Have you ever thought of alt-text as poetry? What about lounging as a form of protest? This week, Kayla and Kristina are joined by Shannon Finnegan, a multidisciplinary artist making work about accessibility and disability culture. The conversation begins with Shannon sharing the importance of centering other disabled artists and thinkers in their work, and how interdependence can be an aesthetic approach.
“I’d rather be sitting. Sit if you agree.”
We speak about the presence (or absence) of alt text in institutions and our personal practices, with a focus on Shannon’s “Alt Text as Poetry” project, how embracing their own access needs for the first time led to prioritizing the disability experience in their work, and how the work of access is everyone’s responsibility. We speak about disability art as a rejection of hostile architecture, through some of Shannon’s activist artwork: “Anti Stairs Club Lounge.”
We move into how rest, care, and humour show up both in our process and practice. We end our conversation with a desire for more spaces for crip communities to form, and as always, we spoke about JOY!
Narrator: You’re listening to a Wheels on the Ground Production.
[Jazz music playing]
Kayla Besse [KB]: Hello, and welcome to the eighth episode of Crip Times.
Yousef Kadoura [YK]: Today on Crip Times we will be listening to Shannon Finnegan, a multi-disciplinary artist who is working with in the disability arts sector. With your hosts, Kayla and Kristina.
KB: OK. Everyone, thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of Crip Times. This is Kayla speaking, I am joined by my co-host Kristina McMullin and today we have the lovely Shannon Finnigan on our show. Shannon, thanks for being here.
Shannon Finnegan [SF]: Thank you for having me, I’m thrilled to be here.
KB: We’re thrilled to have you. And for any folks who don’t know would you like to give a little intro about yourself?
SF: Yeah. Um, I am an artist. Um, my background is in drawing and print making but now I’ve really am all over the place in terms of um, mediums and materials and um, I sometimes make objects. I sometimes sew my drawings, sometimes events um … and a lot of my work is about my – or – I would say is rooted in my lived experience with a physical disability um, and I’m really excited about, or interested in the idea of disability culture. Um, and what is kind of like um, shared among different disability communities. Um, and also thinking a lot about accessibility um, as a kind of material in the work. Which is something that I feel like I’ve learned kind of from my, from a community of disabled artists that um, I feel connected to and learn from.
Um, yeah. And I live in Brooklyn New York but right now I’m in York Maine, I’m doing a residency at Surf Point foundation for the next three weeks, so I have the pleasure of looking at the window at the ocean as we record.
KB: So jealous! That’s beautiful. Yeah, my, my next question was gonna be like how are you right now, what’s up right now um, in this moment for you, if you wanna kind of ground us in where you’re at?
SF: I just, I just spent a week kind of off.
[00:03:02] Kind of taking a break from work and from email and had some time um, at a cabin in a forested area so I’m feeling pretty energized right now. I hadn’t really stepped away form kind of work and my computer in a while. And that felt really good to just kind of, um, pause and now come back to different projects. Um, and yeah, in a new place. So I just arrived yesterday so I’m sort of still uh, getting familiar with this new spot and kind of like figuring out what the next three weeks might um, feel like.
KB: that’s great and hopefully it’s a break from the Zoom fatigue and the constant online world that we all have been thrust into in these pandemic times.
SF: We’ll see, yah. I feel like I have a lot of Zooms scheduled and I don’t know, I think – I haven’t been feeling the Zoom fatigue as much. I don’t have to do like hours and hours on end, like I know so many people do especially teachers and things like that. But we’ll see. Yeah. I, I feel like the next three weeks are kind of like very um, freeform and open ended. But hopefully restful.
KB: I am so excited to talk about your work. I know that when we spoke earlier you said that your work is only possible because of the work of other disabled artists and thinkers and you’re trying to build these networks so that your work isn’t only understood in isolation. Um, so I wonder if you wanted to talk a little bit about that before getting into specifics?
SF: Yeah. I think I’ve had this experience um, with a number of different projects where I’m operating in a space that is dominated by ableism or ableist thinking. Um, where disabled people are maybe present but not heard or not comfortable. Um, and that people are excited about my work, but they don’t necessarily understand that I’m one of you know, hundreds, thousands of millions of people who are thinking about these things and have been. Um, over the past like decades, hundreds of years, millennia.
Um, and so I think that’s been something – I think that really saturates my experience, that feeling of connectedness and it’s always kind of jarring to me when I operate in spaces where people are kind of like oh, kind of like … kind of plucking me out of that network in a way that um, yeah.
