Chapter 5: Unearthed and Repurposed: The Emptied Disability Artifact

Chapter 5: Unearthed and Repurposed: The Emptied Disability Artifact

Note: My endnotes are incomplete please excuse me.

[ Section 1] Introduction

We assume that art which is not about or by a person with a disability, impairment or chronic illness must have nothing to do with disability but this is an erroneous assumption.  Let me ask, do artists and writers pull their materials from their culture?  Yes, we do.  Do they create from lives lived in complete isolation?  No, we cannot.  A characteristic of art is that it communicates even on a basic level.  It is also true that intellectual, mental and physical differences in bodies now more then ever have become a part of the dominate culture not a hidden part of culture as they once were.  For me it is no small wonder that disability appears in art obscurely as deconstructed artifacts – stripped of ideas of disablement as in a social model, and sickness or malformation as in a medical model.  I will conclude that this is neither a win nor loss for disability studies.  Rather this is a phenomenon that could be used as a barometer of the reception of disability in mainstream and high culture. As for fine art, this phenomenon brings to mind some questions about access and the gaze of disability studies on contemporary art.  My answer to these questions is that it is not a defensive stance by art culture to changing the ways we design the settings and forms that art is presented in, that will help foster a better art world nor is legal minded enforcement of ADA or social pressuring by disability activists. What will change things is if we all work together in a spirit of mutual benefit recognizing that ableism is not always an intended outcome of design.

This last chapter will be perhaps the most difficult concept to articulate out of all the ones I have previously covered. It is not a kind of art or aspect of artistic practice but rather a term for a use of certain kinds of elements in art works.  For this reason I think some review is needed, as one could better understand this idea as the subtraction of these other concepts.

[ Section 2 ] Chapters 1-4 Summary

Within my musings on the place of disability in art I sought to convince you of two ideas. The first idea is that it behooves art culture, democracy and the economy for the fine art world to reinvent art theory terms in reference to works produced by people with disabilities (PWD), impairments, and/or chronic illnesses.  Similarly, that we need to reconsider terms that describe works with content or aesthetic values of disability and impairment.

The second idea is at the very heart of my motivation in writing this book.  It is that within a reinvention of such terms, high art culture’s systemic exclusion of contributions by artists and writers with disabilities and the exclusion of patrons must be recognized as the scourge that it is.  It is a barrier to understanding born of prejudice.  Therefore, without a sort of fine art cultural revolution the whole variety of human experience will continue to lay beyond the scope of fine art.  Thus, in examining the way we, the arts, talks about disability we find particular people are excluded and we reveal how to include more people in the theory of the fine arts.  Possibly this could lead to cultural shifts that disability studies has called for.  The miraculous result (as I have demonstrated in Chapter 1) is a better understanding of the difficult definition of what fine art means.  Both of these possible outcomes would lead me to believe that I may someday find a comfortable place in the art world as a person who is visually impaired, blind, disabled or what have you.  For all of this to happen, disability culture or that is cultures must be companions in this project.  As I explained, this partnership will mean compromise and faith – where there has been little.

In Chapter 1, I confronted the flabby term “disability in the arts.”  I brought to bear works by PWD and an artist with a chronic illness all of which had nothing to do with disability.  I suggested that the best disability conversation to have about such work is on the mechanics of individual artistic practice.  I discussed some of the origins of disability in the arts as “outsider art” and its origins in the Art Brut.  I discussed the perceptions of a public on creators with disabilities.  I highlighted the hypocrisy around the value of intellect in art criticism.  I concluded that open conversation on practice in conjunction with cultural prejudice has the possibility to lead away from “enfreakment” of the creator, superficial, or ironic conclusions about their work.  In so doing, I take the stance that we cannot divorce an impairment or disability from a creator’s work. Regardless of whether it does or does not have to do with disability, it in some way would act like liberal racism. This sort of liberal ableism further perpetuates the tendency of our profoundly ablest culture to sweep PWD under the rug. However, we also must take care to not swing the other way. That is reading into the subjectivity of the artist and their lived impairment experience, and then shoe horning it – prompting sensations of novelty where there might be none.  In doing so we would be cutting short further conversation that could take place if given the room and ignoring the authenticity of works.  Rather I believe that mental and bodily diversity is often accompanied by diversity in practice but not always to an enlightening extent.  But it is all of this that can be truly interesting about “disability in the arts” and the most fruitful use of this term.

In Chapter 2 I suggested the term “disability art” would best fit with work that’s marking characteristic is that it seeks to represent disabilities or impairments.  I brought to bear works by PWD, an artist with a chronic illness and a photographer who did not identify as having a disability.  I noticed that within such work that the disability or impairment is the material from which creation arises, but that this is not synonymous always with the content of the work.  I concluded that the general misconceptions and negative attitudes about PWD is an impediment in understanding art and literature that seeks to represent impairment or disability as a lived experience.  I suggest that this is a real problem that interferes with full participation of artists with disabilities.  Simply, we the art world must tackle this problem while avoiding shaming ourselves in the act.  We will have to recognize such tendencies holding them up to the ideal of a culture we desire for our future – one of a creative imagining and understanding where disability is not always at first encounter a sad or disgusting aspect in art.  Dare I say, this imagined fine art culture would be one of real equality?

On a lighter note, I suggested that fellowship between (and with) artists with disabilities could be a fertile refuge.  Again I pointed out how this idea is in conflict with the design ethic of the art world and the curriculum of art schools.  That this is a chicken and the egg debate.  Without proper access to the arts and debate about how we talk about disability in the arts, there will remain few PWD engaged homogeneously all over the art world or engaged as patrons.  I call to action artists, curators and arts administrators to not grapple with this problem as a secondary design concern.  Rather think about this problem as a design concept from the start.

I ask that we together create the art world system as accessible, and for the lack of a better model with a universal design ethic.  I ask, how is it that the ADA is mostly enforced by civil lawsuit, so that the burden is on PWD to fight – no doubt creating a pariah of us in the process?  So what must change for this not to happen?   Who would want to fight for access and get your local theater’s NEA money pulled in the process?   I would not want to, but that does not mean that I would never have to do it.  I assert that until the arts become more accessible we will continue to have less exposure to PWD, robbing our culture of resources and actively oppressing a population of people.  People, who I must reiterate, are a diverse group.  We are a group that most people will, or could, find themselves in at any point in their lives.  I repeat that it takes fertile ground to grow an artist.  It takes fertile ground to grow work.  So it is that exclusion of artists (as noted in Chapter 2 of Pat and me) are wrongs and we never forget them, even though they occur frequently. I challenge you to not forget it and in fact seek to find it regardless of disability identity for it really affects the whole of our culture.

In Chapter 3 I briefly discussed how some works of art inherently represent and use the impaired body and mind for aesthetic purposes and/or in searching for an aesthetic for disability itself.  I explained my concept of this sort of art as marked often by the presence of trauma or the medical gaze and even death but always uses the disabled body or its geist (meaning ineffable spirit).  I suggest that this strongly has roots in the Romantic Movement as a reaction to neoclassical ideals.   I agree with Tobin Siebers that disability may be the marking aesthetic, or that is the “modern” in the Modern Art movement.  The prevalence of this aesthetic today is a reaction (consciously or not) by creators in the arts in rebellion toward the animosity that mainstream culture has toward the “sick” in art as outlined by Siebers in his works on human disqualification and the aesthetic manifestation of disability in art and on the vandalisation of art.

In Chapter 4 I challenged the murky term “disability pride art” and called for a new use of the term as a replacement for what has been passed off in ambiguity, as a type of art almost exclusively in disability culture.  I suggested that the term be use to described highly political works of art, literature and performance, which represent and utilize representations of disability, impairment and chronic illness or an aesthetic of disability. I highlighted that such work is assumed often as strictly by artists with disabilities, but that this is not so, and far from the case in my experience. It is a mode of art making which attracts artists, writers and performers of all kinds including people without any form of disability.

[ Section 3 ] Problems in Curating Chapter 5

In this last chapter I will show the extent that disability is incorporated into high art culture by appreciating the phenomenon of disability artifacts used by artists to facilitate art having nothing to do with disability. This is a much-overlooked incidence of disability manifested in art works and is hardly understood.  Consequently, I will describe what a disability artifact is and how it can lose disability significance. Becoming in a sense “undisable-fied.”  I will also raise some questions which I think need to be asked. Such as: What are the implications of the rebirth of such objects as not connected to disability?

At the start of this project, three years before the writing of this manuscript, I felt that the artist selected for this chapter must themselves not identify as having any current, past or ongoing impairment or disabilities.  Because we may want to also have a conversation along the lines of disability in the arts as in Chapter 1.  So I thought this was the easiest scenario to understand, as it seems to me that most appearances of disability are wholly missed in the arts, and much to our loss.

[ Section 4 ] Why Do the Arts Need to Have a Barometer of Inclusion?

Tobin Siebers has brought to light in his book Disability Aesthetics the prevalence of disability in the aesthetic attributes of human disqualification and the roll of such aesthetics in American culture wars. He does so for the benefit of, one could say, putting the problems of American disability studies on its head to analyze it anew.  In a sense he shows the prevalence of disability in both art and design, but not always as a happy or inclusive incidence. In his third chapter he demonstrates what disability studies could gain from understanding such abhorrence, illustrating the overwhelming rejections by the American public of performances by Karen Finley and the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 Sensation exhibition.

Curiously he did not write on the extent that disability has been integrated and tolerated in the great record of our culture – the lineage of fine art.  I will suggest here it may be because what is integrated is too subtle to notice; or that when it is found often by (at this time) the only concerned party, disability studies inappropriately flags it as negative representation of disability. This sadly is often with the help of unwitting artists. Siebers outlines how disability studies can learn from his observations and how disability activists might use art and the aesthetic of disability to intervene imprinting the disabled body on the public’s unconscious (as in the work I noted in chapter 4) thus making disability more commonplace.   Siebers concludes that it is the ways PWD are represented that leads to their subjugation. That it’s not partisan politics or the backlash toward the culture wars of the 1960’s that is at the heart of systematic repulsion toward bodies or minds deemed unhealthy. Rather he thinks it an issue of unquestioned taste. He thinks such attitudes are what deem it right to hide disability or “the sick” in built environments. More so to justify the complete eradication of disability as the “sick” from publicly funded art. I must say that art can equally learn lessons from Sieber’s work to better understand the basis of the animosity such art triggers in a public. We can learn to work with this as a challenge to overcome and we must or we can kiss our arts funding bye-bye. I also agree with him that we need to recognize such issues of taste and aberrance to end many of our habits of exclusion be them built, designed or through exclusionary views.

