Unlimited: From Limited to Limitless by Amanda Cachia

The artist stands on a platforms surrounded by furniture and drawings of hand shapes.
Aaron Williamson's 'Demonstrating the World' at Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival 2016. Image for Unlimited by Rachel Cherry.

In 2011, the deaf artist and scholar Joseph Grigely wrote an excellent and influential essay, entitled “Beautiful Progress to Nowhere,” which contributed towards an extensive collection of commissioned texts compiled and edited by Aaron Williamson for the journal, Parallel Lines. The online journal was facilitated and hosted by the Serpentine Gallery in London and funded by Arts Council England.[1] In the text, Grigely talked of how ‘there are no easy answers about disability, and no easy answers for disabled artists. We make progress where we can, even beautiful progress to nowhere, straight into a wall.’[2] Grigely was making reference to a work by visually impaired artist Stephen Lapthisophon, which formed part of his solo show at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois in 2002, entitled ‘Within Reasonable Accommodation.’[3]

The installation took place during the 12th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and emphasized the ineffective manner in which the public responded to its policies of accommodation and access for disabled people. Despite the ADA, many buildings and public spaces remain inaccessible to the disabled population to this day. Lapthisophon had inserted ladders, sculptural intrusions, cardboard boxes, electrical cords, walkers, architectural details, images, signage and obstacles in his installation in order to choreograph the way that visitors maneuvered, or rather, tripped and strained, through the gallery space. Here, the artist reversed access so that the disabled subject became empowered, while the non-disabled figure was forced into that of the minority. Lapthisophon attempted to arouse an empathetic response in his audience by reversing access privileges often taken for granted by non-disabled communities.

Indeed, the internalizing and externalizing forces of what constitutes ‘normal’ and ostensible ‘normative’ body movement, which have developed with mainstream society culture over centuries, continues to place restrictions on the disabled body. The reality is that the ostensible restrictions of the disabled body, through its musculature, gait, height or scale, mobility, gait, limbs (or ‘lack’ thereof), hearing and vision (or ‘lack’ thereof) is really a problem with language and the discourse within which the disabled body is frequently placed. By this I mean that the language of the disabled body has inadvertently become a language of restrictions under ironic conditions, given that it is a corpus that in and of itself operates under this oppressive system.

Poignantly, Lapthisophon had created a bright green-coloured wheelchair ramp as part of his installation, and leaned up against a wall. Grigely used this as an analogy and metaphor for the ambiguous state of the disability legislation around the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the continued obstacles (or walls) faced by artists in securing ‘reasonable accommodation’. I use Grigely’s essay to turn his complex statement into a question – has disability arts, indeed, made beautiful progress to nowhere, certainly since Grigely wrote his essay, but also more broadly in the 20th and 21st centuries? I would like to offer some reflections and ideas regarding my experiences with ‘international’ disability arts in the past five years. Much of my thinking wholeheartedly agrees with many of the points that Grigely makes about the many roadblocks that disabled artists and disability politics continue to face, although I would like to suggest that this ‘nowhere’ might be shifted, albeit subtly, towards ‘somewhere’, concluding with a question mark, to indicate that this is an open-ended, yet contentious conversation. On the same plane, I would like to suggest that where the disabled body was once discursively and physically ‘limited,’ this has now shifted towards a paradigm of ‘limitless.’

As an Australian woman living and working in California, USA, who identifies as physically disabled according to the social model of disability, I am often asked for my opinion on the state of disability arts in various countries, specifically that of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the USA (indeed, I cannot speak extensively of the state of disability arts outside of these places owing to my limited contact). My response to this question typically suggests that I feel that public arts funding towards disability-based creative initiatives in both the UK, Canada and Australia is quite robust, with the UK at the forefront and as the clear leader in this regard. One thinks of organisations such as Shape Arts in London, DASH in Shrewsbury, Arts Access Australia as Australia’s peak body for the arts (along with many other smaller disability-arts organisations throughout its various states), and Tangled Art + Disability based in Toronto as the Canadian counterpart. On the other hand, the USA tends to excel at offering rigorous academic opportunities in disability studies (although not strictly disability arts), and the Society for Disability Studies is very active at staging annual conferences and publishing its peer-reviewed journal, Disability Studies Quarterly. Whilst there are few departments dedicated wholly to disability studies in various universities and colleges (Ohio State University and University at Buffalo are some examples), disability studies invariably pops up as a minor subject, housed within other humanities-based academic departments.[4]

My response to this question only truly scratches the surface of the representation, growth and development of ‘disability arts’, for it also arguably encompasses a very narrow definition of what it might come to mean. For example, another facet might consist of the proliferation of disabled models who are now achieving great national and international success on the world stage and are working to challenge normative and deeply ingrained aesthetic ideals, such as Madeline Stuart, Nyle DiMarco, and Rebekah Marine, who embody Down’s Syndrome, deafness and amputee form in that order. In other words, ‘disability art’ has proliferated across the globe in ways beyond the purely visual, where its representation can be experienced in all art forms including theatre, dance, music, architecture, new media, poetry, curatorial studies, and creative writing.

Pedagogically, a number of scholars have also developed handbooks, offering templates for how to teach disability arts in the classroom, such as Petra Kuppers and Alice Fox and Hannah Macpherson.[5] Conferences and symposia on ‘disability arts’ have also blossomed, including the current 2016 ‘Cripping the Arts’ conference that took place in Toronto thanks to Tangled Art + Disability, and DASH’s ‘Awkward Bastards’ held at the mac centre for the arts in Birmingham in 2015. Disability arts festivals are also flourishing: DaDaFest in Liverpool continues to remain strong, while the brand new US counterpart, DisArt, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan is leading the charge for a new quality and branding of experience for visitors to engage in the vibrancy that is disability arts, officially launched in 2015 and securing significant national arts funding through the National Endowment for the Arts.

The world of athleticism and sports has also launched substantial artistic and funding opportunities for ‘disability arts’, such as the Unlimited Festival programming, that stemmed from the Olympics and Paralympics in London in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Since that time, the Unlimited arts-commissioning programme, delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, has gone from strength to strength, offering major funding support to disabled artists and producers to stage performances and theatrical and musical extravaganzas, to develop new visual art works of all mediums, and to experiment with poetry, literature, and new media. Audiences from around the world were able to enjoy in all these energetic contributions throughout 2014 and 2016, with more plans for 2018, thanks to significant funding from the British Council. I myself witnessed the first iteration of the Unlimited programme and the works it had produced at the Southbank Centre in London in 2012, buying tickets to many of the stage productions and hearing arts workers from many backgrounds engage in lively debate around some of the critical issues at the time in various panel discussions. I was exposed to many talented performers, including two from Scotland: the dancer Claire Cunningham whose work is rooted in the use/misuse of her crutches, and the virtuoso deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie who performs barefoot in order to feel the vibrations of her instruments.

Coupling ‘disabilty arts’ with the world of sports is not as unusual as it sounds, as it has offered fertile ground for artistic and curatorial interventions. Some artists have chosen to critique how disabled athletes have been portrayed in the media (both historically and in the contemporary moment), such as Katherine Araniello’s Superhuman videos where she mocks the trope of the ‘heroic.’ Regarding the genesis of Unlimited and its relationship to the London Olympics, it was thanks to Britain’s progressive government and much hard activist work on the part of disability communities that ‘disability arts’ was able to make great unprecedented strides in its production on a scale never witnessed previously. Britain seemed keenly aware that the arts of their country were going to be on the world’s stage, and that ‘disability art,’ particularly through the Paralympics, must be represented as a vital part of the conversation. Since the time of games, audiences across the UK and the world demanded that the Unlimited festival at which Unlimited-supported works would be presented remain a fixed event on their biennial calendar.

I have been curating exhibitions focusing on disability-related subject matter for the past 5 years, and one of most important exhibitions was held last year in three galleries housed at the University of Toronto. I had been invited to develop a show as a response to the PanAm and ParaPanAm Games in Toronto in 2015. Again, the arenas of sport and art collided, and I was happy to take up the challenge. I decided to take an empirical approach towards complex embodiment, titling the exhibition The Flesh of the World after a phrase coined by the philosopher of phenomenology Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The exhibition included work by both disabled and non-disabled artists, and a large portion of the pieces required visitor interaction. Through these engagements, I wanted the bodies of my visitors to learn how to adapt under their new circumstances through creative and inventive means, so that they could learn how navigate and appreciate space differently, some-what similarly to Lapthisophon’s approach. Ultimately the exhibition attempted to draw the viewer into a ‘disabling’ equation with the artists and the larger community of people with disabilities. [6]

In thinking about movement, then it is also important to acknowledge the disability rights movements from different parts of the globe, and that ‘disability arts’ also encompasses politics and activism around access, and accommodation. Myself, along with several self-identifying disabled colleagues at institutions like the University of California Berkeley, including Georgina Kleege, and independent artist Carmen Papalia, are especially interested in issues of ‘creative access’, where we aim to disseminate and illustrate evolving radical and transgressive ideas in curatorial design for how museum and gallery workers might become competent in building and delivering accessible multi-media practices in museums. We consider innovation in curatorial practice that advances the goal of increasing access to exhibitions by people with sensory, cognitive and physical disabilities. Considering accessible design principles for a wide-range of bodies is critical for the future direction of all modalities. The Unlimited Festival is particularly responsive to best access practices during all their events and in all their supporting media, where audio description, verbal imaging, British Sign Language and text-to-speech technology is fully and consistently implemented.

For my own part, in terms of attempting to make a contribution towards ‘disability arts’, I am currently working on my PhD dissertation, and my research and scholarship is broadly based at the intersection of contemporary art, the politics of space, and disability studies, where I seek to explore how various disabled artists and their corresponding audience members engage with the architectures of public space, ranging from the museum to the street; issues that have never before been addressed in art history and criticism. By focusing specifically on aspects of performance, vision and sound, exhibition design, socially engaged, discursive art practice and everyday urban architectures through the work of contemporary disabled artists, I aim to build a new discourse for the phenomenology of the disabled spectator. Much of my methodological research over the past few years has also revolved around my curatorial projects with disabled artists based in Canada, the USA, and the UK.

