Blog Post #30: Producing the short film “Sēmata (Signs)” for the curated exhibition, “An Archaeology of Disability”

As a continuation of “New Projects Month”, we bring you an interview with three collaborators who worked on the original film-work, “Sēmata (Signs)” that appears in “An Archaeology of Disability”, curated by David Gissen, Jennifer Stager, and Mantha Zarmakoupi for the Biennale Architettura 2021. Actor Christopher Tester, voice actor Pia Hargrove, and creative consultant Caroline Cerilli reflect on the inspirations and hopes behind their work on the film, and what “An Archaeology of Disability” teaches us, both about people in the past and about ourselves in today’s world.

What was the inspiration behind your project? How did it come about? 

The theme of this year’s Biennale Architettura, curated by Hashim Sarkis, is How Will We Live Together? organized into five subsets of that larger question: Among Diverse Beings, As New Households, As Emerging Communities, Across Borders, As One Planet. Our research station, “An Archaeology of Disability” opens the Among Diverse Beings section in the Arsenale space and takes up forms and languages designed and used by disabled people to explore the art and architecture of the Acropolis in Athens, a notoriously inaccessible site

A woman in a striped dress presses her cheek to the surface of a sleek, black model of a ramp, which vibrates gently. In front of her a girl touches the surface of the ramp with her hands and faces the camera.
Beatrice Sasha Kobow and daughter Ludovica experiencing the ramp
David Gissen types a set of questions in white text, with arrows pointing to the rock-seats and the vibrating model of the ramp. He asks: Why do these have little drills holes? Why does this vibrate?
Tactile questions on the stones and ramp of the Acropolis (Credit: David Gissen)

Historic preservation and accessibility need not be pitted against each other; rather, as this research station argues, languages and forms used by disabled people in the present shed new light on the historic past. Underlying this research are two important arguments: the first is that while disability is an important modern political category, impaired bodies have always been a part of history; the second is that forms and languages used by contemporary disabled people are as valid for analyzing the ancient past as any other forms and languages.

Touchstones for the project include Georgina Kleege’s work on blindness and art, David’s work on the path to the Acropolis, and Christine Sun Kim’s contemporary art practice. In addition to the curatorial collaboration between David Gissen (experimental history and architectural theory, New School), Mantha Zarmakoupi (ancient Greek and Roman architecture, Penn) and Jen Stager (ancient Mediterranean art, Johns Hopkins), a strength of this project was the international coalition of people from Baltimore to Berlin who worked with us. Their formations and interests span a wide range—from political activism to material fabrication—and many languages, including Greek sign language, American sign language, modern Greek, Serbian, German, and English.

A diagram shows the image of an eye above the drawing of a weathered stone seat next to the image of a finger pointing to a stone seat drilled with a pattern of holes to mark the weathering.
Credit: David Gissen
A diagram shows the image of an eye above one block of the Parthenon frieze depicting Athenians as cavalry and the image of a finger pointing to a vibrating model of a ramp wrapped with a frieze of braille.
Credit: David Gissen

One component of the installation was a film, “Sēmata (Signs)”. Pausanias, the 2nd century CE travel-writer and geographer, notes a picture gallery that once stood inside the gateway to the Acropolis in Book One of his Description of Greece. The film presents an extended ekphrasis of paintings that Pausanias mentions and situates those paintings within the orthogonal between the Agora and the Acropolis. One aspect of the art and architecture of the city that emerged in and through writing the original script was the reciprocal relationship between the art and architecture of the marketplace and that of the Acropolis.

Actor, educator, and interpreter, Christopher Tester, performed the extended ekphrasis in a combination of Greek and American sign languages. Caroline Cerilli, an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins who has focused on accessibility in museums, consulted on the script and captions and joined via zoom for the film shoot. Pia Hargrove, a professor of social work at NYU and political activist, performed the film’s audio description. We’ve asked each of these collaborators to respond to parts of the questionnaire.

A man wearing a mask sits on one of three stone seats, touching its pattern of drilled holes. In front of the seats a monitor and stand display the image of a man performing in sign language. On the wall are photographs of the rock of the Acropolis in Athens and a rickety elevator. Behind the man stands a black, vibrating model of a ramp.
“An Archaeology of Disability” – Biennale Installation (credit: Mantha Zarmakoupi)

How did your work on this project come about?

Caroline Cerilli: I came to the project in my sophomore year, when I took Professor Stager’s introductory art history class. I am minoring in Museums, but while we talk about meaning making with objects, this type of close looking was new and interesting for me. At the same time, outside of the classroom, I was becoming more involved with the disability community at Hopkins and finding what that meant for my own sense of identity. A few weeks into the semester, everything connected when Professor Stager assigned David Gissen’s article about viewing the architecture of the Acropolis through a disability lens. I was fascinated that there had been a ramp up to it so long ago that was more inclusive and accessible, and that people could help one another walk up in a collective experience. I had no idea when I approached Professor Stager about the piece that she was already working on “An Archaeology of Disability,” much less that she would welcome me into learning more about the process. It has been really meaningful to work on a project led by people who identify as people with disabilities and by people who support the community. It is important to me to participate in work that represents the goals of individuals within our community, because these perspectives are too frequently missed.

Christopher Tester: My thought process changed as I did this project. I initially viewed it as making the text accessible in ASL for the Deaf American audience, in part due to who was on the team (Jennifer was my point of contact). However, I wanted to honour Greek mythology and its origins and contacted a friend of mine who is Deaf and from Greece to see whether famous Greek characters and places in the script have names in Greek sign language and sure enough they did. Incorporating these Greek sign language names influenced the translation. These name signs will not be recognizable to the film’s Deaf American audience, and perhaps to most of audience members. One thing I did not initially consider was the location of the exhibition in Venice and not in the US. Perhaps I should’ve used International Sign (IS) so that any deaf individual who encounters the exhibition can enjoy it. However, I always prefer to promote a national sign language rather than international sign (note I do not use language after IS) because it is not a language that is based in one location, but a way of communicating when deaf individuals from different countries converge and converse on a specific topic/event.

Seven people appear in five different squares, connecting from different places with the software Zoom. In the bottom right square the man in the foreground holds a script. Everyone else is quiet.
Filming in progress with Clear Cut films

When performing, who is your audience? Which audiences would benefit most from your performance?

Pia Hargrove: In performing, I hope that my voice truly captures the essence of the narrative and presents it to those who may not be able to see the visual art of, “An Archaeology of Disability.”  I was deliberate about the expressiveness of my pitch and tone to enliven the work while being authentic.

What was most challenging about designing this project?

CT: The challenging part of this project was not having a real deaf audience with whom I could check to see whether my translation was clear, made sense, and remain artistic. Finding the balance between being creative/artistic and providing clarity and respect to ASL is important to me. ASL is not a tool for ‘beautifying’ a project but a full-fledged language that our deaf and signing audience can enjoy and understand. 

PH: The most challenging part about voice acting in this project was the inability to connect with collaborators in person.  It would have been even more amazing to synergize with the actor and with the exhibition space.

CC: This work showed me how people adapt and projects change, as the planning began before the pandemic, but continued to be produced during the pandemic. In March 2020, I did not know what would happen to this project, and certainly had no idea that it could be completed in a virtual space. The final week I was on campus for in-person classes, we were discussing logistics for filming, all of which dissolved the next week. While the original plans changed, the most exciting day for me in this process was getting to listen in on the filming and recording day (shot in Berlin with Clear Cut Films). I had never seen a film set before, so I was too busy taking in the artistic directions, adjustments of the lights, and decisions on signing space to even consider how we were meeting on zoom. Last year, I might have been intimidated by the idea of everyone meeting from their homes in various countries in different time zones, but it was a very effective way to stay safe while still communicating and learning from one another enough to remain focused on the work.

A central screen shows a man wearing a black, button-down shirt standing in front of a deep green background gesturing with his right hand. A woman wearing a face mask and a striped shirt looks at the large movie camera focused on the man. Against the wall another man wearing a face mask and a t-shirt sits against the wall.
Filming with Clear Cut films

What impacts have you made or do you hope to make with this project?

