Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feminism and disability.

It occurred to me today as both boxes come a bit further into being just how clearly masculine box two is and how conversely feminine box 1 is even though there has been no deliberate intention. It's entirely appropriate though and it's funny/interesting that even though I hadn't consciously intended this it has regardlessly emerged in the work, inadvertently. For there is much in disability identity politics that bears a feminist reading. For example Aristotle in his Generation Of Animals is the first to cast femaleness as a pathology "Anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these ways nature has strayed from the generic type. The beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male". Another example Freud's description of a woman as a mutilated male. Most applicable to my work though is feminist reading of the cult of invalidism in the 19th Century. While both men and women were afflicted it was quite an acceptable (and, it is suggested, inevitable) identity for women to assume and a somewhat emasculating experience for men. It makes sense that a culture which rejects any kind of sympathetic identification with disability and invalidism should be a culture that projects a masculine identity and so, I guess reasonable that Box 2 should be overtly male. And vice versa for box 1.
And then of course that Box 2 is in a sense the embodiment of western democracy and individualism as modelled around a very narrow concept of the 'normal' individual - the young, white, athletic, heterosexual male. Emphasis on male.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

God is in the detail.

The details at this stage are bringing me undone. The sheer number of them (either to do with how all the elements support the work or navigating unforeseen logistical issues) while working in an icy cold workshop/garage, has had me on the brink of misery overload all day, fantasising about tossing it all in. More and more I'm seeing the size of the project in it's actual magnitude and wondering what on earth I was thinking...
This post is to try and get some focus, work through some of the issues that came up today and get clear in my head what still needs to be done before next Tuesday. And what exactly to do with the nails....

These are important because fear, threat and control are the key concepts of this piece (box 2). Control is represented by the identical wire circles homogenising and policing the otherwise unique textile pieces (human physicality). The nails then are the fear/threat element that inspires the need for control. Fear/threat isn't immediately obvious by the overall piece - it's a 'body' and at first sight is supposed to inspire an idea of human perfection or rather what has been identified by researchers of disability discourse as 'the norm' (or the entitled participant of a democracy) - a young white athletic heterosexual male. Ironically a very small percentage of any population. In my mind as I work on this I inadvertently keep seeing an all american football hero/jock. Loud, brash, outwardly confident and impenetrable. Or perhaps the image projected by the US. Which of course is no coincidence given this work is essentially about the anxiety democracy and individualism inspire in a population as then projected onto the body.
So back to the nails....the fear is that the body can't ever be truly controlled despite all the posturing authority of modern medicine. The threat is the flesh itself - vulnerable, mysterious and anarchic. So I am thinking the nails must be on the outside but not main feature/overly prominent. Probably a row hammered flat from the inside floor and coming out the bottom, mainly visible underneath. Need to suggest the body can never be a benign entity but that that threat needs to be hidden away as much as possible (hence the invalidating of the disabled). Issue resolved? Somehow the threat is meant to add some vulnerability to all this football hero bravado, and not sure this nail arrangement does????
I somehow feel nails need to be on the inside too but just not sure how that is justified.

Another problem today when my 'head' design didn't leave enough space for the electrical cord (what was I thinking?). But I'm not keen on just going all rectangle as design wise thats just makes it overall too boxy/clunky/uninspiring. Also it doesn't keep in with the absurdist element.

Another issue is whether to put lighting inside the box as well via an LED lighting strip. This pretty much needs to be decided soon because if so it needs to go in quite early before fully assembling and to have a hole put in the top to connect into the junction box beforehand. On the plus side to lighting is that the shadow created by the textile/wire pieces projected onto the perspex adds a whole new dimension but whether that positioning would be enough I dont know. Also too much light can dull the colour of the silk and felting and make them insignificant.....I guess I can only buy the lighting strip and try it out. But it could only ever be approximate as the textile frame can only be put in once. Once in thats it, no taking out. Experimenting over. Hmmmm..... Maybe just putting in the hole anyway....?????

Textiles Progress.

