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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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