Against Accommodation: Park McArthur

by Daniel S. Palmer


The work of Park McArthur urges change in the systems that see the presence of individuals with disabilities as a mere act of accommodation. The theme of access and the tensions involved in its possibility are the fulcrum of the artist’s production and the focus of this interview with Daniel S. Palmer that took shape in a written exchange over the span of a few weeks.


DANIEL S. PALMER: Could you speak about the work you’ve been making in the last few years and generally what motivates you as an artist?

PARK MCARTHUR: I make sculpture, sometimes with sound or video. I write. I write about dependency and autonomy. The work I make uses methodologies of critique, and the forms it takes are recognizable. Ultimately, though, my work is attached to a place deeper than the critical or the formal. This is a place of abundance and love, which I think is pretty common for artists. I generally just feel responsive. Once, for example, a professor described Barnett Newman’s vertical “zip” marks as upright, active figures standing against a recessive ground. The zips, he said, spoke to the experience of being human. The feeling I got when hearing the professor’s analysis makes me want to make art. I knew he was wrong. Wrong not about Newman’s zips and their metaphorical resonance, but about being human and how we recognize and characterize what being human is.

DP: You also participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program and have had residencies recently at Skowhegan, Abrons Arts Center, and Recess, which all seem to have a particular dynamic associated with them. Did these experiences influence your work?

PM: They are all very different, with different visions and missions. Each residency has helped me come closer to understanding that leaving my daily life in order to make art doesn’t really work for me. In the daily cycles and rhythms of my life I tend to be able to get deeper, to think and feel more deeply… I make work from where I live. That’s where I learn.

DP: Though you have made work about the conditions you encountered while in residence at these institutions. Have these different situations had an impact on the way you look at your own daily life and create art about that?

PM: I don’t know that I make work “about the conditions” of a specific place or organization, but I do make work with the conditions, or through the conditions present. Gate (2014), is part of a metal fence that encloses the garden at Abrons Art Center. Gate leads you to the artist studios and the building’s elevator. Abrons staff worked to make the gate both accessible and secure. Eventually, though, these trial solutions came to an end and I still enter the building with the help of the Abrons maintenance staff. Meredith James, an artist who was also a resident at Abrons, asked if I wanted her to show me how easy it is to jump the fence attached to Gate, so I made a drawing by writing down the steps she took. I drew on top of an Abrons floorplan by the architect Lo Yi Chan. The gate’s location was listed on the checklist under the title Gate. So there is the gate itself outside the building, the drawing of gate jumping instructions inside the exhibition, as well as all of the actions the staff and I made together and separately over the course of twelve months, none of which I knew about or was thinking I would make when I went into the residency. The work is often produced by what is necessary.

DP: Your 2014 Ramps exhibition at ESSEX STREET was very powerful. How did you come to make this body of work and how did you feel it was received?

PM: Construction as a never-ending reality in Bloomberg and post-Bloomberg New York closes off sidewalks at every turn. The construction companies that the city contracts with do a good job of creating ramps where the sidewalks abruptly end: either as large wooden ramps bolted down or as packed asphalt infills. The exhibition Ramps originally began as an idea to take ramps from three or four construction site locations. And then take them again when, and if, the ramps were replaced. Construction ramps would accumulate in the gallery over the course of the exhibition. Ramps would take access away and require that this particular form of access (the ramp) be reproduced by interrupting the small ecosystem of each chosen construction site. One construction ramp was included in the final iteration of Ramps. It came from a construction site on the southwest corner of Cooper Union. The manager of the site, John, drove it to my studio at Abrons Art Center after we spoke about what routinely happens to the ramps: they are scrapped or reused. I was surprised by how positive the reception of Ramps was. Peter Plagens’s review for the Wall Street Journal said, “as a social-protest statement, the exhibition lacks heat,” which I take to mean: is the work doing what it is attempting to do, is it doing what it says it is doing? This is a great question.

DP: Do you think it is? What were you hoping it would accomplish?

