Interview with Rubin Foundation Grantee and AXS Maps Director Jason DaSilva
In an ongoing interview series instigated by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Brooklyn-based writer, playwright, and artist Rehan Ansari, along with Sara Reisman and George Bolster, from the Foundation speak with institutions and individuals whose work centers on art and social justice. In the summer of 2018 they spoke with Jason DaSilva, founder of AXS Maps. DaSilva’s journey went from being a filmmaker interested in exploring questions around identity including his own (Goan/Canadian/American), to his activist filmmaking post 9/11, and how with the onset of multiple sclerosis, he turned the camera on himself to make the Emmy Award winning documentary When I Walk. DaSilva is currently working on his next film, When They Walk, and has started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund its production. More details at the end of the interview.
Rehan: The overarching question is how did your academic interest in the sociology of identity, and then filmmaking, and then activism around 9/11 come together to create AXS Maps?
Jason: At Emily Carr, an art school in Vancouver, British Columbia, I was interested in the sociology of identity. I was looking specifically at ethnic identity retention. How much does a person relate to where they're from? I'm Indian, but I was born in North America. How do I relate to India? My first film was about this subject. There are five different ways in which you can relate to where you're from. For example, I could relate to the United States and only the United States and tell you that I want nothing to do with India at all. Two, I could relate solely to my Indian heritage and have nothing to do with America at all. Three, I could keep them totally separate. Four, I could just tell both to get lost (laughter) and join a subculture. Five, I could find a way to merge the two together through creative means. So, the film Olivia’s Puzzlewas about two girls, one growing up in Vancouver and the other in Goa.
Rehan: I saw the film and was drawn to the fact that it wasn't clear who was doing better. In one scene set in the morning, the girl in Vancouver is going to school, and the girl in Goa is walking through a forest.
Jason: I made another film after the war in Iraq began. A Song For Danielwas about two nine year-old boys. One born and raised in Long Island of Baghdadi descent, then the other in Baghdad. Some questions the film asked were: how does war affect the self-identity of these children? How does the Iraqi-American identity of the boy in Long Island get affected by the fact that his host country is at war with the home country?
Rehan: First screened in 2003, the film was a very early response to 9/11.
Jason: It was because in the mid-90s, I was part of Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS), a political South Asian activist collective. It had college kids from a South Asian background who were interested in social activism. From there people went into social practice art and worked at the Taxi Workers Alliance. It was cool meeting other young people at the time who were doing radical stuff. I didn’t have that in Vancouver, I found it in New York.
I made another film called Lest We Forgetconnecting the backlash in the US against Arab Americans, South Asians and Muslims to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.
Rehan: It's interesting how you're expanding your sense of identity in films. The first one was about being Goan and Goan-American, then about Baghdadi heritage, and then people in the US who are Arab, South Asian, and Muslim.
Jason: I was inspired to think cross culturally at the YSS collective. My self-identity cuts across culture: I was born in Ohio, grew up in South Florida, moved to Vancouver, and my parents are from East Africa, but we're from Goa, which was a Portuguese colony of India. The fact that I grew up amongst all that was bizarre to me. Only when I reached 18, did I put it all together with Olivia's Puzzle. The political side and the activism I was doing around 9/11 also came from that…
Rehan: You mean the activism came from your answer to the question of identity?
Rehan: InWhen I Walkyou finally turned the camera on yourself.
Jason: I looked at all the changes that were happening to me. I forced myself to be in front of the camera to confront something that I really didn't even want to talk about, much less see on film. I didn't want to see my own body degrade on camera, so I had to sit there and watch as I was losing the ability to walk. The first year or two, I just couldn't even look at myself, or look at the film, and the fact that it was me watching my body break down. It just kept on going, year after year after year, until about five years later, that's when I thought, "You know what? At this point, I just don't care." (laughs) It occurred to me that there's a larger thing the film should be about, and that I can share what I'm experiencing. I treated the experience like I was outside my own body, like it was a piece of performance art.
Sara: So the film helped you process the experience?
Jason: Yeah. People always ask, “Do you talk about yourself in the third person?” That is, separating oneself from oneself. But doing it through films is a good way to do it.
Rehan: So, before making the film, or before the idea of making the film, you did not want to look at yourself?
Jason: Yeah, exactly.
Rehan: But during the process you could, and that's how the film changed you?
Jason: I told myself I really wouldn't let go of the camera until I felt fulfilled about it.
Sara: InWhen I Walk there's a moment where there's a decision to use film to document. Was it when you were on a family trip? That part of the film is when you made a decision to use film in an intentional way.
Jason: It was the first time that I got my high-quality HD camera. I was going through an existential crisis at the time, but my brother, being my brother, picked up the camera and turned it on me, as I could not get up. I looked at the footage and said, "Okay, well here's something that I could actually use and make something out of." The more I looked at it, the more I looked to artists such as Vito Acconci who put themselves on camera and looked at their personal challenges.
Rehan: And now you are working on a new film?
Jason: It's called When We Walk.
Rehan: Is it a sequel?
Jason: Yeah. It is about my relationship with my son, and being a father with a disability.
Sara: In making these films, for a viewer you don't know, someone you've never met, what do you want them to understand about activist artwork? Do you want to communicate something specific to people?
Jason: It's for people to look outside of themselves. People going through hardships or challenges should look outside of what they're going through and see that it fits within a larger context. It is a perspective that I have, that I've always had. And it goes all the way back to, When I Walk, and Olivia's Puzzle. We should think outside of ourselves.
Rehan: How did you turn from being a filmmaker to creating the AXS Map project? That's a different technology and a different way of thinking!
