Interviews

Meet LA’s Art Community: Emily Barker Is Designing Thoughtful, Beautiful Living Spaces for Disabled People

An interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Emily Barker at her exhibition Built to Scale at Murmurs gallery, Los Angeles (photo by Svet Jacqueline)

Welcome to the 20th installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, we interview Emily Barker, an artist and advocate focusing on how built environments erase the disabled body. They are currently working on designing living spaces that would not only be accessible, but also beautiful and affordable — “without any of the negative aesthetic stereotypes or the incredible cost typically associated with accessibility.” They are also building an artist residency for disabled people and are brainstorming an “art-centered camp for disabled kids in the future.” They attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and recently had a solo exhibition called Built to Scale at Murmurs gallery in Downtown Los Angeles. To send support for Barker’s projects, or if you wish reach out, you can email them at [email protected].

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Emily Barker, “Grabber” (2020) (photo by Svet Jacqueline)

Where were you born? 

I was born in California, but at two years old my family moved to Georgia. My dad was near Atlanta and my mom had a farm in the middle of nowhere. As soon as I turned 17 I moved to Chicago.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles? 

I’ve been living in Los Angeles for five years but am preparing to move an hour out to start an artist residency, crip camp (inspired by the documentary), and accessible food forest. I moved back to California because I could not navigate the snow in Chicago in a wheelchair after my accident and SAIC did not give me accommodations I needed. I had higher hopes for Chicago and Los Angeles, but due to some pretty scarring realities — neoliberal communities claiming inclusivity and accessibility while creating hostile inaccessible space — I feel the need to just create the haven I and other disabled artists need ourselves. The language about marginalization seems to be just a marketing gimmick by businesses that want to profit off of disabled people without providing accessibility, care, or affordable services. Having my basic needs denied so many times makes it seem like I should just create what I need where it’s cheaper to do so.

What’s your first memory of seeing art? 

I was taken to museums as a kid by my parents and grandparents but my first memories was of art by Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh. It’s funny because my practice and political opinions are still very influenced by both van Gogh’s and Kahlo’s politics, work, and struggles. Even though I’ve moved very far away from painting I still really enjoy their work. I even briefly as a child thought the self-portrait of van Gogh was of my grandfather, but that’s another story!

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph? 

Even if I can get into the gallery and the art is accessible, I don’t usually photograph much art unless I’m promoting work I like, such as Bri Williams, and want to really show it to others via my Instagram.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year? 

Due to inaccessibility in the art world, COVID-19, and my own chronic illness, I haven’t seen any shows this year. But I’d say recently my favorite show was my own solo exhibition Built to Scale at Murmurs gallery because I’m formally and conceptually satisfied with the work and thoroughly enjoyed making it with my co-collaborator Tomasz Jan Groza. But most importantly, it showcased the barriers caused by overlooked design norms and building standards which produce inaccessibility and play a huge role in the social construct of disability.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Probably The Society of the Spectacle (1967) by philosopher and Marxist theorist Guy Debord. Really incredible and very short book about how authentic social life has been replaced by its representation. It’s especially pertinent with social media having replaced actual life and world leaders having been replaced by reality TV stars. Just started The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and to me life philosopher that reminds us agriculture is about much more than agriculture. It will probably become the new best!

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends? 

No preference. Seeing as it’s impossible for me to get around without the help of friends, it would be a privilege to see some alone. I’m hoping to fundraise enough to get an accessible vehicle soon which would change things drastically for me. But seemingly simple modifications for each unique person’s disability can cost you $30,000 on top of whatever used vehicle you buy. Life is nearly impossible when the sidewalks are so messed up you can’t use public transit. And when a class action lawsuit means you can’t even sue the city.

What are you currently working on?

My recent focus has been at the intersection of art and architecture. Currently due to false scarcity created by an inflated housing market, there are more empty homes than there are houseless people — our man-made housing crisis affects all of us, but disproportionately 61 million disabled people in this country. There are hardly any homes that meet the individual accessibility requirements of our disabilities and are under the federally mandated SSI and SSDI payment allowance. If a disabled person has the ability to do anything deemed by the fed “gainful activity” (including having children) we lose our health insurance, caregivers, and measly allowance. Most disabled people are expected to wait more than five years or longer for subsidized housing that is often inaccessible. All of my apartments have both been fairly inaccessible and expensive. I want to solve this problem and show people that we can live affordably and beautifully without any of the negative aesthetic stereotypes or the incredible cost typically associated with accessibility. I will be creating a small alternative living space that would give a wheelchair user incredible autonomy and personalized design solutions that show we don’t have to sacrifice great interior design for function. Everything will be built to my scale incorporating a lot of multifunctional space, along with some of my own inventions which solve the issues I brought up in my last exhibition.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of? 

I’m proud of every day I continue to exist, make work, put myself out there, and center my life around trying to make disabled people’s lives better. As a result of my accident, I live with the single most painful disease known to man called CRPS, nicknamed unironically “suicides disease,” in 60% of my body that makes doing anything during flares impossible. Despite this I’m trying to solve these problems and teach people who are able bodied about the vast inequality, prejudices, sterilization, forced poverty, forced institutionalization, stereotypes, and many disparities disabled people experience everyday. It’s pretty exhausting, but so is living in a world that completely erases and neglects your basic human rights. Wheelchair users still can’t use most public bathrooms, most sidewalks, enter most buildings, or cars today. This isn’t even including the harsher realities for those facing severe chronic illnesses. Every day is a struggle but everyday is worth it.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects? 

I have no lack of inspiration. My life is incredibly surreal, my friends are incredible, and my experiences are particularly unique. I like to stick to what I know and because of that I will always have a huge queue of works to be made and projects to be completed. For that I am very grateful.

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