by Whitney Mashburn and Carmen Papalia
Meaningful inclusion necessitates investment in long-term interpersonal relationships, between artists, institutions, curators, educators, publics and surrounding communities. The interrelationships of the individuals within a space define the accessibility of the place, and these relationships are a product of lasting, intentional care. In the privileged arena of the museum, a radically new order can be created through a series of commitments that transfer value from objects to people, both as audience members and content-creators. Here, we focus on the responsibility of institutions and curators to activate these relationships so that individuals who are marginalized can claim access to cultural platforms.
This is the story of how we convened around these ideas and came to clarify how inclusion can be meaningful. We have been collaborating on a project that reimagines accessibility and challenges the visual primacy of art institutions, entitled Let’s Keep in Touch (2016–present). Through the project, we are investigating non-visual learning and tactile aesthetics through the development of a methodology for haptic criticism, and publicly crowdsourcing vocabulary for tactile description of object-based art. The project has undergone two phases thus far; dialogue and participation have played key roles in both. Within the first phase, Whitney selected 16 artists whose work held an engaging tactile aesthetic, and Carmen contacted these artists, entering into dialogue about tactile access to their work. The resulting exhibition1 presented: excerpts from these conversations in both printed and audible forms; two interactive sculptural works with complete tactile access;2 and an opportunity for exhibition visitors to document their own descriptions of the works’ tactual qualities via writing or voice recording. The second phase, at the Queens Museum in New York City, centred youth input in the production of museum object descriptions. We shared a dialogue with local young people, who had responded to an open call from the museum, in which we discussed methodology for touching and evaluating objects for tactile qualities.3 We then listened as they interacted with the objects and each recorded their impressions via conversation and writing. These interactions spurred further thought investigated in our current writing and research, exhibition content and future planning of exchanges between Carmen and author Georgina Kleege.
Each of these iterations caused us to think more deeply about inclusion and meaningful participation, and what is required of institutions to develop rapport and long-lasting relationships with art professionals and community members. We have also been considering what meaningful participation means for those from marginalized positions who are entering art practice, criticism and the appreciation of art—whether they have complex needs, experience multiple systemic barriers or learn in ways that are not meaningfully supported. Through this essay, we share insights into these musings on meaningful inclusion, noting the difference between that and tokenism, and highlighting goals and challenges for better implementation.
Meaningful inclusion is all about dedicating space, dialogue, care and action to concepts that previously have not been seriously considered. For instance, institutions in the contemporary art landscape do not typically integrate works with reference to disability, and if such works are exhibited, it is through special programming or “separate but equal” educational departments’ interpretation and not within general curatorial schema and practice. It is vital for the progression of art institutions to critically engage topics of disability within their curatorial rigour. All too often, inclusivity is tokenistic, such that the institution includes topical programming thought to be representative of individuals who are marginalized, but these efforts are evaluated on the basis of institutional benefit. Inclusion that is meaningful necessitates a transformational effort toward publicness, emerging from naming and addressing foundational barriers responsible for the vast inequities between those with access and those without.
Carmen Papalia: Inclusion was something different for me when I was starting out as an artist. I was trying to find my place within a field that was built on the study of visual culture as someone who learns with their non-visual senses. What made sense to me at the time was to identify my position and say that I experienced my surroundings non-visually. The qualifier “non-visual” helped me stop feeling like someone who was “blind” and I soon realized that I had access to entire unseen bodies of knowledge from my position. I knew there weren’t many like me practising as artists. In fact, I learned that many of my non-visual friends had never set foot in a museum; they didn’t think there would be anything for them to do. And even when there was—usually in the form of a specially programmed touch or descriptive tour—it was a poor consolation for the privileged visual art experience.
Years later, while presenting a workshop at the Baltimore Art Gallery, I remember getting halfway through my story about the practice of looking being a choice—and the museum being an institution that enforces visual primacy—and feeling like what I was saying was more for the group than it was for my own sense of belonging. It was one of the first times that I felt like I had privileged access to the museum. At the same time, I knew just how little currency my access held in that context.
