An Interview with Carmen Papalia

Practicing Accessibility: An Interview with Carmen Papalia

Jacqueline Bell

Close your eyes. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. Now follow their lead. These are the instructions carried out by participants in one of artist Carmen Papalia’s most emblematic performances, Blind Field Shuttle. In the roughly hour-long performance, participants form a human chain behind the artist, and are led on an “eyes closed” walk through through the city or rural space.[1] The work requires an understanding of Papalia’s access to the world as a “non-visual learner,” a term the artist has chosen in lieu of accepting medicalizing identifications such as “blind” or “visually impaired.”[2] In Blind Field Shuttle, to walk with eyes closed is more than an opportunity to experience the built environment through non-visual senses; it is an affirmation of mutual trust[3].

In his most recent body of work, Papalia seeks to challenge conventional understandings of access within the context of the museum. The artist has recently developed a conceptual framework called “Open Access,” the tenants of which invert many of the conventional strategies aimed at promoting accessibility in institutions. In contrast to a policy-based approach where blanket directives are issued to serve a particular group’s pre-defined needs, Open Access defines the individual seeking support as the expert, allowing them to claim a position of authority in relation to the institution.[4] This framework invites us to reimagine accessibility as a temporary experience that is based on processes of listening and mutual exchange, and calls for nothing short of a shift in power relations between the institution and those claiming space for their needs within that context.[5][

While Papalia has framed Open Access as a conceptual work, the artist seeks to realize its tenants beyond the realm of the symbolic.[6] In 2015, Papalia collaborated with a group of community members where he lives in Vancouver, Canada to conduct an unsolicited “accessibility audit” of an art museum in the city. The group operated under the banner of The New Accessibility Consortium, and undertook a three-month long collaborative process that assessed the institution’s accessibility based on the tenants of Open Access.[7] The choice to undertake an accessibility audit as a creative practice resulted in a number of works that doubled as experiential research, which were then presented in an exhibition at the artist-run centre, Gallery Gachet in Vancouver. Papalia’s decision to work outside of the museum in this instance, but to advocate for the adoption of the tenants of Open Access from within the museum in other contexts, points to a tactical approach to institutional engagement which bears consideration in relation to recent conversations in Issue 4 of FIELD on the choice to attempt to further an activist agenda from within the context of an institution.

Papalia has consistently worked to generate spaces and experiences of agency for himself through his creative practice; from his choice to identify as a non-visual learner, to works that playfully confront disabling perceptions around who, and how one, might lead. With the development of Open Access, Papalia’s practice has become a conceptual and organizational space where others might also find the means to confront disabling conditions, broadly defined in the tenants as that which “limit ones agency and potential to thrive.”[8] Although this interview might be considered an early reflection on this new conceptual framework, I would argue that this is a practice that bears documenting at every stage. There is much more to learn should we choose to follow Papalia’s lead.

JB: You have often described yourself as a nonvisual learner, and have disassociated yourself from identifications like “visually impaired” or “blind.” Could you speak to the politics of this shift in terminology?


[Image 1. Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle as part of the In the Power of Your Care exhibition, The 8th Floor Gallery, New York City (2016), Photo by William Furio]

CP: When I was faced with having to identify based on the condition of my body, none of the terminology that I found really felt comfortable. “Blind,” for example, carries social and cultural baggage that I just didn’t want to have to negotiate as part of my identity. “Visually impaired” as well, refers to a body part that doesn’t work the same way as other body parts like it do. From the beginning, this rejection of language was connected to my relationship with institutions, especially the disability support institution, and what institutional support is like for people with a body or mind difference. I think that my interest in resisting language like “blind,” or “visually impaired” comes out of wanting to hold agency in that context. Connecting my embodiment with this idea of being a particular kind of learner was more productive than using this reductive or tokenizing language.