CT: I hope that people who see this project realize and recognize that a national sign language can and should be a part of art projects, but not at the expense of the language itself. Sign languages are beautiful, but Deaf people should always be at the Center of it (if sign language is included). Deaf people are disabled and while we have managed to develop and expand our use of sign languages, deaf people continue to be at risk of forced assimilation (taught only to speak/lipread/medical corrections) and viewing sign language as a deterrent to deaf people’s state of being.  As someone who was born to a family who can hear, I was fortunate that my family learned ASL along with me when I was a child, and was always given a choice whether I wanted to speak or sign in different situations. The film’s story of the lost ancient central ramp up to the Acropolis represents a loss of the collective community that would have helped to lift each other up while respecting what each person wants and needs, and now forces people to move in the world through the zig-zagging path that everyone has to follow as individuals. 

“I hope that people who see this project realize and recognize that a national sign language can and should be part of art projects, but not at the expense of the language itself.”

Christopher Tester

CC: I’m interested in how museums can be more welcoming and inclusive for disabled people to join the galleries. This happens in two main ways: first, providing access to the existing materials, whether through ensuring there is enough seating available or through providing Braille copies of labels. Second is actually representing disabled people’s art, stories, history, and experiences on the walls. Disability is so often forgotten or ignored as a culture beyond impairment, but it is critical to show that disabled people have always existed, will always exist, have an equal right to be here, and have interesting lives. This project was so interesting for me to see develop because I believe it accomplishes both goals. The film included a Deaf signer, accurate captioning, and a professional voice-over. For either an ASL user or English user, this is generally very accessible. And of course, the content itself is told by Christopher, who visually represents a place that no longer exists as he tells it. It is both inclusive and artistic, which is an attainable goal that, in my experience is sometimes seen as impossible. Accessibility and artistry tend to be positioned as binaries when they can really enrich one another.

PH: Telling our stories is incredibly powerful in bringing history to life.  I hope that rendering my voice brings diversity and difference to the listening experience. I look forward to helping the curatorial team bring awareness to the importance of accessibility in its various forms.

Image of the wall text describing the museum exhibit in English and Italian
Wall text used in the exhibit

How would you like to see your work implemented in a classroom setting?

CT: I have always loved Greek mythology/ancient Greek history and a wonderful way to view and learn these stories is through a national sign language (ASL in my case). The Greek sign language names of all of these special characters and places in Ancient Greece should also be learned. These Greek signs were developed and recognized by the deaf community members in Greece. I did not want to try and come up with new names based on my American lens. 

PH: Students of all disciplines can engage with, “An Archaeology of Disability.”  Learning about the spirit of community and of human difference and impairment in antiquity can inform greater sensitivity to people of all identities, ages and abilities in the present.  The audio and the visual descriptions of the ancient Athenian experience highlight that, “Storytelling brings together these spaces, colors, bodies, images…”  Diverse students can be challenged to document their own stories through interviewing significant people in their lives about the inter-generational experience of human difference and creatively sharing their account accessibly through various artistic and media platforms.

A boy wearing glasses and a face mask, seated on a stone with a pattern of holes drilled into it to evoke the weathering of rock, in front of a monitor on a wooden easel in which a man performs in sign language.
Sava Wedman watching Christopher Tester perform Sēmata

How would you like people to engage with your project more generally?

CT: I want people to recognize that when one incorporates ASL in an art installation, it should have a purpose greater than “it’s so pretty.” Consider the experience and the path that a deaf person has to navigate to arrive in the place where one can tell their story and perform in sign language. Ensure that a deaf individual (more than 1 if possible) is a part of sign language projects.

CC: In this film, Christopher performs how the Acropolis may have looked centuries ago through sign. His performance is visual and physical, even as he walks us through a gallery of pieces that we have no images of and very few records of. Through International and ASL, he brings to life the movement and physicality of what may have been. At the same time, Pia’s voiceover work tells the same story in a completely different and beautiful way. While building from the same script, each performance evokes different imaginings of the same space through using different senses. I hope that after viewing this film, people consider how pieces of disability culture including but also beyond ASL can help us consider unrelated topics of interest in new ways, as long as someone from the community is informing the process.

“I hope that after viewing this film, people consider how pieces of disability culture including but also beyond ASL can help us consider unrelated topics of interest in new ways, as long as someone from the community is informing the process.”

Caroline Cerilli

PH: My work across platforms is focused by my passion for community cultivation.  “The personal and the political have never been separate,” and I use my voice and political agency to amplify the stories of marginalized people.  “An Archaeology of Disability,” evidences the presence of violence and trauma in antiquity through the present.  My work emphasizes the importance of collective healing in the midst of intergenerational trauma.  Celebrating humanity, supporting human difference while building community with love is how I engage with people globally.

