A curb might not seem like much of an obstacle until a wheelchair becomes a necessity. Then, a simple curb ramp can make all the difference. Likewise, a seeing person might regard the absence of railings on the River Walk as charming, while a visually impaired person might see it as a need for particular caution.
Care: A Performance is an exhibition at Sala Diaz about disability and accessibility, as well as awareness of – and caregiving for – those with such conditions. Curator Risa Puleo struggled with an impairment that drew her to artists living with an array of disabilities. The show at the nonprofit contemporary art space is one result of her experiences.
Living in New York at the time, Puleo met “a community of people invested in an idea, but also living those ideas,” she said, “and being part of a community that’s dependent on, and can depend on, one another.”
Each of the 14 artists included in the show navigates some form of physical challenge, from multiple sclerosis to Tourette syndrome, in their lives and in each work in the show. From her own experience of disability and convalescence, Puleo gained an appreciation for what people with mobility issues encounter on a daily basis.
An important word in the disabilities community, she said, is “interdependence,” and “acknowledging that independence, which is this highly prized American value,” is not feasible for many people. “What would happen,” Puleo asked, “if we acknowledged our dependency on each other — and made decisions around that — instead of this unachievable ideal?”
Artist and curator Stuart Horodner is represented in the show by a series of photographs of himself with hands plastered and wrapped in bandages. His injury was not visible but represented the inability of his grandfather to use his hands. Horodner had become responsible for his grandfather’s care, and experienced the full range of emotions and frustrations many caregivers encounter.
“What he did in response is a performative way of knowing” the experience of his disabled grandfather, Puleo said, which included being utterly dependent on other people to fulfill basic needs like opening doors, feeding himself, and other ways of getting through the day.
“Being temporarily incapacitated in that way forced him to learn how to articulate his needs in incredibly specific ways,” she said, while also putting him “in the position of vulnerability.”
The double title of Ben Gould’s video Strong Desire, Strong Desire is meant to evoke palilalia, a disorder characterized by the involuntary repetition of words or phrases, he explained in an email. A sudden onset of Tourette syndrome three years ago had Gould experiencing his own body in a different way, with involuntary movements determining his actions and capacities to move through the world. Although this might sound frightening from the outside, Gould says not all his experience of Tourette’s is negative.
“I am coursing with electricity, I am a lightning rod. My energy may become drained, but it can come in the form of an exhilarating release,” he wrote in the email. “I may be tired or frustrated at times, but it is worth being able to move with such intensity, to feel such extremes, to succumb to this energy, and to relinquish control.”
Visual artist friend Mike Andrews agreed to be tied to Gould’s body for Strong Desire, Strong Desire, essentially a visual document of Andrews experiencing as closely as possible the effects of Gould’s condition. “At a certain point in the performance, our roles switch,” Gould wrote, “when he emotionally breaks down and I become the one providing support, the one tasked with understanding.”
“And it’s something he deals with every single day,” said Sala Diaz Director Anjali Gupta of Gould.
“Everyone at some point in their life is going to encounter what other people call a disability, in one form or another,” Gupta said, which might refer equally to Horodner’s caretaking situation, or that of his grandfather, or Gould, or Gupta herself. A crushed nerve in her knee from bike accident and resulting surgery has given her significant mobility issues, she said, including navigating the stairs leading to her own workplace, or the fact that no sidewalk exists in front of the Sala Diaz property.
Although the idea of empathy is complicated, learning the experience of others unlike ourselves can be illuminating, she explained. “I had a strange epiphany when I started walking around on a cane, with a giant boot on,” Gupta said. “I started noticing people everywhere with canes, on crutches, arms in a sling, in wheelchairs. It’s not as if there was some sort of increase after I hurt myself, it’s that I saw them for the first time. For me that was eye-opening.”
Care: A Performance is on view at Sala Diaz, 517 Stieren St., Thursday through Saturday during regular hours, 3-7 p.m. A special closing reception, free and open to the public, takes place Saturday evening, 6-10 p.m.