People have asked me in the past, “When did you go blind?” I’ve never known how to answer that question; I don’t think of myself as having gone blind. I chose to not use vision as my primary way of knowing, to accept my access and the access that my nonvisual senses allow. I felt that learning was the point that would connect me with others and that would be how others would be able to relate to me and what I’m experiencing, because everyone has a particular kind of learning style, and while mine might not be the same as yours, if I can figure out the parameters around mine and bring you into what we’ve been identifying [in conversations leading up to this interview] as a pedagogical space—it’s a very liberating experience. And so instead of that problematic framing of my experience being one of lack or of limitation, thinking of myself as a nonvisual learner lends itself to thinking about nonvisual space as something liberatory, where there are so many things to discover and to explore.

JB: You’ve shared that it was an important moment when you came to realize that you “could change public perceptions around disability by open sourcing [your] own disability experience.”[9] As an example, I’m hoping we can talk about the performance Blind Field Shuttle, where you guide participants on a walk through the city that they experience without the use of sight. Could you speak to how you hope the participant’s access to your own disability experience might impact their understanding of accessibility in a broader sense?

CP: When I talked about open sourcing my disability experience, disability was still at the center of my understanding of myself and everything around me. Things have shifted quite a bit since then—now I think of my experience as that of a nonvisual learner. I want to separate myself from that association to lack and the disabled body because I think socially and culturally those meanings are complicated, and they will continue to evolve. I’m more interested in figuring out what happens when we separate these things—take even the word “access”—what if we used the word “engagement” instead of “access” when we were talking about accessibility? It would be a different practice. Or, can we talk about accessibility without recalling the disability community, because really, when you boil it down, accessibility is about claiming and holding agency, and I think that describes a lot of people’s experience, not just the experiences of folks who have atypical bodies and minds. So I think in terms of my experience and the way I understand it now, it’s a nonvisual one. What I’m doing with the walking tour [Blind Field Shuttle] is I’m inviting people into nonvisual space.

However I’m starting to find that I want more sophisticated investigations into nonvisual space for myself. When I’m meeting a group now, I feel like I don’t always have to explain what the term nonvisual learner means, or where it comes from; people around me have started adopting this language, and now they will identify me as a nonvisual learner. It’s the reality that I want to be living in. I first had to propose it through my practice, but now these identifiers that I’ve set up for myself have some currency within the community. I’ve found the most comfort in just being myself through my creative practice, and in these autonomous spaces that I’ve been able to establish through my creative practice. But I really started doing this work to improve my own access, as a means of initiating an accessible learning experience for myself.

The reason that I had to find a place where I felt comfortable in the first place is because there are so many experiences that are still not accessible to me. I feel pretty disabled through the means that are available to me as a disabled person. It’s hard because even that framing, me calling myself a disabled person, comes with a caveat; I identify as a disabled person through the social model, which is an idea that came out of disability activism in the 1960s which asserts that the conditions that disable a person are not situated in their body, but are a set of social and cultural conditions that limit ones agency and potential to thrive.


[Image 2. Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle as part of What Can a Body Do: Investigating Disability in Contemporary Art roundtable, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, California (2012). Photo by Jordan Reznick]

JB: In your response to the last question you mentioned that you are interested in continuing to construct more nuanced or sophisticated experiences of nonvisual space through your practice. I’m wondering if this stems from reflection on aspects of earlier works, and if there elements that now feel like possible limitations, or that you have sought to address differently?

I’ve started developing new projects to satisfy my interest in further investigations into nonvisual space. I’m working on this critical design project through Olin College of Engineering now with a team of student engineers as a part of Sara Hendren’s “Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assistive Technologies” class, to develop this acoustic mobility device; essentially a cane with a contact mic on the tip that “instrumentizes” the cane. I can plug it into a sound output and get this direct translation of texture into sound, with the ability to manipulate its output and make compositions.

