Performance

Open Access

Jerron Herman dancing and walking toward Park McArthur, who is seated in a motorized wheelchair. Herman wears silver metallic sweatpants and a matching tank. They are cheered by a group of audience members seated on stage. Photo: Mengwen Cao.

I VIVIDLY RECALL participating in a workshop hosted by Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos four years ago in Glasgow as part of “We Can’t Live Without Our Lives,” the seventh episode of an annual festival put on by the political arts organization Arika. Their discussions of “access intimacy” based on Mia Mingus’s insight that the body should be treated as a “medium through which we can become one another’s means” profoundly shaped not only my art but also the way I relate to and care for my chronically ill mother.

A related three-day festival held in mid-April at Performance Space, I wanna be with you everywhere, was produced by a steering committee of disabled and nondisabled artists, performers, and writers—including both Zavitsanos and McArthur as well as Amalle Dublon, Jerron Herman, Carolyn Lazard, Alice Sheppard, and Arika’s Bryony McIntyre and Barry Esson. Framing access as “a common capacity shared between us all,” events offered a combination of American Sign Language translation, Real-Time Captioning, Audio Description, Assisted Listening, and SUBPAC physical music wearable technology. Brochures were provided in braille and large print, while attendees were offered funds for local travel and tickets on a scale that slid down to free. This commoning of needs didn’t take for granted what access meant concerning resources: It catered to all because all bodies require access in varied forms, despite the fact that our infrastructure—which is to say ways of thinking as much as the lack of elevators in four-fifths of New York City’s subway stations—ideologically privileges the needs of a single type of body. In this vein the organizers re-framed their role as “accomplices,” responding to the shifting terrain of the needs, desires and demands of themselves and their friends.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem “I know crips live here” listed objects and spaces inscribed with queer crip living like weighted blankets, heating pads, and a homemade rampShe rejected the term “poor” as a descriptor of people for being inaccurately bound up with lack, and opted instead for the less abject “regular.” Just before performing a gripping excerpt of “Lover of Low Creatures” (in collaboration with JOY MA) NEVE took to the stage to encourage wheelchair users to move from the sides to the front, where space had been reserved for the festival’s duration. Such raw work of resilience, jubilance, and survival was echoed again in Camisha L. Jones’s visceral reading of Dispatches from the Intersection of Hurting & Joy and once again on Sunday, in “White Pines,” a poem by Eli Clare describing the disappearance of the trees at Ricker Pond.1 Drawing analogies between the straight, sturdy pines that sailed to war in the 1700s as masts in the British Royal Navy’s ships, and those that grew “bent around and through each other,” Clare remarked proudly that the latter “would never have been the king’s trees.”

Jordan Lord’s powerful essay film After… After… Access centered on the days preceding the artist’s open-heart surgery. Challenging vision’s primacy through its use of captions and a live reading of audio descriptions, the film included these access provisions not as addendums to or translations of its images but as primary components of the work itself. By collapsing these ostensible “supplements” into the film’s formal language, Lord underscored how much the act of watching is also the act of describing, which is itself an act of writing and hearing a narrative. The inextricability of “access” from other aesthetic and political categories was further explored in Kayla Hamilton’s Nearly Sighted/unearthing the dark, which used visibility as a masterfully layered trope to expand the relation between blackness and disability. “I was born with vision in one eye, but my blackness was always front and center,” the artist told me in conversation. In the piece, Hamilton called alternately for “blackout” and “lights up,” and a collaborator joined onstage to give verbal descriptions of her dancing. This echoed a claim from Lord’s film: “Access is almost always a confrontation with a structure.”

Saturday saw Jerron Herman’s sensual, eruptive dancing in Relative, which drew on the nightclub as a site where the affect of his movement could “be observed in an affirmative way.” At one point, Herman rose from his seat, legs sweating and shaking, while the audience danced on stage—revealing his performance itself to be a conduit for the affirmation of all who took part by feeling. The next day, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s prose poems channeled to incorporate conditions often not immediately visible, such as chronic pain and neurodivergence, into the experience of being alive, and the general experience of having abody. 

In a performative demonstration of ProTactile language on Sunday, DeafBlind poet, essayist, and scholar John Lee Clark sat with two interlocutors; Rhonda Voight-Campbell and Hayley Broadway. As they conversed, feeling what was being signed by touching each other’s hands, sighted collaborators seated behind them communicated the reactions of both audience and interlocutors by tapping and rubbing the speaker’s scapulae. The event’s sighted interpreter informed us this language cannot exist in isolation, as conversations in it require a minimum of three discussants. Does the privileging of oral and visual forms of communication over haptic ones actually impair togetherness? In one of the weekend’s most moving moments, Voight-Campbell touched, spoke, and signed her first ProTactile poem, raising both Clark’s and Broadway’s hands above their shoulders and bending their fingers back and forth until they assumed the quality of branches being blown by the wind.

Flicks, bone, metal, skin, sternum. Words in Clare’s “Unfurl (An Invitation),” a poem commissioned for an earlier piece by Alice Sheppard, were palpable and animated in Sheppard’s explosive performance, Where Good Souls Fear, in which her use of dance and writing affirmed disability theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s argument that anti-essentialist inquiry must be grounded in the fact that “language itself can be productive of reality.”2 Sheppard’s response to E.M. Forster’s 1905 novel Where Angels Fear to Tread chronicled her high school encounters with whiteness and abelism, reminding us that issues of access are often thicker than the matter of access ramps.

Johanna Hedva’s crooning, mournful solo guitar and vocals set bookended the festival and brought to mind an observation by Eva Feder Kittay: All bodies are only “temporarily abled.”3 The performance brought forward our shared vulnerability to sickness, and eventually death, by closing the gap between disabled and nondisabled bodies. This gesture characterized much of the work presented throughout the weekend, during which norms were overturned not by reinscribing disability, queerness, transness, and blackness into the dominant culture, but through active complicity against its exclusivity—reclaiming its spaces for and with one another.

In a chronically inaccessible and isolating world, such togetherness is the forbearer of political agency. That agency was being built as we hung around in the low-noise and low-light quiet room, designed around the needs of autistic people but frequented by all in attendance. It offered space to process, meet, and take time out during the twenty-to-thirty minute breaks between acts, and remained open as a place of refuge and relaxation during performances. These accessibility provisions and protocols denormalized the segregationist politics of ableism: They were, but should not have been, an exception in the cultural landscape of the city. Beyond the functional aspects of this important work, the festival also made clear the aesthetic possibilities of such considerations, attending to an array of usually disavowed modes of perceiving, receiving and responding to the art. In structure and content, I wanna be with you everywhere modeled the real potential of events designed by crip people—that nondisabled people are able to attend, and not the other way around—organized along the axes of friendship and solidarity.

I wanna be with you everywhere took place at Performance Space, New York, on April 11, 13, and 14. It was organized collaboratively with Arika, Performance Space, and the Whitney Museum of American Art by Amalle Dublon, Barry Esson, Jerron Herman, Carolyn Lazard, Park McArthur, Bryony McIntyre, Alice Sheppard, and Constantina Zavitsanos.

1. As noted in the poem: “ . . . occupied Abenaki Territory—known for the time being as Vermont . . . ”

2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 5, Duke University Press, 2003.

3. Eva Feder Kittay, The Ethics of Care, Dependence, and Disability, 49, Ratio Juris. Vol. 24 No. 1, March 2011.

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