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Perspectives on O k’inadas// Losing privilege, protecting spaces for growth, and the life of the grad student by Aaron Franks

Ayumi Goto wearing Buffalo-Boy Mask at the "Art + Reconciliation" MOOC intensive,  Thompson Rivers University, 2013.

Ayumi Goto wearing Buffalo-Boy Mask at the “Art + Reconciliation” MOOC intensive, Thompson Rivers University, 2013.

Aaron Franks (AF): What is this space in the Intensive allowing artists and allies to do that had not been available or possible before? Maybe in general and also specifically in relationship to reconciliation.

Ashok Mathur (AM): Ok, earlier you mentioned privilege, which is a very important thing to think about in academia. And I come back to [Gayatri] Spivak always, this notion she has of unlearning privilege; unlearning privilege is your loss she says. And I reflected on this, thinking it is in many ways unearned privileges. Some of them are earned, but some of them…the accident of being in a certain position has a history, has a lot of history.

What do we do about changing the system, what do we do that may take our various privileges, which can be really safe, and develop a level of precarity so that you may be on a different precipice, you may be losing something, you may be challenging the system in a certain way. Enough so that you maintain the trajectory of what we need to do, but not at the expense of all, of protecting yourself, right?

That means how do we create safe environments for grad students, for learners, for non-registered students too, that allows them to go to the places that they need to go, that challenges them to go to those places? In one of our grad classes we talked about the heart; we talked about the love that exists in the spaces between people but is not spoken because we have to stick to the outline. So, how do we move into those spaces?

I would say we are trying to inculcate the emotive, the affective, the spiritual, the care, the passion, as much as the—say—the material-based practice, or [worrying about] ‘what is there to learn’, ‘what’s the argument to learn?’

So I think some of that is going on here. That’s why it should be and needs to be a bit risky. It means taking chances and fighting the good fight. I think you’ve go to do that, to be willing to put ourselves a bit on the line, you know? So, I don’t know what that means yet, and I don’t know what that will mean. In some ways it’s talking yourself out of a position. That type of thing sometimes lets you move into a space.

AF: And letting other people talk you out of the position?

AM: Yeah. One of the things I am leaning toward is moving into a part-time position. By doing so we can afford to hire an Associate Professor, an Indigenous Associate Professor, and that could be a very interesting thing, because it can change the dynamics that are otherwise static. That’s a tangential way of looking at your question. That’s not [the] specifics of those artists [in attendance], or what they are bringing in, but it does develop a sense of community.

We pour in, we’re living together, like literally in these pods and cooking together and that sort of thing, and there’s a communal quality to it that goes beyond meeting once a week and that type of thing.

AF: Ayumi [Goto] said something yesterday relevant to this, which is that it’s about transformation of hearts and people’s politics and not about momentary strategic alliances. That was a long-term goal she was talking about. And also the willingness to leave, when you start to feel you’re indispensable that’s the time when you need to go. And that’s interesting that you talk about three generations here, the fourth going on…Stephen [Foster], Mike Evans, and yourself, [research assistants] Tomas and Karolina now, attached but not possessive.

AM: And I think that question is—to Karolina, Tomas and to others—is where do you see the entry points there? Because it’s not traditional, it’s not ‘you got your Master’s, off you go and do that PhD in this particular way.’

What risks are you taking with you, what challenges are you taking with you? [Karolina and Tomas] have both worked within those various radicalized communities, arts or feminist theory, working through those questions. But then how do you take it forward?

Because as grad students we’re always, we’re always in a state of saying I should quit, right? There’s a choice to go forward or quit and often its quit because I’m not as good as anyone else. How do you develop that experience though so that it becomes a mutually supportive space?

SF: That’s why you have the undergrads mixing with the grad students, mixing with the professional artists…I think there’s a real practical component when you bring all these artists and scholars together that’s not just about the academy. It’s about the scholarship itself.


Perspectives on O k’inadas// Critical relationships by Aaron Franks

Willard's "#haunted_hunted" is part of her BUSH Gallery exhibition.

Willard’s “#haunted_hunted” is part of her BUSH Gallery exhibition.

Aaron Franks (AF): David [Garneau] said over dinner ‘the land doesn’t speak.’ I paraphrase here a bit, but he shared his ideas about how social relationships—interpersonal relationships, intergenerational relationships—those are the relationships that transmit information about us and the land. He doesn’t feel the phrase “the land speaks to me” has any meaning, or maybe the right meaning. So that’s a pretty powerful statement for some people at the Intensive.

