Access Intimacy and Institutional Ableism: Raju Rage on the problem with ‘inclusion’

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Artist and writer Raju Rage unpacks what our futures can be if we reject false overtures from people with power. Rage describes their desire to find more meaningful ‘access intimacy’ for people marginalised by arts institutions, acknowledging this might need to be outside of existing frameworks.

There are many words for exclusion. Ableism is one. As Talila Lewis writes in the image below, ‘You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.’ This is because ableism is deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism.

Brown square with the following words in white and yellow: 'ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun. A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. A working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis in conversation with Disabled Black and other negatively racialized folk, especially Dustin Gibson; updated January 2020

A working definition of ableism by Talila “TL” Lewis.

Words like ‘inclusion’ have been rehearsed and performed, chewed and spat out. Just like many of us entering into and trying to survive (arts) institutions. Sometimes the words are ingested, but most of the time a lack of empathy and lived experience obstructs digestion. This hinders understanding and caring enough to do something. Our experiences get reduced to policy, and jargon words that no one really feels anymore. But what does it mean to actually feel excluded?

The problem is that the people who are excluded are absent in the first instance. Often it’s their absence we feel guilty about, but we cannot hold space for their presence and what that might entail. What that might ask of us, from us. Because having a range of bodies that don’t conform to ideas of ‘normality’ based on cis- and white-centric ideals (or necropolitics) scares people and interrupts their control. We’re caught in a liberal bind. Nobody wants to feel excluded, and no one wants to feel like they’re excluding others, even when they are. (Unless of course they have purposefully dehumanised an individual or group.)

There’s a clash of the emotional and the logical/practical at play. In the liberal arts sector, this creates its own violence of passiveness instead of proactiveness in creating change. So, exclusion is common practice. In fact, institutional structures are built precisely to do this. Their foundation in colonial bureaucracy and denial can only lead to continued exclusion. We haven’t been able to outgrow them, because we are either ignorant, subscribe to them, have hope for change, or feel disempowered. We come to rely on these structures like relying on doctors to make us better, knowing they might but will more often fall short. There are those of us such structures can’t and will never help. And that isn’t what we’re actually seeking, being saved. Rather, we’re seeking to be empowered and affirmed in our diverse bodies – with agency.

A screen capture from the Instagram account of White Pube. The post reads: 'cis white non-disabled curators trying to make their staff makeup more diverse now that Arts Council England are threatening to pull the plug on their funding if they don't change:'. Beneath this, a Simpsons cartoon of two white people dressed as stereotypical artists with berets. The caption reads: 'We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas.'

Screengrab of The White Pube’s Instagram.

What does it mean to go beyond being accepted, to be loved and cared for? I’m not talking about care work, as that’s a whole loaded political landscape to explore in and of itself. I’m talking about ‘access intimacy’. This is essentially caring about access issues enough to make a change to the current exclusionary structures we live within. Not just to accommodate but, as Mia Mingus says, those moments “when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs”. Mingus writes in ‘Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice’:

Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access. Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able-bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability. Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.

Most of what happens within institutions is hidden under hierarchy, a colonial system based on power and privilege. This includes: how much everyone is getting paid and why, what people’s credentials and experience are, how they’re being judged by such credentials, how people actually got their jobs, etc. This system is not made for what would be deemed under policy ‘marginalised’ bodies.

I recall frequently being carded and interrogated as a member of staff at University of the Arts London when I crossed barriers into the institution or was in some staff area. When I mentioned it to (cis) white colleagues, they laughed in awkward disbelief. I am within the institution but made to feel like I do not belong, as Nirmal Puwar writes so aptly about in ‘Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place’. These are some ways in which marginalised bodies are constantly excluded while simultaneously being included.

Drawing of an anatomical heart with the initials of the artist above it ('K.A.') against a solid black background with a red heard in the corner. White block text reads: 'I love our access intimacy'.

‘I love our access intimacy’ by K.A.

However, in a ‘post-colonial’ and (often problematic) post-racial culture, these institutions have to improve their reputations or lose capital. So, they invite us into this potential violence. They think our very tolerated presence will eradicate the violence, even though we’re in the minority and often don’t have that power. They frame themselves as shrugging off their colonial ties to history, and ‘including’ those who are excluded, in order to ‘create’ diversity (that already exists) but isn’t embraced, repackaged as new. Their funding relies on it and therefore it’s written into policy. But the procedures and formalities of funding and policy do not automatically generate feelings and intimacy. Usually, any feelings that arise are around denial, guilt and shame – which perpetuates these structures in a vicious cycle. Structure and culture are so intertwined, but usually cultures cannot undo structures. Adding ‘diversity’ doesn’t change the fact that the people being ‘included’ are being paid less or are more precarious, or don’t have their access needs met.

