Premise/Shift by Elizabeth Sweeney
An ASL video version of this article provided by Jolanta Lapiak is available here.
An audio version of this article is available here:
“The problem is not that I cannot walk. The problem is that I find myself living in a society which is premised in the most fundamental ways upon the assumption that everyone, or everyone that matters, does walk, in that quaint if rather laborious, biped sort of way.” — Catherine Frazee
The quote above is a prime example of Catherine Frazee’s brilliant precision with words. She can provide quick, astute clarity on complex realities like systemic abelism in just one sentence. I have shared this quote countless times, in presentations, lectures, and gallery training sessions all over the country. I first met Frazee, one of Canada’s most accomplished disability rights leaders, in 2009. I had invited her to give the keynote address for a conference I organized at the National Gallery of Canada called Connections, Collections, Communities: Making Museums and Galleries in Canada Inclusive and Accessible. I also got us temporarily stuck in the elevator on the way to the stage. Years later, I had the honour of spending time with her at her home in Nova Scotia, drafting out the framework of what became the Canada Council for the Arts first major policy paper on Deaf and disability arts and access.
I am a visual artist, arts researcher, educator, cultural worker, and emerging curator. I am also a neurodivergent queer of Acadian settler decent. My focus for the last thirteen years has been centered on Deaf and disability arts, arts accessibility, and how they intersect with contemporary curatorial practice. During these years however, my own visual arts practice had been very quiet. This is in large part because the work I knew how to make didn’t feel relevant anymore. It didn’t speak to my own experiences of disability and I didn’t fully know how to make work that was premised in the most fundamental way on the assumption that a much broader range of audience – including myself and the artists’ around me – mattered. I found myself asking the question: What if visual artists premised their artistic practice on the assumption that their audience, or the audience that mattered, were Deaf, Disabled or Mad? How would we approach our work then?
To tackle this question (and with the important support the Ontario Arts Council, Chalmers Fellowship), I am researching, exploring, experimenting with, and learning about the ways that artists, and specifically Deaf artists and artists with disabilities, integrate collaborative design, accessibility, and multi-sensory techniques into their artistic practice, while also creating dynamic and interesting works of art that explore lived experiences. To be clear, I am not interested in researching how a finished work, like a video, could be made accessible through closed captioning and audio description – this work has been well documented and continues to evolve. Instead, I want to learn about the many different ways visual and media artists can and do alter, change, and transform their artistic practice by shifting the premise of who their audience is. Over the course of this two-year project I’ve been meeting with, interviewing, and creating with artists as we explore these ideas together.
Lesson one: Unlearning
In starting this research, I had some unlearning to do about the subtle, overt, or implicit education I received during my initial training as an artist. This training, which started for me in a university and was reinforced in the arts milieu, implies that my work, for one, has a “viewer.” It assumes that my quiet, neurotypical “viewer” stands, at times for long periods, to look at wall work, hung for their eyelevel, centred at 57” from the ground, that they have precise eyesight and hearing to listen to or watch my sound or video-based work, and read English labels and panel texts in 10pt font. I was taught that my viewer doesn’t require an attendant or a guide or an interpreter, and they attend galleries (ideally often) that are accessible and welcoming to them. This training taught me, often through omission and absence, that few to no Deaf or Disabled artists are worthy of major collections or exhibitions (but maybe some public outreach programs) and that their stories are of no interest to the public. I was also repeatedly taught that the work of Indigenous or POC artists should speak narrowly to those experiences, preferably without the messy intersection of disability or Deaf culture explored. Unfortunately, the disability arts movement has also repeatedly reinforced this false lesson too.
Lesson two: Self-premised practice
While I have been actively trying to do this unlearning work for many years, I had never really spent any time considering what I personally craved and required from my work or the work of other artists. Through this reflection, I created a list, which I called my “self-premised practice” as a reminder of what my particular mind, body, and soul require from my own practice. This includes low sound and light stimulation, few words or texts, non-representational abstracted forms, comfortable spaces (ideally hammocks), lush materials and textures, rich colours, critical discourse, and disrupted norms. I like humour too.
I’ve heard many artists claim that they “make work for themselves.” However, for those of us who do not neatly fit in the mould of the above described “viewer,” we may be hesitant or unsure how to do this. In doing this research, I realized that many artists like me do not necessarily make work for their own embodiment and instead design their work for this standard viewer I described above. In her essay “Along Disabled Lines: Claiming spatial agency through installation art,” Amanda Cachia explores the work of geographer B.J. Gleeson and the concept of “enduring distorted space.” She explains that due to inaccessibility, which, in Gleeson’s words, “‘exacerbates the distorting effect of disability,” disabled people must therefore inhabit and endure distorted space, which is the social space of the ostensibly “normal” person.” This provides a rich starting place, as Cachia situates the work of two visual arts, Corban Walker and Wendy Jacob, and concludes that “there can no longer be an assumed ‘average’ or normative uniformity in how to engage or respond to a work of art when we remember all of the variegated forms of knowing and being in space; just as there can be no one universal design in architecture or single-point perspective to buildings and public spaces.”
