Ten Minutes with Therí Pickens: On Access
Laura Aguilar’s work asks us to consider how access and privilege shape our experience in the world.
Apr 28, 2023
“What does it take for you to enter MoMA?” asks Dr. Therí Pickens. It’s a simple question, but one that calls attention to the different ways we move through the world.
Last month, MoMA celebrated over 50 years of touch tours and 20 years of Art inSight, public programs that make art accessible to visitors who are blind or have low vision. At the same time we celebrate this milestone, we continue to reflect on the fact that a trip to MoMA requires more than overcoming the logistical issues of transportation and arrival times. For many, a trip to MoMA means confronting questions of access: Does this space welcome people like me? Will I be given what I need in order to feel safe and included?
At the core of this month’s Ten Minutes podcast is the question, What does access look like? According to Laura Aguilar’s work Access + Opportunity = Success, currently on view in Gallery 208: History into Being, access includes, among other things, “the right to enter or use.” But Dr. Pickens argues that access goes deeper than that. Using Aguilar’s work as a point of departure, the writer and disability studies scholar explores how our lives are shaped by our identities and the privileges granted to certain bodies and experiences.
To hear more about access, privilege, and the social model of disability, click on the SoundCloud audio below.
Laura Aguilar. Access + Opportunity = Success. 1993
Image description: A black-and-white photograph of the artist holding a cardboard sign with a paragraph of text. She wears a sleeveless white top and loose-fitting pants. The first line of the sign is the word “Access” followed by a phonetic pronunciation. The following lines are dictionary definitions of the term: “1. Approach or means of approach. 2. The right to enter, use, etc. 3. An outburst; fit/an access of anger/-vt. to get data from, or add data to, a database.” The photograph is cropped so that the top half of her head and her legs below the thigh are not included in the composition.
See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.
Writer, Dr. Therí Pickens: When I think about access, for me, it’s physical, but it’s also ideological. So what does it take for you to enter MoMA, for instance? Does it take you feeling welcome? Does it take you believing that the space is built for you and built to cater to your needs?
Quite frankly, until I became a professor and was invited into some museum spaces, I didn’t feel particularly welcome because I assumed that those spaces were not going to accommodate people who looked like me. So when you think about access here, it does force me to think about, what access is—if it is not just about the physical space.
My name is Dr. Therí Pickens. I am a professor of English and African American studies. I identify more broadly as a writer, and so I find myself writing about African American literature and culture, disability, literary theory, philosophy, and, when the occasion suits, pop culture.
When thinking about Laura Aguilar’s work Access + Opportunity = Success, I don’t come to it as an art critic or art historian. I come as a, as a non-expert, as another viewer. And as someone who is disabled, I understand this as disability art. And that gives me a point of access.
The work is a sequence of five images of cardboard signs, each one displaying either a symbol or a word. They are reminiscent of the signs that people hold when they are housing or food insecure. In three of the five images, the artist is holding the signs and the artist is a larger-bodied person with curly shoulder length brown hair. The colors of the photos are actually quite muted. And the writing is in lowercase letters and they are dictionary definitions of access, opportunity, and success.
The definition of access that’s used here is pretty physical in the sense that it thinks about “the approach or the means of approach, the right to enter or use, and the access to a database.” So the definition is quite generic, but it does force me to think about what access is, and if it is also about the ideological or mental space or cultural space created for people to all enter in and to have the, to use a word, opportunity to be in that space.
Speaking of opportunity, it is defined as “a combination of circumstances.” And I love, love, love, love this definition because it forces all of us to understand that opportunity feels a lot like coincidence, or the universe conniving to suit your needs. When you are thinking about a combination of circumstances, are those circumstances you’ve created? Are those circumstances you’ve worked through? Pushed through? Bullied your way through? Or are those circumstances you’ve been given?
And the final term, success—here, it’s understood as “a favorable result; the gaining of wealth, fame, etc.” I appreciate the fact that “etcetera” is there because it opens the door to define success as the gaining of something else. Because the success that you have, will look different from the success of the person who is next to you.
