Infinite Ear : Detours [a portrait of Vlad Kolesnikov]

Infinite Ear: Portraits is a collection of stories of individuals who were confronted with a transformation in their perception of sound and relationship to hearing. A number of authors accepted the challenge of translating these experiences through writing. Authors, readers, and the portraits’ subjects are confronted with the main questions behind Infinite Ear’s research: how can we understand and feel perceptions of sound radically different from our own?

Vlad Kolesnikov is a deaf educator, sign language interpreter, and museum access and inclusive programs expert working in Moscow, Russia. Mara Mills is a hearing professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where she co-directs the Center for Disability Studies. Mara interviewed Vlad about arts inclusion for the diverse community of deaf museumgoers, actual and potential.


The education of deaf and deafblind children has been a preoccupation of sundry philosophers, but what kinds of pedagogical experiments do deaf and hard of hearing educators themselves conduct?

Vlad Kolesnikov, former manager of Inclusive Programs at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, turns languages into implements: from wall text to video stations to amplified audio guides. The objects in a museum at first exceed our capacities for feeling and interpretation; they interfere with our customary behavior. Whether we are deaf or hearing, we require “detours” (after Lev Vygotsky) to grasp the problems an artwork poses to us.

Vlad is a fourth-generation member of the Deaf community: his parents are deaf and he too became deaf as a child. He is fluent in Russian sign language and familiar with ASL and international sign. He reads and writes in Russian and, secondarily, English. “Hearing” for him is multimodal: he wears a hearing aid some of the time; he hears loud sounds; he listens with his eyes, hands, and body; he experiences remembered sounds and the piercing whine of tinnitus.

Vlad reflects on Evald Ilyenkov, the Marxist philosopher who spent more than ten years observing the famous deafblind school in Zagorsk, just north of Moscow:

It was great that this experiment existed in the Soviet Union and that they started teaching deaf-blind children. I believe that it allowed many important studies to be conducted and a lot was learned about teaching deaf, blind and deafblind kids. However, it was a single experiment. It was a group of four or six people who were under continuous supervision and who achieved great results. But what about the others? What about the generations taht followed? It would actually be good to repeat this experiment now...

Founded in 1963, Zagorsk became known as the “synchrophasotron of the social sciences,” a particle accelerator for ideas about language acquisition, assistive technology, disability, and Vygotskian pedagogy (based on cooperative-independent activity). The Zagorsk Experiment convinced Ilyenkov that ability was not inborn—it “inheres in the structure of the organs of the human individual as little as the form of a statue inheres in a slab of marble or lump of clay.” The brain itself had little to do with capability, intelligence, or perception. In Ilyenkov’s words it was “merely a biological substratum. By studying the brain, therefore, you will learn little of the mind—just as little as you will learn of the nature of money by studying the material properties of the material (gold, silver, or paper) in which the money form of value is embodied.”

On the other hand, ability was not merely “deposited” into a child by mother, teacher, television, king: children were not merely trained or inscribed. “When the question is framed in this way,” Ilyenkov insisted, “what is extinguished is none other than the subject himself. Or, to be more precise, the individual from the very start is not regarded as a subject but only as an object of external influences.” Deafblind education revealed that learning took place—for all children—through activity in the human-made world. Learning to use a spoon was exemplary for Ilyenkov: a spoon is an invitation to action and a semiotic artifact, a conduit to culture, history, and labor. To learn means to perform new actions independently, but with varying levels of human and object assistance.

Alexander Suvorov, a former student at the Zagorsk school who went on to become a professor at the Moscow City University of Psychology and Education, recalled Ilyenkov writing to him in 1974 with the observation that the problems of deafblind people were shared by nondisabled people. How, for instance, do nonexperts access contemporary art—differences in hearing aside? Art works, too, are conduits to culture and action, even as they destabilize social and perceptual norms. How does a museum, itself standing at a remove itself from everyday experience, acquaint its visitors with objects and performances that are abstract, conceptual, defamiliarizing, or utterly unfamiliar in medium and content?

Garage and other contemporary art museums accompany their exhibitions with labels, catalogues, guided tours; lectures, workshops and other educational programs. Within the broader “Garage experiment,” Vlad has adapted existing pedagogical materials for deaf and hard of hearing visitors, and he has also created deaf-first and mixed-access programs.

Vlad offers the following guide to arts inclusion: My first step toward drawing the deaf into the museum was preparing guided tours translated into sign language. And I was very particular in selecting sign language interpreters. It was important for the tours to be translated into Russian Sign Language, rather than a loan translation into sign speech, as usually happens in Russia. While managing this initiative, I realized that there are many contemporary art terms which are unknown and incomprehensible for deaf and hard of hearing people, meaning it’s extremely problematic to use them. This is how we came up with the idea of a special video course—a dictionary of contemporary art terms in Russian Sign Language. The uniqueness of this resource is that it not only demonstrates how to “sign” this or that particular word, but it also explains the term in sign language. Later, we published a printed version of this dictionary.

Another important project of mine was a training course for deaf guides. Within that project, over the course of a year, eleven deaf participants attended lectures on museology, presentation skills, critical analysis of information sources, Russian Sign Language, and other subjects. They also visited Moscow museums to find out about their collections and exhibitions, and—which is especially important—how the internal structure of museums works. Today, graduates of this course are employed as guides at various Moscow museums.

Along with guided tours translated into Russian Sign Language, we also produced special video guides in Russian Sign Language for some shows, which allowed any deaf visitor to spend time in the Museum and explore the exhibitions on their own. Alternatively, we installed tablets with videos providing translations of panel texts into Russian Sign Language. The narrators of such video guides or video translations of panels are always deaf or hard of hearing people, i.e. native speakers rather than hearing interpreters.

At Garage, all public lectures are simultaneously translated into Russian Sign Language, while all screenings have subtitles. Video works are accompanied by Russian subtitles if they contain spoken language. When a video piece has only noise or sound, such as music or other non-speech sounds, it is displayed without subtitles, meaning these types of sound remain inaccessible for the deaf. With sound art, it’s much more complicated. For example, in 2016 there was a room at the Viktor Pivovarov exhibition The Snail’s Trail at Garage where there was nothing but earphones transmitting a dialogue between a woman and a man. Aiming to make this piece accessible, we shot a video featuring actors interpreting the dialogue into sign language.

As I’m a professional teacher, it was also important for me to transform the Museum into a space fully accessible for deaf children of all ages. Very few children have any knowledge of art or museum terminology, so I launched a training course through which children could learn what a museum is, what kind of works it might exhibit, and what an artist does. Garage began collaborating with schools and kindergartens for deaf and hard of hearing children, where we ran Museum for Beginners courses. The Museum also offers Family Days on a regular basis, where hearing parents can bring their deaf children, or deaf parents can bring their hearing children, and which are equally accessible for deaf and hearing people. This is important for internal family relations, as well as for allowing deaf and hearing members of society to communicate with each other as equals, challenging stereotypes and prejudices.

From what scenes of pedagogy does philosophy arise? Deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing people have long been the objects of investigation by hearing teachers and scholars. But deaf researchers also conduct their own experiments: with public space, with sound transmission, and with intercommunication between those who are deaf and those who are hearing.


  • Mara Mills

    The portraits, designed by Goda Budvytytė, are printed on the occasion of the exhibition Infinite Ear at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, taking place from June 8 to September 2, 2018.

Image: Vlad Kolesnikov demonstrating (from top left) the terms 'actionism', 'video art', 'curators', 'performance' in Dictionary of Contemporary Art Terms in Russian Sign Language (Garage Publishing, 2017)