El Alto

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d/Deaf and Disability arts in the Americas

Introduction

Welcome to El Alto.

The second issue of the British Council’s review of arts and culture in the Americas is dedicated to the d/Deaf and disability arts movement and ‘crip’ culture. Anchored in the words of UK artist Yinka Shonibare’s bold declaration that disability arts is the last Avant-Garde arts movement, the publication brings views from d/Deaf and disabled artists, makers, and cultural leaders, all agitating towards a more just and equitable future – dismantling and building new worlds that make room for care, difference and disability culture.

This edition was co-edited with Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) and 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos (Mexico). We would like to thank the collaboration of Bodies in Translation (BIT).

Image of a rehearsal. Four performers are sitting on a wooden floor, almost intertwined. A wheelchair can be seen in the background.

Image from Mundana, a dance company established in 2017 by dancer and acrobat Inés Coronado in Peru.  Photo: Lucía Alfaro.

Acknowledgments

Series Editor: Pablo Rosselló
Issue Editors: Saada El-Akhrass, Sean Lee, Beatriz Miranda
Designer: Joseph Pochodzaj
Translators: Quentin Pope (Spanish/English), Patricia Oliver (English/Spanish)

With thanks to: Alejandra Szczepaniak, Alejandro Cervantes, Alex Bulmer, Andrés Milán, Auramarina Lazarde, Benjamín Mayer-Foulkes, Carla Rice, Carrie Hage, Colectivo No es Igual, Cristina Becker, Cyn Rozeboom, Daniela Fajardo, Diana Solano, Emma Campbell, Francis Tomkins, Heidi Persaud, Jo Verrent, Juliana Ferreira, Kayla Besse, Kaylyn Hamlyn, Lindsay Fisher, Lorena Martinez, Lucy Ralph, María García Holley, Pam Briz, Rodrigo Fernández de Gortari, Ruth Hogan, Salomé Esper, Sarah Frankland, Silvia Godinez, Simon M. Benedict, Sissi Hamman, Steven Brett, Susy Villafañe, Tracy Tidgwell, Valeria Zamparolo, Veronica Bergna, Victoria Cho, Wynsor Taylor, Yinka Shonibare CBE

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Amanda Cachia – USA

The Politics of Creative Access: Dis/ability in Curatorial Practice

In this excerpt, Amanda Cachia argues for curatorial practices that embody a “creative access” framework which centers considerations of access in the art-object, the exhibit, and the artist-curator relationship as a site of meaning-making and aesthetic possibility.

Two hands outside the frame reaching to touch a sculpture by Persimmon Blackbridge. The piece is titled “Soft Touch”, and is a handcrafted figure made of wood, bone and plastic to resemble a person constructed from found objects. It is mounted on a wood panel.

Soft Touch by Persimmon Blackbridge. 

I found myself not only paying attention to the artist and their work as part of conventional curatorial labor, but I also had to focus new energy into considering “access” in creative and conceptual ways that could be enlivened both practically and conceptually.

“Creative access” builds on the generally understood meaning of “access,” which is the ability to approach and use something. According to Elizabeth Elicessor, “access” typically encompasses qualities of ease such as “user-friendliness of a system, or financial affordability.” In a critical curatorial practice where curators are understood to provide “access” to an audience in terms of an exhibition’s content through objects, ideas and text, adding the word “creative” to curatorial “access” has a political agenda. The idea of “creative access” is manifold: on the one hand, the goal of “creative access” is to advance a more complex curatorial model for contemporary art exhibitions that can be made accessible to an array of complex embodiments. For example, American Sign Language, captioning, and written and audio translations of sound and image are embedded into the material, structural, and conceptual aspects of an exhibition. On the other hand, “creative access” also means an active curatorial engagement with artists who use “access” as a conceptual framework in their practice.  A curator’s notion of access and an artists’ interpretation of access are conflated and juxtaposed in an exhibition, providing a dynamic dialogic exchange between the physical and the conceptual, or the praxis and the theory. 

My stake in the work of “creative access” is from the perspective of a curator who identifies as physically disabled and who has been deploying “creative access” in all my exhibitions since 2011. Not only has my curatorial work engaged in “creative access,” but my exhibitions have also engaged in social justice themes focused on disability and the disabled body. I have curated these exhibitions with the ambition of transforming reductive associations of the disabled body at large, in tandem with introducing audiences to Tobin Siebers’ idea of “disability aesthetics,” by illustrating his concepts through the art objects on display and providing alternative definitions of aesthetics. My projects have also explored activist positions within specific disabled community groups, including people with dwarfism, people who are deaf and/or hearing impaired, and people who are blind and/or visually impaired. My commitment to these themes called for an equal but also robust commitment to “access” given that projects focused on disability must surely consider the audience member who identifies as disabled. Therefore, I found myself not only paying attention to the artist and their work as part of conventional curatorial labor, but I also had to focus new energy into considering “access” in creative and conceptual ways that could be enlivened both practically and conceptually. 

