Hannah Wallis is an artist and curator whose work encompasses performance, collectivisation and disability rights. In 2020 she was selected for the DASH Curatorial Commissions programme aimed at improving access for disabled curators within visual arts institutions, taking on a curatorial residency at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. As a deaf curator, Wallis approached the residency as a platform for thinking through questions of access, and how artists can develop work which integrates accessibility from the outset. The residency concludes with ‘Version’, a new exhibition of sound and sculpture works by Ain Bailey. Dialogue and collaboration are at the heart of Wallis’ practice, and she has worked closely with Bailey to find new ways of presenting sound, while inviting visitors to reflect on the audio fragments that make up their own histories.
What first appealed to you about the DASH residency?
I read about the programme quite early on and knew I had to apply. The way that Wysing supports artists is really unique, it’s about providing space for them to generate new ideas and really push their practice. I knew they were already working hard to address inequities in access, and I wanted to be part of that work. The residency was a really unique opportunity to see a project through from start to finish, which is quite rare without being fully involved in an institution. DASH has really tapped into a way of working here that is very interesting.
What are your core aims as a curator?
I think what curating has taught me is to think about agency and the relationship that our bodies have with certain spaces. We all move through the world in a different way, and if we could understand a bit more about why that is, I think moving through spaces would be so much less harmful than it can be. In the last year or so I’ve been thinking about access and how we can bring that in right from the beginning of a project, so that when we generate ideas, it’s already embedded. The residency was the first opportunity for me to really think that through properly.
How did the exhibition with Ain Bailey come about?
I wanted to work with a sound artist to think about how sound might be presented in different ways. Ain Bailey has a very interesting practice around the idea of listening, and what it means to listen together. This project became a chance for her to explore her own cultural heritage through sound as an extension of her sonic biography work, which looks at how sound, music and memory form our sense of self.
As a deaf curator, what was it like working with Bailey on a sound installation?
For me, listening is complicated, but it’s integral to Ain’s work and I wanted to learn how to navigate this. A large part of what informed the development of the work was thinking about the sights and sounds that come from childhood. For example, even just the sound of cooking certain foods, such as ackee and saltfish, spark very strong memories for Ain. The same goes for certain folksongs and of course, dub, which originated from the island. It’s quite layered, like the pervasive nature of sound itself, and the sense that we are made up of the sounds that have built up over our lives. I think this project has taught me that I still have that: even if sound is a difficult thing for me to access, it still informs who I am. So that’s been a really interesting insight for me from working with her.
As this is the first in-person exhibition at Wysing Arts Centre since closing for lockdown last March, have you felt apprehensive about it going ahead?
Yeah, if we were to move this online, we would have to think very carefully about what that means and how to share the sound works. Ain’s work is often very tied to how a piece sounds in situ, so a move online would have to be a very meaningful shift. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but what’s interesting is that this has evolved into a show where actually, it’s really important that you come to the site if you can, and become immersed in the experience rather than listening through headphones.
What do you feel you have achieved with the residency?
It’s not over yet so I don’t want to speak too soon, but it’s been a really key opportunity for me to understand what my curatorial methodology and practice can be. It’s been incredible to learn from Ain by seeing her ideas develop. I think people forget that curating is often really about having a conversation, and facilitating how an artist’s ideas might grow or change or shift according to the resources and space and time that you have. It’s also given me the platform to really think about what it means to present sounds in new or different ways, because I’ve been able to have those conversations with Ain from the beginning. I can’t say exactly what the outcome will be, it’s still very much an experiment in some ways, but for me, that’s the fundamental change I want to make: to be able to walk into an exhibition and know that I’m going to have sound presented to me in a way that I might understand it.
What do you think that other artists, curators and organisations can learn from the process?
It can be useful to think about how access can become an aesthetic part of a show, rather than an add-on. I recognise this isn’t always an easy conversation to have, but if there is awareness on all sides, from the artist as well as the organisation and the curator, then accessibility is much more likely to evolve in a way that is actually useful. If we can involve these elements much more directly in the work then I think that could only be better for everyone. From the conversations I’ve had at Wysing, I think the residency has been a useful experience for them as well. They were already beginning to embed accessibility within the practice of the organisation, and I know they’re doing a lot of work to continue that after this project has taken place. The team at Wysing have been an incredible source of support though, the opportunity to work with them has been invaluable and they are really leading the way in practices of care and meaningful change.
Ain Bailey: Version continues at Wysing Arts Centre until 22 August 2021. www.wysingartscentre.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ain_bailey_version