In Episode three, I talk to Critical Design Lab artist-in-residence Kevin Gotkin about practices of “crip nightlife” and accessible DJing, which he is developing as part of the DIY club scene in New York City.
Night life, DJing, accessibility, dance parties
Kevin Gotkin (NYU faculty page): https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/Kevin_Gotkin
Kevin Gotkin, "Stair Worship: Heatherwick's Vessel," The Avery Review (2018): https://www.averyreview.com/issues/33/stair-worship
Kevin Gotkin, Disability and the Arts: A Playlist Syllabus: https://medium.com/@kgotkin/disability-the-arts-a-playlist-syllabus-e30548796415
Disability Arts NYC: http://disabilityarts.nyc/
The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”
An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound.
The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction.
Credit: Kevin Gotkin
Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid
Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing.
I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie . I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory. Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl
In Episode three, I talk to Critical Design Lab artist-in-residence Kevin Gotkin about practices of “crip nightlife” and accessible DJing, which he is developing as part of the DIY club scene in New York City. Kevin is thinking about DJing as both art and design practice encompassing archival collection and the curation of experiences. We get way more into his biography in the interview.
Aimi Hamraie: In episode 3 I'm talking to Critical Design Lab artist in residence, Kevin Gotkin, about practices of what he calls crip Night Life and Accessible DJ-ing which he's developing as part of the DIY club scene in New York City. Kevin's thinking about DJ-ing as both art and design practice, encompassing archival collection and the curation of experiences. We get way more into his biography in the interview.
Aimi Hamraie: I'm excited to be talking to Kevin Gotkin today. Kevin is the artist in residence for the Critical Design Lab which houses the Contra podcast. He's also an academic activist and artist. We're gonna be talking to Kevin today about his Accessible DJ-ing practice. Hi Kevin.
Kevin Gotkin: Hello.
Aimi Hamraie: It's so great to have you.
Kevin Gotkin: It is so great to talk to you.
Aimi Hamraie: I thought that we could just start out by talking about how you situate yourself professionally. What it means to you to be an academic, an activist, and an artist, and how media comes into that for you.
Kevin Gotkin: That's a great question. Right now, talking mid-February 2018, I am in the last legs of my dissertation. I'm also teaching, adjunction, at NYU. Also doing some advocacy, some activism in New York. And getting into DJ-ing which we're gonna talk about in a little bit. So I have a lot of things going on. I think that's kind of indicative of late-stage PhD candidates, where we need to find ways to work and support ourselves after our funding from our programs is done.
Kevin Gotkin: For me the latter stages of my dissertation were really a moment of soul-searching. It's really challenging, and so you're kind of wondering, "What am I gonna tap into here that's gonna drive me through this obstacle course of the dissertation?" But also, "What am I, who am I as a professional?" So for me, I try to just connect as much as possible. Seeing what I'm doing in my writing, and research, as connected to things that I'm doing in activist spaces, and as an activist, and connecting that to an artistic practice. It's that kind of connection that then fuels me, drives me forward.
Kevin Gotkin: My field is Media Studies. In the field we often make that term, "media", so large that you could just drive a truck through it. Everything is media. But that expansive move is really helpful for me because I do see forms of mediation everywhere. It's a really inspiring way to think about what I'm doing at every moment. So, yeah, media are the things that I write about, but also the forms that I'm trying to use. They relate to questions of genre, and discipline, and all these things that I'm trying to think through in the presence of disability.
Aimi Hamraie: Great. I think something that I find so interesting about your work is that you not only theorize about, and study media historically, but you also produce a lot of media. It's been interesting to see some of the ways that your dissertation research kind of crosses over into different kinds of critical making practices. I wonder if you could just really quickly give us a blurb about what your research is about? And then tell us some of the media projects that you've done.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. I think that is what Media Studies offers, the capacity to actually make media, and to fix your thinking in channels of communication beyond the traditional forms like the paper, the written article.
Kevin Gotkin: In my dissertation research I have been trying to figure out how American ableism maintains itself, specifically over the latter 20th century. There's a lot of ways that we could think about media as propagating ableist representations, but what I focus on is the way that very mundane forms of American civic life actually enshrine notions about ability and disability in kind of ritual forms.
