ROUNDTABLE The indeterminate body: Beyond techno-triumphalism in the age of health surveillance
ACCESS COPY OF SCRIPT FOR PRESENTATION cripping the indeterminate body
cassandra hartblay, university of toronto
Access note – invitation to do what your bodymind needs; if following along in text is supportive for you, rough script at cassandra.hartblay.com/aes2023
Thanks to our organizers for this the compelling theme for this roundtable. In the next few minutes, I want to consider the political potential of claiming an indeterminate body as a shared state of affinity and organizing. The objects/problematics that I will share are artworks from the exhibition #CripRitual, featuring contemporary artworks by disabled artists.
Co-Theorizing Crip Rituals
I am interested in how disabled artists theorize and reclaim technologies of the body, cripping understandings of bodily difference and cripping normative assumptions about the kinds of technology that normative embodiment requires. In do so, I argue that activists, artists, and theorists thinking with the emergent north American disability culture offer an important alternative to the longstanding medical anthropological notion that disability is a liminal state. By imagining a shared politics of crip indeterminacy where previous generations of scholars might see liminality, disabled artist-activists open a liberatory space for living with a politics of what sociologist Kelly Fritsch has called “desiring disability” (rather than the normative biomedical ethos of eradicating disability).
The word “crip,” as defined by scholars such as Robert McRuer and Alison Kafer, connotes an activist-scholarship that reclaims a slur, crip (from cripple) in a manner similar to queer theory’s reclamation of the word queer. To crip, as verb then, suggests the work of making visible normative patterns in dominant culture, and to claim as a location of political affinity and power the previously maligned or marginalized bodymind.
#CripRitual is a contemporary art exhibition, january-march 2021, and continuing online. The exhibition offers a designed space of co-creation and mutual visibility for the participating artists and scholars, understanding curatorial practice as a collaborative scholarly research creation.
On the slide here is a gallery view of the exhibition. A wooden bench painted blue with white texts which says ‘Museum visits are hard on my body. Rest here if you agree’ is in the centre of the room. On the left side of the room is a white wall with various colourful canvases hung up horizontally. Behind the bench is a pink and white wall with various colourful garments, and a TV screen pinned to it. On the right side of the room is a white wall with various pictures hung up.
I co-curated the work along with disability studies colleagues aimi hamraie, and jarah moesch of the research collective founded by Aimi, the critical design lab. The exhibition was jointly hosted by: the doris mccarthy gallery and tangled art & disability in Toronto, Canada. With the public facing exhibition now closed, I am working with the artworks and process to develop academic reflections.
In describing this work, I write from the perspective of what I call disability anthropology (as laid out in my 2020 article in Current Anthro). This means work that is part of a transdisciplinary conversation with scholars of critical disability studies, in terms of both theoretical approach and citational practice, and work that oriented by starting from the point of view of people with disabilities themselves. Working in the disability studies tradition means that disability anthropology is concerned with observing and documenting how ableism(s) function in the world, and the situated knowledges and expertise that disabled people in varied culture contexts develop to navigate an ableist world. The methodological implications for this require a politics of theorizing with.
Object: Ezra Benus’s artwork SUN/Moon / technology of medication
This is an image of a 2020 work by Ezra Benus, title SUN/MOON.
Seven 18×24” canvases are hung directly next to each other, forming one large horizon line of paintings. Each has one main background color, from left to right: pink, blue, orange, yellow, sage green, maroon, and grey. The palette of the background colors mixed and used throughout the canvases create colorful compositions with a variety of triangles painted on them, giving an impression that they are floating and crashing all over, spilling onto the edges of the neighboring canvases. The work also includes a short, written poem.
Describing this work, Benus noted that the colors on the canvases are “derived from the colors of the medication I interact with on a daily basis, ongoing over many years, a ritual for every day for all of time.” And the seven canvases mimic a daily pill dispenser, offering “A rumination on the (arbitrary) marking of time, a container to hold the ways we move through the world. […] 7 days can hold much more and much less, depending on the lens in which one considers a week’s time[…]. The ritual of waking up, going to sleep, rising and falling, can be understood as universal, and to the tension of being disabled/sick in a capitalist society that sees the notion of time as it equates to labor and productivity, pushing disabled people to the margins in a world that doesn’t understand our bodies/minds/spirits as valuable if not for capacity to be “productive”. Find yourself in the seams, in the tension, in the rising and falling of these works.”
Undergraduate students who visited the gallery were especially compelled by this work, finding affinity with
Object: Yo-Yo Lin’s artwork / reclaiming surveillance
This image shows one work in the series by Yo-Yo Lin titled Resilience Journal. The image shows a journal open to a page hand labelled February 2019. The journal shows Lin’s custom system of tracking bodymind experiences using a circle with numerous cells filled in with colored pencil in varying shades and densities, and a key or description on the lefthand page. Lin invented this system of tracking disability experience on her own terms as a corrective to medicalized and normative ways of defining disability and illness. Here, one category is labeled “logistical” and another “body image”. Over time, she uses the standardized charts to track how she was feeling in a given month in a holistic sense, using her own terms. The outer ring, taking up the most space is simply titled “felt it” referring to her experience of her own chronic illness.
