“I hadn’t yet realized that my support-based relationships could result in a mutual exchange.”—Carmen Papalia

Carmen Papalia: Alum, Art and Social Practice MFA / Portland State University

“i hadn’t yet realized that my support-based relationships could result in a mutual exchange.”—carmen papalia

“How to Close Your Eyes: Unlearning Public Space, the Art Institution, and Visual Culture”

by Carmen Papalia

In 2010, I stopped using the term “visually impaired” to describe my experience, because I realized that my experiences didn’t center on the visual sense anymore. I had moved from Vancouver, BC to Portland, OR earlier that year to pursue my MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University—an identity shift in its own right, since I had spent most of my time writing poetry and editing magazines up until then. I made this trek on my own, after a six-year relationship fell apart, barely knowing anything about the neighborhood that I would be living in, or how to properly pronounce the name of the grad program’s director, Harrell Fletcher. As such, my first few weeks in town were ripe with the difficulty of moving away from the network of friends and family that I had relied on during some of my most challenging experiences, which included accepting an identity as a disabled person, managing chronic pain, and surviving thyroid cancer.

How to Close Your Eyes: Unlearning Public Space, the Art Institution and Visual Culture

courtesy of carmen papalia

I fared well in the quirky, yet cozy, heritage apartment that I was renting in the Rose Quarter of North Portland, but my ability for independent travel was still quite limited. My first day of classes went something like this: I ran into a low hanging tree branch, tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, and smashed my knee into a parking meter. The pain memory kept me from repeating these mistakes and instilled in me a sense of pause while walking. I could get to the train station just fine, I could ask someone to verify for me if the right car had arrived at the platform; but for fear of falling into oblivion, I was sure to arrange for my friend Molly to meet me on campus right where the train let out. I worried that a single step beyond what I knew for sure would rouse the beast that had sent so many explorers before me back from their journeys with little more than a grave warning and an incomplete map. Sometimes, this worry would effectively pin me to my bed until I had missed all of the delicious brunches and seasonal beer-related festivities that Portland had to offer. By the time my second month’s rent was due, I had started to worry that I was that shut-in whose only chance at a social life was the open invitation to the Friday night mixer for blind adults that some campus social worker had mentioned during an intake meeting.

Then, one day, while walking to class with Harrell, my entire approach changed. I told him about the things that I had bumped into—only sharing my most memorable collisions from a long list that included: street signs, metal poles, fire hydrants, sandwich boards, brick walls, trees, bike racks, pylons, wet floor signs, windows, doors, fences, bus shelters, and a land surveyor’s tripod. I went on about my fear of falling into oblivion, and how I hadn’t gone out very much on my days off. I explained how different this was from the lifestyle that I had lead in Vancouver, which included my fair share of raucous music shows and a thirst for adventure (or relative stupidity) that, in 2005, resulted in me hauling a huge backpack across Europe for three months immediately after a surgery and cancer treatment. I told him that most of my struggle in Portland was due to not having access to the disability support resources that I did in Canada, but, even as I said it, I knew that it was an oversimplification of the problem. I was so wrapped up in the frustration of it all, that I don’t even remember my response when Harrell offered to meet me on the weekend to walk the routes that I was interested in learning.

courtesy of carmen papalia

Harrell’s offer caught me off guard because, up until then, the only mobility-related support that I had received was from an Orientation & Mobility Specialist, paid to walk with me by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. As a result, I had always thought of support as being something that I obtained in a grey building with shitty chairs, and not as something that I could define for myself while on a stroll with friends. Now, here was Harrell, someone that was not only willing, but who seemed sort of excited, to give up his weekend to do something as mundane as stand in line with me at the bank. While finding my way through Portland seemed mundane to me, the process of it was fascinating to him. Accompanying me provided Harrell with a unique opportunity to unlearn his view of Portland; in effect, it allowed him to reestablish his relationship to places that had become fixed in his memory after years of routine. I hadn’t yet realized that my support-based relationships could result in a mutual exchange.

