Interview with Olivia Brouwer

Hi Olivia, thank you for being part of another T6 annual show!

Thanks for including my work in this year’s show! I’m really excited to be sharing new work!

Last year we were really interested in how your painting offered viewers a tactile experience. The work really invited that engagement, but do you ever find that viewers are hesitant to touch your pieces when they are hung within the white walls of the gallery?

From observing how the audience reacted to the work, it seemed that it wasn’t obvious enough to touch without a label beside the work. Even then, I think there was still a hesitancy. We are often limited to the sense of sight when experiencing visual art while touch is often discouraged.

Last year was my last in-person show before the pandemic hit, and since touch has been limited in order to avoid spreading the virus, I haven’t been able to really experiment with the public engagement of touch. I am currently working on small, visual art kits that are meant to be touched, are available for purchase for individual enjoyment, and are accessible for both sighted and visually impaired folks. One of these kits is included in this exhibition.

Could you tell us more about what drives your interest in engaging different senses through art?

I just think of the inaccessibility for those who are visually impaired when it comes to “viewing” an artwork, and how I can make work that is inclusive and creates an interesting dialogue between what a visually impaired and a sighted person “sees”, feels, or hears. I am partially blind in one eye, and, as someone who experiences both sight and blindness, I feel a sort of responsibility to bring awareness and inclusivity to the blind community with visual art, which is basically just that – “visual”. My work has explored the idea of blindness for a few years, but my interest in inviting visually impaired audiences to engage senses other than sight to experience art has grown in the past year and a bit.

What were the processes and materials that you have used in your new work, CONTACT, to invite that tactile interaction?

Each kit consists of a layered/textured painting covered in removeable tabs with Braille text on them. These tabs are then applied to a Braille booklet, providing a brief description of the themes present in the work. I wanted the kit to be a fun way of deciphering hidden messages for those who don’t know Braille. All of the text is available in both English text and Grade 1 Braille.

Each kit has its own artwork made with different media – no two are the same. The main mediums I’m currently working with are acrylic and oil paint, wax, velvet, and Dura-lar film. I’m interested in exploring more combinations of materials and textures as I expand this on-going series.

As you say, the COVID-19 pandemic has in some cases completely hindered the ability to engage physically with works of art, and CONTACT really draws attention to the different locations and scales of interaction that are available instead. We are really interested to know more about how your overall practice has responded in the last year to this changing context?

Although, I haven’t had the opportunities to show my work in-person to test out the tactility of the work, the need for inclusivity and accessibility for visually impaired people is still there. Blind folks rely on touch as one of their main senses for communication and the pandemic definitely puts a limit on that. It creates more of a need for accessibility awareness now more than ever.

Despite the challenges for my work and delays with in-person programs, I am currently working at two residencies, which have really kickstarted the creation of CONTACT. Both have been extended due to the lockdowns.

The first residency is at Centre3. At this studio, I’ve done all of the screen printing for the boxes and books. The second is at the Cotton Factory. I’ve been creating the artworks for the CONTACT kits as well as embossing all of the Braille and touch components for the book.

I can’t exhibit my work yet, but I’ve been using my time to just enjoy the creation process. Even if the kits can’t be shown in a physical gallery space, they are also meant to be purchased and experienced on your own without having others touch the same work.

The T6 show is online this year, and this means an amazing opportunity to include more international artists! But although being online enables access in some ways, are there still limitations? Is the virtual or digital really accessible?

Not in the same way that you can use multiple senses in a gallery setting, but it’s possible for computers to speak out the written descriptions of an artwork online using alt-text. Yes, it’s a wonderful opportunity to have that option of inviting international artists to show their work globally, but I don’t think it can replace the whole in-person experience – seeing/touching the size of an artwork, sensing the weight of the materials, sharing the experience with other people around you, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for all that technology has to offer – it just can be limiting in some aspects. In terms of digital accessibility for a visually impaired audience, there have been improvements on virtual platforms, but the multi-sensory experience can’t be activated the same way.

How do you think galleries and museums can better support different forms of sensory engagement with works of art?

I could probably write an essay on this question! There are more institutions welcoming inclusivity, and I think it’s a good start, but there is much more that could still be done.

I’ve seen some galleries that have a mold of a painting, along with a Braille description, that is available for touching. There are also audio guides available at some institutions, but they may or may not leave room for the imagination. This is a start, but I don’t think it’s enough for those who are visually impaired to really engage with the artwork.

I think sound art is a little underrated but it’s another great way for people to activate and pay attention to their sense of hearing in a public space. A London, Ontario based collective, called VibraFusionLab, has created vibration and sound artworks. Vibration is not a popular medium, but it’s accessible to a wide audience.

The Canadian artist, Carmen Papalia, has done various community inclusive performances that address accessibility in public institutions. One of which, entitled The Touchy Subject, was at the Guggenheim where volunteer tour guides would lead someone with their eyes closed around the open space to touch different surfaces encountered in order to rely on that sense.

I think we can work with what we have inside the typical “white gallery cube” layout, in terms of historical art, but also include more contemporary artists in exhibitions that address accessibility in their work, whether that’s the focus of the artwork or just another way of experiencing it. These new exhibitions may require the use of new technologies, layouts, or ways of thinking about how to display art to the public.

We’d love to hear more about what you are interested in and what you are working on! Are there any other art practices that are currently a source of inspiration? Do you have any projects in mind that develop upon CONTACT, or that go in a new direction?

I have other projects that I’m slowly getting to that involve engaging in a multi-sensory experience.

At the start of my residency at the Cotton Factory, I interviewed a few people who identify as visually impaired or colour blind. I’m planning on converting our conversations into a Braille painting, which will involve a sound component when touched by the audience.

I’m also in the process of making hanging, tactile sculptures that are abstract but have an organic look and feel to them. These are made of Dura-lar and velvet pieces and are attached with copper wire. They may also have a touch activated audio clip with a compilation of nature sounds.

One last project that I hope to get to would be a continuation of my Inkblot series, consisting of large mixed media paintings of organic abstractions, but made accessible through touch and possibly sound as well.

Much of my work has also shifted to a black and white monochromatic or high contrast colour scheme to help those who are colour blind see clearer.

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