Carmen Papalia


On my body and experience:

The fact of my body serves as the basis for my personal philosophy and creative practice. There are two conditions that significantly define my experience, and they are often described, in medical terms, as Retinitis Pigmentosa and Sickle Cell Anemia. When asked, I will describe myself as a non-visual learner since I use my non-visual senses as a way of knowing—which many people can relate to since many people can identify as being a particular kind of learner. When I started to direct my senses away from what is visual, and began to listen, smell, taste and touch my surroundings, I realized that there was a vast and vibrant dimension, in non- visual space, that I had access to. I am still learning how to appreciate the nuances of this space, and have taken to inviting others to help acknowledge, map and name aspects of it so it may become a realm that more people will choose to occupy.

This opening of my experience, and the ways in which I make relationships and approach learning, are the result of having to establish a system of care and support for myself throughout my life. When I set out to investigate a topic (either through experiential research or a creative gesture) I will often invite others to join in the process—as I appreciate learning exchanges that are mutual, interdependent and collective. This approach has helped me to find a strong community of allys and mentors (in institutional and non-institutional settings) that I continue to draw energy from, and who I feel have been integral to the progression of my thought around Art, Access and Activism.

While I identify as a disabled person, I recognize that the conditions that disable me are external and not situated within my body. They are determined by people in positions of power, and they are sustained by problematic histories and public perceptions. I am disabled as a user of public space when I stumble on damaged sidewalks or bump into urban fixtures. I am disabled as a learner when I choose a book from the library that is not available in an accessible format. I am disabled because my access is limited in ways that are often out of my control. Negotiating this access, over the last 10 years, has made me a pretty good creative problem solver.

Artist Statement:

You are closing your eyes. You have just entered the vast and vibrant dimension that is non-visual space. You put your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, and you lend support to anyone who might want to join in this experience. You notice the pace of your breathing, you notice some sweat on your palms. As your focus shifts away from what is visual, the acoustic environment crashes around you. It consumes you like a tidal wave. With each event your sense of the spacial scale shifts, and shifts again. A tight corridor, a field of color. A wave, of traffic. Your footsteps. You focus on the sound. You feel secure knowing that you can rely on the person in front of you, and you begin to relax. You ease into your gait. You notice the pace of your breathing. You begin to trust in this practice.

—reflection upon experiencing the Blind Field Shuttle, 2013.

I design experiences that invite those involved to expand their perceptual mobility and claim access to public and institutional spaces. Often requiring trust and closeness, these engagements disorient the participant while introducing new modes of orientation that allow for perceptual and sensorial discovery. Each walking tour, collaborative performance, public intervention, museum project and art object that I produce is a temporary system of access—a gesture that contributes to a productive understanding of accessibility. As an open- sourcing of my own access, my work makes visible the opportunities for learning and knowing that become available through the non-visual senses. It is a chance to unlearn looking and to take ones first few steps into a non-visual world.

Video Links:

Blind Field Shuttle - 2010, performance

The Blind Field Shuttle is an experience in which up to 50 people can walk with me through urban and rural spaces while closing their eyes. Each instance of the Blind Field Shuttle is an invitation to explore the possibilities for learning and knowing that become available through the non-visual senses. Participants line up behind me, link arms and close their eyes for the entire experience. After using their non-visual senses for a prolonged amount of time, participants begin to recognize looking as one of the many ways to engage with and interpret a place.

Mobility Device - 2013, collaborative performance

Mobility Device is a collaborative performance in which I am accompanied by a marching band that replaces my white cane as my primary means of gathering information about my surroundings. As a piece of music, Mobility Device is an extension of the musicality of the white cane—bringing attention to the things that the white cane, on any occasion, might touch into sound. The gesture proposes the possibility of user-generated, creative process-based systems of access while representing a non-institutional (and non-institutionalizing) temporary solution for the problem of the white cane.

Long Cane The Touchy Subject For Your Ears Only See For Yourself
Long Cane
performance object
15 feet
The Touchy Subject
workshop and perceptual tour
For Your Ears Only
kit and perceptual tour
See for Yourself
workshop and perceptual
Nothing About Us Without Us You Can Do it with Your Eyes Closed
Nothing About Us Without Us
workshop and exhibition
12 weeks
You Can Do It with Your Eyes Closed
workshop and exhibition
8 weeks