But we actually didn’t talk about that during the panel session [on land], it was something that came out in dinner conversation. What [Garneau] and others would call the ‘spaces of criticality’—territorial, social, pedagogical—where are some of those here in the Intensive?

Tomas Jonsson (TJ): I think one of Tania Willard’s provocations was her speech while having her children in the space. Even the fact of having your children in the space was a critique of the institution, they played under the table and their play was interfering with the conversation on stage but also useful. And then having us move outside for a more equitable space for all parties—well, more equitable for the kids than us! I thought that was a nice illustration of this as well.

Ashok Mathur (AM): Yeah, that was a wonderful one. And Tania and the Bush Gallery itself, that concept is moving us in different directions.

TJ: And then you bring Tania here to UBC Okanagan [for her Masters]

AF: What do you think of this, this idea that a certain space of non-conflict has to exist for a time, before a space of conflict can be useful and not harmful—

AM: —well, one thing is this friction, friction caused by different opinions, right? It can be seen as conflictual, or it can be seen as, for example, Stephen and I talk about a certain idea, and we have different takes on it, respecting each other’s position on it, but also saying, ‘you know Steve I think you’re wrong on this’, and that can happen, and it has to. And the dangerous thing is if I listen to Steve and nod when he says something—but I disagree with it and I’m not saying anything, that is the avoidance of conflict.

I think we need to be in that place, but it’s difficult because academia too is not built on [disagreement]—sure it’s built on critiques, but its often also built on, especially in North America, on just politeness. You say things like “I have a question for you…” and you may slightly turn it in a different way, but you rarely say “That’s fuckin’ wrong!”

AF: But you, Ashok and Stephen [Loft] are peers and have known each other for a long time, and you also have a fairly protected kind of status in a way right? Tenured professor, or Canada Council, you know you are accorded a certain amount of status or whatever by whatever structures.

What about those pedagogical spaces where there’s a lot of uneven power relations, and between artists too. Could you talk a little bit about, ‘senior artist,’ ‘student artist,’ ‘mentor artist,’ and ‘emerging artist’…those relationships?

Stephen Foster (SF): I think there are some embedded hierarchies in what we’ve pulled together this year, but I think you’re always going to have a bit of that. And you’re also dealing with people who operate on the margins of academia, they sort of come in and out of it, and they’re not fully recognized in these spaces. Like an artist coming into academia is not necessarily fully recognized as a scholar, and their work is not necessarily representing scholarly research or things like that.

AF: ‘Research-creation’, ‘the other’!

SF: Yeah we talk about that, ‘research-creation,’ because that’s something that’s preserved within the institution, preserved—did I say preserved, I mean reserved—for people inside the institution like academia. You don’t find artists out there in the world, working away, talking about ‘research-creation,’ they talk about their process, but not unless they’re attached to an institution do you start hearing the phrase ‘research-creation.’

I think that’s interesting you know, and when we originally started the Summer Institute that was an area we were trying to capture. We were trying to, you know, ‘capture’ these people who were working at the margins of academia and try to bring them into academia, and get them credentials so they had that kind of recognition in that space.

Stephen Loft (SL): I would argue as well—I like this idea you have of research-creation—yeah its outside kind of the vocabulary, however coming from an Indigenous perspective, I would suggest that there’s a large number of Indigenous artists who engage in that type of activity because they’re mining this cultural history—

SF: —they’re also engaging in a kind of criticality too right—

SL: —a trajectory. So if you said that to them, that would make perfect sense in terms of a process-based artist’s work that was rooted in customary practice: it’s rooted in research that is familial, it’s communal, it has to do with their relationship with the state, I mean it’s very fraught.

I think that’s one of the things that really marks the aesthetic of Indigenous artists writ large is that that’s part of it. The ‘academic-speak’ aspect of it doesn’t really work, but if you work from a methodology point of view it works perfectly.

Perspectives on O k’inadas// Reconceiving Indigenous Studies (and gaming the academy) by Aaron Franks

Steven Loft (SL): What might be interesting for you to talk about is that there’s a huge pedagogical shift and there’s a lot—maybe way too much—of rolling around this idea of Indigenizing the academy.

