Emily Barker, “Untitled (Kitchen)” (2019), thermoformed PETG plastic cabinets, rivets, wooden base, installation view at Murmurs, Los Angeles (photo by Josh Schaedel)

LOS ANGELES — For many of you reading this, the world was built for your body. You don’t have to think when you climb the stairs; the counter comes up to just the right height. These taken-for-granted conveniences are thanks to the increasing tendency of designers, architects, and planners toward “standardization” over the course of the 20th century. But for many millions, life isn’t so simple. One of these individuals is artist and activist Emily Barker, whose exhibition Built to Scale recently opened at Murmurs in downtown Los Angeles.

Barker explains how “creating a standard means someone like me deviates from and is oppressed by it.” The exhibition’s pièce de résistance, “Untitled (Kitchen),” forces viewers to experience what this feels like. Made in collaboration with Tomasz Jan Groza, these scaled-up cabinets tower above the viewer. Despite their literal transparency, they’re frustratingly inaccessible. The feeling is that of being a child. It’s also the view from a wheelchair.

Emily Barker, “Untitled (Rug)” (2019), plastic IV tubing, copper electrical wire, doggie bag, headphones, shoelace on steel mesh (photo by Josh Schaedel)

Plastic is a common medium throughout the show, such as in “Untitled (Rug),” made out of countless bits of intravenous tubing, to which the artist has spent great deals of time hooked up for surgeries, blood clots, and infections. Thread between the plastic stems is copper. Six inches thick, the rug would pose an insurmountable barrier for a wheelchair. Even modest carpeting can render wheelchairs useless, calling attention to the ableism baked into the most ostensibly mundane items.

Emily Barker, “Death by 7,865 Paper Cuts” (2019), xeroxed medical bills and life-care plan from 2012–15, 7,865 sheets of paper (photo by Josh Schaedel)

Other impediments are less visible still. A huge stack of paper contains $700,000 worth of medical bills, spread over 7,865 pages. With this piece, the artist makes painfully public the resources required to keep disabled people alive, costs increasingly passed onto patients by profit-mongering insurance companies — to say nothing of the countless hours spent wrangling with the medical-industrial complex. Throughout the gallery echoes “Opus No. 1,” a popular choice for hold music. The artist waits on the phone, waits for change. “Unlike when ships sink and they save the most vulnerable first,” Barker points out, “the healthcare industry seeks to capitalize off of these groups.”

Built to Scale by Emily Barker continues at Murmurs (1411 Newton Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) through January 18. 

Brandon Sward is a writer who lives and works in Chicago and Los Angeles.