[00:06:13] It doesn’t feel good. And so I have been thinking about um, how to really – how to clarify those connection within the work itself, rather than relying on kind of my statements or writing around the work. Um, and I think also just coming out of my excitement about what a lot of my peers are doing and, and wanting to also like tell people about that, or point to that. Or …. Um … so yeah. I think and it’s interesting, I heard Alice Shepherd talk about this on Contra podcast about the idea of interdependence as like a material in the work which um, feels exciting to me to like – or as a kind of aesthetic approach, um, and so that’s something that I’ve been yeah. Just kind of like sitting with and thinking about how to um, build into my, my practice more.
Kristina McMullin [KM]: Something that I find about your work is that the aesthetic of it is intentionally and unapologetically Crip. And it’s intentionally and unapologetically built for a Crip audience. Has that intentionality and unapologetic-ness been integral to your art practice forever or was it something that you grew into?
SF: I think it’s something I grew into. I mean for me that is … comes from this experience that I had growing up which was that I felt isolated from other disabled people. I was often um, the only disabled kid in my schools. Um, and then I was looking at mainstream media, which was you know, had all of these kinds of harmful narratives around disability and um, for a long time I was really in this like kind of minimizing approach to my disability where I just wanna, I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed. I was trying to be as mainstream as possible. And it was really when I started to read the work of other Disabled writers and thinkers and start to look at art by other Disabled people that I really had this huge shift in my understanding of myself. And the sense of like … wow, I really wasn’t learning about um, about myself from these kind of more mainstream sources.
[00:09:00] That that was really happening from yeah, other disabled people. And so that was part of the motivation for me in terms of centering disabled people in the audience is that I had felt the power of being centered in the audience for something. And the way that there can be this kind of like mirroring or reflecting where it’s like something that I had kind of sensed or felt but hadn’t crystalized or um, I hadn’t kind of connected different things and how powerful that can be.
Um, and so that was a big part of what led me to be like that’s who I want to be speaking to. I want to be speaking to other um, other Disabled people.
And I think also just because of um, and … the, the scarcity of spaces and experiences where Disabled people are centred, um, that it feels exciting to do that and, and to um, yeah. To kind of have this um, vibrancy that maybe people who don’t feel they have lived experience in disability are able to see but more of, or experience, but more of a kind of like outside looking in feeling rather than um, being at the centre.
KB: Hm. Was your introduction and your discovery of disability arts and culture like a slow burn or did you, do you recall like an aha moment where there was somebody’s work or several people’s work that you were like … “yes!”
SF: I was trying to do independent research, so I was starting to piece together different people who were making work about disability. But through a friend I met, um, the artist and activist and educator um, Madison Zalopani. And then Madison, um, invited me to a DANT meeting, Disability Arts NYC meeting. So there was this organizing happening in New York City, led by Similar Linton and Kevin Gotkin. So that was this … I think of that as this link into disability community for me, where I connected with Madison and then Madison kind of like looped me into all these other things that are happening. Or were happening and continue to happen.
KM: And then when it comes to this kind of change into really centering, uh, disabled audiences, Crip audience, has that changed your artistic practice? Like the process that you couldn’t do creating this work?
SF: Yeah, very much so. I mean I think when I first started making work about disability, I was in such deep denial about my own access needs that I wasn’t really even thinking about access.
[00:12:12] I was so much in this framework of it is what it is and I’ll make it work that I wasn’t really connected to the idea of access. Um, and it was really through starting to think about okay, who do I want to be able to experience my work and thinking about um, disability community that I was like … and just the lack of accessibility in a lot of existing art spaces, especially more DIY or kind of emerging artist spaces. Um, and really realizing like oh, if I want my work to be experienced by other disabled people, then I need to be kind of involved in access. And that was really where I was like oh … there’s a really big, there’s a lot that I don’t know about um, other folks access needs and even my own access needs. It was also this process for me of being like, what actually um, supports my participation in a space, or um, an experience and what have I felt like I couldn’t ask for that, that I do need? Or I do want?
And so that was um, a big part of the, the shift that happened for me and now it’s like I see access like, you know, literally everywhere. It’s like so much a part of everything I’m doing and the fabric of my everyday life it’s almost hard to imagine how … what a different mindset I was in before. But um, yeah.
