Creations off the Beaten Path: A Discussion on Disability and the Arts Challenging our Preconception of Artistic Practice and the Experience of Artistic Creation

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The panel of Creations off the Beaten Path

Moderator: Florian Grond, Postdoctoral Fellow, Concordia University, and Affiliate Member, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, McGill Universitywww.grond.at

What follows is moderator Florian Grond’s written summary of the ‘Creations off the Beaten Path’ panel:
‘Creations off the Beaten Path’ was a panel discussion on disability and the arts that challenged our preconception of artistic practice and the experience of artistic creation. In the panel, we explored how the relationship between people with disabilities and artistic creation can help expand our view of the arts. In a predominantly visual culture, blindness constitutes a particular challenge to our (pre)conceptions of artistic creation. This is why blindness was the focus of this panel, within the general theme of disability. An emphasis was put on people with disabilities not only as subjects in their own right, but also as active creators. The goal of the panel was to challenge stereotypes of “blindness” by recasting it as a multifaceted and positive creative force. This creative force, like all good art, challenged us to reconsider what we were including in our definition of artistic practice and how that practice’s outcomes could and indeed must be experienced by both blind and non-blind people.

The panel started with a presentation by Dr. Piet Devos (www.pietdevos.be), ‘Stylistic Incarnations: How to Give the Disabled Subject a Literary Body.’Devos gave various examples from literature in which the representation of disability by authors with different disabilities led to far-reaching formal experiments. Amongst the examples was the paraplegic French poet Joe Bousquet; the Ecuadorean writer Pablo Palacio, who suffered from syphilis; and deaf writer Raymond Luczak. The discussion of these authors highlighted the empowering potentiality of stylistic and formal elements that disclose the sensory worlds of disabled characters. Furthermore, reading literature through the lens of disability also made us aware of the implicit normalizing assumptions concerning the human body and sensorium that so often underlie the allegedly “unmarked” style of mainstream texts.
       
Georgina Kleege (www.english.berkeley.edu/profiles/45) followed Devos’ presentation with ‘The Gravity, The Levity: Hands On, Hands Off / Hand On, Hand Off,’ a talk about her collaboration with Fayen d’Evie , which explore the history of the relationship between art and touch. Kleege gave examples from a “touch tour” of the works of the Kadist Art Foundation. In one example, she explored a work by Joseph Martinez, A meditation on the possibility of romantic love or where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (2005), by touching the surface of marble figures and tracing their outline. In another example, Kleege re-performed origami folds on dollar bills, thereby remaking Juan Capistran’s From a Whisper to a Scream (2005). Finally, Georgina gave an example of how experience through proprioception reveals the spatial configuration of Jompet Kuswidananto’s Third Realm (2011), a large-scale sculpture installation. All of the examples showed different ways of interacting with the works and gave the outline of a taxonomy of touch interactions that help to reveal the content of art as an aesthetic experience.

Dr. Hannah Thompson’s (www.hannah-thompson.blogspot.co.uk) presentation, ‘In Contact: Art, Accessibility and Community,’ focused on Blind Creations (http://www.blindcreations.blogspot.ca), a conference on the intersections between blindness and creativity that Thompson co-organized with Vanessa Warne in June 2015. The conference, which included practitioners, advocates and artists, not only reflected on creativity and blindness, but also celebrated them by exploring blindness’s artistic potential and thus destabilizing sight’s position at the top of the hierarchy of the senses. Blind Creations was attended by 116 delegates from 15 countries, around half of whom were blind. This innovative conference and micro arts festival allowed blind and non-blind people to share inventive ways of experiencing the world, from tactile books and photographs to haptic art. Thompson gave a detailed account of the art exhibition and the many fascinating projects showcased during the conference, demonstrating how the engagement with accessible works concretized and grounded the theoretical and historical perspectives being discussed and, in addition and even more importantly, how making art accessible to blind users also enhances its interest and appeal to non-blind people.

Dr. Vanessa Warne (www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/departments/english_film_and_theatre/faculty/warne.html) continued the proceedings with a focused case study of Teresa Jaynes’ Moon Reader,givinga detailed description of the piece. The Moon Reader is an interactive art installation that invites visitors to learn how to decipher, through touch, a raised-letter writing system invented by the blind educator William Moon in 1845. The Moon Reader begins with an exercise that teaches readers to learn Moon, followed by a series of stories inspired by history, music and science, all of which relate to the topics of perception and learning.

Warne presented on the exhibition Books Without Ink: Reading, Writing and Blindness (1830-1930), which she curated. The exhibition included, amongst other works, the Moon Reader. Books Without Ink featured a collection of rare raised-print books with fascinating artifacts from important repositories of blind people's history, including loans by the American Printing House for the Blind Museum, the Perkins School for the Blind and the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind. Warne’s presentation not only highlighted the difference that raised-print books made and continue to make in the lives of print-disabled people, but also the fact that raised print offers an exciting opportunity for aesthetic explorations and artistic expression.

The panel concluded with David Johnson’s (www.davidsartinsites.wordpress.com) artist presentation, which he begun by discussing Too Big to Feel, a work that was commissioned for the conference Blind Creations and is now on permanent display on the Royal Holloway campus at the University of London. Too Big Too Feel features several concrete domes on the grass, each about 40 cm in diameter. All the concrete domes are white except for one red one. From afar, they can be recognized as Braille dots, and their size makes the visitors wonder how one could best perceive and read the message and, even if one could read it, what the Braille dots would actually say. If a Braille reader were to read the message, it would spell Seeing Red,which is a comment about practical accessibility issues as well as aesthetic ones. Some of the works in Johnson’s presentation were on display on a table next to the audience. Eggs, for instance, is a conceptual touchable artwork consisting of three plaster casts of 6x2 egg trays. In these smooth plaster trays there are casts of concrete eggs with rough surfaces. The vertical 6x2 trays have the layout of a Braille cell and the concrete eggs in them spell eggs. Another piece, time laps, is made up of concrete casts of plastic coffee cups filled to different levels. Each cast has a spoon in it and the spoons all point in the same direction. The casts are sitting on black shiny perspex the size of coasters, which turn into abstract bases for miniature sculptures. After David’s presentation, the audience was invited to explore the artwork, stimulating a long discussion on art and blindness with the other panelists.

Audience members touching David Johnsonís sculptures

Audience members touch David Johnson’s sculptures

Panelists Georgina Kleege and Hannah Thompson touching David Johnsonís Eggs

Panelists Georgina Kleege and Hannah Thompson touch David Johnson’s Eggs