Welcome to the website for Do You like this Installation?, an interactive art project that has both online and material interfaces. It is part of a research methodology called ethnographic installation developed by anthropologist, artist, and disability justice advocate Cassandra Hartblay.
All over Russia there are examples of what I call "galochki" or "check mark" ramps - ramps that are recognizable as an object intended to minimize barriers for people with mobility impairments (or for folks pushing strollers or carrying suitcases), but which fail to actually provide access due to an accident of design (photos of these ramps began to circulate as an internet meme in the fall of 2012). How is it possible that the form of the ramp as a symbol of access has become divorced from its function as a tool for overcoming barriers?
This project, Do You like this Installation?, grows out of 11 months of fieldwork regarding social inclusion and disability in the city of Petrozavodsk in northwestern Russia. The built environment, or architectural terrain, in Russia is not very accessible – especially for people with mobility impairments. As an ethnographer, I was curious about how these physical barriers were related to the social exclusion of people with disabilities. Even the doorways to apartment buildings where most people in the city live are particularly difficult to traverse. As I walked through the city, and heard from local disability advocates who saw physical access to public spaces including schools, parks, transportation systems and shopping centers as one of the most important issues facing their community, I started to think of these doorways and check mark ramps as material barriers that are symbolic of broader social exclusion (you can see photographs of inaccessible and accessible sites in Petrozavodsk on my blog, Kto?Kuda?Kak? or Who?Where?How? in Russian).
Conducting interviews with people with disabilities, I found that many experienced the combination of architectural barriers and social discrimination as sentencing them to a de facto house arrest. Many adults with mobility impairments are still unemployed, not because of a lack of capability (especially given the possibility to work remotely online), but because there is a profound prejudice and social stigma - small business owners and government agencies simply do not hire workers with visible disabilities. Yet, for many disabled folks that I interviewed, the internet provided an escape from total isolation. Many of the young adults living with disabilities in Petrozavodsk that I interviewed were able to participate in online social life, but their online lives were limited by a lack of social ties in the physical world.
This offers an important insight: for people with disabilities, as for others, online experience and experience in the material world are increasingly intertwined.
In order to explore the interdependencies of embodied and cybernetic access further, and to capture the frustration of being excluded from social life by design, I chose to conceptualize this installation around the act of voting. Visitors to both the online and material interfaces are asked the simple question, "Do you like this installation?" and invited to participate by casting a vote, YES or NO. The material design of the physical installation highlights the capacity of spatial design elements to impact social outcomes: the NO ballot box is placed out of reach of most visitors. Meanwhile, the complexities of access in cyberspace are equally complex and depend on design and technological capacity. Whose cyborg-self has access to a device (prosthesis?) that allows them to use the online ballot, even as they cannot reach the physical NO ballot box? And whose embodied and technological selves are not able to "reach" the online ballot? What does it feel like for a non-disabled visitor to the installation to encounter an architectural barrier to participation?
Voting is an apt focus for two reasons - first, because it holds symbolic importance as a distillation of political participation, and second, because of it offers a literal illustration of how barriers and access affect us all. Casting a vote is a metonymic act - that is, it is an act that is simultaneously constitutive of its own meaning, and symbolic of a larger idea, i.e. democratic participation. Casting a vote is a classical marker of democracy. In ancient Greece, white male landowners - those included in the democratic "we" - would walk across a forum, and drop a stone into a vessel symbolizing the candidate they wished to side with. Today, voting still requires moving through space to reach a particular place where a vote may officially be cast through a performative gesture. Democratic participation is particularly fraught in Russia, where "free and fair elections" are watched by the international community and judged as harbingers of progress or repression.
As I crafted this installation based on questions prompted by fieldwork in Russia, I found that the issues I was challenging myself to present to the installation viewers – access and voting – became relevant back home. In the summer of 2013, the North Carolina state legislature proposed a sweeping voting reform bill that would make casting a vote much harder for many North Carolinians, including people with disabilities; the proposed bill was part of the impetus that sparked the nationally observed “Moral Monday” protests. This project brings a critical crip perspective to bear on these issues, and I plan to install the physical installation interface at a non-profit gallery space (TBA) in North Carolina in the fall of 2013.
Stay tuned for news about where when the material component of this installation will be exhibited.
And make sure to CAST YOUR VOTE!
This project is part of Cripping Cyberspace: A Contemporary Virtual Art Exhibition Friday September 27 – Friday December 20, 2013 Curated by Amanda Cachia with the curatorial committee, which includes Jay Dolmage, Editor, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, and Geoffrey Shea, Artistic Co-Director, Common Pulse Intersecting Abilities Art Festival, Ontario College of Art & Design, Toronto, Canada
The ethnographic research developed here was conducted with support from The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program with institutional support from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the supervision of Dr. Michele Rivkin-Fish with Dr. Arturo Escobar, Dr. Sue Estroff, Dr. William S. Lachicotte, and Dr. Jocelyn Chua