In Praise of the Disabled Spectator

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Dr Nina Muehlemann completed her PhD at the English Department of King’s College London in December 2017. Her thesis, entitled ‘Beyond the Superhuman – Disabled Artists Working in the Context of London 2012’, focused on the Unlimited Initiative and 2012 Unlimited festival. Her research examines works by disabled artists and the context these works are produced in, namely austerity, London 2012 and its aftermath. In a few short pieces for DAO, she discusses some of the insights she has gained through this work.

two dancers pose on the floor against the wall, one wears a teddy bear mask

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis from The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight. Image © Sven Hagolani

When I started writing my PhD about art by disabled people in the UK, I felt a little irritated by a particular issue I came across again and again: Academic articles and books about art by disabled people routinely highlighted how these works challenged assumptions of non-disabled audiences about disability, and how these pieces could shock, move or convince non-disabled audiences into revising their attitudes towards disabled people.

Rosemarie Garland Thomson, for example, examines how the disabled body is stared at in performance and daily life, and how the way disabled performers stare back or take ownership of the stare can reset the status quo.

Of course, I believe that art can be a very powerful way to challenge assumptions, and we need non-disabled people to fight for equality alongside us; what irked me, however, was how rarely it was mentioned what these artworks did for disabled audiences. It seemed baffling to me that Disability Studies concerns itself to such a degree with the feelings of the non-disabled.

My own experience as a passionate and frequent spectator of performance has taught me that I inhabit a point of view that is informed and shaped by my experience of disability. Practical considerations, such as access to the venue and how to get there accessibly, affect how I feel about a performance: If I have to use the back entrance next to all the rubbish containers, if there is no accessible toilet at the venue, or if I feel that the staff is hostile towards me due to my ‘excessive’ demands for access, it reduces the pleasure I take in a performance. Audiences that depend on signing or audio description experience barriers too that dictate how, when and where they can attend a performance, all of which can have an impact on the overall enjoyment of a piece.

However, disability does not simply affect the way we watch performance because we experience barriers: a politically informed understanding of disability shapes how we read art, and in particular the presence of disability in art. Theatre scholar Jill Dolan made a somewhat related, albeit different argument in her writing about the feminist spectator: feminist spectators, so Dolan, states, use ‘resistant reading’, and as such claim agency in their role as spectators (The Feminist Spectator as Critic, p. xxv).

Tools like the Bechdel test, which analyses how many women talk to each other in a film, and whether they only talk to each other about men, allow spectators to not simply decide whether a film or a play is good or bad, but to analyse the ‘threads of meaning’ that are produced in the piece (The Feminist Spectator in Action, p. 3). As Dolan’s work on the feminist spectator demonstrates, reading works through a feminist lens can create new insights, and engender creativity – after all, artistic processes are often inspired by personal readings of other artworks, thinking about how our own voice would respond creatively.

While Dolan does not mention disability whatsoever in her texts, for me her work clarified what I needed to address in my own research: The role of the disabled spectator. For me, this solved the problem as to how I would position myself in my academic writing: I had long given up the attempt to assume a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ voice in my thesis. After all, I was writing about disability and about performances I witnessed, and I could not separate these experiences and concepts around disability from my own personhood. My engagement with disability studies also taught me, more than anything, that any voice presented as objective or neutral serves a specific position or outlook, and often this position upholds patriarchy, a medical perspective of disability and conservatism.

To present myself instead as one of many disabled spectators (and a feminist one, too!), with a political understanding of disability that shapes my views of performance, felt true and authentic. I could contrast mainstream reviews of performances with my own, highlighting how a disabled perspective can bring forward different, nuanced and politicised readings. This was where DAO became an invaluable source to me, as I was able to access a multitude of other disabled perspectives: discussions of creative approaches that do not simply rely on visuals, for example, highlighted how those of us with normative sight often do not notice how much our society is based on visual consumption.

I found the discussions around ‘access design’ and ‘creative access’ incredibly helpful, as they highlighted how access and disability could be generative qualities that an artist employs. Most mainstream artists neglect those qualities, but the way we relate to concepts of disability and the body always shapes the way we produce and conceive art: This is what disability scholar Tobin Siebers calls ‘disability aesthetics’ (Disability Aesthetics, p. 41). Disability is an aesthetic value, and disabled artists and spectator have an edge when it comes to working with or analysing this value.

In my thesis, I sometimes compared mainstream reviews by non-disabled writers with ones by disabled spectators, and it was fascinating how often the reviews differed in terms of focus (I was also surprised to note how frequently journalists who write about disability point out whether they are disabled or non-disabled, which was very helpful for my research!). Non-disabled reviewers often could not get past the presence of disability itself on stage, and offered platitudes, conventional tropes or, at worst, their own prejudices around disability. Meanwhile, disabled spectators tended to discuss the art in a nuanced and detailed manner, and were also able to discuss the productions from an access-informed point of view. Furthermore, because they were knowledgeable of disability politics and activism, they picked up subtle cues in the productions about the context of austerity and cuts the works were created in.

Promotional image The Importance of Being Described...Earnestly?

Chloe Clarke’s The Importance of Being Described…Earnestly?

Advances around access aesthetics, where the access requirements of audience members are already considered early on in the making process and creatively employed within a piece, are often the result of the artist’s own experience as a disabled spectator, and/or their engagement with other disabled spectators. This is for example the case for Chloe Clarke’s ‘The Importance of Being Described…Earnestly?, where Clarke’s own frustration with traditional audio description, which aims to be objective, was the basis from which she created a comedy where the audience gets multiple audio describing voices that are all very subjective.

Another example, which I discuss in my thesis, is Claire Cunningham’s and Jess Curtis’ piece The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight’. During the performance itself, the artists joke that they are not sure whether modern dance is ‘accessible to anyone’, and the piece is an attempt to make performance accessible to as broad an audience as possible: The show works with creative layers that include movement, narration, a philosophical commentary, subtitles and touch, and the audience can dip in and out of these.

Spectators are also allowed to sit either in the auditorium or on the stage itself, and both of these options are open to wheelchair users and those who are not. The piece embraces the fact that everyone experiences art differently, and a large part of its creativity stems from taking the disabled spectator into account.

While it does make sense to include disabled audiences from an ethical, as well as a business-oriented point of view, for me, it was most interesting to closely examine how the disabled spectator can, and does, encourage creativity, and how audiences and artists can work together to make a magic happen.

Cited works:
Dolan, Jill, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, 2nd edn (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, 2012)
Dolan, Jill, The Feminist Spectator in Action (London/ New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
Garland Thomson, Rosemarie, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Siebers, Tobin, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008)