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Inaccessibility as Material: an interview with Alison O’Daniel

Alison O’Daniel is a visual artist and filmmaker whose ongoing project The Tuba Thieves interweaves elements of sound composition, sculptural installation, performance, and film. Beginning in 2011, The Tuba Thieves has been screened and exhibited in numerous iterations, expanding and complicating the notion of a filmic whole. Using a film as a site through which to explore how continuity, equivalency, and legibility intersect O’Daniel’s work complicates the presumption of normativity inherent in traditional cinematic and narrative modes. Building a vocabulary of missing information, misunderstanding, and processual aesthetics, The Tuba Thieves asks us to rethink differing sensory experiences as a generative and imperative storytelling force. 

The following is an excerpt from a longer conversation conducted over Google Meet between the artist, Christopher Robert Jones, and Liza Sylvestre. Google Meet was chosen after discussing various video conferencing platforms and their inadequate accessibility features. 


Liza Sylvestre: How do you wake up?

Alison O’Daniel: My dog wakes me up. She comes in and punches the bed. She is a deaf boxer and she wakes me up every day at 6:00 am, although she is actually on her decline right now. 

That’s an interesting thing that has been happening for me with Coronavirus; I am worried I am not going to be able to take her to the vet and get her the care that she needs. I am spending every moment I can with her, which is time that I am very grateful for. So right now, she is not actually waking me up. I have been waking her up. She has trained my body for 14 years and now I don’t know what I am going to do. I am going to have to start using an alarm when she passes away. I mean I have complained about it, but I love when she punches the bed. It’s such a deaf experience.

I think that because of my hearing loss, I am a pretty light sleeper. This is a totally unscientific speculation that I have wondered about for a while. I think I’ve always had this feeling that I am a little bit worried all the time. Sleep is vulnerable for me. Most of her sleep is sort of opening her eyes and looking around, and I identify with it, the sense of vulnerability.

LS: When our four-year-old was first born I would sleep with my cochlear implant on because his crying was my lifeline to him. The transformation of becoming a mother was going from knowing someone in a physical way, to knowing someone in an auditory way; this aspect felt especially acute to me because of my hearing loss. I have a hard time relaxing when doors are closed for that reason. I need to know that he can physically show up and that I can physically see him in the doorway. It is an interesting thing to navigate as a parent; Christopher, who is hearing, has a different set of criteria based on a different set of sensory inputs. Being able to turn off and being able to relax is an on-going challenge.

Image: A screengrab of a film with a diptych. On the left side is an older person speaking to another figure whose hands are in the middle of a gesture. There is text below the left image that reads, “THE DISCUSSION IS POINTLESS, BECAUSE IT’S UP TO HER MOTHER! NOT YOU!” On the right side of the frame is a figure who is speaking to a crowd. A bright light shines on the back of their head. Text in blue reads, “THEY’RE THROUGH WITH THE NOISE, THEY’RE THROUGH WITH THE BEER.” Photo courtesy of Alison O’Daniel.

Christopher Robert Jones: Art institutions often seem to have a difficult time differentiating between accessibility and theoretical accessibility. Your work uses captions in a way that disentangles accessibility from the notion of equivalencies (equivalencies substantiate the normative point of view rather than shifting it to incorporate disparate vantage points). How do you see your work functioning in institutional spaces that approach accessibility as a gestural accommodation rather than a critical discourse?

AOD: I have a lot of feelings about this. In the last year I feel like a lot of people have been asking me questions about this new institutional accessibility thing that is happening. All of these places have been asking me for my opinion about this stuff and I keep telling them I think the answer requires extreme flexibility. You have to be able to accommodate conflicting things at all times. 

For example, my film is not accessible to people with blindness; I had this really amazing experience working with Rodney Evans, who is a blind filmmaker. He made a film called Vision Portraits about four artists impacted by blindness. Rodney’s film came out last year and I was really amazed when I noticed that he used the term “vision-impaired over and over in the film. I thought—that’s interesting, in the Deaf community we’ve been advocating to not use the word ‘impaired’ since the ‘70s and it is just now catching on. I kept repeatedly asking him about his use of the term. When we were at Sundance together we concluded that we should just call it ‘the blind spectrum’ and ‘the deaf spectrum.’ Fuck all of these terms —let’s just say everyone is on a spectrum. 

In France last year, I was given a sign name by these deaf French people. This one deaf person kept expressing “I don’t understand why you call yourself hard of hearing, you’re just deaf.” I tried to explain, “Not in America. I don’t feel comfortable calling myself deaf in America.” I have already been told I’m not deaf enough so many times in my life—I would never even use that word.

In my films, there are moments that are accessible to Deaf people and then there are moments that are accessible to hearing people. This concept that everything must be accessible all the time is so problematic. I think everything should be accessible in an institution, but as an artist, (because my experience has had so much inaccessibly) I am trying to use that as a material. What that means is that within my films, things are inaccessible to different people at different times. I want everyone to be grappling with what it means and what it feels like and what that potentially grows. But I don’t think that an institution gets to do that.

