Sarah Oppenheimer, I—001—7070, 2021 aluminium, steel, timber belts and exhibition architecture Installation view (with works by Yukultji Napangati at right). Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, 2021. Photo: Carl Warner.

The decoy radicalism of a politics fixated on language and manners avoids the question of what is produced, and for whom?[1]

Christian Parenti, 2021

Claiming that people with disabilities have privileged access to knowledge may have the potential to subvert assumptions that we need others’ advice and intervention. But by over-emphasizing our difference, the strategy risks contributing to our excessive individualization...[2]

Anna Mollow, 2004

In a sparse gallery space, a detached hydraulic door closer lies splayed on a white panel. This unassuming readymade by Belgian artist Steve Van den Bosch provides a subtle topographical deviation on the dull cement floor. Titled Assistant (2021), the closer was relocated from the gallery director’s office for the duration of Round About or Inside (30 September 2021 – 20 November 2021) at Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane. Appropriately placed on the ground—the anti-art/anti-functional gesture par excellence—the artwork suffices as a miniature monument to technologies of access, reflecting on how we move through spaces and what mechanisms exist to ensure our safe and comfortable journey, to welcome us, or to deny us entry.   

Steve Van den Bosch, Assistant, 2021. Hydraulic door closer dismounted from the museum director’s office doorframe, on display for the duration of the exhibition. Installation view, Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, 2021. Photo: Carl Warner.

Round About or Inside, curated by Angela Goddard and Wouter Davidts, is one of a slew of recent exhibitions that have explored the hot topic of space.[3] Others include Metro Arts’ Conversations on Shadow Architecture (2 October 2021 – 31 October 2021) curated by Ineke Dane, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s Who’s Afraid of Public Space? (4 December 2021 – 20 March 2022) curated by Max Delany, Annika Kristensen and Miriam Kelly. Each similarly explores the theme as a politically loaded concept and a fertile area for artistic exploration. Indeed, the theme of space has been hyperpresent in art discourse since the postwar period when movements such as conceptualism, minimalism and institutional critique drew attention to the spaces art inhabits, the spectators’ relationship with the art object, and the politics of these dynamics. Concurrent with tumultuous political and cultural events, such as the Vietnam War, the May 1968 protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and, most pertinent, the rise of the New Left, the artworld has welcomed deskilling, celebrity, and the erosion of the boundaries between art and other disciplines such as design, fashion, and craft under the banner of visual cultures—a perfectly neoliberal initiative homogenising the multiplicious ‘spaces’ art occupies.

Today, in a ‘post-COVID’ climate (with the virus still rampant), there is undoubtably a new and ‘unprecedented’ weight to discussions of space. For two years, Australians endured sporadic lockdowns, curfews, and restricted travel—extreme limitations that had a detrimental impact on employment, the economy, family and social lives. While a deluge of think-pieces authored by the drones of the creative class emphasised how such extreme government-imposed limitations have made us reassess our relationship with our surroundings, many disability advocates hastened to parallel the helplessness and anxiety suffered during this period to the everyday lived experience of people with disabilities.[4]

Indeed, the ubiquitous calls for togetherness and unity during the pandemic, while well-meaning and hopeful in a time of previously unimaginable strain, were startlingly suspicious in their optimism. Epitomised by the slogan ‘we’re all in this together’, this attitude demonstrated a widespread wilful ignorance toward the gaping discrepancies determined by class, disability, and other socio-cultural factors—injuries only compounded by the pandemic. Whole-heartedly embraced and promulgated by the loudest proponents of the liberal left, this condescending rhetoric was perfectly suited to the puritanical language-policing and virtue-signalling that has come to define liberal discourse during the past decade. Using disability as a compelling counterpoint to current articulations of identity and its politics, this article considers how discussions of space, both figurative and literal, have manifested in the liberal discourse of the post-COVID artworld. To add nuance and to disturb these narratives, here disability will serve as both a generative framing device and a critical lens to explore concepts of access and denial.

