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White Cane Amplified (performance documentation), Video Still by Philip Lui, 2015.

Exhibition: Open Access at the Ottawa Art Gallery Annex

By Livia Belcea on July 24, 2017

Open Access: a demonstration, is a collection of art pieces and performances by Vancouver based Social Practice and non-visual learner, Carmen Papalia. The artist challenges the institutions and behaviours that disempower the people they are meant to serve. Carmen’s work encourages the viewer to reimagine places and spaces under the principle that they should be readapted to welcome people of all abilities.

This principle is evident throughout the exhibit. For example, each art piece displayed in the Gallery is accompanied by descriptive audio in both English and French, which visitors can listen through headphones, in addition to reading the description on the art label.

Two pieces in particular stood out to me. The first was the video recording of Carmen Papalia’s 2015 performance titled White Cane Amplified. In the video, we see Carmen walking in a mixed residential and commercial east-end area of Vancouver, carrying a megaphone instead of his mobility cane. He uses the megaphone to alert passersby of his presence by using his voice rather than expecting others to see him and deduct by his white cane that he is unable to see them.

White Cane Amplified

White Cane Amplified. Video still by Livia Belcea.

What we see in White Cane Amplified is that although Carmen has a loud megaphone through which he can ask people around him to move out of the way and see him as an individual with impaired vision, this does not necessarily happen. Despite being clear in his messaging and shouting “I can’t see you but hopefully you can see me” and “is it safe to cross the street?”, those around him, particularly motorists, ignore him, do not get out of his way, and do not ask him if he needs assistance. In fact, a man in a large truck responds to Carmen that “no, it’s not *bleeping* safe to cross” and continues to make his left turn into a driveway, with no consideration for Carmen.

Later during his walk, Carmen repeatedly asks through his megaphone if anyone can help him cross the road. A considerable amount of time passes without anyone coming forward. I got increasingly uncomfortable when not a single pedestrian had come forth, until finally two young boys approached him and asked him how he wanted to be helped and took his arm. Throughout the entirety of the performance, I felt my anxiety fluctuate because I did not know what Carmen would encounter. Performances are by nature ephemeral, unrehearsed, and certainly not immune to unforeseen and uncontrollable situations. I did not know whether Carmen was going to fall or trip, get hit by a car or get yelled at, which eventually did happen. I wonder if these behaviours would have been different if Carmen was walking with a white cane, and if so, why do the institutionalized representations of how a person with impaired vision presents him or herself in public have more weight than the words and actions they use to describe their own experiences and needs.

Red Pen Edit. Photo by Livia Belcea.

Red Pen Edit. Photo by Livia Belcea.

The second piece that spoke to me was a revision of a didactic wall panel. Red Pen Edit is the collective work of The New Accessibility Consortium and aims at decolonialising the description of Christos Dikeakos’ exhibit titled NEXT: A Series of Artist Projects from the Pacific Rim, which was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2013. By reworking the text, the Consortium exposed the colonial tone of the didactic wall panel, and revised it in order to tell what they believe is a more accurate account of the relationship between Indigenous and settler communities in Canada. What I thought was great about this piece was that by revising a curated, thoughtfully written description of an art exhibit and presenting it under a different lens, the Consortium not only changed the exhibit’s description, but the artist’s work itself. The only piece missing was that we could not see the art for which the didactic wall panel was written. I would have liked to have seen the exhibit before and after seeing Red Pen Edit in order to experience the shift in my perception of Christos Dikeakos’ exhibit. Nonetheless, what the Consortium achieved through this piece is significant, as it clearly demonstrates that what we experience and perceive is in fact shaped by the dominant institutions and principles in our society.

Open Access: A Demonstration is on display at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) Annex, located at Ottawa City Hall, 110 Laurier Ave. West, until August 13, 2017. The Gallery is open daily from 9am-8pm and admission is free. For more information, visit OAG’s website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages.