Elian Chali – Argentina
Cripping urban characteristics across the world.
Before art, I am interested in the world. The city exerts a strange magnetism on me, not only on account of its political potency, but also as a social theatre. My exposed body reveals to me how we humans deal with the different things life throws at us.
Art provides me with the possibility of establishing various levels of connection in urban contexts. I try to set my practice apart from everyday procedures, stereotyped interpretations and identifications. I am not specifically concerned about whether my work operates within certain canons, and prefer hybrid, ambivalent terrains.
My artistic intuition is pictorial. It characterizes my approach to performance, writing, painting, and photography as different disciplines that merge in my practice. Since I materialize my ideas on the basis of pre-existing work, I consider architecture as a collaborator of my work, rather than as its basis.
Although cities are depicted today as large institutional artifacts, each crack through which my oeuvre might find its place is an opportunity to maintain the vitality and ethos of my work. The focus is found on the sensible instead of the commonplace that occurs on the margins of the art system.
I think that an artistic puncture can reveal the dreary and gray qualities of a “normative city,” archetypical to the landscape of late stage capitalism. I interrogate the forms of social life proposed by these contemporary urban machines.
Scale, location, sociocultural context, urban characteristics, object of intervention, epoch, motivation, and working conditions are all fundamental aspects of ethical resonance of my praxis.
My hope is that my art might sustain questions, rather than seek responses. I believe in a political mode of producing art; a politicized art that stands against political art as an alienated and disengaged category. When I try to decipher my work I realize that I do not control what I do, I am only the assistant of a force that I do not fully understand but that grants me a freedom that accompanies me, looks after me, instructs me. A freedom that can be socialized. In exchange, it demands my cooperation and an emotional body in the imagination of another possible world.
Elian Chali is a self-taught artist that lives in Córdoba, Argentina. As a disability rights activist, Elian is part of Torceduras & Bifurcaciones, a forum on the politics of corporality. He has exhibited work internationally in more than 30 different countries. He founded and co-directed Kosovo Gallery (2012-2015), and was the curator-in-chief of MAC contemporary art fair (2018) in Buenos Aires. In 2016, he published his first book “Habitat”, and his work can be found in various publications and editorial projects about art, design and architecture.
Vanessa Dion Fletcher – Canada
Vanessa Dion Fletcher discusses her solo-exhibition Own Your Cervix and the performance Finding Language, highlighting an important juncture of disability and indigeneity in her practice
Could you tell us more about your practice and how it’s developed since your solo exhibition, Own Your Cervix, at Tangled Art Gallery in 2017?
My practice follows a lot of different mediums, themes and ideas – I sometimes have a hard time summarizing it because I cast a pretty wide net. With that caveat, I can say that I work a lot in performance, video and textiles. In the exhibition, Own Your Cervix, I was using porcupine quills but I hadn’t yet learned the embroidery techniques. So I was using them as whole objects on sculptures. Since then, I’ve learned the embroidery techniques and my practice has somewhat focused on that over the past few years.
At the 2019 Cripping the Arts Symposium in Toronto you performed Finding Language. Could you speak to aspects of performance in your work?
Finding Language comes from my experience of language and disability. When I was small, pretty much as soon as I started school, the education system diagnosed or categorized me as disabled. For a long time, I thought about my experiences of disability as being mostly situated at school, but that’s evolving now.
I started thinking about English; English is the only language I speak. The Lenapé language and the community that my family comes from have very few speakers. There’s actually no first speakers, so there’s really just a handful of people who still speak it fluently. Speaking in English, writing in English, and trying to communicate in a world that values and prioritizes the written language, was the focus of the work.
