Carmen Papalia is interested in new orientations or encounters towards objects and space through the obstruction of vision. By creating enforced situations where his participants are blinded as they engage with objects and spaces, they will acquire new or alternative perceptions within this unfamiliar orientation towards the world. In his attempt to provide new directions towards objects and spaces, the artist is showing the participants—and us, as observers—what new possibilities may exist within new orientations towards matter. More specifically, what are the implications for the body’s new perceptive relationship with matter when they are blinded, and how and what knowledge is acquired by what we cannot see? Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is “no longer merely an object in the world,” rather “it is our point of view in the world.”3 I aim to think about how these ‘points of view’ or new orientations can provide political objecthood towards and for the figure of the blind subject. Can the blind subject acquire agency within a phenomenological reading of Papalia’s practice? If walking, stumbling and turning and consequently encountering objects and spaces are based on blind orientation, is there empowerment to be had by such movement to the new points of view?
I examine several forms of testimony and anecdotes of experiences engaging with the work of Papalia, ranging from the written responses by students and faculty and statements from the artist himself as a theoretical methodology that gives shape and form to this essay. These sensorial perceptions of walking, stumbling and turning in moments where vision is removed, either forcibly or acquired over time (ie. gradual vision loss experienced by Papalia) are what substantiates the new points of view. ‘View’ in this sense, is a view where vision is only one player on a much larger field of other equally important players, and that is exactly my intention on this ‘play’ of words. ‘View’ can encapsulate many other sensorial experiences, ranging from tactility and deep pressure, kinesthetic, vestibular and vision, but the ‘view’ may also encompass multiple modalities in which the senses receive information, ranging from pain, smell, the temperature, taste and more. Points of ‘view’ then are enhanced, emboldened and emblazoned by ‘views’ that challenge not only the ontological, biological and physiological ‘sense’ of vision, but also rather, on the flip side, give the reader ‘access’ to ‘views’ that are not easily attainable. Further, S. Kay Toombs says that “Points in space do not represent merely objective positions but rather they mark the varying range of my aims and gestures.”4 The ‘points’ of view in the title of this essay then can also be considered from this perspective, where the aims and gestures enacted in space also give us an entirely new orientation, reading and rendering of the senses, vision and otherwise. The phenomenology of lived experience, then, is important because the body itself becomes a sign of political discourse – the body has political objecthood that has power to demonstrate certain truisms about the world in which we live, or at least, to destabilize what we may have previously thought as universally true for a range of human subjects.
What follows is a detailed description of the walks that Papalia gave at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. I had invited Papalia to lead several walks as part of a round-table conversation that I initiated and hosted at CCA entitled What Can a Body Do? Investigating Disability in Contemporary Art in February, 2012.5 Papalia led three walks from 2-5pm, and in that time, approximately 60 people from the college participated, ranging from students to faculty members. The walk was included in the syllabus for an Embodiment class being co-taught by Julian Carter, Hilary Bryan and Aiden Gleisburg, and they asked the students to submit a response to their experiences during the walk. This is an outline of several of the anonymous student responses that sheds light on their multi-modal experiences:
Putting our hand on each other’s shoulders and shouting whenever there was something up ahead helped me to feel secure but also more connected with myself. Having all these thoughts run through my mind like ‘Where am I?’ or ‘Will I fall?’ makes me realize how much of my body relies on sight. After the tour I wanted to keep exercising these sorts of things to become more aware of myself, my body and my embodied ‘soul.’
I found my senses becoming more aware. For example, I heard a car passing very near me, but also, I felt it as my clothes moved according to the car’s speed passing by. It is something I would not be able to feel normally… it was a mind opening experience about the potential of my senses.
The person I entrusted [in front of me] had a fuzzy coat and heeled boots that clapped along loudly as we walked. I closed my eyes and the world went away…I stumbled along, stepping on my partner’s shoes, trying to listen to the directions and trying not to open my eyes in panic. This feeling subsided and I felt my need to see lessen, and my need to hear and feel grow.
I really enjoyed being conscious about the different colors that my eyelids filtered in. The sun and the trees made a beautiful dance of shadows and colors. I felt two splashes of something on my left arm. My eyes opened for less than a second and I thought I had seen a bird poop but I wasn’t sure, but I knew that in any case I would have to wait till the end of the walk so I spent the rest of the time wondering if I had my whole arm covered in poop or if I even had poop on my arm or if it was part of my imagination.
The most notable experience I felt while participating in the walk was the difficulty of physically moving while being sandwiched between forty or
so bodies and having to rely on the movements of these people in order to move myself.
These comments reveal that for most of the students, the walk was about experiences of acquiring new points of ‘view’: what the bird poop feels like on my arm (and not knowing for certain if it is poop or not) , which in turn demonstrates how that individual relies on the so-called ‘truth’ of her vision to solidify that it is in fact bird poop. The experience is also about space, or being confined by other bodies, or how clothing feels and sounds through the fuzzy coat and heeled boots. In this context, interest in the other senses can become more urgent. The imagination is also sparked. The students were able to grasp new ways of orienting themselves in a familiar environment that became dynamically unfamiliar through the walk. This moment of disorientation and reorientation continues to be emphasized in Papalia’s first major solo exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation in New York, where thinking, interacting with and destabilizing access is par for the course.
In conclusion, Toombs argues that the lived body provides important insights into the “disruption of space and time that are an integral element of physical disability…a phenomenological account of bodily disorder discloses the emotional dimension of physical dysfunction.”6 She places emphasis and preference for her body as she lives it in the world which “represents my particular point of view on the world,” rather than thinking about her body “as an object among other objects of the world.”7 She further distinguishes that through this particular type of account or recording, the lived body is not objective, as though it is being looked at from the outside by others, but rather the body is experienced through a more interior or internalized view, and it is the “vehicle for seeing” in the more expansive sense (like my play on the word ‘view’).8 She says that the body is the center of orientation, and thus it should be here, rather than there. It is the body in which we locate and engage with the world, and Papalia’s work solidifies this and brings participants back to this realization again and again. He reminds us of the interstices, porousness, sensuousness, and the fabric of our bodies, the ability of the flesh to give and receive, to mark inside and outside.
Amanda Cachia is an independent curator from Sydney, Australia and is currently completing her PhD in Art History, Theory & Criticism at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation will focus on the intersection of disability and contemporary art.