An imagination of a perfect society is more often than not aligned with that of a perfect body. Those with authority to decide what is right and what is wrong are able to defend their monopoly and reinforce decorum in empires, cities, or communities. Able-bodied, standardized, and state-funded bodies police and patrol anyone considered to be at the margins of so-called acceptable sexuality, corpus, and the politically affirming. In the exhibition Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer, curators Kenny Fries and Birgit Bosold, alongside Kate Brehme, who designed the exhibition’s accessibility concept, examine such questions about the relationship of the queer and disabled body to the state, history, and the art world. Disability puts most art practitioners in a bind, as it challenges the makers of public programs to move away from mere lip service and actually take curatorial and public action.
The exhibition, which is presented at the Schwules Museum in Berlin until January 30, 2023, corresponds to the historical and cultural plight of queer and disabled individuals who both receive and resist the violence of forced normativity. The research into exclusionary practices provided in the exhibition is met with well conceived accessible design: for example, the way in which the exhibited works are hung on the wall takes exception to the curatorial rule that images and text should be aligned to the sight level of what is unrightfully assumed to be a standing adult. By placing the displays on tables, accessibility asserts itself in both the presented subjects of the exhibition and its intentional infrastructure. Formulating curatorial accessibility is multifaceted. It spans across physical impairments, such as limited mobility or blindness, as well as across sensual, psychological, and linguistic accessibility. With the help provided by the capito translation agency, the texts presented on the walls of Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer have been made into plain German language (sometimes called Leichte Sprache) — a concept that allows those with learning difficulties and newcomers to the language to grasp any text easily. In other words, inclusivity is not just a buzzword. It is an empathetic process that demands that viewers think of others. The exhibition itself shows exactly that; certain legislative and communal processes of othering. To give just a taste, here’s an anecdote referenced by Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer: in 1881, the Chicago City Code issued a law stating that:
Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.
This rather harrowing code confirms what was hinted at beforehand as a sentiment. Namely, that generalized normativity is not only an evaluation system with severe social repercussions, but the result of calculated exclusionary politics that is practiced by way of prosaic matters: infrastructure, regulations, systems of penalty. Throughout the presented artifacts and artworks in the exhibition, a scratch begins to itch: if the body is a site of performing individuality and identity, what are the tools that are delegated to or deprived from people to perform with their bodies, and what for? Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer creates a discourse of topics that are considered taboo by dominant, hegemonic voices. To give just one example, Elizabeth Sweeney's The Unrelenting (2014) re-appropriates the Nazi triangle, a code of colored symbols which rendered disability into a subhuman deprecation in the Third Reich. As the title of her work suggests, the triangle was used as a textual space to consider all so-called deviations as a form of relentlessness. Unrelenting is usually coupled with restlessness. When taking this into consideration, the intensely interpretive poetry of Rita Mazza’s danced derivations of sign language, like the newly commissioned video Space 1880 (2021), shed light on the poetic capacities of physical movement, invisible in sonic languages. Another spotlight was put on the artistic performances of choreographer Raimund Hoghe. After a career as a journalist and dramaturg, Hoghe developed his first theatrical solo piece at the age of 44. In an interview titled Danse Vulnerable (2016), Hoghe talks about deploying one’s own body in favor of a greater societal liberation, which he likens to being thrown “into the fight.”
An additional contributor that used the full capacity of their body as a means of communication is the recently deceased, non-binary autistic artist Mel Baggs. Their video piece, In My Language (2007), is divided into two parts. The first is performed in their native language, consisting of sensory interactions like touching, tasting, and singing. The second part is a translation of the former into a verbal language with the help of a text-to-speech device. In both installments of In My Language, Baggs is engaging in a constant conversation with all aspects of their physical surroundings. Since, as Baggs themselves say in their video piece, their “existence, awareness and personhood [are judged],” even their capacity to have thoughts is questioned by verbal language users. Only by learning how to translate their language into what is considered to be the “appropriate” form, and limiting themselves to “correct” interactions with objects and their physical surroundings, Baggs is recognized as being capable of claiming their right to personhood. Instead of wanting to present a “freak show,” Baggs uses their body and extraordinary translation ability to resist a world in which people like themselves are at risk of neglect and torture.
Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer exhibits a political promise. By making our performances accessible and mutually shared, idealism is finally pluralized to all bodies, affirmation is perfected, and the loops of performativity are broken. The presented overlap in the exhibition of being both queer and disabled in no way excludes other axes of discrimination. Rather, it highlights how complex the interplay of marginalization is, even if its effects strike similar roots. Yes, bodily and sexual performativity is an act of power. But it is also an act of empowerment. The body holds the pleasure of its own representation just as much as it does the pain of being misread or mistreated, as the exhibition poignantly presents. If our body becomes a site of rivalry, of idealization, of perfection, there’s little room to wonder why it is regarded as an extractable source of pride and market standardization. Strong muscular structures that bend, jump, squat, and lift create the body politic of our normativity and the cultural industry that dictates the imposition of the very ableism we don’t want to pronounce as part of ourselves. The exhibition shown at the Schwules Museum exclaims that in order to intensively discover the array, sensuality, and beauty of any body, this incredible abundance of precise interventions can only be made known by paying more than just lip service.
Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer is on display at the Schwules Museum in Berlin until the 30th of January, 2023.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Self Portrait with Robert Andy Coombs in My Dorm Room (Selbstporträt mit Robert Andy Coombs im meinem Stundent*innenwohnhwim), Manhattan, New York, 2019. Photo: Joey Solomon.