I’ve been exploring tactile engagement as an interpretive framework in my current work as well. The first iteration was leading a series of touch tours through the Guggenheim, in which Education staff members would lead one on one “eyes closed” tours that focused on the tactile dimension of the museum and select objects from the collection. That investigation into tactility has evolved into a project called “Let’s Keep in Touch,” which I’m developing with a curator in Boston named Whitney Mashburn. She’s curated a set of objects by various contemporary artists that she feels would offer an engaging tactile experience, and I am negotiating with each artist for tactile access to their work, whether that’s a one-off experience with a trusted friend or curator, a group experience or a prolonged opportunity for tactile engagement through negotiations with an institution. It’s a means of setting a precedent for critical tactile engagement and haptic criticism to become viable practices within contemporary art.

Early on I was only able to conduct fleeting engagements for others by introducing the idea that one could shut their eyes and know a thing, as a means of showing that the position of the nonvisual learner could be revelatory and valuable to the way we understand a place, object or experience. Now I’m able to undertake more long-term collaborations with the people who are supporting these ideas and produce more in-depth and involved experiences for others, revealing various other ways of engaging with nonvisual space.

JB: I’m really interested in the pedagogic strategy you’re employing in Blind Field Shuttle, with the process of learning on the part of the participant taking place though this complicated slippage between a kind of performance of embodiment, and a haptic form of knowledge of the city that they are opened up to. Your own self-identification as a nonvisual learner also feels central to this work, where the walk could be understood as a pedagogical space where participants interrogate more conventional understandings of access. I’m curious if you feel there is an affective dimension to the pedagogical at work here as well?

CP: You really do get the sense that a system of support has coalesced by the end of the walk. People find comfort in that experience. They find various ways to move their body that help them find an ease of movement for the duration of the walk, but there’s also their communication with other participants; they are making negotiations, privately and publicly. The walk is a completely interdependent organism, and this makes for an encouraging, empowering experience. Perhaps this is why I have never thought of myself as the point for empathy with this work because when I’m leading a walk we’re all choosing to navigate by way of our non-visual senses. It really is an equalizing gesture, and I’m introducing the participant to something that is of potential value. Since participants have to support each other throughout the walk, I would say that they themselves are points of empathy for each other because they’re seeing their peers in need of support, and they’re responding to that based on their comfort level. The walk is also a disruption of public space. There’s something nice about walking across a busy street with fifty other people, and traffic stopping for you. We’re a group in solidarity in some ways, and we’re also a force in and of ourselves. We definitely do disrupt public space, and there’s something empowering about that.


[Image 3. Installation view, I Want in The New Access Consortium Presents: A Collective Audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gallery Gachet, Vancouver, British Columbia (2015). Image courtesy of the artist]

JB: I’m interested in what feels like a shift in your continued work around access, from interrogating accessibility within the built environment of the city to questions of institutional access. Most recently, you have been working with a concept you have developed, called Open Access. Could you speak to this new term?

CP: The social model of disability is the idea that we’re disabled by social and cultural conditions that are outside of us. When I first learned about that concept as a young person, I thought, if my experience is being determined by a set of external conditions, then surely I can change some of those conditions and effect my experience in a positive way. So if you think of the museum in the same way, your agency as a viewer or a visitor is determined by a set of social and cultural conditions, and you’re allowed a certain agency that depends on whether your particular position, like your background or learning style, lines up with the very particular ways in which the museum community holds space and invites participation. But what happens when you start changing some of those conditions and allowing different kinds of access? The museum seemed like an institutional structure that I could use as a model to understand other institutions. While the city was a structure that I could investigate through my walking work, I could use the museum to further understand top-down, hierarchical structures like the disability support institution. And so, the interventions that I ended up doing in the museum really allowed me to learn how to employ strategies to intervene in the disabling social and cultural conditions that I was experiencing in life.

In thinking through new approaches to access too, I used the museum as a model. You can think about access in a few different ways; usually when we talk about access it evokes the disability community, but I’ve started to de-center the disability community and folks with atypical bodies and minds in my access work, because I feel like they’re just one part of the population that this work relates to. Accessibility is really about holding agency, and if we’re going to assess institutions and talk about access, we have to ask, how is that working for everybody? and how is the institution allowing a certain experience, a certain agency? and if it doesn’t allow the agency that we feel that we should have, how do we intervene, how do we destabilize that power?