KB: Yeah you really can’t turn that off once you start looking for access or lack of it, hey?
Um, Kristina and I in our day jobs both work in communication roles. And so I think I can speak for both of us and say that we are both huge fans of uh, one of your projects, Alt Text as Poetry. Stunning. Um, would you like to talk about that for a bit and tell our listeners or readers, um, what that’s all about?
SF: Yeah, so Alt Text and Poetry is a long-term collaborative project. It’s a project I do with another, um, disabled artist and um activist and administrator, Bojana Coklyat. And … it was definitely connected to, for me, from kind of my side of it it was connected to the experience that I was having around really um, examining the ways that I was making work.
[00:15:00] and the limitations of that. I come from a visually oriented arts training. And so yeah, I was really interested in like why I was working visually, whether to not that was important to me and then also um, thinking about when I’m working visually how to be proactive about making that accessible and build that into the project. And I was also thinking about online spaces and how um, important those have been for me as kind of like points of connection to disability community and arts community and thinking about how um, yeah, a platform like Instagram that there’s like, it’s kind of supposedly about photos but it’s really you know, it’s about events. It’s about connections around moments of everyday life. There’s all of the stuff happening there. Um, and yeah, I think um, Bojana and I share a lot of um, interest in thinking about access creatively and collaboratively and as something that is ongoing and evolving, rather than this kind of like compliance oriented mode that’s so common around checking a box.
Um, and yeah, so we’re kind of looking around at existing alt text guidelines and uh, really noticing that that compliance model was really present. Like it was, it felt to me like um, well maybe I’ll back up first and just explain what Alt Text is in case folks are unfamiliar. Um, so alt text is um, a type of image description. So it’s uh, basically a written description of an image posted online, um, and um alt text is imbedded in the um, like, code of a website. So it’s not visually present on a website, but someone who’s using a screen reader who is having the text on a screen read aloud to them, the screen reader on a website might start with a title and read the first paragraph of text and when the screen reader gets to an image, it can’t read an image so it knows to access this piece of information associated with the image, which is called the Alt Text.
So basically it’s like a form of accessing visual information non-visually online.
Um, and it’s very related to image description which is more general term. It’s related to audio description, which is description in the context of live performance or film or video. Um, so – or – verbal description, like a verbal description touring a museum is related practices.
[00:18:08] So yeah, when we’re looking at existing alt text guidelines it felt like a lot of the guidelines were like if the image is described, if the alt text exists, then it’s accessible. Like check the box. And I think for both Bojana and I, um, yeah, we were kind of like well what about the quality of the alt text? Like what about, um, yeah, what are the details of that? And especially both coming from arts backgrounds and thinking about artworks which are often fairly complex images and um, seen and interpreted differently by different people that we wanted to kind of explore that more.
Um, Bojana has a little bit of a different perspective. She is a screen reader user so she has more of a day to day kind of experience with alt text. Um, and also … but similar to me is also kind of worked, been thinking about access more broadly. Um, yeah. And I think we, we kind of went in with a lot of questions and just kind of came out with more questions around how to go about describing images. And for us the project is really not about us kind of like coming in and being like okay, so these are the guidelines, this is how you do it. But instead trying to um, give people uh, well put Alt Text on people’s radar if they don’t know about it already and then get them thinking about it and practicing. Um, and we’ve been interested in this idea of poetry um, because it felt like there was a lot of kind of existing thinking in the world of poetry that was related to alt text writing. Um, and so we really wanted to kind of like draw from that. Or use poetry as a framework to get people thinking about the language they’re using, the tone, the voice. Um … trying out some more experimental things. Um … yeah, and so the project, the form of the project has kind of like taken a lot of different shapes. We originally developed a workshop curriculum, so it was an introduction to Alt text and Alt Text as Poetry. And then a series of four writing exercises that um, allow people to start practicing describing an image and talking about it.
And each of the exercises is oriented towards a specific question that has come up for us.
[00:21:01] So one is about um, kind of like subjectivity and audience. One is about length and priorities. Um … yea, the project is expanding and morphing and we are wrapping up a workbook. So it’s a self-guided version of the workshop that um, will exist in a number of different formats. Um, it will be available for free online as a Google Doc and Word Document and audiobook. And then um, there will also be a print version and um, some PDFs and we’re um, gonna have a Spanish Language translation um, also available as a word document and google doc.
