Whilst studying artists who investigate disability within their work, I quickly realised how many way there are to do this. You may explicitly discuss a disability, merely make reference to it, or try to avoid the discussion altogether. It could be argued that a disabled performer who creates work avoiding conversations around disability will leave audiences thinking about it anyway, because audiences read everything, including the disabled body. As a performer this unsettles me slightly; will my work only ever be about my ‘disability’? Will I never be free from the ‘diagnostic gaze’ that Petra Kuppers talks of?
I’m not sure whether this is bad, good or neutral. I’m sure it’s a question I will return to throughout my career. However, I was drawn this week to write about three works where the artist has chosen to make their disability the focus of their work. These works are; ‘My Bed’, by Tacey Emin, ‘Undress/Redress’ by Noëmi Lakmaier and ‘Involuntary Dances’, by Rita Marcalo.
‘My Bed’ was a installation of Emin’s bed after a long depressive period. The bed is described by Neal Brown of the Tate as “urine stained, and with completely sweat-stained pillows” and around the bed are a multitude of items including “knickers soiled with menstrual blood, innumerable cigarette ends, desiccated apples cores, the remains of a take-away meal and it’s barbeque sauce, soiled tissues dirty bondage, a cute child’s toy and an Orengina bottle”. Brown claims that by avoiding an “over-theatrical, darkened environment” Emin gives the work a more intense sense of “brutalising self-harm”. I think it would be strange to call this work un-dramatic because even if the presentation is simple, given the context of the work in a prestigious art space the statement was radical and controversial.
I feel this same use of simplicity for dramatic effect was used in ‘Undress/Redress’. In this piece, the female, disabled performer sits in a room, fully clothed. A male, able bodied performer enters the room, undresses the woman, and leaves the room to mingle with the audience. At a time of his choice, he will re-enter the room and re-dress the woman. This is all clearly visible to the audience, as well as being live fed onto T.V. monitors. It is a very simple performance score, but in it’s simplicity is it’s power, as the audience is asked to make sense of such straightforward but unexplained events. Who has the power here? Is the woman consenting? Is the man assisting with a daily task or abusing? What is our role as audience, watch these events happen behind a glass window or T.V. monitor? I can image that watching this piece made the audience question their actions in an uncomfortable and raw way.
Rita Marcal describes ‘Involuntary Dances’ as “a one-off 24-hour event presenting epilepsy as performance; a work where I put myself through the bodily experience of inducing an epileptic seizure in order to present my ‘involuntary dances’ to an audience”. In order to induce a seizure, Marcalo stopped taking her medication, deprived herself of sleep, took excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol and played loud and bright t.v. screens. An epileptic seizure itself can be very dramatic, as it is violent spasm of the body that threatens to be dangerous both to the epileptic and anyone or thing nearby. Of course, the fact that many people choose to hide their seizers means that most people have never witnessed one, adding to the drama. Combined with the radical choice to set it as a performance, to induce it by choice and to perform inside a cage, this performance will avoid drama with some difficulty. So how does this performance aesthetic compare with the simplicity of Emin and Lakmaier’s work?
Of course every performance is different, and requires different choices to be made around it’s aesthetic. However, when a disability is being presented in performance, I feel that choices around the levels of theatricality, it’s potential to be read as a spectacle by the audience, are massively important. The history of disabled people being toured in freak shows, and the theatricality and sensationalist style of these performances, are still ringing in the ears of disability performance. One disability activist called these freak shows a ‘pornography of disability’, a phenomenon I believe exists today. A neuropsychologist from the National Society of Epilepsy said that although ‘Involuntary Dances’ got people talking about epilepsy, “it’s being presented as a freaky type of entertainment as opposed to teaching people about seizures.” The lights, sounds and bizarreness of the performance may have scared people, causing more distance between the ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ sectors of the community. It could also have created the feeling that having epilepsy was fun and exciting, with one epilepsy charitiy expressing concerns about “the message to others who could think it’s OK to withdraw from medication without consulting a clinician”.
How are performances that choose a less theatrical, simpler aesthetic to investigate disability avoid these problems? I’m not entirely sure they can. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ may just leave people with the impression that depressed people are filthy, lazy, promiscuous lay-abouts who needs to learn to do the laundry and stop smoking in bed. By showing the living quarters of a depressed person in this way, it could begin to feel like a strange wild-life documentary, where people crane their necks to views the ‘natural living quarters’ or a rare breed of jungle creature.
I feel the simplicity of ‘Undress/Redress’, and the obvious choice to let the audience watch from outside of a glass room, acknowledges the history of freakism within disability, and uses that to it’s advantage. We are asked to watch as a disabled woman is dressed and redressed. The act of putting on and removing clothes is a daily activity; is this what this woman does every day? How do we feel watching this happen? What is our role as an audience? How uncomfortable are we watching something as if at a zoo? This is not the only performance to engage with a history of freakism within disability performance. Check out the Last American Freak Show. It also investigates what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “the Stare … a pervasive, tangible gaze that the disabled confront on a daily basis”. Similar to Kupper’s ‘diagnostic gaze’, ‘the Stare’ works with the medical model of disability, as the able-bodied person looks for a distance and tries to work out what is ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’ with the other, different, body.
My conclusions are mixed and varying around how theatricality can affect performance investigating disability. I feel that the disabled body, whether a visible disability that the audience are seeing on stage or an invisible one that they can project onto a body, is viewed in a totally different way to ‘normal’ bodies. The way we watched these ‘marked’ bodies has a huge impact on the way a performance is received, and should be carefully considered in all disability performance.