For example, in art school the 1999 Sensation exhibition is a much talked about issue. This is because it nearly single handedly rewrote the rules on the use of bodily products and NEA funding.  In all of those painful credit hours of discussions and lecture such ideas on aesthetics and “disability as the master trope of all human disqualification” never came up, not even once.[i]  All the talk was a historical discourse marked by bitter attitudes; that those outside the arts, especially conservative groups (some times named as religious) and politicians, “Are only seeking to sensor!” and that, “A few hack artists only messed up the whole public art sector in the United States.”  This is an attitude and historical view that is horribly wanting and perhaps ironically unproductive.  What it does is make an immediate assumed enemy out of the supposedly high art world uninitiated.  So it also assumes an enemy out of those who do not have access to art education or have moral views tied to their aesthetic repulsion.  Those statements, uttered intentionally or not, are judgments that inherently disqualify the so-labeled lower classes as intellectually inferior in their mental capacity.  This view thereby judges the group as lesser citizens by way of the trope of disability. This depicts both those outside the art world as lower classes and religious people as somehow dangerous politically. I judge this as a sort of rampant stereotyping that has no place in intellectual discourse. Of course this is not overtly the thinking and could be thought of as blowing off steam, but I think it still has a bit of a barb to it.  And here is why: I really cannot understand how such a stance would help public funding of the arts nor why it is so often clung to in a death grip by the art world. This is a rather ablest mode of thinking.  That’s not to boast, of course, that as an undergrad I didn’t participate indulgently in one of these whining sessions.  In any case, though disability is painted all over the work of the Sensation exhibition (as Siebers so eloquently describes), we did not talk about it. Rather, we took the time to learn to be more prejudicial or exclusive in our attitudes.  If art school is the cradle of baby artists then we had some poor parents indeed who either were unwilling to notice their passing of the exclusionary torch or they did not care.  So then it is not hard to understand how comfortably incorporated signs of disability (i.e. disability artifacts) find their way into work and go unnoticed.  But too these signs I will contend are mis-categorized often then mistakenly interpreted by disability studies scholars as stating something negative about disability when they really don’t.

[ Section 5 ] What is a Disability Artifact?

So what do I mean when I say disability artifact?  Disability artifacts that can be stripped of disability are simply most objects connected to the medical model of disability: canes, crutches, prosthetic eye, or limbs, an eye patch or facial covering to mask disfigurement. But also there are modes of communication and language such as braille and sign language such as ASL.  I have noted in my local art scene that all these items have been assimilated easily unlike ideas of disability aesthetics and disability pride art, but that is only when the disability meanings are removed – the disability significance left behind.  I seek to understand how this phenomenon functions and what this sort of circumstance or practice can teach about the relationship between disability and art in these times (in somewhat the same way I discussed the prevalence of metaphor and representation in chapter 2).

I think one could make a life-long project of listing all sorts of disability artifacts including fictional objects such as freak show specimens and even more light hearted items like the visor that Geordi LaForge wears in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are numerous books and blogs out in the ether of the Internet to explore which cite television and movies as artifacts of disability in themselves, but notably much of the conversation tends to be more of a loose use of the term artifact – expanding it to contain actual works of art both high and low.[ii]  I will not include these since a work of art about disability cannot be used to not speak about disability.  That would be a paradox. However, if it could I would love to see it.  I have been known on occasion to be surprised by the arts, and this might be why our love affair continues.

My list of disability artifacts is more limited.  I not only exclude artwork that shows disability, but also the impaired or “disfigured” human body.  For my definition a disability artifact is such that the impaired body, real, inferred or imagined (as in anthropomorphized) evokes inherently disability aesthetic judgments and in the arts utilizes them. Thus I must acknowledge them in a definition, but exclude these in my list for consideration in this appraisal.

For example, let us take for consideration the emblematic symbol of disability known as the universal symbol of access. The one that in Chapter 2 Carmen Papalia (in the poem I wants) found “wanting” in its accuracy.  Both the physical sign and the graphic of the wheelchair/human hybrid (symbol) are disability artifacts. Note it is here that we perceive the suggestion of a human body, which has a sort of totality.  Some artifacts of disability are actual disabled bodies.  More chillingly, artifacts of disability can also be dissected body parts such as formaldehyde pickled medical specimens, photography of medical curiosities and their fictional synthetic cousins. This is the case of recreated freak show curiosities.  Although these sorts of objects are artifacts of disability they are also representations of disability and invite aesthetic judgments (as in the work of Chapter 3).  For instance in Eraserhead the character that acts as catalyst for the nontraditional and irrational narrative about a nuclear family, the hardly human baby – could never loose its reference to disability in its horrifying deformity. The point in using such a form was to use a disability aesthetic even though the primary topic of the film was not about physical deformity.  Accordingly, for example, the object of simulated conjoined twins as a fiction cannot loose their disability residue, as in the drawing Twins by Eric Ferguson covered in Chapter 4 . This is since the totality of the human form is inimitably sticky. It evokes aesthetic judgment, as it is a representation of disabled bodies regardless of these elements as bodies real, imagined or anthropomorphized. We must understand our body responds to ideas based on our natural and or conditioned aesthetic habits. In short if it seems human, or we can respond to it as if it may be a body, I do not think it can be repurposed to speak about something besides disability in the arts and leave its disability associations behind.  Rather the creator will rely on those associations.

[ Section 6 ] What are Repurposable Disability Artifacts?

Since there are so many items on my list: canes, crutches, prosthetic eye, limbs, eye patches, facial coverings, ASL and braille – I could write a whole volume charting each and in the process create the longest first book of any author.  Hence I will only take on braille.  Before I launch into explaining the use of braille as disability artifact in an actual work of art I must admit my failings with regard to my case study.  In my call to artists I receive no applications seeking to fit the criteria for this chapter.  During the call process the application guidelines were edited a few times. Through my lectures and research I learned more about what I had a suspicion of but few words for. The criteria was work by artists, writers or performers who do have disabilities and utilized a disability culture artifact, but whose work doesn’t address disability.  Early on I used language alluding to the social commentary which the presence of such artifacts seems to create.  In the final copy of the guidelines this curation point read, “[…] that utilizes artifacts of disability culture without the intent to make statements about disability.” Since then I have dropped the word culture as it clouded the water in that the artifacts I wanted to talk about could also be considered medical objects.  This is largely an association that disability culture tends to reject. With respect for this I gladly have dropped the language “disability culture” because, as I wrote, this dialog must be cooperative.

Nevertheless, my criteria may have caused several problems for me in my search for this type of disability artifact use. Firstly it is hard to understand this concept as it is not widely discussed in the art world and when it is discussed the tendency is to criticize. This is I believe partly why I had such a hard time putting it into words in the first place. Adding to the difficulty the criteria is really specific.  In hindsight, I could have asked for the use of specific items like braille in work by people without disabilities, and in my curation process eliminated works that spoke to disability.  But this too may have not produced appropriate applications. Potential able-bodied artists, writers and performers looking through call listings may have been reluctant.  It could be that on sight of the word disability they assumed that the opportunity was not for them, or they felt that their work may be unfairly scrutinized by a project examining disability and even worse pointing it out in a large-scale exhibition.

For example, I would think if I made work that had to do with race I might be reluctant about entering it into a show on, say, racial diversity.  That is especially if I did not represent the minority that my work referenced.

All this I have to admit was useful information I gained, but did not lead to me to finding even a single artist to write about.  So, completely flummoxed, after the show concluded my gut told me that I must have gotten this idea somewhere.  So I dug through my old college papers in search of examples. I was met with a big round of my gut telling me “I told you so, I told you so.”  I found many, but have elected to focus on one in this chapter – Ann Hamilton’s Myien.

[ Section 7 ] How Can Disability Artifacts Lose Their Disability Identity? Example Myein

a. The Artist Ann Hamilton

To understand the use of the disability artifact braille in Myien we must understand the way Hamilton creates her artistic language.  Note here I say ‘artistic language’ rather than ‘visual language’ for her work is generally multi sensorial. Although the way Hamilton regards her work, in her speech and writing, is in primarily visual terms.[iii]

Hamilton is a well recognized artist. She has had the privilege of an extensive education in liberal arts and textiles, which has heavily influenced all of her subsequent work. One could say observable in her is an obsessive interest in language and an attention to the materiality of objects.  She has a BFA in textiles (1979) from the University of Kansas in Lawrence and her MFA (1985) from Yale, which thrusted Hamilton into her successful career. Hamilton has had over 60 exhibitions and lectured prolifically.  Throughout her career she has been honored with awards for achievement in the arts, grants and fellowships.  The attribute that truly gets Hamilton’s work into the history books is her work which contributed to the exploration of space as a medium. The work implores language and space as material to deconstruct and juxtapose architecture, history, landscape, language and the human body, to create unfamiliar all-encompassing environments.  Her instillations while operatic in scope are elegiac explorations into contemporary perception of society in a sort of epistemological questioning.[iv]   In the introduction of Joan Simon’s book Ann Hamilton she writes:

Hamilton’s installations might be described […] as “site-generated” engaging as they do the formal and structural particularities of a place to make its presence palpable, compounded by a kind of site-reading, Hamilton’s work begins intuitively and is developed through her library researches. In a reciprocal process attending to the many ways a site “speaks” to the artist and to the many ways she might “speak back,” Hamilton’s work might further be recognized as “site-responsive” quite specifically in her words, as “an act of attention”.[v]  {Note to reader I need to find this book, get a sighted reader, and then fact check this quote}

An example of Hamilton’s more extreme deconstruction and juxtapositions would be Hamilton’s use of the mouth as a camera. The effect of which is that the space of the mouth is substituted in place of the aperture – poetically speaking – the mono eye of the camera.  By the action of catching an image from a location that is assumed to be where consciousness may manifest itself in sound thrusting outward, from a place that should be shut when not actively used, the common perception of the place’s function is removed.  Hence it is not the mere presence in her work of ideas, objects and places that manifest her artistic intentions i.e. the meaning of the work, but the context of them altogether as a constellation.  This also affects reciprocally the interpretation of each element, as I will later identify within Myien.  It assigns new meaning to each element.  It is the removal of the mouth’s primary functions of eating, speaking and breathing that allows for a conversation that regards the mouth as a space.  A space whose shape when captured on film from the inside is reminiscent of the eye’s shape. This sets up the viewer of her photography and videos to think of the eye too as a space. And poetically speaking as a room that takes in and captures. But the work evokes this in a mighty unfamiliar way.  Hamilton’s work is not only about alterations to spaces or repurposing of spaces, but too is often made up of an assemblage of objects as well as intangible elements like sounds, projections and natural light. All of these tactics are present in Myein.

