19 June 2015

In the Absence of My Body

How fitting is it that my most recent post was titled "In Absence of a Body" demarcating a growing absence of my so-called body from this here blog? Interestingly enough, what has consumed me these past few months are my interests in bodies, able-bodiedness, and the manifestation of disability in cultural space. I've also increasingly become a bit of a homebody, but that thought is entirely tangential to my point.

The last four months have been transformational, informational, and affirmational. It feels as though my head was like a door, the creaky jamb cracked open, and like furniture moving into a new space, piece by piece new information found a place in this funny brain of mine. When I set out to become a graduate student of Museum and Exhibition Studies, I came with plenty of ideas about myself, museums, and the world I live in. 2014 into 2015 has been a spectacularly strange year. One full of violence, one that has me reeling from the news reel, wishing to turn off the Twitter feed if only for a day. How many more deaths from police brutality must we stomach? Why in 2015 do we have a Black Lives Matter movement when we should have always valued black lives? Why are businesses still running on the labor of unpaid and underpaid workers? Why are women still paid differently than men, and why are we still debating universal health care? All of these questions and more circle around me in the galleries I work in, in the classes I take, in the conversations with my colleagues and cohort, in the way we talk about Chicago, and the direction this country is moving in. There are no easy answers, but plenty of work to do.

This past year has left me overwhelmed but resilient. If anything, my graduate program has given me the tools to ask meaningful questions of the world around me, to be conscious of what irks me, and question (often systematically) what is causing the symptoms of discomfort, anger, and sadness. All lives matter. All bodies matter. This is not a manifesto, it is just how I feel.

In terms of where this leaves me within my field of research, I've landed on quite a wonderful lily pad. Having been visited by the disability rights activist and performer, Carrie Sandahl, in two of my core classes, her words on the experience of disability struck me to my core. She spoke of the theatre environment being unwelcoming toward her body, how the dark narrow backstage areas were difficult to navigate, and the roles she was often cast into used her body and her disability in ways that she felt uncomfortable with. She could play a person with a disability (often a secondary character whose disability forwards the plot in some way) or an elderly person (often male, as the theatre world is full of male characters). She seldom played the leading role, as she navigated the already gendered, ableist, competitive theatre environment. She spoke truths to my class not only about her place within the theatre, but also her body in museum spaces. That sometimes she chooses to use a wheelchair in museums fosters a completely different experience for her as a visitor. Labels are hung too high to read, and if she's with a friend who is pushing her wheelchair, often they push too quickly before she can read both the label and the object she is looking at. Glares are difficult. Often, pedestals are also set too high. Elevators and ramps, though required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), are often marginalized to the sides of spaces, hard to find, and take more time to use. Moving through museum spaces is anything but fluid.

A blind visitor to Spain's Prado Museum runs his fingers across a 3-D copy of the Mona Lisa, painted by an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci. image and caption via NPR
What these stories left me with was an unsettling urge to do something. I enrolled in a disability studies class, and wound up conducting research on what museums have done in the past, and what museums are doing today to be more accessible spaces for visitors with all sorts of abilities. The Prado in Spain has an exhibition made up entirely of paintings that visitors can touch. Three-dimensional sculptural paintings of beloved works from the museum's permanent collection, hung on the walls for visitors with both vision impairment and varying sighted abilities to experience not with their eyes but with the tips of their fingers. Very few museums have anything like this - and I don't fault them. This project is experimental, and expensive (at $7,000 a pop), though I will say these paintings offer an optimistic step in the right direction.

Noel King conducting an ASL tour in front of Seurat's Grand Jatte

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently offering monthly tours open to the public conducted entirely in ASL (American Sign Language), with the accompaniment of an interpreter. This new program has become a widely attended form of museum engagement, offering another form of communicating information about favorites from the collection. As more and more museums begin to implement alternative modes of experiencing and interpreting their collections, we will move closer to a more inclusive universalist society. Nothing will ever be perfect, but rather than seeing differing abilities as a "problem to be solved" we should always consider that everyone on this wonderful planet deserves the right to move through space in a way that is intuitive and comfortable for themselves. Regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, or the type of body they inhabit, each human should feel comfortable in public space. An idealist thought, but one worth fighting, protesting, and working toward.

My pal Tori exploring the Touch Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. It's one of the only dedicated spaces to works you can touch. All of the objects are busts, and all but one of them are of Western subjects made by Western artists.
So where does this leave me? A project I'm currently in the very tentative planning stages for is an audio tour. I would like to write, research, and record an audio tour for visitors with vision impairment for an institution here in Chicago. I won't announce which one just yet, as this is all very tentative, but I will say it's a place that I consider to be home. They do not currently have an audio tour created for this specific audience, and I'd like to help them out with that. Over the course of the next few months, I intend on researching what makes a good audio tour, going on a whole bunch of different audio tours around the city, and figuring out the language and voice necessary to write an audio tour that is accessible to anyone listening. This is going to be a huge project, but it's one tiny thing I know I can do to make the museum community a more inclusive space.

So there you have it. My long absence was worth something, at least I think so. I needed some time to read, write, stretch myself out, and let these ideas ferment into what I believe is a wonderful kombucha of ideas. Oh goodness, that metaphor! Let's move beyond kombucha and say this is a fine wine, shall we?

1 comment :

  1. I am so excited to find out more about your audio tour! You are an extraordinary tour guide and will craft something AMAZING!