Vancouver-born artist Carmen Papalia designs experiences around the theme of access as it relates to public + institutional spaces. Through his gradual vision loss, he has come to experience his surroundings non-visually–learning to devote his attention to a realm that lies just out of sight. Carmen invites his participants to explore + engage with this world through the practice of closing our eyes to discover what happens when we grant ourselves access to our non-visual senses. Carmen was kind enough to carve out some time as he was preparing for his first solo exhibition–Long Time No See—at CUE Art Foundation to share his thoughts on art, access, and the world we open our eyes from.
You talk about your work as an “open-sourcing” of your own disability experience. How did you come into this particular form of artistic expression?
There’s this problematic cultural idea that disability is a reduction of experience. But I think of it differently; I flip that idea in my work so that it’s a liberatory experience. When I was undergoing the first phase of my vision loss, I started focusing away from visual things. I began finding that the energy I was putting into trying to interpret and understand things through the visual sense was happening in other ways through my other senses. I was tapping into this world that had been there all along.
Because of its history culturally and socially, disability as a term carries a lot of problems, so it’s difficult for people to connect to the word—I find that it alienates them. In terms of open sourcing my disability experience, I find that bringing people in is a far more productive strategy in gaining solidarity around my ideas about access. I’ve found a way of bringing people into my way of doing things, so they can really get the idea of: instead of being visual learners right now, we’re going to learn through our non-visual senses. And that’s what I do with a lot of my projects—have people consider things that they might often be numb to because of that reliance on the visual sense.
Your exhibition at CUE showcases a number of images + videos documenting different incarnations of the Blind Field Shuttle walking tours that you’ve been leading over the last few years. Could you talk more about these tours?
I like to think of the walking tours as people’s first few steps into a non-visual world—into this other dimension that operates on a different idea of time and space. The difference between the walking tour and a simulation of blindness is that with a simulation you’re kind of relieved at the end. The intention is that you will understand a group of people—people who are visually impaired—more deeply and you’ll be empathetic towards them. So when you open your eyes, you’re relieved that you have that privilege to open your eyes from that simulated blindness.But with the walking tour a lot of people choose to keep their eyes closed because you realize that you’re opening your eyes from this world that was very interesting + that could pique your curiosity + that is full of things to explore. So it’s a sort of opening-up of experience. People realize that there’s all this stuff that you can tap into just with the simplest of things—closing your eyes—by trusting in that practice and empowering yourself in that practice.
I didn’t want to coerce my participants and say that you have to keep your eyes shut for this period of time. So when I’m working with a group of people, we’re creating this relationship together where there’s this exchange of trust: they’re trusting me to take them to this destination safely and I’m trusting that they’ll participate based on the terms of the project. And I think we’re navigating that through the whole experience. So it was a conscious decision because that exchange of trust is more true to a relationship built between two people rather than saying: “Now I’m going to blindfold you and you’re going to be okay with it!”
Earlier this summer you led eyes-closed gallery tours at the Whitney. Considering how much we rely on the visual sense in gallery spaces, did you get a sense for how participants’ experiences of the art + the museum changed with eyes closed?
These tours are one-on-one experiences where a guide will be guiding a participant and describing everything—from art objects to architectural details in spaces to what other museum visitors look like. So the guide might walk up to a stranger and describe what they looked like to the participant, acknowledging the museum as a social space, as well as a place where art objects are. People also don’t often acknowledge that those buildings are architectural spaces in and of themselves. So it’s partly about recognizing all the other stuff that’s going on in the museum, but also about recognizing that there are so many entry points to a particular artwork—other ways of connecting the viewer or participant to an artwork. And this exercise is often able to make that connection in a way that’s more memorable and profound than if the participant were just looking at the art.Access programs in museums are often finding strategies to connect people to art. So if we think of access programming for people who are visually impaired, educators are looking for innovative ways to make this art relevant to a group of people that is not visual. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in these tours as well—providing a story or detail or something the participant can latch onto so they can start imagining something that represents the work itself.
