Interactive Empathy: "Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture)" at Riverside Arts Center


Still from Petra Kuppers' Salamander

Still from Petra Kuppers' The Olimpias (Salamander Video). Image courtesy Riverside Arts Center.

In its juried exhibition Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture), Riverside Arts Center asks, “What does ‘disabled’ mean to such a broad range of people who identify as such?”

Works in the show certainly address artists’ personal experiences with disability, but also offer opportunities for audiences to explore what this means interactively, ideally working toward empathy and interrogation into internalized perceptions of disability. Artists in the show grapple with questions of identity and disability, mostly in America, through multimedia installations, interactive exhibits, painting, fiber arts, video, sculpture, and written word. 

The Riverside Arts Center gallery space included multiple changes to the layout typically used for a group exhibition. The center space, instead of being open, or containing installations that require physical engagement, contained tables and chairs to allow visitors to sit and enjoy the show from many positions. The gallery’s book of artist statements is printed in large type and, in addition to the usual statements and bios, includes detailed descriptions of each exhibit for visually impaired visitors. 

Many artists contributed large-scale, elaborate installations. One such installation is by artist Laurie Wechter. Her installation is anchored around what appears to be a well-lived-in bed with crumpled sheets. The bed has become a home of its own, with hanging, drab-colored pillowcases forming backdrops on the wall, becoming makeshift frames for the artists’ pastel drawings. In her statement, Wechter explains the intent behind the work, which “externalizes the internal pain of depression,” and contains five drawings the artist created while in the hospital. These works reference the time that they were created, but also represent for her depression. Wechter, in her statement, says that the creation of these works offered her a renewed interest in art that brought her closer to life.

Morgaine Fambrough’s sculpture, which resembles a classic terrarium, offers what appears to be an idyllic, artificial environment. Upon closer inspection, the foliage is interspersed with elements of despair, hinted at by the title Grave by Pond. The landscape features lush greenery sullied with miniature beer cans and fungi made from pharmaceuticals. Fambrough states that these are “psychological environments” that are “disrupted by reminders of death, garbage, and the innate loneliness and isolation that comes with having depression.” 

Gillian Moore, a Grand Rapids-based artist, contributed two interactive works to the exhibition. First, Moore’s Wabbit (Articulation Disorder), is an interactive piece consisting of wooden blocks that can be rearranged. Each block features a letter or image in bright red. Next to this display, a large installation, titled Altered Perception, is set up in a corner of the gallery. The space, reminiscent of a bedroom, is comprised of a bright, hot pink floor, a bed with an ornate quilt on the floor, a fluffy white beanbag-type seat with harsh-looking decorative foliage, and hanging on the walls, repeated, slight variations on painted portraits of a thin, blonde girl hanging in columns throughout the space.

The installation is marked with a sheet of paper that says, “Please step on the pink rug.” If there were doubts that one should step into the corner, such as the doubts I had, these are lifted by the sign. Once stepping onto the pink rug, immediately the floor starts to crinkle, sounding like fiberglass crushing into infinity with each step taken. Moore’s work is about communication and stems from her struggles as someone with a speech impairment.

In her artist statement, Moore recounts her experience of growing up in a family in which eight members had speech impairments. She says 

I visualize all aspects of speech therapy from the constant repetition of words, to different tools used in therapy. The repeating images in my work shows the amount of time a person mispronounces a word, while the tangled beads represent the uninterrupted flow of speech. The goal of my artwork is to make the viewer aware of the difficulties people with communication disorders face, including the process of undergoing therapy, and often unexamined emotional toll.

Moore’s installation includes elements of repetition in the inclusion of the columns of paintings. Additionally, the sound made when stepping on the rug is grating, referencing the emotional toll of constantly stepping around, and on, words.

Chanika Svetvilas’s interactive exhibit, Speech Balloon, allows visitors to contribute an affirmation. The balloons are an appealing teal color, and are printed with a speech bubble starting with the words “I am.” On a small black table, markers, scissors, balloons, and ribbons are set up with instructions: “Write your affirmation on ‘speech balloon.’” The resulting installation is an amalgam of voices, ranging from responses such as “I am alive,” “I am where I am supposed to be,” to “I am, therefore I think.” 

