PLACING OUR (DISABLED) SELVES: EVERYDAY PRACTICES, MAP-MAKING AND EMBODIED SYNTAX

 

(Published in Proceedings of Congress in Dance Research, 2001)

 

Petra Kuppers

 

Spaces have effects on people - our everyday environment provides clues to our conception of 'normality', as door-openings, ceiling height, the use of steps or ramps blueprint 'normal' use. Three performance installations created by the disability-led company The Olimpias explore this spatial syntax. The Body Spaces installations choreograph visitors' experience of physicality and space, and allow for fantasies of embodied difference to emerge in the cityscenes of Manchester, UK.

 

'Narrative Structures have the status of spatial syntax' (de Certeau: 115)

 

This paper explores the converse of de Certeau's statement: spatial syntax, spatial relationships, the act of moving through space creates narrative structures about normality and ways of living. The differences between text and practice notwithstanding, an embodied exploration of textuality means that a web of meanings are spun around the moving body. Just as my fingers 'read' the distance between the wall and my body, the spectator makes stories out of my display of proximity and distance, the variances of energy and flow, the relations between one dancer and the other. In this paper, I want to explore how different conjunctions of bodies and environments create different forms of movement, and through this different stories of habitation and being. The focus is on movement by disabled people: how does our access to space signify difference? How can we make the difference of different impairments visible, tangible, without relegating them to the categories of 'tragedy'?

 

The practices of discourse analysis and phenomenology have opened up the everyday as the terrain of politics and change. We have learned to see the body as site of knowledge, as an accretion of understanding, a practice where meaning intersects with the world. We also understand the body as enworlded, and knowledge as effect of site. These practices of theory shape my understanding of political community performance as artistic director of The Olimpias, a disability-led performance research company which investigates relationships between community arts, identity politics, performance and (new) media. If we want to intersect the meanings of disability, we need to address the body. If we want to counter, transform or subvert disability's anchorage in tragedy, loss, negativity and abjection, we need to start with the body as situated knowledge.

 

In these pages, I discuss a recent production of The Olimpias as a practice of this play with situated knowledge, body habit and spatial meaning. Body Spaces was a residency with young disabled people, creating 3 site-specific interactive installations and a dance video in Manchester's (UK) urban environment, commissioned by the Digital Summer 2000 festival. The installations were mounted for one day each in the Outpatients' Lounge of the Manchester Royal Infirmary, in an urban car park and the entry to the adjacent Contact Theatre, and in the Contact Theatre foyer.

 

The Politics of Space

 

In 2000/2001, The Olimpias projects have focused on environmental or landscape performances. One of the guiding principles of this work was the politics of space. We have worked in urban and rural environments, mapping out access paths, habits, usages. Our politics of space or the land are not the essentialist politics of race and soil, but the minor politics of living. I share Alan Read's hopeful vision of theatre: 'Theatre, when it is good, enables us to know the everyday in order better to live everyday life' (Read, 1993:1). Contemporary politically hopeful performance practice can engage the body as site of meaning, and can work with and transform the everyday practices that condition and are conditioned by it. Many of The Olimpias' practices are situated in the everyday, they are 'en passant', minor, offering themselves to the distracted gaze of modernity's flaneur. By insinuating itself into the practices of walking the city, Body Spaces attempts a seduction, a distraction, a flirtation in order to visceralise the body and its everyday knowledge.

 

I am interested in everyday practices associated with certain environments, certain bodies, and the mechanisms of social interaction held up by these practices. In working on concepts and ideas that could nourish our practice, I focused on investigating the kind of spaces our places create. The core idea that drove the work was Michel de Certeau's thoughts in The Practice of Everyday Life:

'Space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. (117)

In spacing, things can happen:

'Space is practiced place where the mobile elements of place break down the stability of the 'proper', by their direction and velocity' (Read, 138)

The Olimpias attempt to re-read disabled bodies, by creating new fantasies and spaces for disabled people in public performances. We physically aim at transforming the narratives of disability. De Certeau writes:

An act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e., a place constituent by a system of signs.' (117)

Reading our shows and practices, we hope that visitors will start to see a different text, that some signs will be rescued from their 'normality', and come to be seen as variables, not fixities.

 

Spatial syntax, the relationship between bodies and places, the openings, paths, streets, doors, imagination given to bodies in space is indicative of the narrative structures available for the human body - by changing the spatial syntax of the non-disabled spectator, we can open up new spatial imaginations. In the Body Spaces installations, one of the inspirations was to both show the syntax of a space, and at the same time create a longing, a structure of desire, for another language of spacing. A place becomes a space through use. If we use a place differently, new mobilising ideas of space can emerge: a different language, or dialect. In the Body Spaces project, we were dealing with different bodies - different access to places, different syntaxes for spacings and living.

 

One of the more literal place-maps that surround us is our architectural/environmental framework. This map, this instruction for using a place, creates and is created by normative bodies - bodies that fit its doorways, pavements, dimensions, transport systems. This map is normalised, invisible. But for different bodies, its blueprinting mechanism becomes highly visible - bodies with permanent and temporary extensions, such as wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks or baby buggies.