Lesson three: Interdependent practice
I consider interdependence a core value of disability justice and culture. This is rooted in the writing of Mia Mingus and other disabled activists who have written on the topic. In 2017, Mingus delivered Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice at the Paul K. Longmore Lecture on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University. She made clear connections on these concepts and articulated the value of our relationships between and within Crip communities: “Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through ‘dependence,’ which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence.”
Petra Kuppers further explored the connection of this within disability art and culture, and specifically in poetry, in her work Disability Culture and Community Performance:
Interdependence is a word with resonance in disability culture circles, where the self-reliant individual is often out of reach, and self-reliance’s ableist features discernible. So in my recent poetry performance work, which is to me always critical work, I have become interested in what happens when the illusion of poetic loneliness is given up, this romantic veil is ripped and poetry emerges instead in the lean against familiar words, in the interplay of voices and in communal effort. What happens to the lyrical eye in collaborative work? How do the boundaries of individual self, sound and utterance, structural positioning and lyric flight break productively in communal poetry?
She then adds, “In the rhizomatic model of disability, I keep on the move and rest while leaning. I offer these energies to you.”
As a core value, interdependence – and thus disability culture and embodiment – then feels fundamentally at odds with the West’s framing of contemporary and conceptual art practices, where tremendous value is placed on independent creation, unique thought, and the conceptual authorship of The Artist. This value placed on independence is complex. While many artists do work alone, the concept of independence is further extended to those that do not create alone, who instead employ the labour of background painters, Brillo box makers, edition print-makers, and Foundry technicians. Independent artists also work in collaboration or with community (although this too is often undervalued). In all of these ways of working, intrinsic value is placed on this concept of mental and creative independence, as the key feature of distinguishing what it is to be an artist, regardless of who you work with.
Like Kuppers, I too “have become interested in what happens when the illusion of poetic loneliness is given up.” Interdependence, which I see as a close relative of collaboration, requires that we don’t just create or brainstorm together, but we also mutually and willingly support and depend on each other to build a practice based on Access Intimacy. That we create with, for, and of each other.
Lesson four: Artist Therapy
I went to Vancouver because I knew that I needed the creative support of long time art-pal JD Derbyshire. I describe our time together as Artist Therapy – therapy for an artist for the purposes of making art (vs. art therapy which is making art for the purposes of therapy). I told JD all the things I had learned so far, all of the questions and challenges I was tackling, and the blocks I was coming up against. She noted my comments, asked me questions, challenged my assumptions, reminded me of things I was saying, and made me dig deeper. After a few sessions, JD shared with me the strategy of the brainstorming buffet. We put down every idea, no matter my assumption of its suitability, and then we put down more ideas and more ideas until we couldn’t think of any more. Then we ate BBQ, went for long walks with dogs, had affogatos, searched for found objects and discarded treasures, and came up with more ideas.
I showed JD the pivotal and foundational work In My Language by Mel Baggs and we had even more ideas.
Then we started to play.
Lesson five: Relational Aesthetics (of Access)
Working with a motto that JD often uses – “one size fits one” – we started experimenting with some of the values I had set out for my own self-premised practice: limited speaking/words, materials focused, non-representational, abstract. JD brought in ongoing consent, playful humour, improv, scale-ability. We created through mutually agreed upon boundaries/elements the selection of the materials to work with, the space we would use, and who would decide when the work was done. We worked together playfully with the materials in a way that felt like the creation process was a performance in and of itself. The installation/sculpture made from our performance was both a finished work and evidence of our creation-performance. The connections between interdependence, disability, and relational aesthetics were instant and obvious. The result is something I am calling Interdependent Experiential Abstraction. Here is an excerpt from our first session and the resulting work:
My learning still feels so emergent and soft and slow. I’m looking forward to rolling around in this vulnerability and meeting and talking to more Crip artists, taking time to learn from and lean on each other, and creating new spaces for access intimacy, artist therapy, interdependent practice, hammocks, affogatos, and BBQ.
Elizabeth Sweeney is a visual artist, art gallery educator, and emerging curator. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University (2001), a B.Ed from the University of Ottawa (2005), and an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University (2012), where she focused on disability art and contemporary curatorial practice. She has worked at the National Gallery of Canada and The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, and currently works at the Canada Council for the Arts. She is the co-founder of the Black Triangle Artist Collective and frequently presents on the topic of art criticism, activist museum praxis, and contemporary disability arts. Originally from Tusket, Nova Scotia, she lives with her Indo-Acadian family in Ottawa.
For more information please check out the Premise/Shift project website.