Disability + Performance (25th March, 2019)

Artist Noëmi Lakmaier during her performance, crawling on the pavement. She is wearing a dark grey business suit, her hair is dishivelled and she is looking straight ahead.
Artist Noëmi Lakmaier during her performance One Morning in May (2012)

In this session we read:

Performances:

Readings:

  • Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, Introduction – ‘Disability Studies in Commotion with Performance Studies’ pp.1 – 13 in Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, ed. Sandahl and Auslander (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005)
  • Bree Hadley, Chapter 1 – ‘Weebles, Mirages and Living Mirrors: The Ethics of Embarrassed Laughter’, pp.34 – 76 in Disability, Public Space Performance and Spectatorship (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014)
  • ‘Disabled Artist Noemi Lakmaier To Crawl The Streets Of London’ Artlyst (24 May 2012) https://www.artlyst.com/news/disabled-artist-noemi-lakmaier-to-crawl-the-streets-of-london/
  • Adrienne Edwards, ‘William Pope.L: The Will to Exhaust’ Walker (28 September 2015) https://walkerart.org/magazine/william-popel-will-exhaust

Performing Pain, Seeing Pain

After watching Lakmaier’s video together, we discussed our initial reactions to her performance. We noted how the video is shot from the ground level from Lakmaier’s perspective and captured the street sounds such as the scraping of her hands on the floor and the vibration and noise from cars passing by, which made her seem all the more vulnerable. Added to this was Lakmaier’s panting, swearing, and visible distress, as her clothes became ragged and drenched in sweat as she crawled. Amplified on the projector, we all felt that the performance was arduous to watch. The viewer empathically feels Lakmaier’s pain which is projected onto the viewer through the haptic gaze; we feel and imagine the cuts and grazes on our own bodies as we watch her suffer cuts and grazes. Some members remarked on how unsettling and even boring it was to watch because there was nothing to watch but Lakmaier’s painful crawl. This also, however, allows the viewer to focus their attention elsewhere – on the bustling of the city and on people reacting to Lakmaier as they pass her. It offers a different perspective of familiar London streets.  

Thinking about watching Lakmaier’s evident pain and discomfort brought us to the question of power and spectacle. As spectators watching her performance on a computer screen, we are in a sense voyeurs to her body in pain. Seeing a person in pain and being powerless to help them makes us uncomfortable because it turns us into accomplices in her discomfort. Ato Quayson calls this confrontation between disabled and nondisabled a moment of ‘aesthetic nervousness’ where both parties experience dissonance and distress in the encounter. The fact that Lakmaier is voluntarily putting herself in a position that causes her pain and actively stopping others from intervening tips the power balance between disabled performer and nondisabled spectator as the disabled person is the one in charge and making the nondisabled feel powerless in her denial of assistance.

Considering Lakmaier’s comments that her performances are not ‘about disability’ but are simply ‘live art’ or ‘living art’, we were aware that when disabled people are in public space they are always already performing as they are expected to behave and look in certain ways. Disability always signifies; disabled actors’ bodies are never neutral and they are always given ‘cripple’ roles. Yet as Lakmaier was not in her wheelchair, the mobility aid that usually signals her disability, in this performance, her disabled body was unmarked and uncontained. In fact, as Lakmaier crawls from Tower Hamlets to the City, her business suit became more and more ragged, and she looked less like a commuter on her way to work and more like a homeless person who has been living on the streets. This transformation is reflected in the reactions of the people around her: as she looked more like a rough sleeper, people became less willing to help her or to engage with her, side-stepping and pretending not to see her at all. One member recognised this behaviour as typical of Londoners’ response to homeless people, who seem to somehow blend into the urban environment and are consistently ignored by passersby. Commuters pretend not to see people on the streets to avoid facing up to the uncomfortable reality of the social and economic disparity in the city.

What would ‘I’ do?

In discussing the paradox of hypervisible yet socially invisible disabled and homeless bodies, we related Lakmaier’s crawl to Pope.L’s Crawl pieces. The hypervisible Black body in US contexts is frequently seen as a threat or a nuisance, and the actions of one person of colour taken as a metonymic representation of an entire community. While Lakamier was often ignored by passing pedestrians, one of Pope.L’s crawls – the Tompkins Square Crawl (1991)in East Village in New York City – was stopped when a passerby – a black man – summoned a police officer to intervene in what the passerby had interpreted as an exploitative action. This is visibly different in Lakmaier’s case, who was surrounded by filming and support crew wearing high-visibility jackets which signalled to others that this was a performance, and made it more difficult for members of the public to intervene.

In Disability, Public Space Performances and Spectatorship, Bree Hadley suggests that performance art demands responsibility on the view to act and that art can motivate political action through their power to provoke. On the subject of ethical ad political actions, we debated what the ‘morally right’ thing to do in response to seeing Lakmaier crawling on the street. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a very British response, but does it make us cruel? What about the fact that we all walk past a homeless person on the street and rarely help? Society’s indifference to suffering is partly due to a promotion and valorisation of individual self-sufficiency under capitalism, where every person is responsible for their own success and suffering, which distracts from structural and state accountability. Within this framework, a person is disabled or homeless because they did not take good enough care of their bodies and are too lazy to work.

Disabled people only receive help when they perform disability in ‘socially serviceable ways’, i.e. when help is offered in order to make others ‘feel good about themselves’. Yet people tend to be selective with the kinds of disabled people they choose to ‘help’. Physically disabled people are assumed to be weak and vulnerable, therefore deserving of pity and assistance, while people experiencing psychosis, stereotypically portrayed as violent and dangerous, are perceived as threats to the public and deserving of forcible restraint and incarceration. Moreover, people rarely offer assistance when it comes at a cost to them. For example, if a person wearing a hijab is being racially abused on a bus, passengers often remain silent for fear of suffering the same abuse or even violence.

For access to readings or further details about the reading group please email disabilityintersectionality@gmail.com.

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