Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2004, Volume 24, No. 2
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Kuppers, Petra. Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. NY and London: Routledge, 2003. 176 pgs. 9.5 X 6.75. 14 photographs. Paper 0-415-30239-0.

Reviewed by Bruce Henderson, Ithaca College

The cover image of Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge, Petra Kuppers' new book, is a striking one: it depicts a wheelchair, turned on its side, with multiple sets of hands, feet, and legs meeting at its hub, the image bathed in an orange-golden blur that suggests its status as a kind of "trace" of a performance caught in motion. As Kuppers' book forcefully demonstrates, such "performances" as this image are what communities of disabled persons can create together for and with each other. Kuppers, whose multiple identities include those of performance artist, dancer, scholar, teacher, community activist, and, by no means least, person with disability, has written an important and ground-breaking text, one which articulates the powerful interactions between disability and performance.

Kuppers' approach to her subject combines a number of different methods and perspectives, sometimes ones that might not intuitively seem compatible, but which, in her hands, work together in productive dialogue. Her overarching ideology is one of performance as a form of political activism and intervention, in which performance serves to create and unify communities, to raise political consciousness and move people to action, and to fulfill grass-roots therapeutic functions for participants and audiences. At the same time, her primary scholarly method is in a phenomenological tradition, an approach that focuses on the body-in-space-time-consciousness, rather than on (re)production of plot or narrative in the traditional Aristotelian sense of those words. It would seem that the ideology of art as community intervention might be at odds with the seemingly apolitical descriptive and psychological dimensions of traditional phenomenology, but Kuppers takes great care to demonstrate convincingly how one can profitably inform the other.

The book consists of six chapters, framed by an introduction and an epilogue. Each chapter takes a different aspect of contemporary performance art and/or disability experience, situates it in a theoretical framework, and then examines one or two performances through these lenses. For example, Chapter One focuses on what might "protocols of reading" disability, using the HBO prison series Oz and Jo Spence's photo-sequence, Narratives of Dis-ease, as her texts for analysis, bringing in Foucauldian theories of surveillance as a way of troubling assumptions about audience consumption and spectatorship. Other chapters address such topics as the spectacular tradition of freak shows and medical theatres, Brechtian approaches to dance and dancefilm as political interventions, the problematizing of "difference" through the experience of bodies viewed as "alien," questions of identity and authenticity, using trauma theory to consider the ways in which the experience (and the very concept) of "paralysis" interrogates myths of disability as "tragedy," and the world of cyborgs and the internet.

The book concludes with an epilogue that is worth the price of the entire book. In it, Kuppers describes and analyzes her own work as performer and activist with groups of disabled performers, principally those with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities, in Wales. This epilogue speaks with both critical insight and passionate engagement to the work Kuppers has done and which clearly drives her commitment to the value of performance for all people, but especially for traditionally silenced and disempowered people. Kuppers' discussion of her work shows us an example of what "community performance" can mean and how it can intervene in and transform the lives of many.

My last remark is less a criticism than an acknowledgment of the book's intended scope. While Kuppers covers an admirable number of sub-genres of contemporary performance, with few exceptions her examples or case studies are drawn from the avant-garde (with the occasional "popular culture" performance or community-based performance, such as her own work in the epilogue). Fair enough: one cannot cover every possible kind of performance in a single text, especially without sacrificing depth and insight. But I do find myself constantly asking questions of agency, audience, and power in looking at performance art as social force, and it would be interesting to hear more from Kuppers about how she sees contemporary performance art having an effect on the dominant culture or on how performance produced and viewed by "mainstream" audiences might integrate the interventionist, dialogic rhetoric of performance art to the benefit of everyone's discourse on disability (and if this matters to her—it may not, for perfectly good reasons). That, however, may be the makings of another book, either by Kuppers or by another scholar/performer/activist. The one Kuppers has given us is admirable and exciting, and worthy of the attention of all serious students, performers, and scholars of disability and of performance.