a word to curators
listen, I’m not here to tell you off. Calm down. I just want to impart a calm, peaceful bit of feedback to any curators that have found themselves on this calm, peaceful blog post. If you’re not disabled yourself, and even if you are, I think it would be a good idea to involve disabled curators and audiences in the process of putting art into an exhibition space in order to assess whether people with different access needs can actually engage with the art you’re hoping to share with the world. That’s all. Nice and calm. Calm and peaceful. If that’s all you can handle today, leave it there. If you’re spitting out your dummy and demanding a reason, here’s why.
I don’t believe every single one of you curators has it out for disabled people, but sometimes your actions reveal that you weren’t considering disability while you were putting a show together. As someone who struggles to even make it to a gallery, getting there and finding no accommodations have been made can feel hostile, and ultimately it can get in the way of my ability to engage with an artwork. Whole thing can be a waste of time, waste of a taxi fare, and I will be less motivated to come back in the future to see what you’ve done. That’s because I won’t trust you. I think that’s only fair.
Here’s an example. Today, I went to the Turner Prize in Tate Liverpool. I was very tired when I arrived but happy to be there. The exhibition is set out in a long tunnel of connected rooms that show each of the four nominated artists. I entered the first artist’s space and there were headphones hanging from the ceiling with an audio piece to listen to while you took in the full-room installation of busy screens and lights. I was surprised that there was no seating set up below the headphones. I didn’t know the length of the audio piece but I have trouble standing for a long time. In a weird public peer pressure moment, I put the headphones on anyway and then, surprise surprise, struggled to concentrate on the audio because I was shuffling my legs and wondering when it was going to come to an end. I thought, hm, I could come back on a day when I’m less tired physically and mentally, and able to concentrate more. (Bad result – less connection with the work than all of us would have hoped for).
I left the headphones behind and moved into the next space. No seating again. I did one quick turn of the room and moved on. Next space, two video screens here. Each work 5 minutes-ish long. No seating again. This is the point when I found an invigilator and asked for a chair. I had been on my legs for too long. The invigilator didn’t offer to go and get me the chair, which felt a little bit awkward because I was starting to struggle. They didn’t know that but I wish they had been more proactive about it. I watched the video works, and then I watched the longer film in the show – the only piece that had seating. The seating was hard, backless, sharp at the edges. I dreamt of cinema seating. I wished I was in the Odeon and not the Tate.
Like the rest of the exhibtion, the room the film is being shown in is connected to two other rooms, no doors. The sound of the shorter video piece I’d just watched was bleeding through. The sound of kinetic sculptures in the next room were loud enough that some sentences were drowned out completely, and there was a lot of speech. Interestingly, there were no captions on the film. I know this is a dramatic thing to say but how is that not illegal at this point? Publicly funded galleries showing work that is not accessible on the most basic level? It’s sus. I think it should be illegal to show film work without the option of captions in publicly funded spaces, lol. I am not D/deaf or hard of hearing but I was missing enough of the speech to be annoyed about it. That’s on a practical level. On a disabled level, I was tired when I arrived but I was getting more and more worn down from all of the stimulation, that by the time I got to this film, captions would have done me the world of good. Captioning can massively help with concentration. For some people, it’s the opposite. It’s a distraction. But do you know what you can do, which no one ever seems to do, share film work once with captions and then without them, 2 film files exported together back to back, and play the whole thing on a loop so everyone is catered for. It’s not hard. It’s helpful.
I was getting wound up so I asked an invigilator if there was a transcription for the film available, and also one for the audio piece from the beginning, and the invigilator was really apologetic when she said no. She actually called her manager and then came back over to tell me that apparently it was down to the artist to provide that. I walked away thinking about whether or not I agreed with Tate’s standpoint. I don’t think I do. Not completely. There’s one artist making work, and you would hope they’d go out of their way to deliver it in an accesible way. But there are teams of people working on the Turner Prize and working at Tate Liverpool, so many curators who have seen this work and decided not to do the work of printing off any transcripts for people who need them. That’s careless. That’s lazy. That’s the hostility I was talking about. It’s shit because I imagine if disabled people were better represented on a curatorial level, this would be less likely to happen. Why am I having to write any of this at all? That’s embarrassing for both the Tate and the Turner Prize. It’s fascinating to be honest.
(I actually ended up speaking to one of the artists directly who is going to organise making their transcription available. It’s just a wonder it got to this point. I am not naming any names in this because I don’t think any one person is to blame, and I also don’t think it’s the end of the world: the show opened this week, there is plenty of time to make changes, change would be so positive in this instance, and access is a community effort that many voices should be involved in achieving – that’s why it is so important to see curation as less of an individualistic vanity project and more as a team sport).
Chairs, captions. Okay. I guess it’s easy to read those and accept them. But I think it’s important to feel the lack of them in an emotional sense. Here’s an important, basic bit of information to share with non-disabled people about my experience of going to exhibitions: whilst I can walk around, and stand in place for a moment, the less standing I am required to do the better. The more seating – the more comfort, the more help, the more space and time and anchorage – offered to me, the more energy I can use on actually engaging with art, which is what I have come all this way hoping to do. You have to understand that my body is zapping my energy all hours of the day because it is a sick body; I’m fighting sense and reason just to be here. Because of that, I WISH that the people who were in charge of designing public spaces – and that includes curating public exhibitions – understood the challenges of disability so that they could accommodate the full public they are supposed to serve. If that were the case, it would feel like the gallery was on my side in the fight. But since getting sick, every exhibition has felt like somewhere I have to quickly look at and then leave – nowhere has been comfortable enough for me to linger; it’s like every meal cannot so much as touch the tongue on the way down.
In the case of chronic fatigue, if curation does not consider the physical and mental toll of a show, it also means you are not doing anything to limit the crash I’m going to have on returning home from the gallery. Other people have other access needs that I won’t have covered in this rash blog post. I have nothing more to say. I just can’t believe any of this needs to be said. I hope saying it makes a difference. I hope the example of The 2022 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Liverpool is instantly outdated because they go away and sort these things out. I feel like I end so many of my texts with these words but once again, fingers crossed.
UPDATE #1 hello it’s the next morning, and a few people have messaged me about this text and about their access needs in exhibitions. It is making me feel less intense, so thank you for the messages. One of the DMs we got from someone said that they were sick of gallery bricks (benches) and the phrase keeps knocking around my head. I am sick of gallery bricks as well but I don’t think I articulated how sick I am of them – and how sick they make me. The chronic illness I have, POTS, affects the autonomic nervous system. One of the symptoms of POTS that I barely even think to mention anymore because it is just so normal to me now is that I have increased sensitivity to touch and to pain. I knocked my funny bone recently and nearly fainted. But on a day to day level, I avoid hard furniture at all costs because it just hurts. It feels like my skin is thinner now, like the bones are closer to my outsides, and hardness in the world is so uncomfortable to me now. So, when someone looks at a gallery bench, something that is essentially a plinth knocked on its side, and calls it a gallery brick, I agree. No one wants to sit on a pile of bricks. When I say that I dream of cinema seats, that’s why. It hurts when I sit down in a gallery and I don’t want to hurt, I want to enjoy new aesthetic ideas.
UPDATE #2 Tate Liverpool Director Helen Legg has emailed to say that transcripts for audio-visual works are now available, and some of the seats are going to be relocated so they are more prominent. They are also reviewing the comfort of the seating. (I have asked to consult on better changes than this. I’ve given Tate Liverpool too many good ideas over the years for free).
(I am sorry for the 100 typos I am slowly catching as I read this back. I can only hope that typos annoy you less than they annoy me)