Um, and then we are also working on a kind of part of the project called Alt Text Study Club which is a blog that is kind of like gathering uh, interesting examples of alt text and description. And kind of like commenting on them. Um, again as a way to kind of think about what it means to like learn together or to understand the variety of ways that um, an image description can be written. Um, rather than yeah, I think there’s a lot of kind of history of description that’s really oriented to objectivity and trying to be objective as a describer and this idea that there is uh, “right” description for an image. And so trying to uh … explore kind of like the pros and cons of different approaches and build a collective toolkit around how we might describe images.
KM: Fascinating. Kayla mentioned we both work in Communications in the Arts Sector and I was trained um, in image description actually by an audio describer who specialized in theatre works, live performances work. And it was so fascinating because nowhere in the training that I received spoke about who to talk about race. How to talk about gender. How to talk about disability.
And it was like oh, if you have an actor performing you wouldn’t describe what they look like unless it’s relevant to the script. And it’s like well … what is relevant? How can we say that race is not relevant, how can we say that gender is not relevant? How can we say that disability is not relevant? Um … when racism, cis-, heteronormativity, the patriarchy and ableism is so engrained in our society.
[00:24:00] You can’t just say It’s not important to the script. So it was a very interesting training, um, because you learned a lot but it also was this checkbox thing and at Tangled, our policy is really that we make our images descriptions collaborative. Because there’s no full way to … for us as creators, communicators, to give just one perspective in an image description, which makes the process longer, a little bit more arduous, which means we are a little bit less productive. I feel like things, like what you’re doing with Alt Text With Poetry is kind of creating a framework for all of us to explore this on our own.
SF: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I want to go back to something that you were talking about in terms of describing race, gender, disability status … age. You know. Um, other kind of body characteristic. I think something that I’ve been thinking about recently, partially because of the conversation that I heard um, around a screening that Jordan Lord did with Caroline Lazardin, Constantine el Abestanos, I think people often focus around those kinds of identity topics when people are in the image. But actually like my positionality and identity as a describer, um, like my whiteness, my class, my disability – like that’s actually informing how I describe every image. It’s just not always so obvious. Um, and that yeah. This, this kind of um, history in um, audio description and image description to um, kind of like gloss over that feels uh, really harmful. And I think is a big – I think something that I’m really excited about is um, well – yeah, especially that a lot of times alt text or image description is unattributed. So it’s not even clear who wrote the description. And so having more transparency or clarity around like who wrote it and that could be you know, five people, in the process.
So like yeah, like, any guidelines that were used or something like that, trying to surface more information so that there’s less of an assumption of like, uh, oh right like we just did it in this way that everybody does it and more like well, ok, I have a specific training, I have a specific um, yeah. Positionality and that’s gonna be super present in the descriptions that I write. When I share that, that maybe allows someone who’s engaging with my descriptions to um, form some of their own judgments about when and how they wanna trust my description or what some of my biases might be.
[00:27:07] KB: When you do descriptive work where might you disclose your, those identity markers? Um, or where might you suggest that we disclose those types of things?
SF: So I think it really depends on the scale of things. On my personal Instagram for example, like, I people probably would guess that I’m writing the descriptions and there’s information about who I am pretty readily available online. I think for like kind of smaller or mid-sized, um, organizations or groups, like having a place on a website or something like that that kind of talks about access practices. I think there’s the possibility of also signing a description within an Instagram um, caption. And also using for example, like first person language, that then allows for more … to say things like, I’m not sure but I think it’s a beaver but you know, it could be a woodchuck or I looked it up later and I found it was something else. You know? That it can also, like, you can build some of the … some language into the description itself that acknowledges, um, that you as a person are writing it.
Um, and then I also think that there’s ways that it can be like, for example on a blog or like news site where it’s like, there’s a, there’s a writer associated, I’m interested in having the writer write the description. Like sometimes those are different people who are doing those roles, so like what does that mean or … yeah. I don’t know. I think definitely something that I’ve run up, that yeah, that comes up in a lot of the work that Bojana and I have done about this is that the structures that we’re working within are so flawed. And that yeah … I mean, on Twitter, I think this is changing but for a long time you had to go into your accessibility settings and turn on that you even wanted to write descriptions in order for the box to show up, and the way that it’s been implemented on Instagram, there’s um … Instagram and Facebook now there’s a like, AI that autogenerates a description for any image that doesn’t include alt text.
