Sydney Festival; Art, Not Apart; Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres
other credits: with Christopher Samuel Carroll & Lloyd Allison-Young; Production assist: Gillian Schwab
What was the case study project about?
In the ocean, the Mermaid is free. On land, she cannot swim or breathe, and is vulnerable to pollutants of chemicals, scents and food from human settlement. It is not the Mermaid that is disabled, but the environment that makes her so.
This work takes the artist's real medical equipment that she requires to venture outside, and recontextualizes it by placing them with the image of a "realistic" mermaid. The artist has a cluster of rare genetic diseases which necessitate the use of a wheelchair, braces, respirator mask and oxygen. Her medical aids are turned into objects of fantasy, become instruments of play, but also draw attention to the environmental plight of the mermaid and the ecosystems she represents. The Mermaid is at once whimsical and confronting, calling into question our notions of inclusivity, body, environment and normalcy.
The tension between ability and the restrictions of the illness affect the trajectory of the piece. As she comes into contact with different environmental triggers, The Mermaid may suffer from real medical events: convulsive seizures, respiratory reactions, paralysis. She is in constant reaction with the world and people around her, performatively, spatially, cellularly. Her body exists as canvas, stage, for events to pass through.
She reminds us of our inherent fragility, the permeability of our bodies and ecosystems. She is a celebration and a warning; a living memento mori, for both ourselves and the environment.
What does ecological thinking mean to you and how do you approach it in your work?
I feel a deep connection between crip justice and environmental justice, and try to instill these as dominant values and lived practices within my art.
When I became disabled, I awakened to many of the ableist and extractivist values that were underpinning my practice and our industry. The world of performance is one which champions hyper-extractivist behaviours; we are willing to burn every last drop of ourselves in the service of producing the art, and the more we are willing to exploit the resource of ourselves, the more we are lauded. The specific performance worlds I come from -- physical theatre, dance, circus -- also carry a strong ethos of "mastery" over nature and "conquering" one's body. It wasn't until I became disabled that I understood how the values I carried as an artist, my attitude towards my body as both the art-product and producer of that art, were attitudes steeped in extractivism, capitalism, colonialism and other toxic ideologies of the fossil-fuel era.
I believe that our micro-actions can either serve or undermine our macro-ideologies. I want my practice -- the way I make art, treat my body and treat others (collaborators, audience) -- to be complicit with my anti-extractivist, anti-capitalist values. To treat my body, and the bodies of my collaborators, how I would want to treat the earth. That means I now reject creative methods that value productivity, speed, independence, pushing past limits, competition, scarcity mentality, and other body-exploitative, earth-exploitative practices, and instead cultivate body-/space-/time relationships that prioritize interdependence, complicity, sustainability and care.
Aims and Objectives
What were the aims and objectives of the project?
The Mermaid is a hyper-visible spectacle of public sickness and cripness; my unwelcome body reclaims public space, unashamedly present in my weakness and dependence, to celebrate the beautiful and harrowing fragility of our bodies and our planet. It is a truth-telling about experiences of disability and climate disease, which reframes immunologic disability under the social model -- the framing that it is the spaces and structures we exist within that disable us, not our bodies. Through the mechanism of my disease, the audience are asked to consider what our shared resources are and how our pollution of those resources disables the people, creatures, and systems around us.
The Mermaid was also an act of coming out as disabled; an act of radical visibility to confront my own internalised ableism. I could recognise that the shame I was struggling with was enabled by secrecy and hiding, and that the alchemy of turning my dehumanised medicalised body into art, of turning my private suffering into public activism, of inviting the stares, was the most effective way of challenging that shame.
What did you do to challenge the status quo?
Our dominant time model, Capitalist Time, aims for constant acceleration: increasingly producing more in less and less time. We conflate creativity with productivity, and efficiency with speed. But faster is not better. Faster is merely more convenient for the industrial machine.
In our industry, we use the adrenaline rush of time scarcity -- a deadline, opening night, -- as our primary creative fuel, as if that crucible of stress is the fire needed to create. We relish those moments of long days, late nights, physical exhaustion, as proof of our loyalty to the art. But these unrealistic time models force us into situations that require us to cut corners, make ethical and artistic compromises, and miss out on those things which take longer: access, diversity and sincerity. Deep down, as artists, we recognise that acceleration and time scarcity are neither sustainable nor conducive to creativity, yet we continue to accept it, manufacture it, and even become addicted to its chaos.