After feeling out certain neighborhoods with Harrell, and sharing my learning process with my peers in the form of walking poems and games of blindfolded soccer, I took on the task of representing my body difference, and the experiences that it allows, in ways that didn’t feel like such a compromise to me. I started by peeling off all of the reflective white tape from my white cane in protest of the institution that it is connected to, an action that revealed the slick black graphite underneath. The prospect of a blank slate empowered me to interrogate some of the other things that came bundled with my disability identity.

At first, this meant finding the right words. I knew that communities of disabled artists were banding together and embracing their body differences by identifying as crip (short for cripple), but I didn’t know any of these artists or their politics at the time, so I didn’t pick up the term. Instead, I took a process of elimination approach and began outlining what I did know in the form of a list poem of “I want” statements. Pages and pages emerged, as I declared everything from “I want to use the library,” to “I want everyone that I meet to have an attractive voice.” Then I scanned through the list and started cutting language like “legally blind” and “Retinitis Pigmentosa” from some of the statements, because I felt like the institutions that had produced this language, with their theories and practices regarding rehabilitation and normalcy, were capable of subjugating the bodies of knowledge that I had access to from my unique position. I eventually wrote the words “non-visual learner” and, from that point on, began to identify as such.

Stumbling upon the term “non-visual learner” allowed me to recognize the value in my process of gathering a sense of place in Portland and was the catalyst for a body of work that realizes disability experience as a liberating space. The first project in this series is Blind Field Shuttle (2010)—a perceptual tour in which up to 50 people can walk with me through urban and rural spaces with their eyes closed. In an exchange of trust, participants line up behind me, link arms, and agree to shut their eyes while I safely guide them to a destination of my choice. After using their non-visual senses for a prolonged amount of time, participants begin to recognize looking as one of the many ways to engage with and interpret a place. They realize the opportunities for learning and knowing that come available through the non-visual senses.

courtesy of carmen papalia

The following was excerpted from a transcription of the audio documentation of Blind Field Shuttle that was collected during a performance of the work on the Portland State University campus on Sunday, June 17, 2012. Audio documentation was produced by Kai Tillman and was mixed for a two-channel stereo output.

