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Disability is not a struggle: Panel discusses intersections between art, disability, bodies

Panelists Neil Marcus and Petra Kuppers and moderator Chris Smit walked the audience through understanding disability and art, bringing to light the culture of disability in our culture that is hidden in plain sight.
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Watch public responses and full presentation

You can watch the public responses as well as the full presentation right here.

“Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. Disability is an art. It is an ingenious way to live.” -Neil Marcus


Ingenious conveys a mild description for the three presenters of last night’s Critical Discourse panel at The Hub titled, “Art, Disability, Images, Bodies.” If these four words seem incongruous, prepare for more distorted conceptions to replace the misconceptions and preconceived notions you may already have about disability. There is a culture of disability in our country that is hidden in plain sight, right in the middle of and in front of, society at large. There is a culture of disability hidden in plain sight because society has the nerve to ignore the need of the disabled to speak for themselves and illustrate power and control over their own bodies. 

Sexuality and disability as a concept might be the most egregious misconception that the able-bodied have toward the less physically-abled. How does this image strike you—two people on stage, each in a wheelchair, one visibly disfigured, the other not, touching, caressing, leaning on, and kissing with each other before their panel presentation commences. The third person on stage is grinning broadly then changes to tensely, with humor, as one of the other two approaches him. “Don’t kiss me,” is the demand as the audience understands and breaks into laughter. Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, two of the guest panelists were the performers of this ritual, having both a professional and personal relationship between them. 

They hide in plain sight as movement specialists, also known as dancers. Kuppers is verbally in control and naturally guides the audience into a participation of sorts, of leaning on and touching each other—with permission, she pleads, if the person next to you is not amenable.

Marcus, with the compelling smile and eyes, is verbal but with a muscular disorder that makes him difficult to comprehend lingually. Kuppers is easily and lovingly his interpreter which is all the better for us as Marcus is profound with his choice of word and thought while his body struggles to maintain control of its own movements that are impossible to hide. 

Chris Smit, professor at Calvin College, the third presenter and non-participant in the opening performance, moderated this fascinating panel of information, calling it the beginning of a collaboration of disability and art. As the director of DisArt, a festival that will be presented in Grand Rapids next spring, Smit says there are events and activities planned to allow Grand Rapidians into fathoming the world of disability in a much more diverse manner than having a need to be a voice for the disabled.

He demonstrated this concept visually by utilizing a photo journal ArtPrize entry while at the same time praising the same entry for the conversation it has evoked. At this point in our society’s history, the general population sees the disabled as incapable of speaking for themselves. 

Kuppers and Marcus demonstrate their own voices beautifully in their videos of floating underwater or sitting in touching circles known as situational performance, with other dancers, all the while exposing the twists of their torsos and limbs in plain sight of anyone watching. They both choose to use their power and control to show the rest of us that a disabled body has the same capabilities of an able body but that it will look different. Visual appeal is in the eye of the beholder. 

Each of these contributors emanates the embodiment of living in plain sight, accepting their own imperfections. They hold a mutual secret as well. Marcus says his philosophy of art is about “war, love, economics, all of YOU, and all of society, and not so much about me.” He is allowed to claim that for his life and the politics he’s had to live due to his disability. Do you know the secret?

Kuppers takes that stance even further with her dance troupe the Olimpians—spelled with an “i,” instead of “y,” simply because it conveys “limp” better than “lymp.” Figure out the secret? Smit’s current focus is on community and expanding awareness in order for society to find that deep desire to understand differences that surround the culture of disability. Did you get it? 

All three panelists give remarks about the early freak shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries either in their published works or on stage last night. During that era, there was a spirit of entrepreneurship in the disability culture when the disfigured and grotesque exposed their impairments or physical oddities, for money- usually in a circus or side show- for their own control over their bodies, and as a collaboration between able-bodied others who also stood to gain monetarily for assisting their disabled colleagues.

That this trio embodies the spirit of a bygone era, albeit out from the underbelly perception of circus acts, is readily apparent. They may argue that point with me, however- another ArtPrize entry they enjoyed was of disfigured circus characters under a full moon.

“I had said that disability is invisible," Marcus explains. "Now I’m going to say it is part of everything we do. Totally. Everything we think, everything we make…” 

Oh, the secret? It’s wrapped up in imperfection and value and acceptance of self, then acceptance as a community toward individuals. Grand Rapids has its work cut out for itself. Our community will have its eyes opened during April 2015 when the DisArt festival takes over downtown to continue that dialogue, that interaction, that interdependence of art, disability, images and bodies.

All bodies.

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