Do You Like This Installation?: An Interactive Ethnographic Installation

Do You Like This Installation? is the title of a three-part ethnographic installation project that focuses on disability, access, and voting, and draws on my research in Petrozavodsk, Russia.

The project is one of four artworks that will be featured as part of the Cripping Cyberspace online exhibition, featured in the Fall 2013 issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, and part of the Common Pulse Festival of Disability Arts. The work will also be appearing as a physical installation at various venues over the coming year (details TBA), and results and analysis presented at academic conferences.

Visit the project website here.

I began developing the core concept of this project in Renee Alexander Craft’s Performance Ethnography seminar at UNC-CH in the fall of 2011, as I was thinking through performative expressions of problems suggested by my ethnographic research. Influenced by Arturo Escobar’s urging to consider the ways in which design, or material and built environments, allow us to imagine what is possible in the world, I wanted to use the concept of voting – as an expression of social and political participation – to translate some of the ways in which disability theory conceptualizes access and movement through space as a barrier/enabler of social participation to others who are not accustomed to thinking about ableism as a form of oppression.

This concept was complicated when I was in the field in the fall of 2012. In a week, several people retweeted or sent me on Facebook an internet meme that collected photos of the myriad inaccessible or non-functional ramps that are found in urban spaces across Russia. That meme became the inspiration for a collaborative digital scrapbooking project of inaccessible and accessible ramps and entryways around the Petrozavodsk region.

These non-functional ramps stuck in my mind. I had already been working with the concept of the “check-mark ramp” or “galochka ramp” in my project “Up the Ramp but not in the Door.” I was lucky to have some remote conversations with Sarah Hendren about her project, Slope:Intercept, which further influenced me to think critically about these ramps and about what was so interesting about them.

The project began to crystallize as a physical installation when I encountered the book Living As Form. Listening to interview recordings in which people with disabilities repeatedly described the inaccessibility of the train station in Petrozavodsk, I envisioned building a non-functional ramp with an inaccessible comment box, where passersby could comment on the state of the train station. This public art concept seemed apt to highlight the ways in which the local authorities, when presented with a legal order from a judge that the train station must be renovated and made accessible, as per federal law, simply stated that the train station was not due to be renovated until 2015 (three years away), and it would be impossible to make any renovations until then. But, I felt uncomfortable, as a foreigner, producing what amounted to protest art, and so the concept stayed a sketch in my notebook.

Then, by late spring of 2013, I noticed a shift in my thinking. The digital nature of the proliferation of the non-functional ramp meme, along with the startling recurrence of references to online forms of sociality in my interviews and participant observation with people with disabilities in Petrozavodsk led me to begin to question my original interest in spatial (re)productions of the inclusion and exclusion of people with disabilities. Meanwhile, RuNet (as we fondly call the Russian internet) was the site of burgeoning new research, as social movements and dissent proliferated online, while political protests in public space were repressed. In what ways were online spaces and places intersecting with, disrupting, and building new imaginaries and possibilities for folks with disabilities? And, in what ways were they failing to function as social prostheses, allowing people with disabilities to participate in social life in material and embodied ways?

I realized that digital sociality would have to figure in to my ethnographic account of inclusion and exclusion or spatial ableism in Petrozavodsk, but I didn’t yet know how.

When I returned to North Carolina from ten months of fieldwork in the summer of 2013, I found that my original concept of voting kept popping up – no less so given the actions of the North Carolina State Legislature to implement a voter ID bill that quite explicitly limited access to the polls (in ways that intentionally limited access as a way of preventing voter fraud, including some ways that explicitly but seemingly accidentally violated the ADA). The Moral Monday protesters organized an embodied counteraction – in the form of ritualized arrests – every week throughout the summer, using online social networking forums to spread the word.