The Cripsters: Criptych, Technology, and Community
Disability heightens the experience of both isolation and community. Technology, especially for those with disabilities, can either be an obstacle, a barrier, and a torment or a means for connection, communication, and understanding. Criptych, a group exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba until November 13, had its genesis in a 2019 residency hosted by Arts Accessibility Network Manitoba and Video Pool Media Arts Centre when participating artists Susan Aydan Abbott, Yvette Cenerini, Susan Lamberd, and Andrea von Wichert found common concerns amidst their diverse experiences with disability and the tools they use to make their art and live their lives. The resulting exhibition includes everything from performance to installation to interactive kinetic work, but it finds unity in the simple fact that these four artists connected and created a space of shared understanding.
Susan Lamberd: We actually knew each other before the residency. We hadn’t spent a great deal of time together so this was a great opportunity for us to spend time with like-minded people who understood the barriers each other faced whether they are physical, attitudinal, or mental. Just having the acceptance of someone who knows what it’s like to go through life with a disability and know you’re in a safe space can mean all the difference between a good day and a bad day.
Yvette Cenerini: The commonality between us, the fact that we all face daily (even hourly) challenges in order to practice brought us together. Having that understanding, and being able to move past that right away, without having to advocate for ourselves, allowed us to quickly bond as a group and focus on our work.
Susan Aydan Abbott: Shared experiences, safe space, trust right off the bat. No explanations needed. Camaraderie. Sisterhood made it possible to push each other farther and deeper into honest self-reflection.
Andrea von Wichert: There was an unspoken understanding that however any one of us would show up at any given time was perfectly fine. We had a level of patience and tolerance for witnessing each other search for both questions and answers about our work. There was a search for vulnerability that each of us was exploring in our own way.
Technology, Art, and Disability
SL: I was a computer analyst and went back to university in mid-life to take fine arts. Technology in the 1980s to 2000s was so different back then; artists weren’t using technology a lot in their work. Now it’s used extensively. Adding technology to my practice has opened so many avenues of medical research and testing that weren’t available to me before, such as MRIs.
YC: These days, most everyone can say that technology affects their quality of life in one way or another. For me, technology not only makes my life better, it literally allows me to get out of bed in the morning. Due to my paralysis I am dependent on technology and others to survive. In my art practice, technology allows me full creative control over my digital collage work. It compensates for my lack of dexterity.
SAA: Technology gives me more tools to expand my art practise. It helps to make my work more immersive. Blowing on all cylinders and senses.
AvW: My disability makes navigating online and online culture difficult, so as an artist I tend to shy away from any computer-based technologies beyond using my iPhone as a research and composition tool. This is why I wound up making a live performance at the end of my new media residency. I find the pandemic rush to online and streaming culture isolating and alienating.
Obstacles and Accessibility
SAA: Artists with disabilities have to deal with othering, automatic dismissive attitudes, and those not willing to take small steps to accommodate.
YC: I think that because my disability is visible, accessing support for my professional development has not been an issue. Apart from the occasional inaccessible gallery, institutions are more accustomed to accommodating wheelchair users (although, there is always room for improvement) than they are to serving artists and patrons with other types of needs.
SL: Contrary to what most people would believe, it’s not the physical barriers that are the obstacles most often faced by artists with disabilities. Rather, it’s the attitudinal barriers, some of which I myself am guilty. Galleries need to ask more questions, assume nothing, take notes when people ask for support, and have a support specialist who is trained to know such things.
AvW: Artists with disabilities are not a monolithic group, nor are arts institutions, so I don’t think that there is a simple answer. Perhaps that’s where it needs start. Artists with disabilities need to be recognised as a non-homogeneous group.
AvW: I don’t know what the exhibition as a whole is like because I’ve never seen all our work together and during the short time that my piece exists, I am actually performing it. I know that the other artists’ work creates a grounding environment for my piece to live in and, along with whatever installation video I may have in the gallery post-performance, contribute to the palimpsest that is the recording. In order to really see all the pieces together, one would have needed to be in the gallery for the actual performance.
SL: It’s utterly unique, mysterious, and educational. A little piece torn from each artist’s very personal inner sanctum bit by bit, almost abruptly disgorged in some cases. It’s an exhibition that shows the artistic expression of artists with disabilities can become more valuable and sought after because it has a bigger message to tell – that of a person who has lived with a disability, who has accepted their lived experience, and celebrates their difference through a unique voice. They’re proud of that voice and their perspective of the world. The art often has its genesis in disability itself.
SAA: The exhibition is made up of incredibly vulnerable personal work that is much stronger in a group than when viewed separately. Rhythm, mood, honesty flows between and amongst us. The viewer is surrounded by distinct, but united voices: a loud hum that will continue to echo long after.
YC: The exhibition offers a very tiny glimpse into human diversity as four artists respond differently to how they feel and experience life in an ableist society. Viewers leave the show feeling either more aware or less alone.