Jason: Totally. It was just an idea that mostly came out of frustration. I'd pass by all these places, restaurants and bars, and there would be no way to know if they were accessible or not. It was 2007, the year the first iPhone came out, when I first came up with the idea. It's just the kind of technology that I could actually do myself. It’s a crowd-sourced tool for sharing reviews of wheelchair accessibility.
Rehan: And now you have the structure of AXS Maps and you have ambassadors that cover cities, different regions, and communities.
Jason: We organize Mapathons for the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, and encourage individuals and organizations to have mapping days to contribute to the database. But all this requires upkeep and technology. That's the stuff I don't know. I outsource that.
George: How do you structure the Mapathons? You've been doing this since 2011?
Jason: A lot of the times a community resource will start their own Mapathon. Google has contributed. Google organizes an opportunity for their employees to give back to the community, and they picked AXS Maps as something that they were going to do. So Google offices around the world set up their own Mapathons.
Rehan: What exactly happens in a Mapathon?
Jason: Say Google in Austin wanted to do a Mapathon. People sign up, and for a month they'll map Austin and find all the accessible places, or non-accessible places, and review them. Then they'll get a score, they'll say, “We've rated 235 places over two weeks.”
Rehan: How do you measure the impact of AXS Maps?
Jason: That's a good question. I can present the data and our findings but there's no clear answer. You could take the quantitative reviews and then say “We graded this much,” and “We know that in this or that area we've figured out all of the places that need to be made accessible.” We would then take that data, turn it over to politicians and it could be used as a source of lobbying for accessibility.
Rehan: There are many forms of indicators that you could work with. Say, in the neighborhood of Long Island City, you could say “This many more places have been reviewed this year.” And then you can also get a sense of how many repeat users of AXS Maps you have… And then as you say, it can be an instrument of change if you take these analytics to the local city council member and show that this district doesn't have as many accessible venues as someplace else.
Jason: That's exactly right. I'm working with the UN to find out what in the Global South is needed in terms of accessibility data. And how can we use laws in those countries, or legislate to make changes.
Sara: Is there support for that? Is it a priority?
Jason: It's not a priority. I was just recently in Vienna to give a presentation about AXS Maps, and Vienna is horrible when it comes to accessibility.
Rehan: What are the preferred terms around accessibility? There are terms that were in use that are now considered pejorative or negative, so language is always changing. It's a question that goes back to the beginning of the interview: How do you want to be identified and how do you articulate that?
Jason: I think you're right. It's always shifting. I just go with however the community likes to speak of itself. I would put the person before the disability. People like me would like to be referred to as people with disabilities, rather than disabled people. People don't like to be referred to in the third person.
Sara: And how do you define accessibility – from an architectural, visual art, theater, or filmmaking perspective?
Jason: That's a big question. (laughs) When you put something into a completely black gallery, the audience has to experience what it's like to be blind by being in that space. You are creating inaccessibility as art!
Sara: We’ve worked with artist Carmen Papalia in the past, and we've done programming where he's led a closed eye walk. He describes himself as a non-visual learner. He has created this credo, or set of guidelines, for accessibility called Open Access. And in some ways that works against the formalized policy around architectural design. Carmen speaks sometimes about how policies in and of themselves are disabling, even if they're meant to be inclusive or facilitate access. It might be what you talked about being referred to in the third person. Are there different ways that programs can be organized to be lucid or accessible?
Jason: Make the experience more livable! Make the experience available to people!
Rehan: How can institutions, curators, and educators approach accessibility?
Jason: They should come to it with an openness and understanding that things will shift and change. I feel like one of the best things to do as a curator or even an artist, and an educator, is to listen to the very people that you're doing work with and for. Always think about the lowest common denominator.
Rehan: Will you expand on the idea of the lowest common denominator?
Jason: See, I don't know how to. (laughs)
Rehan: Is it where there is the greatest need?
Jason: The most disadvantaged.
Rehan: Will you step outside of documentary?
Jason: The first narrative film script that I've written is 90% finished. It's going to be shot in Toronto, Canada. It's about two characters. A man and his home care worker smuggle drugs across international borders in the guy's wheelchair. (laughter) Its called The Disgruntled.
Rehan: How would you respond to the Trump era if you had the budget to make a documentary or a film? It could be this dark comedy you are making. I'm also asking if these times are worse than the post 9/11 era?
Jason: It is [worse]. I feel like I'm at the point where- if I could throw my hands up and just storm out of the room, I would do that. (laughs) I don't have an answer. I don't know how to properly respond to what's going on.
Sara: You have been doing activism around accessibility for a decade. You really are an art world pioneer of discourse around accessibility. Do you feel like the landscape has changed significantly? Are there limits that need to be pushed?
Jason: There are definitely things that need to be changed. Like, for example, at the MOMA. It's a huge gallery and it's not fully accessible. My vision is getting worse and worse. So I really look for the audio piece when I go there to watch a film. I want to hear the thing that I'm watching, or be able to read the subtitles. I think the larger thing that I've learned from AXS Maps is just realizing that there is a huge need. It's surprising that it did not exist and does not exist in a big way. It is so hard to be on the radar of some of these larger companies, like Google or Twitter or Facebook, and it is so hard to work with them. Maybe because this technology is relatively new, created by a younger generation, they'll understand the need for it.
Rehan: Any final comments?
Jason: It was a dream of mine to be working with galleries and artist communities around activism and disability activism in one place. And that place is New York City. There is something spontaneous about the nature of this city and AXS Maps helps with that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.