Whitney Mashburn: I came to curating seeking to integrate accessibility into the practice of contemporary art curation, combining my work in disability services offices, where I collaborated with students to create new accommodations, and as an art historical researcher in galleries, archives and academia. Also, following a series of workplace exposures, I developed a chemical intolerance, which has increasingly reconfigured my own access to public spaces. Wanting to rethink accessibility beyond the legal stipulations required of institutions to provide simple physical access, I undertook studies and practice in curating, in which I found the arena to test ideas of inclusion in theory and practice. It is here that I began looking for others who were thinking similarly about integrating a social understanding of accessibility within curating.
I found that most individuals working in disability studies or in the arts were unaware of each other’s work—facilitating this dialogue is at the core of my practice, as I want to share insights across the respective fields. Though most people I encountered were confused as I did not fit into a neat category, through my research, I found an innovator already making strides in rethinking contemporary curating in light of disability theory and practice: Amanda Cachia. It is through her writing that I found two insights: I was not alone in my efforts, and there was an artist exemplifying these ideas, Carmen Papalia.
CP: Since I was entering the field as an outsider, I made sure to only accept opportunities that wouldn’t further marginalize me. When Amanda Cachia invited me to show my work as part of her first exhibition that engaged the topic of disability in contemporary art, Medusa’s Mirror: Fears, Spells, and Other Transfixed Positions (2011), I made a point of identifying my work as social practice rather than associating it with the disability arts movement. This was my first exhibition opportunity and I wanted to reach a mainstream audience: a group with problematic perceptions that my work could somehow help shift. I felt politically aligned with Cachia and knew that we were similarly frustrated with the state of disability discourse in contemporary art. For me, her shows were a platform to a new space, where disability was central and disabled artists were vital to the progression of the field. Through working with Cachia, I realized that disability had been ever-present in art history; it just was rarely acknowledged.
When Whitney approached me with an opportunity to produce an exhibition for her thesis, it was a chance to take a risk that she would help me pull off with minimal damage. After our first conversation, I knew Whitney trusted me and was open to meeting the challenge of a risky project, even though her thesis depended on it. I knew she would be my advocate and help establish a context for my work that served its purpose; working with her was a mutually collaborative exchange.
The dynamics of our relationship motivated me to bring Whitney a proposal that curators at major institutions had politely passed on. With Whitney on my side, I could finally set a precedent for critical haptic engagement and explore its implications in the museum and other contemporary art contexts; something that me and my mentor, Georgina Kleege—a fellow non-visual learner—had only ever speculated about. I asked Whitney to curate a list of living artists whose work she felt would offer an engaging tactile experience. The challenge of this unorthodox request and what it meant in the museum context—where tactile access is reserved for curators, conservators and the odd, gloved non-visual visitor—was the catalyst for weekly conversations about how Whitney and I would advocate for the project in a field that would inevitably be unsettled by it.
WM: Keeping an open dialogue facilitated a fluid collaboration between Carmen and me, and allowed us to pivot around initial defensive responses to our touchy topic. Our first proposal, to allow the public to touch museum collection objects, was tactfully refused by three institutions, so we shifted our approach to directly engage artists in conversation about tactile access to their works, which became the fulfilled first iteration of Let’s Keep in Touch. Through this method, we not only achieved tactile access to contemporary works, but also gained documentation of rich conversations shared between Carmen and other artists.
It is conversation and collaboration that, as tools, can enable disruption of norms and progression of social change through care, intention and listening. As my discussions with Carmen evolved, it became clearer that he approached his practice as an engaging dialogue, and that we shared an ardency for asking, “why not?” to institutional policies entrenched in stigma surrounding disability politics. We both wanted to expand the definition of how access was understood in art institutions, beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, toward an embodied approach, subverting existing privilege and creating new thinking about inclusion. Early in our collaboration, I described Carmen’s art practice as “a playfully subversive yet inquisitive and constructive dialogue to sensitize, reframe, and broaden our manner of ‘seeing’ and experiencing art and our surrounding environment. He uses the social tool of conversation to challenge institutional accessibility and prompt exploration of… perception.”4 Since then, he has not only engaged these methods through his art making but also via direct consultation with institutional leaders.
