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"in/visible: Disability and the Arts"

An Active Mind's picture

I recently attended "in/visible: Disability & The Arts”, a symposium that took place at Haverford College on Friday that explored the role of art in relation to disability studies. The event featured five speakers: Tobin Siebers (author of Disability Aesthetics (2010)), Georgina Kleege (author of Sight Unseen (1999)), Katherine Sherwood (artist and co-curator), and Ann Fox and Jessica Cooley (co-curators of Re/Formations: Disability, Women, Sculpture and Staring at Davidson College (2009)).  Some of the questions explored throughout the afternoon were: what role does spectacle play in relation to disability? How does artwork come to trigger the gaze or staring that often characterizes reactions to the disabled body? What are the aesthetics of the disabled body? How might the notion that art is primarily visual be problematic? Is art itself disabling?    

The symposium relates to a lot of what I’ve been studying in relation to visible and invisible disabilities. In the opening of Tobin Siebers's talk entitled “In/Visible: Observations on Disability, Aesthetics and Modern Art”, he said that those with invisible "disabilities" are able to pass as "non-disabled", but—he stated—regardless of whether or not a "disability" is visible, all "disabled" people are ignored, unacknowledged, and thus become invisible.  In the end, Siebers suggested, the relation between the “non-disabled” and “disabled” is about feeling.  Art, too, he seemed to suggest, because it is a system of feelings, a system based on perspective, can help to illuminate this relation between the "disabled" and "non-disabled". Siebers said that looking at the disabled body, like looking at art, evokes both pain and pleasure, a multiplicity of emotions that are often complicatedly contradictory.   

Katherine Sherwood in her talk “On Painting” discussed her own artwork. In 1997, she suffered from a massive stroke and since then much of her work incorporates brain imagery, often including her own cerebral angiograms in her paintings. Her artwork features the insides of bodies; she turns the body inside out for exposure and display. At the symposium, she talked about how she’s interested in bridging science and visual art and wonders why all medical images (particularly those drawn in textbooks) are attributed to the doctor. One of the many pieces she showed in her Powerpoint presentation was “Belly” (2010) [featured below]. She has an assortment of pieces like “Belly”, which she calls “The Healers” that have two panel canvases—one including a head and the other a torso—with a skirt attached underneath. The head on "Belly" is constructed out of three brains and comes to offer an interesting commentary on the fragmented body, one that is defined by both excess (in the case of many minds) and absence (the missing limbs).  

Belly, 2010, mixed media, 92" x 30"

Georgina Kleege, in her talk  “Picturing the Blind Audience: Audio Description and Visual Art”, discussed issues of access in relation to the arts. Having gone blind at the age of eleven, Kleege wondered, how is the blind person supposed to take a tour at a museum? What might be other ways of seeing besides simply using one’s eyes? Can art be touched instead of seen? How might different ways of interacting with art affect its meaning? Kleege suggested in her talk that blindness is not about lack, but gain. She mentioned that the blind know much more about sightedness than the sighted know about blindness and talked about access as being not one-way (the museum merely providing access to the blind), but two-way (the museum learning from the blind too). 

Ann Fox and Jessica Cooley were the final speakers at the event and delivered a talk entitled “Disability Art, Aesthetics, and Access: Creating Exhibitions in a Liberal Arts Context”. Both Fox and Cooley were co-curators of two exhibits at Dickinson College: STARING (2009) and RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture (2009). They featured works by Judith Scott, Laura Splan, Doug Auld, Harriet Sanderson, and more. Both exhibits explored the many ways that we come to stare at disabilities and how “illness comes to inform who we are and how we perceive others.”  Fox and Cooley discussed the way they structured their exhibit to accommodate the disabled, but suggested that this accommodation was not merely functional, but added a certain aestheticism to the gallery itself. 

Overall, I felt that the conference was concerned not so much with making aesthetics accessible to the “disabled”, but about exposing how culture itself is “disabled” because of its insistence on visibility. Each of the speakers (especially Georgina Kleege) seemed to suggest that, in fact, the "non-disabled" may be both lacking and limited. How is it that “seeing” in and of itself might render the “sighted” blind?  I came away from the conference understanding how the visual arts both illuminate and compromise the study of disability. Katherine Sherwood’s work, I believe, seems to bring the invisibile into visibility as she pulls the deep layers of the mind to the surface of her artwork, but she also makes her pieces not merely about vision, but also tactility; she remarked in her talk that she uses excessive amounts of paint to the point where its surface begins to crack and also incorporates alternative mediums into her work like the skirts in "The Healers" collection, which suggest that her art is importantly textured and offers an access point to her work other then simply sight. I think a lot of the symposium focused on seeing beyond surface, but also suggested that recognizing how that surface (the canvas itself) functions is important—how it is both absorbent and refractory, letting some inside and pushing others away?  


Anne Dalke's picture

On seeing beyond the surface

I, too, attended in/visible, and --as when I attended the conference hosted @ Temple by the Society for Disability Studies last June-- was blown away by the multiple possibilities for re-thinking the human that are enabled by highlighting the shared disability of us all. I'm struck by An Active Mind's intertwined "take away" messages from the conference:
1) that culture itself is “disabled” because of its insistence on visibility,
2) that "non-disabled" may be both lacking and limited, and
3) that “seeing” can render the “sighted” blind.

Picasso Faces Cubism

What I carried away with me was a series of related ideas. I was most struck by Tobin's argument that disability became an aesthetic value, that it actually spearheaded the modernist tradition (think Picasso's cubist figures: seen from multiple perspectives? disabled?? or...?). I thought that was a very cool idea. But I wanted to say back to him that this is more than aesthetic; it's deeply, deeply ethical. Disability doesn't just spearhead modernism; it spearheads what it is to be human.

This was my revelation @ the SDS Conference last spring: It's not that we are all just “en route to disability,” but rather that we are all, now and always, disabled-- fragile, leaky, dependent bodies, defined in relation to one another and our environment. So attending to disability is really about attending to what it is to be human, redefining it not as sovereign self, but rather as a self in relationship, not as an individual quality, but as a nexus of interdependence. Which is why all the conversation about how to "label" the exhibits seemed misplaced to me. Call them all "Being Human," and intertwine thereby our philosophical interrogations with our search for ways to enact pragmatic practical rights.

So: I'm also puzzling over the notion of the relation between "surface" and "depth." In her discussion of the "limits of the visible," and the exploration of a larger range of sensory--mostly tactile--processes, An Active Mind speaks of the surface as "both absorbent and refractory, letting some inside and pushing others away." This was for me hugely resonant for a recent discussion I had in a faculty working group on assessment. We were talking last week about the impossibility of separating surface "from what it is the surface of," basically resisting the separation of surface and depth. While acknowledging that stuff can "glance off the surface," that assessment is only what we can see (i.e. "on the surface,") we realized that we have to assume that they are connected, since the surface is the only part we can be privy to. Assessment becomes, then, an act of surfacing....

I haven't yet thought this through entirely, but it seems as if these ideas might well "loop back" productively to notions of "seeing stigma," and not seeing it, to both the importance and the dangers of "making visible."