Disability justice and accessibility featured by latest Perlman Teaching Museum exhibit

The exhibit, “Towards a Warm Embrace,” displays the works of Finnegan Shannon ’11 and Ezra Benus.

Mileana Borowski ’25 1 April 2024 Posted In:
Two people sitting at a table in a room lit with red light, heating pads and cords are strewn about chairs and benches. On the wall is projected a transcription of an audio installation of Finnegan Shannon and Ezra Benus that addresses the culture around heating pads.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Hot HangPhoto:

The latest Perlman Teaching Museum exhibit, “Towards a Warm Embrace,” will display works by Finnegan Shannon ’11 and Ezra Benus at the Perlman’s location in the Weitz Center for Creativity until April 14, 2024. The exhibit focuses on disability justice and accessibility practices, with the underlying premise that access is something everyone has a responsibility toward. Structured events to engage the Carleton community have included an artist talk, ongoing touch tours, and “Masked Mondays.”

Artist Talk

The artist talk took place on January 11 at 5 p.m. in the Weitz Cinema, and was followed by a gallery opening at 6 p.m. in the Perlman Teaching Museum. For this event, Sara Cluggish, director and curator for the Perlman, moderated a public conversation with the artists behind the show. The talk began with self-descriptions, explained as a valuable tool for accessibility and archival documentation. In their introduction, both artists directed the audience to “be in this space as comfortably as possible” and encouraging people to “sit on the floor if you want to.” During the talk, a few audience members took these words to heart as they found seating on the stairs or elsewhere. Shannon embodied the very practices they preached by knitting during the conversation “to stay grounded.” 

Alt Text: In the center of a large, brightly-lit gallery stands a short pedestal with a rug sculpture on it, over which someone is kneeling to touch it. Behind the pedestal are other artworks about disability culture.
Towards a Warm Embrace

Cluggish opened the discussion with the question, “How did you start making work around themes of chronic illness and disabilities?” Shannon pointed to the many influences that had guided her on this artistic journey, specifically mentioning Ross Elfline, professor of art history at Carleton, as an impactful force in their career. Through dialogue with mentors and teachers, Shannon built on the themes of chronic illness and disabilities that “were always in my work, but in the past they were quite subtle.” Over time, these themes grew to become “louder” and “more direct” in Shannon’s work, to the point that they now “prioritize disabled audiences.”

For Benus, these themes became prominent through a serious medical event they experienced at 18 years old. They began to recognize their work as making space for “malfunctioning bodies,” connecting to the legacy left by many artists who made art about AIDS and HIV. “Artists build our own community and make that space,” said Benus. 

Cluggish then shifted the conversation to address the theme of relationality within the show, explaining that the show is a “conversation between Finnigan [Shannon] and Ezra [Benus] and others in their lives who hold them up and teach them.” The artists found that their “aligned inspiration” and “overlapping interest” combined to generate an effective creative process. 

“We share an approach to process, spirit of experimentation, understanding, and flexibility,” said Benus. “[This] allows projects to unfold as they need to.”

A lone person rests in a warmly lit room on a cushioned bench with a heating pad across their torso, a blue tapestry looms on the wall beside them.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Hot Hang

This creative relationship is displayed in the Kaemmer Family Gallery, a smaller room within the Perlman’s exhibit space, where the installation Hot Hang (Shannon and Benus, 2024) is exhibited. The installation has multiple benches with functional heating pads, a dining table with four chairs and four hot pads on the table arranged in front of each chair like a place setting, and a video providing text for a dialogue between Shannon and Benus that plays aloud within the space. The intensity of light changes over time, with orange light modulating in intensity to more yellow, then red. This room showcases the artists’ shared understanding and experience of using heating pads and treats heating pads as an “object,” “offering,” and “medium.”

Finally, Cluggish’s conversation with the artists turned to accessibility. Shannon defined accessibility as “what is needed for us to be together. It touches every part of our lives and culture.” Benus added that accessibility is a “living practice” which “changes” due to its “contextual nature.” 

Cluggish shared how “accessibility is a delicate balance in the museum world… Accessibility isn’t just one thing,” because different people need different, and sometimes conflicting, accommodations. For example, Cluggish offered, “lighting too bright will make it difficult for people with migraines or neurodivergent individuals. But make the lighting too dim, and older people, those who use glasses, and low-vision individuals will struggle.” In the museum industry, this is known as “accessibility clashing.”

