Carmen Papalia with Co-Conspirators at the Vancouver Art Gallery3 June 2023
By Jaz Papadopoulos
Provisional Structure 2 (2022) is a striking installation. The modular tent-like installation—made up of acoustic panels and black fabric framed by wooden scaffolding (built by designer and architect Michael Liss)—rises up to the third story of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Inside the tent walls, gallery visitors can sit, watch, and listen to the Disability Filibuster:1 a three-day online protest, the largest widespread gathering of disabled people in Canada.2 This video, complete with audio, captions, and ASL interpretation, screens on loop within the namesake exhibition of NEXT: Provisional Structures, the group exhibition organized by Carmen Papalia which took over the VAG’s second floor from December 2022 to April 2023.
This womb-like interior prioritizes non-visual modes of perceiving, referencing Papalia’s non-visual practice. Ample seating awaits any bodies that may choose to rest there. This is the second structure Papalia had made, hence the title. The first was shown in a group exhibition alongside Vo Vo and Jes Sachse at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in 2021.3
The Disability Filibuster was a response to Bill C-7, which passed in the spring of 20214 and changed the eligibility criteria to medical assistance in dying (MAID) in Canada. Previously, applicants were required to meet several criteria related to age, ability to consent, and diagnosis, one of which stated that death must be imminent. Under the amendment, this final clause was removed: MAID became accessible to anyone living with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition,”5 and communities worried they would prematurely lose those for whom death might be more accessible than other care.
“We’ll continue to make them, and they’ll be site-specific wherever they’re shown, and they’ll be used to serve different functions,” Papalia says of the modular structure. “It requires a lot of institutional investment,” he adds. “I use it as a platform to bring other artists in.”
As comforting as the structure is inside, it towers with impressive grandeur when observed externally. It acts as its own pedestal, revering the voices and stories it holds and memorializes, with six black foil balloons rising from the structure’s peak. The scale of the structure, with its height and robust design, exemplifies Papalia’s deft understanding of the ways in which infrastructure affects power.
The modularity of the structure—its ability to be torn down, re-raised, and re-arranged, follows the tenants of Open Access as laid out in the contiguous room: its form is flexible to meet the needs of those present. There’s an intimacy here that visual art cannot know: it is the presence of people, our bodies and our needs, that shape and reshape the build of the structure. Its existence is predicated on our mutual existence, our relationship, and how our presence impacts one another.
In the spirit of relational creativity, the second room of the show is a collective exhibition space, featuring works from Rebel Fayola Rose, Sharona Franklin, Catherine Frazee, and Gabrielle Peters, Heather Kai Smith and The Curiosity Paradox. “Open access is a temporary, collectively-held space” is written in black text prominently printed on a white parachute, which hangs from the gallery ceiling and guards over the collective exhibition space.
Entering the room felt like stepping into a well-lit buffet. Each bright white wall (including the ceiling) was host to audio and visual artworks. One wall, the most visually-evocative of the collective exhibit, showcased a grid of eight blown-up memes by Franklin titled @hot_crip memes, (2018-19). Catching my attention, one square featuring white text on a red background stood out: “BREAK THE FALSE MYTH THAT DISABILITY IS RARE.” I thought about my own sensory needs: I struggle to differentiate sounds, and often can’t tell which to focus on over the cacophony. As a visually-prioritized person entering the space of a non-visual artist, I was curious how my senses would respond.
Another piece, Question Access: Standard Access Against Access Art (2020) by The Curiosity Paradox, offered visitors an opportunity to consider and evaluate the values of institutions and other human-made spaces. It consists of a set of question-and-answer cards that compare “Standard access (eugenic legacy)” to “Access Art.” Here, “Standard access (eugenic legacy)” is defined as “an aesthetic where accessibility is unintrusive or hidden from people whose needs are already met.” For example, when entering the VAG, one must pass through the grand lobby flanked by curved staircases at the back of the building to finally reach a narrow hallway which leads to the accessible elevators. Visitors comfortable walking up stairs would never even notice it, yet folks with mobility needs must navigate a long and unclear route distinct from the gallery’s curatorial path. Alternatively, when entering the first of three gallery rooms hosting Provisional Structures, accessibility is forefront: the very first wall is mounted with canes and hearing-protective earmuffs; a wheelchair sits available in front of a wall with vinyl lettering stating: Please use then return here; there is seating and an introductory video which includes a black screen, white captions, and smooth audio of Papalia’s warm voice greeting gallery visitors.