Just last year was the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation that set a precedent for how North Americans would agree to treat disabled folks. A lot of those considerations were around equality in the workplace but also physical accessibility; conditions around whether folks who use various mobility devices could get on a bus or into a building, and what have you. And as much struggle, difficulty and courage went into getting that legislation passed, there’s still not equality, there’s still a lot of problems. Twenty-five years later, maybe we need to establish a different space, something that is different than whatever the ADA is allowing for, and different than even how we’re identifying access in the art institution, in schools. We don’t really have a way of describing access in relation to the social environment. Most recently, I’ve come to think that the social environment is where accessibility is considered or not in the first place. If the social conditions are disabling then the culture will be disabling.


[Image 4. Installation view, Open Access Banner in The New Access Consortium Presents: A Collective Audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gallery Gachet, Vancouver, British Columbia (2015). Image courtesy of the artist]

If we’re using the museum as an example, you might be able to get into the museum with a power chair, but once you’re there, if people hold negative attitudes towards you as a disabled person you’re not going to feel that welcome. And maybe the people inside don’t have sophisticated disability politics or a sense of how to support people with diverse and complex needs. If they don’t have a sense of these things, you’ll also feel isolated and alienated. So I’ve started to think what a potential model for accessibility that is based on a consideration of the social environment might be, and have been incorporating these thoughts into a position statement for what I’ve been calling Open Access. It’s a set of tenants for how to make mutually supportive relationships with others, accounting for a continuum of embodiments, realities, genders, learning styles—and really, a flipping of what is thought of as normalcy.

With Open Access, I really want to point to this new paradigm where a concept like normalcy can account for subject positions that haven’t been realized yet, and the various intersections within identities. If we’re going to realize open liberatory spaces, especially if we’re going to realize them in the context of cultural institutions, they ought to be open and accessible to a diversity of potential positions and needs. The only way this is going to happen is if we start from the grassroots. Whenever there’s an instance that requires some degree of accessibility we need to build it from the ground up with the people who are seeking support. One of the tenants from the Open Access position statement identifies that “Open Access relies on who is present, what their needs are and how they can find support with each other and in their communities.” A museum is a hierarchical institutional structure, which doesn’t lend itself to access, mobility or even community—it’s not like a museum worker can put a placard on a wall that indicates that a space is accessible because the terms that define accessibility have to be held by a community. Someone has to be accountable for people’s needs, they can’t just claim something is accessible. Accessibility is precarious and temporary. Another tenant is, “Open Access is radically different than a model in which a set of policies is employed in order to facilitate a common experience for a group with definitive needs. It acknowledges that each participant carries a body of local knowledge and is an expert in their own right.”

JB: I’m curious also how you are conceptualizing Open Access in relation to your practice—as a methodology, framework, a work in itself, or something more flexible that perhaps moves between these conceptions?

CP: It’s the methodology that informs my practice. I’m embodying the tenants of Open Access just by finding community through my work. I have also been using it as a movement building strategy and have been activating it as a conceptual work as well. The Open Access statement requires people to find themselves in it. There’s a degree of openness that allows you to find your way into Open Access as a way of being, but then you really do have to make it your own, find your own way of embodying those tenants. I’m realizing that what I am proposing will require a paradigm shift in many cases—in the museum and in other institutions—because the way we currently practice accessibility is very isolating and sometimes we even further marginalize those who are seeking support in the process.

If I’m using Open Access as a movement building strategy, then I really want to document the movement, to know who’s involved and who I have reached. But I haven’t figured out what that accountability piece is. Right now it really is up to the participant to make a choice given what they know after I introduce the idea of Open Access to them, to accept the new paradigm or not.

JB: Could you speak to how the concept has informed the work you’ve recently undertaken in Vancouver with The New Access Consortium, conducting a collective audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery? What was the process that you went through with the participants in the Consortium in developing and undertaking the audit?