“Pure access is not possible,” Cluggish concluded. “You can’t be all things to all people, but we can commit to this conversation and be open to feedback.”

For this exhibit, the artwork was hung lower than typical museum standards and the labels were printed at 18-point font. It was important to Cluggish that Shannon and Benus were not “turned into accessibility consultants,” but the artists did end up sharing much of their vast knowledge on accessibility for museums throughout the process. Cluggish hopes there is further conversation about accessibility at the Perlman “beyond this experiment.” Post-show commitments include alt text, captioning videos, and making accessibility notes tailored to each exhibit. “We also now know how to do [a touch tour], and can put one together in the future when wanted or needed,” Cluggish said.

Touch Tour

A person sits at the front desk of the museum in front of a colorful text-based artwork by Finnegan Shannon that reads “Students for Accessibility, Staff for Accessibility, Artists for Accessibility, Academics for Accessibility, Communities for Accessibility,” a series of frames, and a blue bench.
Towards a Warm Embrace, seen from the Perlman lobby

Esme Krohn ’24 and Lorelei Bogue ’25, event associates for the Perlman, have led a few touch tours of the exhibition now. Krohn, while having seen touch exhibits before, had never led one herself. Through this experience she learned how touch tours could benefit sighted people as well as people who are blind or low-vision. Touch tours are great for all guests to experience an exhibit in a new way. Bogue was “surprised by the accessible language” and “respectful terms,” gaining awareness of the importance in the way things are described. 

“For example,” Bogue said, “using low vision instead of visually impaired. The term impaired has negative connotations to something wrong, not working, or broken, which is not how you want to describe a human being.” 

This was a new experience not just for the student leaders, but for the museum itself, as this was the first time touch tours were being offered as a part of a Perlman exhibit. To prepare for their roles, Krohn and Bogue drew on a number of resources, including readings and looking at techniques implemented by other museums. 

Beginning with an access check where Cluggish, also present, encouraged guests to “interject if you would like me to talk slower or louder” and “do whatever is helpful for you to feel comfortable,” the team shared self-identifications at the start of the touch tour. These self-identifications incorporated both objective fact and personal anecdotes. Cluggish described herself as a white woman in her late 30s, going on to describe her outfit as well as a gold necklace “from her grandmother” that she “wears every day.” Krohn and Bogue followed with their own self-identifications, providing a visual description with brief historical backgrounds of some of the objects they were wearing. This was an interesting way to humanize the tour guides while also providing context for low-vision guests. 

A hand-made rug invites audiences to touch it tenderly through text tufted into the rug, and a visitor’s hand gently abides.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Touch Me Tenderly

Krohn introduced the tour group to the first art piece: Touch Me Tenderly (Benus, 2021). This piece is a two-by-four-foot rug made of acrylic, wool, and cotton on poly-cotton cloth. Krohn described the rug before prompting the audience to share what they noticed, encouraging everyone to gather around and touch the rug. As guests discussed their observations, their hands were constantly running through the scruffy material, grabbing on to the little patches sticking up or smoothing down plush areas. 

“This artwork is not precious about itself,” shared Cluggish as the conversation came to an end. “It’s not about keeping it pristine. The work will degrade over time, and that’s actually part of the piece.” This echoes sentiments expressed by Benus during the artist talk, when they shared how they value “art spaces which prioritize the experience as the precious thing and not the art as the precious thing.”

The group then moved on to Portable Mural #2 (Shannon, 2020). Made of chipboard and ink, guests could feel how the individual letters subtly stuck out from the wall on which they were affixed, “jumping out,” as Bogue, leading this portion of the tour, described. Guests also noted how the hand of the artist was evident in the jaggedly cut edges of each letter. By being able to touch the mural, they were able to feel the snips of the scissors as it went around, gaining a more personal perspective. 

Portable Mural #2 is the first piece you see when you walk in and can be considered as the thesis statement of the show,” Cluggish said. “It is speaking very directly to a [college] audience. I hope it invites people in and serves as a call to action.”

Cluggish also provided insight into the thought process behind the placement of this piece.

“All the letters are independent of each other, they could’ve been placed all around the gallery,” said Cluggish. “But it’s placed this way so you can see it when you’re not in the gallery. It invites people in.” 