As for color, the color red in Hamilton’s work often refers to the body and landscape or location as in her more current work where a red square is used to indicate to pigeons where to land. Blues play a much different roll in Hamilton’s work, which most often relates to systems of work as in the use of indigo in Indigo Blue[vi].

Before I proceed to describe Hamilton’s work I must note that I have a conceptual bias about the role of artistic intention in determining the meaning of a work – meaning the utterance of the work. I agree with George Dickie’s framework (of the institutional definition of fine art) where he suggests the intention of a creator to make “art” to be viewed in an “art world public” is part of what constitutes fine art.[vii] Although, I caution what an “art world public” may constitute should be taken liberally for the sake of capturing the widest possible range of human expression in fine art. I always question whether the initial intention to communicate a particular thing is an actual component of the work. Furthermore I question if the amount that such intention is represented and readable to an observer can be used to evaluate a work as good or bad. I hold the opinion this extends further into how artists might quite literally say what the work means to them after the intention within creation has lapsed and the piece sits before its creator finished. Meaning if an artist says it reminds them of their bitter grandmother I am not going to try to find the reason why and try to transpose the artist’s interpretation or feeling on the work. But this is only if it was not already partly implied, that is when I am willing to reexamine what I conceived the utterance of the work to be.  Rather I like to examine a work and ask, What does this work do? Thus, I mean to look for its actual utterance. I do not mistake my interpretation as the lone way nor do I pretend that it is the same as the artist’s. I think all these ideas are separate and informative to a reading of the work. Thus, I posit that the artist’s story or that is interpretation of the work is secondary. For example, there is a painting titled Still Life that is of a bowl of lemons or some sort of yellow fruit. Clearly it is not about some painter’s bitter grandmother, for me or anyone else, besides the artist, who may say that lemons are an allegory, metaphor, or what have you. The only thing that may have changed for me based on the information the artist provided is that I know that they poorly rendered lemons. Therefore the painting is about a bowl of lemons.

Clearly there are many ways to read a work of art. I choose this as it offers something logical yet open. I do not like to be confused. When I am, that’s when I become disinterested in a work of art – when I cannot draw my own conclusions. I will later address a wholly different approach (or mode/model of examination) that a disability scholar takes toward the use of braille in Myein. This scholar’s interpretation is in opposition to my conclusions in two ways: First, about the braille as an element contributing to the utterance of the work, and second in her approach where she considers artistic declarations of inspiration, intention, and interpretation as synonymous with the utterance of the work, making no distinctions between any of it.

b. Location and External Elements of Myein

In 1999, the same year as the Sensation exhibition, at the 48th Venice Biennale the U.S. Pavilion exhibited Hamilton’s Myien.  The Venice Biennale (meaning biannual) is one of the world’s largest ongoing international arts exhibitions, the first of which was in 1895.[viii]  To say it is anticipated, celebrated and large-scale only begins to describe the event. This year at the 55th Biennale titled The Encyclopedic Palace the organizers will spend over $4.3 million and are expecting over 500,000 people to attend.[ix]  Surely, this stimulates the economy of not only the art world, but all sorts of industry engaged in facilitating the exhibition and the hospitality industries that will benefit form the influx of tourists. It features work from over 30 countries housed in their own permanent commissioned pavilions and a main pavilion hall all around the Giardini (a park).  Countries without commissioned pavilions have exhibits throughout Venice in various types of locations. The art shown in the US Pavilion’s galleries for The Venice Biennale is curated by The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (the current owners of the building), and sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the U.S. Department of State.[x]

The U.S. Pavilion was built in 1929 and opened in spring 1930.[xi] It was designed by architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich. It consists of two wings of two rooms each sandwiching a central circular mezzanine making a U-shaped floor plan.

Although I fully admit I am no architectural expert, it seems to me the U.S. Pavilion is in the typical Palladian style, or since this is American I am inclined as Hamilton is to declare it in the Jeffersonian style. But I observe a surprising panache of the late1920’s Art Deco.  This brick and concrete building is entrenched in neoclassical ideas as it contains a couple modernized historical influences.

The Art Deco deviations in the structure are primarily subtle from the Jeffersonian formula.  Its roof is primarily flattened on top.  On the exterior, in place of a grand Greek temple style staircase there is first a small curb.  It connects the innermost front most corners of the building’s two wings.  Thus it defines the space of the courtyard.  The porch, with its four-fluted Doric columns, has two shallow front facing steps and a detachable grey ramp on the left.  A wholly neoclassical Art Deco hybrid, the affect of the colonnade porch and partly enclosed courtyard simultaneously is a nod to Hellenism and Egyptian temple themes –timeless and stately. It is not lofty in its one level. This Art Deco influence is also hinted at in the nooks of the front facing wings and in the mezzanine’s inlayed floor. But the most overt Art Deco display is in the rectangular skylights in each of the four galleries which are acutely geometric and terraced. They protrude in three advancing tiers. Inserted in the second step, on each of the short ends of the rectangle, are two sets of rectangular clearstory windows.  The four identical skylights conclude in large vaulted windows with gridded glass, the arcs of which are noticeable on the exterior as half circle protrusions from the roof.  Hamilton chose to uncover the skylights for the installation Myein as they were previously concealed for whatever vulgar reason. They have remained in place with minor alterations.  Since the time of its construction other alterations include two doors with steps placed in the courtyard sides of the gallery wings and a tree has been removed.[xii]

Hamilton recognized parallels between the U.S. Pavilion and Monticello, the home of Jefferson.  This was the shoot of her inspiration and led to how she responded to the architecture in creating Myein.  However it is a loose parallel as the structures are quite different in form and purpose.[xiii]  Regardless one can read the pavilion’s architecture as American, idealistic, institutional and historical, and more so as the artistic ambassador for the United States declaring proudly our artistic culture and ideals.

Above the porch and frieze the traditional triangle pediment reads “STATI UNITI D’AMERICA” (in Italian and the English translation simply United States of America). It is unclear when this was added to the structure. Above the pediment the dome of the mezzanine is visible making the building reminiscent of both public school buildings and churches – places I would associate with learning and tradition – resonating concepts of the human need for understanding through both thinking and feeling.

On the Giardini, Hamilton erected an 18 foot tall fence of rippled water glass panes glazed into a metal black grid.  It acted to contain the courtyard by suggesting a square in conjunction with the pavilion’s outstretched wings. The glass running the length of the building blurred the building and interrupted access from the park. Visitors would enter only from the sides. The glass melted away the building into visual nonsense when looking from the park. The effect is that the courtyard became another gallery space which no doubt triggered the attention of the viewer to think that even outside the pavilion they were already inside the installation.  Hamilton’s choice of material and placement work independently and together to reference obstruction of access by physical and by visual means. The fence ran the full length of the front face of the pavilion blurring the view of the building up to the freeze (a decretive horizontal band below the cornice), so that the pediment is all that could be seen on approach from the park. Thus, a visual reading would perhaps evoke the idea of seeing through tears.  As a sculptural object the grid indicates systems and order in relation to the coded elements on the porch and in the galleries. With the title, this element physically and visually indicates as its mean a veiling or concealment.

It is apparent that the two windows of the pavilion have been replaced with mirrors so that onlookers could see themselves simultaneously in the building and in the natural surrounding of the garden. This melting and veiling of the building whose architecture contains democratic American ideals reminds me of the misguided faith in the neoclassical idea of the social contract tradition, fraught with all of its failings. This brings to mind simultaneously how those ideals have become entrenched in the American consciousness as an utter lack of regard for the inequalities between bodies and the persistence of prejudice because such problems were never addressed in social contract tradition until recently with the work of Martha C. Nussbaum.[xiv] So it was the image of the visitors in the mirrors that combined with the ideas of neoclassicism demonstrated in the building.

A deep brown wooden table was placed before the entrance, and for the second time interrupted the visitors’ path. The tabletop had seemingly hundreds of white cotton cloths knotted and inserted through it to hang limply beneath. The mass of cloth billowed slightly out, and completely filled the space between the table’s legs.  In its placement it appeared as a sort of alter table.

The cotton cloths in relationship to the building might have reminded visitors of the importance of cotton crops and their exports to the economy of colonial Georgia and the American colonies during the height of Jeffersonian architecture. And perhaps it might have reminded visitors of how cotton played a roll in the War of the Rebellion and the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. constitution. The cloth was abundant in quantity and was pure and unadorned virgin cotton.

Hamilton intended for the knots themselves as “remembering the ancient [Q]uipu tradition in which record-keeping was evidenced by the pattern of knots tied in a string.”[xv]  The table in relation to the title and the fence evokes ideas of organizing this combined with the building ideas of systematic governing and American idealism.

