Sarah Heussaff on Accessible Curation

Installation view of the 2024 group exhibition De la vie au lit at Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal.

Exhibition view, De la vie au lit, 2024, Galerie de l’UQAM (© Galerie de l’UQAM)

De la vie au lit is a group show I curated at Galerie de l’UQAM in Montreal that brought together works by Liz Crow, Salima Punjani, Octavia Rose Hingle, Rea Sweets, Tamyka Bullen, and Cindy Baker. The exhibition is part of a literary and artistic tradition of producing art from a bed or room (of one’s own) and, more specifically, from bedridden, chronically sick, disabled, or Deaf artists.

Woodcut print in black and white of a female figure lying in bed and playing with a cat.

Félix Vallotton, La paresse, 1896, woodcut on paper

Time spent in bed, whether temporary, occasional, or permanent, offers (for those entitled to it) rest. It alleviates the pain or weariness caused by sickness, disability, or depression and compensates for the world’s inaccessibility. Yet Western philosophy and art history have long associated bed rest and the physiological act of lying down to a non-agentive femininity, lasciviousness, laziness, or idleness. De la vie au lit opens with a tactile reproduction of Félix Vallotton’s 1896 woodcut print La paresse [The idleness] from the collection of the Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal. In this artwork, the idleness is personified as a bedridden female figure. Reproducing the work at the entrance of the exhibition serves as an invitation to reflect on these representations throughout art history and their potentially derogatory connotations associated with disabled or sick lives. Similar representations have persistently relegated private spaces – such as the space of the bed – to the realm of the apolitical and, with them, disabled, sick, and Deaf existence. Yet, the bed not only helps to compensate for pain and fatigue; it is also a place from which disabled, sick, or Deaf artists resist and create against ableist, (re)productive, and capitalist expectations.

Installation view of the 2024 group exhibition De la vie au lit at Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal.

Exhibition view, De la vie au lit, 2024, Galerie de l’UQAM (© Galerie de l’UQAM)

The artists in the exhibition (as well as myself) embody diverse and intersectional realities and identities within ethno-cultural, gender, and disabled/Deaf communities. Their practices address, in a cross-disciplinary and creative manner, themes related to the experience of life in bed encompassing rest and/or resistance to norms. De la vie au lit was simultaneously an object (as with the bed-based performance Spiral Life by Tamyka Bullen), a room of one’s own (as in the installation LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS by Rea Sweets), and a pretext or a material and symbolic space to collectively experience testimony and resistance. To tackle the issue of inaccessibility, a challenge not immune to the art world, several sensory approaches were designed to offer one or more ways of experiencing the works in alignment with our individualities.

Installation view of the 2024 group exhibition De la vie au lit at Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal.

Exhibition view, De la vie au lit, 2024, Galerie de l’UQAM (© Galerie de l’UQAM)

Octavia Rose Hingle, for example, gave an online bed dance workshop in resonance with their audio-described and vibratile video work Bodyfabric (2020) that was presented in the gallery space. Another example was an online bedside reading in French of the text Lying Down Anyhow: an autoethnography (2014) which was presented in the installation Bedding Out (2012) by the British artist Liz Crow. Pillow Talk was performed by Salima Punjani in her multi-sensorial installation, and Cindy Baker presented a three-hour performance on her pill-mattress installation. One of these three hours was audio-described on mic. With these multiple activations and entrances to the artworks, the intention was to vary their access in the hope that one of them might be accessible for visitors to the exhibition both online and on site.

Installation view of the 2024 group exhibition De la vie au lit at Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal.

Exhibition view, De la vie au lit, 2024, Galerie de l’UQAM (© Galerie de l’UQAM)

The exhibition was also conceived in terms of alternative/crip temporalities to reflect on the access of its contents. The set-up of the exhibition was finalized a week before the opening date to allow a film crew to record views of the exhibition. On the evening of the opening, thirty minutes before the physical opening at the gallery, a 27-minute video was broadcast with different views of the space and artwork in which all the exhibition texts were set out in French and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), so that people at home would not have to experience a time delay to access to the artistic content. This video was then sequenced and its fragments downloaded onto iPads hung on the gallery wall to serve as oral and signed alternatives to the half-descriptive/half-analytic written captions  displayed in the gallery. An access ramp was built at the entrance to the gallery and a quiet room was added to protect environmentally sensitive visitors from some of the stimuli in the exhibition. It offered a space for on-site reading of fanzines around themes transversal to the exhibition.

De la vie au lit was intended as an archive of our disabled, Deaf, and sick presents, ensuring our artistic and curatorial practices as much as our futures are not denied to us. It is part of a PhD in research-creation project initiated at the end of 2019 about the emergence and development of activist and artistic practices by disabled people through the consultation of archives in three of the four pioneering territories to have seen the emergence of a conceptualization of disability/crip arts: the National Disability Art Collection & Archives in England, the Disability Right and Independent Living Movement at UC Berkeley in California, and Catherine Frazee’s personal archives in Canada. This research also includes a reflection about accessible curating begun in 2017 in France with my curation of the Autonomous Spaces exhibition, which framed disabled artistic practices and disabled curation into political narratives.

Sarah Heussaff is a PhD student and lecturer at the Disability and Deafhood: Rights and Citizenship Program (Programme Handicap et Sourditude: Droits et Citoyenneté) at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Further Resources

Blanquer, Zig. Nos existences handies, Nantes: Éditions Monstrograph, 2022

Crow, Liz. S’allonger quoi qu’il en soit: une autoethnographie, Attention Fragile, Val de Marne, MAC/VAL musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne, 2019

Hedva, Johanna. Théorie de la femme malade, Attention Fragile, Val de Marne, MAC/VAL musée d’art contemporain de Val-de-Marne, 2019

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip, Indiana University Press, 2013

Khanmalek, Tala et Rhodes, Heidi Andrea Restrepo. A Decolonial Feminist Epistemology of the Bed: A Compendium Incomplete of Sick and Disabled Queer Brown Femme Bodies of Knowledge, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 41(1), 2020

Kuppers, Petra. Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah. The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018

Leduc, Véro, Mouloud Boukala, Joëlle Rouleau, Aimee Louw, Ashley McAskill, Catherine Théroux, Sarah Heussaff, Line Grenier, Mélina Bernier, Shandi Bouscatier, Élodie Marcelli, Laurence Parent, Darren Saunders, Tamar Tembeck, Olivier Angrignon-Girouard, Carolyne Grimard. Les pratiques artistiques des personnes sourdes ou handicapées au Canada, Rapport de recherche. Montréal: Conseil des arts du Canada, 2020