El Alto

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d/Deaf and Disability arts in the Americas

Introduction

Welcome to El Alto.

The second issue of the British Council’s review of arts and culture in the Americas is dedicated to the d/Deaf and disability arts movement and ‘crip’ culture. Anchored in the words of UK artist Yinka Shonibare’s bold declaration that disability arts is the last Avant-Garde arts movement, the publication brings views from d/Deaf and disabled artists, makers, and cultural leaders, all agitating towards a more just and equitable future – dismantling and building new worlds that make room for care, difference and disability culture.

This edition was co-edited with Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) and 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos (Mexico). We would like to thank the collaboration of Bodies in Translation (BIT).

Image of a rehearsal. Four performers are sitting on a wooden floor, almost intertwined. A wheelchair can be seen in the background.

Image from Mundana, a dance company established in 2017 by dancer and acrobat Inés Coronado in Peru.  Photo: Lucía Alfaro.

Acknowledgments

Series Editor: Pablo Rosselló
Issue Editors: Saada El-Akhrass, Sean Lee, Beatriz Miranda
Designer: Joseph Pochodzaj
Translators: Quentin Pope (Spanish/English), Patricia Oliver (English/Spanish)

With thanks to: Alejandra Szczepaniak, Alejandro Cervantes, Alex Bulmer, Andrés Milán, Auramarina Lazarde, Benjamín Mayer-Foulkes, Carla Rice, Carrie Hage, Colectivo No es Igual, Cristina Becker, Cyn Rozeboom, Daniela Fajardo, Diana Solano, Emma Campbell, Francis Tomkins, Heidi Persaud, Jo Verrent, Juliana Ferreira, Kayla Besse, Kaylyn Hamlyn, Lindsay Fisher, Lorena Martinez, Lucy Ralph, María García Holley, Pam Briz, Rodrigo Fernández de Gortari, Ruth Hogan, Salomé Esper, Sarah Frankland, Silvia Godinez, Simon M. Benedict, Sissi Hamman, Steven Brett, Susy Villafañe, Tracy Tidgwell, Valeria Zamparolo, Veronica Bergna, Victoria Cho, Wynsor Taylor, Yinka Shonibare CBE

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Vanessa Dion Fletcher – Canada

Finding Language

Vanessa Dion Fletcher discusses her solo-exhibition Own Your Cervix and the performance Finding Language, highlighting an important juncture of disability and indigeneity in her practice

Finding Language at Cripping the Arts, 2019. 

Could you tell us more about your practice and how it’s developed since your solo exhibition, Own Your Cervix, at Tangled Art Gallery in 2017?

My practice follows a lot of different mediums, themes and ideas – I sometimes have a hard time summarizing it because I cast a pretty wide net. With that caveat, I can say that I work a lot in performance, video and textiles. In the exhibition, Own Your Cervix, I was using porcupine quills but I hadn’t yet learned the embroidery techniques. So I was using them as whole objects on sculptures. Since then, I’ve learned the embroidery techniques and my practice has somewhat focused on that over the past few years.

At the 2019 Cripping the Arts Symposium in Toronto you performed Finding Language. Could you speak to aspects of performance in your work?

Finding Language comes from my experience of language and disability. When I was small, pretty much as soon as I started school, the education system diagnosed or categorized me as disabled. For a long time, I thought about my experiences of disability as being mostly situated at school, but that’s evolving now.

I started thinking about English; English is the only language I speak. The Lenapé language and the community that my family comes from have very few speakers. There’s actually no first speakers, so there’s really just a handful of people who still speak it fluently. Speaking in English, writing in English, and trying to communicate in a world that values and prioritizes the written language, was the focus of the work.

