Disarming Disability 

Disability and Art Start at the Door at A Somewhat Secret Place

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Two chairs block the stairs to the gallery. A handwritten note directs the reader to the next entrance, where a ramp leads to PRESENTspace's NW 10th and Glisan location. The conceptual bottleneck is the first step in an effort to disarm disability—helping along gallery goers' awareness of universal access by guiding them down this ramp; functional to all, yet necessary for some.

Catherine J.H. Miller, curator of A Somewhat Secret Place: Disability and Art, says this type of awareness is exactly what she's going for in bringing together artists with disabilities and those who make artwork about disability and impairment. All the artists, like the gallery goers, enter the show via the same ramp.

In addition to the universal entrance, A Somewhat Secret Place offers both text and Braille signage. Works are placed lower on the wall for viewers using wheelchairs, and everything is touchable (Joy Corcoran's fabric sculpture, "Shared Vision: Blind Goddess and Her Seeing-Eye Dragon," is great for this). Sign language translators and descriptors for the visually impaired are present during the exhibit's accompanying performances and readings (the last of which is on Saturday, July 30).

While access is at a premium, a central aspect of disarming disability is in the distinction that Miller makes between the term "disability" and impairment. "Disability is a social phenomenon; impairment is the corresponding medical condition," she explains. In other words, a person's physical or mental impairment comes along with specific social experiences—and the way an impairment is treated in everyday situations can be the true disabling factor, even when the impairment itself isn't an impediment.

This conversation about disability and impairment is reflected in the works. Documents of a collaborative performance by AJ Ivings and Carmen Papalia illustrate the capital-D disability category of the exhibition's programming. The pair of Canadian artists sent their friend Elliot Lummin into town wearing a 4' x 6' sheet of corrugated plastic with the word "disabled" written on it. Photographs recall the performance: Lummin perusing the juice aisle at an unnamed grocery store, or standing on the platform of a train station, waiting to board. The performance sought to confront the audience's awareness of how they handle encounters with disability in public space.

Other works speak directly to a physical impairment. Molly Garmire's "Ellen's Hand Study" is a six-panel photo series of a girl sleeping. As the sequence progresses, the girl's hand is shown contorting into various positions, illustrating the ceaseless involuntary movements that she lives with each day.

Elsewhere, works blend discussions on impairment and disability, most memorably in Andrea O. Rosselle's installation, "Exit." The centerpiece of the installation is a walker with white yarn knit around it. Knitted ropes lead from the feet of the walker to a connected pile of yarn in the corner of the room, hanging slack just below an exit sign. Between the walker and the exit is a medical curtain, suggesting life in a hospital—a perspective partially informed by works depicting the brain in various medical settings: embroidered in red thread as seen in an MRI, or uncoiled, as if being dissected.

If you work out the attributions created by common materials—thread and yarn—"Exit" suggests the brain and the experiences it catalogs as the same substance. The white tangle of memories that sits beyond the exit sign is something to which we're always connected, even if we're knitted to a walker and the metaphorical red thread of the MRI. But is that white tangle enough when disabled by features of a hospitalized lifestyle and social stage?

That's for you to think about.

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