The textiles that did my head in over the past week.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Maquettes etc

The top pic is of a Maquette to see if i could crochet around the wire boundaries that the 'cellular' type textiles will be strung across - the idea of living material defying man made 'boundaries' or, rather, the determined sensibilities of what constitutes the acceptable body. Because this is for the Victorian context and the new liberal democracy is in it's infancy, there isn't the intense need for control that will be apparent in Box 2 (20th century) and so while there is still some policing of the body (the wire) there is still a tolerance of aberrant physicality and the wonder of it (even if it is exploitative and self serving). This is shown with the textiles moving beyond the wire, growing, deforming (the hyperbolic crochet)  - a kind of physical freedom symbolising individuality/ uniqueness. This idea is supported also by the other elements of the box which refer to Victorian freak shows (such as decoupaged 19th C portrait of freak  - see previous posts on the role of freak show in 19thC  reflecting anxieties about social change) and Cabinets of Curiosity that expressed wonder at the physical world until Modern medicine took over with the political imperative to appear in control of the body and construct/police a norm (again box 2).

The next pictures are of some cloth covered electrical cord which, being decorative, offers up the possibility of perhaps arteries?? (given that electricity will be conducted through the box, with lit bulbs at the 'head' symbolising 'life/living being' - while also playing along with the circus theme).  This would mean the cords (which originally I had thought of as white and as unobtrusive as possible) would actually become a part of the art work itself. Deep red for Victorian box, brighter red for 20th C.
I kind of like this idea, with possibility of box 2 draping it around inside as part of arterial anatomy (Box two intends to remove the inherent mystery of the body for instead a clinical authoritative outlook so it would make sense to expose it's workings). Possibly an issue with cord leading outside the box/body to the power board. Could make it decorative, looping around walls etc...???????? Not sure.
Excuse lousy artists impression of cloth covered cord. Couldn't be bothered to get the Wacom tablet out!!!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Draft Work Proposal.


This body of work extends on the themes dealt with in a previous work entitled "Escape Artist". Escape Artist took the personal experience of chronic illness and social isolation and placed it in the philosophical context of Absurdist Existentialism to convey a narrative of imprisonment, suffering and despair which transitions to one of freedom and exhilaration. It's main intention was to highlight the transcendent power of humanity that can be found within the meaningless suffering and affliction that we are predisposed to as mortal, flesh and blood beings.


This new body of work, tentatively titled "Hope Chest" extends on the themes in "Escape Artist" by introducing historical, social and political contexts to the already existing philosophical viewpoint of Absurdist existentialism.
The first box entitled "Hope Chest: Spectacle" continues with the assemblage work , again making use of principles of Ostranenie - a box that is object but also strongly suggestive of the human figure. The box ilke elements such as the shape, the doors and the cross inlaid will suggest a medicine chest/first aid box but it will also have suggestion of a torso with legs and a head type piece on top. Again the chest opens out to view the insides. Elements used will strongly suggest a time period placing the box in the specific historical context of the 19th century. Other elements will suggest the human figure but with deformity, such as the handles which are ornate brass mispositioned hands. Inside the two inner doors will be decoupaged, one with a blown up photo of a freak in typical Victorian style portrait. The other vintage medical diagram. Inside will be a scene of classic Victorian period portraiture - an ornate frame against a an ornate wallpapered background with the inside frame featuring textile work that is suggestive of organic material: flesh but here flesh of a clearly uncontrolled and aberrant nature. The lighting and electricity suggest life force/humanity. The 'head' of the 'body' is crown like suggesting the new aristocracy of the body 
The point of this work is to place the disabled body in a particular time and place in history (the mid 1800 to the mid 1900s), thus  calling up the identity and representations given to disabled peoples at this point in history and, identify in the process, the social anxieties at work in the population as a whole. That is the collective anxieties of a population that found their resolution through projection onto the aberrant body.
Specifically for this time frame meant creating freaks out of those whose body did not fit current ideas of normal - the popular rise of the travelling Freak Show in Victorian times. As to what defined the normal body and the freakish body and why the body should become the site of so much projected anxiety the answer can be found in the social and economic changes taking place at the time. Significantly the introduction of liberal democracy as the defining ethos and the concomitant dismantling of aristocracy and birthright as a means of status to then be replaced by meritocracy. 
For the 19th Century citizen, iin the midst of economic and social upheaval density and status became a slippery commodity. Meritocracy suggested that one's status need be earned, that an individual could distinguish themselves through ability and their participation in the new democracy - in other words their future was a self determined one. Thus the disabled individual - the body that failed to determine itself within the norm - came to be seen as the embodiment of corporeal insufficiency  and deviance - a repository for social anxieties about such troubling concerns as vulnerability, control, identity and status.

Themes needing to convey:
Straddling ideologies of traditional and modern.
Photographic iconography (the reproducible age as a precursor to mass culture):
Vintage medicine:
Religion: Still a sense of mystery.
Aristocracy vs. meritocracy:
The threat the disabled/sick embody: how to represent? Nails?


The second box makes the transition from the Victorian era into the modern era. The development of Modern medicine and it's growing authority recast the Victorian Freak into a subject of pathology, no longer paraded in carnivals for the ritualistic processing of collective anxieties but instead hidden from view - no longer available to the public to both reassure and threaten but the property now of a medical establishment who transformed them into specimen. The reliance on science and rationality, that had began in the Enlightenment, became a means of predicting and regulating an intractable universe, imperative now to ease the anxiety of a population uncertain of it's ongoing insider status in the new democracy.The disabled were no longer freaks to marvel at but examples of medicine's failure to correct, control or master the aberrant body. But the disabled, deformed and sick body didn't just betray the promise of medicine - whose key role it could be argued was to restore it's subject to viable participation in liberal democracy - but betrayed the key tenets of liberal democracy itself. The body that could not be fixed, controlled  or cured flew in the face of such concepts of self determination, self government, autonomy and progress almost mocking the liberal social experiment.  For this - a conflict unresolvable within the liberal paradigm - the only solution was to invalidate the disabled population. Now not only did the disabled continue to suffer outsider status, the associated stigmatisation and embody the role of cultural 'other' - again the repository for the anxieties of those who fear they may too one day, through illness or accident, be rendered 'other' - but now the threat they posed to the ideology of the times - had them hid from view.

This box will be larger than the others and more modern, streamlined. There will be much use of clean sanitised materials such as white opaque perspex. The textiles/flesh will be orderly and strung accuse frames of stainless steel.. The inside doors decoupaged will be enlarged bloodwork analysis one side and on the other enlarged stock market printout. Both obscured  by the size but still enough to know that the body has been ordered and the suggestion that it has been ordered in line with the socio-political economic environment.
How to suggest though the hidden fears/ 'sleeping terror' that inspires such control???? Nails???

Themes need to convey:
Abandonment of God:
The threat and betrayal of cultural values that the disabled /sick symbolise: ie For this they are punished,dehumanised and invalidated. What are we so afraid of? "The sleeping terror" we project onto the disabled?? Is it that they betray the 'fantasy of autonomy' that underlies our liberal democracy?????????


Monday, May 13, 2013


It has taken a little while to realise that at the heart of my motivation for this new work is a desire to workshop the loneliness and isolation experienced in those long years confined to home and bed in the Nineties. I need, it seems, to be really clear on one thing. And that is despite the relentless physical drama and suffering that played itself out in those years it paled starkly in comparison to the pain of isolation. I often think of those years, which spanned nearly a decade, as containing something of an almost inhuman quality. There was a sense I was being denied something very basic. And yet that something had nothing to do with illness. Anchored as we are in the sheer corporeality of our body we know, even if only at a subconscious level, that we are vulnerable to disease and physical trauma. We can and do live with that in a way that is, although difficult, quite natural. What feels much less natural is to have your social identity stripped from you for those very same reasons and to know retrieving that identity is outside your control. It's one thing to be isolated physically, trapped in a room without company. It's a whole other thing to be struck off from existence while still alive. I assume  it's not called invalidism for nothing.

With this new work I want to explore the cultural and temporal aspects of illness and disability as a way of understanding the mechanisms at the heart of my experienced social isolation. That is to say it was not a matter of friends forgetting to phone  or not being able to leave the house (though that was the case). It was something way more contextual and complex: essentially the socio - political environment of the time.