Kevin Gotkin: So I'm thinking about something that might be as seemingly politically neutral as a walkathon, or a 5K race for a cure, which we see these kind of dot the community calendar all over the US every weekend. And I've been thinking about how it is that the "thon" as a suffix for a lot of things like bikeathons, haircutathons, walkathons, how that came to be. It's a pretty stunning history in the last few decades of the 20th century where the marathon itself, the long-distance running marathon, booms at the same time that the walkathons and the telethons and danceathons all emerge. So I've been thinking about the "thon" as an engine of American ableism because it models a form of citizenship, of civic engagement, that is predicated on able-bodied ness as a superior category, and uses disability as a supposedly stable object of pity.
Kevin Gotkin: In relation to that writing that I've been doing, the research I've been doing, about "thons" of all kinds, I've been also trying to imagine what would it mean to center a totally different set of values? What if we cared about care and interdependence, and collective wellbeing, and structures of support that really are kind of vanquished by the race form, or by marathons in general.
Kevin Gotkin: There's kind of a performance art piece that I've been trying to perfect which I call Races for right now. They might not even be races because the race itself usually prizes an individual who comes out on top, and there's clear demarcation of success and metrics of success. But I kind of ask, "What would it mean for us all, a collective, to win something? And how could that be just as important, or more important, than an individual's success?" So that's one set of things. That's one kind of thing that's emerged from my dissertation research.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. So, let's talk about the Disability Arts NYC organization that you started.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Yeah. In the fall of 2016, right when I was moving to New York to start teaching about disability artistry at NYU, I teamed up with someone who had been a real important figure in my reading life, Simi Linton who has written a number of books that a lot of folks cite as foundational to disability studies, and lays out what disability studies is as a field. We connected right at a time when Simi was getting more involved with city-level cultural policy. She had been tapped to be on an advisory board, and was noticing that the city Department of Cultural Affairs which was tasked with setting cultural policy in addition to funding a ton of arts organizations... She was noticing that they wanted, and were saying that they were committed to disability equity, but they weren't really doing much.
Kevin Gotkin: So we formed at the beginning kind of like a watchdog group. I've learned so much about activism from Simi. Just the way we write memos to city agencies, and the way we kind of strategically consult, and maybe refuse consultations, because that's often how disability equity is incorporated into organizations. Let's hire a consultant. We don't know anything about this. But consultations can so often be co-opted, as I've been learning.
Kevin Gotkin: So we have been trying to get the city to really commit to disability equity. How do you recognize disability artistry as its own field? How do you support disabled artists in their professionalization, and in their success? And then how do you make the whole arts and culture landscape equitable? So we've been doing a lot of city-level policy advocacy. We've been training cohorts of activists. We've been doing some public programming, most recently at the Whitney Museum, we programmed a night in relation to there protest art show that's up right now.
Kevin Gotkin: And we've been trying to get artists to meet each other. So often disabled artists have never taken a course in disability artistry, have never taken a course in disability studies, and don't know other disabled artists. So we're trying to get... There's a lot of movement around disability in dance in New York. We're trying to connect all sorts of folks there. And then introduce the dancers to visual artists, and to musicians, and actors, and all kinds of artists, and really build a community of disabled artists.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. That's so great. It really seems like it relates to a number of issues that we talk about around disability and design in material production. There's the political economy of it in terms of, who are the organizations and how do they get funding, and then also what are the structural barriers to disabled people having community around art, and disability art being recognized as an aesthetic resource.
Kevin Gotkin: Yep.
Aimi Hamraie: And then it seems like, also, in terms of the way that disability activism informs this, it can kind of give us a sense of how art can be a site for disability activism. And that disability activism is not solely, although very importantly it is...when Adapt goes to the capital building and does direct action. There are forms of direct action that can also happen within the art world, and within the design world for example. So I think this is so interesting, and I would love to hear more about your Accessible DJ-ing practice, and how it came about in relation to this. What your inspirations were for that.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Totally. It's all kinda wrapped up in here. When we were influencing, trying to influence, this major document in the city, the city's first ever cultural plan which is really a long-term strategy for how the city was gonna support arts and culture. When we were done with that, when we had major successes in our advocacy, we sat down with the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. He was like, "Yeah, you guys really organized. And the other group that really organized was the Nightlife Community." And he kinda named our two, what he thinks of as constituencies, as really strong and active organizing centers in the city. Then I thought about it, and I was like "Well, where does that come from? Are we actually natural allies already?"