Despite all this ‘somewhere’ – progress that is occurring – which suggests that the voice of disability and disabled artists is becoming much louder, more prolific and noticeable than several decades ago, many of us in disability communities still face ongoing ‘walls’ or barriers within our daily lives. The world was not built for disabled people, and this fact continues to remain true. We also wrestle with challenging terms and definitions, and this is especially wrapped up with the d-word itself (‘d’ for ‘disability’): which persistently presents a ghettoising conundrum for artists and arts workers alike, who often have to carefully and strategically consider the vicissitudes of self-identification in relation to their complex embodiment, or even their politics, no matter how earnest and strong.[7]

This past winter, 2016, New York-based artist and wheelchair user Park McArthur staged her first solo exhibition in London entitled Poly, at the Chisenhale Gallery.[8] McArthur’s installation explored ‘what it is to bear, to accommodate and to cushion…and the inseparable material relations of art to life.’[9] One unofficial aspect of the exhibition was a series of welcoming red heaters that lay equally spread out around the perimeter of the rectangular box-shaped room. The heaters were ordered before the installation in order to support the comfort of the artist during her time in the gallery – indeed, they functioned as a subtle, if ambiguous, accommodation, as visitors often easily confused the heaters for actual works of art. If the heaters had not been in the space, then it would not have been possible for the artist to be there on a daily basis as she prepared her show, owing to the unsuitable temperature conditions of the space. The artist had made the decision to keep the heaters as part of her overall installation in order to leave this trace of her individuated existence in the space, but also to keep the gallery warm for the comfort of her visitors. The heaters act as a tangible accommodation for McArthur’s body and that of the audience, and also reveal much about the gallery’s intangible engagement with care, demonstrating how the social and atmospheric space of the gallery created its own aesthetic objects through need and desire, where context and effect inform one another. Indeed, through the inclusion of these objects, McArthur provokes us to consider questions around the boundaries between accommodation and art – when is an accommodation an art, and can and is art accommodating?

McArthur’s 2016 heaters might also work as a companion to Lapthisophon’s 2002 ramp – although rather than as an unaccommodating ramp leading to nowhere, in McArthur’s show the heaters invite us to share in a space together, embracing accommodation to its utmost potential. These heaters remind us that all our bodies are mapped onto space, even if some of those bodies require more, or different, accommodation than others. McArthur’s show is significant for it might act as an antithesis to ‘nowhere’ or walls that shut everything down. Instead, it suggests an opening that spans physical, conceptual and dialogic qualities, which also points to how disability arts might be ‘somewhere’ after all. Certainly the Unlimited programme reminds of this fact, particularly when its fruits are presented every two years at the Southbank Centre.

The expanded version of this essay was written by Amanda Cachia in response to our just-published “What’s Changed?” publication, which you can read online.

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This essay is an expanded version of “Beautiful Progress to Somewhere?” commissioned by DASH for their publication Inside? Perspectives on Disability Arts in the 20th and 21st centuries. The author wishes to thank Mike Layward for kindly permitting its reproduction in expanded form in this essay.

Amanda Cachia is an independent curator from Sydney, Australia, and is currently a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory & Criticism in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California San Diego. Her dissertation analyses the work of eight contemporary artists who create radical interventions in public space by virtue of non-normative body movements, gestures, and senses. Cachia has curated approximately 40 exhibitions over the last 20 years in various cities across the USA, the UK, Australia and Canada.

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[1] For more information, see www.parallellinesjournal.com Accessed April 26, 2016

[2] www.parallellinesjournal.com/article-beautiful-progress-nowhere.html

Accessed April 26, 2016

[3] For more information on the exhibition, visit http://gallery400.uic.edu/exhibitions/with-reasonable-accommodation Accessed June 1, 2016

[4] For a full listing, see http://disabilitystudies.syr.edu/programs-list/

Accessed April 29, 2016

[5] For more information, see Petra Kuppers, Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and Alice Fox and Hannah Macpherson, Inclusive Arts Practice and Research: A Critical Manifesto (New York and London: Routledge, 2015).

[6]   For more information on this project, visit http://fleshoftheworld.ca/ Accessed August 18, 2016

[7] For more information on the ghettoisation of disability, see Aaron Williamson’s essay, ‘In the Ghetto? A Polemic in Place of an Editorial’ in Parallel Lines journal, http://www.parallellinesjournal.com/article-in-the-ghetto.html Accessed April 26, 2016

[8] For more information on this exhibition, visit http://www.chisenhale.org.uk/archive/exhibitions/index.php?id=177

Accessed June 1, 2016

[9] http://www.chisenhale.org.uk/archive/exhibitions/index.php?id=177Accessed April 26, 2016

 

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