Taking Flight

from 

M3 performing Taking Flight as part of The Great Big Dance Show at the Dundee Rep in October 2013:

Here we see bodies moving through the space as music is played. We see standing bodies, sitting bodies, bodies with wheels, bodies without wheels, male bodies, female bodies, bodies up high and down, bodies pushing and pulling, bodies being pulled and pushed.

When watching movement, do we read a wheelchair as part of the body, or do we see it as a separate vessel – merely something to hold the body? The politics of the wheelchair is something I touched on before in the blog post TGIF!. Some wheelchairs are controlled by the user, where as other wheelchair’s need a second person to move them, and some can work either way. Therefor it may be necessary for a wheelchair to be regularly handled by people other than the user.

The politics and aesthetics of the wheelchair, as well as other things that are used to aid mobility such as the crutches used by Claire Cunningham, is of great interest to me. Despite not using any mobility equipment myself, I would like to investigate what the relationship is, or can be, between someone and theirs. Within a somatic movement practice, where do wheelchairs, crutches and walking frames sit?

Engaging in the ‘Dis’

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.

Are You Receiving Me? The difference between not being understood and not being listened to

As a depressive I have often felt voiceless. Particularly as a pre-18 being churned through the mental health system, I felt like my views and opinions were at the very bottom of the list. It was unbelievably frustrating and enraging.

My loss of voice was due systems and attitudes, not my ability to articulate my concerns. What happens, then, when someone is literally unable to voice their opinions as they have little or no speech? In this blog I want to explore how communication works without spoken work. 

Sense are an great example of how people with communication barriers can be supported and given freedom to express themselves. In an article in the Scotsman, Sense explain how they focus on communication using “tools including speech, signing and gestures” but acknowledge that the attitude of those supporting individuals is vital, as “the best place to start is to just listen and respond to the people we support”.

Paddy Masefield, in his essay ‘Difficulties in Learning’, asks “why have we found it so difficult to learn from people with learning disabilities?” He goes on to add that “Not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say . . . People who have learning disabilities may lack an extensive physical voice but still possess sensitive powers of communication”.

These are both points I heartily agree with, but it isn’t just people with learning disabilities who may have trouble speaking. Many people find the act of talking tricky, including those affected by Cerebal Palsy, strokes, autism, motor neurone disease, Parkinsons, Multiple Sclerosis, head injuries, dementia, speech impediments, stammers and many more. In the final episode of Educating Yorkshire, the journey of a student with a stammer is tracked through his final GCSE year. His miraculous achievement of reading a poem aloud whilst listening to music had the nation in tears, (see a clip here

) but it wasn’t always that great. When asked how he feels at not being able to get his words out, he told the camera that he often felt so frustrated he wanted to bash his head in with a hammer.

This youtube video –

 – created by AAC advocates ‘Creativity matters’ interviews people whom without specialist equipment would have no means of communicating. AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, a term that covers all communication methods, tools and equipment for those with communication barriers. This particular video looks at people who use a piece of equipment made famous by one of it’s users – Stephen Hawking. Amongst the interviewees are people who have gained access to higher education and made meaningful relationships that would have previously been impossible. One man speaks about how he was able to have his first ever conversation with his parents at 18 thanks to this technology, and another man shares how he created a business after loosing his speech and inventing a product to allow communication. 

However, being given a method of communication doesn’t help much if people aren’t willing to listen. The Foundation For People With Learning Difficulties claim that “Too often young people with learning disabilities have everyone else making decisions for them”. This is something I can relate to, as my earliest experiences of the mental health system made me feel like a bag of symptoms being passed round GPs, specialists and councillors who took very little of what I was saying on board. “What About Us?’,  a review of school and college provision for students with learning disabilities, highlighted the difficulty for students to make their voices heard;

“Young people want more of an opportunity to make their voices heard through means such as school or college councils … There is still some way to go  in ensuring that the voices of young people with learning disabilities are heard”.

So, it is not just creating ways for people to gain a communicative language or system, but allowing people to express themselves and have a voice that is important. I feel Graene Thomson, the communications officer at sense, sums things up perfectly;

“It is our duty and obligation to ensure that everyone we work with, in whatever capacity, is listened to, understood and supported; not just to have their needs met, but to reach their individual aspirations”

Am I disabled?

Bobby Baker explains that “In our society it’s currently easier to shift a criminal record than any old psychiatric diagnosis that may have been attached to our names during our lives”. I am therefore labelled permanently as a moderate to severe depressive due to a diagnosis made at the age of 17.

In this post I want to explore my identity relating to disability. I say exploration, as I feel it would be impossible for me to arrive at a permanent yes/no answer to the title question. I want to place myself where I fit into the field of disabled discourse at this moment, with the full expectation that it will change throughout my life. As someone working within the arts sector and who has a interest in disability arts, it was only a matter of time before the question arose; am I disabled? And how does the answer to that affect my practice?

Whilst writing for the Live Art Development Agency, sean burn writes “i see language as our first battlefield”. By ‘our’, he is referring to “the mentally ill, formerly mentally ill, formally mentally ill, formatively mentally ill, mental-health service users, mental-health consumers (the American phrase – ouch) or plain survivors”. Technically I fit quite a few of these categories, but have never felt any of the language surrounding mental health fitted me well at all.

This isn’t to say I’ve never used terms similar to those above to describe myself. However, my motivation was less to do with how I perceived myself and entirely about how I was perceived by others. How could I claim support through the disabled students’ allowance if I didn’t identify as disabled? A letter of diagnosis was sent to lecturers in my first year of drama school so they could support my disability – it is unlikely they would have arranged the same level of support for someone who was just miserable and tired all the time. Slapping the term ‘disabled’ on my forehead was a survival method in the youth and adult mental health systems both in England and Scotland, but if I’d been given the choice I may well have treated the label with more reluctance.

Bobby Baker examines the use of ‘Dis’ words when discussing mental health, explaining how society often sees ‘Dis’ people as weak and requiring help from the ‘non-dis’ people. However, she goes on to say that “The very ‘disability’, ‘disadvantage’, ‘disorder’ that society deems so problematic can actually lead to sophisticated resilience and flexibility. Such people can acquire skills, insights, and humour – indeed wisdom about humanity – that others struggle with”. This sentiment resonates with me immensely. I have previously described my depression as my greatest gift, which means to refer to it as a disability feels inappropriate.

‘Survivor’ is a term that is widely used in mental disability discourses. Margaret Price, in her essay ‘Defining Mental Disability’, voices initial concerns with this term. She says it seems to refer to a one-off traumatic event that someone has experienced, such as its use when discussing survivors of sexual abuse or rape. Both Price and myself experience depression not as a single event but a continuous factor of day-to-day life for many years. However, Linda J. Morrison, in her study ‘Talking Back to Psychiatry’, claims that the “heroic survivor narrative” is a recurrent theme in the stories of those who have experienced poor mental health and the mental health system, albeit in “a range of intensity from high drama to muted sceptical observations”. It would appear that for many affected by mental health, the idea of survival is key to their experience. Price comes to the conclusion that the term ‘survivor’ can “denote one who is actively and resistantly involved with the psychiatric system on an ongoing basis”. I can identify with the idea of ongoing battles with the psychiatric system, but the term ‘survivor’ still doesn’t encompass what it means to me to have depression.

As the non-heterosexual community have reclaimed the once offensive term ‘queer’, the Mad Pride movement has reclaimed the word ‘Mad’. Price claims that “As with queer, the broad scope of mad carries the drawback or generality but also the power of mass”. Allen Thiher, in ‘Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature” justifies the reclaiming of the word, as “access to the entity afflicted with madness is obtained through a language game”. Initially I didn’t feel comfortable with using ‘mad’ in this way at all. Maybe it was the generality that Price speaks of that made me uncomfortable, or the derogatory history of this word (As Price says “often the very terms used to name persons with mental disability have explicitly foreclosed our status as persons”.) However, as I continue to work with themes of mental health in my work I have grown to enjoy the reclaiming. It’s funny! And as my practice develops I am beginning to understand the important of comedy when addressing dark topics, especially when introduced to performers such as David Hoyle.

Price uses the term ‘Psychosocial disability’ in her writing, explaining it as “the excluded middle or liminal space where impairment meets world to become disability”. This is something I experience in my own life, as despite my low moods being eased through medication there are many other symptoms of depression that make fitting social expectations difficult. Extreme fatigue makes long periods of concentration hard, and going out in the evening is impossible. My reluctance to talk to new people, as well as finding conversations with well known people hard work, makes social events and ‘networking’ far beyond my reach. These things are problematic because I cannot do what is expected of me within the social group and culture I live in. The inclusion of ‘social’ in psychosocial disability is so important. The social element of depression is even included as part of its description in the DSM V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition);

“The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning”

However, surely this term could be used to describe a whole range of impairments?  My first blog post comes to the conclusion that disability implicitly means to be disabled by society, because without prejudice people would just be impaired. I have always stated that for me, depression is no challenge compared with the way people react to it. Even naming my impairment is made difficult by others, as Price found that “in most social contexts, psychosocial failed to mean”. So, although this term describes me more than any other term, it is next to useless if I am the only one that understands it. I places me within the world of disability, but not within the world.

