Crafting Selves

Crafting Selves: Performing Rehabilitation in a Russian Group Home

An Ethnographic Installation

Presented in the Black Box Theater as a final performance for Renee Alexander Craft’s Performance Ethnography Seminar, Fall 2012

Materials: 46″ x 216″ white curtain, with two sets of “hand holes” cut through at each of two “work stations”; 4 pedestals; four school room style chairs; scrap fabric; scissors; air-dry clay; newspaper; wooden dowel; “work station” instructions; notebook; felt craft objects; participant prompts; sound; photo projection.

Project Abstract

Now more than a decade into deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities, contemporary Russians are crafting diverse solutions to care for adults and young adults with special needs who cannot live independently. This project takes examples from the ins and outs of daily life in an independently run group home for young adults with intellectual disabilities in rural Buryatia (a region of Russia near Mongolia) to explore the ways that selves are built and molded in dialogic interaction. This project builds on previous ethnography that utilized critical theory to consider the group home as a space of disciplining the citizen (Levinson 2010), and attention to performative manners in which non-verbal persons are capable of “enacting appreciations” (Pols 2005), that is, communicating embodied, nonverbal satisfaction. In turn, this project seeks to draw conclusions about power and futurity across difference, and the challenges of creating a home-space in an institutional setting. Also, this work begins to track the ways that various universals move and are taken up by disability advocates in this particular place.  Simultaneously in conversation with broader investigations of the self in postsocialism and with the literature and aims of disability studies, this paper contributes to a broader project of undoing ableism, by tracing the ways that parameters of humanness/personhood (Biehl 2005) are policed and (re)i/enforced.

Biehl, João. 2005. Vita : life in a zone of social abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levinson, Jack. 2010. Making life work : freedom and disability in a community group home. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pols, Jeannette. 2005. “Enacting Appreciation: Beyond the Patient Perspective.” Health Care Analysis 13 (3) (September): 203-221.

Installation Artist Statement

This installation departs from a scene that I witnessed as a coperformer in the craft workshop of a small independent group home for young adults with disabilities in rural Russia. As an ethnographer of this cultural scene, I am faced with the challenge of parsing and representing the stakes and embodied interactions between two key groups of performers. (1) the “kids” (deti in Russian), residents between the ages of 11 and 27, all of whom have intellectual or cognitive disabilities (with diagnoses that include autism, developmental delays, some of whom also have sensory impairments (blind, deaf) or cerebral palsy). And, (2) the “coworkers” or facilitators, local community members who come to work in the space, and are concerned with implementing (at the behest of the director of the center) the principles of the international Waldorf movement (anthroposophy) to encourage the residents to develop into well-adjusted members of a sustainable community that exists in harmony with the natural world; at the same time they are constantly concerned with figuring out how to mobilize the crafting activities that they occupy the youngsters with into potential profits that will helps subsidize the operations of the center.

This installation attempts to evoke and explore the problem of dialogic interaction across cognitive difference, and with differential access to information and contextual knowledge, by engaging the “audience” of the installation as coperformers in a simulation of the workspace of the center. In life, the lively workshop environment bustles with both productive activity and the tension of frustration and misunderstanding. Experimental in nature, the installation, too, will likely provoke critique and frustration as well as moments of understanding and discovery.