Originally, this piece was conceptualized as a kind of workshop activity and I was thinking about how it’s really fun to look at the way that written language appears in our everyday life. I wanted to go and look at different examples and investigate them as this performance/ scavenger hunt by traveling around the room and discovering different things. Whenever I found a word, I would look it up in my Lenapé dictionary. The dictionary I use was written by John O’Meara. He writes, “This writing system is based on the linguistic transcription system used in Goddard (1979). It substitutes English-based characters or sequences of characters for several symbols commonly used in phonetic transcription systems”.  What I understand from this is that the system is utilitarian or made up — created because of the focus on written text over oral communication. When you open the dictionary, it’s full of words, for example [and I am reading from the dictionary] K-U, K-W-U-L-U-P. At the time I was such a beginner, I had little to no idea how to pronounce the words. The dictionary has a pronunciation key, but it’s complicated and you have to read it. How silly! Reading how to pronounce something. In the performance I  was trying to find the word in the dictionary and then sounding it out and trying a couple different ways that it might be pronounced. It was an audible struggle but aspirational and was drawing attention to the materiality of language. The way that words physically appear in our space; and then through this pronunciation trying to draw attention to the way that those sounds are formed in our mouth and move out from our breath to the world.

Eliza Chandler (Assistant Professor, Disability Studies at Ryerson University) once mentioned how that piece very clearly demonstrated  some of the ways ableism and colonization have connections. It’s really interesting because there’s an oral tradition in Lenapé — it’s ephemeral. t’s not until an outsider comes and creates this dictionary that for you there’s a disabling factor. Had you had access to the oral traditions perhaps you wouldn’t have had that disabling experience in learning it. Your piece is really identifying an important intersection of disability and colonization, which is a theme in a lot of your works. On that note, could you expand a bit more about your exhibition Own Your Cervix.

Own Your Cervix is the result of a long period of interest and investigation so I could talk about it in a few different ways. One is from the personal experience of feeling shame and discomfort around my menstruating body. I am also very aware of gendered violence in general, particularly in Indigenous communities or perpetrated against Indigenous communities. I was thinking about reproductive justice and bodily autonomy in different contexts. I think about a body —my body — that can produce children in this colonial world that I live in; the different effects that it has personally within my own family and then with my community. I wanted to speak from my own experience, but to not limit other people’s engagement or understanding because there’s a lot of connections to be made across communities through these experiences.

Imagen de primer plano de 'Colonial Comfort' de Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Imagen de primer plano de púas de puercoespín crema y marrón saliendo de una tela color marrón.
Foto de la instalación de Vanessa Dion Fletcher "Own Your Cervix". Un sofá victorian con púas de puercoespín que sobresalen de la tela. Detrás del sofá hay una pared roja donde cuelgan siete aros de cuentas.

Colonial Comfort in Own Your Cervix by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Tangled Art Gallery, 2019. Photo: Jonathan Balazs. Courtesy of Tangled Art + Disability.

The exhibition was quite multifaceted; there was a lot of physical, two dimensional, and three dimensional work in this space. There was also a performance aspect; I extended invitations to the Tangled audience to do a self exam that could or could not include looking at one’s own cervix. Within the gallery space, as part of the installation, I had all of the materials necessary to do a cervical self exam: a speculum, hand sanitizer, lubricant, a mirror and a flashlight. It’s a pretty simple setup, but a few of the tools, specifically the speculum can be difficult to obtain individually. I made a bench for people to sit on while participating in the self exam. The bench is 18 inches in height with removable legs, upholstered in leather, and one side has a plastic covering with a beaded patch that looks like blood. It was important to me that I tried to frame this as a kind of process of self-reflection that was open to people of all genders with any kind of anatomy and  not assume how anyone with or without a cervix might want to participate.   I really wanted to make sure to use language that was open to all people. There are always improvements or adjustments that can be made. Tangled gave me feedback from visitors to the gallery using wheelchairs who found the setup of the room a little difficult to get in and around.

