Becoming Disabled: A performative workshop and installation

Camino Events, Research Pavilion, Venice 30.6.-1.7.2017

Liisa Jaakonaho & Kristina Junttila

 

Notes on how it all began (Liisa)

When I heard about the theme of this year’s Research Pavilion, ‘Utopia of Access’, it resonated immediately with the topic of my doctoral research. My research is about ethical questions in and around my artistic-pedagogic work with differently abled people, in a social care context. So, questions of access and accessibility are something I think about anyway, in relation to disability. Also, I’ve been thinking about how to explore my questions in other contexts, through artistic practice – for me this is a methodological question, as well as a question of how to share the research. So, I saw the Research Pavilion as a great opportunity to develop my practice outside the original contexts of my research.

My aim was to communicate about my research on a new level, and to explore what kind of questions emerge in the collaboration with Kristina, and with all the participants. I was really happy when Kristina came along, and we found a way to combine our interests. I have always found collaborations a good way to stir and shake my own thinking and practice. In my research I am seeking for active dialogues – as that is the quality of my practice with the differently abled participants, I like to see that reflected in the methodology. So, I approached this as an opportunity to open up my questions for input and response from others.

 

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Notes on disability (Liisa)

Our approach to disability was based on our experiences working with differently abled people (in my case people with intellectual and developmental disabilities), and reflecting on these encounters through the theory of critical disability studies. In the beginning of the workshop days we introduced two ways to approach disability: the medical/individual model, and the social model. In the medical/individual model disability is seen as a direct result of a medical condition, which is usually named as some kind of limitation, “lack”, or abnormality in relation to other people, who are seen as “normal”. In the social model disability is seen as an effect of the relationship between impairments, and social and material structures that influence our access to different social domains, and physical environments. So, in the social model, the aim is to change the society to allow access for people with and without impairments, whereas in the medical model the emphasis is on curative and rehabilitative strategies, focusing on the individual. Critical disability studies are linked to activism, as it all began with people with disabilities standing up for themselves to tackle stigmatisation and discrimination. There are many contradictions and controversies within and between the different approaches to disability studies; as the category of disability is so diverse and broad, so is the field as an academic discipline.

Because our aim was to find a playful, creative, and productive approach to disability, we were obviously more interested in the social model of disability. However, it felt important to also acknowledge the lived reality of disability – the need to diagnosis and medical support, and how those are not just social constructions, but also important or necessary for many individuals.

Notes on access (Kristina)

On the airplane, on my way to Venice, I realised I had forgotten my passport and I was worried that I might not have access into Italy. It turned out that I was never asked to identify myself. While stepping into the workshop I felt unsure if I have access into the world of disability. For me it is ethically problematic to say that disability is a social construction, since there are people with real medical conditions that deserve attention and respect. But with this in mind, we still found it valuable to explore disability creatively, trying to find the skills that can be strengthened through disabilities. In many ways our approach to disability was that it could be anything non-normative. In what way does the non-normative have access into the dominant culture?

 

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We were a diverse group of people working in areas such as dance and choreography, linguistics, industrial design, performance art, research and social work. Liisa and I proposed that disability would be approached through performative exercises, but we emphasised that everyone was free to use the tools that they felt comfortable with. With our materials and exercises as starting points, creativity took many forms: for example, drawing houses with missing parts, moving forward with the legs tied together, recording gibberish through writing, experiencing art blindfolded, and stacking cups.

 

 

 

On becoming disabled (Kristina)

The question on how to – or if we can – perform disability is complex, and it is something that could be interesting to explore more. In the workshop our way of doing it was to have a bowl full of suggestions on what your disability relates to, such as:

  • Tongue
  • Upper body
  • Eyes
  • Skin
  • Brain
  • Bones
  • The floor
  • Technical devices
  • Colours

Before each exercise everyone made a “lucky draw” to get their disability and some time to find a way to embody it, before they drew another exercise, which gave them an act or suggestion on what to do. After the exercises we gave space for sharing our experiences. These were some of the responses:

“To be it, to feel it, to become something different.”

“My disability related to bones. In Chinese medicine bones are related to wooden structures and I started to build with the wooden stools.”

 

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”Then I started to lick the objects, the taste of the window was awful”

 “I went from disabling myself to abilising – what feels good?”

“My hair started to fall into my eyes and I had no way of removing it

“First I tried to blur my vision, but the light disability is less easy to explore, so I said – LETS GO BLIND”        

“I lost my connection. On the other side, I got more connected.”

“When I have a blind girlfriend walking across expensive art things and I cannot speak”

One theme that arose a few times was that it was easier to explore disabilities that had a concrete physical restriction, such as going blindfolded or blocking your ability to walk or speech. The blocking of a sense is often used in performing art exercises as a way to strengthen another sense or giving a new perspective. Here it functioned the same way, but perhaps more important was the tuning into what we were exploring, namely disability. As with all subjects it is easy to fall into clichés, and perhaps we did fall into clichés once in a while. But it is through the exercises that we get an affective relationship to the subject, and through the doing that we also could feel when we got further away from the subject. I noticed that since the group had such varied background, it was very individual where people’s boundaries and comfort zones on this were.

 

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Notes on what happened (Liisa)

First thing that struck me, and was really thrilling, was how multidisciplinary our participants were, and that not all came from the arts. When we asked for people’s reasons to attend and their personal interests, many of them said that the theme of disability had attracted them, in relation to their specific fields. So, in our invitation disability worked as a concept that communicated across different fields. For me, this already felt like an achievement, in relation to the theme of access. It made me feel that we had managed to offer and communicate something that was accessible enough to bring in people that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have entered the building.

We had planned the workshop to be a two-day process with the same participants, but in practice it turned out that many people could only attend one day, so it felt more like two separate workshops, with two different groups – although there was a continuation, with some people staying for two days, the exercises not just repeated, but also developed further, and the installation being built over the two days.

The workshop was documented whilst it was happening, using smartphones and mobile printers, as well as writing and drawing. The idea was that this way also other visitors of the Research Pavilion would have access to the work. Also, this was a way to cross the boundary between visual art and performing art; between temporal, ephemeral arts practice, and material artworks presented in an exhibition space. It also had a practical function for us and participants to share our experiences amongst each other; for example, people who attended only on the second day could use the installation as a reference point to what had happened so far.

Overall the workshop left me overwhelmed with the level of creativity, engagement, positive criticality, and enthusiasm from the participants. I feel like it was all much more than what I expected, and I will need time to digest and reflect on it. It was great how open people were to our proposals, and how they took the challenge of our theme seriously, but also playfully – just as we had hoped!

Many thanks to all the participants, supporters, and organisers of the event!

 

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TRACES

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Kristina Junttila  is a performance artist, teacher and PhD-research fellow at the Arts Academy, University of Tromsø, Norway. She holds a master in Live Art and Performance Studies and theatre pedagogy from the Theatre Academy in Helsinki. In her research she is looking at the potential of an exercise in Live Art. See www.kristinajunttila.com

Liisa Jaakonaho is a Doctoral Candidate at Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts, Helsinki. She is an interdisciplinary practitioner of dance pedagogy, movement therapy, socially engaged art, and performance. In her research she investigates ethical tensions in and around her work as a dance pedagogue with differently abled people. See www.liikahdus.fi/en

 

 

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