Kevin Gotkin: A lot of the Nightlife organizing that was happening around the New York City cultural plan was the response to some really troubling dynamics around the country after the Ghost ship tragedy in Oakland. There was this artist loft, warehouse, venue that caught on fire. It was a really catastrophic event, one of the largest fire fatalities in over a decade in the US. In the wake of that, a lot of cities used that as an excuse to crack down on artist spaces that they just wanted to designate as unsafe. Artist spaces around the country, I think, were mourning, and were committing themselves to safety. But they also were very concerned that they were gonna come under new forms of scrutiny, and discipline, and control in the wake of this fire. Many places around the country were shut down.
Kevin Gotkin: In New York, the Nightlife organizers stepped to it right away, and started organizing to preserve the autonomy of these cultural spaces, and commit themselves to safety and new ways. And that involved them really really getting involved with some of the same forms of engagement that we in the Disability Arts NYC work were doing. So I started thinking, "We're actually doing a lot of the same work," although, sometimes not. The Nightlife community is a bastion of equity and diversity work right now. There are amazing DJ collectives, and Nightlife production collectives, putting on parties that are just doing incredible work. Really prefigurative, imagining "What does it mean to build the world that we wanna live in right now, in this club?" So that means they have new policies about how a door, a cover charge, happens, no one turned away for not being able to pay. Drink prices. Obviously, the music.
Kevin Gotkin: But a lot of these parties, especially when they're in DIY spaces also prize their inaccessibility. How run down the bathroom is, and how you have to go up to the roof on these awful stairs, that's part of the cred and aesthetic of these DIY spaces. So even though they might be articulating some aspects of accessibility that are radical and wonderful, they're also propping up insidious forms of ableist community making.
Kevin Gotkin: So I was thinking, "What if I started to make some DJ sets that divine the truth and beauty of disability culture? And then try to get booked at some of these parties, and go in." As soon as you bring disability into a space everything transforms, which is one of the most incredible things about disability justice because the political commitments happen in making space for all kinds of bodies and minds to share a space. It happens like right now.
Aimi Hamraie: Can you give an example of that? Has this happened?
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Yeah. I think a good example is the DJ as a part of a party to begin with. Someone being the DJ of a party often assumes that everyone will have a relationship to that person in the same way, everybody's gonna be listening. That's oddest, that's not how it happens. You might have deaf folks, hard of hearing folks, in the party. The DJ is not gonna be a center of the party for those folks. They're gonna be doing different forms of socializing in the club.
Kevin Gotkin: When you are thinking about disability in the DJ practice, you realize that you can't just play music. You might put together a set that tells a certain kind of story, or drives towards an idea, which I think some of the best DJs in the city do. But then you might invite a choreographer, or a poet, to join you in the party and do some kind of live scribing that also tries to access that idea. Or you might have a choreographer doing some work on the dance floor. If you defuse that kind of artistry I think a) it demonstrates the best forms of disability artistry which is always collaborative, anti-disciplinary. But you also make the party actually accessible.
Kevin Gotkin: In addition to all of the other really important things to keep in mind like physical venue accessibility, right? Are there ramps for folks who use wheelchairs? In addition to all of the sensory considerations, is there a space where you can go and have quiet, and just be by yourself, different kinds of lighting? All of these things come into consideration when you think about disability, and when you're putting access at the heart of your organizing.
Kevin Gotkin: I just think if the Disability Arts community, and the Nightlife Arts community got together and did more of this work, it would be totally transformative. Also, party because we live in an era where it's shock after shock of the news headlines. The club is often, in moments like this, I think, a site for transgression and new political formation.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Totally.
Kevin Gotkin: So I just feel like, especially in New York, and around the country, there's so many variables that are aligning right now to make this a really potent form of artistry and activism. So that's my thinking here with the Accessible DJ practices.
Aimi Hamraie: Kind of what I'm getting from what you're describing is that DJ-ing is a kind of design and practice, and it's one that, in the way that you are thinking about it, is completely enmeshed with all the other aspects of event design and event planning. From the building to the sensory experiences, to allowing different types of engagement with the space. So I wonder how we could think about, or maybe theorize, a kind of crip design framework or disability justice design framework, that's based around cultural production like this. Maybe not just for Nightlife, but for events in general. How, when we plan events, we can think about that planning as a kind of design activity that requires critical attention?
