You Can Do It With Your Eyes Closed


Carmen Papalia. Blind Field Shuttle, 2012. Perceptual tour; dimensions variable. Courtesy Jordan Reznick.

Museums disable me as a viewer. Everything, from the artworks to the explanatory texts, assumes a subject who uses their visual sense as a primary way of knowing, and I am a nonvisual learner who requires a different frame of reference. Sometimes I will participate in a touch or audio tour, but I 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 museums more accessible to me; they subjugate the ways in which I learn and govern my participation in contemporary art.

When I started using a white cane, I asked my partner at the time to paint an eyeball on its rolling ball tip. I didn’t agree with the terms that using the cane required me to accept, and I thought that the image of an eyeball would help lighten the burden of having to stand behind something that I didn’t really believe in. At the time, I was in my first year at a small liberal-arts college on a forested mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia, and only weeks earlier had admitted that reading literary-theory printouts was too much of a strain on my eyes. I got in the habit of using the new appendage on familiar routes and began to like how the cane would find steps and curbs so my foot wouldn’t have to. It wasn’t long before the painted eyeball wore off and I was brainstorming all the things that could replace it.

Carmen Papalia. Long Cane, 2009. Performance object; dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Kristin Rochelle Lantz.

Carmen Papalia. Long Cane, 2009. Performance object; dimensions variable. Courtesy Kristin Rochelle Lantz.

While it allowed me to feel my surroundings without having to get on my hands and knees, the white cane worked more like a surrender flag than the all-seeing eye that I hoped it would be. I would wave it around, thinking that it would reveal a worthwhile path to follow, but instead its reflective white tape would catch the eye of someone who desperately wanted to grab my arm and help me to cross the street. The white cane entrusted a sighted community with my care when all I needed was to be supported in learning through my nonvisual senses. Feeling the social and cultural distance between me and the visual culture that had become so alien, I ordered a bunch of aluminum canes from a manufacturer in Manitoba with the hope that I might unpack the troubling dynamics at play and invent a more suitable system of access.

Once my order arrived, I dumped the contents of the box onto my living-room floor and started deconstructing each cane by hand, separating each aluminum segment from the next until I had the makings of a recombinant cane that would surely consume the length of my apartment if assembled. I collected and moved all that I needed to the alley and started piecing together Long Cane (2009), a performance object that I would later activate on short walks in Vancouver and elsewhere. With Long Cane in hand, I could reach much further than was possible with my standard-issue white cane—almost eight times as far—thereby establishing a buffer that would keep unwanted help at bay. Even better, I could throw a bit of the difficulty of negotiating public space as a cane user back at the world by becoming an imposing moving obstacle for others. At last, I could reinforce my presence while negotiating public space on my terms.

Eventually, I began questioning some of the other terms that came bundled with my disability identity. I wrote a list poem of “I want” statements, declaring everything from “I want to use the library” to “I want everyone that I meet to have an attractive voice.” [sic] Then I scanned through the list and started cutting language like legally blind and retinitis pigmentosa because I felt like the institutions that had produced this language—with their theories and practices regarding rehabilitation and normalcy—were subjugating the bodies of knowledge that I could access from my unique position. Finally, I wrote the words nonvisual learner and, from that point on, began to identify as such.

Stumbling upon the term nonvisual learner allowed me to recognize the value in my process of gathering a sense of place and was the catalyst for a body of work that realizes disability experience as a liberatory space. The first project in this series is Blind Field Shuttle (2010), a perceptual tour in which up to fifty people can walk with me with eyes closed through urban and rural spaces. 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 nonvisual senses for a prolonged 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 become available through the nonvisual senses.

This opening of my experience, and the ways in which I continue to make relationships and approach learning, 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 the process, as I appreciate learning exchanges that are mutual and interdependent. This approach has helped me find a strong community of allies and mentors that I continue to draw energy from and who have been integral to the progression of my thoughts around art and disability.

Attempting to produce a system of access for myself that would better serve my needs than a white cane, I created 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, 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 implement, on any occasion, might touch and give rise to 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 noninstitutional—and non-institutionalizing—solution for the problem of the white cane.

Carmen Papalia. The Touchy Subject, 2013. Perceptual tour, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Filip Wolak.

Carmen Papalia. The Touchy Subject, 2013. Perceptual tour, dimensions variable. Courtesy Filip Wolak.

By taking on projects such as Mobility Device and Blind Field Shuttle, I came 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 inspired me to consider everything from how cultures might have evolved if the origins of communication had centered on the tactile sense to what a typical museum experience for the nonvisual learner might be. I condensed my thinking on these topics into an article for a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly and drafted a list of interventions that would reframe access in the museum as an open creative process. Near the end of the article, I offered my services as an access coordinator to any institution that would have me. The Guggenheim Museum eventually responded to my provocations and invited me to conduct The Touchy Subject (2013), a series of one-on-one, eyes-closed touch tours with visitors. Participants felt their way through the museum, laying their hands on the building itself and objects from the collection for which I had arranged touching privileges. The project 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 a gesture that destabilizes visual primacy by expanding what is currently known as visual culture.

Carmen Papalia. The Touchy Subject, 2013. Perceptual tour, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Filip Wolak. (2)

Carmen Papalia. The Touchy Subject, 2013. Perceptual tour, dimensions variable. Courtesy Filip Wolak.

While The Touchy Subject established a temporary system of access to the cultural activity of viewership, I felt a more direct action was necessary in order to sustain the instances of institutional permeability achieved by that project. Thus I developed an engagement that will play out at Gallery Gachet in 2015, in which I will support community members from diverse backgrounds in determining the metrics for an independent accessibility audit of a museum, where the terms of the audit are based on their very subjective perceptions of what is accessible. Currently, decisions concerning visitor access and experience are made by museum administrators without public consultation, resulting in a public institution and platform for cultural exchange that does not serve a vast and diverse majority of the population. While building legislation ensures that a museum is accessible to those with physical-access needs, and public-program initiatives encourage the participation of certain target demographics, the museum experience primarily remains a privileged activity for the educated and able few. However, if the accessibility of a museum were approached as a mutable collective process, a museum would become accessible to multiple publics as their needs change and as the institution itself evolves. To make this happen, individuals must help, by defining their access needs and preferences—whether they identify as disabled or not—so accessibility can be realized as an open cultural practice through which participants can claim the support that will empower them to thrive.