The artworld is one industry among many adversely affected by the pandemic. However, as has become a common refrain, COVID-19 only exacerbated and made overt pre-existing inequalities and underlying issues of arts funding.[5] There were also unexpected shifts that brought promises of positive change, depending on who you asked. The forced closure of galleries and museums heralded an explosion of online art experiences: virtual tours, lecture series and endless webinars available for at-home enjoyment. This new emphasis on digital, virtually accessible content pleased disability advocates.[6] Finally, there was an alternative for those with limited mobility—a strategy that could break down other barriers to access. Art spaces could be traversed virtually. In theory, the auratic institutions of culture could now be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. However, barriers to access are often real and imagined—both physical and psychological.

Valentina Karga CIRCLE 4: An Infrastructure for Grounding, 2021 laser cut aluminium plates and aluminium wire Installation view, Metro Arts, Brisbane, 2021 Courtesy of the Gallery

Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974), a collection of essays commissioned by Paul Virilio, directly inspired Round About or Inside, and resonates with the above-mentioned exhibitions. In his prescient collection, Perec speaks of many kinds of spaces—the apartment, the public park, corridors, transit stations, and the pages of books. He is interested in how these spaces are divided and navigated, and argues that ‘spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function.’[7] No doubt, the internet has expanded this further, with its infinite topography of scrolling, zooming, mapping, sharing and data mining.

Conversations on Shadow Architecture (CoSA), also in Brisbane responded to this multiplicious concept of space. Touching on cyberutopianism, colonisation, revolution, and protest, CoSA engaged the theory of Critical Spatial Practice as a model for understanding ‘the political potential of space and architecture’.[8] While no artist in the exhibition addressed disability directly, there was an emphasis on multisensory experience. Valentina Karga’s CIRCLE 4: An Infrastructure for Grounding (2021), for example, was comprised of a series of abstract panels on the floor that were, as the exhibition text explained, connected to the earth via conductive wires. Karga’s work responds to the theory of earthing or grounding, a practice that boasts the health benefits of touching the ground. Though the aesthetic configuration with its abstracted forms looks like art, there exists a series of commercially produced products that boast similar promise for champions of wellness culture and alternative medicine. As with the COVID-inspired virtual exhibition tours, a new investment in multisensory experience—what I have elsewhere called haptic capitalism—coalescences with artmaking suited to vision impaired gallery visitors.[9]

In a telling juxtaposition, Richard Bell’s My Inland Home (2021), a subtle, contemplative drawing of the sandy-floored home of corrugated iron he occupied as a child, features on the wall above Karga’s self-care paving. CoSA also featured models by the New York based architecture and design firm HWKN titled We the People – a Prototype (2021). Known for designing luxury ski resorts and self-contained living complexes reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s utopic ‘radiant city’, HWKN boasts ‘community values’ and ‘living well’. Curiously, Metro Arts’ new location within a commercial precinct servicing the West Village complex built by the foreign developer Sekisui House, a subsidiary of Sekisui chemical, was not mentioned in the curatorial narrative. Heralding West End’s second wave of gentrification, the luxury apartments and precinct cast a shadow over the multicultural, bohemian suburb on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD, known for its small local businesses and creative pop-up spaces. An experimental art space, Metro Arts seems incongruous here, likely because the gallery’s inclusion in the precinct was a result of state government regulations around new property developments.[10] After years struggling to meet the cost of accessibility requirements, the forty-year-old Metro Arts’ move to West Village in 2020 was controversial but inevitable.

When we discuss space today, we often refer to a gesture of listening. We speak of ‘giving space’ to particular groups or individuals; we question who is taking up space or providing space. As writers such as William Davies, Angela Nagle and Daniel Gonzalez have respectively noted, we live in a feelings-based economy where discussions of respect and acknowledgement are highly prized.[11] For the most part, this operates entirely as a metaphor for consuming differently. For example, the encouragement to redistribute our attention by reading books written by (mostly) middle-class women, or watching derivative reboots of old films with a diverse cast, pretending they are good simply because of the corrected colour/gender ratio. As literary theorist and diversity-critic Walter Benn Michaels has highlighted, diversity policies are useful, and they do contribute to a more knowledgeable and open-minded workforce and cultural sector. However, championing diversity isn’t the same as fighting inequality. Discussions of the former can become toxic because they are conflated with the latter, or—as is often the case—used to eclipse it entirely, a move that helps preserve inequality by concealing it through a superficial redistribution of power among ‘diverse’ elites.[12] When discussions of space are figurative, they focus on the site of the mind—through changing the way people think and the distribution of ‘space’ in entertainment and culture. Real space, how it is used, and who has access to it, is too often overlooked. IRL (in real life) space is often the real challenge for disabled bodies.  