But what does decolonization really mean when we drill down into this idea of pedagogy? Are there ways that we can really bring to the university a larger Indigenous cosmology and ideas of knowledge transference that don’t fit within the Euro model of education, which our whole system is built on?

How do you disrupt systemic models of education in really interesting ways? I think for me this is one of the really innovative aspects of this Intensive and how it’s evolved.

Ashok Mathur (AM): I think it partly comes through maybe traditional notions of exposure. You bring in a bunch of artists and people are going to learn from them. But they’re not learning through someone saying ‘I will come to you and speak with you’, they’re learning through osmosis. They’re in the studio, they see a performance, they see fuckin’ Rebecca Belmore is going to do a performance at some point, and they don’t have to travel to wherever she is doing it, they’re there—and some of them won’t even know who she is which is a good thing too. So these are, I suppose, the reinventions. Which is why as soon as the university cottons on to the Institute…

Aaron Franks (AF): …and what does the university do when they find out about it?

AM: Well we’re not looking at all means to maximize revenue, right? What does the university do when we say ‘someone came in and they kind of want to hang out but they don’t want to pay fees’?

SL: The university is supposed to say, ‘yeah that’s cool!’ We have to do that, because that breaks the cycle of an elite system.

AM: This model will never be a hugely successful university revenue-generating thing. So right now the university could kick in something but, because we’re getting funding from other sources to pay artists, they don’t need to finance it, which is a very important distinction to make. The artists are coming in and they’re being supported in the work they’re doing. And sure it has a positive blowback effect on the students, right? Which is great. But it’s not about, you know, the university getting maximized profit.

Stephen Foster (SF): You can characterize these things as structural and you know that they’re addressing the structural issue of post-secondary education models. But I think the real radical stuff is from the kind of defending of how we think about Indigeneity in the academy. I think that’s where it really is quite radical.

We started this Summer Institute concept and partly what we’re always butting up against in terms of the university infrastructure, the Dean’s support, you know all this kind of stuff, was this thinking around Indigenous Studies as something where you’re studying ‘the people,’ you know you’re studying ‘the community,’ you’re objectifying the people, the culture, you’re studying that as an external thing.

It’s still a problem we have in the academic world. I’m working on another project where I’m talking about research protocols for Indigenous research and that’s still the predominant way that the upper administration wants to think about these things, where researchers are one thing, Indigenous people are another thing, right? It seems completely backwards!

And I think that when we started the Institute, the concept of taking Indigenous Studies as we’re actually not studying the people but we’re studying an Indigenous scholarship, you know.

SL: – So how do you flip that? Methodologies, cosmologies-

SF: – that’s what we were teaching and that was the shift and I think that has had huge ramifications for our whole institution, that people have slowly come around to ‘oh yeah, that’s what you’re doing’. And there’s parallels to Queer Studies, to Women’s Studies, things like that have gone through that process too. But I think that in some circles, there are still these kinds of binaries when it comes to Indigenous Studies. They think of it as ‘oh, this is just a part of Anthropology.

SL: Again, this…’radical shift’…? I would say that the majority of the institutions they’re not there, they haven’t got there.

AM: One of things interesting to look at, using Stephen’s parallels, is that in a mainstream university economy the notion of Indigeneity means one thing, ‘Indigenization’ as we’ve been seeing [in the mainstream] means one thing – “oh let’s make it Indigenous”. But what does that mean? People don’t know—

AF: —does that means putting Sylix words on the street signs—

AM: —yeah does it mean putting Sylix on the street signs and promoting the fact that there’s a Memorandum of Understanding and all this sort of stuff.

But looking at multiplicities, conflict is really important. We have really interesting conflicting world views and opinions as opposed to a single Indigenous one. But I think the mainstream environment would love to see it as a singular position. Just like government would love to see a single AFN [Assembly of First Nations] voice, because then they could deal with it easily.

AF: Yep, certainty. They want certainty. It’s interesting because a strong part of my conversation with Ayumi [Goto] and Peter [Morin] yesterday[i] was about developing the spaces where hard questions can be asked, and developing the space where disagreement can be fruitful and not shied away from. One of the things Ayumi said was that it was about building relationships of truth.

But in a broad way, there’s a kind of widely circulated discourse that says Indigenous peoples need this sort of “magical special time” to  heal, and then trust will be established and then the next thing will be established, true being together.

