Eliza Chandler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University. She is the co-director of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded Partnership Grant project, Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life. Chandler is also the principle investigator of the SSHRC-funded Connection Grant project, Cripping the Arts in Canada. From 2014-2016, she was the Artistic Director and co-founder of Tangled Art Gallery, a gallery that showcases disability arts and advances accessible curatorial practices.
My name is Eliza Chandler. I am at Ryerson University in Toronto. My research program is on disability and Deaf art, looking at the connection between how disability arts work to achieve and advance disability rights and justice in Canada. I have a grant called "Bodies in Translation: Activist art, technology and access to life." The grant is broader than just disability arts.
I think about how disability changes and nuances and multiplies the ways that disability is represented from a self-authored perspective, so how that changes the way we understand embodied difference… I used to be the artistic director at Tangled Art Gallery. I did a lot of curating there, so thinking about crip ways of curating art: how that changes the way that we all create and experience art and culture together. So, I guess those are the two hinge points in how disability art changes the way we understand disability and changes the way we all experience culture. So, Disability Arts, for the way it changes and speaks back to ableism and audism is political and disruptive.
I don't think that disability art necessarily replaces a bad story with a good story of disability and I also think we live in a world in which representations of disability circulate; they are everywhere. But rare are representations created by disabled people that animate, represent or communicate their nuanced and intersectional experiences. The power of disability art is first and foremost that we are getting new representations that are new because they are being created by the person living them, and are living in community. I think by that fact, even by the fact, that people are recognizing that disabled people are artists and are connected to a community, a culture, a set of curatorial practices, I think even that disrupts a medicalized or isolated imagination of what disability art is. Even by recognizing that we do have a culture; that we are recognizing that we're politically agentive and creative and all of these things. Also, crip and Deaf culture disrupts ideas of outsider art which continue to haunt us. This idea that when disabled people make art, it might be good or interesting in spite ourselves. What Rachel Gorwan calls “An aesthetics of absence.” If there is aesthetic value to that work, it's in the absence of intention or professional development or skill. It sort of miraculously floats out of the body. So, I think by claiming disability arts as a sector, having it be recognized and funded by the arts councils and curated in all kinds of spaces, we're again changing the ways we understand disabled people, who for so long have not been recognized as creatively agentive and with the capacity for professional development and skill development and changes over a career. Of course, if we imagine disability art as only a product of art therapy or for therapeutic purposes then we don't invest in things like studios and art crit’s and artistic talks and all that stuff. So, I think that is the sectoral impact, so the sector changes the way we understand disability and Deafhood.
Also in creating these works—even last night at the cabaret, to hear Seeley present on the intersection of trans identity/sexuality/disability; to put sex and disability and sensorial experiences of sex and intimacy and eroticism together in the poetry; to speak about ableism as it intersects with environmental justice, gentrification, all those things, I think that's a very nuanced understanding of Seeley's embodied experience of the world and how their embodied experience connects them to other people and politics. It's so rich to witness that and I left with a whole new way of understanding disability. I talk a lot about the social impact of art and coming from an arts background—I went to NASCAD—we were always taught, art should never be didactic, so I think a lot about that, like, how perhaps art shouldn't be didactic, but, nevertheless, it can move meanings and it can transform meanings so in that way it can be pedagogical. For example, in Seeley's work, that's contributing to a larger political project, changing the way we understand disability. So, we have laws and legislative reform, journal articles and disability studies theory and all these things. We also have art, so art contributes to that political project. But, for me, it affects me on an emotional level. I can read a policy on trans health and disability health, and that would be one way of understanding that intersection. A valuable way. But to hear Seeley read their poetry for me is the most affective way.
I've been thinking about this a lot. We often say, we need to change the way disability is represented to confront ableism. Going back to the question: Ableism informs outsider art and the legacies it perpetuates to not invite artists to openings, to not have artist talks because through audist and ableist understandings we imagine artists don't have anything to say.
I think disability and Deaf art confront ableism in that way, it also challenges the mainstream disability movement, to check ourselves and to open ourselves up to a intersectional politic. To imagine access based on, both, physical access and intersectional ways of enacting access. We only recognize that, or I only recognize that, when I witness some art works that bring me into a different understanding of disability. Therefore, I can arrive at a different understanding how ableism might affect me in a different way than it affects Seeley, than it affects a disabled person of colour. Through art my understanding of ableism becomes intersectional because I see how disability intersects with different identities, and therefore I need to think about ableism in a broader way and in a more intersectional way and then think about how art work disrupts ableism and audism on all kinds of levels.
Not to be doomsday but I do think our future is sort of at risk. If we think about what those prophets like Octavia Butler and others are telling us. We cannot live in the world as we currently are and expect it to be around a whole lot longer. In California, there are fires and there is no air to breath. There is no clean air. That is going to increase into the future. We need to change the way we are currently living together to make sure that we have a future. To be accessible within, right? I think crip and Deaf folks, we sort of know how to work in ways, I think, that are more sustainable, less competitive and more interdependent. It's about sharing resources. Sometimes access, even things like the plastic straw debate through kinds of things, and Alison Kafer writes about this, about disabled people being understood to be environmentally straining, but actually, I think, we've worked out ways of sustaining each other. So, in order to have a future, we need to change the way we exist right now, we cannot go on living and expect there to be a future. So, I think right now we all need to turn to crip communities and Deaf communities and take lessons from those cultural practices and think about how we can use those to work out new ways of being together.
Art does that too. Artists are always sort of imagining how the world could be different, and enacting how the world could be different through their art. Because we are at a critical point where the world needs to be different we need to look to artists like Kent Monkman and other artists like that. Crip and Deaf artists as well. Because we know how to live differently. We know how to breathe when the air is toxic. We know how to get clean air filters. Everyone is going to need those things in 40 years. Crip and Deaf artists can forecast a more livable future. Of course, you cannot have crip arts without accessibility, you cannot have crip/Deaf culture without accessibility. So, if we move towards a future embracing those cultures, then we are embracing accessibility.
Working out ways of being pro-active and also responsive in our accessibility plans. Taking user input and feedback in developing an understanding that accessibility is not static or fixed or noble, but always iterative and evolving. Those things are embedded in crip culture, so if we move towards a future with that culture, then it will be a more accessible future.