Disability as Experience

In this post, I’d like to make things a bit more personal than I have so far.

Last week I got into a debate with a professor. It’s not important what this debate was about. Instead, it’s important what this debate wasn’t about. This professor was asking my class—myself and six other graduate students/artists—to participate in a set of “Happenings” as scripted by the Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow. Originally developed by the artist in the late 1950s into the 1960s (and performed by both Kaprow, who died in 2006, and others in the decades following), Happenings are known, per the art writer, Abigail Cain, for their “combined elements of dance, theater, music, poetry, and visual art to blur the boundaries between life and art and forge a path for new methods of artistic practice.” While the output of the work is almost always ephemeral—a puddle of melted ice cubes, for instance—the artist left “scores” for future performers, ensuring that their actions are inline with the original intent of the piece.

Again, what my professor and I were specifically debating is not critical here. But our discussion was about the value (or lack thereof) in enacting a particular Happening on our campus. The realm of the debate was political: I felt there were contextual updates necessary to make the 1968 piece better fit 2018. He disagreed. He was adamant, however, that if we did not enact the Happening exactly as Kaprow intended, it should not be done at all. Eventually, a number of other students joined my side and the professor gave in—cancelling that particular Happening altogether.

The other planned events, however, were discussed without a protest. They’re rather innocuous tasks: trading a bucket of dirt for another bucket of dirt, carrying stones down a dry riverbed, lifting cinder blocks from one side of the room to another. This is where my real problem begins. Living with my particular type of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome means that lifting heavy objects—even just once in a day—can result in significant joint and muscle pain for a few days after. It’s not an immediate result—I might appear to be completing a task without any strain whatsoever. But when my body attempts to repair ligaments or joints by reinforcing them with collagen, it does so very slowly, or not at all.

So here I was—having just completed a nearly two hour argument with a professor about the ideological objections I have to a particular Happening, feeling emotionally and physically exhausted and that I was not necessarily on his best side. Do I tell him that performing almost all of the other tasks are not in my best interest? The class is a requirement and if I want to take my qualifying exams on time, I have to take it this term, so I can’t simply drop it. Given his assertion that deviations from the original score are not on the table, I doubt I can ask a surrogate to perform my tasks. I have two options: speak up or hurt.

* * *

In his 1934 work Art as Experience, the philosopher John Dewey writes that “Even a crude experience, if authentically an experience, is more fit to give a clue to the intrinsic nature of esthetic experience than is an object already set apart from any other mode of experience” (9). Art critic and Kaprow biographer Jeff Kelley, in an introduction to a 1993 volume of essays by the artist, notes that Kaprow took this Deweyian philosophy to heart in developing Happenings—particularly “from the low drama of enactment…Carry enough cinder blocks, follow the plan, and meaning will emerge” (xxiii). What about, however, if carrying those cinder blocks is not a possibility?

Performances by individuals with disabilities have a very long history—one that includes considerations of side shows as well as the type of contemporary dance performed by, for instance, Ann Cooper Albright. In her 1998 self-choreographed piece, Albright explores her identity as a dancer temporarily requiring the aid of a wheelchair for mobility. She writes

As a body on display, I am expected to reside within a certain continuum of fitness and bodily control, not to mention sexuality and beauty. But as a woman in a wheelchair, I am neither expected to be a dancer nor to position myself in front of an audience’s gaze. In doing this performance, I confronted a whole host of contradictions both within myself and within the audience.

This sort of moving introspection is a critical and valuable element of performance art, be it by an individual with or without a disability. In the context of Albright’s piece, the work is designed for the inclusion of the artist’s disability. Adapting a piece written for an individual without a disability to be taken on by one with is, to be sure, just as challenging. This was the case, for instance, when Deaf West Theater revived Broadway hit “Spring Awakening” in 2015.

I only briefly touch on the above two scenarios because I want to consider a third: when an artist with a disability who passes as someone without is expected to perform any task without ease or protest. In thinking about this—especially in the context of the Deweyian art as experience, we might take two paths. The first, massive in scope and perhaps best left for the philosophers of art, considers whether a piece of work “is” for the artist or the audience. If we narrow in a bit on the specific type of work I’m thinking about today, however, Kaprow often argued that his work was meant to, per Cain, entice “artists to consider and reimagine audiences as part of their work,” even as he composed scores in which artists would perform their actions in private.

This first path then leads to the second—one that might best be handled by disability studies scholars, perhaps in concert with the art historian or philosopher. If we allow a person with disabilities to modify a Happening score for the sake of participation, does that center the disability over the intended actions of the piece? Going back to the issue of passing, would my modification of the piece (not moving the blocks; asking someone to help me) require that I “reveal” my disability? Would not lifting the cinder blocks be more notable than simply being in pain in private? Or, if we return to my first major question, is the pain in the days following my participation in the Happening only for me, the artist? Is the pain my art?

There is a great deal to unpack here and I’ve already used up more than the allotted space (our editors are very generous). But I hope I’ve raised a few questions and introduced a few subjects that might be of interest to the medical humanities—a space in which the role of the artist with disabilities has yet to be a major scholarly focus, but one for which the subject makes a great deal of sense.

As for me, I haven’t yet decided what I’ll be doing. I’ve got a few days to come up with a plan. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

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