The next artwork on the tour was Do you want us here or not (Shannon, 2018), a bench with two sentences written on it: “This exhibit has asked me to stand for too long. Sit if you agree.” Using the international colors of disability, blue and white, this bench transforms sitting — often seen as a passive action — into an assertive message. Such a piece of art “demands to be in an exhibition. It doesn’t make sense in any other context,” explained the tour guide. 

Finnegan Shannon’s bench sculpture do you want us here or not is positioned directly in front of a large black-and-white wall sculpture by Ezra Benus.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Do you want us here or not and for the world eternal לעולם ועד

Do you want us here or not was positioned to be in conversation with a piece of work by Benus, for the world eternal לעולם ועד (Benus, 2022). “A lot of times the sight line is prioritized over functionality for the sitter,” shared Cluggish, so those who choose to sit are left staring at nothing. Conversely, this bench was placed so the visual enjoyment of the sitter was prioritized and they could easily view for the world eternal

The tour ended with Hot Hang, the only piece specially curated for the Perlman and made by both Shannon and Benus. “Making something new with two artists is so much fun, and that work was made with our audiences in mind,” said Cluggish. As the tour group entered the room, Cluggish invited them to “sit or lie down, and turn on the heating pads. Feel free to get cozy.” 

The group was struck by how this installation “emphasizes community,” with the benches facing each other and the exhibit encouraging visitors to participate in a typically private activity — using a heating pad — with others. 

“I appreciate how the tour allowed me to play with what art makes us do,” said tour participant Ben More ’24. “Not just sit and stare, but touch. Art can involve any number of senses, not just sight.”

Academic Involvement

Involvement with the Perlman exhibit was also facilitated through academics at Carleton, as students in ARTS 274: Printmaking – Silkscreen and Relief interacted with Hot Hang through a hands-on approach during Fall Term 2023. The idea for collaboration began with Cluggish, who approached Jade Hoyer ’07, assistant professor of art, with the possibility of her students engaging in silk screening for Shannon and Benus. 

Blue and yellow heating pads rest on a dark blue, cyanotype fabric. Two hands gently explore the heating pad’s surface.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Hot Hang

Students contributed to the installation by working as printers, silk screening a design created by Shannon and Benus onto fabric used for the heating pads in the exhibit. They thereby built on the rich history of printmaking and the “tradition of artists working in collaboration with printmakers to assist in executing their vision,” explained Hoyer. This assignment allowed students to gain a hands-on understanding of “what it would mean to be a potential printing assistant, what it would mean to work with a client, and what it is like printing beyond works on paper.”

“We don’t make art in a vacuum,” Hoyer said. “We don’t do anything in a vacuum.” Applying that knowledge to her practice as a professor, Hoyer looks for “anything I can do as an instructor to solidify and demonstrate that art takes place across our campus — it isn’t limited to Boliou or the Weitz.”

Hoyer expanded the boundaries of her classroom through a Zoom conversation between her students and Shannon and Benus. “[They were] generous in sharing themselves,” said Hoyer. Through this Zoom call, students were able to learn not only about the artists’ vision for the project they were to contribute to, but also about their careers and artistic journeys as professional artists. This achieved another of Hoyer’s goals. 

“As the only printmaking professor [at Carleton], I feel very cognizant of the responsibilities of what it means to be conveying everything in my art field through the lens of ‘Jade [Hoyer]’ and what the limitations of that viewpoint may be,” said Hoyer. “Allowing students to have collaboration with other artists, directly or indirectly, can further broaden students’ viewpoints from the small slice of art that I’m sharing.”

The kindness of Shannon and Benus was emphasized by all who interacted with them.

A person sits at a metal table turning the page of a newspaper. Behind her is a grid of colorful pieces of paper and photos attached to the wall.
Towards a Warm Embrace: Anti-Stairs Club Lounge

“I felt they would be good at working with students,” said Cluggish. “That’s always an important consideration for me when choosing artists to exhibit their work at the Perlman.”

“These artists are making awesome work in their own rights,” added Hoyer, “but they are also navigating their artistic processes in a way that is conversant with the College’s broader values. [Shannon and Benus] were very welcoming and affirming. I have pursued lots of collaborations, and that generosity of spirit is not always present. It was a pleasure to work with those artists in that way. It is a testament to their skill and the broader facilitators at the Perlman to arrange for such a pleasant interaction.”