Disability arts disrupts ableist notions of beauty and value
Photo by Michelle Peek. Bruce Horak and Sean Lee at the opening of Through A Tired Eye at Tangled Art Gallery.
By Louise Kinross
Recently I read an article in The Walrus called Redefining Artistic Ability. It was about Toronto's Tangled Art Gallery, a non-profit that showcases work by disabled artists. I was struck by a quote from Sean Lee, who is the group's director of programming. He was talking about how the gallery is creating art that exists outside ableist notions of commercial visual art: “A lot of the past conversations for us as disabled folks were about showing that we could do it too and we could compete," he said. "Disability justice is about asking, ‘What kind of world are we trying to compete in and why are we trying to compete there at all?’” So what exactly is disability arts? BLOOM spoke to Sean to understand more, including how Tangled identifies artists and how they make art accessible.
BLOOM: What is disability arts?
Sean Lee: I think of disability arts as being part of disability culture. For me it's something informed by the lived experiences of disabled artists. It's not necessarily something that has to directly address disability. But as disability activist Catherine Frazee says, it springs from disability experience, and to be fully appreciated, must be seen and heard with all of its historic and biographical resonances.
Historically, when we thought of the intersection of disability and art, it came from a charitable place, from a place of understanding disability with only a single story. Disability arts is about being able to create other stories that haven't been told.
BLOOM: You want to represent the complexity of stories.
Sean Lee: Multiple stories is the beauty of it. It's a way to reclaim the narrative. That's why our name is Tangled, because we're trying to understand the expansiveness of the disability community. I often think of it as a horizon. There's a queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz who talks about how as long as heteronormative is the default within society, we won't have queerness. I kind of borrow that idea to define a crip horizon in which ableism is the default system we live in and we're always gesturing, through disability arts, to this horizon elsewhere and 'else-when,' where disability is not only tolerated, but imagined and desired. Access is not an end to a mean but a desired part of the culture we live in.
Disability arts is about trying to energize our sector with a different way of thinking about art. A disability artist in the UK, Yinka Shonibare, said disability art is the last avant-garde. It's on the vanguard of how we understand art. It's changing the way we understand it. Yinka compares it to the emergence of other movements in the 1960s like feminist and queer art and the way they profoundly shifted people's perceptions. Disability arts is telling different stories of a different flavour.
BLOOM: How did you get into this field?
Sean Lee: I started off as an artist and when I was in school I was processing my own identity, my own lived experiences as someone who is visibly disabled, queer and a person of colour. I was trying to address my identity in what felt like a piecemeal fashion. Disability arts was never taught in art school. I learned about the emergence of different movements by radical BIPOC, feminist and queer artists, but the conversation around disability was left out of the mix.
I was always trying to have a better grasp of the intersectional lived experience I had, so I was using my body in a lot of performances and thinking through how to work with disability as a creative medium.
Then I met Eliza Chandler, who was a previous artistic director here, and she extended an invitation to me to rethink disability and situate disability arts as a kind of political intervention. It gave me language around my embodied experience, but also an understanding of it as one that's political. So disability arts is really about establishing a community. Before, I understood disability as something isolated solely in my body. Now I understand it's something we participate in. When we create access within our artistic practice, we're signalling that we want to create a community.
When I met Eliza, Tangled was being launched as the first gallery to exhibit Mad, Deaf and disabled artists with accessible curatorial practices. It was a momentous occasion, and I wanted to be involved. They didn't have a marketing person and I inserted myself into the team. Then I was their first curator in residence and I learned how to curate disability arts and how accessible practices could be generatively implemented in our spaces. I continued to stay in the orbit of Tangled and eventually became the new director of programming.
BLOOM: What is Tangled's mission?
Sean Lee: It initially started as the Abilities Arts Festival. It was originally a group of cultural makers and community members that came together to create a moment in which disability could be something that we experience with pride. It was about bringing the best of disability arts to Canada to really show the ways we could compete, too.
Tangled's mission is about creating opportunities for Mad, Deaf and disabled artists to shift the narrative of our cultural tablet. We try to create a culture in which disability can thrive.
As the years passed, Tangled has changed the way we understand disability arts. We want to nurture it as a sector and one that understands that disability is a disruption that we should desire. We don't necessarily buy into the whole idea of competition. Disability justice leader Mia Mingus understands this best when she says: 'We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.'
That's how we approach our gallery. We don't just use disability arts as a way to slide disability into normative culture. We're constantly working to redefine what that culture can be. A good example of this is in a recent exhibition called Undeliverable, which was curated by Carmen Papalia. Carmen wanted to redefine the museum on the terms of the disability bodymind. That meant that we were trying to take these spaces that have previously been so inhospitable to disabled folks, because of the way they assign very colonial and ableist definitions of success, and instead work to rethink what a professional gallery can look like.
