Undeliverable: An exhibition review and conversation with Carmen Papalia
Undeliverable is a bilocation, contemporary art exhibition being shown in part at the Tangled Arts & Disability Gallery (TADG) in Toronto (Sep 17 — Oct 29) and in part at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) in Oshawa (Sep 18 — Feb 22, 2022). In spite of the interdependence of the two sites, each show is complete in and of itself. This review is for the TADG exhibition of ‘Undeliverable.’ Thanks to Sean Lee, Program Director at TADG, for a virtual tour of the exhibit.
The show is curated by Carmen Papalia, with contributions by Vanessa Dion Fletcher, Chandra Melting Tallow, Jessica Karuhanga, jes sachse, Aislinn Thomas, and Heather Kai-Smith.
Upon entering the gallery one finds, instead of an exhibition statement silk-screened on the wall, a blank wall space. Beside that is a plinth bearing a stack of printed exhibition statements. The omission is intentional. As the statement says, “Undeliverable is a collective effort to re-envision the museum around the demands and desires of the disabled body/mind.”
In fact the exhibition statement on the wall is simply not ready yet. I began to understand that this show is about restructuring the museum and the gallery around the needs of the artists. It’s about resisting deadlines. All the artists are disabled and in different ways create their art on ‘crip’ time. This exhibition is intended to be a “no stress on the artists” experiment. There are no hard and fast deliverables. Each artist delivers what their own timetables and abilities allow. In a world that enables and supports the disabled artist, some work will remain ‘undeliverable,’ or at least not deliverable until a later date.
For this show several of the works, as my guide explained, are ephemeral, representing the process more than the final product. There are many more final works at RMG, a more traditional exhibition. Explored here are some answers to questions like ‘what is a complete work’, ‘what is a professional gallery,’ ‘how do we avoid replicating ableist, non-disabled paradigms that define most art exhibitions?’ Some of the work here is experimental.
Aislin Thomas has contributed a challenging piece. It’s an invisible sculpture representing the invisible challenge experienced by those with fragrance sensitivities. It also enacts the equally invisible but real ‘fragrance free’ policy at TADG. Thomas helps us envision the sculpture with a very long title that incorporates a full summary of the fragrance sensitivity challenge and how it is mitigated by group cooperation. The piece is supported by an artist’s statement and a video of a woman presenting the title of the piece in ASL.
Vanessa Dion Fetcher offers a pigmented quill work stitched on paper entitled, ‘Relative Gradient.’ This is the artist’s rendering of traditional indigenous practices where porcupine quills were softened, flattened and dyed, and used to decorate clothing. The original work, I was told, is about 6 inches in diameter. It was then scanned and presented here as a larger print where the intricate details of the stitching can be appreciated.
Heather Kai Smith’s work forms a large segment of the exhibit, beginning with 5 framed drawings of multiple hands forming cat’s cradle string structures. These are executed in red pastels on paper. For the artist they represent multiple individuals supporting each other in acts of creativity. This, like the ‘Undeliverable’ show itself is a situation where mutual trust is fundamental to the process.
Across from the pastels one finds a related three-channel video written and narrated by Carmen Papalia. It features more of Kai Smith’s drawings, this time animated. They show a variety of human figures claiming visibility in the same way as many disenfranchised groups in society. Both the cat’s cradle drawings and the video arose from an earlier show at the Banff Centre around Papalia’s ‘Open Access’ concept, on the lineage of disability activism.
Jessica Karuhanga displays a work in progress, a performance with collaborator emilio portal, entitled, ‘You feel me?”. In the spirit of the exhibition, we have the background music for that performance offered via a set of headphones. In addition the piece includes a Woojer belt, a haptic device that converts the varying amplitudes and frequencies of the sound track to vibrations that can be felt through the body.
Works by other contributors to the show are represented simply by the word, ‘Undeliverable,’ screened at various places on the gallery walls. It’s an approach that speaks loudly to the theme of the show.
An exhibition like this one requires a rare and inventive vision. To explore how it came about, I spoke with the artist/curator Carmen Papalia. He has clearly developed a deeper understanding of the relationship between curator and artist.
dwb: In my view, you have been expanding our understanding of the role of the curator and even of what the creative act of curation means. What do you mean when you say curation can be understood as a form of care?
Carmen: I feel like I have a non-traditional approach to curation. My work comes out of social practice and socially engaged art and working within a community context. My work in the disability community has only been possible through making relationships with people. My friends and mentors come from that world. When I was presented with the chance to produce this show I thought of it as an opportunity to invite some of those valued colleagues to participate. Very few of us in the disability community have had the chance to work in a supportive environment so I wanted to provide/create that. I wanted to establish a safe and supportive space where they could realize work that had not been possible otherwise. This was especially important during a pandemic when many of us in that community have been even more vulnerable
dwb: From what you wrote me earlier, I would venture that another dimension to your curatorial role was collaborative.
Carmen: Yes, one artist recommended another to me. And with additional recommendations from friends and colleagues what developed was a group of people with a very nice set of connections with each other. Our work was totally collaborative, including both the selection of works for Tangled and RMG and the layout of work at the TADG. We had meetings every few months at first and then every month leading up to the show. We’d discuss our artistic process. All the artists were really wanting to support each other in this project, continuing discussion until we landed on a plan for the installations. And the great staff at TADG collaborated with us as well, enabling us to realize the unique message for the show.
dwb: Speaking of the message, please tell me more about the show’s title, ‘Undeliverable.’
Carmen: That first came out of a conversation with jes. Especially if our work is process based or ephemeral there is often an expectation by galleries of a deliverable or some tangible outcome. Often this comes with a failure to understand the extra work it takes for disabled artists to create or even to show up on time. I think crip time is very present in our process. It doesn’t line up with mechanized or industrial time. We need to work at the pace of our bodies or of our minds. As a group, the exhibition speaks to those needs.
I get it. And I suspect you will agree. There are some exciting features of an art show that does not open fully, with all deliverables in place on opening day. For one thing, it’s a show you can revisit more than once. Each time you may see more of the deliverables in place. I for one am looking forward to visiting the installation at RMG to see the next stage in the evolution of the ‘Undeliverable’ process.
Dig deeper into this topic:
Carmen Papalia’s Site: https://carmenpapalia.com/
Carmen Papalia with Heather Kai Smith at the Walter Phillips Gallery:
Ellen Samuels on 6 ways of looking at crip time:
Resurgence: Post-pandemic Engagement With Art:
Robert McLaughlin Gallery: http://rmg.on.ca/exhibitions/undeliverable/
Tangled Arts + Disability Gallery: https://tangledarts.org/exhibits/undeliverable/
Time Bandit by Sean Cole on This American Life: