VibraFusionLab: Bridging Practices in Accessibility, Art, and Communication

By Eliza Chandler

As an artist, curator, and lover of the arts, I have always been captured by the particular way that art can bring us into an understanding or perspective of the world that is different than those gleaned from our own experiences. I don’t think art necessarily translates experiences directly, giving us an exact approximation of what its like to live in another(‘s) body or a different world; rather, I think art invites us to consider that there are different ways of living in and experiencing the world. Art gives us a sense of pluralities and alterities and a sense of the possibilities that lie within them. For example, when disability artist and self-described ‘not visual learner’ Carmen Papalia invites people to be led by him throughout an urban landscape in his performance Blind Shuttle, he is teaching them about the possibilities, rather than the limitations, of navigating a cityscape using senses other than sight. And through participating in this performance, they do not gain and understanding of what it is like to be blind; rather, they are opened up to a different way of experiencing the world through a creative act. In other words, art may not teach us what it feels like to be different that ourselves, but it can teach us that there are differences in the world and this might compel us to contribute to the collective project of building a world that welcomes and desires these differences. And for me, this is why art is so aligned with projects of social justice.

For decades, the disability rights movement have been working hard to advance the idea that disability rights are human rights and should be protected as such. Disability studies have contributed to this fight through offering the social model of disability, that is, the idea that the problem of disability doesn’t lie in the person, but rather in the social, specifically in inaccessible built environments. By locating the problem in the social rather than the individual, the social model offers different solutions; instead of rehabilitation and cure, we can seek out accessibility and accommodation. According to the social model, if a wheelchair-user is trying to get into a building that is only accessible by a set of stairs, or if a d/Deaf person trying to communicate with a non-Deaf person without the aid of an interpreter, the problem does not lie in the wheelchair-user or the d/Deaf person, the problem lies in the staircase and the absence of an interpreter (or the absence of widespread ASL education in schools).

Deaf and disabled people have benefited greatly from the achievements of the disability rights movement; indeed many have been at the forefront of this activism. However, we also know that access, accommodation, and the recognition of disability rights does not lead to disability liberation for all. As disability justice, a movement led by queer, disabled, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, teaches us, justice will not be achieved for people for whom inaccessible environments do not create barriers, people for whom oppression emerges through a mixture of ableism, audism, sanism, racism, sexism, classism, queer and transphobia, settler colonialism, environmental racism, and boarder control through the eradications of inaccessible environments alone. To truly live a fulfilled life, Deaf and disabled people need more than access to basic human rights. We also need access to full participation in creating and experiencing arts and culture, and this requires more than basic access and accommodation. Deaf and disability arts are necessary to the achievement of Deaf and disability liberation for its capacity to broaden understandings of the multiplicity of Deaf and disability experiences, different ways of experiencing the world. Moreover, Deaf and disability arts are integral to the achievement of disability liberation for the ways that this sector, and the cultivation of this sector through funding, professional development, mentorship, and exhibition opportunities, also allows Deaf and disabled people access to the richness of our culture.

Deaf and disabled people have been making art for years and, thusly, Deaf and disability arts contribution the advancement of disability rights and justice is longstanding. Canadian artist Persimmon Blackbridge, for example, has been calling herself a disability artist since the early 1970s. As movements such as Outsider Art/Art Brut have shown us, Deaf and disabled people have been making art, largely in institutions such as mental asylums, residential schools, sheltered workshops, hospitals, and prisons for decades. We are currently witnessing a moment in Deaf and disability arts in Canada, thanks in large part to the formative activism and creative practices of these early Deaf and disabled artists. All of a sudden, or so it seems for someone whose entry into this art sector was relatively recent, art councils are dedicating funding, artists are producing, galleries and arts organizations are exhibiting, and people are reviewing, writing, and talking about Deaf and disability art. Our culture is abuzz. We can’t be sure what, exactly, Deaf and disability arts is: Is it only art made by a Deaf or disabled person? Is it only art that represents or engages the histories, experiences, cultures, politics, and/or communities of Deaf and disabled people? Does it require both? One thing that I am almost certain about is that Deaf and disabled art needs to be made accessible to Deaf and disabled audiences. More than this, my interactions with Deaf and disability art over the past few years have taught me that when you make art accessible, particularly when you consider accessibility early on in the creation process, you are actually contributing to the aesthetics of the work, allowing for new and exciting ways that audiences can interact with art, and propel the capacity of art to give way to new understandings of people and the world. For all of these reasons, when you make art accessible, a key feature of Deaf and disability art, you raise the artistic excellence of the artwork. VibraFusionLab has been leading the way in innovating new and exciting ways to make art accessible that are integral to the aesthetics and the way we experience art, charting new terrain in the art world, as this exhibition, VibraFusionLab: Bridging Practices in Accessibility, Art, and Communication, demonstrates.

In 2014, media artist David Bobier opened VibraFusionLab in London, Ontario in collaboration with the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson University. VibraFusionLab, run by Bobier and populated by various multi-media and multi-disciplinary artists from around the world, is an interactive, multi-disciplinary, multi-sensory, multi-modal creative studio—and ideation space— that serves as a hub for research, creation, collaboration, mentorship and exhibition opportunities. All of the energies and activities at VibraFusionLab are focused on the creation of new accessible art forms through inclusive technologies, including vibrotactile technology (turning sound into motion), as a creative medium that expand art-making practices and extend art-engaging experiences. I can confidently guess that there are no other collaborative research and creation spaces like VibraFusionLab in the world. The genius and sheer innovation of this collaboration is the way that it brings together artists and scientists to make emerging inclusive or adaptive technology accessible to artists of all disciplines and of all abilities. In doing so, VibraFusionLab contributes not only to the requirement to make artwork accessible, but also to the abundant creative and innovative opportunity that comes with this requirement. In short, VibraFusionLab and the technologies, ideas, and instruction that it offers has dramatically changed the way we make and experience art.

I remember visiting VibraFusionLab early on in my tenure as Artistic Director at Tangled Art + Disability, an arts organization and gallery dedicated to cultivating Deaf and disability art, located in downtown Toronto. I walked into a seemingly magical space filled with computers, amps, vibrating lawn chairs, people, different languages, sign language interpreters, and excited conversation. On this particular day, a Deaf choreographer from the UK, Chisato Minamimura, one of Bobier’s long time collaborators, was there work-shopping possibilities for a vibrating stage that would allow her dancers and audiences to experience her choreographed pieces in the same way she did. I remember putting on noise-cancelling headphones and a vibrating vest attached to a set of speakers playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity and, to my astonishment, recognizing the song through its vibrations. I remember the excitement we all seemed to feel about being invited to play with vibrotactile technology, exploring its creative, and even linguistic possibilities in art-making. Bobier and his collection of artists and scientists were not only inviting us to think about how to make our art accessible, but to think about how to embed this technology in the creation of our work for its aesthetic and accessibility possibilities. I was feeling the kind of excitement you might only feel when a whole new way of approaching, creating, and experiencing art is being opened up to you.

As you can see/hear, Deaf and disability arts cannot be pinned down by a definition, however, I am always attempting to find one. And I think that the work VibraFusionLab does can lead us to a new and generative understanding. Take this exhibition as an example. Not all of artists included in this show identify as Deaf or disabled (though some do), but all of the works are made accessible through collaboration with VibraFusionLab. The extensions of these works as offered through vibratactile technology do not simply offer a translation. They do not merely translate sound into motion or an auditory experience into a tactical one, and they certainly do not offer a direct translation of experiences. The experience of the work in this exhibition does not approximate the lived experience that is being represented in the work. Because of the artists’ collaboration with VibraFusionLab, our experience of the work is multisensory; our interaction with this work allows us to change the art as the art changes us; and we likely experience this work on another, or a deeper, level then we have ever experienced art before. And, of course, this collaboration has allowed for the artwork to be accessible to d/Deaf, non-Deaf, disabled, and non-disabled people alike in a way that is integral to the aesthetics and experience of the art; in this exhibition, accessibility is not an afterthought. As the works in this exhibition demonstrate, VibraFusionLab’s artistic collaborations are not aimed at translating experiences, a translation which would always be incomplete, but are instead aimed at approaching differences—different abilities, different sensorial experience, different lived experiences, different ways of experiencing art—as offering a tremendous opportunity to create something new. Indeed, VibraFusionLab considers the experience of disability and Deafhood not as a problem to be solved or overcome, but as a creative opportunity in line with how disability communities might think about desiring disability or Deaf communities might think about Deaf gain.

VibraFusionLab is mobilizing experiences of Deafhood and disability as exciting opportunities to think about how we create and experience art in a way that is building both new practices in the art world and new understandings of embodied difference as generative, innovative, and full of possibility. VibraFusionLab is moving beyond the project of making the world more inclusive and is instead working to create a different kind of world altogether. In doing so, VibraFusionLab and its artists are foregrounding the emancipatory possibilities of art and inciting the project of Deaf and disability liberation.

Historically, art made by Deaf and disabled people have been classified as ‘Outsider Art’ or ‘Art Brut.’ Many Deaf and disabled artists reject this classification because of its implications that are art lacks skill, development, artistic intention, and political motivation. For more on Deaf and disability arts’ relationship with Outsider Art/Art Brut, please see Rachel Gorman’s Whose Disability Culture, 2005.

Dr. Eliza Chandler’s teaching practice and research as an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies is more interested in the ways cultural production furthers disability rights. “We need access to art galleries, and art studios, access to being understood as desirable, sexual – all of these things that can’t be protected by a human rights framework,” she says. She has paired up with Dr. Carla Rice who holds the Canada Research Chair in Care, Gender and Relationships at the University of Guelph to co-direct Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life, a project focusing on the potential for art to disrupt conventional understandings of non-normative embodiments, including disability, deafness, madness, aging, and fatness. The project was recently awarded a $2.5-million partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.