Originally, this piece was conceptualized as a kind of workshop activity and I was thinking about how it’s really fun to look at the way that written language appears in our everyday life. I wanted to go and look at different examples and investigate them as this performance/ scavenger hunt by traveling around the room and discovering different things. Whenever I found a word, I would look it up in my Lenapé dictionary. The dictionary I use was written by John O’Meara. He writes, “This writing system is based on the linguistic transcription system used in Goddard (1979). It substitutes English-based characters or sequences of characters for several symbols commonly used in phonetic transcription systems”. What I understand from this is that the system is utilitarian or made up — created because of the focus on written text over oral communication. When you open the dictionary, it’s full of words, for example [and I am reading from the dictionary] K-U, K-W-U-L-U-P. At the time I was such a beginner, I had little to no idea how to pronounce the words. The dictionary has a pronunciation key, but it’s complicated and you have to read it. How silly! Reading how to pronounce something. In the performance I was trying to find the word in the dictionary and then sounding it out and trying a couple different ways that it might be pronounced. It was an audible struggle but aspirational and was drawing attention to the materiality of language. The way that words physically appear in our space; and then through this pronunciation trying to draw attention to the way that those sounds are formed in our mouth and move out from our breath to the world.
Eliza Chandler (Assistant Professor, Disability Studies at Ryerson University) once mentioned how that piece very clearly demonstrated some of the ways ableism and colonization have connections. It’s really interesting because there’s an oral tradition in Lenapé — it’s ephemeral. t’s not until an outsider comes and creates this dictionary that for you there’s a disabling factor. Had you had access to the oral traditions perhaps you wouldn’t have had that disabling experience in learning it. Your piece is really identifying an important intersection of disability and colonization, which is a theme in a lot of your works. On that note, could you expand a bit more about your exhibition Own Your Cervix.
Own Your Cervix is the result of a long period of interest and investigation so I could talk about it in a few different ways. One is from the personal experience of feeling shame and discomfort around my menstruating body. I am also very aware of gendered violence in general, particularly in Indigenous communities or perpetrated against Indigenous communities. I was thinking about reproductive justice and bodily autonomy in different contexts. I think about a body —my body — that can produce children in this colonial world that I live in; the different effects that it has personally within my own family and then with my community. I wanted to speak from my own experience, but to not limit other people’s engagement or understanding because there’s a lot of connections to be made across communities through these experiences.
The exhibition was quite multifaceted; there was a lot of physical, two dimensional, and three dimensional work in this space. There was also a performance aspect; I extended invitations to the Tangled audience to do a self exam that could or could not include looking at one’s own cervix. Within the gallery space, as part of the installation, I had all of the materials necessary to do a cervical self exam: a speculum, hand sanitizer, lubricant, a mirror and a flashlight. It’s a pretty simple setup, but a few of the tools, specifically the speculum can be difficult to obtain individually. I made a bench for people to sit on while participating in the self exam. The bench is 18 inches in height with removable legs, upholstered in leather, and one side has a plastic covering with a beaded patch that looks like blood. It was important to me that I tried to frame this as a kind of process of self-reflection that was open to people of all genders with any kind of anatomy and not assume how anyone with or without a cervix might want to participate. I really wanted to make sure to use language that was open to all people. There are always improvements or adjustments that can be made. Tangled gave me feedback from visitors to the gallery using wheelchairs who found the setup of the room a little difficult to get in and around.
Outside the self-exam area, I had a little Victorian-style settee, which is a little two-seater couch, and a couple of chairs. I wanted to use furniture to think about the way that menstrual blood has the potential to talk about a relationship to the body and people’s fears or experiences of staining furniture or sitting on furniture that has been stained. The furniture became sculptures, but I was also thinking about it from a very performative place; thinking about the influence of European and Victorian themes of morality on our current understanding of menstruation, the performance or politics of it, and how these influenced furniture too.
I read that the Victorian era was sometimes called the era of “colonial comfort” because of how technology enabled advances for curved wood and springs to make furniture and homes more comfortable. As I was reading, I realized furniture was comfortable for some people while being incredibly violent and uncomfortable for others. Also, the building of railroads (through immigrant labour) across North America, a colonial historical moment, was also important because that allowed the furniture to be distributed quickly across the continent. All these colonial moments were tied to the Victorian-era furniture I used. I had them upholstered in white fabric and a floral pattern and then poured my menstrual blood decoratively onto the pattern. And this is where I use the porcupine quills to look like they’re growing out of the furniture with the fabric around the menstrual blood.