Gwynneth VanLaven’s installation Wellness, Ruins is a complex interrogation into the medical system in America, particularly on the focus on the ideology of “wellness.” The installation is near the gallery entrance, and the first element I encountered was a medical cart. On top of the cart, an opened Physicians Desk Reference is on display. Under the medical table’s metal tray, a white plastic container sits atop a smaller metal tray, offering visitors a “prize,” which is a small white paper cup. These ubiquitous white cups recall scenes of patients lining up to receive pills in films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Girl, Interrupted, and accordingly, my brain automatically assumed they were filled with (probably sinister) medicine.

Hanging above the medical cart with its reference book and white cups is a photographic portrait of a subject in religious garb, holding the Physicians Desk Reference with one arm raised toward the skyTo the right of this, the installation expands across the floor, its edges marked by red tape. A white curtain hangs against the wall, with a sign on a clipboard: “Pay no attention to the ideology behind the curtain.”

The curtain itself is filled with printed ads from pharmaceutical companies. These images unflinchingly depict happy, healthy humans tackling physical challenges, running, jumping, all with their arms in the air, and smiling. Lightboxes on the ground also depict medical professionals smiling and holding their arms in the air, a direct mirror of all the advertisements on the wall behind them. Various other signs are peppered in the installation, such as “Thank you for waiting,” and the cheerful string lights’ bulbs are made from prescription pill bottles.

The shrine-like quality of the installation paired with cheerful but incongruous imagery begins to form a heavy critique of medical care, suggesting it is a doctrine with limited rewards. Like the metaphor of the curtain, pharmacology and American medicine come with many diversions that mask the true harm that can result from the system.

Petra KuppersThe Olimpias (Salamander Video) installation represents another approach, a community project started in 1996 by Petra Kuppers, in which:

We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work, and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control. ... Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship, and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.

The resulting footage offers self-proclamations imposed over the video, often in the form of poetry. For the video stream in the gallery, about half of the contributions were shot in Michigan. 

Kei Kaimana’s interactive installation combines written word and audience participation. The project, The Yellow Rose of Texas/Has Never Been a Whyte Woman: Phase 2.0, is “a multi-phase, durational work. It includes a 30-ish-page poem that traces kinship among Asian, Black, and Brown womxn from Kei Kaimana’s early life.” This installation contains textual and archival elements, with pieces of mail displayed on the wall, a bound copy of the poem, and supplies for contribution should the viewer choose to interact beyond the visual.

The exhibition includes a diverse group of 18 artists, each with a unique art style and subjective perspective to offer audiences. In addition to those listed above, 11 artists contributed to the exhibition: Megan O’Dell, Rachael Kollman, Tarlton Renard Small, Thomas VanEtten, Jacqueline Johnson, Britney Leedy, Duncan Reitz, David A. Feingold, Marc Arthur, Oaklee Thiele, and Stephanie Heit.

Riverside Arts Center’s exhibition announcement ends by saying, “Discover how we can be both singular AND similar.” This idea is important to the meanings of the works, and the themes apparent in the show as a whole. While recognizing that each person’s experience with disability is different, we can see the many connections that allow people with a multiplicity of backgrounds or experiences to come together as a group.

Through the experiences recounted and recaptured visually by artists who identify as disabled, visitors can come to a richer understanding of the term “disability.” The threads posited by the artists in their varied explorations of personal AND shared experience remind us that we may feel singular and alone, but there is likely another person with a similar experience, which when interrogated, can create a space of connection. 

The exhibition featured performances by InterPlay and MCs on opening night. Additionally, there will be performances on the final night, November 22, 6-8 pm, by Amber DiPietra and Bree Grant in the Off Center Space. DiPietra is part of the Eco-Arts Think/Act Tank at the University of Michigan. 

Way Opens was juried by Gwynneth VanLaven and Petra Kuppers, and was created in partnership with Eastern Michigan University’s Critical Disabilities Studies program and School of Communication, Media and Theatre Arts. Eastern Michigan University will host a Disability Arts and Culture Symposium from December 2-3, 2019.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture)" is at Riverside Arts Center through November 22.