Disability Culture and Performance: Rhizomes and reembodiments in the work of Petra Kuppers, by KIRSTY JOHNSTON. PERFORMANCE RESEARCH 18·6 (2014): pp.137-140

Here are some excerpts from this lovely review:

"In the field of disability performance studies, Kuppers’s work has been profoundly and deservedly influential not only for its rigorous intellectual labour and groundbreaking engagement with an international complement of diverse art practices but also for its unabashed delight in the juice it finds.

Since her first book, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on edge (2003), she has also written The Scar of Visibility: Medical performances and contemporary art (2007) and Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a strange and twisted shape (2011).

While this review focuses on these latter two, I should note the first as a foundational text in the emerging field of disability culture and performance enquiry, one that both modelled and pressed for greater attention to its significance, contours and challenges.

Engagement with a broad range of diverse communities, artists, art forms and cultural contexts has been a hallmark of Kuppers’s books, as Bree Hadley notes in Disability, Public Space Performance and Spectatorship: Unconscious performers (2014).

Indeed, few disability performance scholars have encountered and written critically about as international a complement of artists. Kuppers’s experiences press her to emphasize diversity within disability culture. She observes in her most recent book, for example, [d]isability culture is no monoculture: different ethnic, religious, ritual, and representational perspectives impact AngloAmerican, predominantly protestant perspectives. In this book, different African and African-American perspectives, Jewish perspectives, South Asian, Māori and Pākehā, German and British and Welsh perspectives shape art practices, many in tensions with different cultural ideas of ‘normality’, and rife with exclusions and oppressor/ oppressed histories, as well as opportunities for new engagements, new stories, new myths, new beginnings. (23)

The Scar of Visibility emerges from Kuppers’s long-term involvement in disability performance as a dance-trained community artist and a disability culture activist. This experience leads her to look for ‘gaps, scars, exclusions, and opportunities for making art, taking space, creating openings’ (2). Interested in troubling the certainties and labelling practices of medical knowledge, she situates the book among other intersections of science and the humanities."

As in her prior monograph, Kuppers builds from her grounding in feminist, cultural, performance and phenomenological theory to destabilize definitions in ways that generate interest in the other, particularly here in relation to scars. The book first describes the scar as a ‘meeting place between inside and outside, a locus of memory, of bodily change’ (1). While mindful of the lived realities of scars and their ‘social marking as negative’, she also later describes the scar as ‘a palimpsest of different times, narratives and patterns’, an understanding that she explains distinguishes her approach from ‘the label of wound culture’ to connect instead with what she deems a more ‘generative principle of (embodied/ metaphorical) riches that emerge at the site of scar as sensation, flesh, and image’ (3).


While all of Kuppers’s books include accounts of her own arts practice, they are most central to Disability Culture and Community Performance. There is a greater sense of formal, intellectual and aesthetic freedom in this book. She claims the influence of experiments undertaken by ‘earlier desirous writer/critics and poet/researchers’ and cites, for example, the contributions of Hélène Cixous, Soyini Madison, Della Pollock and Peggy Phelan: ‘all of these writers employ memoir, textual arrangement, the juxtaposition of photograph and text, or text and text, poetic play with signifiers, to unmoor the certainties of signification’ (11).

The rigorous theoretical engagement that characterized her prior manuscripts is still evident but it is rendered here more implicitly, taken up, as she explains, [to] allow me to imagine – desirously, never neutrally – the spaces open for liberatory readings, for subversive understandings, for new configurations of living together, for an exciting embodied scene. I wish to subvert conventional ways of reading bodies and minds, to read toward intertwined and interdependent embodiment and en-mind-ment. (10) She describes the chapters twisting around one another, modelling the interdependency she notes as both desirable and acknowledged in disability culture (29).


Both books deserve the broad, active, writerly readership they seek and will, it is hoped, prompt further performance research into those moments when ‘known principles and bodies get reworked, re-cited, and recycled’ (Kuppers 2007:3).