It could be said that we are living in a time of unparalleled interest in what is often referred to loosely as disability arts.
This interest is coupled with a noticeable surge in policy and funding initiatives—see the Canada Council’s and Ontario Arts Council’s recent launches of disability arts projects—as well as institutional and media attention.
In Toronto, non-profit organization Tangled Arts and Disability has been making strides in getting what feels like unprecedented mainstream coverage for things like their recent Cripping the Arts symposium, which covered relevant issues for those interested in national and international conversations regarding mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip arts.
The symposium was well attended, with some 150 people registered, 50 organizations represented, nearly 100 people on the waitlist, and several sessions livestreamed. Wrapping up the symposium, many of the participants joined a packed house for “Cripping the Stage: A Disability Cabaret,” in which Toronto artists such as Masti Khor, The Mighty Rhino, jes sachse, Lynx Sainte-Marie and Syrus Marcus Ware showcased brilliant creative work alongside performing artists visiting from the UK. All of this was followed by the launch of Tangled’s own dedicated gallery space for mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists.
However, I can’t help but feel discouraged and underwhelmed when this growing momentum of recognition is severed from 45 years of artistic production connected to the disability arts and culture movement(s). What happened this past week has actually taken decades to achieve.
As I reflect on the vibrant conversations held throughout the three-day Cripping the Arts symposium, it feels most appropriate to frame my thoughts around some sentiments shared in the final plenary: “We seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an ongoing conversation—yet simultaneously at the start of something new and exciting.”
What Does it Mean to Crip the Arts?
Eliza Chandler, artistic director of Tangled Art and Disability, explains the exciting possibilities of framing art practice in relation to disability not through notions of limitations and mistakes, but as desirable possibilities.
To crip the arts is to notice, embrace and lead with the difference and disruption that disability creates within artistic production. Examples of this can be noticed in the work of artists like Carmen Papalia, Vanessa Dion Fletcher and the late Lisa Bufano. Each of these artists, in their own unique ways, builds their art practice around and alongside their experiences of disability and difference.
This means moving away from requesting inclusion within dominant art practices and institutions, and instead thinking about how these aesthetic markers that often signify and highlight disability and difference can change and unsettle the larger artworld.
Why Crip? And Why Does Crip Not Work for All?
As the wider artworld pays more attention to what is happening in the periphery, an introductory conversation on language and identity is necessary.
As a mad-identified woman, I’ve heard it all before: you have a friend, a mother or a colleague who is diagnosed with any number of medical conditions. You “get it,” you “care,” you “understand.”
But what is often outside of the understanding of the general public is that many mad, Deaf, disabled, sick and crip folks identify with their experiences as an aspect of their identity, and not simply as a medical diagnosis.
We have social movements that have rich histories of organizing together, celebrating our ways of being, supporting each other, creating culture and making art. Choosing to identify as mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip is a political act.
Our communities are complex, multifaceted and ever-changing. There is no one voice, identity or experience that represents mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and/or crip communities.
This means that we can’t think through these identities, experiences and communities without also understanding how they intersect with experiences of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, Indigeneity and colonialism. Mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip people take-up and take-back multiple identities and exist at the intersections of many communities.
And here’s the thing: not all artists who have physical or psychiatric disabilities, who are D/deaf or hard of hearing, identify with the movement that is loosely referred to as disability arts and culture. In the same way that not every woman takes up the politics of feminism, not every person who has an impairment is actively engaged in disability justice movements.
“Nothing About Us Without Us” Isn’t Always Enough
Often when people talk about disability and art, the conversation begins and ends with access and inclusion.
Undoubtedly, the inaccessibility of art education, art training, resources, exhibiting and institutional spaces creates barriers for mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists and these issues are necessary ones to address.
That being said, I am not the first person to lament the overabundance of conversations focused on access and inclusion, and I likely will not be the last.
Why is it problematic to focus on access and inclusion? Because when we centre our conversations about mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip art around on access and inclusion we often completely miss the mark.
Surprisingly (or maybe not), access and inclusion seem to be the conversations that are of most interest to organizations who support mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists.
But while this interest and support is often well-meaning, and even vital to our movements, it is important to make sure that we don’t privilege the voices of those organizations and their views on access and inclusion.
In order to crip our conversations about access and inclusion, we have to make sure to ask questions like:
• Who is running the show? If the organization and/or institution do not have mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists in positions of power, then there is nothing revolutionary about their support of our artwork. Mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists need to be centred in the decision-making process of how access and inclusion are defined, provided, set up and held accountable.