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Totally. I think this is the beating heart of disability politics. How do we make sure that everyone can share space? I'll just run through, there's so many things that come to mind because this is really, this is like the heart of it all. Yeah, like a design sensibility will help us map these things out in critical ways.
Kevin Gotkin: First of all, I think we have to de-center physical access, like actually sharing co presence in physical space. So many disabled people are incarcerated, or live in places where accessible and affordable public transportation is just not an option. So many people, the home is where life is for disabled folks. Not for everybody, but for a lot of people. That means that you can't exist that the club, coming to the club, is the way to participate. So virtuality, having ways for folks to beam in, right? I would love a club that's just 500 iPads on the wall. You know what I mean? And then you can just beam in to one of those iPads, and if you're at home, or you're wherever, you are... And even there, right? There's limitations to who can access all of that space, but it's a start. And it's a way to model virtuality as a really important ethic in accessible organizing. So just not insisting that everyone come to a place. That's a really important first principle.
Kevin Gotkin: But like I said, collaboration. You can't really, I think it's silly to think of the planners of a party, or an event, and then the attendees. Everyone is sharing the space. Now it's important that some people are compensated for their work, like bartenders and the folks that are actually working the venue. But everyone should have access to the planning process. That's a very important principle of justice, that everyone has access to decision-making processes.
Kevin Gotkin: I would love to start planning a party by just sitting down with a whole bunch of different kinds of folks, and saying "What do we need?" That sources some of the design features, in particular, lived experience. Some people saying, "I really need a space that is super well-lit and super quiet. And here's why." Or "I need a space that is super loud. I need a space without alcohol. I need space where it's okay for me to be intoxicated." From there you start to just list things that the people who are gonna share this space really are going to prize. And with no assumption that that's the only way to organize. You're hoping that a lot of folks that are not already a part of the planning process will come to, and become part of it. So you have to leave open the possibility that you'd need to change things up. And there's a form for what to do when something's not working.
Kevin Gotkin: But I think consultation, just meeting with the people that are going to be at your party, not assuming that there's some hypothetical attendee because often the hypothetical attendee is hearing, is sited, is all these things. That's just not the case. We need to start with our community.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah.
Kevin Gotkin: So then getting into the space, there's all kinds of considerations that are, they're free, there's no cost to actually doing it. Just asking folks to do something while they're drinking, if it's going to be triggering to folks who have trouble with alcohol, let's say. That kind of stuff, we can do that right now, and it doesn't really cost much.
Kevin Gotkin: But some things do cost much, and I would love for there to be more funding availability for accessible event planners. Getting real-time captioning, [inaudible 00:23:55] transcription, if you're going to have people speaking or ASL interpreters, or audio describers. All of those folks should be paid, and a lot of times people just ask folks who have those skills to do it for free. But it's important for the quality of the access work, and for the professionalization of these fields, that we pay them. I think that should be something that the city, New York is about to inaugurate an Office of Nightlife with a Nightlife mayor. I think the Office of Nightlife--
Aimi Hamraie: Oh wow.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah, it's amazing. The Nightlife organizers really got a lot of stuff through in their organizing practice, which is great. I would love for that office to make available funds to hire ASL interpreters, or hire access workers in the club. Otherwise, you're asking folks to do it for free, or it just isn't there. Party planners have very little understanding, from what I see, of what it would actually mean to hire workers who are specifically tasked with creating access.
Kevin Gotkin: We need to talk about that. We can avoid the unfortunate stereotype that disability costs more if we just put the location for funding in equitable spaces. It should be the city, it should be the public, that funds public accessible nightlife. But I think the philanthropic community could also do it. They should recognize that the spaces that I'm describing are a bastion of transformation and new political and artistic forms. Maybe the philanthropic community could fund these kinds of spaces, and this kind of planning. But we need to secure funding for sure.
Kevin Gotkin: There's so much more I could say, but I think those are just a few of the considerations that come into focus.
Aimi Hamraie: Something I was thinking about as you were talking is kind of the opportunity to do design charettes around party planning. I think about ways that I've used this pedagogically. To teach about universal design, and ideas about "How do you aim for the broadest possible type of accessibility, and manage sometimes conflicting, or overlapping, or opposite access needs?"