The way you amplify the pieces with your menstrual blood was this really interesting way of engaging with a disability arts audience. On the one hand, you created these invitational seating spaces because folks who have that access need could sit on one of the chairs, but you also employed porcupine quills in the larger settee. For the Tangled gallery staff, it was a moment of contemplation on how folks will interact with that couch in a way that it’s intended to but also create access. In the end, we made the decision to inform every guest who came in that the porcupine quills were there, but it was up to them to decide how much they wanted to interact with the settee or if they wanted any help navigating the piece. In a disability arts gallery setting that’s really provocative because in this case, access is not necessarily comfort and safety all the time; instead, access is about creating entry points into the works.
I think it’s really interesting because I showed the Own Your Cervix work at my graduate thesis exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To keep the audience safe, they asked that I put the settee on a plinth so that people knew that it was art and not to touch it. I think I like that approach of having somebody there to tell each person “there are quills there and if you want to touch some, you can”, or “here’s how you stay safe”. I provide access, but in this case, it’s more true to the work. I wanted it to be on the floor, so it’d be part of the room and not separated by a pedestal.
The context of a disability arts space versus one that doesn’t have access in its mandate is really interesting, as it seems that this intersection helps to create and illuminate the original intentions of the piece. Whereas the idea of putting your work on a plinth is almost antithetical to your original piece, because it’s about enacting some of the aesthetics of a colonial art world onto your art piece in itself.
Yes, to go back to the self exam, I was trying to create a situation where people have their own agency to decide how they’re going to participate, or touch, or be in the space.
Vanessa Dion Fletcher is a Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse Artist. Her family is from Eelūnaapèewii Lahkèewiitt (displaced from Lenapehoking) and European settlers. She employs porcupine quills, Wampum belts, and menstrual blood to reveal the complexities of what defines a body physically and culturally. Reflecting on an Indigenous and gendered body with a neurodiverse mind, she creates art using mixed media, primarily working in performance, textiles, and video.
She graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2016) with an MFA in performance and York University (2009) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She has exhibited across Canada, and the US at Art Mur Montreal, Eastern Edge Gallery Newfoundland, The Queer Arts Festival Vancouver, Satellite Art show Miami. Her work is in the Indigenous Art Centre, Joan Flasch Artist Book collection, Vtape, Seneca College, and the Archives of American Art. Vanessa is a 2020-2021 Jackman Humanities Institute fellow at the University of Toronto.
Amanda Cachia – USA
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.
“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.
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.
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).
Víctor H, Mariana Tirado Martin, Gina Rubio, and
Diego Lamas Encabo – Mexico
Artists Víctor H, Mariana Tirado Martin, Gina Rubio, and Diego Lamas Encabo share their relationship to their art, body, and interior world.
Painting is important for me.
It means I can express myself, regardless of my disability.
I feel free.
I’ve loved cats ever since I was very young, and I paint a lot – not only my cats, but also other ones I imagine and invent.
I intervene pictures by painters I admire, giving form to my ideas.
One way I express my affections is by doing a painting of someone and giving it to them as a present.
Painting makes me both happy and sad.
It makes me sad when I think about what I cannot do.It makes me happy when I feel that a better place exists.
Blue is sadness.
Green, happiness and contentment.
And yellow, peace.
Through colours I express how I feel.
My soul speaks.
As a child I wanted to be an explorer. Some afternoons I’d leave my plastic action figures, put on my Perestroika boots and pack a bag with a rope, a sweater, a dark-green anorak, a few biscuits, a flask and a pair of binoculars (made from toilet paper tubes). Once everything was ready, I’d set off on my adventure and climb up the stairs in the patio of my house, imagining that I was climbing some far-flung mountain.
As I grew older, my dreams of becoming an explorer did not pan out; I didn’t develop in the same way as other adolescents did. I was aware of my body’s fragility, manifested by its lack of physical power. At the same time as these changes and the accompanying emotional distress, I discovered other means of exploring that took me on adventures of a different kind: reading. I started out with comic books called sensacionales ([often] about lucha libre wrestlers) that I picked up at the newspaper stand that I passed on the way to school. After finishing my homework, I read stories about the Wild West or the gritty side of Mexico City. A book fell in my hands a few years later, and I set off on an endless journey of reading. I found that the essay was the best way for me to express my concerns about illness and the literary experience. My interest in inner explorations has made me reflect on family memories and legacies, identity, corporeality, masculinity, sexuality, fragility, autonomy and independence.
