Carleton University Art Gallery: Challenging ableism and understanding that ‘crip’ art is a ‘mad’ adventure

Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers in a CRIPSiE performance called Intimacies. Photo: Marc Chalifoux

The first event in the series, Disruptions: Dialogues on Disability Art organized by the Carleton University Art Gallery is called Cripping Aesthetics, Maddening Creation and features a performance by Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers. Eales is the co-artistic director of CRIPSiE (the Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society) in Edmonton, which centres on dance by and for people experiencing disability. She has choreographed and performed integrated dance for a decade. Peers is a community organizer, artist and an assistant professor in the faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation at the University of Alberta. The CUAG series is curated by Michael Orsini, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa. The goal of the series is to generate a conversation about the role contemporary art can play in challenging discrimination in favour of able-bodied people or ableism. The event takes place Tuesday starting at 7 p.m. Before the show Danielle Peers explained her art and her thinking on Mad, Crip, art and change to ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and Lindsay? 

A. Lindsay Eales is the co-artistic director of CRIPSiE (the Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton (CRIPSiE). She is an extremely talented choreographer, an emerging Mad artist and a PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta in the faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation.

I am a new assistant professor at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, an integrated dance artist and emerging choreographer with CRIPSiE and have been making crip film for more than 10 years.

Q. Why are you exploring art-making together?

A. Lindsay and I met when we were in grad school and started making art together when we decided to make a dance-u-mentary about CRIPSiE called New Constellations. That is when her foray into film started, and that is when she got me hooked on integrated dance. We have been creating, researching, and living together ever since in ways that play seriously with the tensions, overlaps, and reciprocities between living and creating Mad and Crip.

Q. Please tell me about the performance you and Lindsay will present on Feb. 27. 

A. It draws from some previous intellectual and artistic work from the last few years — a short film, a dance, some writing done previously. But it also has some new ideas we have been working with lately, particularly in the context of Lindsay’s PhD research on creating from and moving with Trauma, and some new stuff I am working on around crip aesthetics.

Q. What does Cripping Aesthetics mean?

A. My answer here draws from really important crip thinkers and creators including Eliza Chandler, Kelly Fritsch, Neil Marcus and Michele Decottignies. To crip something, for me, involves an active desire for precisely those parts of disability experience that have been widely imagined by others as devoid of meaning, use, value, and beauty. So Cripping Aesthetics involves not just creating about disability or even from the perspective of people who experience disability. Rather, it involves creating from and through all of the desirable, generative, ingenious, and disruptive ways that experiences of non-normative embodiment and experiences of disabling and sanist oppression makes us think, act, create, connect, imagine, survive, and flourish differently. This kind of approach to disability — and disability art in particular— makes an immense axiological, and specifically aesthetic, difference. It … re-imagines and disrupts normative notions of what might make them valuable, beautiful, meaningful and artful.

Q. What does Maddening Creation mean?

A. Maddening, for us, is doing something quite similar to cripping in terms of its generative, disruptive and desirable claim to flourishing (in both senses of the term). Mad, like crip, is a term that is widely used in derogatory ways and yet has been reclaimed by a critical mass of folks against whom it has been hurled: most notably activists, artists and academics. (It) is a way of re-claiming and politicizing the experiences and understandings of what is widely pathologized and psychiatrized as ‘mental illness’ and to push against the devaluation of their lives. They do this, however, in ways that go far beyond fighting stigma, because the mad move is not towards ‘normalizing mental illness’ but rather through a valuation of the generativity, desirability and disruptive potential of madness for challenging forces of normalization. We talk about creation here to emphasize that we are not only talking about aesthetics in terms of products, but also in terms of art creation.