Outside the self-exam area, I had a little Victorian-style settee, which is a little two-seater couch, and a couple of chairs. I wanted to use furniture to think about the way that menstrual blood has the potential to talk about a relationship to the body and people’s fears or experiences of staining furniture or sitting on furniture that has been stained. The furniture became sculptures, but I was also thinking about it from a very performative place; thinking about the influence of  European and Victorian themes of morality on our current understanding of menstruation, the performance or politics of it, and how these influenced furniture too. 

I read that the Victorian era was sometimes called the era of “colonial comfort” because of how technology enabled advances for curved wood and springs to make furniture and homes more comfortable. As I was reading, I realized furniture was comfortable for some people while being  incredibly violent and uncomfortable for others. Also, the building of railroads (through immigrant labour) across North America,  a colonial historical moment, was also important because that allowed the furniture to be distributed quickly across the continent. All these colonial moments were tied to the Victorian-era furniture I used. I had them upholstered in white fabric and a floral pattern and then poured my menstrual blood decoratively onto the pattern. And this is where I use the porcupine quills to look like they’re growing out of the furniture with the fabric around the menstrual blood.

The way you amplify the pieces with your menstrual blood was this really interesting way of engaging with a disability arts audience. On the one hand, you created these invitational seating spaces because folks who have that access need could sit on one of the chairs, but you also employed porcupine quills in the larger settee. For the Tangled gallery staff, it was a moment of contemplation on how  folks will interact with that couch in a way that it’s intended to but also create access. In the end, we made the decision to inform every guest who came in that the porcupine quills were there, but it was up to them to decide how much they wanted to interact with the settee or if they wanted any help navigating the piece. In a disability arts gallery setting that’s really provocative because in this case,  access is not necessarily comfort and safety all the time; instead, access is about creating entry points into the works. 

I think it’s really interesting because I showed the Own Your Cervix work at my graduate thesis exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To keep the audience safe, they asked that I put the settee on a plinth so that people knew that it was art and not to touch it. I think I like that approach of having somebody there to tell each person “there are quills there and if you want to touch some, you can”, or “here’s how you stay safe”. I provide access, but in this case, it’s more true to the work. I wanted it to be on the floor, so it’d be part of the room and not separated by a pedestal. 

The context of a disability arts space versus one that doesn’t have access in its mandate is really interesting, as it seems that this  intersection helps to create and illuminate the original intentions of the piece. Whereas the idea of putting your work on a plinth is almost antithetical to your original piece, because it’s about enacting some of the aesthetics of a colonial art world onto your art piece in itself.

Yes, to go back to the self exam, I was trying to create a situation where people have their own agency to decide how they’re going to participate, or touch, or be in the space.

Finding Language: Video footage by Kavya Yoganathan and Hannah Fowlie. Photography by Michelle Peek. Editing by Marion Gruner, Billion Ideas. Music by Ziibiwan. Produced in collaboration with Vanessa Dion Flecther by Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life, a project of Re•Vision: The Centre for art and Social Justice at University of Guelph, 2021.  

Vanessa Dion Fletcher is a Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse Artist. Her family is from Eelūnaapèewii Lahkèewiitt (displaced from Lenapehoking) and European settlers. She employs porcupine quills, Wampum belts, and menstrual blood to reveal the complexities of what defines a body physically and culturally. Reflecting on an Indigenous and gendered body with a neurodiverse mind,  she creates art using mixed media, primarily working in performance, textiles, and video. 

She graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2016) with an MFA in performance and York University (2009) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She has exhibited across Canada, and the US at Art Mur Montreal, Eastern Edge Gallery Newfoundland, The Queer Arts Festival Vancouver, Satellite Art show Miami. Her work is in the Indigenous Art Centre, Joan Flasch Artist Book collection, Vtape, Seneca College, and the Archives of American Art. Vanessa is a 2020-2021 Jackman Humanities Institute fellow at the University of Toronto. 

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Eliza Chandler & Elwood Jimmy – Canada

Temporality and Acces(sen)sibility

A push for a different relationship with time.

How do we find ways to be different, to move differently, and to relate to one another differently, especially to bodies that have been historically marginalized and experienced the burden of colonial violence.