 

c. The Title Myein

The title Myein is a rather puzzling word. Without some intellectual help, through an artist or curatorial statement any association or definition is enigmatic at best, and I would guess for most viewers.  The word ‘myien’ is simply nowhere in my linguistic knowledge.  Is it in yours?  So anything, in say an artist statement, would be helpful for me to experience the art work in relation to the title, and I would take that meaning and run with it as how I was to understand the whole work.  Myein is a Greek verb, as Simon writes, meaning “the closing of the eye and lips.”[xvi]  Because of this brief description one might think the title could have something to do with blindness or muteness. It seems that the American disability scholar Gorgena Kleege is one of them, but I will get to that mess later.  In context to the rest of the work I think the word refers to a sort of stillness and shutting off. This is not of inability but as a choice a choice to forget and to deny. The word ‘myein’ is related to mystery and secrecy, as a choice to conceal information. Douglas Harper’s Online Epistemology Dictionary has this epistemology definition of mystery:

Early 14c., in a theological sense, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth,” from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium “secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing,” from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” […]; perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).[xvii]

Note the relationship to the word ‘myein’ has to do with a holding back knowledge about something actually known.  I requested the four documents that were present in the mezzanine – burnished to the walls in black gallery vinyl (to the left and right sides of the entrance) – from both of the curators (Katy Kline and Helaine Posner,) the Ann Hamilton Gallery, the Venice Biennale and Ann Hamilton herself, but after a month of badgering what I got back was, what one could say is, not so empirical. The Ann Hamilton gallery provided to me three documents, two of which were on the wall “most likely” said Niccole Rome who later stated in an email that it was the text; suggesting that it was all the text when clearly it was not all of it. However, lemons to lemonade, one of these documents was a curatorial statement dated 1997. Fishy? Yes, completely; it was aged and nearly unreadable.  Nevertheless, Kline and Posner write “Myien which refers to abnormal contraction of the pupil of the eye, brings together several of Hamilton’s ongoing concerns. It explores questions as how do we know and what we are blind to.” Note here, that blind is used metaphorically to mean lack of knowledge. I really wondered if the meaning that Hamilton is said to have assigned to the word ‘myein’ meant something inherently about blindness or if they might have been overly poetic and offensive in the process of representing the meaning of the installation, so I did do some research. I could not find a single reference charting exactly how Hamilton arrived at this conclusion that ‘myein’ has to do with abnormality of the eye. This led me to calling the Pacific University Eye Clinic. My thinking was that if it has to do with vision they’d surely give me the scoop. I spoke with James Kundart O.D. M.Ed. F.A.A.O. Associate Professor of Optometry and he said, “That is odd; I can think of a word that refers to muscular contractions, and vessels starting with myos, but not a word myein.  But I do not know everything, but this is certainly obscure if it does exist.” So it is that the title in itself feels like a secret perhaps to most.

d. Internal Elements of Myein

The doors to the pavilion’s mezzanine were removed. A vaulted dome, as seen from the exterior, looms overhead adding an echoing to the sound of visitors and the audio that softly plays in the background. The star burst geometrical pattern on the floor acts as a sort of compass rose – a symbol of direction and guidance, but this one points us in all directions. Thus, it pushes the viewer toward all three spaces, the first two adjacent galleries, which the mezzanine opens to, and the courtyard from which visitors enter.

From the right and left, fierce fuchsia-red dust swirls with the movements of visitors, capturing the tracks of past visitors. Hamilton keeps to a narrow use of color; all seems to be pure white from the knotted cloth to the white walls with the red staining all. The earth colors of the brown lacquered wooden table, the building and the garden are evident but seem secondary to the dominant fuchsia-red impregnating the building and spilling out to the courtyard over time.  Thus the time based nature of the work is not only the viewer’s path through the installation, but too the course of the day and the number of visitors affects the level of mess allowing the installation to evolve.

As visitors enter either of the two galleries that are to the right and left, they are faced with two remarkably empty rooms. The gallery wall’s crowns bleed with volleys of the intensely pigmented dust, falling in heaps at their foot.  This dust, which acts as yet another veil, is in effect the third physical obstacle. This dust blocks access to what lay beneath, the sculpted surface of the wall. It obscures and it reveals. The element beneath is sculptural and tactile; it is braille. But this veil conceals and reveals it in a most unattractive way, so that to the viewer touch would mean to touch the seemingly toxic dust as well. It would mean to physically dirty themselves. The knots relate in shape to the protrusions of braille dots inside the galleries thus linking the two elements’ meanings. One could think of the braille abstractly as a system of recording.

The soundscape of the installation is subdued but complex. The sound of the shooting powder is soft as it ambles over the walls collecting irregularly on the dotted surface. I think of it like the tines of a music box (called the combs) which ring as they pass the tiny pins of the studded cylinder.  Thus the powder becomes a hardly audible and physical agent of deconstruction making the code audibly and visually into both a secret and random nonsense.

Hamilton’s recorded voice approaches from 16 speakers throughout the exhibit. One speaker is concealed in each corner of the four galleries. All the audio is identical and plays in unison. The audio element is as Simon writes: “Hamilton speaking for the first time in any of her works. She reads an encoded version of Lincoln’s second inaugural address […] The text was spelled out and read letter by letter in the international phonetic code. Where the words represent each letter.”[xviii] Thus to understand what the recording was of one would have to write down and decode the speech to know what the element was or have this knowledge via an artist or curatorial statement.

In the galleries, light flows through the skylights. There are trees above some of the skylights. They do not block the view of the sky or the light. Because the U.S. Pavilion holds the idea of American patriotism as propaganda through architecture, when one feels or sees the sunlight from above, perhaps it would cause one to think of the sky as an external element but within the confines and context of the installation.  For me the first line of the song America the Beautiful “O beautiful for spacious skies” comes to mind. When Hamilton uses blue in her other work it tends to do with work. Here as a natural source the association to the flag and the meaning of blue as related to the chief could be triggered for some visitors.[xix]  And this nicely allies with Hamilton’s play on Jeffersonian architecture. This natural light from above helps to illuminate the texture sculpted on to the walls — the over sized braille text.

Hamilton has transformed the 16 walls of her four galleries into pages of oversized braille. The meaning of the braille as a material is confined in Myein to one of modern braille’s ancestors, a code which was once used by the French military.  At least this was Hamilton’s primary intention and inspiration for her use of it.  Braille is not a common text that most viewers are able to either read via touch or sight-read. The braille of these walls would be nearly incomprehensible, as you would not know where to start. Nor is one able to sight read the text as the top cells (braille characters) are beyond view and the dust obscures reading as much as it might help.  Certainly neither could it be read by touch easily, since the dots are too big to read. [xx] One would have to record the relationship of each dot to the other dots the make out the cells.  Then one would record their findings resulting in readable braille cells.  This is in much the same way the audio works to obscure the meaning of the words.  Nevertheless, the braille element is given a new meaning in that this tactile form of text is now unreadable for those who can read it, but any attempt to decode is going to be difficult.

The braille text is selections from Testimony: The United States  (1885-1915) by Charles Reznikoff about violent incidents against minorities (mainly African American) and systematic oppression taken from court documents.  It is unclear in the writings on Myien how much and in what format the excerpts encapsulated: if it was most of the 450 lines of poetry and if they ran together in the fashion of prose reaching wall to wall, or wound around the room like a string of text coiling the room, or in the original format as published and then placed side by side. I personally cannot tell which from documentary photography, but I imagine that such a detail would contribute to the interpretation of the braille as a coded or partly coded text. Enmund Hardly notes a section from Testimony: The United States:

Williams — a Negro — Davis, Sweeney, and Robb

were in a saloon together. Williams was talking to Davis

when Sweeney jerked off Williams’ hat

tearing a piece out of the brim.

Sweeney and Williams were having words about this

when Robb stepped up and found fault  with Williams

for wrangling with a white man.

The Negro said nothing to Robb

and was backing away

when Robb stabbed him twice with a dirk.

Hardly then remarks:

A witness statement is restricted, in legal template, to things seen and heard. It contains no conclusions and no judgments. Kenneth Burke (in his introduction to Reznikoff’s earlier 1934 prose volume Testimony published by Objectivist Press) sees the problem of mediation here: ‘In this respect Mr. Reznikoff’s work embodies in miniature the problem of the “whole truth” as it arises in civilization marked by many pronounced differences in occupational pattern.[xxi]

Note he writes “seen and heard” so it is not only issues of credibility which leads to mistaken judgments by jurors and judges as a ‘problem of mediation’ but also something more philosophical. Hamilton claims over and over that the exhibit is meant to make visitors question how they know history or information for that matter. This is an epistemological, philosophically speaking, question that regards the senses as unempirical and unreliable as much as internal logic.  But to derive the interpretation that Hamilton intended I would think one would have to decode a section, or get a literary history lesson in relation to the braille.

I must be responsible here and note that braille is not strictly for and of the blind; other PWD such as dyslexic people find adaptive use for it too.[xxii] Its history is not taught and the mechanics of it as a reading system in the United States public school curriculum is reserved for education of “special” students.   Braille, contrary to most people’s understanding, comes in several different forms.  Grade 1 braille is usually used to teach braille basics and reading skills and then students move on to contracted braille known as grade 2.[xxiii]  But there are even more forms of braille used commonly. Hamilton’s braille seems to be grade 2. The cells are much bigger than a human hand. This suggests that they are meant to be unreadable, but it makes the dots a more visually noticeable element. The incoherence caused by the scale makes it clear that there is a code being used. In the artist statement it says what was sculpted onto the wall. This suggests to me that the artist was highly aware of the inability of the visitor to understand many of the elements or that is to decode them. Just as with the building, which is not strictly Jeffersonian, Hamilton has plucked out one aspect of the braille and tries, it seems, to leave the rest.

In Myein, braille gives up its disability identity to be used as a juxtaposed and deconstructed object that works together with all of the elements. In Myien, the inference of systems, coded language and history merge with the building as deconstructed nearly incomprehensible particles that seemingly penetrate every pore. Elements all at once veil, reveal, cover or unearth a coded message on and in the wall and the air.  Although the dust visually reveals the braille text, in actuality it is physically covering it like the dust of many years has covered the ugly truth (which is that the U.S. was founded on slavery and that oppression and human disqualification did not end with the 14th Amendment). I would like to say in more poetic terms what I think the piece means.  I think the essential utterance of Myein is that each American walks through their time in history leaving their footprints in sands of time that distort and hide our shame of the past, a past of hypocritical oppression, that is not truly behind us. ”She has an approach that almost deliberately tries to circumvent the verbal,” said Ms. Kline.[xxiv] This is without question as it flouts language as knowledge. Without the curatorial statement I have real doubts that any visitor would even know what the text meant and would most likely have a difficult time understanding the meaning of the work.