 

In the Body Spaces residency, I was working with young adult wheelchair users and people using crutches. As an occasional wheelchair user myself, and one who moved out of the city into the countryside due to this blueprinting, more tangible in dense human-made spaces, I was fascinated by re-colonising different urban environments. The impetus for the residence was to create interactive environments that choreograph the spectator's physical experience, send him or her on a trajectory towards difference, and distance her or his spatial experience from the normative.

 

We wanted to show our normative processes, the place making, in a playful, productive and pleasurable manner. We were not interested in a continuation of the normative process which validates some spatial embodiment but not others. Thus, we didn't want to create a 'wheelchair' place, excluding walking people. An approach aimed at inducing guilt, or discomfort wasn't desired. Instead, we attempted to undermine the conventional stories of restriction and tragedy that are attached to other bodies. We wanted to show other maps, other ways of using a place, and opening up through that an embodied, living vision of difference. I will elaborate on three of the multiple strategies that we used to foreground phenomenological experiences of environment, embodiment and communication:

 

Corporealising Vision

 

Vision is the main sense engaged by maps, with their visual translation of physical environmental features. Within our everyday world, vision is a privileged sense, a supposedly distanced, surveying, dominating approach to the world that disavows the viewing self and that abstracts experience. One of the strategies used in the installation attempted to engage this distancing connotation of visual engagement by corporealising vision, making viewpoint and embodied vision 'visible'. With this, we were showing the workings of spatial syntax: the moments when our bodies habituate themselves to their surroundings, spacing them by placing ourselves into them.

In all three installation sites, we were surrounded by everyday objects - objects vital to the functioning of the spaces, but invisible to the everyday eye due to their utter, banal normality. In storytelling and dance sessions, we started to spin stories around these everyday objects - telephones in waiting areas, wastepaper baskets, no-smoking signs in theatres, disabled parking spaces and leaves in the car park. Through these stories, the participant's recurrent fantasies, preoccupations and wishes became tangible - doors led to rock-star recording studios, empty seats were haunted by ghosts.

 

Taking her cue from these newly invested everyday objects, the production's video artist, Sara Domville Maguire worked with the young people to capture the objects from their own perspective. The participants began to establish the ownership of their vision, seeing an object deliberately from their own (often below the level of the normalized) position in wheelchairs. These photos of weirdly looming telephones, new and unusual arrangements of colour and blocks, close-ups and angled vision became an important part of the final installation. They were hung or laid around the installation space, providing a form of pilgrimage, a route through the site, traces of physical journeys. They were hung in such a manner that the 'neutral' vision position wasn't possible - you had to crane your neck, or stoop down to see the seductive, brilliant, colourful new arrangements of space. Together with the stories, strewn in the vicinity of the objects, these photos became evidence for the embodied vision onto the world, a image invested with a spatial self, an act of fantasy and muscular, tactile activity, a physical interaction with camera and space.

 

Routing

 

The route around the memory/play sites, the photos and stories, was mapped onto the terrain. During the residency, we investigated the different forms that claims to space can take - different if you are using a wheelchair, crutches and feet. Just as sliding on the ground creates a new spatial experience and familiarity with the floor and the terrain, so does the continuous, round motion of the wheelchair, which never (usually) leaves the ground, and remains in touch with it. Walking as a biped creates digital, on/off, impressions on the ground, and a rhythm to movement that is different to the rhythm of the hand propelling chair-wheels, or the finger controlling an electric wheelchair. Spatial orientation is different - an electric wheelchair can have a majestic, full, round turning circle, or the three-turn motion of a car turning, while turning on one's feet provides another experience in which different body parts are facing different directions.

 

In the installation, we were interested in drawing the spectator's attention to these different technologies of moving in space - the different kinds of alignments, motions, sequences. Using tape and chalk, we mapped lines on the ground - similar to the lines that denote different pathways to different sections in many hospitals - an interesting medical connotation in relation to disability. One line, following a wheelchair's wheel, moves continuously. It provides a visual continuity, like a rail moving across the terrain. Its neighbour, sometimes crossing and weaving across the chair line, the 'feet' line is actually more unusual to the observing eye - small individual bits of tape or lines of chalk which climb onto the horizon. In the installation, these lines were measured and adjusted to the stride of a particular person - and the attempts of visitors to 'match' that stride, to insert themselves bodily into these traces, were an interesting sight.

 

Different from the convention of visual art practice, the creators of this performance installation were always in the space, linking the difference hinted at in the artefacts to real people, in real chairs, colonising a space where they are not usually seen in these numbers. The drama of spacing was lived in our bodily difference, the way that our space obviously is different from walking people's space, a fact born out every time you bow down to a wheelchair user.