CP: In thinking through Open Access, especially in relation to the museum, I was curious to find what an accessibility audit might reveal if it was based on some of the tenants that I had identified in the Open Access position statement. What would this kind of assessment focus on? Usually, we think about accessibility in the museum only in relation to the disability community, and it really is a secondary concern. I think engagement initiatives are more interesting than accessibility programs but they do the same thing in many ways, they establish alternative entry points to particular experiences, environments and objects. I realized that given how accessibility is practiced in museums, that I would need to establish my own methodology and practice around these kinds of considerations; a more in-depth assessment that allows for many experiences and a degree of openness. So what I did was plan to audit the main cultural institution where I live, the Vancouver Art Gallery, with collaborators from another art space in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet.


[Image 5. Exhibition poster for The New Access Consortium Presents: A Collective Audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery,  Gallery Gachet, Vancouver, British Columbia (2015). Image courtesy of the artist]

Gallery Gachet is a welcoming space in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that is collectively-run by community members. It’s a marginalized community. People who live in the Downtown Eastside face multiple social and cultural barriers, including mental illness, addiction and limited access to affordable housing. They carry generations of trauma and abuse and are continuously being displaced as the result of rapid gentrification. There are a lot of support services in the area and Gallery Gachet has been in the community for over twenty years as one of the few spaces dedicated to supporting artists. It’s a low-barrier art gallery where people can find support services, but, at its center, is a peer-lead program with a focus on art practice. However, within the larger context of Vancouver’s art community, it’s quite marginalized. And while you could drive from Gallery Gachet to the Vancouver Art Gallery in five minutes, the social and cultural distance is vast. People from the Downtown Eastside community don’t tend to go into downtown Vancouver that much, they tend to stay where their supports are, within the Downtown Eastside.

What I wanted to do with this project was develop a methodology for assessing the conditions of access that was informed by a diverse group’s subjective needs, then conduct a collective audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery and make an exhibition featuring documentation from the process. I ended up inviting six participants from the Gachet community—who I had worked with over my last few years in Vancouver—to help me conduct this investigation. Some identified as disabled, some didn’t, some identified as young, trans, queer or as a person of color. One of the participants, Arlene Bowman is a senior Diné filmmaker who has been making experimental documentary films for many years with little recognition. We would meet at Gachet each week over the course of three months. I shared the Open Access position statement with them and we spent some time with that language, working through it, and discussed some of the more traditional framings around accessibility and where we were hoping to take our assessment. We also spent some time at the gallery. The project was not conducted through a partnership with the VAG, it was an intervention, an independent action, and the reason was that it seemed like a process that didn’t need the gallery’s oversight. If we were going to be assessing the culture of the institution, we didn’t want the culture of the institution to influence our work. And, besides, it just seemed like that was where people were at in the community. They didn’t want to involve the gallery—that would have been a whole different project altogether.

After sharing our own experiences with accessibility and how it plays out in our own lives, we spent some time at the Vancouver Art Gallery and decided to center our assessment on the social conditions of the space. We visited the gallery as a group, but were looking for clues: what will the social space allow for? Do we feel comfortable in the social space? When we were ready to spend time in the gallery we talked about focusing on social accessibility rather than using the physical access paradigm—we figured that there is no point in entering a building if it is oppressive on other levels. Since the social environment determines what the culture of the institution is, we decided to find out if there were any other things about the culture of the VAG that were at odds with our politics or needs. We all spent an afternoon at the gallery and it was enough for us to move forward with our critique and return individually to pursue further kinds of experiential research. There were a few moments during our group visit that made us immediately aware that the culture of the institution is oppressive. As an example, one of the wall texts for an exhibition that was curated by the VAG’s Chief Curator / Associate Director was problematic in its framing of relations between indigenous and settler communities. For the exhibition at Gachet, we responded by reproducing that wall text and conducting a collective “red pen” edit in corrective marker, offering the decolonial narrative that we felt the author of the original text had missed.