Perec, in his poetic analysis, summarises space as follows:

Space is what arrests our gaze, what our sight stumbles over: the obstacle, the bricks, an angle, a vanishing point. Space is when it makes an angle, when it stops, when we have to turn for it to start off again. There’s nothing ectoplasmic about space; it has edges, it doesn’t go off in all directions...[13]

True to Perec’s writing, Round About or Inside acknowledges the limitations of physical space and its IRL navigations, without neglecting the interconnection of physical, psychological, and socio-political barriers. In Archie Moore’s Bannertree (2000–04), one of the more sombre works in Round About or Inside, a partially furnished, slightly dishevelled old Queenslander home is explored. There’s a haunting nostalgia to the shaky hand-held video footage, both eerie and familiar in its associations with home movies and the suburban domestic environment. A sad excuse for a prop, the pattern of the kitsch suburban linoleum featured in the home decorates the cement floor of the gallery—a gesture that undermines the theatricality of contemporary art’s video-installation trope through its affective impotence. Moore’s work is projected in a dark corner of the gallery, obscured by Sarah Oppenheimer’s I—001—7070 (2021). Crafted from steel, timber and aluminium, the aggressive geometry of Oppenheimer’s intervention recreates the bare skeleton of a wall seen on a building site. Bisecting the gallery space at harsh angles and effecting the way the viewer navigates the space, the structure imposes a physical distance from Moore’s film, reminding the viewer of the contrivance of the installation and emphasising their distance from the time and place displayed. The meeting of Oppenheimer’s and Moore’s artworks is significant, demonstrating how personal narrative, delegated memory via technology, and architectural structures influence our psychological experience of space. Their juxtaposition in Round About and Inside points to the sobering reality of containment and the constructions that dictate and guide our navigation of everyday life and meaning making.

Archie Moore Bannertree floor, 2021 synthetic polymer paint on nothing Installation view, Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, 2021 Photo: Carl Warner

Despite a spike in art world and market interest in disability, the representation of disabled people in galleries is most present in accessible architecture and protocols: wheelchair ramps, bumpy tactile paving announcing stairs or surface changes and the presence of Auslan interpreters and braille signage. These requirements have definitively made a huge difference to disabled gallery visitors, but rising awareness of accessibility issues has also led to dubious trends in which an imagined ‘disabled other’ serves as a prop for good, able-bodied people to signal their ‘care for’. Now many small organisations and minor public figures provide image descriptions in every social media post, regardless of their reach, a trend that invents more anxious tasks for insecure arts workers in an increasingly competitive creative sector.  

Though disability is another marginalised identity which can reinvigorate the art space and create novel experience when glossed with the feel-good rhetoric of inclusivity, it is unique as an identity category within the contemporary constellation of marginalised and oppressed identities. It also has extra currency as an identity which has yet to be fully assimilated into neo-liberal identity politics. However, this omission is likely because it resists easy categorisation and—as disability theorist Lennard J. Davis highlights—it lacks sex appeal. Davis compellingly argues that the proponents of poststructural theory (whose ideals and politics, we might note, have influenced liberal arts institutions for decades), are invested only in difference that carries a potent erotic flair.[14]

Aligned with Davis’ suggestion, we might observe that trauma narratives—one highly prized category of contemporary identity-based art—have never been prominent in art by disabled artists. I would suggest that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, a subject who endures a truly all-encompassing, injurious experience—somebody who is truly a victim stripped of agency—is unlikely to become recognised as an artist. Work about disabled people by non-disabled artists has, in more exploitative and condescending artworks, focused on the limitations of disability. Examples might include Sophie Calle’s Blind series (1986), Artur Zmijewski’s video Blindly (2010), and Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). The second reason is that trauma narratives—when related to race, gender identity, and sexuality—have a particular role in the culture industry which cannot be fulfilled by stories of disability. Witnessing trauma narratives in the gallery can provide catharsis for white guilt, serve as a means of raising awareness, fill gaps in Euro-centric history or preserve cultural knowledge. Conversely, disability isn’t a culture or a desire-based politics. It is physical rather than symbolic. The injuries following from disability are not socio-culturally or geographically imposed, but describe limitations that come from the body.[15] Disability is largely an unavoidable result of genetics, illness, accident, or other misfortune. This is not to suggest that prejudice doesn’t play a part, but rather, that the primary difficulty is not located in other people’s perception, nor is a solution to be found here. Unlike issues of race, sexuality, or gender identity—where bigotry, prejudice, diaspora, and intergenerational trauma are the source of difficulty in the individual’s navigation of the world and everyday experience—there is no neat way to resolve this tension or blame the coloniser, normative systems, or the state. Respect doesn’t resolve the tension of disability. Ending ableism doesn’t resolve the tension of disability. Thinking differently doesn’t resolve the tension of disability.