CP: In the summer of 2018, I received one of 10 Host Your Own Engagement (HYOE) grants from the City of Vancouver’s cultural department as part of its Creative City Strategy, a recent initiative to follow up on their 2008 cultural plan and produce a document to guide the distribution of resources in Vancouver’s cultural sector over the next 10 years. HYOE’s mission was to support organizations in holding public consultation-style events with community members at the margins of Vancouver’s cultural sector so the city could hear directly from those for whom access, support and representation was limited.
Following my last few years of work with the community at Gallery Gachet, a collectively run space that has demystified issues of mental health in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood since 1993, I partnered with Other Sights for Artist Projects to produce a panel and series of presentations by community members about the state of discourse regarding accessibility.
After learning that Accessible Canada, a new federal accessibility plan from Employment and Social Development Canada, failed to address ableism, social accessibility and the ongoing and intergenerational effects of colonization, I felt it necessary to frame the HYOE program by asking what accessibility might mean if institutions were to acknowledge systemic barriers and traditions of cultural violence. Accessible Canada’s 2017 online survey reached less than 1% of the population that “lives with a condition that limits their participation in one or more daily activities,” and the initiative’s “priority areas” were informed by a cross-country consultation process that resulted in the exclusion of community members living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood altogether.5
I didn’t want to bear witness to yet another consultation resulting in a tokenizing program that organizers could celebrate as an institutional investment in a community that they played a role in marginalizing. Knowing that the HYOE consultations were intended to inform Vancouver’s own cultural plan, I wanted to represent deep-rooted barriers to access that those at the margins face when accessing cultural resources in Vancouver; and show just how vast the gap between those who have access and those who don’t is when the effects of ableism and its intersections with other forms of oppression guide one’s approach to accessibility.
WM: In observing how the practice of artists working along the lines of disability politics has been presented and received, though my own work, and in discussions with other curators seeking to incorporate accessibility, the same frustration emerges: inclusion of work not in exhibitions but through public programming, outreach,and/or educational departments. Even in preparing access-topical projects, it is common to find only limited funding for programming through a public outreach designation, and no budget or staff allocated to exhibition components of the project. This is not unfamiliar to those working at the intersection of disability studies and contemporary art.
Though inclusion via outreach departments is a good start, we must do better. Why should the critical discourse of disability be approached with any difference than other dialogues of race, gender or class, topics that often headline major shows? Why should artworks be relegated outside of mainstream curating just because they engage critical discourses of disability or access? Cachia devotes a discussion to this very conundrum in her 2014 essay, “Disability, Curating, and the Educational Turn: The Contemporary Condition of Access in the Museum.”6 Such an integration necessitates listening, care and allowance for fluidity of roles. There is much benefit for institutions, especially those with more rigid organizational configurations, to embrace flexibility of roles and efforts, both across departments and inside/outside museum walls.
Institutionally, meaningful inclusion requires a mutual exchange with individuals who are disabled. It is a great responsibility, as curators, that we do not speak out of turn for those whose own voices can better tell their own story. In order for disability politics to vitally inform curatorial premise within institutions, curators need to: understand access in social rather than physical terms; assess any attitudinal barriers inherent in their own practice and disrupt ableism; listen to, centre and learn from those in the disability community who hold embodied forms of knowledge; and then rebuild their own intellectual rigour to be respectfully and intentionally inclusive. For institutional decision-makers, inclusion requires the allocation of resources to support projects engaging topics of disability. Arts leaders need to know what it means to disrupt ableism and be open to a radical reorientation of the field, guided by those at the margins. An excerpt from Carmen’s Open Access project lends clear direction:
“Let’s not forget that offering support requires us to listen, realize our privilege, redistribute our access, step aside, and let those who are seeking support lead the conversation about their own well-being. It requires us to acknowledge the disabling social, cultural, and political conditions that the institutions that we are dedicated to enforce. It requires us to admit the injustice that we have perpetrated or been complicit in and then participate in reparation, reconciliation, and a radical restructuring of power. It requires the systems and practices that those in need rely upon to undergo radical change. My hope is [to] help guide some of the challenging work ahead and transform accessibility into a cultural practice that is central to the ways we relate to each other. My hope is that we organize for accessibility from the grassroots and invest in the formal and informal support networks that keep the most vulnerable people in our communities alive.”7