So first a little historical diversion with some added cultural discourse from the relatively new field of disability identity politics....


The political and socio-economic environment at a given time in history and the collective anxieties of the population regarding those compas points dictates the identity and social status afforded groups of  people. Those given identities are then represented in the culture in ways that not only project/reflect such anxieties but in ways that serve to reassure the privileged norm of their own cultural insider status plus remind them what the political system requires of them to hold onto that status.

If it is true that the margins define the centre in society then for anyone to have status there must also be a group of people relegated to the margins of society who do not have status.
In the mid Nineteenth century as the democratic experiment was taking hold and the old ideas of aristocracy and status were being dismantled and replaced with an ethos of merit, then ability became the means by which individuals distinguished themselves and attained status. It is interesting to consider that while the democratic experiment did away with ideas of institutionalised class, and championed an egalitarian ideal where all citizens could be considered equal, not much thought was given to the flawed nature of humanity, our insecurities regarding status and our need to know we belong. Therefore democracy needed to find it's margins - not only to reassure those who met it's requirements and thus belonged - but importantly to indicate what those requirements were.

And so the necessity for a group of people who simply in their being could symbolise what democracy was and, importantly, what it was not. Here, disabled populations, with their implied dependence on others - signaling a failure to meet democracy's most defining ideal ie the self determining individual - became by necessity not only definitive of the margins (and thus socially reassuring to those who were able bodied) but also symbolic of what democracy was not, confirming their social invalidation in the process.
In a way a new aristocracy - an aristocracy of the body - had replaced the old one of inherited birthrights.

Thus it is not surprising that the anxieties of the population over the major cultural and political shifts taking place in the 19th C and their subsequent new identities in the new order should find their expression writ large on the body and it's physicality (and I take here the view of post structuralists in seeing the body as a site where social and political conflicts are inscribed, contested and resolved). Thus the rise of two phenomenon peculiar to this time in history -  in America the travelling Freak Show and in Britian the rise of 'the Invalid' as a specific social identity.

The Freak was able to serve as a figure of 'otherness' on which spectators could displace their anxieties. On one hand gain reassurance that they were within the bounds of normal and worthy of insider status while on the other a place to project their anxiety - after all the new social identity, dependent on good health and a 'normal' body as it were, was a capricious thing.

The decline of the Freak Show as the Victorian era came to an end coincided with the increasing status of medical science plus the increasing invisibility of the disabled person. This body of work will argue that the vulnerable body now not only symbolised a threat to individuals and their own status in society but the notion of liberal democracy itself.
The idea of a person living their entire life dependent on others flies in the face the ethos of individualism. And so the disabled figure becomes a very uncomfortable and almost impossible one for our culture to resolve. Their existence contradicts the defining ideal of liberal democracy (that we are self determining individuals) therefore to uphold belief in this idea the disbaled must be socially invalidate.
 Social invalidation speaks to our greatest existential fear - non existence - and this is the spectre that hangs as stigma over the disabled class and explains the threat and fear disabled people represent not only to our ideology but to our sense of selves.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sideshow to Sidelined.

With this exhibition I've got lined up for November, exists an opportunity to extend on the work I did for the my graduate exhibition "Escape Artist" which is really exciting as one of the hardest things about last year was refining the work down to it's conceptual bones. Now to flesh it out so to speak. I have a new visual diary, lots of visual inspiration and now some macquettes - not of the work I plan to do but just giving some concrete form to early conceptualising. I've returned to the idea of Circus Freaks as my re-entry for a couple of reasons. First making the polymer freak for the graduate work was fun and I wanted to make more of them. Second the idea of a circus freak was central to the conceptual basis of the work - it tied together ideas of nature and physicality with ideas of absurdist existentialism. That is in circumstances that involve an enduring and meaningless form of suffering, as is often the case with the body, absurdist existentialism - accepting the absurdity inherent in meaningless suffering - can offer a way out of the suffering. Which is to tap into an unrelentingly bad and dark joke  - something I think the whole freak sideshow of a vintage circus does perfectly. For me the circus freak sideshow is the visual and conceptual manifestation of absurdist existentialism,  posing the threat we all live with (nature can be cruel) and asking the question how would you cope if dealt the bad hand? 