How does this project help shed light on real people, either those in the past, or those in the present?

CC: To me, this project states in no uncertain terms that people have always had disabilities and been a part of society. Much of what I have been taught in my education has shown the tragedy of disability and how people have long been excluded because of their disabilities. While ableism is and has been very real, there is more to this history. Disability can be viewed neutrally, and it can be viewed positively. By considering how disabled people have used one of the most iconic architectural structures, we uncover more about how people existed then and now.

Another point I believe this touches on is that we still do not live in a fully accessible world. Progress towards inclusivity is not linear, and we certainly have not achieved it yet. While upwards of 25% of people in the U.S. have a disability, not even 1% of U.S. homes are equipped so that a wheelchair user can navigate them freely*. Even the Acropolis today has decreased in accessibility. There is a singular elevator to take visitors to the top, but this is slow and a distinct experience from traveling up the way the original architects had intended. This is as much an academic exercise in considering disability in history as it is an acknowledgement of our continued inaccessibility today.   

*https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_research_101315.html

PH: The film recounts that, “In ancient Greece, Athenians of all ages and abilities would have helped each other to ascend together…” We are challenged in the modern world to examine how we ascend together and hold each other accountable as we evolve together with dignity and humanity.

“We are challenged in the modern world to examine how we ascend together and hold each other accountable as we evolve together with dignity and humanity.”

Pia Hargrove

A woman with dangling pink earrings and pink lipstick sits at her desk holding her microphone in front of her laptop with the title of the film “Sēmata” on the screen. A plant is visible on her desk in the background.
Pia Hargrove

How can people learn more about your work?

CT: I work as an actor/performer/interpreter and I have my website: www.Christophertester.net

CC: People can access work that I’ve done at Hopkins here, and a talk that I gave while still in high school for Tedx, here. I recently published a newsletter piece here and was joint author on a qualitative study on the impacts of Covid 19 on adults with disabilities. You can also find me on a recent podcast, “Included: The Disability Equity Podcast”.

PH: People can connect with me and learn more about my work through my profile, Pia Raymond Hargrove on LinkedIn and at NYU Silver School of Social Work:

Pia (Pia Raymond) Raymond Hargrove, LMSW | LinkedIn

Adjunct Bios P-R (nyu.edu)

Clip from “Sēmata”, From Gods to Everyday People
A QR code with a small dinosaur at its center is labeled with Audio Description of Film in English and Italian.
QR Code to access audio version of the film

“An Archaeology of Disability” is on view at La Biennale di Venezia through November 2021, after which time the complete installation will travel to a second location (to be announced soon). In addition, the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard, will screen the film online, including a Q&A, in Winter 2021.

Bibliography and links:

David Gissen, “The Path to the Acropolis: a Reconstruction” Log (2015)

David Gissen, ed. Disability and Preservation Special Issue: Future Anterior 16.1 (2019)

David Gissen, Jennifer Stager, and Mantha Zarmakoupi, “An Archaeology of Disability” How Will We Live Together? Biennale Architettura (2021)

Georgina Kleege, More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Christine Sun Kim: http://christinesunkim.com/works/

Author Bios:

Deaf and a Vermont native, Christopher Tester lived and worked in New York City as an American, British Sign Language, and International Sign Interpreter, actor, consultant, and educator for nearly 15 years. He is currently a Ph.D student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Pia Hargrove, LMSW is a licensed social worker, author, community cultivator and political activist.  As an evocative speaker, Pia engages global audiences, rendering her voice to honoring difference, bringing awareness to race and cultural humility, political agency, collective trauma and healing and the importance of self-care.  Pia continues to share her expertise as an adjunct associate professor of social work at NYU Silver with a particular emphasis on the needs of immigrant communities and those reflective of the African Diaspora.

Caroline Cerilli is a student majoring in Public Health and minoring in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins. She is currently a student researcher with the Disability Health Research Center. Previously, she has assisted with research at MDisability of the University of Michigan and has helped develop accessibility projects at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. 

A QR code with a small dinosaur at its center is labeled with Audio Description of Film in English and Italian.
QR code from the installation

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