But I don’t think these things can be separate. I mean we don’t have a separate healing time, and then a separate getting your act together time, you know?  So we talked about what O K’inadas and the Intensive can do now and in the future to foster those sort of productive, grinding-against-each-other spaces.




Ashok Mathur is Professor of Creative Writing and Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan.

Stephen Foster is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, where he is also Director of the Summer Institute of Interdisciplinary Indigenous Graduate Studies, Coordinator of the CanWest Global Centre for Artist’s Video and Coordinator of the MFA in Creative Studies Program

Steven Loft is a Trudeau Fellow and Director of the Canada Council’s Aboriginal Arts Office.


[i] See Goto, A., Morin, P., and A. Franks. (2017). “O K’inādās—Where Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin Do Not Talk about Reconciliation”. cultural diversity and the stage 13(3)


Perspectives on O k’inadas // complicated reconciliations: an artist residency by Aaron Franks

I was looking for clues.


The website url for the 2016 Intensive is A “MOOC” is a ‘massive open online course.’ Writing this, I keep circling back to my expectations last summer, to the anticipation I felt all those months ago, and I keep being drawn to the way texts and forms and voices were stitched together.

My first reference points for the Intensive were in these web words:

{Re}conciliation – the Canada Council funding program that in part funds the Intensive. Curly brackets place us in the world of poetry and music notation, and tell us the “re-” in reconciliation is conditional, questionable…

Creative Conciliations – the title of this blog. The “re-“ is rubbed away, the matter is made plural, multiple. We are encouraged to improvise too, to build novel things.

complicated reconciliations – the residency’s English subtitle. No caps, but the “re-“ {re}appears, and hints ‘let’s use the mandated discourse but again, make it multiple’. There will be twists, there will be tension.

So I am excited—the Intensive is a journey, expect the unexpected, relish complexity, etc., etc.

I feel unease too. Detached from the experience of gathering in the Okanagan, the words feel anxiously postmodern. A sense that there is some strain here to both engage with, and uncouple from, the discourse of reconciliation. This shouldn’t be news to anyone in the eclectic Indigenous arts and research communities, but that tension is on such prominent display in a project as large as the Intensive. Words = “unnecessary stains on the silence”, yes, maybe, but silences kill too, silences can erase as well as protect. I wonder what the Intensive will be like; I have never been to anything like it before.

I look for anchors in Indigenous rather than European epistemologies. I am very drawn to the word O K’inadas, the title of the Intensive and a Tahltan word ‘that refers to a person who is “walking across the land.” I hope that learning about this word O k’inadas will centre my expectations for the residency in my mind (I am a guest, a researcher) and relieve my pomo Beckett-ian spins.

But that is elusive too. I am lucky enough to interview O K’inadas collective members Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin[i] after I arrive, and my hunger slips out…

Aaron: I would love to know more about the Tahltan term O K’inadas. When I read about it on the website I love that it says, “this term refers to a person walking on the land.” The specificity implied in that phrase is interesting to me…can you just talk about that phrase if that’s okay?

Peter: That writing that you’re reading, Ayumi and I wrote together as part of our collaborative process, we’re moving these things back and forth right?

The phrase “O k’inadas”… uh, it means nothing. Yeah, that ’O’ in front of it, it means absolutely nothing.

“K’inadas” means ‘it is the move’ – that refers to ‘the walking on the land.’ Anyways, so I came up with the phrase “O k’inadas” to say that I’m actually ‘walking around on Canada’ – O Canada, right? O Canada, O k’inadas. So I invented a phrase. However, Ayumi and I are doing this work together and we’re inventing new pathways. You have to take these things and extract them and move them forward.

We then talk about this extraction as violence, a violence that in this instance is a necessary but risky disruption. So, when I stretch this thought out, what I hoped would be a grounding Indigenous epistemology is an extractive disruption.


“These artists will be developing new work addressing issues related to the ongoing complex responses to reconciliation, and art-making practices as a radical methodology for decolonization and Indigenizing contemporary theoretical discourse and art praxis.”