“Okay, I gotta line forming here…awesome.” One of my participants whispers directions to someone. The speaker’s words are not clear, but their whisper suggests that they are trying to not interrupt my introduction of the project.
“Okay, so what we’re going to do today—I’m going to take you all on a non-visual walking tour.”
An emergency siren sounds in the distance. The alarm weaves in-and-out of my dialogue like an ambulance through traffic.
“…Um, everyone, except for me, is going to keep their eyes closed for the entire tour.”
I pause in thought and the soundscape comes into focus acoustically. Quiet traffic sounds and wind create a soft ambiance of noise, like a veil of mist over a landscape. The sound is more calming than distracting.
Someone rustles with a cellphone or some other electronic device. The thing rattles like a cassette recorder.
Birds tweet from a nearby tree. Their song can be heard beneath my speech.
“…Um, the way that we’re going to keep together, is, everyone’s going to hold either the shoulder, or the elbow, of the person in front of them.”
“So get to know the person in front of you. Introduce yourself. Say, ‘Hi.’”
A few participants say, “Hi” to the person in front of them.
My friend Emily, who is standing at the end of the chain of participants says, “Hey,” and another female participant, Alma, says, “Hi”—from her position near the middle of the chain. The two women, presumably, aren’t speaking to each other, but their voices sound as if they are in close proximity to one another—an effect that is the result of the layering of audio tracks for this two-channel stereo mix.
Someone says, “David, right?”—but the jumble of voices makes it difficult to discern whether anyone responds to this speaker’s question.
I say, “Hey, names, if you don’t know the person’s name—“ and my words are lost in the confusion of people engaged in conversation.
A male speaker says, “Is that a-good, your elbow, is that good?” And my friend Sandy replies, “Yeah, elbow’s good” in a calming voice.
I say, “I’m Carmen”—and chuckle with excitement as I listen to my participants greet each other.
A female speaker gently says, “Hey Eyva,” and, pleasantly surprised to learn of her friend’s presence, Eyva replies with a warm and joyous giggle.
“…Um, okay and so this is the person that you’re going to trust. And you’re also going to be trusted by the person behind you.”
I address Emily, “…Unless, you’re in the back.”
A female speaker, perhaps Emily, says, “I’m into it” in response to my comment.
“…Um, so, and, and we’re going to stay together like this—”
I switch topics and say, “Since people aren’t accustomed to walking single file, there’s a few things that you should know.”
The sound of an aircraft breaking through the clouds rumbles in the background for the next few seconds.
“The person behind you might kick your heels and this is totally normal. Just figure out what a comfortable way for you to walk is.”
Someone laughs.
“Try shuffling, try to pick your feet up, um, and just try different things.”
“…And, and you know, try, to minimize, the, uh, kicking of heels if possible.”
“…Um, there’s going to be a few obstacles at different points during the tour, and I, kind of, have developed this communication system.”
“It’s not that high-tech, but, um, I’m going to have a few speakers that are going to also, um, repeat information that I tell you all.”
Light construction sounds in the distance.
“So I’m going to be a speaker, up here.”
I tap my cane at the front of the line of participants.
“…And I’m going to tap you on the shoulder if you’re a speaker.”
“You’re a speaker.”
Joking, I say, “I hope I’m touching shoulders.”
A female participant laughs.
“You’re a speaker.”
Reacting to my own joke, I chuckle “You’re a speaker.”
“…And you’re a speaker.”
“Um, and all of you—”
I switch directions and say, “Okay, say we’re crossing the street and I want to tell you to cross—I’m gonna say ‘Crossing.’”
I continue, “…And I’m gonna say crossing up here and you’re gonna say—”
I point to the first speaker and a male voice says, “Crossing” with a degree of seriousness.
Soon, another male participant says, “Crossing” in a naturally deep voice.
A female participant echoes the message shortly after, and, finally, Emily concludes by politely saying “Crossing.”
“Okay, and, if you’re a speaker you have a responsibility to project your voice, um, so everyone knows what’s going on.”
“Also, um—”
I pause in thought.
“We’re going to—”
I take a breath and continue, “…Just keep in mind how our bodies are taking up space and how we’re moving through space and consider soundscape, and um—”
I switch topics and say, “Yeah just, I mean this is a silent walk, but if you feel the need to talk though, that’s totally cool.”
“…If you are nervous or anxious, or you feel like you want to express something that you find particularly interesting, you can totally do that.”
A car drives by on a nearby street. The sound of its engine soon blends into ambient traffic noise. Another car abruptly revs its engine and speeds away.
“Um, so yeah, I think that’s about it.” I hang on the words, “about it” for a second as I think whether there is anything else I should mention.
“Any questions before we set out?”
A female participant says, “Um, how many minutes will we be out walking for?”
I reply, “About 20 minutes or so…yeah.”
“And so, again, everybody keeps their eyes closed for the entire walk, I kind of—”
I switch directions and say, “If you happen to open your eyes, you’re totally cheating.”
I start another comment with the word, “and” but pause as everybody laughs.
I get caught up in the laughter and start laughing.
“And I kind of think of this as like I’m trusting—”
I start again and say, “You’re trusting me to get you to the destination safely, which I will, um, and I’m also, I’m then trusting you, uh, to participate given the terms of the project.” I stumble over the word, “project.”
As if posing a friendly challenge, I say, “…So, I hope everybody keeps their eyes closed.”
“Alright, so I guess we’ll set off now.”
As I take my spot at the front of the line of participants, Sandy asks, “Would you like me to hold you’re elbow, or your shoulder?”
I respond, “Um, whatever’s comfortable to you.”
As she positions her hand, Sandy says, “I think I have to do the other, oh, can we do that…there.” To which I reply, “Yeah, sure.”
Taking Sandy’s hand, I say, “…Or maybe around here.”
We both agree and I say, “Alright,” so the group knows that I’m about ready.