The trouble with this way of running (arts) organisations is that it’s still relying on the people with power to include marginalised people into a structure that was built to exclude them. It’s still expecting us to assimilate. Often it isn’t enough to just include, the structures themselves need to change. Being within these galleries or organisations does not automatically change them, because we often have to focus on just surviving (within) them. Surviving means it’s hard to agitate or speak up, as this puts us in the firing line. Or, as writer Sara Ahmed says, “you become the problem because you notice a problem” (and point it out).

We can view this in the attitudes of the nation-state, which also wants outsiders to remain outside, or to integrate and contribute to their economy. The arts sector mirrors the state, and of course they are tied and intertwined. For example, The Zabludowicz Trust, well-known to London’s art scene, was the subject of a 2014-15 boycott call because of reported ties to arms trading and “attempting to undermine critics of Israel”. There’s often another agenda at play, tied to capitalism, at the top of art institutions. But we, the public and the artists lower down who enter these spaces, are not party to the facts – despite being invited to this party to play (for the photo ops).

Though trying to outgrow colonial ties to slavery through its foundation on sugar trade profits, The Tate is also in the firing line of critics for multiple alleged fuck-ups, including lack of disabled access. Trustees at the Tate have apparently renewed links with the retired arts dealer Anthony d’Offay after breaking ties with him last year in the wake of ongoing investigations of sexual harassment allegations. Director Maria Balshaw also faced criticism for her response to these allegations, including from artist-in-residence Liv Wynter.

The Tate has implemented new programmes, such as Tate Exchange, to diversify content and representation. But there’s no real budget, and they often rely on partner organisations for funding. The irony is that they literally have a bridge that connects the corporate (‘Billionaire’ Blavatnik) and the socially-engaged (local activist Natalie Bell). Without there being any tangible connection, they instead contradict each other – but The Tate also cleverly meets both their needs in order to survive. This is one of many examples of institutions being touted as doing the work, but almost farcically falling short.

The problems are clear, and have been stated repeatedly. Naming them becomes a distraction and a drain from seeking something else instead. Often we the ‘marginalised’ are called to solve the problem/s, though we aren’t listened to when we use our precious energy to try. This results not only in exceptional individualistic status, careerism and tokenism, but also in emotional battle fatigue, a deep exhaustion and trauma that manifests in our bodies as actual feelings.

Black and white illustration which reads: "Support disabled artists. Making our art is not a luxury. It's an attempt to survive." This is overlaid on a patchwork of shapes resembling flowers.

‘Support disabled artists’ by @northern.oak.designs.

When we’re excluded from institutions, we usually feel some way about it. Emotionality becomes so important for our wellbeing and survival. That’s why I’m interested in intimacy and its forms of empathy, care and compassion. Can this be written into policy? What would it mean to actually support disabled artists? Although, of course artists aren’t the only ones attempting to survive. We’re part of a bigger collective of bodies being shut out. It’s also important to acknowledge this is never a single issue.

I know hoping for this intimacy is idealistic and probably futile. What I’m arguing is that this isn’t going to happen in institutions that are innately structured to create hierarchical disconnection between bodies. We do not need to become stuck between the inclusion-exclusion binary. Instead we need to look elsewhere for our access intimacy, to structures and spaces we create ourselves. Inspired by the 1982 feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, and Off Our Backs, a feminist periodical made between 1970 and 2008 – both made by collectives interested in creating their own infrastructures – I’m interested in bridges and how they can be built. But not off our backs. I’m also aware that institutions are built outs of bricks, and these can always crumble and fall down.

What we need are roots that cannot be pulled out and have the depth required to grow. Ones that will hold tight but are flexible to adapt with the elements they face. That can breathe and be nurtured to blossom and bloom. When capitalism is destroying our earth and killing us off, when we are forced into competitiveness and precarity, what we need is to plant trees strategically, not cram into crowded buildings.


Raju Rage bio (audio):

Raju Rage bio (text).


Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.