–      2016 Summer Indigenous Intensive

I encourage you to read the blog at I encourage you to follow the writings and events of the 2017 Intensive. I was only able to stay for a week and the range of practice I experienced was impossible to distill into a one descriptive moment. Perhaps it was coincidence (small ‘sample size’, only one sixth of the Intensive); maybe a subliminal seed planted in my mind through the O K’inadas phrase that evokes travelling on surfaces. But I learned something about depth, dirt and impressions both indelible and ephemeral: three snippets about digging in and making holes in the flat plane of reconciliation.

Holes and digging. immersion. actual burrowing.

1) The School of the Badger – a performance by Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson “on Friday, August 5, 2016 – 49° 56’ 14” N 119° 23’ 56” W – 450m Elevation”

“Badger sees all the roots of Mother Earth’s healing herbs hanging in its burrow home. These roots are a key to aggressive healing. Roots can ground negative energy into the Earth by allowing illness to pass through a body into the ground as neutral energy.” (from A statement on The School of Badger – On Indigenizing the Institution)

The intervention was in a small sand and gravel pit on a campus hillside. The location they provide is very specific but also very abstracted, very ‘geo’. Topographical God’s Eye trick? Stripping of names?

2) Jackson 2Bears. At an informal morning meeting he describes his dawn walks with his hand drum, digging shallow holes to sound his drum in, his tympanic earth response to birdsong in the dry forest above campus. An experiment he shrugs at later with a laugh, that was “probably bullshit”.

3) And a paraphrase of an informal conversation, a colleague relaying something they’d learned of Sylix pedagogies while visiting the Okanagan region for the Intensive:

At a certain point in a young man’s life he goes out on to the land with an Elder. A hole is dug deep enough for him to stand in with his head just sticking up above the surface, enough for him to see around him at the level of the ground.

He stays there for some time and in this time he learns about the land where he lives, at this ground–eye level.


When we hear this in 2017, what do we imagine is going on in his head? For myself, who was not raised in any Indigenous cultural community at all, never mind Sylix, what do I project of myself into what little I now know of this process? What would I learn? What would I want to learn?

The experiences I had and witnessed at the 2016 Intensive have greatly informed my work at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. There, I am a Visiting Fellow helping to push the boundaries of the institutional conversation as SSHRC takes up TRC Call to Action 65. This calls on SSHRC to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities and institutions to develop an ongoing research program to “advance understanding of reconciliation.”

I had the pleasure of speaking to Intensive director Ashok Mathur, Steven Loft of the Canada Council, research assistants Tomas Jonsson and Karolina Bialkowska, and O K’inadas collective members Ayumi Goto, Peter Morin and Stephen Foster. Many of the things we discussed involved opening and maintaining transformative spaces within institutions – in universities, funding bodies, and government agencies. I am grateful to the artists and thinkers I encountered at O K’inadas who have enriched my understanding of transformative space greatly. In the three blog posts that follow, please read what my interview guests had to say about the challenges and possibilities.


[i] See Goto, A., Morin, P., and A. Franks. (2017). “O K’inādās—Where Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin Do Not Talk about Reconciliation”. cultural diversity and the stage 13(3)


[ii] I have not heard this from any other source, including Sylix, so I am not sharing this in any way as a Sylix teaching.  However, it is one of the many small moments (real and discursive) of exploring immersion that I experienced.

Blind Field Shuttle

Carmen Papalia is a non-visual artist whose social practice includes engaging participants in exercising their other-than-visual senses. Blind Field Shuttle, for example, is an eyes-closed walking tour in which the artist leads up to forty people on a ramble through natural or urban settings. Participants are coached, and then arranged in a line, their right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Papalia joins the front of the human chain and guides us with his walking stick and voice: “rough pavement coming up; feel the incline as you transition from the sidewalk to the road; tree on the left; low barrier ahead;” and so on.

I was a photographer for a walk Papalia conducted in Kelowna last summer (2016) as part of the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus’ Indigenous Summer Intensive. I witnessed with alarm as he led more than two dozen adults and a few teens onto a pier. When he reached the end of the dock and realized that it was not a bridge, he calmly explained the situation, turned and doubled the line back on the narrow passage. No one panicked. No one fell into the lake. Most surprisingly, I didn’t see anyone open their eyes.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

The year before, I went on a Blind Field Shuttle walk in and around Ottawa City Hall. The experience increased my awareness of the scent and sound environments, the unevenness of the ground, and change in wind, sunlight and heat than I would if my eyes were open. We navigate most of our day unconsciously. Our bodies perform routine with little awareness. By voluntarily turning off vision, and surrendering individual agency for a shared trust, Blind Field Shuttle engenders an hour and a half of heightened consciousness: of our bodies, surroundings, and most importantly, our interrelationships.

