Crip Horizons: Disability Art Futurism by Sean Lee

Ebony Rose Dark performing for Brownton Abbey, Cripping the Arts
(Michelle Peek Photography, courtesy of Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology & Access to Life, Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph)

Dictated by ableist logic, our world is one wherein discrimination against disabled people makes sense. As scholar Eliza Chandler notes, in order to think about the possibilities (and also limits) for embodying crip identities and recognizing crip communities, we must first explore how we normatively understand disability and the normative cultural terrain wherein crip communities are enacted.[i] The world collectively tolerates disability and responds to it with apathy, if at all. Bodies marked by disability are said to hold no future: they are empty vessels from which ableism insidiously pushes its agenda. As Alison Kafer notes, “my wheelchair, burn scars, and gnarled hands apparently tell them all they need to know. My future is written on my body.”[ii] Normative culture is so steeped with ableism that to suggest disability is anything other than a site of “no future” requires nothing short of a complete re-worlding.

Persimmon Blackbridge, Constructed Identities, 2019, McMaster University
(Sara Wilde Photography, courtesy of Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology & Access to Life. Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph)

Yet disability is here and it is in all of our futures. I say this in tune with Kelly Fritsch, in declaring that disability is not something we have but something we participate in, that disability arts and culture animate the means by which we can live with disability. It is through these sensibilities and discourses that disability is not only imbued with possibility, but with transformative meaning, value, and desirability.[iii] The formation of a distinct disability culture through art motions not only to the transformative possibilities of art, but points to its potential to reinvent reality itself.

This act of shaping our own realities is intermixed with concepts of access. Accessibility is concrete resistance and a rejection of the isolationist histories of disabled people.[iv] Through its curatorial practicalities, we begin to engender alterities to movement and space. Disability is in all of our futures not as a personal impending threat of impairment, but rather, as a way of considering all of our proximities to disability and our own understandings of the world. As Mia Mingus states, ableism must be included in our analysis of oppression because it cuts across all of our movements. Ableism dictates how bodies should function against a mythical norm – an able-bodied standard of white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism, economic exploitation, moral/religious beliefs, age, and ability.[v] Understanding these ways in which ableism has shaped our world might prompt us all to reconsider the myths that one can transcend ableism by not being in proximity to disability.

Aislinn Thomas, Three Windows, 2018, Tangled Art + Disability: Holding Patterns
(Priam Thomas for Art Spin)

Art imagines possibilities and futurities by exercising new perceptions of the world. Disability art’s distinct power to reshape our modalities of art making and exhibiting are tools to dismantle ableism’s pervasive hold on our society. Disability art, as Yinka Shonibare smartly discerns, is the last avant-garde art movement – paralleling the emergence of feminist art, Black arts, Queer arts, etc. in the 1960s. This is a pivotal shift in our understanding of the relationship between art and disability. Art has been leveraged by disability theorists as a methodology for world making and dismantling. Art has also held a mainstream relationship to disability for its therapeutic good. Today, we mark disability as a good for art. Its place as the last avant-garde simultaneously stratifies disability art within the canon and outside as a force propelling it to new and exciting places that have otherwise stagnated.

The art world has always been interested in the aesthetics of disability or the “broken” body; from the Venus de Milo to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, difference can be recognized as beauty. Yet disability art adds a political understanding that shifts our perceptions of who holds the keys to our bodies’ narratives. If, as Walter Benjamin suggests, life and the affairs of living are conceived of as innately artistic, then our hypervisible lived experience – an experience of navigating a world built to exclude us – is the most politically and artistically powerful creative yield imaginable. In this way, accessibility and the creative frictions of world building can be marked as distinct aesthetics of disability art.

Bruce Horak, Through A Tired Eye, 2019, Tangled Art Gallery
(Michelle Peek Photography, courtesy of Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology & Access to Life, Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph)

An overwhelming adherence to the medical model of disability in mainstream society means that to imagine disability as having any sort of place in society is still radical. But in parallel to queerness, which has faced unprecedented levels of mainstream acceptance in the last ten years, I believe disability is pushing forward into our futures. Borrowing from José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of a queer horizon – a utopic rejection of heteronormativity – I would encourage us to consider a “crip horizon” driven through the political potential of disability art. “In their fierce assertion of the possibility of an outside or more-than-one, crip and queer share a striking range of political and imaginative affinities.” Holding the intersection of access and disability, the crip horizon gestures towards an ever moving future for disability, away from the typically beautiful towards “the ugly” – towards the magnificence of our imperfections – and towards an aesthetic uniquely situated and held in disability art. Access is complicated, disability is expansive, and art is diverse. We will never reach consensus on a singular disability art narrative, but therein lies the possibilities of the crip horizon. I invite you all to join me at UTSC on October 8 to further explore the idealities of this horizon of being and disability’s vital place in all our futures.

Sean Lee is the Director of Programming at Tangled Art + Disability in Toronto.

[i] Chandler, E. (2014). DISABILITY AND THE DESIRE FOR COMMUNITY. Sociology Justice Education University of Toronto.
[ii] Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[iii] Fritsch, Kelly. “Crip Commitments: Disability, Theory, Politics.” The New College Disability Studies Speaker Series. 21 March 2019, Toronto.
[iv] Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence, 12 February 2011, https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/.
[v] Mingus, M. (2011, September 21). Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability. Retrieved from https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/moving-toward-the-ugly-a-politic-beyond-desirability/