After leading numerous Blind Field Shuttle walks as part of exhibitions and engagements in cities across the United States and Canada, I returned to the challenge of establishing a system of access for myself that would better serve my needs than a white cane. I produced Mobility Device (2013), a collaborative performance that allows me to claim agency by abandoning my white cane for a marching band that serves as my primary navigation system. As part of a site-specific performance of Mobility Device at the Grand Central Art Center on June 1, 2013, I explored downtown Santa Ana while the Great Centurion Marching Band from Century High School provided musical cues indicating objects, obstacles, and other information that they felt might be relevant to me on my journey. As a piece of music, Mobility Device is an extension of the musicality of the white cane, bringing attention to the things that the white cane, on any occasion, might touch into sound. With Mobility Device, fixtures such as curbs, lampposts and sandwich boards become notes in the soundscape of a place. The arrangement proposes the possibility of user-generated, creative, process-based systems of access while representing a non-institutional (and non-institutionalizing) solution for the problem of the white cane.

By taking on projects such as Mobility Device and Blind Field Shuttle, I managed to realize my way of being in the world as a mode of orientation that has the potential to uncover entire unseen bodies of knowledge. This realization inspired me to consider everything about how cultures might have evolved if the origins of communication were to have centered on the tactile sense, or what a typical experience in a museum catering to the non-visual learner might be. I eventually condensed some of my thinking on these topics into an article titled, “A New Model for Access in the Museum,” which I contributed to a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, and dedicated to “Museum Experience and Blindness.” As a conclusion to the piece, I drafted a list of interventions that would reframe access in the museum as an open creative process, and offered my services as a non-conventional Access Coordinator to any institution that would have me.

courtesy of carmen papalia

In November of 2013, Georgia Krantz of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum responded to my provocations and invited me to conduct The Touchy Subject (2013), a perceptual tour series that involved one-on-one, eyes-closed touch tours that the visitor could engage in. Participants could feel their way through the museum as a means of exploring it, and lay their hands on the building itself and objects from the collection, for which I had arranged touching privileges. The Touchy Subject proposes a possible end in which the viewer uses their tactile sense as a method of interpretation, and the museum serves as a site for sensorial discovery. It is an action that destabilizes visual primacy by expanding what is currently known as visual culture.

Along with The Touchy Subject, I produced a kit and focussed listening program called For Your Ears Only (2013) for MoMA Studio in conjunction with Soundings: A Contemporary Score, and developed a one-on-one, eyes-closed tour concept called See for Yourself (2012) for the Whitney Museum of American Art. While these engagements were successful in opening viewership up to sensory learners of all kinds, they were fleeting moments that ended with my farewell to each museum community.

Feeling the need for a more sustainable, long-term solution, I teamed up with my partner, Kristin Rochelle Lantz, and took on Nothing About Us Without Us at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver, a curatorial project in which we supported ten artists with body and mind differences—some of which had experienced histories of marginalization, oppression, and trauma—in investigating their access to the cultural space that is the Vancouver Art Gallery. With their individual approaches including painting, sculpture, video, performance, and conceptual work, participants sought to address, claim, interrupt, antagonize, and heal the space between museum and community. Each artist’s process was rigorous, and the cross-border dialogue that the project initiated was fervent. Culminating with its productively critical exhibition, Nothing About Us Without Us managed to set a precedent for individuals (whether they happen to identify as disabled or not) to define their access needs so accessibility can be realized as an open cultural practice through which the participant can claim the support that will empower them to thrive.

As illustrated by my work over the last few years, the ways in which I have managed to claim access to public space, the art institution, and visual culture, is the result of having to establish a system of care and support for myself throughout my life. When I set out to investigate a topic (either through experiential research or a creative gesture), I will often invite others to join in the process, as I appreciate learning exchanges that are mutual and interdependent. This approach has helped me to find a strong community of allies and mentors that I continue to draw energy from, and who I feel have been integral to the progression of my thought around Art and Disability.