“Provisional Structures” — Carmen Papalia with Vo Vo and jes sachse
by Sandee Moore
In a tangle of poles supporting a scaffold of plywood slabs spiralling toward the gallery ceiling above my head, I spot a red string. Stretched from pole to pole, it carves a zigzagging path through the thicket of metal, delivering me into a circular opening. This is my experience of artist Carmen Papalia’s Provisional Structures 1 (2020) a towering construction of wood and metal scaffolding, sandbags, mirrors, and string. Papalia has reimagined an accessibility ramp as an armature with an enormous black speaker dome shrouding the circular seating area at its heart. The installation composes one part of the larger exhibition “Provisional Structures” curated by Nicolle Nugent featuring the work of Carmen Papalia in collaboration with Vo Vo and jes sachse.
The MacKenzie has dedicated its largest gallery space to “Provisional Structures,” signalling the significance of accessibility to the institution. Papalia has filled the immense gallery with Provisional Structures 1, via architecture that is both monumental and temporary. Papalia collaborated with architectural designer Micheal Lis to realize the structure. Truly provisional, these rough-and-ready building materials speak of disaster and restoration, ready to be thrown up and torn down as needed.
The scaffolding ramp underscores how access is always a work in progress. In the exhibition’s didactic materials, Nugent describes the ramp structure as representing not only physical access, but also dreams of social change. In other words, while power is realized in the built environment, Nugent and Papalia are more interested in how architecture can effect the dream of a more accessible world.
When I enter the sound dome placed at the centre of the installation’s surrounding ramps, I am enveloped by dim lighting. Inside the dome’s resonating chamber is a sonorous recording of artist Vo Vo’s presentation on the principles of trauma informed care for the Portland Disability Justice Collective’s 2020 online conference. At first, I uneasily circle the dome’s makeshift seats, avoiding my reflection in the surrounding mirrors. Eventually, Vo Vo’s careful speech and deliberate cadence lull me. In this cozy, dusky enclosure I am free to open myself up to Vo Vo’s words—a mellifluous architecture of sound.
Urged by a question posed in the exhibition’s didactic panel—“How does it feel to travel up a provisional structure?”—I ascend the ramp. I climb across plywood sheets laid over a bed of timbers and clamped to supporting scaffolding. Although I know that the institution wouldn’t permit access to an unsafe structure, this climb still feels risky. I wonder if a misstep will send me crashing to the ground, into a tumult of boards and pillars. I dare myself to look over the edge where the ramp cuts off in a dead end. The climb recalls the often incomplete, shaky nature of institutional efforts toward accessibility.
Alongside Provisional Structures 1, jes sachse’s installation Take All the Time You Need (2020) delivers another kind of access. sachse’s ebullient humour invites viewers into the space to laugh. A wooden slat bench placed in front of Provisional Structures 1 faces away from the daunting edifice and toward a monumental grid of brass plaques that stretches from ceiling to floor (a considerable height). Each plaque is inscribed not with a donor’s name, as we have come to expect from this sort of display, but with the phrase “I need a minute.” One is tempted to do the math, which totals just under 23 hours or slightly less than a full day. This kind of addition makes visible the overwhelming need to commit time to resting, recovering, and processing. As I considered sitting on the bench, I discovered the bite of sachse’s wit: the legs of the bench were splintered and spongy with mould. Surely this seat would collapse under my weight. This is not merely a puckish prank on the artist’s part, but a calling out of insufficient and derelict structures for accessibility.
“Provisional Structures” asks us to value the insubstantial. By pointing out the shortcomings of piecemeal, decaying, and ad hoc institutional solutions to accessibility, Papalia, Vo Vo, and sachse highlight a yearning to build relationships of mutual support based on the understanding that an accessibility policy is not a fixed structure, but ever-evolving, always under construction. Institutions must also experience the uncertainty of “travelling up a provisional structure.” This exhibition offers nothing so settled as a permanent architecture—it proposes a process for a more accessible world, built out of relationships, actions, and time.