Image: This is a screengrab of flowers and plants. There is yellow text below the image within brackets that reads, “[WATCH IT AS O NE WATCHES T HE STARS, OR T HE SEA,…]” Photo courtesy of Alison O’Daniel.

LS: Your film, The Tuba Thieves, asks us to consider how absence and presence co-define. The way that we understand or experience that co-definition reveals our attitude toward larger notions of access or loss related to sensory experience. How are you utilizing cinema or sculpture to disrupt a normative understanding of those ideas?

AOD: My first film has only two points of dialogue, both are un-captioned. The first one is spoken by a hard of hearing woman and then the second is signed. The spoken dialogue comes about 10 min before the signed one. I always show that film two nights in a row—once with live musical accompaniment and then once with live Sign Language accompaniment. Both of the performances are given the same sets of instructions and the same time-cues. When the film would reach the section with the spoken monologue, I could see the Deaf people in the room getting really irritated and reacting in a way that could be described as, “Oh, right – here is this normal experience I have had so many times in my life.” Then it would get to the section with the Sign Language monologue (without captions) and the audience members who didn’t know ASL would be more tolerant. That experience is a really straightforward way to talk about this question you are asking. Playing with sometimes having access, and sometimes not, in order to actually open up the conversation. In The Tuba Thieves (in response to that experience) I decided that I wanted everything to be more accessible, and yet I started to think much more kaleidoscopically about what access is and what it can be. I started to think about captioning becoming this really really broad concept. To think about captioning being almost hyper-accessible, but also inaccessible—to be doing many things at once, allowing the captioning to become a material. I started to think about every single edit from different audience perspectives. Every micro-detail is me thinking about two audiences at the same time and understanding how their experiences of film are so different. That has been really fascinating for my creative process, to make decisions based on two very different perspectives. My life has become defined by thinking about these two distinct audiences.

CRJ: How many songs do you know and what do you like or dislike about songs?

AOD: Zero. I know zero songs. I really love my relationship with music; I am often trying to work with musicians in order to use them to make music because I feel really insecure about my ability to even detect music. 

I don’t like lyrics very much. When I started making my first film I stopped listening to music with lyrics entirely. I will listen to music with lyrics sometimes, but I mostly don’t. It just doesn’t do anything for me. But I actually really love watching YouTube videos of music. The other day, I was watching a Dizzy Gillespie performance and it was so much more amazing to be able to see him playing than to just hear the music. I feel like that is a very stereotypical Deaf/hard of hearing answer, but it is true.

My best friend grew up with the radio on all the time and I think her song vocabulary is nostalgic, such a source of pleasure. I love that she had that experience. I so didn’t have that experience. I have memories that are all tied to visual—very narrative—and cinematic things. One of my favorite memories is of my dad and how he used to listen to the Thriller cassette in his car. My memory is watching my dad love this Thriller album and watching him singing along to it. I think my best friend can hear a song and the lyrics come up in this nostalgic way, like a memory bank. My memory bank is visual.

Image: A large gallery space with grey walls displays a projection with a figure standing in front of a large crowd of people. To the right of the projection is a dark sculpture whose shadow the viewer can see on the wall. Photo courtesy of Alison O’Daniel.

CRJ: It is really interesting how you took the compositions that were made at the beginning of The Tuba Thieves project and listened to them over and over, allowing them to be generative and to grow in your imagination. 

AOD: Yeah, I like that description. It is good to hear you say that because I am in a state right now where we are really, really close to filming the feature. Our goal is to film a whole feature-length version in August*. So, I am at the very end of the process. Actually, yesterday I thought “Oh, I haven’t listened to the music in a long time.” So, I decided to stop looking at the script and just listen to the music and let that make all of the last decisions. Which is exactly where it started.

*Due to the recent global pandemic, we are no longer filming the feature in August and are reconfiguring how to complete the film.

Featured Image: This is a view of a gallery where a projection is on the left side of the image. The project is an image of many indoor plants and cactus. There is a gallery bench in the center of the frame and on the right-hand side is a sculpture which is leaning against a gallery wall. Photo courtesy of Alison O’Daniel.


Liza Sylvestre is a multimedia artist and Curator of Academic Programs at the Krannert Art Museum. Sylvestre’s work has been shown nationally at venues including The Plains Art Museum, the Weisman Art Museum, Roots & Culture, Lease Agreement Gallery, Land and Sea Gallery, and Soo VAC. Her work has been written about in Art in America, Mousse Magazine, SciArt Magazine, and the Weisman Art Museum’s Incubator Web Platform. During the 2019/20 academic year, Sylvestre has been a Kate Neal Kinley fellow completing work at Gallery 400 and the University of Chicago, and a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Christopher Robert Jones is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in Illinois. Their research is centered around the ‘failure’ or ‘malfunctioning’ of the body and how those experiences are situated at points of intersection between queer and crip discourses. Using sculpture, installation, textual, and performance strategies, their work aims to create ruptures in the layers of cultural/political/historical sediment through which compulsory normativity and compulsory able-bodiedness are disseminated. Christopher received B.A.s in Art Studio and Technocultural studies from UC Davis and an M.F.A. in Art from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.