Destroy the Gap demonstrates what’s possible

Disability justice in exhibition form

a portrait of a woman wearing a blue shirt and a trach at her neck is flanked on either side by illustrated tigers
Collages for the Culture: Alice Wong, by Jen White Johnson. Photo credit: Eddie Hernandez Photography.

Destroy the Gap is an exhibition available to experience at the Dorothy Uber Bryan Gallery at BGSU through Saturday, June 3. It features work by artists and designers who identify as disabled, as well as care workers and allies. The artists are drawn from around the country and their art engages history, aesthetics, fashion, dance, ornamentation and decoration. The show was coordinated by Andrea Cardinal, Assistant Professor of Design at BGSU.

Imagine radical accessibility in the arts. I’ll give you a scenario. As you enter an art gallery via a ramp, you’re greeted by a wall of colorful flyers, outlining the artists and theme of the exhibition, as well as a manifesto on the concerns that unite much of the work.

As you move around the gallery, each piece has wall text, but also a QR code that, when scanned, plays an audio recording of the text describing the work it accompanies. Large print programs are also available that contain the same information, and the gallery also has a braille program for visitors who need it.

Several embroidered works provide a meditation into the experience of chronic pain – the needlework evokes the passage of time as well as the sense of being stuck somewhere without relief. Andy Marlowe’s “Hemans” is an embroidered cape/gown adorned with language from the book Marlowe sought refuge during a long hospital stay in which his ability to recognize and use language was hurt. 

There are several video works in the show and each contains open captions so it’s easy for visitors with hearing issues to follow what’s happening on screen.

In “Madness,” by Heather Cassano, a three-panel video installation pairs historic footage about mental illness, utilizing outdated language about conditions and treatments that banished the mentally ill away from their families and communities, into sanatoriums where their autonomy was not respected and they were viewed as nuisances at best. 

You found out about this show on social media – Instagram, to be specific. You enjoyed reading about the artists and their work ahead of time, and appreciated that each image had robust alt text, which describes what’s happening in an image for those who use screen readers or just appreciate more information about what they’re seeing. 

A press release for the exhibition explained that it would be wheelchair and mobility-aid accessible, and that artist statements and artwork information would be available in large print and braille versions at the exhibit. Visitors who preferred additional services on their visit to the gallery were encouraged to contact the university’s accessibility services office.

Some of the work displayed in Destroy the Gap is funny or whimsical. Chanika Svetvilas’ “Pharma Infinity” features a parabolic sculpture made from prescription bottles, hung from the ceiling, in front of a video screen on which the artist dances with the sculpture in the aisles of a CVS as a soundtrack plays that is, as the artist explains, “a mashup of techno music, scanner sounds, a news report about Big Pharma’s power as a lobbying force, and an Abilify medication commercial.”

The exhibition title references a quote from Associate Professor of English at BGSU, Sheri Wells-Jensen, who specializes in xenolinguistics and alien languages. Wells-Jensen is blind and has participated in space trials to help scientists learn what the experience of being in space will be like for people with disabilities. 

In talking about her work, Wells-Jensen said, “I’m not a patient person, but I’m willing to take the long view when I have to. We’re making things better by doing the work of gathering the data we need, which will eventually make things more accessible. We will eventually change lives, and we will eventually destroy the gap.” 

Destroy the Gap is a celebration of different bodily experience. Assistive devices become fashion, dance, exultation. The exhibition creates a space in which the experiences of disability are represented, welcomed, accommodated and celebrated. The show is free to experience and will be open through June 3. Uber Bryan Gallery, School of Art, BGSU.