Author note: All videos presented in the two collections are subtitled and audio-described. Large print versions of all M21 texts are available on request. Contact the LiveArt Development Agency at http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/resources/.
Access all Areas arrives in my hands as a tactile, sensate bundle: it's a thick cardboard-covered collection of delicious miscellanea, spiral bound with blue wire, and to open it is to engage in treasure hunting: you have to carefully undo the Velcro buttons that bind a flap around the book. And who does not enjoy playing with Velcro? On the front cover is a naked young white man, sprinkled with gold dust, spitting into a small sample container. I am both repulsed and attracted, intrigued by this mixing of medical content, the fabulosity of the gold sparkles, and my own sensorium that finds spit hard to stomach. Welcome to the world of avant-garde disability art: this is not a collection of pride art, clear and message-full. There is no inspiration here, either. Instead, the reader/viewer/unwrapper finds herself challenged to make meaning, and to play in uncharted territory.
The book contains a wealth of documentation of live art practices by UK-based practitioners, as well as two DVDs, one of live art events, one of video work, wonderful resources for the classroom. "Live Art" as a term is not very familiar in the US: this work emerges out of performance art, sculptural practice, and visual art discourses, but has a stronger research and theory component than much "old school" performance art. The Live Art Development Agency in London holds a wide variety of material created under this label, and Access All Areas collates much of it, making the collection an invaluable resource of cultural practice.
This is third-generation work, complex and thick in its references field, no longer interested in pride or entry into mainstream aesthetics. As I have found in my classroom, one needs quite a bit of disability arts cultural capital to get a handle on some of what is being shown: my students, when asked to assess the appeal of the material for a U.S. audience, often found themselves stunned. For example, one video by The Disabled Avant-Garde, "Amazing Art" (2009), pokes clever fun at the disability charity art market, whose discourses construct disabled people engaging in art practice either as "entrepreneurs," i.e., engaged in the neoliberal agendas of today's Arts Council discourses, or as sweet dears engaged in therapy. The video shows two disability arts veterans, Aaron Williamson and Katherine Araniello, engaged in actions that veer on the surreal, cleaving close to the somewhat embarrassing clay objects d'art that sometimes emerge from sheltered disability arts workshops. A running commentary gushes about the inspirational, amazing artists in the most patronizing terms, and shows Williamson "compensating for his hearing loss" by drawing with a thick pencil attached to his ear. Meanwhile, Araniello makes hideous clay ashtrays in dark brown. Later, the artists sell jam by decanting supermarket-bought jam into new containers, and press these upon punters at art fairs, applauded for their courage and spunk by the commentator.
"Amazing Art" created a fascinating discussion in our Disability Culture classroom. Earlier in the class, students had already engaged with questions about who is allowed to laugh at whom, and what the politics of disability sarcasm might be, having discussed works including the "Scary Lewis Yell-A-Ton" by Mickee Faust and Terry Galloway (2004). The conceptual intervention of the Disabled Avant-Garde video, though, left my students stunned and a bit unsure of the ironic intent. It was quite easily possible to see this as misguided, nauseating, embarrassing reality, and there was nothing (much) that provided the necessary wink to let us in, and off the hook, to create the community of knowing sarcastic insiders. The discomfort experienced by many of us provided a wonderful basis for discussing, yet again, the differences between disability culture's sophisticated approach to social positioning, and the mainstream's perception of disabled people in public.
Productive discomfort continued as a guiding theme as our class engaged with another video from Access All Areas, "Undress/Redress." In this performance, Noemi Lakmeier and Jordan McKenzie are in a box/room made up of thin walls, inside the gallery. Viewing windows allow the audience access to what is going on inside the box. Lakmeier is being undressed: she moves not a limb as McKenzie, dressed in a brown suit reminiscent of a 1950s middle-class clerk, matter-of-factly takes off her clothes, folds them, and then dresses her. We see the small adjustments and tricks that those of us who deal with paralysis and our helpers know about—but there is no medical information, and it is unclear if Lakmeier has no mobility, or acts limp. The performance engages themes of voyeurism, complex sexuality, care discourses, projection and secrets.
The book provides much framing material for the performance documentation: Rita Marcalo talks about her "Involuntary Dances," presenting epilepsy as performance, and the intense public reaction her work provoked; and artists like Catherine Long, Doran George, Pete Edwards, Caroline Bowditch, and Brian Lobel reflect on their aesthetics and artistic approaches. Much of the material is presented in interview form, or in fragmented or performative writing modes, as many of the materials were originally Symposium provocations at Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability, Rochelle School, London, in March 2011. Together, these materials speak to the thriving energies of disabled art makers, their knowing engagement with their positions in the art markets and in the public eye, and to the continuing growth and diversification of disability and the arts.
Live Art tends to be urban, trendy, knowing, and relies on coding procedures, making things strange, and distancing its audience. But what happens when this confrontational method and medium occurs elsewhere, outside the art world? As a bonus, with Access All Areas the Live Art Agency sent M21: From the Medieval to the 21st Century: Live Art interventions by disabled artists in the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, May 2012. A cardboard folder holds a DVD, a booklet, and a series of postcards. Together, this material documents live art actions produced by DASH (Disability Arts in Shropshire) and commissioned by the Unlimited program, part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad. One of the actions documented here is Sean Burn's Psychosis Belly, in which he creates his own brand of Olympic Games, questioning ideas of "success," "spectatorship," and "fairness." In his "Depression Hurdles" action, he asks passers-by in the medieval little town in Shropshire to cheer him on as he tries to crawl under a white plastic hurdle, wearing a purple-and-orange outfit somewhere in the middle between a straitjacket and the ushers' uniforms of the UK Olympic Games. In the video documentation, we see some passers-by intrigued, and participating, while others turn away, unsure of what to do with the costumed people who are visiting their rural town. Things are shaken up here: from rude to cute (at least, until one thinks about it), from energetic to small, these actions shift a historic market town into a performance platform, allowing us to see how disability signifies in public, how strangers engage with each other, and the difference art makes.