The exhibition With Seeing Hands features contributions from seven mostly Melbourne-based artists, some of whom identify as having sensory or mobility disabilities. In assembling the show curator Alice Mathieu aims to expose the misconception that sight is the most reliable way that we engage with the world. Steve Dow spoke to Mathieu about touch and tactility in the exhibition which presents works by Fayen d’Evie and Bryan Phillips, Carolyn Eskdale, Heather Lawson, Carmen Papalia and Nathan Liow, and Sam Petersen.
Steve Dow: What was the genesis of With Seeing Hands?
Alice Mathieu: I’ve been interested in making art experiences accessible for quite a few years. I went to the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands and they had an amazing access program, an extension of an audio-description tour, run by a blind artist as a sensory tour. Instead of just describing what a painting is like to someone who is blind or has low vision, objects were included that had a smell evocative of an artwork.
I came back to Australia and started running similar programs. I was working with artists directly to push their practice in creative ways so that it was more accessible. Exhibiting artworks that are not just visual, but integrating this idea that people have different requirements when it comes to engagement with art.
SD: Carmen Papalia calls himself a “non-visual learner” rather than blind or sight-impaired. Melbourne-based artist Heather Lawson was born deaf and lost her sight in her 20s. How did you choose artists for the show?
AM: They’re from an array of sources. I did quite a lot of research to find appropriate artists, wanting to work with artists with disability and without disability. I do not have disability, so I am not the spokesperson for people with lived experiences of disability, and I was very aware of that.
Carmen Papalia is a Canadian artist and I had already encountered his work online. He is an access consultant in a lot of museums and writes widely on arts access within institutions and he has a socially engaged practice and I really wanted to bring him on board because he is an international voice in the world of access and activism.
Local person Heather Lawson is a deaf-blind artist who is very vocal and strong within her community. She works with ceramics.
SD: What will those of us who don’t have, say, a sight disability come away with from the exhibition?
AM: I wanted this to be an exploration into the ways that people with differing abilities engage with art. Through history, the hierarchy of the senses shifts and changes, according to whatever the new social norm becomes. Today, touch has been kind of pushed down the hierarchy: the art experience today is a primarily visual one. The verb to ‘see’ an exhibition now means ‘to understand.’ That’s the primary way we engage with the world, which is a complete fallacy.
When you go to an exhibition, you take your body to a space, and it’s an embodied experience. There is visual content, but there is also a large, interactive, embodied, sound-based, tactile quality. That will be an interesting experience for all audiences, because it’s operating on different sensory languages.
SD: There’s an emphasis in the exhibition on the social model of disability; that disability is caused by the way society is organised. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability states that these barriers are “environmental and attitudinal”. With that social model in mind, do all the artists identify with having a disability?
AM: I don’t know, because I haven’t asked. I really would only ask, “What can I do to assist you?” I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to ask how they identify, because disability is not always visible. This is where we get into really grey territory.
There are those that have been explicit in that form of identification, such as Carmen Papilia and Heather Lawson.
SD: I’ve seen a picture of Carmen Papalia’s cane, which is described as loud. How has the cane been amped-up?
AM: It’s essentially a fibreglass cane, playing on the idea of the mobility cane. It has a contact microphone built into the end of it, and a lead through it, and the sounds the microphone picks up then travel through the cane to a DIY amplifier with pedals that can be strapped onto a belt. So you can put it on and walk around the streets with it, and it makes all these crazy, distorted noises.
So, as he is walking down the street, the sound is amplified and distorted, and everyone is looking at him. He’s trying to make people aware of their presumptions and perceptions, but in a humorous way.
The exhibition will have a collaboration between Carmen and Nathan Liow, a locally based composer, and he has been using Carmen’s objects and travelling through space, and he has made a score articulating different experiences of space, which will be projected using a projectional microphone. So it will be a really embodied experience for the visitor.
SD: I understand visitors will also be allowed to touch some objects, such as the small ceramic kangaroos that Heather Lawson makes?
AM: The kangaroo was one of the forms Heather could remember with her hands from before she became blind. She wants to communicate that deaf-blind people have rich lives like anybody else, and just because she’s blind doesn’t mean she can’t have an artistic experience.
It’s about having a dialogue with the artist and the visitors coming before and after them.
SD: Do art curators and arts companies generally think about audience members who are visually or hearing impaired, so that they’re engaged, as opposed to ostracised or alienated?
AM: I think some are. Working within an organisation, there’s a lot that can be changed. There’s a lot of responsibility and power in starting to make simple changes.
What needs to change is the mentality that it’s a tick-box approach. One of the standards is “We will provide an access program upon request,” which immediately creates a barrier, because it requires someone to have the confidence to call the organisation and demand a service, which is not an easy thing to do.
Thinking about access can become a really creative, generative way of working. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think it can be done at a really local level, and it’s about getting the artists on board as well.
Artists are really responsive to it, because it is a different way of thinking about the world.