When we first opened the exhibition there were no artists statements on the wall because they weren't ready yet. It was about operating within the understanding that access is a social practice, so we're rethinking what the standards of the museum can be. Things should be relaxed. We should allow things to be late or in progress and take up that idea of undeliverable, and still be 'professional.' That resonated with a lot of people. So often we have to contort ourselves in order to fit within the productive capitalist system that exists to try to churn productivity out of us, and disability arts can be this powerful intervention that questions what we're giving access to. Access can be a method for us to resist that neoliberal, capitalist way of understanding the world.
BLOOM: In a recent Walrus piece you talked about how your relationship with artists is different than what one would expect in a conventional gallery. You said there was a clause in a contract whereby an artist would be paid, even if for some reason they weren't able to deliver exactly what they promised, or it was late.
Sean Lee: That 'care' clause came about because another artist in a previous show wasn't able to 'deliver,' and we wanted to make sure that future artists weren't put under so much stress. In the case of that past artist, the curator, rather than replace an empty wall with another artist's work, she held an empty wall for the artist and put up a statement around holding space for this artist and others who aren't able to participate. We have to shift our cultural workings to unlearn some of the ableism that even as disabled folks we might have been taught.
BLOOM: How do you make art accessible?
Sean Lee: There are a lot of spaces we've learned from. For instance, the Smithsonian has a great guidebook around access. We took a lot of our principles and learned from them. But something we really subscribe to is the idea of creative access, or creating entry points into work, which was coined by the curator Amanda Cachia. The artist, the curators and all of the admin folks have to commit to incorporating access meaningfully. For instance, if you're thinking about touch within a visual arts exhibition, perhaps that means creating an entirely separate piece that is meant to be an entry point for people who are from the blind and low-vision community.
We have standard protocols for exhibitions such as hanging work at a lower level so that it's more comfortable for wheelchair users or folks of shorter stature. We caption all of our pieces and use audio description and oftentimes have tactile moments. We have all of our exhibitor statements translated into American Sign Language. But the idea of creative access pushes it to the next level beyond the idea of compliance.
When a conceptual piece doesn't fit within conventional storytelling, what are the other ways we can tell the story of this piece? Perhaps you have the artist recording his own voice for the audio description. It's a more experimental way of creating access that recognizes that inaccessibility is sort of everywhere. It's not just defined by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It's about a relationship and can be an intervention in a number of spaces.
BLOOM: How do you find artists?
Sean Lee: We do it mainly through calls for submission. Oftentimes a year in advance we put out a call for the year following, so we can work with the artists to consider where access can be meaningful.
BLOOM: Are artists with all disabilities welcome to submit?
Sean Lee: What makes are space unique is we're a cross-disability gallery. So that includes the full spectrum of people who are Mad, Deaf, disabled, blind or low vision, neurodiverse, folks with intellectual disability and the chronically ill or sick. The wide gamut of disability is welcomed here and it's part of what makes our access so robust. Diversity of experiences allows us to consider access from new perspectives.
BLOOM: What's the greatest challenge for you in your role?
Sean Lee: I think it's the lack of other spaces. There's such a demand for spaces that can nurture disability artists who are looking to take on an arts practice. It can be really hard to establish the next season, because we receive so many applications. It's really hard for us to choose whose work gets exhibited.
There are so many important stories we need to tell, but we have only one gallery space. We recently acquired some window displays which will increase our capacity. It's rare to find a space that has permanent, year-round exhibiting capacity for disability arts. There are a handful in Canada, but there's not really another space dedicated to disability arts in Ontario.
BLOOM: What's the greatest joy of your job?
Sean Lee: I think being able to have a community. And being able to propel an artist's career is so beautiful, especially when artists come back and say 'thanks to the show, I now have another show with a different gallery.' We've had a lot of powerful success stories with artists who showed with us and were then able to navigate the larger art sector better. I think of us as a connector to that larger art sector.
BLOOM: Is there a current exhibit that might be of interest to our readers?
Sean Lee: Our exhibit Sagatay is up until December 17. It talks about the way Indigenous nations from across the globe have been at the forefront of the protection of our environment, and wanting to emphasize this relationship with our environment. Jaene F. Castrillon has curated with two other disabled Indigenous artists to create installations that reference the four elements of the medicine wheel: fire, water, wind and earth.
A new upcoming exhibition in January is called #CripRitual. It's curated by the Critical Design Lab in collaboration with the Doris McCarthy Gallery in Scarborough. So there will be two sites. It's about rituals that pass into crip knowledge. It's thinking through how disabled folks have hacked through navigating the world and how rituals can be these transformative ways to think through our own spaces. It's about disability traditions that centre disability as valuable.
BLOOM: I have a question, but I'm not sure if it's a 'bad' question. Is art shown at Tangled for sale?
Sean Lee: We don't sell the work. But when folks are interested, we connect them directly with the artists, and we don't take a commission. We love it when people are interested and it's never bad to ask.
Tangled is funded by TD Bank’s Ready Commitment and receives operating funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. Sign up for our monthly BLOOM e-letter and you'll be entered in a draw for fun prizes! https://bit.ly/3xfj4jc