Beyond victim-narratives, any cursory review of art history reveals a plethora of canonised artists who happened to be disabled. The common disavowal of the title ‘disabled person’ in favour of ‘person with a disability’ constitutes a feel-good buffer against an honest (and politically important) acknowledgment of the legitimate struggles of disabled people and the compromise to agency disability often entails. However, when considering art making, for the reasons outlined above and more, it feels more appropriate to eschew the title ‘disabled artist’. There are several artists making work today whose disability is foregrounded in their practice. Often their work is driven by the unique experience of the world their disability affords them. Australian examples include Fayen d’Evie, a curator/artist who uses blindness as a generative concept, making and championing work that involves texture and sound as a method of destabilising the ocular-centric experience of art by embracing touch. Similarly, Sam Petersen uses bodily fluids and soft, malleable material in a playful way, recording bodily touch and evoking tactile sensations in a way that recalls, but on a more personal and intimate level, the soft sculptures of Joseph Beuys or the sloppy aesthetics of Lynda Benglis.   

The over-individuation of disability—like the poststructuralist thinkers Davis critiques—risks turning disability into a metaphor for difference and thus, removing the political potence of disability discourse. Moreover, as in the case of any identity-based politics, the over emphasis on the grievances of one identity group impedes coalition building. Returning to Assistant (2021), the door closer discussed at the beginning of this essay—a solid mechanism, external to the body, not seductive at all, and kind of ugly in its utility—is important, because it reflects a very simple technology akin to accessible architecture and other small gestures of care and consideration built into our environments. Often overlooked, and far from utopic or romantic, this minor intervention becomes a metaphor for the way we move through space and the technologies that underpin how comfortably and safely we might do so.


  1. ^ Christian Parenti, “The First Privilege Walk”,, 18 November 2021,
  2. ^ Anna Mollow, “Identity Politics and Disability Studies: A Critique of Recent Theory”, Michigan Quarterly Review 43, no. 2, (Spring 2004)
  3. ^ The exhibition will travel to Ghent University, Belgium in November 2022
  4. ^ For an example, Dominic Freestone, “My sixteen years of ‘lockdown’ living with a disability”, Life Without Barriers, 30 September 2021,
  5. ^ Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr., “The Trouble with Disparity”,, 10 September 2020, 
  6. ^ Rafie R. Cecilia, “COVID-19 Pandemic: Threat or Opportunity for Blind and Partially Sighted Museum Visitors?”, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 19, no. 1, 2021,
  7. ^ Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (London: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1998), 6
  8. ^ “Conversations on Shadow Architecture”, Metro Arts, 2021,
  9. ^ Tara Heffernan, “We get in touch with things at the point they break down // Even in the absence of spectators and audiences, dust circulates”, MeMO Review, 24 July 2021,
  10. ^ Media Statement, “World Class Urban Design at the Core of Approved West Village Development”, Queensland Government, 7 November 2016,
  11. ^ William Davies, Nervous States: How Feeling Took over the World (London: Vintage, 2018); Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2017); Daniel Gonzalez, “The Work of Feelings in Public Schools”,, 18 May 2020,
  12. ^ Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006)
  13. ^ Perec, 81
  14. ^ Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Deafness, Disability, and the Body (London: Verso, 1995)
  15. ^ Alex Gregory summarises the “Inability Theory”, a concept that has been popular within disability studies and legislation over the past few decades: ‘To be disabled is to be less able to do something than is typical, where this degree of inability is partly explained by features of your body that are atypical.’ Alex Gregory, “Disability as Inability”, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 18, no. 1, 2020,