And for me that was a moment where those platforms could have liked surface that and said kind of said, this is the auto-generated description, do you want to edit this? Because they’re still quite limited. But instead I feel like the approach they took is very much like sweeping it under the rug.
[00:30:05] Like you don’t have to worry about writing a description because we have this AI that’s taking care of it, so like don’t worry about it. Yeah, and I think there’s still in terms of the infrastructure of the way things are built, I’ve seen a couple of sites that have space for multiple descriptions. The museum of contemporary art in Chicago is one, where it allows for multiple descriptions and descriptions of different lengths. So yeah. I mean, I think that’s um part of what I feel excited about is just like … there is, trying to figure out like what would be helpful. What are different ways we could approach this. Um, what are different structures or practices for um, how to surface information and um, without like well no, that’s kind of … that’s a separate thing. I think as a, I experienced this with a lot of sighted people new to alt text which is an over description or like a sense of like, trying to describe everything. And um, I think length is just a really tricky thing because I know a lot of screen reader users prefer kind of like a more concise alt text. But again, like, screen reader users are not a monolith. So depending on the type of image and the context, like different um, lengths for information might be helpful.
And so like um, yeah. There’s just a lot of, there’s a lot of moving pieces in terms of like what might be, what different people who are engaging with description want, what people who are writing, how they’re approaching it. Um, of how those edits overlap and collaborate.
KB: Totally, yeah. It’s so important to name that. And um, if people listening or reading don’t know, like I’m thinking of Instagram specifically, it doesn’t even give you the option to write your alt text when you are creating a post, right? You go in and you, you write your caption, you tag who’s there, you might tag the location and you have to go in and edit after it’s posted to even put that Alt Text in there. It’s super buried.
SF: There is a way to do it in the flow of posting but it truly could not be more subtle. It’s like, there’s this tiny gray text that says advanced settings and click on that and go, again, it’s not built in a way that is promoting access at all. You know?
KB: Instagram, if you’re listening, right under the caption box!
KM: And so that the contrast is legible. It’s like, it makes the text not light grey on a white background. Just make it black text.
[00:33:08] One thing that you mentioned, or you said is that structures are so flawed. One thing I’ve seen a lot in these pandemic times is larger arts institutions, larger art museums, um, kind of like promoting that they have like volunteers now working on image description now that work is going digital. And for me that like just seems so flawed, and could you kind of speak about a, your feelings on that, and, some ideas of how we counteract these notions of these larger structures using an inaccessible practice.
SF: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot … there’s a lot there. I think certainly like we’re seeing some of the lack of prioritization of alt text, um, alt text has existed since the 90s. it’s really not new. Um, and lots of institutions I would say especially arts institutions have been very slow to um, consider describing images as part of their role. Um, I think so that’s something that I sense in this is kind of like, oh well now that we don’t have all these other things that we’re asking people to do we’ll now, um, work on alt text.
And, and a sense of like oh well now online yeah, more people are online so there’s kind of a different emphasis on online spaces again where I feel like online spaces have been so important for lots of disabled people for a long time. And there’s this kind of like, um, renewed emphasis on that now that uh, that’s like a primary space of experience for non-disabled people. Um, and yeah. I think … like, I do really believe that like anyone can write an image description. Like I think sometimes people get kind of um, caught up in this idea of expertise or like that um, like I hear from a lot of people that are like I know about alt text but I don’t know how to do it so I don’t do it. And so I feel excited about like a variety of people being part of the writing process. I know that that’s also something they did at MCA Chicago when they were kind of doing, imitating their alt text on their website. They had these events called Donuts for Description where people from across the museum would gather and write alt text together.
[00:36:02] And so that feels exciting and collaborative and a way for people in different parts of the institution to collaborate. I think um, for me it’s also like the guidelines and directives are so important and so if people are like, if there’s kind of a, um, mass turn towards writing alt text like what does that mean for like how people are being trained in that and what they’re being told is a quote unquote good description.
And I think actually, something that I’ve been realizing is that I’m .. I mean, I think there’s sometimes kind of like at some of these larger institutions that have huge image collections, tens of thousands of not more image, maybe there’s a baseline of description that needs to happen across the board. But I’m also interested in a more project based description mode of like oh, for this artist and exhibition we’re gonna have uh, these people do the description and we’ll take this approach. And for this project … something that is more responsible to the type of image and the context. And so I think that’s another thing that comes up for me when I hear about these largescale description projects, I’m like what’s lost when we have a one size fits all approach to describing every image in a collection or something like that?