 

We were watching visitors, witnessing their interactions with the photos, the terrain traces, etc. and intervening into their explorations when we felt it right to do so. Those who wished wheeled up to visitors, and invited them to 'walk the installation path' with them, displaying their pride in their creation, their choreographies, their poems, their visuals. We were working across lines of performance and display, stage and off-stage. This proved a very interesting strategy and political intervention, connoting the everyday practices as well as the 'special', privileged moments of staging.

 

Fantasies

 

Part of the installation were projections of a dancevideo shot with the participants, projected onto different surfaces. These videos could be manipulated by controls offered to the visitors. The projections provided the main visual draw - they were visible from further away, and drew spectators towards the quieter elements of the installation. In one of the installations, the video was backprojected onto a plastic plane spanned onto the back of a truck in a car-park. As night and rain fell, passers-by witnessed a jewel-bright display reflecting off rain-drops and wet pavements.

 

The dancevideo Geometries investigated the geometries of bodies, their boundaries, and the shapes and volumes afforded by permanent and temporary addenda (a wheelchair wheeling by itself on the ground, driven by a performer moving around it; crutches and fingers; a wheel touched and explored by hands; toes and the wheel-spokes; the metallic refection of a chair). The performances captured in the video take place in a dark, non-located space, and coloured lights reflecting of metal and bodies both heighten visual impact and disfuse clear spatial orientation. Instead of focusing on the insertion of wheelchair users into a social space (the performative action of the whole installation), the video focused on more abstract qualities of shape and line, movement and relationships. The video aimed to detach the disability experience from its social, medical and oppressive moorings. At the same time, the simultaneous occupation of the given space by the video, the traces of occupation, and our live presences didn't allow the video to become merely an exploration of formal beauty and human movement. A tension surrounded these fantasies of graceful, majestic, grounded, concentrated exploration projected on large canvasses and walls - these moving bodies resplendent in their own dignity jar both with the social stereotypes surrounding disability and with the spatial realities of access problems and exclusion.

 

The spatial nature of knowledge was foregrounded through the interfacing modes embraced by the installations. Examples included 'walking the lines', activating curiosity and desire by seducing the visitor to look up or down, round corners, to the photos and videos, and providing various interactive devices that actively linked space habitation to vision (and sound). A radio mouse sown into a curtain or left on the seat of a comfortable sofa (different in different installation sites) allowed visitors to move the video along, pause, and play (via a QuickTime movie and a Director script). You needed to move in order to see. A radio mouse was completely unfamiliar to many visitors, and people tried to explore the ways in which communication was established, how impulses were 'bodily' transmitted. Many used this 'disconnected' mouse as a way to start up conversations with participants.

 

The installations also investigated sound as spatial experience. The sound artists Sam Richards (an artist with an invisible disability) and Sarah Frances created a piece of sound art reflecting on the invisible aspects of the human body's spatiality. They worked with breath and its modulations, 'inner sound', sound of living, as the soundtrack for the video. Soundbytes from this track were linked to motion sensor pads on the ground, part of the installation track, that allowed visitors to create their own soundscapes through movement. The effects of choreographing visitors' spatial experience were clearly visible in the use that was made of these sensor pads: spaces were 'refunctioned' as a corridor in a hospital became a running track, a jump pit, a dancefloor for children and adults. Just as disability signified differently in moments of Body Spaces, the conventional usage of spaces were interrupted, played with and commented on through these practices. Visitors took permission to transform the utilitarian function of corridors, which normally only invite a lateral, distracted movement through them. Visitors were given or took permission to sit on comfortable sofas brought into the installation space, to allow people to be on the same level as the wheelchair users, and they were given and took permission to speak and interact with strangers on the street and in public spaces.

 

Difference Machines

 

Body Spaces provided its visitors with a dense space, full of traces of living, and of living differently. Its invitations were taken up by many passers-by, and play, readings, communications and discussions with the participants ensued.

 

Visibility and kinaesthesia were used to create stories - things to explore, or paths to take, or ways to become aware of one's own constitution in physical space vis--vis experiences of disability and other physicalities.

I want to conceptualise Body Spaces as an translation apparatus of difference, a machine that allowed for a sense of experiencing one's body differently, not too far removed from a mirror cabinet on a fairground. By placing this machine into the everyday, into the flow of urban life, it provided an obstacle, inviting negotiation. Some passed by, some stopped and looked from the outside, some entered the space. Some lingered and played with image and text, others started to talk with us. Some took up our invitation to add their own fantasies and stories to ours, displayed on sheets on the ground. Without totalizing the space into one belonging to us, we hope we inserted a tangibility of difference into the flow of the Contact Theatre in Manchester, the car park outside the theatre, and the Manchester Royal Infirmary Outpatients Lounge. By making the syntax of our daily habits, movements and bodily behaviour visible, and allowing points of contact and transformation, a changed, amended, expanded map of these spaces emerged.

 

Bibliography

 

Michel de Certeau: The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.

 

Alan Read: Theatre in Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

 

Further Information about The Olimpias Projects: www.olimpias.net

 

2001, Petra Kuppers