From inside a pitch-black, 6 ft. by 6 ft. by 8 ft. chamber within a gallery, a train screeches, machines hum, a cane taps on linoleum floor. The sounds co-mingle as they make their way across the six speakers mounted in the small room. A powerful transducer speaker causes the lowest frequencies to rattle the walls.
This, so far, is the concept of “A Space for the Overactive Ear,” a work in progress by the sound artist and musician Andy Slater, the current 3Arts Fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through surround sound and “aural illusions,” the installation explores the personal relationship Slater, who is visually impaired, has to sound. “With my overactive hearing, it seems like I have telescopic ears,” Slater said when we spoke on the phone. “Sometimes it’s like, I don’t need to hear that sound. I don’t want to eavesdrop on everyone down the street, because I can hear that.” The installation, set to open in September, prods others to pay attention: “Whoever goes in there needs to be an active listener.”
Access for hearing impaired people is central to its construction, however, starting with the transducer speakers. Slater plans to work with two deaf poets and actors, friends of his, to translate the sounds and their movement through the space. He’s also proposed a series of “relaxed visits”: scheduled times when the volume and light levels are customized for people with sensory concerns.
“Disability art and culture is an international movement, and it’s people that are working to rethink how their impairments are generative of new ideas, of new aesthetics. They have really yet to be explored in ways that are not always reflecting back on normalcy.”
A quick survey of the “Accessibility” sections of the websites of major U.S. art museums turns up a fairly consistent list of services: ASL interpretation, open captioning, audio description tours, assistive listening devices, braille texts, and complimentary wheelchairs. At best, these ADA-compliant accommodations, most of which require a request made weeks in advance, remove some barriers for museum visitors with disabilities. Yet, as strategies to engage an audience, the current standards of access are wanting. “As a blind person, when I go to a museum I’m often there with a guide, whether it’s a friend or somebody on staff, and unless there’s a sound component the work is always dictated to me through someone else’s eyes or opinion,” Slater said. “That’s why I’d love to see more sound art in museums.”
Slater’s artist residency is a partnership with Bodies of Work, an organization housed by University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) that collaborates with artists and cultural institutions to create programming that actively centers around disability. This starts with considering disability not as a deficiency to be accommodated, but as a unique experience that can generate new approaches to making and presenting art. “Disability art and culture is an international movement, and it’s people that are working to rethink how their impairments are generative of new ideas, of new aesthetics,” said Carrie Sandahl, the director of Bodies of Work and a professor in UIC’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities. “They have really yet to be explored in ways that are not always reflecting back on normalcy.”
In past years, Bodies of Work helped train cultural institutions in access and accommodation practices. Because this work is now handled by the Chicago Cultural Access Consortium, they have been able to focus on more creative projects, such as supporting the development of new work and programming. The departure from advisory work reflects a deeper turn in Bodies of Work’s mission, away from educating non-disabled audiences about the disability experience, and toward strengthening the community of artists who already understand and create art from that experience.
“Shifting away from that [educational mission] has just been so liberating,” said Sandahl. “I think I started moving away from thinking in terms of changing ideas about disability about five years ago, because it’s kind of like, the only way to change ideas about disability is to offer something new. And we can’t offer something new until we spend time with each other as disabled people.”
Slater has been making music and sound art since he was a teenager, but it wasn’t until moving to Chicago and encountering Bodies of Work that he started addressing disability directly in his work. One of his best theater experiences was a “relaxed performance” of Claire Cunningham’s and Jess Curtis’s The Way You Look (at me) Tonight. The result of a collaboration between Bodies of Work and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, “relaxed performances” are offered for people with or without disabilities who “prefer some flexibility in regards to noise and movement in the theater.” In these performances, audience members are invited to make themselves comfortable—sometimes sitting on cushions—and move about the theater as they’d like, and the sounds and lights are reconfigured to be less intense. What made this show so particularly fantastic, Slater told me, was that the artists themselves had already prepared audio descriptions to accompany their traveling performance.
Toward offering something new as disabled artists, Sky Cubacub proposes a “Radical Visibility Manifesto.” Sky is the creator of Rebirth Garments, a Chicago-based line of custom-made clothing for people on the full spectrum of gender, size, and ability. In their manifesto, Sky wrote, “I am using Radical Visibility as a call to action to dress in order to not be ignored, to reject ‘passing’ and assimilation.” To that end, Rebirth Garments are shiny, colorful, playful ensembles. They highlight, instead of conceal, prosthetics, braces, and wheelchairs. To present the collection, Sky developed a group performance in which each model gives a solo improvised performance—dancing, baton twirling, Philippine martial arts—before the audience is invited to join them all in a dance party.
“I hate runway shows so much. I think that they’re boring, and I think that they’re not celebratory of the [models]…it’s so misogynistic and dehumanizing,” Sky told me. “So I wanted to do something totally different.” For each performance, Sky tailors the outfits to the model based on a conversation about their relationship to clothing and the parts of their body they want to emphasize. They perform in all types of spaces, from DIY venues and small galleries to the Whitney Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Recently, Sky’s Radical Visibility Collective, which includes the artists Compton Q and Vogds, released an album of songs whose lyrics provide visual descriptions in sync with a choreographed performance of over 25 models. (You can watch a video of a performance here). Audio description for visually impaired audiences becomes an aesthetic device that that the Collective uses cannily.
A major problem for the disability art movement is that most art critics don’t know how to assess disability art. “They’ll say this piece made me rethink dance, this piece made me rethink who can be an actor, this piece made me rethink the nature of representation, this piece made me think about what it means to be human,” Sandahl explained. “So it’s another way of deflecting away from disability and having it expand normalcy…And when that happens, they’re not looking at or absorbing or paying attention to what’s being presented.” I think cultural institutions ought to heed a similar caution. Institutions asking to be paid attention (and money) by audiences will find the most success when they pay attention to what their audiences want. When they consider disability at the front-end of exhibition design and public programming, they’ll find a more engaged audience.