PM: I was hoping it would accomplish a number of things simultaneously. I wanted to show the tension present in access: that the standardization of accessible education, infrastructure, and health care must serve individuals with very different needs. This is a conceptual, architectural, spatial, economic configuration with serious doubts about the true possibilities of anti-discrimination law. I wanted these concerns to abut aesthetic methodology: how do you both show how something works and make something with its working? And I wanted to de-exceptionalize the exhibition’s concerns by placing it in a continuum of work by writers, artists, activists (such as Marta Russell, whose Wikipedia link was on the wall), who ground access and care in economic transformation and redistribution. Those are content and method concerns for the exhibition. How this content interfaces with what an exhibition does after it closes is a question for future work: did the display of these objects and their total sale to a private collector actualize any of these concerns?

DP: You also placed a sign at each off-site location at the institutions from which these ramps were borrowed. Users were directed to the ramp’s location in the show, which in certain situations was very far away. For me, these signs, as well as those in the gallery which had their text and symbols removed, were a smart evocation of Conceptual Art’s use of a Minimalist vernacular to expose social systems and highlight the commonplace things we often ignore.

PM: Placing signs at the locations where each ramp was taken followed a form established by John Knight for his exhibition Identity Capital at American Fine Arts in 1998, where a card with the gallery’s name and exhibition dates took the place of flower arrangements on the head waiters’ podiums at restaurants in Lower Manhattan frequented by art community members. The flower arrangements, in turn, composed his show at American Fine Arts.

DP: A lot of the show’s reviews, and other writing about your practice, have a passage that says something along the lines of “McArthur, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair.” Do you feel that this kind of qualification from writers overly determines interpretation of your work? Is it the equivalent of any of the myriad of other labels that are ascribed to other artists such as Black, Queer, Feminist, etc.?

PM: Just as Adrian Piper wouldn’t have made Adrian Piper’s work without being a black philosopher in a white supremacist world, I wouldn’t have made Ramps if I didn’t “use a wheelchair” in an ableist world. (Ableism is the oppression of disabled people and the privileging of nondisabled people.) And I don’t mean because of the fact that ramps are the wheelchair’s counterpoints. I mean that the repeated administrative navigation required of people seeking access where access is only ever tangential or conditional (and is often reversible), is what amounts to a show like Ramps. This accumulated work is due to much more than to my use of a wheelchair, to the ways my class position, gender identity, and race provide me access. It’s less a question of whether or not this one biographical fact overly determines my work—it is neither an over nor an under-determination—than a question as to whether critics will ever credit the identities they call out: i.e. being black, queer, poor, disabled, being an immigrant, as constitutive of truly radical work. Not treated, as such biographical facts often are, as a matter of explanatory convenience. Rather than isolate the artist via identity, it would be a more trenchant search to better understand why contemporary art insists on relaying such categorical information when identity is so rarely understood in art. There is so much work to be done here on what art is even able to understand about itself and its histories with regards to these “labels” as you call them. It’s not that a label gets mapped onto an artist, but that without the work and struggle that amounts to a label there would be no art! The inherent formal play and invention comes only from the resistance and depth of experience created, over time, of living in a world that often violently disqualifies you, your family members, your friends.

DP: Your work seems to me like it speaks to a wider public more than is typically the case with a significant amount of contemporary art these days. Do you feel this to be true?

PM: I don’t know if this is true. I don’t actively present my work in spaces outside contemporary art. Maybe teaching. Teaching extends and loops through my work. And the places I teach are often different: team-teaching a class on disability culture and pride in an occupational therapy class is different from teaching a three-part series on feminist approaches to post-humanism—both of which are different than doing an artist’s lecture. But in terms of artists living professionally in multiple disciplines… I’m not sure I do that fully. I’m only just beginning to live professionally in art! Maybe instead of a wider public, I speak to or want to speak to different and overlapping publics. This, of course, requires and invites different types of speech, particularly when these publics might just be one or two other people, so they might seem entirely private, or on a delay. And more than anything I want to listen to different and overlapping publics. In addition to artists, my closest friends are graduate students, people who work for organizations seeking policy reform, and friends who don’t have full time, salaried jobs. I’m excited by critical theory but I’m not an academic; I care deeply for possibilities other than our present realities, but I am not an activist. Maybe it’s something personal more than something professional.

DP: Let’s talk about that word “activist.” Do you see your practice as partly in the realm of “Social Sculpture,” i.e. art that has a potential to transform society through the audience’s interaction with work, hopefully without falling into some of the traps that Relational Aesthetics may have encountered in recent years regarding its tendency to only speak to an upper-class elite audience of art world insiders?