My thoughts have also roamed beyond the written word and I have begun exploring the body through photography using the camera on my cell phone. Hence my series of self-portraits allowed me to come to terms with a body I rejected for many years. I continue exploring and trying out new ways of expressing myself to this day.
My life changed radically from one day to the next when I developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome. My entire body stopped moving, I lost my sense of touch. The rhythm of my life changed, yet it continued moving in the same direction. I was all that was left, encased in a body that contained me but failed to recognize me after it had disconnected itself from me. I had to unlearn the things I had learned because they were no longer useful to me. I had to reinvent myself. The same body that I had lived with for fifteen years on all kinds of stages, and whose movements, gestures and actions had helped me draw and pronounce my words, had abandoned me, taking with it my independence and some of my freedom. However, my voice stuck with me. Its strength, cadence and rhythm gave so much life to my stories, and I used it to continue being an oral storyteller. And that’s what I’ve done, despite the syndrome’s severe effects on my physical mobility and proprioception. I’ve now been telling stories for 15 years, helping to build a culture of peace and a more plural society, and showing that disability does not rule out creativity.
Marcos Antonio Guerrero Herrera – Cuba
An introduction to the work and life of the artist Marcos Antonio Guerrero
From a very young age, Marcos Antonio has questioned the commonly accepted notion of reality, based on his experience of parallel worlds. When diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a youth, his world became even more complex and multiple realities became an inseparable part of his daily life. Confronted by the barriers imposed by his condition, he began to use drawing as a useful means of communication.
He started out using small sheets of paper to sketch spaceships, detailing each of their parts and different mechanisms. Over time his drawings became larger and more complex, depicting alien cities and galactic systems. He recounts how he acquired this vast knowledge through his close encounters with extraterrestrial beings and multiple abductions. He is fascinated by these civilizations’ advanced technologies and seeks to make these details accurate in his drawings. Marcos Antonio’s draughtsmanship is very intense, and his drawings express remarkable energy with their exceptional use of colour and bold lines.
Marcos Antonio has been a member of the Art Brut Project Cuba since 2013.
Deaf Interiors – Canada
The theme of Deaf joy flows through the culmination of a three-month digital artist incubator, presenting the multi-disciplinary works of six Deaf Canadian artists in an online exhibition called “Deaf Interiors.”
In response to the world health crisis and to social distancing measures that exacerbate feelings of isolation, artists gathered online with facilitators Peter Owusu-Ansah and Sage Lovell to share stories, generate ideas, and create work that demonstrates the interior world of Deaf culture, activism, and human connection.
“Deaf Interiors” is a digital adaptation of Crip Interiors, a site-specific installation of grid-like arrangement of life-sized artwork containers that individually and collectively highlight the ways that Deaf and disabled artists negotiate accessibility in the cityscape.
Presented by Creative Users Projects, Tangled Art + Disability, Cultural Toronto Hotspot, Bodies in Translation and Canada Council for the Arts Digital Originals.
Creative Users Projects (CUP) is a not-for-profit disability-led arts organization driven and informed by the legacy of Deaf and Disability Arts, a movement that for 50 years has changed the way we think about disability and inclusion. CUP is dedicated to highlighting disability in the arts in generating audiences, cultivating new talent, diversifying Canada’s arts and culture sector and building more accessible arts spaces in Canada. One such program is Accessing the Arts, an online listing of disability and accessible arts events across Canada.
Tangled Art + Disability is a charitable organization actively working towards creating a more inclusive and accessible arts and culture sector. Our mandate is to support Deaf, Mad and disability-identified artists, to cultivate Deaf, Mad and disability arts in Canada, and to enhance access to the arts for artists and audiences of all abilities. In 2016, Tangled launched a permanent gallery space. Tangled Art Gallery is Canada’s first gallery dedicated to Disability arts, presenting year-round programming focusing on accessible curation and a pillar for the development of Disability aesthetics.