This essay was written in conjunction with Carmen Papalia on view at CUE Art Foundation September 7 - October 12, 2013.
We know immediately upon encountering the work of Canadian artist and poet Carmen Papalia that he can’t see very well. Signifiers of the artist’s visual impairment are at the center of Papalia’s multimedia installations, whether in the form of altered white canes, or in still- and moving-image documentation of projects in which Papalia re-imagines the meaning of “access,” particularly in museums that purport to care about outreach, education, and diversity, but accomplish little more than marketing campaigns. Papalia wants to change this. First and foremost he wants to change this for himself, but we get to come along too, buoyed by the enormous generosity, wit, and mischievousness that flows through the artist and his work. Papalia even invites us to engage him directly, installing his contact information on the walls of his exhibitions.
Papalia is “visually impaired,” not “blind,” and not “disabled.” For him the distinction is critical—“impaired” describes a simple reduction in vision, but the terms “blind” and “disabled” carry negative, marginalizing connotations and social stigmas. Papalia also uses the phrase “non-visual learner” to describe himself; we all learn non-visually to varying degrees. Using poetry and Fluxus-inspired language experiments, Papalia ruptures the constraints of disability’s outmoded descriptors; in doing so, he is inspired by the scholarship of University of Michigan Professor Tobin Siebers and UC Berkeley English Professor Georgina Kleege, who are reshaping the field of “disability studies.” The “disabled” body has also been re-envisioned in recent exhibitions by San Francisco artist Katherine Sherwood, and independent curator Amanda Cachia. In 2012, Cachia curated the remarkable “What Can a Body Do?,” an exhibition comprised of artists (including Papalia) exploring transformative modes of human embodiment and creating new language to describe their unique physical and sensory realities. In Cachia’s words: “Complex embodiment argues that the perception and experience of disability are complex, nuanced, and individual . . . What would it mean to stretch the perceived contours of material bodies, where identity is not understood as essential but as a complex coding of experience?”1
Papalia uses both the spoken and written word to “recode” everyday and institutional actualities. In fact, his first creative endeavor was writing. It was during his studies as an undergraduate English major at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC that Papalia experienced the onset of his retinitis pigmentosa, and the slow steady advancement of his visual impairment. As his eyesight declined, Papalia continued to write poetry, and to read his work in public, but he began to experiment with performative expressions of the sensory reorientation taking place within and around him. By this time using a standard-issue white cane to aid his locomotion, Papalia incorporated the clicks and taps of his new appendage into his poetry, reading in public and using his cane as a percussive instrument. Papalia also began transcribing the sounds around him, creating observational lists—poems in their own right—designed to chart and remap space, translating and “making flesh” his moving body. These poetic lists are full of the eidetic and anecdotal richness of great travel writing, and their cascading lines echo the snaking forms into which Papalia organizes the participants of his ongoing Blind Field Shuttle walking tours. Papalia often describes such forms and interactions as “chain reactions.”
In Papalia’s “tours,” the chain reaction consists of a group of participants organized into an interdependent, investigatory organism. During the tour Papalia guides groups of approximately fifty people each through the streets of various cities. Papalia instructs participants to place a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, close their eyes, and draw their senses to the world around them. Papalia leads the shuttle, delivering important details about the physical environment to the person behind him who transmits the information down the chain as in a game of telephone. Papalia exhibits documentation of these journeys, and has devised sophisticated ways to record the audio experience of the tours’ participants for subsequent installation in the context of the museum. Though the Blind Field Shuttle events are playful—participants invariably laugh at their persistent failures to stick together and walk steadily—the documentary footage shows participants fearfully negotiating screeching traffic, strange smells, uneven surfaces, and the inevitable breaking of the human daisy-chain.
The Blind Field Shuttle tours are a form of spatial mapping that may be understood in the artistic tradition of the Situationist dérive, and the psycho-geographic re-inscription of space found in the work of artists such as Janet Cardiff and Francis Alÿs. In keeping with these antecedents, the tours are designed to awaken more authentic and poetic forms of social experience. In June of 2013, Papalia performed Mobility Device, a related city-based “derive” created in collaboration with the Great Centurian Marching Band from Century High School in Santa Ana California. The band created an unconventional score for navigating the artist throughout the city. Papalia had to rely entirely on the nuances of the notes to guide him as the band’s eccentric sounds wafted through the neighborhood.
The city, of course, was the project’s “third man,” its presence registered within the “call and response” of Papalia’s movements and the shifting composition of the marching band.
With authenticity and risk come expressions of self-reflection and doubt, and Papalia is transparent about the difficulties of his visual impairment, incorporating these thoughts into his work with a deeply refreshing honesty. In one of the first poems Papalia published after losing much of his sight, he created a list of “synonyms” (in his words) describing his new reality: “I am,” he wrote, “unconscious / undiscerning / unmindful …” As opposed to portraying his situation with saccharine positivity, Papalia reveals his insecurity and sense of vulnerability, creating a radical opening for shared understanding and empathy. Throughout his work Papalia continually re-establishes his connect to others, demythologizing his visual impairment within a methodology of social engagement that forms the essence of his artistic and literary practice.
