I can’t tell if we are on a sidewalk, in an alley or in the middle of a road. Every slope in the pavement underfoot is amplified, as is every sound—a car passing, a child crying, people chatting on a restaurant patio. With my right arm I feel for trees, signposts, fire hydrants, and other obstacles. I smell shrubs, asphalt, and brown rice.
I’m in a line of people, each connected to the person in front by a hand on the shoulder. We’re taking a walk through Vancouver’s picturesque West Side—with our eyes closed. At the front of this unusual procession is Vancouver-based artist Carmen Papalia, who is blind—although he does not use that term, nor does he say that he “lost his sight.”
Rather, Papalia refers to himself as someone who chooses to learn using his nonvisual senses. Over the past four years, he’s led dozens of “eyes-closed walks” in conjunction with art galleries and museums across North America and the U.K. The groups have been as small as one and as large as 60, and have snaked through neighborhoods, university campuses, museums, and other spaces.
The tours are powerful, at times unnerving, and often deeply emotional experiences that instantly and viscerally point out how visually based our society is. Some participants are moved to tears; others are fascinated by the near-immediate boost to the other senses—smell, hearing, and touch. In a noisy section of Oakland, California, one woman was so overwhelmed she had a panic attack; Papalia had the participants put their hands on a brick wall to ground themselves.
But Papalia, who did his Master of Fine Art and Social Practice at Portland State University in Oregon, makes clear that the walks aren’t meant to make sighted people feel sorry for the visually impaired, or grateful for the vision they have. Rather, they’re intended to show people the multitudinous ways of understanding the world, and that by shutting off one mode of perception, they can heighten others.
“It’s people’s first few steps into this nonvisual world. It’s not a simulation exercise where you’re shutting your eyes for ten minutes, and then you know you’re really happy to open your eyes because you don’t have to live like that,” explains Papalia. “It’s more understanding that this is a way of being and can lead to new discoveries.”
Ranging in length from 15 minutes to over an hour, the walks are mapped out in advance and tailored to each group and locale. Some take unexpected turns; Papalia jokes that, on a few occasions, he’s even stopped to ask for directions. (On our walk, we accidentally wandered into someone’s yard.) Sometimes groups end up at the point where they started. Others open their eyes to find themselves in completely different surroundings—woven through a large public sculpture, near a cliff’s edge, or, as was the case on a walk for the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the middle of an apartment Papalia was leasing during a London residency.
The walks also challenge accepted notions of what constitutes beauty or interest. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Papalia took participants under the 340-ton boulder featured in Michael Heizer’s famous Levitated Mass—a powerful sculpture that draws thousands of visitors each year but holds little nonvisual interest. On that walk, a noisy ventilation duct was the most fascinating stop.
As part of a commission for Elsewhere, a museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, Papalia led city planners, engineers, and city councilors around the city hall plaza, which features public art and other visual elements, but ended their stroll in an abandoned train yard. “They preferred the train yard over the concrete playground of city hall,” says Papalia. “These people are usually planning very considered spaces, but we were showing them a different perspective on the city.”
The guided walks are just one facet of Papalia’s practice, which is infused with both wry wit and serious aims. He’s created a photography exhibit of objects he had accidentally bumped into, navigated city streets using a 15-foot white cane, and once, even used a marching band as a walking aid: distinct sounds indicated when he should stop, turn, step up or down, or when he was about to encounter an obstacle. “I think what’s at the heart of my work is an interruption,” says Papalia. “My presence interrupts. I complicate a space.”
Currently he’s working on an audio installation at the Surrey Art Gallery in Surrey, British Columbia; an accessibility audit of a Vancouver museum; and, with acoustic engineers in Boston, a walking cane that amplifies sounds.
Papalia also intends to continue leading his curated walks, which were first inspired during a caving trip to Washington’s Mount St. Helens. There, he had to rely entirely on friends to guide him, sometimes in areas so confined they had to scoot through on their stomachs. The challenge was enormous, but the sense of achievement afterward was profound.
“It was initially overwhelming but then you get comfortable in the space. And then you feel that sense of accomplishment. And that’s the idea,” says Papalia, who has also led museum tours at MOMA and the Guggenheim. “When they open their eyes, I want them to feel like they’re actually leaving a very rich and interesting space.”