A year or so ago I was having a conversation with Carmen about various project ideas. One of the ideas was to take an existing parking lot, or maybe a brand new parking lot, and put “handicapped parking” symbols in all but three or four of the spaces. I love the idea of frustrated motorists driving around in vain searching for a parking space, and that being part of Carmen's project which seen as a whole is equal parts sculptural, painting, performative and social commentary all in one. I hope there is a public art commission out there that will be willing to actually produce the piece, though even just as a conceptual idea its pretty good.
When Carmen first moved to Portland and was figuring out his way around town he kept bumping into low hanging tree limbs and other obstacles. I would often see him with a new scrape on his face or a black eye. His friend Jason gave him a digital camera so that he could document the obstacles. The pictures he took, when you knew the context they had been created in, were sad and funny at the same time.
Carmen said that in Vancouver there were more sound oriented walk signals at intersections than there were in Portland. Apparently, there is controversy in the “disabled community” about the value of sound oriented walk signals, though I could never understand exactly what the argument against them was, and Carmen seemed at a loss to be able to fully articulate it. Anyway, he had an idea which was for a day to set up along his daily walk route people at each intersection that didn’t already have a sound signal so that when the walk sign went on they would simulate the sound of a sound signal. He would then use the new temporary system to walk around safely for a day. I thought that was an extremely humorous idea, but I don’t think he has yet realized the project.
When Carmen joined the Art and Social Practice MFA that I direct at Portland State University as a student we had to adjust a few of our activities for him, which is something that we do for every student one way or another. We had previously been playing basketball as a group one day a week and realized that probably wouldn't work for Carmen so we tried a yoga class, but of course if you can't see the yoga instructor and don't already know the poses you can't really participate. Even though that is really very obvious somehow we didn't think about it in advance and Carmen just went along with the plan even though I think he was dubious from the start. I ended up trying to manually help him move into the various positions myself which was not really successful, but temporarily created an odd partner yoga moment. We then tried blindfolded soccer with the group to see how that worked, but we mostly stood around laughing while we waited for the ball to somehow roll to us. In the end to engage in some sort of physical activity we borrowed a tandem bike and another student, Adam, rode with Carmen which was apparently a positive experience for both of them. The whole situation was very instructive for me in learning about the ways that visual biases are so systemically built into so many parts of society.
Another aspect of the MFA program that was adjusted because of Carmen's involvement was the use of the term "visual." I had no problem with the idea of accepting a non-sighted student into the program, but in many ways had no idea how that would function given the emphasis that traditional MFA programs place on visual art. Even though our program is not traditional and I liked to think of it as very inclusive it turned out that there were still remnants of the dominant art culture strewn throughout class titles like "Teaching Visual Culture" our pedagogy class, and within expectations like the practice of having students present power point presentations about the development of their work at the end of each term. Carmen found interesting work arounds to all of the issues we presented him with, which is something he has gotten good at in general having to live in a visually dominated world.
I went through my own set of obstacles when I first arrived at the university and was faced with a systemic "studio" bias. Since the work that I did myself and wanted to teach was not studio based it was awkward being represented as part of the very orthodox "studio art" understanding of what art should be. Eventually, I was able to change the office title of what had been referred to as the general undergrad studio program to "art practice" and to create two tracks in the MFA one for studio practice and the other for social practice which felt more comfortable and reflective of what was going on in a more expansive view of the larger set of possibilities in the art world. There was still a tendency in the department and the public in general to think of everything as visual art. I tried repeatedly to point out that there was already a long history of non-visual audio based art etc, but the visual bias is hard to correct. Carmen has now graduated and we are still working to remove or at least expand on all of the visual biases built into the program.
Though there are various amazing elements within Carmen's work, one aspect is the way that simply inserting his difference into systems of institutions and society an awareness is created that highlights dominant structures and discriminations. It is all the better in Carmen's case that because of the nature of his personal attitude and his practice he is able to facilitate that necessary societal irritation in ways that are participatory, engaging, poignant, and often times hilarious as well.
Harrell Fletcher received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He has produced a variety of socially engaged collaborative and interdisciplinary projects since the early 1990s. His work has been shown at SF MoMA, the de Young Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Wattis Institute, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Drawing Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Sculpture Center, Smackmellon in NYC, The Royal College of Art in London, among others, and was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. In 2002 Fletcher started Learning To Love You More, a participatory website with Miranda July. A book version of LTLYM was published in 2007 by Prestel. Fletcher is the 2005 recipient of the Alpert Award in Visual Arts. He is an Associate Professor, Founder and Director of the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.