A Performance Festival by and for Disabled Artists
In mid-April, Performance Space New York hosted I wanna be with you everywhere (IWBWYE), a three-day festival “of, by, and for” disabled artists and writers. Its title pulls a line from the chorus of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” — the “want to” changed to “wanna,” a loosening of language standards that echoes a call for loosening the rigid structures of ableist societies.
IWBWYE was organized by political arts organization Arika, artists and writers Amalle Dublon, Jerron Herman, Carolyn Lazard, Park McArthur, Alice Sheppard, and Constantina Zavitsanos, and in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art and Performance Space New York. The organizers adhere to the Disability Justice framework — which originated in 2005 with performance project Sins Invalid — that centers disabled people experiencing intersecting and multiple forms of oppression.
Disability Justice is a direct response to the exclusionary, white-focused fields of disability rights and disability studies. As such, IWBWYE was an open invitation for “anyone who wants to get with us” — the “us” being an enviable talent pool of mostly queer and trans disabled artists and writers of color, including Eli Clare, John Lee Clark, Kayla Hamilton, Johanna Hedva, Jerron Herman, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Camisha L. Jones, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Jordan Lord, NEVE, and Alice Sheppard.
Though the festival’s press release reminded us that “disability communities don’t only make art about disability,” it was clearly an integral part of the performers’ and audience members’ lives. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that disability communities don’t make art about disability in the way non-disabled communities often assume.
When NEVE and Alice Sheppard moved on the ground during their respective performances, “Lover of Low Creatures” and “Where Good Souls Fear,” their bodies were not suddenly bound free from their restrictive wheelchairs, as these actions are often interpreted. NEVE fluttered on their back, alternating between song and monologue during their genre-blending performance. When Sheppard moved across the stage on their belly with their wheelchair still attached, they appeared as a snail in their shell — their chair acting as structure and support, molding Sheppard’s body into its various positions with equal force as the ground.
My personal experience as a wheelchair user gives me the understanding of certain complexities of disabled life. Because of this shared experience, I am granted emotional and intellectual access to certain aspects of these performers’ artistic expressions, which I can then share with others who are not disabled or not wheelchair users.
I also acknowledge the potential shallowness of my interpretations as a cis-gendered, white person, discussing queer and Black disabled artists’ work. There is a need for more deep-dives into this art by other queer and trans disabled critics and writers of color, in order to enrich our conversations.
At IWBWYU, access provisions for the festival went beyond mere compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It embraced “access intimacy,” a concept introduced by Mia Mingus, which could be described as feeling that your needs have been respected, anticipated, and lovingly welcomed. Arts organizers unpracticed in access intimacy would be well-aided in their education by studying IWBWYE’s access information found on Performance Space New York’s website.
Access was an ever-present vibe, a collective mood, and embraced as content by some performers. Kayla Hamilton’s “Nearly Sighted/unearthing the dark” began in a blackout, their dancing body only perceptible to those who see in relative darkness, with the sounds of their feet hitting the ground only perceptible to those who hear such frequencies. LED string lights attached to their sweatsuit lit up, reducing their body to that of an alien-green stick figure. Yet for some in the audience, it was in this moment — and not later when the spotlight was turned on — that Hamilton’s moves were most visible, with the bright, focused light in sharp contrast to the darkness surrounding them.
John Lee Clark was joined on stage by two other DeafBlind poets, Hayley Broadway and Rhonda Voight-Campbell, who all used Protactile language to deliver their poems to each other. An interpreter observed them communicating, and shared it verbally and audibly, which was then transcribed and projected onto the screen behind the performers, and signed in visual American Sign Language (ASL). Voight-Campbell’s poem was verbally translated as “the trees are blowing in the wind, swaying, rocking. The sunlight penetrates the tree.” These sparse words are less compelling than what was observed visually: Clark and Broadway held their arms together like a tree trunk, their fingers wiggling like waving branches. Voight-Campbell took hold of their wrists in order to move their arms together in wide circles, and blew her breath into their open palms. Then Voight-Campbell ran her hands up their arms — the sunlight creeping from the roots to the branches — and ended by interlacing her fingers with theirs in a strong clasp. I assumed this visual experience to be a lesser translation than what was felt tactically by Clark and Broadway.
Wearing a silver jumpsuit, orange socks, and white sneakers with neon-green detail that matched DJ Kevin Gotkin’s tight dress perfectly, Jerron Herman seduced the crowd during their dance performance “Relative.” Joined on stage by audience members, Herman moved between them, alternating between sultry, sexy, and fun choreography. At one point, they wiped the sweat from their face and flicked it on a willing participant in a display of multi-sensory playfulness. But just as the last hold-out audience members were conjured from their seats and joined the dancing crowd already on stage, Herman disappeared. Leaving us all ghosted on the dance floor but in the collective comfort of crip warmth, joy, and love.
Johanna Hedva also ghosted after building a droning crescendo in the finale of “Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House,” leaving the audience in the collective discomfort of loud sound and powerful vibration. Their music was an alchemical transmutation of chronic pain, trauma, and death that had more than one audience member nodding along in recognition.
During a panel at an invite-only study day hosted by the Access and Community Programs Department at the Whitney Museum, Carolyn Lazard asked NEVE why disabled artists are often prolific in several mediums. “I want everything and I want to do everything,” NEVE replied, claiming a right to take up cultural space. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha expanded on this “crip utility” as something born from more practical skills, another way to be “efficient with the spoons” (spoons are a shorthand for the mental, physical, and/or emotional energies of disabled and chronically ill people).
IWBWYE offered an impressive breadth and variety of performances and lived experiences of disability. That said, the festival did not claim to be exhaustive — most notably, there was an absence of disabled artists with certain developmental, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities. Perhaps it’s not fair to single IWBWYE out, but, in my experience, this absence has been observed often enough at other events and programs committed to art by disabled people. If disability arts communities continue to move beyond an emphasis on individual diagnoses and towards the articulation of a way of existing in the world shared by millions, they must ensure this existence embraces all disabled experiences.
Disabled people are regularly thought of as belonging to another world, and art by disabled people interpreted as portals to other dimensions, but IWBWYE was a testament that no, we exist in this world right alongside everybody else, everywhere.
I wanna be with you everywhere (IWBWYE) took place at Performance Space New York (150 1st Avenue, 4th floor, East Village, Manhattan) on April 11, 13, and 14.
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