Aimi Hamraie: I've had my students design an accessible potluck where we figure out everyone's dietary needs, and then we figure out what we could bring that would meet all of those needs and still have a diversity of foods or something. It seems like that's something that you could easily do with a community of people. It wouldn't necessarily have that kind of sensory stuff around sound design and stuff, but there would be taste design and food design.
Aimi Hamraie: Another thing that I do when I teach students about gender is, we take the practice of the gender reveal party and we kind of queer-crip it. And we have an actual gender reveal party where we come up with a gender that, and we describe it, and imagine its qualities. And then we have a whole party that's about doing similar things that you would do at a gender reveal party, or a baby shower. Playing games, and eating food, and taking pictures and stuff. But we do it all about this new queer gender, whatever they determine it is. There's something about the party itself, as a cultural practice, that can be hacked and tinkered with.
Aimi Hamraie: As you pointed out, once you start to incorporate these kinds of disability arts practices that already exist into a party space, all of the rest of the experience kind of unravels and re-coheres around it. An example of that, that I think we've both been to, is the dance party at the Society for Disabilities Conference. Have you ever been to that?
Kevin Gotkin: Mm-hmm (affirmative) mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. What are your experiences with that?
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. This is a legendary party in disability culture, in the history of disability culture. When I was going to SDS it was the highlight of the weekend. It was the space when you just knew...first of all because the hotel ballroom. Whenever I'm in a hotel ballroom I just want to take up all the space. It's just like, "This is a huge space," which is amazing. Maybe because I'm in New York it just feels so liberating. But that's really important for this party because people use space in creative ways that's not possible in a lot of other spaces.
Kevin Gotkin: So there's, it's just the best. There's places to hang out, talk, have a really low-key experience. Or even have a really intimate interpersonal experience. Have some of these career/life changing conversations. But then you can just get lost in the middle of the dance floor. You can use your body in whatever way you can be inspired by whatever thing. Then often the music, for folks who are accessing the music, is about disability so it's this amazing way for you to have just thought about disability all weekend long at this conference. And now you're gonna experience it, and respond to it with your body, and with your mind. And then there's snacks, and everyone's hanging out.
Kevin Gotkin: The Society for Disability Studies is also one of the spaces where you could be around disabled people the whole weekend in ways that are just not possible in our home cities.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Totally.
Kevin Gotkin: It's this real ritual of togetherness. But I will also say, like I think we mentioned earlier, most folks who I know who are in disability arts, or in disability activism, have had very little or no training, formal academic training in disability studies. So the socioeconomic barriers to even understanding disability as a cultural vector, or as a political category, there's a lot of limitations to who even accesses those profound realizations. So, in that way, the SDS dance was also very white, very upper middle class. It was folks who have the resources to get access to disability studies.
Aimi Hamraie: Absolutely.
Kevin Gotkin: And that's why I think the SDS dance is such a great model, to just model all kinds of parties.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah.
Kevin Gotkin: Then you could go back to communities where those other forms of inclusion and diversity are happening, and then use all of the beauty of the SDS dance to take it to the next level.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like the SDS dance, in that way, is part of the broader milieu of queer dance parties, and other things like fat dance parties. I don't know if you are familiar with Fat Kid Dance Party, but it's--
Kevin Gotkin: No, I'm not.
Aimi Hamraie: Oh, it's so amazing. It's like a dance-based exercise class for fat people, led by fat people. It's in LA, but they are also recording it so that you can do it at home. It has all these interesting cultural practices around when you're a fat person, and society tells you not to take up space, so how do you come into your dancing body? There's all these collaborative practices. When you feel awkward, you say it, and then people cheer for you. If you take a break, or drink some water, people celebrate your self-care. So it's this idea of kind of like a counter-cultural space that is also a care space, that is also a dance party.
Aimi Hamraie: I wish that that kind of thing, especially with the disability kind of as a guiding framework, was more prevalent because for so many people Nightlife is just really inaccessible. It's over-stimulating. It's economically inaccessible. It seems like there's so many opportunities for using a kind of multimodal sensory design to change the norms of [crosstalk 00:33:13].
Kevin Gotkin: Totally. Totally.
Aimi Hamraie: It could even be--
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. And it sounds like those folks are articulating principles of access already.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Totally.
Kevin Gotkin: That can just be coordinated with more. This is what's so amazing about disability activism is that there's this super big idea about what access is, and it includes so many things. So there's so many natural allies who are doing that work that I would love to, and this is the vision, to link up all these things.
