Leading the Blind: A Marching Band Helps an Artist Navigate Santa Ana

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For participants, Papalia's "Blind Field Shuttle" represent an opportunity to understand the atmosphere in a whole new way. | Photo by Thom Carroll.

As far as requests go, it was a highly unusual one: an artist from Canada was seeking a marching band for a performance through the streets of Santa Ana. He needed musicians that would be quick on their feet, willing to follow him along pedestrian passageways, across streets and into mom-and-pop groceries. Most significantly, the band wasn't going to simply tag along as accompaniment. Their every note would serve to alert the artist to obstacles along the way -- be it a curb or a tree or a toddler waddling down a sidewalk. The artist in question, it turns out, is legally blind.

Carmen Papalia began losing his vision at the age of 21. Now, at the age of 31, he can only see distorted bits of shapes and colors. In some lighting situations, such as dusk, he can't perceive these at all. He generally navigates public spaces with the use of a cane. But for the purpose of his upcoming performance at the Grand Central Art Center in Orange County this Saturday, he will ditch the cane and spend nearly an hour navigating the streets of downtown Santa Ana by the sounds of a marching band alone. The piece, titled "Mobility Device," will be produced in collaboration with the Great Centurion Marching Band from Century High School.

For the band's director, Scott Devoe, this unusual performance is an opportunity to work on a project that extended well beyond the band's usually purview of football games, parades and community events. "They will experience a kind of art that they're not used to," he explains. "It will expand their idea of what art is and what art can be." Plus, for the students -- there are 18 in total -- it will be an unusual lesson in sound. For each obstacle that Papalia might encounter on the street, the Great Centurions will have to devise a sound that serves as warning. A step down might be marked by a few descending notes on a scale. A speeding car could merit a big brassy blast. Devoe says that he and the band will be spending this week working out exactly which sound will go with which obstacle. "At first, I'm not going to give them any sounds," he says. "I really want them to think about how to create music themselves. Then I'll play some recordings of experimental music so it can help them refine their techniques."

Century High School's Great Centurion Marching Band. | Photo courtesy of Century High School.
Century High School's Great Centurion Marching Band. | Photo courtesy of Century High School.

But one thing is guaranteed: the performance will be totally free-wheeling. "It will be really improvisational," says Papalia. "I feel like I'm in good hands with the band." Papalia, in fact, will not have any significant rehearsals with the Great Centurions prior to this Saturday's performance. (He is based in Vancouver and doesn't touch down in Southern California until later this week.) John Spiak is the director and chief curator at the Grand Central Art Center. He arranged to have Papalia stage the piece in Santa Ana. "It's all based on trust," he explains. "He has to trust himself. He has to trust other people."

"Mobility Device" is one in a series of works by Papalia that explore issues of this nature: navigation, access and trust. As a working artist, he has led non-visual tours of museums (focusing on sensation and sound) and created "Non-Visual Site Maps," in which participants describe a space using non-visual cues. In addition to the performances, he also creates installations with sound. Since 2010, he has done a recurring performance titled "Blind Field Shuttle," in which he leads a chain of people -- anywhere from 15 to 50 -- on a tour of a city with their eyes closed.

Grand Central's Spiak first became familiar with Papalia's work when he joined one of these walks during a conference on art and social engagement in Portland. "It was just, literally, close your eyes and grab the shoulder of the person in front of you," he recalls. "If he said something, then the person behind him would relay it to the person behind him, all the way down the line. For about 45 minutes, we walked around Portland this way, while Carmen talked about the city and navigation." Spiak says it was not only a lesson in trust, it was a profound exercise in listening. "One of the things that impressed me was the number of birds in the city," he says. "There was also the anxiousness of getting across a street when you hear a car idling. It was quite nerve wracking."

Papalia's public performance also fits in with the larger mission at Grand Central Art Center. Though it is operated by Cal State Fullerton, the space is located in downtown Santa Ana, in a long-time commercial district (and hotbed of gentrification) that has long catered to the area's primarily Mexican immigrant community. For the gallery, Spiak has sought artists whose work goes beyond the white box. An ongoing exhibit by Venezuelan artist Saskia Jordá examines the tradition of the coming-of-age parties known as quinceañeras; another addresses the issue of gentrification. For Papalia's piece, says Spiak, "We wanted to ask ourselves, 'How can people experience downtown in a way they might not usually experience downtown?"

An image of one of Papalia's "Blind Field Shuttles," in which he leads participants on a tour of a city with eyes closed. | Photo by Jordan Reznick.
An image of one of Papalia's "Blind Field Shuttles," in which he leads participants on a tour of a city with eyes closed. | Photo by Jordan Reznick.

This year, Papalia will also stage happenings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and the Craft and Folk Art Museum in L.A. This fall, he will have a solo exhibit at the CUE Foundation in New York. For him, the work is a way of addressing the complex social issues generated by his lack of vision, while engaging viewers on an artistic level, too. It's a type of social practice that dates back to the '60s, when the artists of the Fluxus movement, along with countless others working in the arenas of performance and conceptual art, staged actions that frequently required audience participation. (Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece," from 1964, is a particularly famous work -- in which viewers cut off bits of her clothes with scissors.) "I could make a protest sign about something and maybe someone might remember the slogan a few days later," explains Papalia. "But if you make a participatory project, people become much more engaged. They become allies. I create a community around me -- I create a sensibility around these topics."

Already it's having an effect. When band director Devoe initially announced the possibility of this performance with his band, they quickly understood that Papalia's well-being would depend on each and every last note. Says Devoe: "They're beginning to realize how many obstacles a visually-impaired person faces each and every time they walk down the street."


Carmen Papalia's performance "Mobility Device" takes place at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana this Saturday, June 1 at 6pm.


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