[Section 8 ] Chapter 5 Checklist

Now I would like to state what I think fits this sort of appropriation of disability artifacts and how these objects can become “de-disabilified”; that is to say, mainstream objects.  In the same way I provided a checklist for each of the past four chapters, here I have developed a list to aid in determining if a work uses a disability artifact but leaves the disability aura behind.

o     The work in question is a work of high art.

o     The work doesn’t seek to represent an impairment or disability as described in Chapter 2.

o     The work does not use the object for a disability aesthetic as in Chapter 3, so it is a disability artifact able to be repurposed.

o     The work does not make a disability pride statement such as addressing the injustices that PWD endure or calling for change as described in Chapter 4.

o     The disability artifact element doesn’t rely on cultural ideas of disability to make the work understood. Rather through context the mentality of the object of a kind is freed to speak about other subjects.

[Section 9] Problems of The “Gaze” of Disability Studies and Accessibility: Georgina Kleege’s Opinion of Myien

The disability studies writer Georgina Kleege in Visible Braille/Invisible Blindness writes on the use of braille in design and fine art making strong judgments on the work Myein, the artist Ann Hamilton and for that matter the art world system.  Kleege argues that, in general, braille acts as a sort of ocular-centric reminder of blind people, intended for the sighted, ironically creating environments that are difficult to use by the blind.  Kleege locates these phenomena in an age of both the ADA and declining braille literacy (I would note she is among the blind). She does this by way of unearthing braille found in elevators, the Helen Keller Alabama state quarter, the Franklyn D. Roosevelt Memorial (in Washington DC), and of course Myien.  In doing so, she astutely posits that the blind are not often assumed as visitor or users thus raising the question of proper access to designed objects, public spaces and art.

Kleege fundamentally takes a different approach to an analysis of Myein, which is in opposition to my conclusion that the braille in Myein has lost its identity as an artifact of disability.  I will outline six difficulties I have with Kleege’s paper in the hopes to show her analysis is incomplete and that my interpretation in Section 6 is more favorable in support of my treatise.  I will discuss how the language she uses antagonizes the art world in an unproductive way, undercutting her project at hand. That is her underlying project to raise awareness about creating usable braille and for that matter an inclusive art and design world.  I will discuss how she further antagonizes the arts by generalizing modes of artistic production. I will address how she came to her conclusions on Myein by omitting a thorough decryption of the work, and how this helped her in constructing her opinion as a confused “hypothetical internationalism” locating the meaning of Myein’s braille in both how the artist conceives of the work through metaphors, and the intrinsic properties of the item in question – the braille.[xxv] I will conclude that because of the way she formed her argument, while she railed for access i.e. usable braille, she sadly missed the bigger access picture. Although I will question Kleege’s conclusions on Myein, I respect and agree with the fundamentals of the first three arguments in her paper on designed objects and spaces articulating the propensity to use braille as an offensive unusable motif.  Kleege’s problem here is not a terrible one on its own. It is simply that she locates the problems in the wrong places at least in Myein and that this is unhelpful for the fine art world and designers.

1. Kleege Missed an Opportunity in Using Art Language

Kleege calls Hamilton a “sculptor” and “visual artist,” which strictly speaking she is not either and this language has implications for PWD finding equality within the art world.[xxvi]  Why might Kleege choose such language?  I understand calling Hamilton a sculptor might be the easiest and quickest way to categorize her. That is since writing “installation artist” may be a bit confusing to the art world uneducated. Simply, it does not have the same long tradition as say “painting”.  Consequently, a select group has knowledge of it and mainstream culture, one could say, not so much.  So to whom is she talking to?  It seems to me it could be disabilities studies while trying to point something out about art culture. Nevertheless, Kleege seems to have not noticed a key opportunity to challenge the ableism of the very system that produces the object of her criticism.

Strictly speaking, for one to call Hamilton a “visual artist” is not accurate either, because of the three-dimensionality and temporal characteristics of her work.  Meaning the work is only partly visual.  Therefore, Kleege gives an incomplete categorization and one I posit is unhelpful to disability studies and fine art through its disregard for art theory and terminology.  It has long been evident to me for plainly obvious reasons– I live a partly visual life–that the term “visual arts” as it is wildly used is silly.  For example in the 1950’s and 1960’s, paintings began to be thought of widely as objects.  It did take a while for people to become accustomed to the idea that a painting was not a window, as for decades before photography interrupted that meaning. Painting was pried open to tackle different concerns – to name a few – abstraction, temporality and physicality.

I think that art which is shown in galleries such as drawing, illustration, painting, sculpture, installation and the time based arts such as film should be called what they are: “gallery art” or “studio art” since the term “fine arts” could include some types performances and literary works. Since that is, the term visual arts alludes to one type of experience.  Kleege reinforces, I am sure unwittingly, a hierarchy of experience of art where vision is ranked at the top, then perhaps down the line hearing and then touch, and where and when intellectual process comes in it first gives the referent of vision.  At the same time there are places on Hamilton’s website that say “visual artist.”[xxvii] But I think one could observe that this sort of language is used everywhere in the art world.

In fact, while serving as the student representative on a diversity council for the rewriting of PNCA’s objectives, a new school name idea was mentioned with the term “visual arts” in it.  I barked naively that it “was a bad idea and an ocular-centric way of thinking about the arts and what we did.” I was ignored and they treated me like I was from a different planet. Mainly because they did not understand and thought I must be over sensitive.  I think it was easier for them to just sweep it aside as it was in contrary to the framework they were accustomed to.   At that time I had no real experience with disability advocacy. After that instance I swore up and down I would never again try that hat on since it seemed no one would pay attention. It seems I cannot let it go.  In 2007, while still in attendance, the school lunched its first MFA program titled MFA in Visual Studies, (which this year, 2013, became a part of the new Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies at PNCA).  It is not characterized as a program that dwells strictly in visual two-dimensional work; rather they write:

The flexible character of this kind of program allows students to work within a singular discipline (traditional painting, for example) or to pursue a combined practice that bridges disciplines and media. This generalist structure compliments PNCA’s educational philosophy of supporting independent inquiry and encouraging cross-disciplinary dialog.[xxviii]

A painting is a physical object, as I have stated, but the point is they reinforced a hierarchy of sensory experience, and therefore of people working in the arts and of the experiences of those experiencing it. Honestly I have to laugh at this all, but recognize that it is rather hurtful when I think hard on the meaning behind the words.  Now, I still work there and no one to my face, or to my knowledge has ever said I could not understand or experience something without conferring with me. But sometimes the attitude is there and we all have a growing experience around it. I mean that not in the happiest of ways. Generally no one means to make such a misstep, but we all have difficulty recognizing the faux pas. They don’t really hate me and think that I am lesser. It is just that PNCA inadvertently treated me in that way with failures in policies and language.  At this point I would be shocked if they renamed the program as a public declaration of inclusion and would still question if the move was to adopt an ethic of inclusion or just try on a style to look fashionable.

So it is with this sort of oppressive activities going on in my small community that I find myself desperate – hoping for allies within the discipline of disability studies to “Help a sister out.”  Though I put out my hand to do the work on equality inside the art world, the resistance when I meet it quickly makes me tire. That’s when I reach to people like Kleege. But her use of what I deem ablest language does nothing for my confidence. So disability studies needs to work on this issue, as it undoes their main project in that it is unsupportive of the struggle of artists like myself.  On the other hand, I do find hope in the writings of Siebers and Ann Millett-Gallant (who wrote a book on fine art analysis in the context of disability) who both create terms and use terminology and fine art analysis within disability studies to break down barriers, and work in a cooperative spirit with the arts.

I know some might be thinking how is some art not visual? Well this is a much larger question. One about experience-ability, and not so much assumed ideal viewers. Now, yes, some art I will say is rather visual and inexperiencealbe for some people for intellectual, sensory, or physical reasons. For example let’s take people who have low vision or are completely blind. For these patrons to experience the work of say James Turrell (who uses light in installation to trigger spiritual sensation in built structures) as something interesting it may be truly difficult and become anxiety producing or just impossible.  Also, most drawing and photography is stubbornly visually experienced, consequently inaccessible at least in the gallery settings without adaptive aids, and for the completely blind never experienceable.  This is not to say access to the writing about the work would not be of interest when the work itself is not experienceable. For such access acts as an open invitation to access the social environment of arts spaces. This is, as I have argued, important in the project of creating a healthy discourse in the arts that reflects our full humanity. I think it is sad that a disability studies scholar reinforces ablest language whilst trying to argue for equality through awareness and accessibility. [xxix]

Also, I have to say Kleege is flat out offensive to me as an artist who is blind. I do question if this was her intent. She writes much farther into her critique of Myein:

Hamilton is far from alone in her use of the word ‘blind’ to mean ignorant or oblivious. Still, her use of braille in this piece suggests additional ideas about blindness as something mysterious, mournful and tragic, an emblem of loss, and for a visual artist, presumably the worst loss imaginable. [xxx]

So I would ask, who presumes this, is it Kleege? Does she first assume that we artists all started out seeing 20/20?  I didn’t. Kleege seems to not consider that there are gallery artists operating in the arts that are blind lifelong and those who have acquired their blindness and that the feelings about such blindness are as varied as our fingerprints.  I would feel better if she acknowledged this.  It is such a kick to the gut that another blind person who is railing against injustice would write this.  I demand more.  It is a put down which says that to do my job I need a different body. One with eyes that see well.  It’s like saying, because I am female I would not have the same upper body strength as a man might and therefore I would be unable to do a job.  It is a judgment that gives me no cause to trust Kleege as a comrade in arms, and I want to. I need to as the work of disability studies could greatly help me find a place for myself in the arts.  But I cannot trust when I find the same problems with Kleege that are around me every day in my arts community.

For this reason I had to ask myself if I would rather withhold such an article from, say, students under my mentorship, so as not to reinforce poor use of language that does not reflect the ideals being argued.  I wonder if I could go as far to say that it shows poor ethical conduct.  Ironically, it was a blind student under my mentorship who brought Kleege’s paper to me. I had been pushing him to read disability studies works for his master thesis on sensory experience.  This served to give an example of where the exploitative gaze of another discipline on art occurs in a rather deconstructive way, or at least in my opinion.  I wonder how work like this, unlike Siebers’, that impacts with its misuse of language and disregard of people with disability actually participating in the arts, will shape the art world if the art world took this stuff seriously. It gives a pass to the idea art is foremost visual – an ablest assumption that blind people are not makers of gallery art.