In December 2020, Elwood Jimmy and Eliza Chandler discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their experience of arts and culture. 

Eliza Chandler: I wonder if you could reflect on the dynamics we negotiate as Indigenous and disabled people working in the art world, and how it relates to this contemporary moment of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased public awareness of state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous, Black, and racialized people. 

Elwood Jimmy: I think modernity interrupts our responsibility and our obligations to one another. I think about this a lot in relation to my own practice: how do we find ways to be different, to move differently, and to relate to one another differently, especially to bodies that have been historically marginalized and experienced the burden of colonial violence? This burden became crystal clear within the pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, and also within disability activism. Even thinking about what was happening here very locally in the province of Ontario. For example, the income disparity between people who were losing their jobs and getting the CERB [Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit] payments of $2,000 versus people on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] who receive a monthly living stipend of much less than that. And people still just take it as a given that some bodies are more valuable than others. One of the key tenets of modernity is separability. In these conditions, how do we interact?

I ask this question in my practice everyday. There’s always this misalignment between Indigenous and colonial sensibilities, and in order for us to move towards some sort of alignment where different sensibilities can respectfully coexist, I think about our own individual pursuits and desires that make us complicit within this work of moving differently, moving together, and moving collectively and horizontally. What are the blockages? What are the barriers that are causing us to be constantly misaligned? 

In many conversations, no matter what community, I always hear an emphasis on “movement”, but the movement is always about progress and moving forward. I think about these kinds of historical violence against bodies within the Indigenous community or disability community, and we haven’t really sat with that. We haven’t been able to actually look at the historical violence and historical harms that have been done to particular communities, including Black communities. We always want to gloss over or brush those aside so that we can move forward, but I think we need to actually develop stamina and the muscles to actually sit with this violence. I think sometimes people don’t think ‘sitting with’ is as powerful or as evident as moving forward. But I think ‘sitting with’ is actually, in these times, the more powerful, more generative, and more compassionate move rather than constantly trying to move forward.

Eliza Chandler: Speaking from my perspective, I absolutely agree. I think many disabled people have experienced the pandemic differently than most. Many of us – when we are able to – shelter in place, fearful of how ICU-genics might play out if we contract the virus and end up in an overloaded hospital for treatment. At the same time, we have witnessed crip perspectives seep into broader social consciousness as the impact of austerity measures on care homes’ abilities to care are exposed, working from home becomes not only possible but lauded for its efficiency, and artists broadcast performances live from their bedrooms. And, as you say, we can no longer deny that late capitalism requires many of us to suffer so that some of us can thrive. As capitalism crumbles while socialism once again tries to save the day – all the while trying to beat off capitalism’s phoenix rising – many are resisting a desire for the ‘return to normalcy’. In these ‘early days’, on July 4th, essayist and former poet laureate for the City of Toronto Dionne Brand wrote an editorial to the Toronto Star, in which she questions these desires, asking us if homelessness, gender-based violence, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous state violence (2020, July 4) are the normal to which we desire to return.

One of the things I have been struck by throughout the pandemic is, as my friend Loree Erickon has pointed out, the need for interdependency on a massive collective scale. Interdependent relations of care change the power dynamic embedded in traditional care relations by recognizing that care can be and often is reciprocal. We are all being asked to engage in interdependent relations of care: I have to wear a mask to protect you and you have to wear one to protect me. Strangers engage in dances on the street so they can pass each other from a safe distance. We ask taxi drivers about their families and our personal support workers ask us about ours. We are caring for each other as though our lives depend on it, which they do!

EJ: I use the word ‘sensibility’ a lot in the work that I do as a curator, a programmer and an artist. There are layers of knowing and layers of being, but I would frame that as a sensibility –  like an Indigenous sensibility or non-Indigenous sensibility within a Canadian context. How do those two different sensibilities encounter one another in real world situations? In a workplace, in the contemporary art world that both you and I are part of, or in various artistic and educational and even political organizations that we’re all engaged with. 