And in terms of how we intervene in that, [sighs] … you know, a big question. I think something that I personally have been doing is um, as an artist I’m often in a position where I’m being asked for images of my work and usually those images travel with some caption info. Um, like a photographer credit, title, medium, material sometimes. And so I have been including an image description when I send an image. When I’m feeling like I have more agency in the situation, or have more energy to invest, I will ask you know, what is your alt text practice and try to get into that with people. As a kind of like … uh, backup plan. Like I just include the image description in the caption. It’s not always best for screen reader users to just have it in the caption rather than embedded in the alt text, but it also works for some people who use description who don’t use screen readers. So there’s pros and cons to that.
[00:39:01] But yeah, I’ve been interested in the power that artists potentially have in their relationships with institutions around access. And the ways that organizations or institutions are sometimes more responsive to requests from artists than even from like their own educators or access workers. Um, and I think also when I send the description uh, that’s maybe a starting point you know? Like I’m always open to someone responding to that and being like oh hey, like actually I’m interested in like xyz description. And like you didn’t talk about this, which feels important in this image. Cause I’ve also heard from a lot of um, people who use alt text and image descriptions that they’re a little skeptical of artist generated descriptions because um, yeah. As artist we are attuned with the intent of our image making and not necessarily like the impact that it might have or like … yeah. So I don’t know. I think that’s something that I’ve and kind of like fits with a lot of thinking that I have which is like I think of access as everyone’s responsibility. So it’s um, it’s like … there’s part of that responsibility rests with me as an artist, part of it rests with the curator, with the um, you know, graphic designer, with the, you know. All of these different roles and ideally all of those people should be knowledgeable and invest in access and be like collaborating and building on that work together.
KB: Right, not making it like the one disabled employee’s job to do that or the one screen reader user’s job within the organization to do all of that work.
SF: Totally. Yeah, and I think a lot of times artists – yeah – like, well artists are often very under resourced. And also it’s not always feasible to take on access work because yeah, we’re not being compensated for it because our own access needs aren’t being met, because we don’t have knowledge or training. I think it’s not … I don’t wanna like push that labour onto artists, but I think um, it’s interesting for me to think of artists as kind of part of the um, team I guess that’s like working on making an art work or an exhibition or experience accessible.
KB: Hm. Yea. Absolutely.
Um, and if we could switch gears for a second. Speaking of hostile structures and inaccessible structures we both know where I’m going with this. Um, I am obsessed with your anti-stairs lounge club work.
[00:42:00] Um you know we might have a lot of Canadian listeners who might not be so familiar with what the heck is the Vessel, why do we hate it? [Laughter] So if you’d like to talk about that?
SF: Yeah so anti-stairs club lounge is like, there’s been two versions of the project. It was initially created for um, an inaccessible exhibition space. It’s the Gallery at a place called Wassaic project and they have a seven floor exhibition space with no ramp or elevator access above the Ground floor. And they do this big group exhibition every summer that has like fifty to seventy artists. Um, and I was yeah, just thinking about like what it means to engage with an inaccessible space like that. And you know, was thinking about like oh, could I require my work is shown on the ground floor. What are the options I have. And ended up making an installation was the first iteration of the Anti-Stairs Club Lounge that was an enclosed space on the ground floor. And had places to rest, had chilled seltzer, there was some candy, reading materials.
And it was behind a locked door and in order to get access you signed in at the front desk saying you wouldn’t be going up the stairs in the exhibition space. So the lounge became a space that was exclusively for people who were staying on the ground floor.
And so that was the initial iteration and it was up for two years there. Um, and then I started to hear these murmurs in New York City about this new structure that was being planned called the Vessel. It was designed by Thomas Heatherwick and it’s a building scale outdoor sculpture. And it’s I think 156 interconnected stairways, so it’s basically this basket like um, structure of stairways and interconnected stairways. All stairs. I think it’s 2500 stairs. Um, and um, I think I like a lot of people felt really angry about it. Um I think part of my anger was that you know, a lot of times I hear oh, it can’t be accessible because it’s a historic or existing structure or oh, it can’t be accessible because there isn’t a budget. And this was um, a – it’s kind of a new development. So it’s an area that was previously a railyard. So there was a lot of flexibility about what could happen there.
And there was a 200 million dollar production budget. So it was a, um, yeah – just this huge, huge project.