2. Kleege Couches Braille as For the Blind, Undercutting her Project

Kleege never made an acknowledgment that besides the blind, other PWD use braille as an adaptive aid in place of printed text. This, like most things in the blind culture, is hotly debated. I believe from a place of fear. I think it threatens some of us that we would have to share a cultural artifact that some feel helps define our blind cultural identity.  It often is a prime example of successes in making environments accessible. It is personal; even my own feelings are wrapped up in it.  I learned to read using braille and thus I have nostalgic feelings around it. But on the darker side, some blind people seem to feel they do not want to be associated with people with learning disabilities, for a common feeling among the blind is that culture at large treats the blind as less intelligent.  This requires an assumption about the value of people with learning disabilities that is prejudicial.  I do not mean here to say those feelings are wrong or to make those blind people out to be bad people.  But I do suspect that those feelings may have lead to a defense of the idea that braille is for the blind.  The fact remains other people use braille besides the blind or more rightly stated could benefit from it. Why did Kleege only talk about the blind perspective of braille? Perhaps it is because as technology has advanced, people with the sorts of learning disabilities who could benefit have been moved to Text-to-Speech as a primary mode of reading.  Thus there has been very little research on the effectiveness of it as a reading system for those who might have vision but cannot visually take in printed text for whatever reason. This later leads the course of her critique to a, one could say, harsh conception of the use of braille in Myein, and one that is in opposition to the mode in which I address artistic intention in section 7.

So Kleege never states the obvious, but she works to enforce it, I think producing even more aesthetic and design issues around braille. That is, she neglects to write that the designers she names rely on a common perception that braille “is for the blind” rather then thinking about how and why it should be used; they (designers) prefer to use it as the ideas of blind people.  In neglecting this she not only disregards other PWD that use braille, but she reinforces the inference that braille is indeed for and of the blind, sort of narrowing the level of investment non-blind people may have in it.  Notably, her conception of what would be possible solutions for poorly designed elevators does seem to be of a single disability position. She does not acknowledge the presence of people with multiple disabilities like the people who are blind and Deaf or hard of hearing. Let me ask: What does her perspective do to design and fine art? This sort of display by a disability studies writer says for me it is time for a rebranding of braille through better design.  This, if successful, might lead to things like affordable printers that have embossing features. I mean why not? After all they are developing affordable three dimensional printers. First this is going to have to start with recognizing who uses braille or could use it.  This is something that education and neurology must recognize as a place where further research is needed and it would be their findings that would lead to more braille users. But it is another chicken and the egg debate. I am unable to imagine changes unless we can make such a re-brand attractive. The result I think would be more integration of braille into the environment. As an example, it would have cost me a lot of money to do all my promotional materials for this project in print with braille as the technology has not evolved to be inexpensive because the market does not see the use in it.  Instead I contributed to the mass extinction of braille by hoping my electronic communication will do the same job as the postcards do and do it more broadly. Perhaps this is such a different concern that Kleege chose to omit it in her argument.

I could understand if taking the blind out of braille and making it more universal might scare off the blind community. But it should not. The more we work together on the way we talk about art and design problems, the more equality braille users may find as a result of public consciousness. Kleege makes hard-hitting points on the usability of public displays of braille that are often in place of more usable options. This should be carefully regarded when one uses braille in design as a tool to communicate meaningfully.  She addresses her reader (who is presumably sighted since a blind person already would understand her argument) and challenges them to imagine an elevator ride as a blind braille user and points to the utter lack of audio indicators which would work best in conjunction with braille signage.  She has a point, but it is a point that can be applied to access in general.

Architects and designers largely design for ablebodied people and universal design never really gets to take root as it seems designers add on ADA requirements clumsily not realizing the opportunity there is to design I would say in a better way.  I think this is a failing since architecture and design is about the usability of the things by the bodies that interact with those things.  But saying one is going to do their work in an ethic of universal design does not mean much as designed spaces and objects which are still labeled or thought of as disabled objects. Take the example of the “handicap button” or “disabled door button.” What about using a term that really describes what one is talking about, like “easy open button?” And for that matter where is the braille on those buttons should I want to use it?  Jane Bringolf writes in Universal Design: Is it Accessible?:

Designing universally has great advantages for many people with a disability, as they are automatically included in the design. This does not mean, however, that accessible and universal can be used interchangeably without distortion of meaning for both. […] Disability issues stand in a legislative framework and fear of litigation curbs design thinking. This in turn causes many to believe that the future of universal design […] belongs in a regulatory framework. Others believe the way forward is with more research and more scientific methods of inquiry. […] Universal design has low levels of desirability because it is branded as a disability product. More science proving greater efficacy will not, therefore, win the hearts of consumers, but neither will more legislation win the hearts of designers.[xxxi]

Bringolf concludes that universal design needs a re-branding. I ask: Who better to start the trend then artists and designers together? All we have to do is ask the “‘why” and the “how” will come. We in the art world sadly have a lot of work to do on this but it is in our best interest.

The truly best places to experience art are meticulously designed with the highest attention to concept. However, to be successful they take into consideration a wide range of people’s bodies that use the space, and I point to the Guggenheim as historically part of the first wave of inclusive design. But let’s take for instance PNCA’s central building’s nonsensical postmodern muddled nod to cubism and minimalism in the central commons and main gallery. Now the space, while lovely, is terrible for those who use hearing assistive aids or just have a low level of audio receptivity. It echoes dreadfully. This impacts art administrators by offering challenges to event coordination. The commons is difficult to use for lectures and large-scale events, as sound must be considered at every turn, because of the horrid acoustics.  For patrons with hearing loss it makes for an often-demanding atmosphere as noted by Krishnamurthy in her biography (in Chapter 2). There are many people born with impaired hearing but there are far more who acquire hearing loss. Approximately 40% of people over 50 and 70% of 70 year olds have hearing loss.[xxxii]  So it is odd to me that the campus was designed with some accommodations, (no easy door opener mind you for 11 years post-ADA) but the sound was completely ignored.  Thus, the accessibility and the comfort of some of our most loved and prestigious patrons who seem to me to largely be 50 years old or older was not considered. I must note that it seems from the grumblings of administrators that this design defect is recognized and not wanted as they realize it is hard on everyone. We can take this to publishing and event planning too. We just need to learn to ask questions like, “Will the most people possible come here and use this space in an enjoyable way? To whom will I sell tickets and whom am I precluding? How will people arrive? How will the menu be presented i.e. online registration or not? Are any of the things I planned going to make someone uncomfortable or even perhaps humiliate them? Am I planning for the convenience of myself and the institution to the detriment of PWD’s sense of independence and inclusion?”  There is no need for us (the art world) to start growing pet ulcers in the pit of our tummies; this is not bad and does not need to become a stressful matter.  On the other hand, I think we could all agree a complaining patron or a discrimination lawsuit could be pet ulcer food. I think we just have to know that there are solutions to inaccessibility issues, but that accessibility works best for everyone when we integrate it into all aspects of the design from the start. So there are ways to re-brand braille and universal design and good reasons why.

As for braille, there simply is no monopoly on anything in our culture although when there is something said to be for a minority, and enforced by the minority, design many not be able to respond, as it is not lucrative. Take the meager evolution of braille embossing printers over the last ten years compared to the standard home ink jet printer. We can however recognize that if we design with braille that it may be used more. I asked a friend if they knew where they could get their artist statement printed in braille and they were stumped.  We are going to have to work across disciplines.  If disability studies wants to make a big change in the arts they should let us know if they have a whiff of the direction to go in.  Simply stating the problem is not good enough to make any meaningful change.  It puts people in the art world on the defensive regardless of disability identity. I greatly want the projects of both sides of disability studies (both the anthropology and the activist side) to succeed.

3. Kleege Considers the Ideas of Design and Art as Synonymous

When Kleege writes about the conceptual basis of art she makes direct comparison between Robert Graham’s artistic intentions for his collaborative contribution to the FDR monument (designed by Lawrence Halprin) and Myein, which causes me to wonder if she understands the difference between the concerns of design and art.  She notes the controversy over the representation of FDR as seemingly able-bodied, like in The First Inaugural sculpted by Graham. Kleege quotes Graham: “My concept of that piece was to have braille as a kind of invitation to touch, more than anything … [b]raille is not much different than touching a face or anything else … That was kind of the graphic idea, the layering of many faces coming out and the layering of the [b]raille and the layering of several tactile surfaces.”[xxxiii] Kleege describes how Graham’s representation of braille was unusable by braille readers as it was poorly placed and rendered making it impossible to read physically. So she and he mean it was a kinesthetic trigger. She writes “He was relying on sighted viewers to draw on a range of figurative associations about blindness, […]” meaning learned aesthetic reactions.  I agree. She continues, “to suggest the spiritual darkness of the Depression, a period when Americans were ‘blind’ to their economic future. Significantly, the braille refers to Roosevelt’s new deal policies, often disparaged by his critics as ‘alphabet soup’. [xxxiv] Kleege also writes on how the plaques of the monument, (though it’s unclear to what section of the extensive monument she refers) in general were inaccessible for braille users. But these two works are art apples and oranges. She is assuming that art must use braille like design. Also that when art does it must invite the same type of analysis.  If this was the case, I would suspect all postmodern art as open to interpretation would be consider unrealized if understood in the same ideals of design.

Apples and oranges and here is why: the FDR monument is a work of high design and Myein is fundamentally a work of high art.  Design and fine art are of equal value.  In saying they are different I in no way mean to belittle design.  In fact I think so highly of the power of good high design, I have paid the greatest care to the design of this book, even before the first word was written.  Design is special as it is made to order.  It has different concerns and the misunderstanding of this is, in my opinion, a problem of Kleege’s paper as it defies art world conventions and does not at the very least admit to doing so. Thus her paper creates an impression of what is ‘wrong’ with Myein which has to do with a disregard and misrepresentation of the blind.