In times past this sideshow would give viewers the vicarious opportunity to experience that threat, testing their own strength along the way. Now (of course) that option no longer exists. A few years back while taking my kids out (to see Circus Oz of all things) there was a man in the ticket queue behind us suffering from, I assume Proteus Syndrome (elephant man disease). I kept trying to keep my kids looking ahead or engaged with talk so they wouldn't look back and be shocked/horrified or loudly voice their curiosity and embarrass me. Later we walked by him unexpectedly and I saw my little boys face as he caught sight of the man. My son was only three and at first he did seem shocked but then you could see him trying to make sense of what he had seen. For my part I didn't say anything but only because I had no idea what was the PC thing to say or do. Moreover I suspect whatever I'd said would only have served to project my own fears.
So in effect I ignored what my son had experienced. All of which made me feel quite pathetic and cowardly. And I guess that is why people are sometimes cruel to those who are different, out of anger at being faced with their own fears and pathetic nature. Someone who is supposed to be the vulnerable, inferior one just made you feel vulnerable and inferior.

With my graduate work I argued (with the help of absurdist philosopher Albert Camus) that the freak had the last laugh. That embracing the absurdity, transcending the fear of what nature is capable of, offers a transcendent kind of freedom and the opportunity to connect most fully with what it means to be human - subject to nature's caprice with all its entailing fragility, vulnerability and transience - those things we find most frightening.
So this is where my thoughts are heading: As evolved as we may be to no longer parade those misfortunate souls around to satisfy our curiosity and vicariously face our fears - and with science  demystifying physical deformity and disability (guess what? Your virtue wont protect you) and eradicating much of it - what has become of our fear that one day we may be the sidelined one?

I would probably argue that we are more now, than at any other time, beholden of our fears (and thus less tolerant of) the unfortunate individual who simply by their existence threatens both our sense of immortality and our modern entitlement to the 'good life'.
Moreover, and I'd say most importantly, our sense of belonging too. For I think there is actually less public space available to the afflicted than there ever was. We might tell ourselves otherwise as we put handrails up in public toilets and ramps around buildings but all that tells me is that we are okay with the wheelchair. Down with the complexities of useless legs. It's such a narrow interpretation of disability and inclusion it could be a joke  (insert bitter laugh here).
Worst of all the modern 'freak' who nature has rendered so useless as to be unable to contribute to economic growth - let alone simply support themselves - threatens us with our biggest existential fear of all - complete invalidation. For whatever point of existence could be attributed to them now? No wonder is our need to have them completely out of sight.
So without the benefit of the circus side show freak where might someone these days get the opportunity to confront those kind of fears? Unless you are given to lurking the corridors of hospitals (those particularly sanitised environments which evoke a telling sense of the surreal on entering) eavesdropping on all the human misfortune being played out within it's walls - or visiting a region beset with entrenched poverty - then it is unlikely the un-afflicted (that's not actually a word, sorry) need be confronted with the afflicted. At what cost to them/us I wonder?

Here's another thought: Can you imagine someone in a Medieval Europe as the Black Plague was devastating their village, noticing the first signs of illness in themselves and thinking "why me?". Would the village hunchback prefer to be transported to now where he might get a disgnosis and an uncomfortable metal brace to wear in public or prefer to stay in his medieval village where he could continue mixing it up with the village madwoman (undone by her endless grief), the village consumptive (an immune deficiency) and the village idiot (bad case of infantile measles). Okay, maybe I'm tired and need to wrap this up or maybe I'm trying to get at something.
I guess with this next work I want to introduce some temporal and cultural contexts. Ideas about modern entitlement and how that conflicts with the vagaries of nature we still remain powerless to control, plus the implied role of a market economy - the selling of physical perfection, disengaging us from our humanity. Related ideas of spirituality, authentic living too. 

Thats it for now. If you made it this far thank you. Feedback and discussion welcome.