At first, you struggle against instinct. I reverse blinked at least a half dozen times in the first two minutes. But I soon learned to trust the person ahead of me—or at least submit to their lead—and, feeling responsible for the person behind me, I eased into my role in the collective challenge. Part of the thrill of this work is the suspension of autonomy, submitting to being part of an interdependent organism.

Blind Field Shuttle is art in that we are guided into a familiar world through an artist’s unique subjectivity. Papalia defamiliarizes the routine so that we might better appreciate its nuances and the felt architecture of our senses and sensibilities. Like much art, it exaggerates and condenses a representation of life. But Blind Field Shuttle is also social practice art in that it emphasizes experience over objects, and is more a form of life rather than just its representation. And it is utopic in that it models ideal interrelations.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

Clearly, Carmen Papalia wants us to taste the world as he does. We volunteer to momentarily repress our dominant sense so that we can experience our environment as a non-visual space. But we also get a hint of Carmen’s social subjectivity, not only his experience as a person who is not seeing, but as a person seen as “blind.” I felt anxiety and peril when I turned off sight, but I also felt excitement and growing competency. Fear lessened a little by the middle of the walk. But the sense of being on display, and the stress of not knowing how I was being seen or unseen never expired.

Blind Field Shuttle is a reversal. Instead of a sight-dominant person leading a non-visual learner, this participatory performance has a non-visual learner guiding the sight-privileged. We not only get a faint sense of what his life might be like, we also feel Papalia’s greater authority in this territory. By performing competency, he demonstrates his abilities, his agency ahead of his needs. But he also performs, and has us perform, his preferred means of satisfying his needs.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies. Image: David Garneau.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.

Non-Visual Artist

Carmen describes himself as a non-visual learner. The phrase emphasizes the senses he does employ rather than the one he does not. It calls attention to his abilities. Papalia is critical of institutions that follow a rehabilitation model, one that has disabled persons strive to pass for ‘normal’ while clearly destined to fall short. This way of thinking is designed, in part, to make disabilities and the disabled less visible, less disturbing, less of a bother to the able-bodied. But when Papalia replaces his cane with a megaphone, as he does in White Cane Amplified (2015), or with a marching band Mobility Device (2013), he goes in the opposite direction; he increases the spectacle, he hyperbolizes difference. Is it possible to witness Blind Field Shuttle and not have the popular metaphor, “the blind leading the blind,” spring to mind? What’s his game beyond ironic art fun?

Carmen Papalia. Image courtesy of the artist.

Carmen Papalia. Image courtesy of the artist.

In a rather subtle and yet profound way, Carmen Papalia displays both his competency and his needs. That he can navigate his city and travel to others, make art and a living without sight—that he can lead a group of eyes-closed participants across busy streets, through a park, onto a dock and back without the loss of life or dignity is a marvel. But what takes this work far beyond novelty is how he shows that what disables us most is not the loss of a sense but the reduction in humanity that too often accompanies physical and mental difference.

Blind Field Shuttle is a generous gift to the sight privileged. We learn how ocular-dominance reduces the meanings and pleasures offered by our other senses. But more importantly, the work demonstrates how an egocentric, individualistic social ideology can separate us from intimate, interdependent community. Papalia shows without saying that we all have limitations that require help from others. Some have greater needs; others have a greater ability to assist. There is a delicate dance in this interdependent relation. How do we ask for help while maintaining dignity? So many people withdrawal from care because requesting it can be humiliating, debilitating.

In all his works, Carmen Papalia shows us what he needs, what we all need: to be assisted according to our changing individual needs, to be in a community of mutual care. Critical care is a heightened sense of empathy that anticipates need rather than waits for a request.

I had read about Blind Field Shuttle, saw the photographs, and thought I had a good sense of what it was. You can imagine what the experience is like, but you can know it without participating. And you can’t participate without suspending your agency to become a participating subject. This is the difference, I suppose, between helping a blind man cross the street and being in relationship with another person who would like to go for a walk with you.

Blind Field Shuttle, 2012, walking tour duration varies. Image: Jordan Reznick, courtesy of the artist.

