Papalia is the recipient of the 2014 Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary and the 2013 Wynn Newhouse Award for artistic merit in contemporary art. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Art & Social Practice from Portland State University and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Simon Fraser University. His recent writings can be found in: Stay Solid: A Radical Handbook for Youth (AK Press, 2013), in his Reference Points monograph on the Chicago-based collaborative Temporary Services (Publication Studio, 2013), in the 'Museum Experience and Blindness' issue of Disability Studies Quarterly and most recently in the 'Publics' issue of Art21.
I design experiences that invite those involved to expand their perceptual mobility and claim access to public and institutional spaces. Often requiring trust and closeness, these engagements disorient the participant while introducing new modes of orientation that allow for perceptual and sensorial discovery. Each walking tour, collaborative performance, public intervention, museum project and art object that I make is a temporary system of access, a gesture that establishes a moment of radical accessibility. As an open-sourcing of my own embodiment, my work makes visible the opportunities for learning and knowing that come available through the nonvisual senses. It’s a chance to unlearn looking and to help acknowledge, map and name entire unseen bodies of knowledge.
Bodies of Knowledge: Unlearning Infrastructural Oppression in the Museum
Nearly a month after first hearing the term 'disability arts', I found that artists with body and mind differences, despite being engaged in radically progressive practices, were marginalized in contemporary art. This fact didn’t sit well with me since, at the time, I had just started a MFA degree and was learning how to develop my artistic practice—with the goal of making some kind of career for myself. I feared that my work would only ever be experienced by disabled people (who would probably agree with what I had to say) and that public perceptions around disability would continue to be problematic. My goal, eventually, was to get my work into a show at a contemporary art space, not a disability art space—with the intention of sharing my observations in a mainstream and contemporary context. I thought that the exhibition as a form would help me find people to introduce my ideas to, and that the work itself, whatever it was, would open a space that would complicate disability and contemporary art. More than anything else I wanted the bubble within which I felt supported to grow, and for it to be full of all sorts of people—not just people that identify as disabled.
For me, the term 'disabled' is more of a marker of where society is than a description of the status of my body. I identify as a disabled person because the systems that I participate in do not serve my individual needs and do not empower me to thrive. Museums, for example, disable me as a viewer. Everything, from the artwork to the explanatory text, assumes a subject that uses their visual sense as a primary way of knowing, and I am a nonvisual learner that requires a different frame of reference. Sometimes I will participate in a touch or audio tour but feel like these programs are misguided since they offer me an experience that is a derivative of the privileged visual experience of art. Contrary to their purpose, access programs do not make the museum more accessible to me, they subjugate the ways in which I learn and govern my participation in contemporary art.
Currently, decisions regarding accessibility are made behind closed doors and without public consultation, resulting in cities and public institutions that do not serve a vast and diverse majority of the population. While city building legislation requires that public spaces are accessible to those with physical access needs, and public programs invite the participation of certain target demographics, finding the support in line with ones individual needs is nearly impossible without a strong sensibility around self-advocacy and how to identify and interupt multiple forms of oppression. However, if the accessibility of the systems that we participate in was approached as a mutable collective process, each system could become accessible to multiple publics as their needs change and as the system, itself, evolves. First, though, individuals must help to define their access needs and preferences so accessibility can be realized as an open cultural practice through which the participant can claim the support that will empower them to thrive.
During my residency at the Victoria & Albert Museum i shared the many ways in which I have interrupted the disabling power structures in my life. From replacing my white cane with a high school marching band to leading over two dozen eyes-closed walking tours in over 10 cities across the United States and Canada, my socially-engaged creative practice has enabled me to realize disability experience as a liberatory space in which my unique embodiment is inextricably linked to my individual learning style and my potential to thrive. Throughout my time in residence I performed a role as the V&A’s Access Coordinator: a position through which I assessed the history of disabling practices at the museum and propose a set of measures that allowed the museum to become an openly accessible, horizontal platform for cultural exchange. Additionally, I supported community members in developing the metrics for an independent accessibility audit of the V&A—where the terms of the audit were based in their very subjective perceptions regarding what is accessible. It iwas my hope that the intervention will establish an open working space dedicated to the consideration of our agency in public and institutional settings, and what actions we must take in order to explode normalcy and realize the potential for access in the museum.