Q. Identity is a much used word these days. What does it mean in this case? 

A. The crip and mad movement, for me, gets us beyond the notion that simply adding some people who identify as having disabilities is going to ‘crip’ or in any way disrupt the art world. Because what will make its way into the art world most easily is art by the most privileged. … Crip and mad art is less about who makes the art and more about what making the art through crip perspectives, experiences, processes and aesthetics can do. It’s less about identities than imaginings. Such imaginings, arguably, are hard to come by if the artists have not, as Eliza Chandler so beautifully puts it, chosen to dwell with disability: in their body-mind, in their community, in their art. Crip emerges as an orientation to disability, ableism and normalization that is often produced in and through crip community.

Q. Are artists taking back words that have been used in a derogatory way?

A. It is certainly a reclaiming. But, at least in my community, I would say less a re-claiming of identity-based pride and more one of politics and desire. It is less a ‘taking on’ for me than a refusal of the ways others might identify me. Not everyone loves such reclaiming. All forms of reclaiming derogatory terms are taken up by some and not others within a community. It is hard because we recognize that some people find these reclaimed words triggering, and at the same time, many who choose to self-refer as mad, for example, find alternative, more mainstream terms, extremely triggering because it is through such terms as ‘mental illness’ that they have been devalued and subjected to psychiatric violence. … So for those of us who choose such terms, we do so to name the systemic violence, exclusion and devaluation that we face, and also to begin to imagine and create alternative communities and futures of valuation.

Eales and Peers are seen here climbing stairs during a Montreal activist performance #iamchair. Photo: Laura Bluer

Q. The show is part of a series called Disruptions: Dialogues on Disability Art. Why are you part of this?

A. We were thrilled when Michael Orsini invited us to be part of this really important series. This is because there are are so many important voices in this particular dialogue in Canada and it is deeply meaningful to be counted among these artists, thinkers and activists. The artists featured in such dialogues have worked hard to disrupt normalized and normalizing notions of The Arts, and in so doing are creating room in Canada’s funding systems, art galleries, stages, pages, and screens, not only for us to witness art and create art through adapting mainstream processes and aesthetics, but to begin to create art on our own terms. They have managed to disrupt … what constitutes professionalism, artistic training, high quality, authorship, craftsmanship, virtuosity, rigour, human beauty and humanity.

Q. Art made by those with a disability is more recognized. Why do you think that is happening now?

A. I think there have been some hard fought battles won by folks who have come before Lindsay and I to create cracks in the systems that crip and mad artists like us could exploit. And also, there have been some funders and collectives who have witnessed this crip art, and through this, have come to realize that it offers the kinds of challenges, disruptions and re-imaginings that many artists spend their lifetimes seeking out. And I also think that crip art emerges regardless because our lives have trained us to create meaningful, inventive ways of flourishing in the face of processes that are designed to contain and manage us. Mostly, I think the art is exciting and so many people want to engage with it once they have tasted it. But, we are still wildly underrepresented. I still cannot get in to most of the places my films are played. We are still asked if our art is therapeutic. I am regularly told my art, and myself, are inspirational when I intend to be revolutionary. We are beginning to get more noticed, but we are far from being recognized.

Most folks would be shocked by how many barriers there are for most of us in creating our art. The vast majority of stages, theatres, art creation studios, film studios, grants, and art schools remain functionally inaccessible to the vast majority of us. I would, however, be shocked if there was an art form on earth that folks who experience disability haven’t found some ingenious way to create wonderful and provocative art within.

Q. Is being engaged in a healthy pursuit like art-making a reason to bring art to every possible person? 

A. I am very cautious of this question because we are asked this so much more than other artists I know. I think this is because disability and mad art is often cast as therapeutic rather than having artistic merit. Disabled and mad people are so often understood as only ever in need of fixing and therapy. We are so much more than these narratives.

Q. What do you want people to take away from your work and why?

A. We would love to invite people into a lively, brilliant conversation happening amongst crip and mad artists and scholars in Canada. We would like them to taste crip and Mad art, and to be sparked to seek out the brilliant crip and Mad art in their own backyard. As Lindsay has written: the making of Mad and Crip Art for her is, above all, a love story.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.