When people hear, “We’re standing in front of a painting…” they begin making these personal connections and feeling that they can take ownership over the art experience. I often think that we’re passive observers of the museum most of the time—unless there’s an opportunity to participate in some way in the art piece—so this exercise really allows you to be a partial author of the piece. And [based on the people who I’ve talked to] people enjoy that. I think this happens in general—we get out of art what we bring to it. And it’s funny, in some cases they’re able to connect more with the work by not seeing it in. Painting relies on being looked at. It’s often not asking you to do anything but look at it. Throughout art history, we’ve been able to look at a lot of stuff, and I think that through this focus on the visual, we’ve actually learned how to see using the interpretive skills that we’ve gotten from art and looking at art. But I like to think about a possible world where what if the museum experience was built on tactility? What would our culture look like now? Because I think the museum provides this great space for cultural learning–and it’s also a container for history. So the choices made in a museum can change what happens outside of a museum. But the people outside of the museum have to be invited in first in a way that’s not weird–in a way that is real and sincere.
Following our conversation, I had the great pleasure of actually experiencing Carmen’s work, participating in a one-on-one site mapping exercise in which Carmen led me with eyes closed through Chelsea Market as I recorded my impressions of the space. We’ve all heard that when a person loses a sense, their other senses become heightened to compensate. The brain actually has an incredible ability to reorganize itself in response to vision loss. In fact, when a blind person uses their senses of touch and audition, sections of the brain’s visual processing center turn on, indicating that their brain has—at least to some extent—been rewired to utilize tactile and auditory information in place of visual stimuli. With this in mind + without much thought, I foolishly took it for granted that the world a visually impaired person experiences roughly approximates the experience of any person with all 5+ senses. Consequently, my rather naïve working “hypothesis” for the experience was that my alternate senses would adjust [at least to some extent] to compensate for my closed eyes–orienting at the very least to major landmarks, the general floor plan, and the steady flow of crowds through the market.
Since I had never before been in Chelsea Market [quite embarrassing considering that I am after all a New Yorker], this blind tour was actually my first experience with the space. But even once I got over the initial nervousness // self-consciousness of closing my eyes in this very public + very crowded space, I found myself occupying a quasi-alternate reality that was completely foreign to any ordinary encounter with a new place. While I most definitely found my other senses heightened, instead of serving as a source of comfort + orientation, this heightening was utterly overwhelming. I was inundated by a multitude of auditory + tactile sensations that my brain simply could not parse through because I had never learned to pay such deep attention to these sorts of sensory cues.
Based on the number of raw sensory inputs I was receiving + perceiving, my mood fluctuated somewhere between sheer panic and sweet relief. So as I was learning to interpret these cues, space + time began operating completely differently for me in that 10-minute span. Surrounded by loud + uninterpretable chatter // bumping up against strange people + objects, I felt claustrophobic, with time passing in fits and starts. But suddenly, a cool breeze or burst of air-conditioned air would blow over me to snap me out of my panic, leaving me feeling expansive–my stride opening up // my head turning this way and that, as I explored my surroundings with newly focused curiosity. I could listen and feel with a rising sense of confidence… until it grew into overconfidence and I was clumsily bumping into those same people + objects once more.
Carmen led a number of participants through the market, so once we all had completed our eyes-closed tours, we headed back to the Cue gallery to draw out our collective impressions of the space, mapping them into a collaborative spatial narrative–a sort of experiment in how our experiences lined up [or didn’t at all] when we could no longer rely on a visual crutch. Through this mapping, I was rather stunned to see how amusingly off-the-mark my impressions of the space had been–like my entirely misguided belief that what was actually a hose-like installation hanging from the ceiling was instead a pond-like fountain! Ever since, I’ve become totally obsessed with this wholly different world I occupied for a mere 10 minutes–how exploring a different form of awareness could conjure up this experience that was completely unique to me. I returned to participate in Carmen’s Blind Field Shuttle tour of the High Line a few days later, curious to experience how closing my eyes could transform + reinvigorate a familiar space for me–to discover what new sort of parallel world would open up this time as I honed in on a new set of stimuli I’d previously been blind to.
For a glimpse of the world behind closed eyes, be sure to catch Carmen’s exhibit at Cue Art Foundation from September 7 to October 12. And to experience Carmen’s participatory art projects for yourself, be sure to check out his upcoming projects, including an exercise in focused listening in conjunction with the exhibition MoMA Studio: Sound in Space on November 15!
For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!