Alongside that were things that we did throughout our process. I had everyone in the group answer the question, “What conditions must be in place in order for you to thrive or elect into the museum community?” and everybody developed a list of “I want” statements in response to that question. Submissions ranged from, “I want the Vancouver Art Gallery to stop charging twenty dollars for admission,” to “I want people in positions of power to be poor, sick people of color.” These came from each participant, and each of us submitted about fifteen statements in relation to this prompt. Then for the exhibition at Gallery Gachet we all wrote our statements in this huge constellation on one wall in our own handwriting. The exhibition was called, “The New Access Consortium presents a Collective Audit of the Vancouver Art Gallery”—The New Access Consortium was the organizational structure that I invented for the purpose of the project, because I really wanted some organizational body to collect or archive our work, or provide some structure within which this work could accumulate.

I’ve since condensed the three-month process that led to our audit of the VAG into a workshop called For a New Accessibility. It draws upon some of the exercises that we did together, the guiding texts that we read, and the question, “What conditions must be in place in order for you to thrive?” When my participants are people who occupy public platforms, like museum and city workers do, I will have them identify their institutional privileges and realize a plan to redistribute those resources in a mutual exchange with the public. Museum workers don’t often feel like they’re community workers, but they really are. If you’re occupying a position in a so-called “public” platform, your job is to hold space for the community. Very few workers in public institutions practice in this way. They rarely know what their institutional access or privilege is, and will rarely redistribute that access to the public, to community members. With the workshop I can share the tenants for Open Access and hopefully help guide support-based exchanges so they can be mutual and nurture communities of support—acknowledging where the access resources are, and who has the privilege of access to these resources, is a necessary first step.

JB: I am fascinated by the different approaches to navigating institutional power in your practice. There is a certain oppositionality to the unsolicited audit in Vancouver that feels connected to a history of activist strategies advocating for change within art institutions. However we have also spoken about your interest in taking a different approach to auditing specific institutions, perhaps at institutions’ requests, or through offering training sessions with groups interested in conducting their own audits. Could you speak to what feels like a tactical approach to institutional engagement, at times working from within or outside of the museum?

CP: In terms of my approach to engaging with institutions, it really depends on the situation. When a certain group invites me to lead a conversation or workshop, or even to develop a project, it depends on who is asking, how they’re bringing me into their community and holding space for me. I know that sometimes the conversation ends after I leave, and I definitely want the conversation to continue.

JB: In another conversation we had talked about a request you had received for your concept of Open Access to become an “object” for collection by an institution. Although the work was not acquired, I’m hoping we can discuss your choice to include a clause in the contract submitted to the acquisitions committee that would allow you to audit the institution based on the principles of Open Access at any time while the work remained in the institution’s collection. Instead of the work being understood through collections practices as an object to be owned, it became a conduit for a reciprocal, ongoing relationship with the institution.

CP: When I was doing work at The Model in Sligo, Ireland through an invitation from my friend Megan Arney Johnston, she had just accepted a position as the director there. I shared the Open Access statement with Megan, and the ideas really resonated with her. She was already interested in museum public-ness, and was thinking about something she was calling ‘”institutional permeability,” and how one might initiate more meaningful exchanges with community members. She established a residency program called the Bureau of Radical Accessibility, a meeting place within the institution that operates as a conceptual space from which artists can address accessibility from various positions. My partner Kristin Rochelle Lantz and I were some of the first resident artists to visit the Model through the initiative.

After the residency Megan asked if she could suggest Open Access to the acquisitions committee for collection, and I put a proposal together. I considered the idea of the institution collecting that work in particular as an embracing of my politics. If I were to lend my work to the institution in that way, I would expect that the institution continuously try to embody the politics that it represents as a means of respecting the work and the exchange between us. I thought that the acquisition would more likely nurture a mutual exchange if the terms around it supported me in having an ongoing relationship with the Model, and staff especially, so I proposed an arrangement in which I would be supported in returning to the institution to conduct an accessibility audit—at a time of my choice—as long as the work was held in the collection. And again, just to be clear—accessibility in this case being very much in line with what is often referred to as engagement, from an expanded view of the meaning so as to align with the tenants of Open Access.