I challenge these industry patterns by embracing Crip Time, a practice in disability culture which rejects the expectations of imposed timelines and honours that each action takes the amount of time it takes. Crip Time creeps over deadlines, it reschedules, it takes longer when it requires longer, or cuts things short when it cannot endure; it is flexible, dynamic and highly adaptive. It recognises that failure, illness and disaster aren't disruptions to normal timelines, they are part of normal -- it builds time for them, accepts them, expects them.
What are some of the best decisions in relation to ecological motivation and action you’ve made related to this project?
To reject the battle-cry of our industry: the show must go on.
I want to create a culture of work that is respectful of the unruly wildness of our bodies, and which actively embraces unpredictability and failure. We often talk of the role failure plays in creativity, but very rarely do we actually accept failure in practice; we want to fail invisibly, without wasted time, cancelled shows or abandoned artworks. I enter into artistic relationships being upfront and unapologetic about the unpredictability of my body; that, though I will engage sincerely with the work, I may not meet deadlines, and I cannot guarantee delivery of the project.
In the middle of the bushfire crisis that raged during the 2020 Sydney Festival season of The Mermaid, we created structures for the work and the tour that were flexible enough to accommodate for how the environment was rapidly shifting and my body's response to it; we cancelled shows, we changed locations. This ethos played out even more so in my practice with later (digital) festivals throughout the year, where our postponements were explicitly treated as political statements of prioritising care, rather than apologetic failures to conform to normative timelines of productivity.
Sharing is Caring
What is your advice and best tips for other people and teams who want to bring these values into their work?
SLOWNESS instead of SPEED When we decelerate, it allows us to embrace habits that facilitate creativity: soft transitions, where we have the spaciousness of time to attune to the artspace, the other bodies, before the curtain rises and after it falls; diverse bodies and diverse modes of operation; experimentation and getting lost.
SINCERITY instead of PRODUCTIVITY Value the depth and sincerity of connection -- with the work itself, with collaborators -- rather than the speed or efficiency with which a product is generated.
COMPLICITY instead of CONQUERING Prioritise power relationships with your body, your medium, your collaborators, that are about complicity rather than mastery.
PEOPLE instead of DEADLINES I encourage the organisations I partner with to use soft deadlines, where lateness is permissible, instead of constructing unforgiving and inflexible barriers, and to not be ashamed of postponement or cancellation.
SAFETY instead of SUFFERING Prioritise cultural and emotional safety; lean into comfort and care, and away from overvalourising effort, struggle and discomfort.
BRING YOUR BAGGAGE INTO THE ROOM Work as a full human, not just the side of you that is the "efficient and productive worker artist"; bring your whole body and your whole heart, making space in the work for your problems, your symptoms, your access needs and whatever else exists with you that day.
How can you be more accountable through your actions as a creative professional?
I've become aware that the interdependent care relationship I'm trying to prioritise with my body and my collaborator's bodies, actually extends to the audience as well, and that I have a duty of care to the people who choose to witness my work.
Just as the audience's actions have an effect on me, my visibility has an effect on them; The Mermaid forces an engagement with confronting concepts: our fragility and mortality, our culpability in causing harm. It also exposes people to things they may not have known about or seen before: examples of ableism and fairly extreme medical events. I think I could have taken much greater care of the witnesses. I don't say this as a move towards tone policing how we communicate injustice, but that when people are meeting us in a spirit of willingness and care as an audience, there's a reciprocity demanded.
I no longer believe that discomfort is automatically a positive thing, especially in art -- and for those of us who are part of oppressed groups who already deal with enough discomfort every moment of the day, prioritising our own comfort, emotional or physical, can in fact be an act of resistance. In retrospect, I would liked to have built audience aftercare into the structure, to curate and hold space for processing the emotional violence of the work; to give value to that process, to provide some shelter and safety for it to occur, and to facilitate a slow and easeful transition back into the outside world.
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