So what we have is an equation telling us that Access + Opportunity = Success. I also think that to look at an equation is to look at a formula, something that is supposed to work all the time.
But what the artist is asking us to consider is whether it’s true? And what’s your relationship to that formula?
Do you have access? Do you have opportunity? At what points have access and opportunity been taken away from you? At what points have they been given to you? And in exchange for what? If they cost you nothing, then your road to success is going to look a lot different than the person for whom they cost everything.
I think what a lot of people consider are the ways that you need access and opportunity to create wealth or fame. For me, I think about how those ambitions are impacted by race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender presentation.
Laura Aguilar was disabled. She had auditory dyslexia and, toward the latter end of her life, renal failure and also moments of suicidal ideation and depression. Each of those are disabilities you cannot see, but that doesn’t mean that because we are not using wheelchairs or scooters or crutches, that things are accessible to us.
Access and opportunity isn’t just about material life, but also about how this world privileges certain bodies and experiences. And so that’s where I think the social model of disability is useful.
The social model of disability is a splitting of impairment and disability. Impairment is what is happening in the body and mind. And disability is how that is perceived by the wider world. So what you’re face to face with is the idea that impairment itself is not the issue. Someone doesn’t lack access because they have dyslexia or depression. They lack access because access hasn’t been created by those who have the power to do so.
So when you’re thinking about access through a social model of disability, you are thinking about what it means to ensure that each person has the ability to enter the space and the ability to feel welcome in the space without assistance, and without trauma.
The social model of disability is also part of the identity model of disability, that someone can understand themselves as fundamentally shaped by the experiences of disability, which typically are not being included, feeling forced out of spaces or not welcomed by the language that people use or the places that people choose to host events.
So this artist is forcing us all to think about how our access is different from those around us, and how our access may be contingent on the inability of someone else to access the same material, at least without harm. And that’s what makes privilege.
If you don’t have privilege, you certainly understand what it is to be in a space without it. It surfaces in the ways that we have access to opportunity and to space. And privilege is also, I think, a function of expectation. People with privilege expect to be heard, expect to be understood, expect to be listened to, expect to not be cut off, expect to be respected, expect to be included.
So if we’re thinking about Laura Aguilar’s piece in terms of privilege you have someone who says, I desire access. I desire opportunity. I desire success. What does access and opportunity and success look like for a larger-bodied, queer Latina, working in the 1970s and ’80s with auditory dyslexia and a lack of health insurance? Does that look a little bit differently? I would certainly say it does.
Yes, not having privilege does make it difficult to navigate the world, but what gets obscured during that process is the way that the structures make it impossible to navigate the world. But I think the antidote to that is to remember where you are and to surround yourself with community that will remind you where you are.
Laura Aguilar’s photographs give us the suggestion of community because they harken to Latinx and queer folks, and disabled folks as communities who rely on each other in the face of monstrous amounts of oppression and I think what you get is largely dependent on how vulnerable you’re willing to be before the photographs.
You’re looking at art that’s vulnerable, that is unflinching. And so, when you look at Access + Opportunity = Success, if you have any of those three elements or all of them together, you should know that that piece of art is reading you.
The piece of art may not be asking everybody to have compassion for themselves. It may be asking some people to have more compassion for others, and to change the circumstances of their existence.
If you understand more about the world, both the one you inhabit and the world that the artist inhabits, then the art has done its job.
Dr. Therí Pickens is a writer and educator whose work explores the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, disability, and class. She is a professor of English at Bates College, where she offers courses on Arab American and African American literature and culture, disability studies, philosophy, and literary theory. Her books include Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, which explores the connection between Blackness and madness, and New Body Politics: Narrating Arab and Black Identity in the Contemporary United States, a text that examines an archive of embodied narratives. Pickens is also a poet and creative writer.
This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez with mixing and sound design by Brandi Howell.
The Museum of Modern Art strives to create a space for New Yorkers with disabilities to express themselves and feel seen, heard, and valued. We are committed to creating programs and resources that support participants’ unique goals, learning styles, and abilities. For more on MoMA’s commitment to accessibility and information about upcoming programs, please visit moma.org/visit/accessibility/.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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