“Creative access” is an important tool to deploy within a critical dis/ability curatorial practice because it elevates and complicates our rudimentary, although no less important, understanding of “access” in the museum. This is because “creative access” embodies both conceptual and physical possibilities where the very idea of “access” can be discovered in an artists’ work fruitfully curated into exhibitions, and incorporated into projects under the leadership and imagination of the curator. “Creative access” then calls for curators to weave into their practice a new aspect that demands a consideration of a greater diversity of bodies. This diversity of bodies is represented both in the complex embodiment of and consequently the objects created by artists with whom they work, and the audiences that visit the museum and consume artists’ and curators’  ideas. What I am suggesting is that “creative access” perhaps offers a more compelling intellectual engagement with typical notions of access. Through regular and consistent deployment, the curator, artist, and audience member will enhance their knowledge of standard conventions such as captioning, whilst also enjoying how artists engage with such conventions creatively. Perhaps this will motivate curators to take on the work of access in more meaningful, concentrated ways. This is not to water down the significance of providing conventional physical access or the professionals who execute such work, such as captionists and sign language interpreters. Rather, “creative access” can be both practical and creative at once.

“Access” is not as one-dimensional as people might think because it can incorporate other sensorial experiences into the work that include tactile elements, sound, captions, audio description, and more. In the execution of this work, I have found artists to be both responsive and receptive to my ideas as much as I have been inspired by theirs. Therefore, the spirit of “creative access” suggests that a fluid process takes place between curator and artist(s) so that each party reaches consensus on what “creative access” should mean in a particular time and place for a particular exhibition and audience. In part, this also means that “creative access” advocates for a politics within the ordinary curator-artist dialogical exchange, where each party might consider it a necessity to discuss how “creative access” will be seen, felt, and heard for the benefit of a complex embodied audience. 

Each instance in this essay where “creative access” has been deployed has also attempted to indicate how the artist/curator exchange, on its critical import, has evolved. In other words, “creative access” is not monolithic nor uniform. Much like the general definition of access itself, “creative access” is always going to be variable and dependent on a number of conditions.  If the artist and curator are prepared to engage imaginatively with the work of “creative access,” then conditions of narrow standardization will not only eventually be disrupted as they transform curatorial practice and the museum and gallery experience for the visitor, but vital new approaches to art-making and thinking will thrive.

Photo by Sara Wilde. Courtesy of Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology & Access to Life, Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph

Note

Sections of this chapter were originally published in “The Politics of Creative Access: Dis/ability in Curatorial Practice” in the “Cripping the Arts” Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (2018). The author thanks CJDS editor Jay Dolmage and Special Issue editor Eliza Chandler for kindly permitting this reproduction.

Bibliography

Cachia, Amanda. “‘Disabling’ the Museum: Curator as Infrastructural Activist,” Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013.

Cachia, Amanda. “Cripping Cyberspace: A Contemporary Virtual Art Exhibition”, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 2013 http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/issue/view/7/showToc, accessed November 11, 2016.

Candlin, Fiona. Art, Museums, and Touch. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2010.

de Groot, Raphaëlle. Interview with Amanda Cachia, February 16, 2015.

Ellcessor, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation. New York and London: New York University Press, 2016.

Linzer, Danielle and Cindy Vanden Bosch. “Building Knowledge Networks to Increase 

Accessibility in Cultural Institutions.” Project Access, Art Beyond Sight, 2013. New York: Art Beyond Sight.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Amanda Cachia is an independent curator and critic from Sydney, Australia. She received her PhD in Art History, Theory & Criticism from the University of California San Diego in 2017. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art; curatorial studies and activism; exhibition design and access; decolonizing the museum; and the politics of embodied disability language in visual culture. 

Cachia currently teaches art history, visual culture, and curatorial studies at Otis College of Art and Design, California Institute of the Arts, California State University Long Beach, and California State University San Marcos. She serves as caa.reviews Field Editor for West Coast Exhibitions (2020-2023).

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Critical Design Lab – USA

CONTRA*

A podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld

A banner with the text "Contra*" in black, centred on a white background.

Contra* is a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld created by Aimi Hamraie and produced by the contributors to the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution project. Each episode features disability activists and designers using an interview format. A full transcripts is provided with each episode. 

Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play or play from their website.

What is “queercrip fashion”? Aimi speaks to Sky Cubacub, a fashion designer known for their colourful lycra, mesh, and chain mail designs. Sky presents their Rebirth Garments and Radical Visibility projects. Follow this link to listen. An interview transcript in English is also available. 

How do disability culture and design practices shape contemporary disability art? In this episode, Alice Sheppard talks about her project DESCENT, which includes choreography, spatial design and technology design.  Follow this link to listen.  An interview transcript in English is also available.

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British Council – Mexico

Art and disability: an agent of change in Mexico

Our Arts and Disability programme has accompanied the development of a new movement in Mexico.

A man sitting on the floor with arms extended and papers scattered on the floor.

Just a few words, by the UK Theatre Company, StammerMouth, created by Nye Russell-Thompson. Photos by Liliana Velasquez.

The Arts and Disability programme has accompanied the development of the movement and its cultural agents. 

The pandemic arrived into everyone’s home like an uninvited friend. It settled on the couch for months and, as I write this, it’s still around. There has been a pause in several of our programmes, including Arts and Disability, our flagship project that since 2018 has been supporting British and Mexican disabled artist reach new audiences. For the past four years, the programme has witnessed the development of a growing community and movement, which we’ve supported through:

– International showcasing: giving practitioners access to international platforms/audiences, as well as works. In Mexico we launched Trazando Posibilidades, a festival held in 2019 in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. The festival gathered several artists and welcomed delegates from across the Americas, from Argentina, Canada and the UK. In the UK, we continued to work closely with Unlimited, sending delegates from Mexico in 2018 and 2020.

– Capacity building: development of technical skills through a series of workshops.

– Research: developing resources to help the sector improve its accessibility in spaces (through A Puertas Abiertas, a manual on how to create accessible cultural spaces) and through the implementation of Relaxed Performances (Relaxed Performances, an Accessibility Protocol in Spanish).

– New art: providing ongoing support for the co-production of new work in theatre, dance, audio-visual, and new media.

As a result of these collective efforts, the British Council in Mexico has been able, in the past four years, to collaborate with more than 200 artists and 50 organizations and carry out 67 major activities reaching an audience of over 45,000 people.

The arrival of COVID-19 brought limitations to the programme but at the same time allowed us to explore new opportunities. Working with partners, we create a new space for collaboration, creation, and reflection through the Seminar From Inclusion to Interpellation: Scene, Disability and Politics, that explored the need of the arts and culture sectors to work on inclusion in new creative ways, particularly through digital means. Over the course of four months, Cultura UNAM;17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos;Take me somewhere (an advisory committee of artists with disabilities) and the British Council in Mexico brought together institutions from over 12 countries, 50 participants and 18,200 spectators to share our visions for change.

Mariana Gándara, Executive Coordinator of the Ingmar Bergman Extraordinary Chair (cinema and theatre) at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and member of the seminar planning committee, reflects on the experience: “Months ago, at a meeting to plan the seminar, I heard for the first time the use of the term interpellation, as part of the passionate defence of accessibility made by both Benjamin Mayer and Beatriz Miranda from 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos. Both argued against the current institutional opposition to work towards inclusion. Benjamín and Beatriz, curators of the seminar, were emphatic about the political and ethical needs to use interpellation as the axis of their work. The argument was simple, but powerful: inclusion is an invitation to participate in normality; interpellation the possibility of dismantling it.”

“Normality: Who does it belong to?”, asks Gándara when assessing the impact of the seminar on her understanding of accessibility issues in the cultural sector. “What systems of oppression sustain its practices? Although institutions may be well-intentioned, these conversations have instigated a parallel form of learning, clearly showing the gap between diverse communities and the public policies that control our daily lives.” She concludes that “without asking for permission, interpellation has filtered into daily lives. Where subtitles and Mexican sign language did not previously exist, they are now essential. The advisory board, comprising disabled artists, defines and steers the seminar. It feels like a watershed moment.”

The seminar allowed to identify key new voices in the sector. COVID’s arrival has forced us to revisit standard practises, which means there’s a renewed opportunity to support wider systemic change where these diverse voices find a space.

A woman dancing on stage. A blue, patterned light shines on her from the front, casting her shadow against the back wall.
A man signing and talking to a microphone on stage. An image is projected onto him and the back wall, creating dramatic shadows.

Trazando Posibilidades, seminar held in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2019. Photos by Liliana Velasquez.

Lorena Martinez Mier is Arts Project Manager at British Council in Mexico, and leads on our work in arts and disabilities in the Americas.
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