Picture the scene. I’m out and about, red crew cut, silver boots and all, yet no one can see me. Everyone seems to be looking at something else, but if they do look in my direction, they seem to see straight through me. I can’t see the Invisibility Cloak myself, obviously, and I certainly didn’t order it along with the flashing wheels, but it must be there - because what other explanation could there be? 1
Eye gaze has always felt significantly charged to me. Something clicks on in my brain and I incessantly worry about seeming rude, creepy, or prying if I look at someone - but also rude, cold, and self-consumed if I avert my eyes. The degree of this felt significance fluctuates with many factors, including but not limited to: the surrounding environment, the number of people passing by, the individual’s age, gender, height, and disability status. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s book Staring - How We Look helps articulate the root of the tension that I feel around gaze:
Everybody stares. Staring is an ocular response to what we don’t expect to see. Novelty arouses our eyes. More than just looking, staring is an urgent eye jerk of intense interest. Mike Ervin calls it “the car wreck phenomenon.” We stare when ordinary seeing fails, when we want to know more. So staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story. The eyes hang on, working to recognize what seems illegible, order what seems unruly, know what seems strange.
Triggered by the sight of someone who seems unlike us, staring can begin an exploratory expedition into ourselves and outward into new worlds. Because we come to expect one another to have certain kinds of bodies and behaviors, stares flare up when we glimpse people who look or act in ways that contradict our expectations. Seeing startlingly stareable people challenges our assumptions by interrupting complacent visual business-as-usual. Staring offers an occasion to rethink the status quo.2
Seeing disability in particular reminds us of the vulnerability of the human body. It provokes the able-bodied to stop thinking of disability as an “uncommon visitation that mostly happens to someone else” or a fate “somehow elective rather than inevitable.”2 In response to what can be felt as an uncomfortable truth, people refuse to observe disability altogether.
Gosling’s Wheels on Fire captures this tension of visibility. Vibrantly colored wheelchairs at the focal point of each image quickly capture the viewer's gaze in an instinct reminiscent of an “eye jerk of intense interest.” At the same time, the wheelchairs camouflage into the background, portraying people’s refusal to observe disability and the “Invisibility Cloak” that Gosling describes.
As Gosling shares, this invisibility cloak eliminates the potential of gaze to forge human connection and a sense of mutual recognition. Garland-Thomson, too, states that when the impulse of staring is paired with curiosity, it can lead to positive engagement. When I think back to my own experiences of discomfort in this way, I can now ask myself: how do I leverage gaze to connect without obtruding? How do I inquire about someone’s relationship to visibility before I ask?
1 Performed by Ju Gosling aka ju90 at Battersea Arts Centre on 28 March 2003.
2 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford University Press, 2015.