I think this strategy relates to the accountability piece that I mentioned wanting to realize in relation to the workshop. I’m trying to document the effect of the movement building aspect of the work, but I also want to ensure that participants that I’m sharing the concept with engage fairly with the politics that it represents. I’ve been thinking of having participants who want to embrace Open Access voice a declaration that identifies their position in relation to the common paradigm for accessibility, but this is very much the beginning of my process in realizing a plan for accountability when it comes to Open Access.

The museum is really a reflection of the people who are present in positions of power. The social space is a reflection of this, and whether or not it is oppressive really relies on the collective politics of the institution. Recently a friend emailed me, and the museum she works at is undergoing renovation so they’re going to be without a physical space for a while. I was thinking about Open Access in relation to this idea of a museum in a transition period; and when you take away the structure the museum is just this mess of relationships. Those relationships persist without the structure of the institution, and continue to evolve so really the museum and its culture is a reflection of the people who are present in it, and the more people who become present and who have agency within that structure—they shift that culture.

JB: It feels important to recognize that this critical project is also an act of institutional care. Why do you choose to offer this care to museums and institutions?

CP: I guess it is institutional care. But I feel like, again, in some ways it’s me responding to my own access in the context of institutions. In realizing this Open Access position statement and what it has become I have been responding to the current landscape regarding how we conceive of accessibility, how we think through it, how we practice it, who these practices are for, and who cares about these things. I really wanted to realize this space, this conceptual space, that anyone could elect into, and find something in. If you are struggling to hold agency then I figure it could relate. The purpose is to realize a new way of being that is based on mutual support, care and compassion, and that really grows from the grassroots of a community, as an agreement between electing parties, which is very different from the way we currently do things. I think that’s my reason for wanting to use the museum as the site for this kind of work, and in thinking through Open Access—because again, the museum is the way that I’ve come to understand other institutional structures. If we realize Open Access in the context of contemporary art, it is something that can be applied to many different situations. It’s a proposal that has to do with power and injustice, and these are things that we find in every aspect of our culture.

Jacqueline Bell is a curator and writer currently based in Banff, Alberta, where she is assistant curator at Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre.

Born in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territory in 1981, Carmen Papalia is a social practice artist and non-visual learner who makes participatory projects on the topic of access as it relates to public space, the art institution and visual culture. His work has been featured as part of exhibitions and engagements at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the CUE Art Foundation, New York; Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana; The 8th Floor Gallery, New York; and the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, among others. Papalia is the recipient of the 2014 Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary and the 2013 Wynn Newhouse Award. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver and a Master of Fine Arts from Portland State University. His current work includes a movement building campaign for Open Access and Let’s Keep in Touch—a collaboration with curator Whitney Mashburn that aims to set a precedent for haptic criticism to become a viable practice within contemporary art.


1. See Carmen Papalia, “You Can Do It With Your Eyes Closed,” Art21 October 7, 2014, last accessed June 1, 2016,

2. Ibid.

3. This reading of Blind Field Shuttle as an experience of the built environment through non-visual senses is advanced by the artist in this interview; the reading based on ideas of trust noted by the author in the aforementioned text, “You Can Do It With Your Eyes Closed,” Art21.

4. This statement is based on the tenants of Open Access as shared by the artist with the author via email.

5. Ibid.

6. This framing of Open Access as a conceptual work is stated by the artist in this interview.

7. For further analysis of this work and the resulting exhibition, see David Garneau, “Marginalized by Design,” Border Crossings 137 (2016), accessed June 1, 2016,

8. One of the tenets of Open Access is, “Open Access interrupts the disabling power structures that limit ones agency and potential to thrive.” The tenants were shared with the author in an email from the artist.

9. Carmen Papalia, “A New Model For Access in the Museum,” Disability Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2013), accessed July 1, 2016.