PM: I don’t think a lot about Social Sculpture or Relational Aesthetics. I haven’t really studied the work of Joseph Beuys, and I probably should. I guess the professionalization and emergent disciplinary character of Relational Aesthetics strikes me as something far more basic, like the hosting of an event, which takes precision and finesse, even if the event is very messy. Hosting many events over a period of time is a question of organizing and of social movement work. If you want to be an organizer you can study the work of Grace Lee Boggs, you don’t have to do it as an isolated project under the umbrella of art. It’s kind of more a question of time and commitment than of a style or movement within art history.

DP: You’ve also written and presented at conferences about some of the issues that your last show addressed. Do you consider this part of your artistic practice?

PM: No, but the content is very related. Maybe the goals of the works are too.

DP: What have you been working on recently? Your Passive Vibration Isolation show at Lars Friedrich in Berlin and Yale Union project in Portland, Oregon seem to be moving in a slightly new direction, but are very closely related to the themes and issues of your earlier work.

PM: The work for Lars Friedrich was made using pajama pants of mine that had been ripped in places from friends and family members helping me in and out of bed. I called these sculptures “commodes.” Accommodation comes from commodus, to fit, and with an aspect of convenience. Commodus generates commodity, so there is an aspect of exchange, and of smoothing exchange relations. I want to articulate why accommodation is such an insufficient concept. So much of structural access, be that an elevator, or a ramp, or signage in braille, or affirmative action, or a loan, is a minimal relational proposition: a ramp can get a person in and out of a place, but what about what happens inside? I don’t want to be accommodated, I want to help change the very systems and structures that view my presence as an act of accommodation. In a 1963 televised Miami interview James Baldwin talked about civil rights, and said that the “Republic’s” technique, as he calls the US, has always been to accommodate these ongoing quests for rights. At the time he is giving this interview, he says, however, that “the technique of accommodation has broken down.” Baldwin is talking about capitalist white supremacy’s fantasy about itself: that it accommodates black Americans. Social movements are generally against accommodation. What if we flip (and many people have) the terms of accommodation in order to declare that, instead, we will no longer accommodate the structural oppression that is accommodating us through tactics of inclusion: we will no longer accommodate racism, we will no longer accommodate the destruction of our planet, we will no longer accommodate sexism, we will no longer accommodate police brutality, we will no longer accommodate ableism in our daily lives.

DP: Yes, and the sound piece you did at Yale Union seemed like it also engaged with some of these important issues, but in a different way.

PM: The piece is called Files. Alex Fleming and I made it and Anthony Tran wrote the software, which, in addition to animating and structuring the piece, logged every file played in sequence on Yale Union’s website during the entire exhibition. Samples were played as a Markov chain changed states. A Markov chain is the formative math behind many needs for calculating probability, how often a state will change: a kind of pre-existent form letter that affects policy and business as it applies to people’s lives—search engines and life insurance policy risk assessments, among them. Momo Ishiguro produced sub beats which played simultaneous to samples of audio from robot nurse youtube videos, phone sex recordings, and a large composite text read by Vanessa Place and Tom Blood about abuse in adult residential homes, mentally ill prisoners, and the physical properties of loading dock rubber bumpers.

DP: Have you found art to be the best way to approach these extremely complex and significant issues? Can I ask finally, what do you ideally hope to accomplish with your practice?

PM: Yes, I believe in art’s and artists’ capacities to approach these issues. And more than approach them, I believe in their capacity to understand them and show how they work, which includes showing what metaphors they rely on. I hope to accomplish not only an art practice.


Park McArthur is an American artist (born 1984 in North Carolina) based in New York. She attended the seminar-based Independent Study Program for artists, curators and critical theorists at the Whitney in 2010-2012. McArthur spent the nine-month program examining the relationship between public and private perceptions of disability, in the context of the “disability rights revolution” that occurred after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act twenty years ago. Her recent solo exhibition at Essex Street (New York), titled Ramps (referring to the twenty wheelchair-accessible ramps in the show, loaned from galleries and museums that the artist visited), looked at the way in which art institutions in New York have made access to art equally available to all.


Originally published on Mousse 47 (February–March 2015)


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