Blind Field Shuttle, 2012, walking tour duration varies. Image: Jordan Reznick, courtesy of the artist.

Open Access

Carmen and I have given talks together at the Ottawa Art Gallery. At the Dunlop Art Gallery, and at the University of Alberta, we recently held a public conversations. Our friendship began at a symposium he co-hosted with Gallery Gachet (2015).

His talk about his “Open Access” project ideas resonated with me concerning my interest in Indigenous possibilities and impossibilities in art galleries and museums still haunted by their colonial imaginaries and desires.

For the last few years, Carmen has been developing, testing, and promoting five tenants for “Open Access” which are premised on his experience of being disabled less by his physical limitations than by those imposed upon him by institutions dominated by an ocular-centric regime. This experience and insight led him to band with fellow disenfranchised allies who, due to a range of physical and mental differences from the normalized range thought to compose the ‘publics’ of these spaces, also felt similarly unacceptable to these spaces.

However, rather than simply advocate for physical inclusion. Carmen and his crew did an informal inventory of the Vancouver Art Gallery, not looking for missing ramps, too many artificial scents, and other disabling devices, but for numerous other subtle—to the non-marginalized—disabling conditions. This includes, for example, the steep entrance fee, which filters the poor. Most rigorous and surprising, though, is their edit of a didactic panel about the work of Christos Dikeakos that focused on its whitewashing of Indigenous presence and colonization—features the audit saw as disabling to Indigenous visitors. That the group would be sensitive to this made me–as Metis—wonder about more intersections between the Indigenous and disability activism.

That the group would focus on Indigenous issues intrigued me. It suggested that there was something in their methodology that exceeded their informing conditions; that is, in looking for conditions that made them not want to be in that space, or be troubled by it, opened them to aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and physical engagements that required a radical empathy that exceeded self interest.

And this is what moves my most about Carmen Papalia’s work. He is not only advocating for greater access to public institutions by disabled persons, he is showing how these spaces and limit most of us. Importantly, his work implies that radical inclusion would alter many of the paradigms of these places. For example, creating access through audio descriptions of visual art so non-visual learners can “access” visual art is a thoughtful and generous idea—until you think about it, and it becomes strange. No audio description can create in a listener’s mind an image remotely resembling a specific physical picture. If you are a visual learner and have a repertory of visual images and know what Impressionism and Monet are, you can get a pretty good sense of a Monet you haven’t seen before through a word description. But it is going to be a pale and unreliable version. Now imagine your visuality ceased before you knew that art.

To get a sense of what Open Access might look like, Carmen offers Eyes Closed walking tours of museums and art galleries. A group meets at an art gallery. Carmen coaches them about what is ahead. We pair up. One person leads the other, whose eyes are closed, in a fifteen-minute audio tour of an exhibition. Then we switch roles. Rather than listen to a device with the same message for everyone, each tour is customized. There is also touch and friendship. Rather than reinforce the supremacy of sight and curatorial authority, the sensibilities and paliaerceptions of the visitor and guide are centered.

Recently, Keavy Martin hosted Carmen and I at the University of Alberta. As part of our visit we went to a discussion group about Treaty Six and how acknowledgement of Treaty can be an active part of university life and scholarship. We recognized many affinities between Carmen’s Open Access methodologies and Indigenous ways of being in territory. Indigenization and Open Access have in common the need to slow down. Colonial institutions prize efficiency. They work best with and for normalized bodies and minds. What Indigenous and disabled persons offer is an older and expanded sense of humanity. It’s less in a hurry. Both privilege visiting. Both prioritize relations, not just between people but also with all the beings around us, and seek to experience the world through our knowing subjectivities more than through the social codes that shape our perceptions.

For the past four years I have been working with Keavy Martin, Dylan Robinson, Ashok Mathur, and Jonathan Dewar on a SSHRC-funded project called Creative Conciliations. In our various ways we have been looking at and making work about relations between Indigenous and Settler peoples following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much of our work has looked beyond the expected Indigenous to European-Settler relations, and toward the many other peoples who share these territories. The thinking is that we are more likely to find common ground among minoritized peoples, that we might be able to move toward tolerable futures when we listen to, learn and collaborate with people who are less invested in domination. I look forward to future collaborations with Carmen Papalia.

Text by David Garneau.

Feature Image: Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2016, Kelowna, BC, walking tour duration varies.