Papalia and Co-Conspirators created a welcoming aesthetic all while prioritizing accessibility features, proving that accessible design can be included in public spaces with ease. The ample available seating, accessibility aids, and the philosophy that access is paramount asserts itself. But even more cleverly, I found that my own (invisible) access needs were built right into the walls: halfway through my visit, I realized I was focused and not overwhelmed. Somehow, inexplicably, the exhibit washed over me with the ease of flowing water.
In fact, the exhibition room was immersed in the sounds of flowing water: small, wall-mounted speakers near the floor of each artwork played a motion-activated, white noise soundtrack of running water. Even as other people bustled past me, the babbling blanket protected me from auditory distraction. The design of this exhibit did not only include mobility aids and captions (the types of accessibility most commonly seen, if ever, in Vancouver’s public events): it also considered sensory needs and neurodiversity. Clearly, Provisional Structures is “by us, for us,” and succeeded in a way that lip-service gestures towards accessibility simply do not.
Leaving the stone walls of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I noticed a mass of black foil balloons filling its windows. 846 balloons to be exact: a number equal to the amount of overdose deaths which were anticipated in British Columbia between December 3, 2022 to April 16, 20236—the duration of Papalia’s show. Disability and medicated pain management are frequent companions, a fact that Carmen Papalia knows too well. “Pain overshadows my visual condition in many ways,” he says. “I was on narcotics for 12 years … It was not a fun experience.”7 “Narcotics” is another term for “opioids,”8 and Vancouver is at the epicenter of Canada’s opioid crisis.9
Floating above street-level, the memorial venerates those passed in ways that the city otherwise does not, with its newly-elected mayor spending over $15 million on 100 new police officers and decampment street sweeps rather than on research backed harm-reduction, which would include housing and safe drug supply.10 Though the piece could be installed anywhere, when framed by the gallery’s stoney gravitas, its high-stakes titular message booms over downtown Vancouver: “Stop Fucking Killing Us.”
Accessibility is an artistic medium and Papalia has mastered it, manipulating the environment to be in an ongoing relationship with each visitor passing through. “Survival requires a degree of creativity,” he says of his practice.11 Though “accessibility as an artistic medium” may seem novel, this is not the first time interior environments have been activated as a site of creative production. Decorative art considers objects like plates and carpets; our domestic senses are accustomed to judging how an object makes us feel. Architects know similar truths, though more and more, the art of making public space inhospitable and dissuading its use—hostile architecture, such as “anti-homeless” spikes or benches with dividers—is more in vogue than accessible design.12
In contrast, Papalia sees himself as a perception-supporter. “I feel like I support people at shifting their perception in different ways,” he says, “whether it’s in regard to our sensory environment, or our sense of agency in a given situation, or how our institutions are oriented and what they could be if we … addressed [their colonial and ableist histories] and transformed them around a new set of values.” In his exhibition at the VAG and in our conversation, the artist easily reveals his own motives. “To curate is to care,” he says, and curate he does.
- “Disability Filibuster Against Bill C-7,” NEXT: Provisional Structures: Carmen Papalia with Co-Conspirators, Vancouver Art Gallery, February 7, 2023, https://vanartgallery.vag.yourcultureconnect.com/e/carmen-papalia-didactics/disability-filibuster
- Carmen Papalia, in conversation with author, Vancouver, July 11, 2022
- Joan Bryden, “Canadian Senate passes Bill C-7, expanding assisted dying to include mental illness,” Global News, March 18, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/7703262/canada-senate-passes-bill-c-7/
- “Bill C-7: An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying),” Charter Statements, Government of Canada, September 1, 2021, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/pl/charter-charte/c7.html
- Carmen Papalia, “Stop Fucking Killing Us, 2022,” Vancouver Art Gallery, February 2, 2022, https://vanartgallery.vag.yourcultureconnect.com/e/provisional-structures/balloon-installation
- Carmen Papalia, in conversation with author, Vancouver, July 11, 2022
- Jaz Papadopoulos, “What is a City WIthout People?” The Uniter, March 29, 2018, https://uniter.ca/view/what-is-a-city-without-people
Next: Provisional Structures | Carmen Papalia with Co-Conspirators ran from December 3, 2022 – April 16, 2023 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Feature Image: Installation view of Carmen Papalia and Co-Conspirators, Provisional Structures. Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery.