Common Pulse: Arts and Disability Symposium

CPtentextWe just returned from the CommonPulse art festival in Durham, ON. This year the theme was: Intersecting Abilities: Looking at Art and Disability Differently.

The festival culminated in a symposium which consisted of a series of panel presentations, discussion, screenings and performance. We (Red Wagon) mounted an installation that was comprised of some of the banner works that we did with Women’s Stories combined with a reconfiguration of the Quilt made by Monday Art Group.


It was very helpful for us to try to conceptualize the work we do and to speak about its complexities and the multiple lineages upon which it is based. What we presented was a quilted text made up of pretty and rough fragments from notes we have gathered from our often scattered writings. Here are some excerpts:

…we are are stuck with the language we have – it sticks, is sticky – we don’t want to collapse categories into each other (ie. homelessness = disability)– they are not fixed categories, they are open and fluid and overlapping, even contrary…

As experiences they (disability, homelessness, poverty) are often represented as isolated and individual problems. To understanding disability we must be attendant upon historic ideas such that disability has been thought of as  “a biological defect….firmly rooted in the body….addressed through kill or cure”[1] or that it is a “master trope of human disqualification”[2] Homelessness and poverty have resonant lives within the cultural imaginary – all braided with oh-so-many other threads caught within the turning of the grindstone of neoliberal governance. Women, considered abject, failed in relation to the embodied productivity required….

We may instead want to conceptualize these categories and experiences as the affects of a political system that blames individuals and does not perceive its own limits and accumulated failures. Women whose embodiments vary – who are judged as lacking normative characteristics –  experience profound disablement. They may find themselves unable to even enter emergency shelter spaces – the shelters are not accessible or accomodating to variable and varied embodiiment. We have listened to the testimonies of women who have been denied use of mobility devices; who have lacked an accessible room, shower, toilet; witnessed elevators that are frequently out of service. Homelessness as a complex process of disablement is in turn, further disabling. Women who arrive have often already experienced difficulty accessing health care, in the shelter dietary requirements are not met, stress, lack of sleep, inadequate heating or cooling, lack of access to clothing and other basic necessities – all of these factors are bodily threats from your immediate enviroment – some women at times refuse emergency housing and instead remove themselves to ravines and couches – which can be felt as safer solutions.

Elizabeth Povinelli says: “Neoliberalism transformed an older liberal governance of life and death. Neoliberalism has not merely mimicked the move from make die or let live to make live and let die. faire mourir ou laisser vivre to “faire” vivre et “laisser” mourir. It has resuscitated faire mourir or make die into its topology of faire vivre or make live and laisser mourir let die, even as the more dominant powers of making live and letting die have changed the techniques of state killing. Any form of life that could not produce values according to market logic would not merely be allowed to die, but, in situations in which the security of the market (and since the market was now the raison d’etre of the state, the state) seemed at stake, ferreted out and strangled. This way of killing is not commensurate with an older sovereign power Foucault so viscerally described in the opening of Discipline and Punish. There are not public spectacles of drawn and quartered bodies — or lynched bodies. Secret agreements are made to remove the body to be tortured far away from public sight and scrutiny. Moreover these new semipublic and secret ways of making die have their counterpart in market disciplines. Any form of life that is not organized on the basis of market values is characterized as a potential security risk. If a social welfare program, for instance, can be shown to lengthen life and increase health, but cannot at the same time be shown to produce a market value, this lengthened life and increased health is not a value to be capacitated. Indeed, it is a value to be actively attacked and rooted out of the state and national psyche.” (Economies of Abandonment, 22)

-disability has been legitimized as a representational trope within the arts as a sign of the monstrous, mad, criminal, other…

-non-normative bodies are locked in as a signifier of the otherCPtent2x

– the avant garde does not exist as a consistent position of criticality and disruptiveness from whence to make art, it only exists in relation to the normative. the Avant garde is a masculine rational space, a Euro space, a space within the contradictions of bourgeois economy. We irritate from the outerlands of the bourgeois – the monstrous and unspeakable other that inhabits the shadows and borderlands, whose worlds fill infinite space dismissed…..

We take this knowledge to be profoundly critical – it is a critique of capitalism and its lack of interest in human beings, it is a critique of elitist forms of knowledge and puts forward the position that all knowledge is valuable and important and that all bodies are knowing and valued bodies. It’s a critique of professionalized art made by the few and asserts that culture belongs to people, and without broad engagements in making, art becomes reified within a self defining bubble. It asserts that the rejection of the aesthetics of the “low” or “bad art” veers towards a classist cultural gatekeeping that works hand in hand with the structures that create spaces of neglect. This work is about radical democracy, and its aesthetics reflect how un-evolved the democratic project is – 

[1] (Dolgmage – review of Cultural Locations of Disability
[2] (Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.  245 pp. Cultural Locations of Disability 125)



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