Sunday, 6 March 2011

Reflections on Access All Areas

Written by Mary Paterson

Access All Areas took place on Fri 4th & Sat 5th March 2011. It was, "a two-day public programme reflecting the ways in which the practices of artists who work with Live Art have engaged with, represented, and problematised issues of disability in innovative and radical ways."

Somebody asked me, "What do you think?"

What do I think? I think that so many of the Symposium presentations begin with a summary of other people’s judgements, it’s difficult to articulate my own response. Difficult, that is, without thinking about the violence of other people's perspectives.

Luke Pell and Caroline Bowden read out reviews that sneer at disabled dancers. Mat Fraser (appearing on video) is knocked senseless by casual comments: ‘I could never have sex with a handicapped man'; ‘it’s so good for my children, having you as a disabled friend.’ Bobby Baker gives everyone in the audience a slice of lemon and asks us to suck – the face you pull at the taste of something bitter is exactly the same, she says, as the faces she sees on other people when she tells them about her experience of disability.

Who are we?

The first time I watch Noemi Lakmeair’s ‘Undress/ Redress’ (a durational piece, commissioned for 'Access All Areas') I watch from behind. She is inside a room built inside the gallery. On either side, two large, glass-less windows let the audience gaze in. Lakmaeir is sitting on a chair wearing smart clothes, and looking straight out. Periodically, a man (Jordan McKenzie) wearing an old fashioned suit walks into the room, locks the door and undresses this woman, silently and seriously. Then he dresses her again, in a second set of identical clothes, and carries her to a chair in the corner.

Lakmaeir’s shivering, fragile body. McKenzie’s placid, controlled movements. The concentrated faces and shifting weight of other audience members, who I can see through the viewing pane on the other side of the room.

Catherine Long speaks at the panel called ‘My Body Did Everything I Asked It’. She starts speaking about a woman she has met, with striking blue eyes and no left arm. This other woman is her, and the stories Long reads out are the fictionalised voices of other characters. This means that, inside her own narrative, she is a character as well.

Who are we?

It’s uncomfortable to watch Noemi Lakmaier, but she makes it that way. It’s not the viewing (more people watch on CCTV video monitors in the entrance to the gallery than at the viewing panes), but the publicness of the viewing. The participation on someone else’s terms. The complicity that comes from being there. The fact that Lakmaier’s body shakes between an individual and a type: artist, woman, disabled, white, young. The fact that the ritual of undressing comes to stand for the stripping back of power that circulates around a body, and an identity.

It’s uncomfortable to watch Martin O’Brien, too. In his durational piece ‘Mucus Factory’ (also commissioned for Access All Areas) O’Brien performs the medical routines meted out on his body, transposing the medical gaze to an aesthetic one. Mucus mixed with glitter. Physiotherapy massage as a percussive routine. He mostly performs alone, but at one point a woman stands up and starts to massage his chest with him.

I think of the word ‘care.’ Not in the medical sense but in the casual sense: ‘Take care.’ Look after yourself. Because our bodies do not contain us. We are connected.

Who are you?

‘I’m sick of motherfucking health and motherfucking safety!’ ‘I’m sick of disabled artists getting their penises out and saying it’s radical!’ ‘I’m sick of being seen as sick!’ The Disabled Avant-Garde pull these ‘sick notes’ out of a hat and provoke the audience with them. Some people are riled. ‘We were in character,’ Aaron Williamson explains, ‘as the Avant-Garde.’

Kim Noble shows a video of himself (apparently) spying on his neighbour and a recording of his neighbour having sex. He shows a wall chart of this obsessive behaviour. He takes some Viagra, ‘in case this presentation goes really well.’ Nobody asks him if he is in character.

What do you see?

Is it easier to confront physical disability than mental illness? Perhaps, but what you can see is only ever part of the story. Sean Burn brings along a case of nuts. Nutcase. He rolls four marbles on a plate. Don’t lose your marbles.

Inbetween the last two sessions, I get into a heated conversation with a colleague about the work of Maria Oshodi and Extant. Oshodi is visually impaired. She creates cross-disciplinary, multi-media, immersive installations that explore the nature of perception, knowledge and experience. Oshodi's work is not about managing other people’s perspectives, but exploring her own.

Rita Marcarlo: advised not to induce an epileptic fit in public, in case it sets a bad example. Pete Edwards: asked if it was really his choice for his creative enabler to undress him. Jenny Sealey: saying she always has an audience in her BSL interpreters.

Who’s side are you on?

Sometimes, I find myself laughing along with Kim Noble. At other times, his persona is threatening, divisive, unpleasant. Who am I being when I laugh with (or at, or for) Kim Noble? Who am I agreeing with? And which of Noble’s personas is a persona anyway?

In a break I say, ‘As a general rule, I think “Them and Us” is a bad way of looking at things.’ ‘Yes,’ says a stranger who has overheard, ‘but you need an “Us and Us.”

It reminds me of something Bobby Baker said right at the beginning: a funder held a meeting for people seen as ‘culturally diverse’ which means, as Baker said, ‘people who are “odd”, all clumped together.’ She was arguing for a better understanding of cultural diversity – as an asset, and not a label.

What do you think?

What do I think? I don't know. But I have some thoughts to end (or to begin) with. 'We' is a shifting category. Not the same is not the same as different. Bodies labelled as ‘authentic’ are also contained.

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