[00:45:06] And um, yeah. And there was an elevator that was part of the initial design. It’s a little bit confusing because it’s not, it doesn’t work like a traditional building where it’s like you would take an elevator up and move around on the level because it’s stairs up and down at every level. So the, the um, I think the elevator accesses three of the eighty platforms. And most of the time when they were running it, it was only, they were bypassing two levels. So it was only accessing one of eighty platforms which is about 1% of the structure.
And so yeah, I wanted to do something that kind of brought Anti-Stairs Lounge to the Vessel to protest that space and say, um, yeah. This is horrible. And so I gathered a group of about fifty, um, people, some disabled and non-disabled. And we kind of lounged in protest. We … there were, well one of the considerations is that the area around it is called a privately own public space. It’s a specific designation in NYC that is different than a park. The person who owns that space, or company, has full control over the rules of what happens there. And so I wanted to design the lounge in a way that was hard to point to as not allowed and also like easy to like pack up if we were asked to leave.
So instead of building a lounge structure we wore these bright orange beanies with a crossed out stairs symbol. Instead of signs I made these newspapers that had an article that Kevin Gotkin wrote about the Vessel inside, but when someone is reading it the exterior part of it functions as signage that says Anti-Stairs Cub Lounge. I used some existing seating there but brought extra cushions and snacks. Um, and yeah, and similar to the other version of it, there was like … in order to be in the lounge, participants signed a document that said um, as long as I live I will not go up a single step of the vessel.
KB: That’s amazing. I really suggest listeners or readers google that if you’re interested, I know there are photos right from that event?
SF: Yeah and the photos on my website have descriptions’.
KM: We’ll link those in the show notes for those of you reading the transcript or want it in the show notes.
KB: So when you talk about lounging as a form of protest, which I love, um, I know that rest is built into your work in other ways.
[00:48:15] And I think people are really interested in concepts of rest right now in this pandemic, maybe folks who hadn’t thought about rest publicly before. Do you want to talk a bit more about how rest shows up in your life?
SF: Yeah. I think um, I started noticing how different my body felt if I was even able to pause and sit down. Like standing and walking for long periods is … is really draining for me. And I have a chance to sit, um, yeah. It can really like change my pain levels for the day and it can be a really different experience for me. And so I started to be hyper aware of seating options as I was kind of moving around New York City. And that’s where my interest in rest kind of started, was like kind of in … being able to physically pause. And just noticing the scarcity of seating, um, and places to rest.
And yeah, I think there’s a lot of people who are doing really interesting work, um, about this. I love the, the work of the Nap Ministry, highly recommend following them on Instagram or on Twitter. And also I’m thinking about some of the writing of Johanna Hedva about rest and protest, their recent essay about kind of like talking about the type of protest that happens when everyone stops or everyone is in bed.
But yeah, I think I um, I … yeah, and also thinking about my own relationship to protest and different forms of protest and feeling like um, marches and like kind of long periods of standing are not super accessible to me and that a lot of times protests are really oriented around those things. When there’s also such a rich history of sit-ins and kind of like other forms of protests. And so thinking about yeah, like, what does it mean to protest and also um, care for our body-minds and um, yeah. I think – and, so a big part of that, the work I’ve done around that is making benches.
[00:51:00] So I … so yeah, I was doing all this research about why there weren’t more benches in art spaces. And um, cause I – and part of me that was having this feeling, like a lot of access is really complex and long term. But like more benches in a gallery feels like we could have that like tomorrow.
KB: Yeah, like we could do that.
SF: Yeah. And through my research what I was hearing is that it was curators who were often the barrier to seating in galleries, that curators sometimes have a vision for what an exhibition is supposed to look like and there are these site lines and they’re supposed to be this vista and benches or seating interrupt that. Um, which is pointed out, it’s a really wild layering of ableism of like this kind of hyper-prioritization of vision than kind of like pushing out these opportunities for rest.
So I was like oh but if I make the seating the art work, that’s a way that we can get more seating. And so I’ve been making these benches that have text on them, the first ones I made said this exhibition of ask me to stand me for too long, sit if you agree. Another one just said I’d rather be sitting, sit if you agree. Some of the newer ones said uh, it was hard to get here. Rest if you agree. Here to lounge. Lounge if you agree.