Design by its nature is about problem solving and of filling a need. True high design of a good caliber does this with such ease we hardly question it.  That is to say, Graham’s inaccessible design was filled with failings conceptually – offensive to PWD. Furthermore, due to the date of its building it was sadly illegal; there was not sufficient access to the monument’s plaques for the blind.  All of this Kleege articulately identifies.

On the other hand, fine art on its own doesn’t inherently serve a function.  Take for proof the variety of forms it comes in.  The form in its self may not be experience-able to all people as I previously discussed. But I do not mean to say that design deemed good must appeal to most people when possible and desired. For instance printed design cannot be always accessible to all, but by its nature it needs to be to the most people possible.  In that way design’s creative strides are limited by a balancing of the effectiveness of components.  There are places where design and art meet and make access faux pas. Please take for example the sins of the common gallery label that attest to both poor design and inaccessibility to art.  In the case of Photography the label may be the only thing in the gallery that could be experience-able for some patrons. But whose fault is this? Is it the designer, the curator, or the artist who is at fault?  I think not the artist so much as the system that displays the work. Not that we all should not have a heightened awareness that some practices limit the effectiveness of an exhibition to interact with a variety of patrons.

It is fair enough to say a monument can be art but it must serve the function of the singular task of stating a nostalgic concept of a past event– horrific or heroic.  There are monuments that break this mold and do so uncomfortably.  What comes to my mind here is my very first favorite sculpture in the Portland Art Museum by Auguste Rodin titled Call to Arms an “authorized reproduction” casting in bronze (of course it is one of many castings – it seems that everyone has one).  It was created for a monument design competition in honor of the courageous citizens that defended Paris during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  The submission portrays a half nude female angel in a bursting rage rising. Her arms are outstretched above a wounded warrior. The youth is slung across her lap exhausted, melting into the earth, barely held up by her and his planted sword. A source says the design was rejected on the grounds “the jury was looking for a more realistic portrayal that captured the sentiment of the event and did not show the warrior in such a non-heroic light.”[xxxv] Call to Arms was later used to commemorate WWI.  It is my opinion using Call to Arms to commemorate WWI seems right on. After all it was suppose to be the war that ended all wars because it was so horrific.  The sculpture failed in its time since it was rather open to interpretation, seemingly to hold some of the artist’s views on the idea of valor.

In short Rodin may have put into his sculpture some of his own political ideas.  It did not work and not just for that instance. A monument that creates debate over the goodness or valor of an event or person and is open to interpretation could be considered a failure since its intent is not clearly realized.

Art on the other hand may communicate, but it does so in the most confusing of grammars. Thus, fine arts relies on an opening up of both creators’ and viewers’ subjectivity. Kleege couches the ideas of design and art as synonymous and fails to deal with them differently judging that braille must always communicate even in fine art. I do not find her type of analysis credible; I treat fine art very differently. Perhaps at a fundamental level this is why our interpretive opinions of Myein diverge so greatly.

4. Kleege Offers a Meager Analysis of Myein

The framework that Kleege applies cannot be the only reason why we come to so vastly different conclusion about Myein and it is not. It has to do with how we consider the elements of the work and how they make utterances through Hamilton’s artistic language and actual speech.  I take Myein as nothing to do with an aesthetic or a representation of blindness, which is why I’m interested in it here, but Kleege clearly disagrees. I spend much time thinking on the interconnectivity of the parts of Myein, and only consider the artist’s intention secondarily. For example I think on the word myein; then and only then, I look to the definition provided in the artist statement, then reciprocally research the meaning, add all this together, then what I find is the utterance of that element alone. Then as I imagine other parts of the work (the fence or the knots) I form an understanding of the relationships creating the most plausible reading of the total utterance of the work. I only use artist statements and interviews to inform my interpretation, when I need to know the facts about the objects. I do not accept that all that is written nor said would be even evident. I choose what seems plausible. Kleege’s approach or process of analysis is far different from my own as foreshadowed in the prior point and in section 7a; she takes objects as stand alone affected most strongly by how the artist actually characterizes her experience of the work and her intensions and the meaning of object as synonymous and in a rather literal way. Thus, Kleege seems to scarcely describe Myein, writing on it only within a single paragraph. I take the view that this approach is dangerous, as it does not provide a good opportunity for her reader to form an independent view or get a real idea of what the work is like.  It is like trying to describe the entire four operas that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen in the space of a horoscope columndifficult and most likely an ineffective description.  Mainly, Kleege focuses attention on the interior space of the installation, where the braille is, and the sound elements.  Being that Hamilton responds as an act of artist intention to how a space (in this instance the entire U.S. Pavilion) speaks to her, Kleege has failed to provide the context in which we must consider all other elements within the work, namely the building, mirrored windows, the fence, the table with the knotted cloths and all the external elements like the sky and sunshine. Thus, Kleege’s conclusions are based on evidence she offers and not aspects of the work that are, as I think, in contradiction to her main argument.

It could be that for this reason Kleege doesn’t recognize that Myein’s constituent elements held a “twofoldness” as they are not always visual.   Inherently all the elements contain physical properties (i.e. properties experiencable through touch) that supports the visual properties of each element.[xxxvi] That is but for the mirrored windows which do not have a physical and visual twofoldness.  However, in the case of the mirrored windows the physical properties of the skylights acted in a similar way as the window’s visual function, and utterance: They placed the visitor in the natural setting and in the art installation at the same time. For when the sun shone strongly onto the building it could be perhaps tactually sensed. This would not always be noticed, as it is situational, thus not strongly effective as a physical element in support of the windows. That is since some of the visitors might not notice the difference in temperature, or if blind and unaccompanied by an art attendant one may assume the warmth is from hot lighting.

Why did Kleege not provide information on the other elements or discuss the interconnectivity of all the elements?  I don’t think she was trying to shoe horn an argument. I will venture to guess it could be one or two reasons. Firstly, it is a brief article and not an exhaustive treatise exploring the issue. She has an argument in mind from the start and proves it while occasionally generously educating her reader on the particularities of the actual use of braille by the blind. There may have been the pressure to be succinct. She may have not been able to address how the external elements work into her argument.

Another possible reason for what seems to me to be an abbreviation of the work is Kleege like myself may have had a lack of access to truly descriptive information on the work.  I observe that much of the writing on Myein tends to be poetic relying on photography to get the reality of the experience across to readers. I would assert that such poetics are what really affected Kleege’s reaction to it as a representation of blindness, since as I have said she listened not to the work first but rather to what the artist says, but I will get to this in the next section. The irony is that the images of course cannot do this even for the sighted.  Images are difficult as you only see what you are shown by a photographer so a lot can be omitted.  Even the documentary films are limiting as one might get a sense of what is heard, seen and how one might sequentially move through the space, but still the essence of the experience is an abbreviation.  In my research I have noted myself missing things because I could not see them. How I worked around this problem was that, no matter how redundant, I watched every YouTube clip, PBS special with footage from Myein and I read every blog I could find in addition to of course the books (that were unavailable in talking book). With all that and the images I found on many websites I was able to tease out what the place consisted of down to the little plants outside the building. I created as best I could in my mind what the space felt like and was like physically. When I emailed those who put together Myein, my detailed questions seemed odd to them since they thought the images and the books said it all. I think what they really meant was the documentation including images.

I suggest as a lesson to learn from all this that as artists work to document works they should attempt to capture fully what the thing looks like and feels like (physically if it has physical properties) as some people may make conclusions based on what is provided and not everyone sees or hears and one of these people may write on us and take our words, regardless of poetry, literally. Thus, writing on our work in a straight and descriptive way could be a nice way to make sure a work in question gets a fair shake so to speak.

5. Kleege Misunderstands The Use of Braille in Myein

Kleege’s conclusions about what the braille means is based on what she assumes the utterance of the braille is as a material regardless of its setting.  Furthermore, she heavily relies on the artist’s thoughts that are hopelessly metaphoric and not what the work does.  Kleege writes, “braille is only veiled to someone who doesn’t know how to read it.” This is true only if one is speaking about real-sized braille. The observer of Myein would be forced to ask: Is the braille meant to be understood? No. The suggestion of other elements places a meaning of the braille as history evolving from a tactual and military code (this information is partly provided in the artist statement). Thus, Kleege sort of infers that in all settings it must be accessible, treating design and art the same. To support her augment that braille here is a disparaging sign of blindness for sighted viewers, she reads not the work but into Hamilton’s speech. Kleege writes:

In an interview occasioned by the Biennale work, Hamilton said that rendering Reznikoff’s poems ‘in braille in some sense mirrors the way this kind of violence is difficult to absorb into the democratic ideal’ […] As in the FDR Memorial, braille is used to suggest a coded meaning, something difficult to understand or absorb. In the same interview, Hamilton responded to a question about her artistic process: sometimes you’re blind to your own interests. On one level you do this intellectualized research and you think you’re really onto something – but it’s almost as if you’re keeping yourself busy because you’re blind to deeper issues.

Kleege seems to have taken the way the artist thinks about the work as what the braille’s utterance is. But in relationship to other elements it is clear it is not a representation of blindness, or an intended or accidental aesthetic trigger for visitors to think of blindness as in the sort of metaphor Hamilton describes. I believe the wonderful situation here is Hamilton does not use an object with all its conceptual baggage and to do it she had to change the braille.  I do not think Kleege understands what Hamilton was even saying here. Even from that start Hamilton was not sure what her intend message was going to be. As Judith H. Dobrzynski noted in a New York Times article on May 30, 1999, “Even in mid-February, Ms. Hamilton did not know exactly what she would make.” The proposal presented to the Guggenheim Collection curation board Venice Biennale, however, did have the bones of the elements indicated and that was submitted in 2007 (most likely), she continues , ”Everyone’s asking me, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ And they’re all surprised when I say no. But I’ve never known at this stage. In some ways, I feel I must know somewhere in my body. Part of the process is trusting that.”[xxxvii] The interview that Kleege quotes is simply a metaphoric representation of how Hamilton felt about making the work, not about the work.