In this way, Lin offers an alternative to the normative technologies of surveillance of the body, instead defining the terms by which she evaluates the “severity” of her experience of illness in a given month, intentionally embracing the analog, the small, in the face of a dominant culture that increasingly privileges blackboxed AI big data technologies.
So, in closing, I offer the roundtable the example of the ways that these artworks reveal potential ableist violence in normative discourses of care, by exposing the sedimented ways that practices and infrastructure are insufficient for non-normative bodyminds.
In my own work, I am thinking with these artworks to develop an article considering the insufficiency of the classical notion of ritual process and liminality in anthropology in general and medical anthropology in particular to describe contemporary disability experience. I’m happy to share more about this. For the purposes of this panel, the objects I’ve shared here offer one example of how theorizing-creating from the subject position of the indeterminate body can crip the neutrality of normative practices, technologies, and infrastructures.
I invite everyone to visit the online exhibition at cripritual.com.
END OF PRESENTATION
Rituals are transformative: they change us and the world around us, whether through incantation or ceremony, private practice or public protest. Academic theories of ritual hold that rituals are embedded in cultural worlds, and that all cultures have rituals of world-building. With the phase “crip ritual,” we put these theories in conversation with disability culture, as understood by disability justice movements and disability studies. The works in this exhibition use ritual to foreground understandings of disabled, crip, d/Deaf, Mad, and Sick people’s experiences. #CripRitual highlights strategies for building crip power: the ceremonies, habits, celebrations, design practices, social scripts, and community agreements, grounded in disabled knowledge and experience, that undergird disability culture. By invoking the word “ritual,” we are referring to crip cultural traditions that center disability as valuable. Alison Kafer writes, for instance, about the moment of being fitted for a new wheelchair as a rite of passage. She crips a formerly-medicalized event by reframing it as a ritual marking the temporalities of crip life. We can also imagine other crip rituals marking the life cycle: rituals for retiring old prosthetic devices, for receiving new hearing aid molds, for venting frustration when access is denied. #CripRitual thus adds nuance to existing academic theories of ritual. Classically, anthropologists define rituals as prescribed action that bring people together to recognize a change in social status through references to shared cultural symbols and an appeal to a higher power (the higher power in this sociological definition may be spiritual, performative, political, or administrative). Feminist activists use the word “ritual” in a different but related way, to recognize processes that harness intentional transformative potential: ecofeminist writer and activist Starhawk, for example, devises rituals for planting, harvesting, making compost, and caring for community during activist convergences.
In this exhibition, artworks depict or create rituals that refer to shared experiences of disability culture. In bringing together this exhibition we seek to make apparent the shared cultural meanings circulating in crip communities. The exhibition recognizes crip rituals as processes and events geared toward building power, strategies for surviving ableism that may be secular, spiritual, or in-between.
“Disability art is vital to the disabled people’s movement for its imaginings and perpetuations of new understandings of disability and new worldly arrangements that can hold, even desire, them.
Critically led by disabled people, disability arts allow disabled people to take control over our own representation, though not necessarily in a didactic way. … the project of disability arts is occupied not with replacing ‘bad’ representations of disability with ‘good ones’ but with replacing a single representation of disability with multiple and diverse ones.” (Eliza Chandler 2018)
Finnegan Shannon slides
OBJECTS: Object: Finnegan Shannon’s Bench / Gallery exhibition technology
(three slides – first photo of gallery; close up of bench in gallery; sketch of bench in series)
This image shows a blue full-sized wooden bench situated in the center of the floor in a contemporary art gallery. On the left side of the room is a white wall with various colourful canvases hung up horizontally. Behind the bench is a pink and white wall with various colourful garments, and a TV screen pinned to it. On the right side of the room is a white wall with various pictures hung up.
The bench is a 2020 artwork by Finnegan Shannon, constructed of birch and poplar wood with plastic laminate. In handwritten white text, a message on the bench reads “Museum visits are hard on my body. Rest here if you agree.” This bench is one of many in an evolving series, each with a different comment emblazoned across the bench back and seat in Finnegan’s distinctive handwriting.
The bench exposes the neutral mask of normative design in gallery spaces that makes them uncomfortable and prohibitive to those who live in bodyminds that find standing difficult or uncomfortable. For people with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or limited mobility, the prolonged standing normatively required to observe art works in a gallery can be prohibitive.
The claim of this artwork is that gallery spaces are disabling technology. In addition to standing and walking, normative curatorial practice typically requires seeing and hearing. In critiquing curatorial practice from disability activist and studies perspective, disability arts practitioners offer numerous correctives: plentiful seating; for deaf visitors to the gallery: sign language interpretation; captions on videos with sound; or ways to feel sound.
for blind or low vision visitors to the gallery, audio description of each artwork created by the artists; and in some cases, touchable sculptures to offer a tactile impression of a work.
That is, disability arts practice has invented numerous transmedia sensory practices that support and care for a variety of bodyminds visiting gallery spaces.