And yeah, I, I think just … I mean a lot of my work is also playful or uses humour, like, I think for me the humour in those pieces is just that it’s so obvious and people are already kind of saying that with their bodies in museums. If you tune into it I’ll go to museums and see that the benches are very full. So just making that even more explicit, um, that that’s something that yeah … is like free to access.
And the title of that series is um, “Do you want us here or not?” Again, kind of like thinking about the ways that there’s often this rhetoric around welcoming or inclusion or um, wanting disabled people to be in a space but then even this like super, super baseline um, form of access is not happening.
KM: Yeah I had a chance to sit on “I’d rather be sitting, sit if you agree” at the Flex Factory in New York in the summer of 2019. And I was trying to live in the moment and I didn’t take a picture and it’s burned in my brain of like I wish that I had just handed my phone to someone and asked them to take a photo instead of trying to be like this holier than thou, live in the moment.
But you know, live and you learn.
KB: That would have had an amazing image description.
[00:54:00] KM: So good.
SF: It’s funny because the benches almost encouraged that in some way. The text is covered up when you’re sitting on it. Once you’re in it you have the rest and relaxation. Um, though I’ve done some versions where the text is like a pattern on a cushion and it repeats in a different way, but.
KM: Yeah, so we are coming to the end of our time. I feel like I garnered so much knowledge form you and inspiration to bring in to my own practice to ensure folks who are listening or reading the transcript can say the same. I will say a massive thank you and then we’re going to round up with two questions that we ask all of our guests, so thank you for your time.
Um, and our second to last question is what is your vision, your hope, your desire for an art world of the future?
SF: That’s a hard question. There’s a lot. I think, I think part of what is hard for me about the question is I think I spend a lot of time living in the realm of like … um, kind of achievable goals. There’s like, I have a pragmatism to my approach which is like what’s kind of within reach when I, and when I think about the kind of long-term things that I want, um, yeah. There’s, they’re so expansive and so entrenched in capitalism and white supremacy and ableism, you know, all of these, all of these deeply intertwined systems. Um, but yeah. I mean I think I would really love, I think for me, I really love the experience of, the experiences of connection I’ve had with other disabled people. Whether that’s through being present together in physical space, in digital space and also like the type of connection that comes through having a shared experience or like um, yeah. Witnessing something together in some way, or asynchronously in terms of time.
And so I would love for there to be more of that, I’ve been in spaces where I’ve had that and it’s felt so transformative and also just made me want it some more. I’m thinking of the, the um … performance festival in New York, “I want to be with you everywhere.” Which was this amazing four days of that type of connection. Um, and yeah. Was like so thrilling and also made me desire so much more of it.
[00:57:00] KB: Yeah, no I can’t wait until we can gather again um, in person but you know you were saying when we talked before, seeing what’s possible now in terms of what’s offered remotely is unreal. Because disabled folks have been asking for this forever, and you know, only now it’s like … we’re wanted here because everybody has to live in these ways.
SF: Yeah and I really hope that that doesn’t go away. That the option for remote participation like stays in place even when um, in person participation is possible and that they’re, that remains like a valued form of participation and not um, kind of secondary to in person experiences.
KM: Amazing. And then our very last question um, the world is very difficult to walk through right now with all of the experiences we’re sharing, all the information we are getting inundated with eery single day that is always negative. Um, what has brought you joy recently?
SF: I love jigsaw puzzles.
SF: I’ve always loved jigsaw puzzles but I really like just … well my apartment in New York is pretty small and I’ve figured out with foam core boards I can set up a good temporary puzzling situation on the floor. Um, and I’ve been buying like used vintage puzzles and there’s some fun imagery and um, yeah. I think like having a hobby or activity where I’m like um, can do with my partner and um, or sometimes I’ll puzzle remotely with a friend. Like we’ll both et the same puzzle and do it together in different places, has just been like yeah. Just a nice thing to have in my home space since I’ve been home so much.
KB: Crip Times is presented as part of the Wheels on the Ground podcast network. This podcast is produced by us, supported by Tangled Art + Disability and Bodies in Translation.
If you enjoyed this interview we release new episodes every Monday wherever good podcasts can be found.
[Podcast ends 01:00:04]
Have you ever thought of alt-text as poetry? What about lounging as a form of protest? This week, Kayla and Kristina are joined by Shannon Finnegan, a multidisciplinary artist making work about accessibility and disability culture. The conversation begins with Shannon sharing the importance of centering other disabled artists and thinkers in their work, and how interdependence can be an aesthetic approach.