Katie Hae Leo
Disability and Art in the Public Battlefield
“Public space is understood as neutral when it in fact is anything but. It is a battlefield, which the abled body does not realise because it is a battlefield, which favours it.” – Dea Busk Larsen
In the battlefield of contemporary American public space, the physically disabled body is either marginalized or completely erased. One need only be injured and require the use of crutches to understand that by and large as a disabled person, the city in which you live was not built for you. Over two decades have passed since the ADA. Stairs are still the primary mode for entering most buildings; wheelchair ramps remain alarmingly steep with sharp angles; doors are impossibly heavy; and, aisles and doorways are still narrow. Similarly, in the public space of media and art, the physically disabled body remains marked as Other against the norm of able-bodiedness. Even those disabled people who are exceptionalized through narratives focusing on individual accomplishments are celebrated not because, but in spite, of their disability. That blind adventurer on the cover of Time who climbed Mount Everest; that double-amputee world-class sprinter; and, that wheelchair-bound comic book superhero are all measured according to how much they transcend and overcome their limitations. Thus, in both the physical space in which we live and the artistic space in which we imagine, everyday physical disability is not part of the mainstream, not normalized.
I have something called dystonia, a movement disorder that originates in the brain and causes my right foot to jerk back involuntarily when I walk forward. I require forearm crutches to navigate most public spaces, including grocery stores, airports, and shopping malls. When I first began using crutches two years ago, I was surprised by the liberties that complete strangers would take in inquiring about my disability. Questions like, “What happened to you?” or “What’s wrong with you?” were common, delivered with friendly smiles on street corners and in elevators. In a society in which able-bodiedness is the unspoken norm, my crutches marked me as Other and seemed to invite these questions. This interrogation reminded me of the many times that, as a woman of Asian descent, I have been asked by strangers, “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” Both kinds of investigation positioned me as an unwitting subject, to be dissected, diagnosed, and classified by the investigator. These investigations fixed and held me with a specific gaze that stood in opposition to who I was. The white gaze fixed my Asian-ness; the able-bodied gaze fixed my disability.
As an artist I understand the power that the space of our imagination has over our physical public space. Complex, interesting, and intelligent renderings of any group of people in media and art helps move them from Othered marginalization into the normalized mainstream. Representation inspires empathy and recognition in audiences. It breaks down barriers between perceived differences. I have always grounded my artistic work in my lived experience, as an adopted Korean, as an Asian American, as a woman, and now, as a person with a disability. Although representation in and of itself has not been my primary intention for creating art, it has been a welcome byproduct of it. In the battlefield of public space, art can humanize Otherness, neutralizing the opposition between what is perceived as normal and what is perceived as deviant. On this front, performance art plays a unique role. Performance by its very nature places a body before a live audience. Within that very public space, the performer has the power to engage the audience in questioning received notions. For disabled performers, these received notions include perceptions of disability.
Two Minnesota-based performance artists, Leslye Orr and Kevin Kling, exemplify this in different ways. Orr, who is legally blind, boasts an impressive resume of one-woman shows that showcase her extensive training as a voice coach and long-time member of the Twin Cities theater scene. In particular, her show Hand In Hand directly addresses the experience of blindness. Based on the letters of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, the piece asks audience members to “see” with their non-visual senses. Orr asks audience members to close their eyes for the duration of the piece. Throughout it, she leads the audience through a variety of sensory-based experiences, sometimes using just her voice, sometimes passing objects around for people to touch. The effect on the audience is a temporary understanding of how it feels to be blind. This breaking down of barriers between able-bodiedness and disability has helped make this play very popular, and has led Orr to perform it in schools and community centers around Minnesota as well as in Lithuania and Latvia as a special guest of the U.S. State Department.
In contrast, Kling’s performance work focuses on storytelling rooted in his Minnesota upbringing. Born with a shortened and debilitated left arm, and later losing the use of his right arm after a car accident, Kling chooses not to create art around his experience as a disabled person. His stage plays 21A and The Ice Fishing Play, for example, do not directly address disability. However, Kling does not shy away from it, either. During his personal storytelling performances, a trio of which were commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio and performed at the famed Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, he speaks as himself, standing fully embodied on stage. Through his charming, funny, and sometimes poignant stories of family holidays and growing up in Minnesota, he breaks down barriers between his disabled body and the audience in a way different from Orr. By engaging the audience through stories that are at once specific and relatable, Kling as storyteller asks his audience to see him as someone much like themselves. The effect on the audience is a normalized and humanized representation of a disabled body, telling stories like theirs and living a life like theirs.
By creating public space for their disabled bodies through their work, both Orr and Kling in essence resist and subvert the erasure and Othering of the disabled person. Although neither proclaims this to be their central purpose for creating art, it is, again, a welcome byproduct of it. Within the battlefield of public space, both physical and imagined, art has the power to build empathy in its audience for those who may otherwise seem different. It builds a bridge between “us” and “them.” For disabled people, this bridge is crucial. If a minority group is perceived as different or foreign, if they remain unknowable or untouchable, then they are easy to oppress. They are easy to consign to the margins of society, and it is easy to build public spaces without their needs in mind.
I submit, then, that art is crucial for societal change. Art creates visibility, visibility fosters empathy, and empathy creates change. As a disabled artist, I am certainly not bound to make art that engages directly with the politics of disability. However, I contend that by centering my work in my experience, I help broaden representations of disability. And when my work is embodied through performance, I take that one step further. I create an actual public space for my disabled body. In doing so, I challenge the silent war on the disabled body wrought by a society that privileges able-bodied norms. I take the ever-present ableist gaze that confronts me when I am in public with my crutches, and I turn it on its head. I control the narrative that attempts to diagnose and define me. Through art, I take back both the public space that wants to erase my body and the space of ideas that wants to fix it as Other. Through art, I restore my essential humanity.