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> > > Experimental Art Is Catalyst for Urban Revitalization

DisArt was a multi-venue Disability Arts Festival, which took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan from April 10th to July 31st, 2015. Through several world-renowned exhibits of Disability Arts from all over the world, DisArt Festival 2015 challenged its audiences to reconsider the importance of community, identity, and difference. Report by Alexandra Kadlec

photo of an installation featuring a series of lamps on a white gallery wall

Lamps, by Jeremy Burleson. Opening night at UICA. April 10, 2015. Photo © Matt Gubancsik. Courtesy: Kendall College of Art and Design

On the corner of Fulton and Division in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, there is a newly constructed audible pedestrian crosswalk—serving as just one illustration of the broad impact that a recent international art exhibition and festival have had on the city.

After premiering at DaDaFest International 2014 in Liverpool, England, Art of the Lived Experiment (ALE) made its inaugural and only US appearance in Grand Rapids this year, from April 10 – July 31. Twenty-six international artists were tasked with the invitation to explore the everyday experiences of change and mutation — how we (all) interact and adapt within a world that can work for or against us.

Christopher Smit, Aaron Williamson and Ruth Gould speaking during opening night at GRAM. April 10, 2015. Photo © Matt Gubancsik. Courtesy: Kendall College of Art and Design

A range of visual and performance art was presented at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Kendall College of Art and Design and the Grand Rapids Art Museum, drawing an audience of 40,434 visitors over the course of the exhibition. 

There was Jeremy Burleson’s rolled paper Lamps, glowing sculptural installations that spoke to the ideas illuminating ALE; Martin Kersels’ drawing series Flotsam, which called attention to the relationship of psychology to the physical body; Kate Mahony’s dual collage and performance work that flipped the meaning of banal, domestic objects; and many more.

ALE was the centerpiece of the DisArt Festival, which was founded in 2015 by Christopher Smit to celebrate difference, challenge perceptions of disability and activate cultural change through the creative act. Hosted at venues around the city over a period of two weeks in April, DisArt featured exhibits, a fashion show, theatrical performance, artist talks and several other community programs and events.

City of the Lived Experiment Panel Discussion at UICA. July 28, 2015 Photo © Matt Gubancsik. Courtesy: Kendall College of Art and Design

Beyond the call for transformative thinking and dialogue in response to risk-taking art, those involved in ALE and DisArt also sought tangible outcomes in their community — reflected in the streets and buildings of Grand Rapids. With city mayor George Heartwell designating 2015 the Year of Arts and Access, the push for increased access to public spaces for everybody gained further support.

A number of accessibility improvements were introduced to UICA for ALE, including: closed captioning on video and multimedia work for text interpretation; an adapted theater layout accommodating additional wheelchairs and other assistive devices; furniture meeting the Smithsonian accessibility guidelines; and an Access UICA app supporting users with visual, mobility, hearing and cognitive impairments. 

In terms of citywide access, traffic engineer Chris Zull has stated a continued commitment to exploring new and better modes of public transportation. This will require continued partnerships with local institutions and organizations, such as the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired. What’s also needed, for this conversation and others involving arts and access, is consistent engagement from citizens. 

And for its part, DisArt is moving into year-round programming that will provide multi-sensory experiences, consider all types of disabilities, and bring more voices and perspectives to a social realm — where people can learn, be challenged and remain open to change.