I am relieved that people are discussing these matters, and knowing there are others out there experiencing the same impairments and disabilities as I am helps to ease the ever-present isolation that comes with many disabilities. However, I still don’t feel I’ve found my ‘category’, and maybe that’s OK. For now I will continue to discuss myself as someone with depression, despite the fear of the stigma and prejudice that could come with that knowledge.

Is Visual Art Important for People with a Visual Impairment?

I have always stood by my belief that creativity is for everyone. However, are all forms of creativity for everyone? I wanted to delve deeper into how visual arts, and other practices that focus mainly on visuals, can become accessible and valuable to people who are visually impaired or blind.

As I began to read about the issues surrounding visual impairment, my own ignorance became very apparent. For example, did you know that only 10 – 20% of people with a visual impairment are totally blind? The majority of visually impaired people have some sort of vision, whether that be the ability to see light and dark or tell between different colours.

Gorgina Kleege’s claim that “the average blind person knows more about what it means to be sighted than the average sighted person knows about what it means to be blind” pinpoints the realisation I was having. Kleege points out that for visually impaired people “the language we speak, the literature we read, the architecture we inhabit, are all designed by and for the sighted”. It could be argued that this is the same for anyone with a disability in a culture that thinks only on the able-bodied, ‘normal’ human being. Wheelchair users live in a world built for legs, and those without hearing live in a world made for noise.

However, my research revealed another dimension to sighted people’s relationship with sight. Researchers Magee (sighted) and Milligan (visually impaired) who were researching in the early 20th century came to the conclusion that “by the sighted, seeing is felt as a need”, a sentiment that Kleege agrees with. For a sighted person, to close the eyes is often a scary, disorientating and panic-inducing experience. It can make us feel vulnerable and isolated. This is reflected in a lot of literature where, as Kleege points out, “traditional metaphores that equate blindness with a tomblike imprisonment” are present again and again. Sighted people are also likely to link sight with emotion. Jim Gray is a visually impaired musician who wrote ‘America the Beautiful’, which became very popular after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Whilst being interviewed on radio, the interviewer commented “Was this maybe one time in your life where not having to see was a relief?” Not only does this suggest that Gray usually wishes to be sighted, which he may well not, but states that as Gray couldn’t see the twin towers falling, he would lack the emotion and empathy to have a reaction to this horrific event.

For a sighted person to believe that closing their eyes is creating the experience of a blind person is inaccurate. As a sighted person, our senses have developed in a completely different way to someone who is visually impaired. Helen Keller, who was born deaf and blind, writes about the senses and criticises the traditional categories of touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision as inadequate. As someone who relied heavily on touch, she developed touch of vibration, touch of temperature and touch of texture as ways to start getting more detail into the sense vocabulary. As a visually impaired person your senses will develop in a different way to a sighted person, as your primary sense is not your vision. As Kleege says, visually impaired people “do not feel themselves to be deficient or partial – sighted people minus sight – but whole human beings who have learned to attend their non-visual senses in different ways”.

So, if people who are visually impaired have developed their non-visual senses, where is their benefit from visual arts? I discovered a convincing argument that visual arts have a significant positive impact on visually impaired people despite their lack of sight.

Starting at a cognitive level, I read “Neural and behavioural correlates of drawing in an early blind painter”. The observation was made that “Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision”. This suggests that drawing is even more important for someone without sight, as it works parts of the brain that would not otherwise be fully utilized. It was also noted that “he is also able to reveal his internal representations though highly detailed drawings that are unequivocally understood by a sighted person”. I disagree that the value of this man’s work should be decided based upon whether it is understood by ‘a sighted person’, but the point stands that visual art has become a method of self-expression, the same as for many visual artists. Art Education for the Blind go further, claiming that visual arts don’t only aid self expression for visually impaired people, but improve matters at personal and community level;

“Our fundamental belief is that people who are blind or visually impaired must have access to the world’s visual culture if they are to participate fully in their communities and in the world at large, that it improves the quality of their lives, and helps them gain skills crucial to their education and employment opportunities”

To stand alongside cognitive, personal and social value, there are many visually impaired or blind artists that make a living from their visual arts practice. Esref Armagan, Keith Salmon (working in Ayrshire), Sergej Popolsin, and Giovanni Gonelli to name a few. I read the transcript of an interview owithCraig Royal, another visually impaired artist, who said that “photography has allowed me to keep my passion to create alive and that my Vision is not impaired by my vision”. His inspiring words didn’t stop there, as he encourages other budding visually impaired artists “Just do it! No matter the degree of vision loss there is a way to work around it”

My investigation into the value of visual art for visually impaired people has left me with a lot of questions. It has also been a crucial reminder that assumptions about visual impairment, or any other impairment for that matter, can be wildly wrong even if they are widely accepted in able-bodied dialogue. Visual art is important, useful and enjoyable for people with impaired sight and in my practice I will aim to include those who may feel they lack the right senses in an art form they are entitled to. As Royal says, “If you have vision loss, don’t loose sight in the beauty of life. If you have lost sight of the beauty in life you are truly blind”.

Disability and Impairment; What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

During my first day at Sense I began to question exactly what we mean by ‘disability’. The people I was working with varied massively in the type, complexity and manifestation of their disability.

 

I decided to research official definitions, and came across the 2010 Equality Act. According to this document, disability is

 

“A physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”

 

I investigated some of the terms used. ‘long-term’ refers to an impairment of 12 or more months, with on-and-off impairments not being classed as a disability. ‘Substantial’ is defined as “more than minor or trivial”. However, the word I found most difficult and potentially problematic was not defined in the document. That word was ‘normal’.

 

In the essay ‘Normality, Power and Culture’ by Lennard J. Davis, Davis chooses to focus “not so much on the construction of disability as on the construction of normality”. He claims that the problem is the way normalcy is constructed to create “the problem of the disabled person”, describing this as the “social process of disabling”.

 

Davis believes that “it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English an idea of ‘the norm’ over the period 1840-60”, a time of industrialisation. He says that before this, the idea of the ‘ideal’ body stood in place of the ‘normal’ body. The ‘ideal’ body was a body so perfect that only divine beings could hope to achieve it, and for the mere mortals on earth there was no pressure to have the ideal body as it was considered unachievable.

 

This all changed when statistics introduced the concept of the normal. Quetelet, a pioneering statistician, states that;

 

“An individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man, would respect at once all the greatness, beauty and goodness of that being”

 

In my mind, an alarming thought.

The culture of the time not only began to desire normal-ness in all aspects of their lives, but those who didn’t achieve this were considered as having “ugliness in body as well as vice in morals and a state of sickness with regard to constitution”. This sentiment from Quetelet ignited what Davis sees as “The association between what we would now call disability and criminal activity, mental incompetence, sexual license and so on established a legacy that people with disabilities are still having trouble living down”. Ableist thought still sees disabled people as a “defective class”.

 

I’m not entirely sure I agree with Davis that the idea of normal came into being no earlier than the 19th centenary. What were the witch trials if not a way to persecute outliers of the norm? Shakespeare documents racism in ‘Othello’ that is blatantly stigmatising someone who is not of ‘normal’ colour. However, I am very sympathetic to his ideas that disabled people are not disabled by their impairment, but by society’s treatment of it.

 

Aaron Williamson is an artist who, it is recorded, “assumes the fact of his deafness as a form of knowledge”. This would suggest that he does not see his deafness as a disability in and of itself. In a conversation between him and Sinead O’Donnell, Williamson states, “the category we think is right at the bottom in comparison to all the others is made up of the people who are known as ‘disabled’ people”. He goes on to describe disability as “a collective idea”, an identity that belongs to many people with different impairments. This is certainly what I have witnessed at Sense.

 

His view is that “disability actually means that you’re disabled by society through exclusion”, and that the term ‘disabled’ is different to ‘impairment’ which refers to whatever an individual has that causes them to be disabled. He returns to the idea of normality, saying that as a disabled person you feel oppressed and can ‘long to be normal’.

 

In the documentary ‘Born to be Different’, the lives of several children with disabilities are documented from birth. The comments both from the children and their parents seem to support the idea that society disables, not impairments. The father of Nathan, a boy with downs Syndrome, explains that at Nathan’s school “they see him as different and until that attitude changes, we’re gonna [sic] be exactly where we are now”. Nathan’s mother, who originally wanted Nathan to attend a mainstream school, says, ”If other kids don’t have, you know, contact with other kids with disabilities then they’re never going to learn. Inclusion is the best thing for Nathan I think. Society really disables people”.

 

So, how do these ideas influence my practice and my desire to be inclusive? There are many more avenues to explore, such as the ethics around medical intervention such as cochlear implants and reconstructive surgery, mainstream and specialist schools and the design of our public spaces and buildings around able-bodied people. However, I found the most compelling message I came across in the film ‘Talk’, commissioned by the Disability Standards Committee. In the film, we see a world were the roles are reversed and able-bodied people are stigmatised for their lack of impairment. We see workplaces, clubs and public transport that take impairments as their norms with fully accessible lifts, ramps and bars. It was a beautiful thing. I feel that in my practice an awareness that my response to people’s impairments is potentially the source of more upset than whether I know sign or realise someone is partially sighted is scary, but reassuring. If my attitude is what needs to be monitored mindfully, I am willing to do that. Then all I need to do is make every building, venue and classroom I ever work in totally accessible and impairment friendly

 

We’ll see how that goes.