Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Touch the Art...No Really.

I picked up Emma Stein underneath the El tracks at Robert Bills Contemporary--where she spends her days working as Gallery Director--on a sloppy, gray afternoon last week. It's the time of year when even optimistic Chicagoans start to wonder if Spring will ever arrive, and as a native Californian, Emma has had more than her fill of snow and slush.

Weather aside, Emma has thrived in Chicago. Having completed her MA in Art History at the University of Chicago last June, she won high praise from the Tribune for her most recent curated group show: Exploding Faces, Confining Spaces. But she has also been working on her own project proposal for an exhibition that rethinks the senses and sensations associated with the consumption of art in the gallery and museum. Playfully titled Please Touch the Artwork, Emma's project considers how the blind experience what we traditionally call "visual arts." It's a deeply personal issue for her, as two members of her family--including her mom--are affected by a degenerative disease that affects the retinas, often leaving patients legally blind. Emma's idea not only has the potential to raise awareness about the problematic way museums attempt to address accessibility, but also to expand how individuals conceive of their relationship to art.

(Why touching the art matters...after the jump)

As Emma puts it on the project's website, "Creating an exhibition that demonstrates the diverse methods employed by contemporary artists to branch out of the visual realm and utilizes feasible curatorial methods to ensure accessibility would help set a precedent for accessibility reform in American art institutions." Please Touch the Artwork is not about the exemplarity (and by this I mean, the spectacular or exceptional) of the disabled body and its relationship with art--but about creating a more inclusive definition of the kind of multi-sensory art that belongs in the space of the gallery and museum.

What makes the project so compelling is its commitment to critical, bodily, and political engagement in the gallery space. The project has a blog and Facebook page and will be funded by donations on Kickstarter, a still-relatively-new way for young artists, non-profiters, and entrepreneurs alike to get financial support for their ideas. Kickstarter allows users to pledge money to projects, but does not require them to make good on their pledges unless the targeted overall amount of contributions is reached. It's an innovative and simple way for individuals to raise small-ish amounts of money that can go a long way.

In all, Emma's idea seems to be a model for collaborative arts projects, integrating an important and under-examined thematic topic with a development and outreach plan that leans heavily on social networking. After our conversation over double-IPA's at Bucktown's popular Map Room, I came away thinking that Please Touch the Artwork could be model for how young artists and aspiring gallery curators should be promoting the arts.

Touch isn't Just for Kids

"Only a small number of people are trying to translate vision into another sense," Emma told me. "But there's not much in the United States, and what is here is geared toward kids." She pointed to the accessibility gallery at Chicago's Art Institute, which is not only in the basement, but located next to a space dedicated to children's art. According to Emma, the problem is often that museums "think accessibility means saying 'we have a ramp.'" She argues that a significant opportunity is lost because museums and galleries infantilize touch, and tacitly reinforce the notion that vision is the primary precondition for having a meaningful relationship with art. Please Touch the Artwork aims to subvert this assertion.

Museums have experimented with "tactile diagrams" that attempt to reproduce the topography of a painting for the visually impaired, but Emma is more interested in creating "non-visual curating"--practices and methods that more comprehensively address questions of accessibility. For Emma, it's not just about navigating through a museum that caters to those who can see, but about creating an experience in which the loss of a sense is shared by everyone in the gallery. She imagines an exhibit in which a "tactile path" will guide attendees around a collection of "multisensory" artworks that rely on non-visual engagement. Touch will be only one component, but the common experience of all gallery-goers will be a shared loss of sight.

The idea here is important, and not just because Please Touch the Artwork will provide curated exposure to artworks designed with the visually impaired in mind. Perhaps more importantly, it will allow for broad consideration of how vision's status as the primary sense associated with consumption of art affects our relationship to our other senses. In other words, the exhibit starts from questions about accessibility, and moves toward broader questions about our senses in general.

Seriously. Touch it.

Part of the commentary about the role of touch in art asks us to consider how museums and galleries impose institutional practices that reinforce a hierarchy of senses. "Part of why touching is so interesting is because it's something that's so forbidden," Emma pointed out. Please Touch the Artwork aims at "getting blind people in the gallery," but also asks us think about how everyone's interaction with art is framed by the space of the gallery. To this extent, Emma is drawing on a long tradition of conceptual artists who aimed to challenge the existing borders of the museum.

But the value of her idea is not just in the concept of flipping the gallery on its head. Rather, it is about orienting the perspective of gallery visitors toward a more comprehensive consideration of the sense-experience of art works in a space traditionally reserved for visual encounters. It is in part about making the experience of an art gallery more bodily, based in more senses, and not primarily about what is "lost" in the absence of sight.

Kickstarting Emma's Project

A final note. One of my personally favorite things about this project is its collaborative nature. Please Touch the Artwork showcases the way that artists and curators can mobilize multiple virtual resources to produce real-world exhibitions that take on important theoretical concerns--and, as I have argued in this instance, an important question of accessibility. I wonder how other artists might replicate Emma's savvy use of social media to raise money and awareness for their art, especially in a place like Chicago, where gallery space is available--but often at a cost that prohibits the showcase of ambitious work by young artists and arts professionals.