Immersively tactile, the Fire Flower exhibition serves as a window into the evolving research process of Collin van Uchelen. A clinical psychologist and fireworks enthusiast, van Uchelen has been developing tactile methods for translating fireworks for years, most notably presented as Fingerworks for Fireworks at Vancouver’s Celebration of Light. After experiencing Fingerworks, socially engaged artist and community builder Carmen Papalia started a conversation with van Uchelen. Papalia has been exploring tactility in his practice for years, most recently through the Let’s Keep in Touch project, a collaboration with curator Whitney Mashburn. In what has become Project Fire Flower, Papalia and Mashburn teamed up, along with architect/designer Michael Lis and artist Lianne Zannier, to support van Uchelen in his pursuit of tactile translation of pyrotechnics.
The exhibition provides a fully participatory environment in which visitors may step into Van Uchelen’s research process, touching his reference points. Reflective of van Uchelen and Papalia’s visit to a local botanical garden to touch flowers with shapes reminiscent of fireworks trajectories, visitors first encounter a tableau of faux flowers arranged in pyrotechnic industry racks and configured as a tiered fireworks display. A table shares household objects which served as referential ready-mades, and the media room conveys documentary footage of the pyrotechnic industry from friends and colleagues of van Uchelen. The literal highlight of the show is comprised of nine tactile acrylic panels, carefully engraved and glowing with light, illuminating the paths of seven different fireworks shells. Visitors are invited to trace their fingers through the engravings, while listening to van Uchelen’s voice describe the respective pyro effects.
Rigorous and passionate, Van Uchelen’s efforts in Project Fire Flower educate others about the pyrotechnic arts and share his joy for fireworks, all while fueling his continuing pursuit of refining translations of these dynamic objects.
Collin van Uchelen, Ph.D., is a Conceptual Artist and Community Psychology consultant based in Vancouver, British Columbia. His artistic practice focuses on collaborative approaches for translating art into forms that are accessible with the non-visual senses. He originated the innovative “Fingerworks for Fireworks” tactile technique for describing pyrotechnical displays to viewers with sight-loss in collaboration with Steph Kirkland, Director of Vocal Eye Descriptive Arts Society in 2014. In this approach, trained describers translate the dynamic movement of fireworks by “drawing” their shapes with fingertips onto the backs of viewers who are blind or partially-sighted. Collin’s accessible “tools” for describing fireworks informed his subsequent work with All Bodies Dance Project on the creation of Translations, a contemporary dance piece designed for the non-visual senses. As Artistic Consultant, he helped co-create and refine the techniques for translating dance into accessible forms for audiences who were not using eyesight to “see” the performances. He also now consults with audio describers for art featuring movement – whether fireworks or dance.
Carmen Papalia is a nonvisual social practice artist with severe chronic and episodic pain. In 2021 he co-founded the Open Access Foundation for Arts & Culture (OAFAC), a pandemic-era cultural organization that aims to set a new cultural standard for accessibility by nurturing creative and justice-oriented accessibility practices. Since 2009 Papalia has used organizing strategies and improvisation to address his access to public space, the art institution and visual culture. As a convener, he establishes welcoming spaces where disabled, sick and chronically ill people can build capacity for care that they lack on account of governmental failure and medical ableism. His work, which takes forms ranging from collaborative performance to public intervention, is a response to the harms of the Medical Model of Disability, a framework that erases disability experience by reinforcing ableist concepts of normalcy.
Whitney Mashburn is a Boston-based independent curator and writer, whose work resides at the intersection of contemporary art and disability justice. She lives with chronic environmental illness. Her current work includes Holding Space archive (2021-present), a burgeoning curatorial project which bears witness to the lived experiences of those marginalized by chronic illness, through interviews, art works, and manifestos; Let’s Keep in Touch (2016-present), a multi-phased, collaborative investigation of tactile aesthetics with social practice artist, Carmen Papalia; and collaborations with Minerva Projects and the My Dearest Friends Project (2020-21). She holds an M.A. in Critical and Curatorial Studies in Art, an M.A. in Disability Studies, and a B.A. in History of Art and Studio Art. Her current research is a testament to chronic and invisible illness, access as a ritual act of care, communal support, tactile aesthetics, social accessibility, disability activism in curating, meaningful inclusion, and the role of dialogue in social practice and institutional critique. Upcoming 2021-22 exhibitions are in London, Vancouver, Grand Rapids, and Boston.
Photo by Jennifer Echols.