Aimi Hamraie: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah. I wonder if, kind of by way of wrapping up, we could talk a little bit more about the multi modality part of this. One thing that you and I have talked about before, in the context of the critical design lab, is this idea that access isn't just about translation. You don't just make a sound, and then transcribe it, and that's the end of it. There's actually a lot of meaning that can be captured creatively in different ways. So I wonder if you could say, in your teaching practice, or elsewhere, what are ways that multi modality can work and produce different kinds of access also?
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Totally. Totally. Accessible DJ-ing is inherently about collaboration. It's about anti-interdisciplinarity. You can't just be a sound artist if you care about disability. I think the way that I think about it is, to tap into the forms of the cultural resources that emerge from disability communities.
Kevin Gotkin: For example, if I were to have an ASL interpreter... Now I wanna say, a lot of folks think "We're gonna have a lot of speakers. Let's have an ASL interpreter and we're good." Folks are often driven by a checklist like, "How do I make sure that I'm checking all the boxes?" I noticed even spaces that are doing great work around accessibility, they'll have an ASL interpreter who's interpreting to nobody because the event itself really hasn't been advertised or marketed to the deaf community that would use that access feature. So the ASL interpreter's kind of looking to nobody in the crowd, but everybody's very happy that... And it's kind of like, well, we don't always need ASL interpretation, right? You need to know who's in the room. You need to know who's going to use that. And we can't just automatically assume that that's the best thing to have around, and that we're all good as long as we have ASL.
Kevin Gotkin: I would much rather have a choreographer who knows my DJ set, doing dance work, trying to access an idea that I'm also accessing in my music. But let's say I did have, maybe I was driven by a lot of maybe spoken word elements that I'm bringing into a DJ set, and I do wanna have an interpreter there to perform these textual, these verbal elements. I would love to have a deaf ASL interpreter there. A lot of folks will here that and think, "Oh, that's an impossibility." But deaf ASL interpreters work with the cultural resources from ASL as a language in artful ways that hearing interpreters don't have access to.
Aimi Hamraie: Can you give an example of that? Just for the people who--
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Yeah. So deaf ASL interpreters will often work with a hearing interpreter, kind of a relay partner, but they'll be the ones facing the crowd, really doing the interpretive work. They're the central interpreter. ASL is a language all its own which means that there are slang terms, and combinations of letter formations of sentences that can access meaning in really efficient ways when someone who knows and understands the culture can be the one interpreting. So hearing interpreters often don't have access to that.
Kevin Gotkin: There's all these viral videos about hearing interpreters who are just up there with Chance the Rapper, and doing all these amazing things. Often these videos are so viral because it looks amazing to hearing audiences, but we have no idea if that would actually be understood by the deaf community. Deaf interpreters are using the resources from the community in order to provide access in a way that's artful, that is more efficient, it's better access. That's an example, I think, of this kind of multi modality that really uses disability as an engine for accessibility.
Kevin Gotkin: It's not just about overlaying some access feature, it's about tapping into some generator of brilliance that is sourced from an impairment, or from disability that can then expand worlds, and just open things up.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. It seems like, in every way, this goes back to ideas like "nothing about us without us," and really starting from disability culture rather than from a kind of rehabilitation model that says, "Here's the non-disabled stuff. We're going to translate it into something that disabled people can access." If you do it the other way around it actually changes the aesthetics of it, and that's something that we don't really talk about very often when we're talking about image descriptions, and things that often act as familiarization of barriers rather than operating as their own art forms.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Totally. Totally. It's a pervasive way of thinking about how to bring disability into spaces. There's this idea that all the speeches at the event, they just need to be made accessible. If you had disabled people as, on the speaker roster, and involved in the planning of the event... Nothing just stays stable and needs to be made accessible. It's inspired and it grows from disability itself.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. So I just think this is what design in disability, it's the best in design in disability, is making disability the engine for genius.
Aimi Hamraie: You know, just one thing I would add as a caveat is that even amongst ourselves, disabled people, we still learn from each other about how to create access together.
Aimi Hamraie: I'm part of a disability justice collective here in Nashville where the leadership, we all have very disabilities and identities so sometimes we actually create barriers for each other too. But because we have this framework that's like... We're so used to engaging with the material world, and figuring out how to make it work for us, that we could kind of guide each other through it. That becomes a community building practice even though we don't actually know what everyone else needs all the time. Sometimes we assume we do, and it's not the right thing.
