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Carmen Papalia addresses accessibility through art and activism

October 27, 2017

Although Carmen Papalia lost the use of his vision, he does not identify as blind.

“I feel that word doesn’t serve me,” he said. “I often think of myself as a non-visual learner—someone who just made a choice to shift the value from the visual to the non-visual … I’d rather describe myself in relation to my learning style and my approach to learning than refer to a word that kind of means, ‘lack of preparedness or awareness.’ You just have to [search for] synonyms for the word ‘blind,’ and you get a long list of negative associations.”

Papalia, a Vancouver-based “social practice artist and disability activist,” delivered a lecture about his work at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) on October 19. His visit was in preparation for Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Ellen Tani’s spring exhibition, “Second Sight: The Paradox of Vision in Contemporary Art,” which will feature an installation by Papalia.

ART IN PRACTICE: Carmen Papalia (right) leads participants in a non-visual walking tour called a “Blind Field Shuttle.” Such tours are not a simulation of the artist’s own experiences, but an “exercise for the non-visual senses.”

Much of Papalia’s work is built on his relationship with disability. His earlier works involved replacing one system of support with another in order to create “moments” of accessibility.

He started by making modifications to his cane to alter both its practical and social functions. In one such transformation, his cane was 15 feet long.

“I knew that a lot of people looked at me, their eyes would be on me, when I was using a cane, so I kind of just started eventually thinking of people as like a built-in audience that I could work with in various ways and activate,” said Papalia. “So I made this cane, and it really was me thinking about playing with or exaggerating that distance that I felt the cane kind of put between me and my friends, my peers and everybody else.”

“I feel like I make work as a means of addressing my own access in various contexts,” he said. “It’s often a means of opening up a space to realize new possibilities and new methodologies around mutual support and modeling trust.”

In a later piece called “Mobility Device,” Papalia replaced his cane with a high school marching band from Santa Ana, Calif. They worked together via Skype for six months, and after a single in-person rehearsal, Papalia and the band performed the piece, in which the group allowed Papalia to freely explore downtown Santa Ana—a place unfamiliar to the artist–by anticipating the artist’s movements and providing musical cues.

“It was really important for me to have the freedom of movement to explore and the agency to explore during this performance,” said Papalia.

Papalia did not begin practicing as an artist until he attended graduate school at Portland State University in Portland, Ore. He described his studies as a combination of art and social practice. Art provided Papalia with an avenue both to come to terms with his disability and to think critically about what it means to be disabled.

Papalia has gradually shifted his focus to developing and sharing a social model of accessibility, which he calls “Open Access.”

This social model stems from the disability activism of the 1960s and represents a reaction to the medical model, said Papalia. Unlike in the medical model, the social model contends that disability is not a physical condition, but rather the social, cultural and political conditions in which the person exists. Papalia’s “Open Access” model consists of five tenets that describe a relational approach to accessibility.

Papalia defines accessibility as “one’s ability to hold agency.” He believes that it is not something that can be effectively legally instituted or enforced.

“A policy platform can only go so far in encouraging people to care for one another,” said Papalia. “It’s really about thinking about … the collective politics of a place. What is the culture, and how do those politics and how they’re expressed affect one’s agency? And that’s kind of how I’m trying to open up a conversation about accessibility—kind of like around those kind of considerations.”

Effective accessibility depends upon the formation of long-term, support-based relationships, said Papalia.

“You can’t just put a sign on a wall in a room that says, ‘This place is accessible,’” he said. “That is an ongoing practice and the systems and conditions that oppress people are ongoing, so whenever you’re interrupting those conditions that oppress, I think you’re making a moment of accessibility. And so I think we have to think of accessibility as a lifelong dedication.”

Papalia now travels both domestically and internationally as part of a movement-building campaign to share his social model with various groups and institutions looking to expand their approach to accessibility.

Ben Wu ’18, BCMA intern and member of Disabled Students Association, agreed that Papalia brings a unique perspective to campus.

“I think [Papalia’s installation] would be really cool as a way to connect with the school on a larger dialogue around disability.”

“The relationship between art and activism is something that’s really powerful, but that I don’t think is frequently modeled as a mode of productive activism on campus,” said Tani, who invited Papalia to campus. “It’s often hard to understand how art, which seems to have a purely aesthetic function or a [politically] benign presence in the world, actually does have a real impact on the way we feel, on the way we relate to our world.”



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