• What does access and inclusion look like? If access and inclusion does not change the structural, institutional hierarchies of power, then we are likely only affording access in a way that reproduces the violence inherent in exclusionary practices. Conceptualizing access as one-off inclusion through programming is demeaning and paternal, and devalues mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists. Access and inclusion needs to incorporate a commitment to long-term relationships.
• Are you listening? Historically, mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists have been included into the wider artworld in ways that devalue our expertise and skill (explored in the writing of Rachel Gorman). Typically, curators, art critics, art educators and other professionals position mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip art as devoid of skill, lacking conscious aesthetic process and solely representative of individualistic stories of healing and pathology. If you are interested in what is happening in the various mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip arts and culture movements, you need to start listening to how we position, frame and understand the process, content, product and/or intervention related to our creative work.
“I want to both burn things down and plant seeds to grow!”
In an attempt to move beyond the limitations of conversations centred on access, the latter two days of the symposium fostered conversations around mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip aesthetics, as well as the significance of art and justice.
It was through these conversations that the conference participants began to reflect on our past, think through our present, and collectively envision our beautiful mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip futures.
There was a lot of conversation in various roundtables that conceptualized the connections between art, artmaking and the life of mad, Deaf, sick, disabled, crip artists as being deeply challenging.
For instance, the limitations that programs like the Ontario Disability Support Program put on our ability to exist and flourish as people and as artists was of serious concern to many. The unique and complex experiences of precarity in our lives were seen as setting limitations on our ability to make and our freedom to take risks.
We talked about the lack of autonomy we have over the representation of our experiences and the lack of accountability those outside of our communities exhibit when engaging with our cultures.
We asked ourselves difficult questions about whose disability cultures are being centred and privileged in this work of creating art and developing our cultural movements. As we story and archive, both formally and informally, it is necessary to ask ourselves how we reinforce racism and settler colonialism through these practices. Recently in Toronto we have been witness to (partly artist-led) interventions both in the Black Lives Matter occupation regarding the death of Andrew Loku and the occupation of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Office in the wake of an Attawapiskat suicide epidemic. In both instances, we see the vital centering of black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour while addressing or taking up experiences of madness and disability. Yet are we centering those within our framework of disability arts?
At the symposium, we also reflected on and celebrated the role of the arts in the histories of our rights and justice movements.
We thought about trust and its role in sharing our stories—the fatigue of translation, the fear of miscommunication and the freedom of not caring.
As mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip artists, we are often boxed in as being too political or completely void of politics altogether, yet we looked to each other to redefine what these categories and classifications mean.
As we look to the future, we want to open up conversations, add nuance, explode commonly held tropes of disability and take hold of the possibility to make room for messages that cannot be contained. We do not agree about everything, nor do we ever want to, yet we maintain that this is our work and our community.
“I want to both burn things down and plant seeds to grow!” said final plenary discussant Syrus Marcus Ware, a sentiment that certainly resounded with me.
And so I end with this thought: nothing you have read here is new. These thoughts have been written, uttered, explored and expressed in many ways by many people many times before me.
Without even really scratching the surface of that history, a curious reader could start by checking out the Sins Invalid website, a conversation on curation and exhibition between Elizabeth Sweeney and Syrus Marcus Ware titled “Failure to Adapt,” the text “Of Impairment and Aesthetics” written by Michele Decottignies on behalf of Deaf, Disability and Mad Arts Alliance of Canada, the report “Lights…Camera….Attitude!” from the Ryerson School of Disability Studies, and “Focus on Disability and Deaf Arts in Canada” written by Rose Jacobson and the late Geoff McMurchy for the Canada Council for the Arts.
Yet for many of you readers, whether inside or outside of the mad, Deaf, sick, disabled and crip communities, all these ideas may feel brand new. I mourn the fact that a serious lack of resources and support has our movements often operating in precarity, separate from one another and in direct competition. So we have to continually tell, re-tell and remind one another of the richness of our past and the depth of our histories.
And yet, still, I can’t help but join in with the excitement—the change will be slow, but it’s coming.
Jenna Reid is an emerging fibre artist who explores issues of madness, sexuality and gender through a social justice perspective. Reid is also a PhD student and lecturer in critical disability studies at Ryerson University.