Aimi Hamraie: There's a kind of epistemological thing in that, I think, that's really relevant to design thinking too in the way that, traditionally in design thinking there's this kind of non-disabled designer who has empathy for the disabled people, and learns from them about their needs. It's like, no. Actually, we're all learning from each other all the time.
Kevin Gotkin: All the time, yeah.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. There's no stable disability knowledge or content. That's also always changing. And we're growing together in that way.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. And just to add to that, there's like a predictive drive in a lot of design work. We'll get better at accommodating if we can predict it, which means we should map it, and we should have protocols, and those things should really...there's often in design thinking discourse. The way that design helps is by making prediction more available when actually prediction needs to be totally de-centered.
Kevin Gotkin: Also because, from my experience in a neuro divergent in a mad body, I also don't know what I need at any moment. My experience of my own mental illness is often sometimes that I can't figure out what is acting on me at a particular moment. I don't know why I'm reacting to something. But I think, for me, having a space where disability design is the center of a space would help me kind of sort through things, or not if that's not even something that I need. Just kind of living in the uncertainty and remaining safe is important, but actually relishing the unpredictability of an experience.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah, I think de-centering prediction as a virtue of design is really important. And, as you're saying, making sure that that capacity for us to be teaching each other, it's kind of a pedagogical heart of design which means it always changes, you never know.
Aimi Hamraie: Totally.
Kevin Gotkin: That's really really key, I think, to everything we're saying here.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Something that you said made me thing about, when you said the word "protocol," how the accessibility checklist has been this very, attempted to be an objective protocol that is very predictive, and it's all about taking particular forms of knowledge and saying, "These are the things that people will likely need, and at the bare minimum we should do these things."
Aimi Hamraie: I think some of the work that we've been doing in the Critical Design Lab together, and with other participants, is saying "How do we create protocols, design protocols, for unpredictability or unknowability? And what are the paths that that will take us on? And what new things do we produce as a result of that?" That's an interesting thing just for me to think about in terms of counter-protocols, and how to give up on the need to know exactly what everyone's going to need all the time. Which is also an important starting point for access, it's just not the only one.
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Yeah. It makes me think this episode should be called "Contra Prediction" or "Contra Certainty" or something.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Kevin Gotkin: That is really, I think, that this is driving at. It also is the, for me, it's a political and spiritual dimension of doing disability work, is exactly what you're describing. The unknowability, and the unpredictability is not dangerous, is not necessarily risky. It's actually at the heart of how we do it right. And as soon as we feel like we have a checklist that we can replicate perfectly across all kinds of spaces and times, is the time that you need to revisit it because it will not remain stable.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah.
Kevin Gotkin: This is what disability does in all spaces. It challenges the protocols at work. And if you center that, then, it will reinvent protocols endlessly, and teach you new things all the time.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. You know, with the mapping access project this is something that comes up a lot because people contact me, and they say, "Give me your survey. I want to survey my campus," and the whole point of the project is to destabilize the survey protocol, and to invite people into the process of figuring out the means of production for those protocols, and troubling them all along the way, so it's not to just create a standardized checklist that everyone can use. Even though you can create an unstable protocol, and then use it to study different things, and then destabilize it again, and study certain things.
Aimi Hamraie: I like this idea of kind of unknowability as the basis of crip protocols maybe. Maybe the episode could even be called "Contra Protocol".
Kevin Gotkin: Yeah. Totally.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah.
Kevin Gotkin: Totally.
Aimi Hamraie: Well, Kevin, this has been wonderful. I love learning from you, and hearing about all of the things that you're excited about and working on.
Kevin Gotkin: Well thank you for, and this is, just being in conversation with you has been one of the best things about my professional life really.
Aimi Hamraie: Likewise.
Kevin Gotkin: It's just so amazing that we're doing this stuff. I think we're perceiving something really really profound here, and I'm so excited to be a part of that. So thank you for tapping me. I'm super excited about what's to come.
Aimi Hamraie: Yeah. Great. Thank you.
You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, Leah Samples, and Rebecca Rahimi. Kevin Gotkin created our intro and Cassandra Hartblay designed the logo. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com.
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