Artist Carolyn Lazard Has a Radical Proposition for Museum Visitors: Have a Seat, and Be Comfortable

Carolyn Lazard’s video CRIP TIME (2018), now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, lasts only 10 minutes but feels much longer. The entire work is one unbroken take, shot by a camera pointed down at a table, upon which are laid seven pillboxes, one for each day of the week. For some viewers, that shot offers an achingly slow experience; for others, its images will appear all too familiar.

Across the video’s runtime, Lazard can be seen opening the boxes and dropping in an array of pills—circular tablets, maroon discs, gigantic blue capsules. Lazard’s hands move with deliberation, only rarely faltering as a pill slips away before it is picked back up again and dropped in its rightful place. The medications properly distributed, the video ends with Lazard shutting the cases, restoring them to their former state.

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Half a dozen women stand on stage, near a grand piano, wearing colorful designs.

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CRIP TIME’s title alludes to the concept describing the pace at which disabled people experience life. Yet those searching for grand statements about chronic illnesses will not find it in this work, which reports on daily rituals undertaken by Lazard and people like them.

“I find myself interested in the labor that facilitates our staying alive and that labor is care and care work,” they said in an email interview.

Works by Lazard in the spirit of this one have appeared in venues ranging from the Whitney Biennial to the Venice Biennale. Their latest show is now in its final week at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the city where they are from.

Yet Lazard’s practice cannot be contained within an art space’s walls. With a group of artists such as Jerron Herman, Park McArthur, and Constantina Zavitsanos, they organized “I Wanna Be With You Everywhere,” a New York festival that was marketed as “a gathering of, by, and for disabled artists and writers and anyone who wants to get with us for a series of crip meet-ups, performances, readings and other social spaces of surplus, abundance and joy.”

And with another group of artists, Lazard cofounded Canaries, which describes itself as “a network of women-identified, femme-presenting, and gender non-conforming people living and working with autoimmune conditions and other chronic illnesses.” Canaries led a residency through Brooklyn’s Recess arts space, through which Lazard published Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice, an essential how-to guide, downloadable for free as a PDF, that offers arts leaders information about alt text, sensory rooms, and other accommodations.

One may be tempted to say that across all these various projects, Lazard is using their art to bring visibility to the experiences of disabled people, which have rarely been seen in mainstream art institutions. Indeed, certain works—like the ongoing Instagram project In Sickness and Study (2015–), featuring shots of Lazard’s hands holding books, often while receiving IV infusions of iron—could be said to be explicitly about just that. But this may be too simple a way of describing an artist who is concerned that visibility is potentially dangerous.

“There is a constant demand that disabled people, black disabled people, be made legible, especially to the state. It’s a demand for transparency,” they wrote. “Opacity is a way of retaining that which is irreducible about ourselves, that which cannot be imaged, but might be heard or felt, or transmitted by some other means.”

Many of Lazard’s artworks exist at the limits of our senses. A Conspiracy (2017) is composed of an array of Dohm white noise machines that can be appended to a ceiling. The work was memorably shown in the New Museum’s elevators, where their whir was barely recognizable as belonging to an artwork. In a similar mode, Privatization (2020) consists of a HEPA air filter purifier that was enacted during a show at New York’s Essex Street, where those who didn’t look at the checklist could’ve considered it a functional object rather than a sculpture. Not coincidentally, non-artwork versions of these objects are used in medical settings; also not coincidentally, both can be enlisted to make a space more accessible.

Lazard’s films are similarly minimal, with their latest work, Leans, Reverses (2023), pushing the style to its apex. This new three-channel installation consists largely of a black screen with the occasional white text describing the scuffling and murmurs that can be heard. Although it may not appear as such, this new work is actually a dance film, as it documents a choreography.

To craft the work, Lazard worked with Jerron Herman and Joselia Rebekah Hughes. Herman performed a dance score that Lazard wrote, and then, with Hughes, Lazard recorded an audio description. “Even as the work developed across different periods of time,” Lazard said, “every element is synced to the time frame of the performance.”

With text that describes audio and audio that describes images we can’t see, Leans, Reverses is bound up in the same layers of meta that guided structuralist filmmaking, whose practitioners sought to get at the true meaning of their medium by largely eschewing camera movement and editing. Fittingly, the ICA show is titled “Long Take,” after a filmmaking technique Lazard said they prize.

“It’s also a way of shooting that is commonly used in dance films and videos,” they said. “It allows the camera to follow the continuous motion of the body. For me, the continuous motion of this work is access. It’s how accessibility extends artworks outside of themselves into other iterations and forms, they go on and on.”

When it comes to video art, seating tends to be an afterthought, if it is even present at all. But to pair with Leans, Reverses, Lazard crafted several “Institutional Seats,” objects that viewers can sit on to watch the video. These seats are composed of benches sourced from the ICA itself; to these ready-made objects, Lazard added upholstery that renders them a lot more welcoming. The artist said these works had taken as their point of departure similar pieces by Finnegan Shannon, who has produced benches covered in text that encourage viewers to rest. (One such Shannon work reads, “MUSEUM VISITS ARE HARD ON MY BODY. REST HERE IF YOU AGREE.”)

“I’m interested in the somewhat long and awkward history of video in the gallery: it’s once presumed sculptural qualities which have become increasingly ephemeral and cinematic,” Lazard said. “And the bizarre tradition of making people stand in front of videos or sit uncomfortably in front of videos for long stretches of time.”

They continued, “I’m interested in access and creating the optimal conditions for consuming media. I tend to think the best way to do that is sitting down somewhere comfortable but I think that’s a radical idea in museums.”

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