Art and Identity
Delivered at Customs House as part of Sydney Mardi Gras, 2017
I have spent my life carving out a comfortable space, or at least one I can happily claim as my own, in my practical vulnerability, in my intellectual uncertainty and just in the trillions of things I still don’t know about this world. So, even though I am on a panel with artists with so much more experience and knowledge than I feel I have, it’s possibly counterintuitive for me to feel nervous in this setting.
Yet, as I sit here, I feel I should have created more of a name for myself as an artist and I am berating myself for not having read more radical disability theory before this very moment. Additionally, I am telling myself that maybe I should have worn something more, I don’t know, obviously disabled or outrageously queer. Just something that would have screamed identity pride (and social competence) more loudly.
Still, I think that’s what is unnervingly beautiful and powerful about those of us who live within the unseen margins of society - our survival is an important, resourceful and political act. We spend so much of our lives wrestling with how to be defiantly substantial and visible in a world that denies us access to many of the basic things we need to function, but also to the important opportunity to write the stories that often socially define us.
At a young age, I knew the striking power of being comfortable and confident in my own muscle and mind, and using that as a source of ample creativity, social armour and a political statement.
Yet, because I am a product of all that surrounds me, as well as what's in me, I am uneasy about not completely renouncing my feminine pronouns as yet, even though I don’t particularly feel female. For you see, interestingly enough, from before I even knew what it signified, my body has always been totally queer, in the original meaning of the word. In the sense that it always has pushed the limits of people’s understandings of identity and humanity. My body is regularly read as genderless and asexual, irrespective of my actual appearance. Consequently, from a young age, of course, I seemed to be fighting a similar battle from the opposite direction. In other words, to claim femaleness and to be accepted into the mainstream, and in recent years, to feel I could be recognised in the feminist movement. So, my own sense of my gender has been tied up in my lifelong, uneasy, and terribly inadequate performance of ordinariness, of trying to be all these things that never felt that comfortable or natural for me or my body to wear.
For example, despite knowing the important social movement and history attached to the word “disabled”, I used to be fearful of using it to describe myself. I was scared to occupy the social space that rests opposite “abled” in people’s minds. This is why the common understanding of the disabled-abled binary is just as damaging as other social binaries.
In that regard, things changed for me when I listened to a podcast sometime early last year, where poet and playwright Kevin Kling discussed the prefix dis in reference to Dante’s Inferno. In his epic poem, Dante describes” The City of Dis”, the underworld. It is a place of shadow and reflection, where you round off the rough edges of torment and desire. Dis, obviously, is the prefix for “disability,” which doesn’t mean unability, it means “able through the world of shadow and reflection.” And so, it’s just another way of doing things… It is literally having a foot in two worlds.”
And just like that, everything I’d ever believed about myself shifted, not totally, but things were reframed. Why try to minimise my way of being in the world? Why try to meet the warped social notion of “being able”, especially when being “disabled” often nurtures a more ingenious and defiant life? It really shouldn’t even be a negative thing in the first place? I don’t know why that podcast snippet had such a profound impact on me. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, but it offered a comfortable paradigm for embodying disability that was neither solely based on pity or pride, just on what is. It speaks to the ways this existing world forces us to function through our own shadow and reflection.
Our mere survival, our messy embodiments and tenuous connections to those who we love, are political resistances, a source of support, strength, and really, creative art forms in their own right. Essentially, what I am saying is my personal achievements, and the clothes I’m wearing, are theoretically irrelevant in a fashion-style sense. I often think about my entire life as one big performance piece though, which has been somewhat substantiated by queer-crip theory. This is an amalgamation of Disability studies and Queer theory, which are two theoretical resistances against prescriptive and normative ways of doing things. Both share a lot of the same explorations about what inhabiting a body means. Both put more emphasis on the expansive, varied ways lives are lived and shared, than in the restrictive and narrow ways that are regarded acceptable and valid by society.
But understanding the queer-crip framework isn’t that hard or academic as it sounds, it’s just about recognising the cursory nature of social norms, and then being confident and bold in however you dress, move, eat, communicate and whatever else you do. It means you can stare right back when people stare at you, certain of all that you represent, and not be ashamed of any of it. Through doing this, I continually challenge the internal need to be seen as non-offensive, tidy and autonomous, and therefore also challenge the damaging notions about human ability and ideas of what is a “normal” body.
You see, that’s the powerful thing. Even though hardly anything I am, anything I claim to be or to know, is particularly original or organic. My bodily existence, my practical needs, and the way I communicate, are the only things of me that cannot be anything other than authentic. They can’t be neatly categorised, or even reduced in the process of getting to know me, and then understanding who I actually am.
The social dialogue about disability tries to coerce people to recoil into the idea of brokenness. We are told to “overcome” our bodies and minds, and discount them as intricate parts of ourselves and lives. So, I would say it is my disabled resistance and artistic practice to be proud, authentic, and assured about everything I am, and everything I am not, all the while being told repeatedly that I shouldn’t be.
I generate and create things that delight in my own little non-normative body, and how it persistently and creatively defies arbitrary norms in my own little wonderful life. And in that process, I am less prone to crumble under the dense weight of people thinking I’m less than, that my body and my mind are somehow broken. As I was born into this body, and as I have always had these perplexing neural pathways to work with, this is my only reference, my only technique of inhabiting my own flesh. For me, to imagine not having to wrestle words out of my brain, or plead with my spastic muscles to not hold everything so painfully tight, is to imagine a different person with a completely different identity and life experience.
Still, all the social forces continue and bombard me. I find myself wanting to “transgress” from all these social systems I was never granted full membership to, to just be recognised as adequately politically defiant. By which I really mean being seen as and conforming to the hipster-queer and too-cool-to-admit-I-embody-consumerist-ideals aesthetic.
I wonder if how I choose to carry myself through this world is social conformity, and question what is my rebellion against it, and then what’s just my personal preference? But, are there ever clear distinctions between these things? Seriously, just look at my hair. On one hand, it is a way of subsuming radicalness and communicating my agency, to be visible and override people’s instantaneous narratives about the quality of my life and who I am. But on the other hand, it represents its own type of conformity.
I often ask myself is this really what being blatantly queer consists of? What does that say about creative expression and political resistance? What does that say about those of us relegated to the margins of the margins, because we can’t express who we are in that recognisable and narrow way? Is all of this really that radical?
Those of us with disability are viewed as broken, misshapen, or diminished when compared to able-bodies, so whatever we create, whether or not it’s labelled art, is usually held to a completely different standard. Art by disabled artists is somehow seen as less valuable than others. Paradoxically, whatever we do is praised, even if it’s somehow perceived as an inadequate attempt to meet the able-bod standard. Thus, the bar is set low, excruciatingly low, that I often have to strain my neck and heart to not be tripped up by it. Simultaneously, our bodies, our identities, and thus our art, are physically or ideologically excluded from the very places and avenues in society, (trendy artist circles, transformative community discussions, complex grant-applications and policy-making), that would lead to the aesthetic of disability being recognised, and therefore provide us with platforms to express ourselves and our culture.
Like this, social contexts, and certain power dynamics in society, always leave their mark. They shape our stories in unconscious ways, and form pathways of understanding ourselves. I have literally spent years reading about disability politics and cultural theory. But until very recently, I had internalised the damaging and often capricious social commentary about what constitutes a meaningful existence to such an extent, that I didn’t realise it was even there. I felt like my disabled existence was something I needed to transcend in order to gain respect and appreciation as a human, and then as an artist.
I don’t feel seen and welcomed in the spaces that are apparently deemed “safe”. I’m referring to those places that have been nurtured in the face of all kinds of social fascism. In these spaces, I find the same avoidance, ignorance and fear, or just cringeworthy tokenism towards my social presence as when I go to, I don’t know, say an environment like Bondi Junction. Yet it hurts so much more deeply, because I innately look to these spaces for a sense of hope, for a feeling of belonging and, well, just creative breathing room. This could partially explain why I haven’t pursued my art and creative output as rigorously as I probably need to, in order to really establish and maintain a significant artistic practice.
Being a dribbling, non-verbal and disabled person, I’m rarely looked at with any presumed agency, so it’s hard to garner typical artistic or social integrity without that baseline to work from. Like even in this room now, there is probably at least one of you wondering who helped me write this very speech. And do you know what? That’s okay, I know these words are my own, I don’t have to be anything or prove anything to anyone.
That said, I’m just wanting to point out that the social uncertainty about my embodiment is a symptom of a broader constellation of ideas about human capacity and being disabled that inhibits and limits who is given space in artistic/queer communities. I have yet to find a “radical space” in Sydney that actively welcomes the jolting and lovely messiness disabled identity necessitates, and one that truly appreciates the different perspectives it has to offer.
Wait, that’s not strictly true. The Red Rattler in Marrickville has recently been encouraging more dialogue around disabled experiences, and actively ensures, to the best of their ability, their space and all events are accessible. Seriously, they even renovated their toilet to make it crip-friendly. That’s especially awesome for a community-run space.
So, when talking about creating equality, it’s vital that we continually ask ourselves how the established art scene is further marginalising unheard voices and unappreciated lives. And in what ways the queer community prioritises some bodies over others? Intersectionality and access isn’t only about citing lofty political frameworks, and then feeling self-righteously good about building the odd ramp. It is about listening and changing how we doo things, so that everyone and anyone can enjoy and create art and express themselves. In that way, diversity will truly be celebrated.