In Long Time No See, Papalia includes the long poem “I Want” in two large columns applied to the walls of the gallery. Papalia authored “I Want” after he moved to Portland, Oregon in 2010 to begin the MFA program in Social Practice at Portland State University. Like Joe Brainard’s elegiac first-person narrative “I Remember”, Papalia’s “I Want” is a list of private desires (“I want to be handled by strangers”) and humorous cultural reflections (“I want to be commended by Jon Stewart for my strength”) each line beginning with the phrase “I want.” The poem includes subtle instructions to the reader (“I want people to talk a bit louder because I can’t see them”) alongside statements that destabilize the predilection of the reader to conceptualize the artist as a victim of his circumstances (“I want to spy on people and steal things”). In “I Want,” Papalia replaces static signifiers of blindness (the rotated, listening head; the white cane) with a complex social texture by, in the artist’s words, “inviting others into something, as opposed to showing them an object of my experience.”2
Many of Papalia’s socially engaged projects have been catalyzed by the accoutrements and objects that his visual impairment has forced him to incorporate into his daily life, in particular the white “blind man’s” cane institutionalized in America by George A. Bonham of the Lion’s Club International. Papalia radicalized one of his own canes by extending it to twelve feet long (Long Cane, 2009). Walking the city with this imposingly long cane, Papalia sought to literalize and demarcate his experience of public space—to demonstrate its sensory embodiment to those around him. At CUE, Papalia has installed the words “chain reaction” near the cane. Here the phrase reinforces our understanding of Papalia’s mission to interrupt and re-transcribe unconsciously accepted notions of mobility and spatial experience, both in public space and within the lived architecture of the visual arts.
Over the past few years Papalia has been working with museum education departments around the country to help them develop methods for enriching the non-visual experiences of their audiences—teaching them how to “see” their collections anew. In June 2013, Papalia collaborated with the education department of the Whitney Museum of American Art, creating the project See For Yourself. The Whitney’s educators were guided through exercises designed to re-attune them to the spatial nuances of the museum and the multi-sensory capacities of visitors of all ages. In one exercise that engaged space and sense through “trust,” participants formed two equal lines in front of an outdoor sculpture by Alexander Calder. A participant from the first line stood in front of the sculpture, while a participant from the second line ran toward the sculpture with her eyes closed. The participant standing in front of the Calder sculpture yelled “stop” before the runner reached the sculpture. After the first group finished, participants switched roles and repeated the task. Other exercises focused on learning how to describe works in the museum using anecdotes and metaphor instead of formal visual characteristics or identifying information. Standing in front of Alexander Calder’s Circus, for instance, Papalia remarked: “Instead of going up to Calder’s Circus and saying ‘We are approaching Calder’s Circus,’ one might say ‘We are standing in front of a lion.’” Papalia encouraged the educators to speak from personal experience, and for several days following the workshop, the educators approached museum visitors, offering them “tours with their eyes closed.”3
For Papalia, the descent into visual impairment has resulted in the emergence of a liberatory, phenomenological expansiveness. Instead of privatizing this experience within a discourse of interiority or an identity politics of “disability,” the artist has spent the last ten years making works that seek to enlist the viewers of—or, participants in—his work in acts of collective affinity, risk, and joy. When captured in exhibition form, nearly all of Papalia’s works rely upon being seen to make sense to viewers who must, by definition, be sighted to experience them. Seeing, for Papalia, is a subject and a subject-position that becomes, alternately: the catalyst for his work; the instrument of his work; and the embodiment of his work, which, in the words of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “seeks to articulate experiences ‘from the inside, as the human individual lives them.’”4 Making art allows Papalia to unfold the world around him in accordance with his own singular mode of vision.
Writer Stephanie Snyder is the Anne and John Hauberg Director and Curator of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, a position she has held since 2003. A graduate of Reed College and Columbia University, Snyder is the curator of exhibitions including: Jamie Isenstein: Will Return (2013); Kara Walker, More & Less (2012); Bruce Nauman, Basements (2012); Terry Winters: Linking Graphics (2010);David Reed, Lives of Paintings (2008); and Sutapa Biswas: Birdsong (2006). In 2007, Snyder received a Curatorial Research Fellowship from the Getty Foundation. She is a regular contributor to Artforum.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Jonathan and son Theo.
Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America, for which she continues to write regularly; other publications to which she has also contributed include Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her monograph on Hannah Wilke was published by Prestel in 2010; her essays have also appeared in monographs on Michelle Stuart, Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, fall 2013). At present Princenthal is writing a book about Agnes Martin. Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.
Notes: 1. Amanda Cachia, “Introduction,” in What Can a Body Do? exhibition catalog, page 6. 2. From Carmen Papalia, A New Model for Access in the Museum,” Museum Experience and Blindness; Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol 33, No 3. 3. This observational data was recorded for the author by See for Yourself guest Elizabeth Bidart. Additional support research was conducted by Nicholas Irvin in Portland, Oregon. Many thanks to them both for their meticulous work. 4 David Brubaker, “Merleau-Ponty’s Eye and Mind, Re-thinking the Visible,” in Journal of Contemporary Thought, 17 (Summer, 2003).
The author extends her warmest thanks to Carmen Papalia for his generous engagement with the writing of this essay. Sincere thanks to CUE, especially coordinator Lilly Wei, and to nominator Lawrence Rinder, for this wonderful opportunity, and to essay mentor Nancy Princenthal for her truly generous support, wisdom, and insight.