As painters paint their body artist of all kinds conceive of their world and work through their body. James Elkins writes: “Paint is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts.”[xxxviii] Ann Hamilton is not a painter. Her work is rather in a cerebral sphere, but the creative process is still much like the painter whose movements and color selection process responds to every past movement. Likewise Hamilton responds to how the place speaks to her and then she responds to the succeeding ideas.  She has an “able-body” and through her bodily vessel she sees the world in her own way, and she literal speaks from that experience. Yes, in a visual way that is often ocular centric. There is no crime here.  Her use of braille in Myien is apart from her poetic interpretation, for it is sculpted into the walls in such a way as to make it a physically inaccessible remembrance of racism.

Artists are known to not recognize the difference between themselves and their work at times.[xxxix] I would think it would be easier for a third party. I suspect that Kleege merely does not know better due to her feelings about braille’s intrinsic properties, her presumption that art and design are synonymous activities and a lack of impartial information.

I myself have used braille in my work and I rendered it unreadable. I covered it and deformed it with paint placing whole pages of braille in layers over two castings of my body. That work spoke to what legal blindness is, language, exclusion and intimacy.  In it I meant to be critical of both art and language as able to contain and carry sensation from one body to another.  It had a long string screen which blocked paths like in Hamilton’s work. Also like Hamilton I had a bit of a plaster dusty mess and pages of unreadable print on the floor. However, my work in both its two installments was accessible to the blind and visually impaired with a large print and braille artist statement located on a bench near some flowers (so as to make it accessible).  Knowing that sighted viewers might need a sign that they should walk through the sort of curtain, I placed the artist statement opposite of where they would be standing on approach. I wonder if Kleege would criticize my use of Braille as saying something negative about blindness.  I never spoke about my work in metaphors using blindness, but that never stopped other people form doing that. I wonder if in her thinking that transforms the meaning of my work. Unlike Hamilton my work did actually have something to do with my blindness but it was also an epistemological questioning about how we know what we know and communicate that to others.  I intended to say that art and language was all so small to capture the immenseness of the spirit in two extreme emotional states– love and alienation – I meant to be mournful just not about blindness.

6. Kleege Misallocates Problems In Accessibility

If the braille of Myein is as I think, meant not to be read by anyone, then the problem of access is not the braille.  It also does not mean that blind people were intentionally un-assumed ideal observers.  If anything it is the vinyl on the walls and the curb in front of the courtyard that provide some real issues for access. But whose “fail” is this?  I have not considered mental differences between Hamilton’s possible audience. This is since I would not even know where to start or what I would conclude. Although I feel I must considered the intensely cerebral nature of Hamilton’s work and accept that some are simply not going to be able to understand it, no matter the amount of information available to them. In a way we could think about that as completely inaccessible for not all people have the same mental capacities needed to decode any of the intended meaning.  I wonder if this is like photography for a blind person.

I will close by acknowledging that in 2012 the 13th International Architecture Exhibition the U.S. Pavilion hosted Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.  They borrowed “temporary, elevated sidewalks called passerelle that Venetians use to navigate [V]enice during acqua alta – to create an ‘outdoor living room /commonplace’ to host programs scheduled for the biennale’s three-month run” the affect of which, though not said to be the primary intention, was that it circumvented the three porches of the pavilion and curb making all three entrances accessible to those with disabilities that impact mobility up steps.[xl]  If only there was a long-lasting solution desired. Why not create two side ramps as that would look rather Art Deco and compliment the structure? What about an audio and vinyl transcription database for the Venice Biennale for people to use while touring like an app? Right now they do not have information on accessibility on the web and never responded to four emails asking about the accommodation that one might expect this year at the 55th. The Guggenheim Collection on the other hand kindly wrote me back:

When I took up the role as pavilion manager in 2000 the pavilion was equipped with a movable, not fixed to the ground, wheelchair access ramp that led visitors from the front courtyard into the pavilion.

She means to refer to the left side of main entrance. She continues:

It had been there for some years. The ramp has since then been replaced. The ramp was and still is not fixed to the ground in order to be moved to different positions to accommodate for a variety of needs during the installation or deinstallation of the [exhibitions]. There is a low step (short of a couple of inches) from the Biennale grounds to the front courtyard, and exhibition attendants are there to help any visitor needing assistance, blind visitors included. […] Chiara Barbieri (Are the errors in this quote sic or need to be replaced?

What is not taken into account about this assistance is that sometimes blind people don’t want to deal with other people to interact with the art. Neither are the Deaf and blind considered. What about Hamilton’s audio component for say the blind and Deaf. I know it sounds funny, but having to ask for help all the time is awfully taxing.  Not that the option is not wanted. I would just rather be able to read an artist statement by myself then through someone else’s voice. Sometimes you have to wait or you might not know whom to ask. Maybe you cannot see to find the helper and so on and so on. More needs to be done. Little people and manual wheel chair users would also need help with the Hamilton artist statement as it started so high on the was that no one could see the top if the eye level was below 40 inches. Oh, and how you would get a powered wheelchair weighing 250-400 pounds up there is beyond me.  But my point is, by whom does the fuax paus get made, by the artist? Oh, clearly no. If that was the case those who okay it would have said something. Beside she is hardly responsible for preexisting architectural inaccessibility. So is it the responsibility of the people who facilitate the art presentation i.e. the U.S. government or the Guggenheim Collection, or simply the curators? Who needs a lesson in what proper access means? Who would one talk to get things to really change? Thus, I feel Kleege misses the bigger issue, but I am glad she brought it up. We need more people to question this, so we have the right push to get the art world to change.


[i] Snyder, Saron L., and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 2006. 127.

[ii]  See http://4995artifacts.blogspot.com/ for examples of tracking artifacts of disability.

[iii] In her PBS Art 21 interview she said “a part of making work is to allow, those things that perhaps that are always/already there, but not visible to us, and to try to make them visible in a way that makes them experience-able.”  Art: 21. Spiritualityhttp://video.pbs.org/video/1237561674/. PBS. Time stamp 10:11-10:22, (accessed April  27, 2013.

[iv] I have taken biographical information from Ann Hamilton’s biography on her own website and the Ohio State University Department of Art’s website http://art.osu.edu/people/ann-hamilton, (accessed May 26, 2013).

[v] Simon, Joan, and Ann Hamilton.  Ann Hamilton.  New York: Harry N. Abrams.  2002. 141.

[vii] Stecker, Robert. Aesthetics and the philosophy of art an introduction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2010. 109.

[ix] Carol Vogel, New Guide in Venice, New York Times: May 23, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/arts/design/massimiliano-gioni-of-venice-biennale.html?_r=0, (accessed June 1, 2013).

[x] “Since 1986 the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has worked with the United States Information Agency (USIA), the US Department of State and the Fund for Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions in the organization of the visual arts exhibitions at the US Pavilion […] In 2002, the US Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale was promoted for the first time by the US Department of State.” (See http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/pavilion/index.php). So it is at The Venice Biennale that there’s much opportunity for U.S. governmental regulation, which raises the question about ADA violations. Do our laws and ideals not apply to our tax money spent abroad?

[xi] My understanding of the intended floor plan and historical information about the building was taken from a document provided to me by the Ann Hamilton gallery dated 1997 as a curatorial statement, and the Guggenheim Foundation website http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/pavilion/index.php, (accessed May 13, 2013).

[xii] This image of the U.S. Pavilion was downloaded from Wikipida commons and is sourced as being from the “Grand Central Art Galleries, 1934 catalog.” See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1933_-_U.S._Pavilion_in_Venice,_Grand_Central_Art_Galleries.jpg

[xiii] Floor plan of the Monticello see http://fairlington.org/monticello.htm

[xiv] Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Frontiers of justice: disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard university press. 2006.

[xv] Anne Hamilton studios, “(myein • table ) | 1999,” Ann Hamilton Studios, http://www.annhamiltonstudio.com/objects/myein_table.html, (accessed May 23, 2013).

[xvi] Simon.  227.

[xvii] Harper, Douglas.  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=mystery, (accessed June 2, 2013).

[xviii] Simon. 230.

[xix] Duane Streufert , “What do the colors of the Flag mean?,” http://www.usflag.org/colors.html (Accessed May 23, 2013).

[xx] From the photos available to me on the internet I would say the cells are six to ten inches tall.

[xxi] Edmund Hardy, “Grass Anti-Epic: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony”,  Jacket Magazine, http://jacketmagazine.com/30/hardy-reznik.html, (accessed May 25, 2013).

[xxii] McCoy Lois E., M.S. “Braille: A Language for Severe Dyslexics” Journal of Learning Disability, May 1975 8: 3236. And Greaney, J., & Reason, R. (1999). Phonological processing in Braille. Dyslexia, 5, 215–226.

[xxiii] Tennessee Council of The Blind, “What is Braille,” http://www.acb.org/tennessee/braille.html  (Accessed May 23, 2013).

[xxiv] Judith H. Dobrzynski, “Representing America in a Language of Her Own.” New York Times, May 30, 1999, accessed May 23, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/30/arts/art-architecture-representing-america-in-a-language-of-her-own.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm, (accessed May 26, 2013).

[xxv] Stecker. 158-160.

[xxvi]Kleege. 215.

[xxviii] PNCA, “MFA in Visual Studies”, PNCA http://pnca.edu/graduate/c/vs

[xxix]  Nasher Sculpture Center, “James Turrell – Introduction” http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/James/Turrell/Introduction.aspx  (accessed May 23 2013).

[xxx] Kleege, Georgina. Visible Braille/Invisible Blindness. Journal of Visual Culture 5: 209. 2006. 215

[xxxi] Bringolf , Jane, Universal Design: Is it Accessible?, Multi: The RIT Journal of Plurality and Diversity in Design, Vol 1, No 2 (2008): 45-52. 51.

[xxxiii] Kleege. 213.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Stecker, Robert.  Aesthetics and the philosophy of art an introduction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2010. 51-52, 308.

[xxxvii] Judith H. Dobrzynski, “Representing America in a Language of Her Own.” New York Times, May 30, 1999, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/30/arts/art-architecture-representing-america-in-a-language-of-her-own.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (accessed May 27, 2013).

[xxxviii] Elkins, James. What painting is: how to think about oil painting, using the language of alchemy. New York: Routledge, 1999, 5.

[xxxix] Ibid. 153-161.

[xl] Designboom, “venice architecture biennale 2012”, http://www.designboom.com/architecture/us-pavilion-at-the-venice-architecture-biennale/ (accessed May 27, 2013).

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