The word ‘acces(sen)sibility’ came from my involvement and my own lived experience of working within access, disability arts and disability justice, contemporary art, and Indigenous art, and these many layers that are embodied within my body and my own practice, my own life ways, my own ways of navigating the world. I think this word gestures to something larger than us all, related to accountability. Many layers of accountability, not just to each other, but then also to the nonhuman and the beyond human, and the unknown. The world that we live in is very structured and contained, and within this human-constructed framework that we’re all kind of conditioned to live in, some benefit more than others. It doesn’t work for all of us in different, very disparate and marginalized communities. I am thinking about the language of ‘acces(sen)sibility’ and ways of knowing and of being that can move and shift, allowing different bodies to live nourishing, meaningful, and non-marginalized lives. 

EC: My understanding of the term ‘acces(sen)sibility’ is that it’s asking us to think about access relationally rather than, as you say, as a tick box, as something we should be congratulated for. And one of those relationalities is between knowing and being. The way the term ‘acces(sen)sibility’ refracts a particular way of being is a different orientation for so many of us. And I think if we are to obligate ourselves to this interdependent way of enacting accessibility as a relation, part of that is to really think about the relations between what we say and what we do. That’s what I’ve learned so clearly. It’s not just about doing access, it’s about thinking and making sure that, as much as we can, the way we think about access and the commitments that it holds us to are translated into the practice of access.

I’m interested in your notion of ‘unrestricted autonomy’. It’s difficult to be unrestrictedly autonomous during a pandemic, although capitalism does persist. I do wonder about how much of a break in culture this pandemic has affected. 

EJ: Yeah, it’s hard to say. Being an Indigenous person here in Canada, you see these waves of energy to embody care and to sit with complex and historically violent relationships. I find the broader community will often relapse back into these kinds of harmful habits and ways of being after whatever it was that allured them to wanting to, say, be a part of a reconciliation process. The pandemic interrupted our own global – when I say ‘our own’ you say ‘everybody’ – unrestricted autonomy. It will be interesting to see how the world unfolds over the next year or two to see if there is a more embodied demonstration of care, and if that’s sustainable. Time will tell.

The disability justice community has been advocating for many years and many decades for shifting and changing definitions of work and production value. And then, all of a sudden, it’s been implemented because of the pandemic. Not as individual bodies, but as a collective body  – a kind of a collective metabolism, so to speak. Are we able to sustain this shift? The pandemic kind of twisted our arm and maybe pushed us to be different. These are muscles and capacities that modernity has exiled for decades and centuries. Do we have the stamina to keep those muscles moving?

I think within both Indigenous and disability communities, there has been a push for a different relationship to time and temporality. I feel I could say with some confidence within both of our communities, time has been weaponized and instrumentalized against us in terms of the pacing, of how we move, and how we work within communities.

Eliza Chandler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University where she teaches and researches in the areas of disability arts, critical access studies, social movements. She leads a research program focused on disability arts and crip cultural practices. Chandler is also a practicing curator.

 

Elwood Jimmy is originally from Thunderchild First Nation, a Nehiyaw community in the midwestern region of what is now called Canada. His favourite time invested is as a novice gardener and aquarist. He has worked in the arts in various capacities in Canada and abroad for over two decades.

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Pandemic Postcards  – Canada & Mexico

 

Pandemic Postcards

Curated by Alex Bulmer, the Pandemic Postcards tell the stories of artists within the Deaf and disabled community living through the self-isolation and quarantine period of COVID-19.

Oasis by Maria del Carmen Camarena

 

Maria del Carmen Camarena is a vocalist who has performed in numerous musical groups. She appeared in the El Rey Nació opera from composer José Luis González Moya in Guadalajara city’s Teatro Diana in 2012 and performed at the fourth Nairobi International Culture Festival in 2016, along with other high-profile performances.

Because Sometimes Poetry Isn’t Beautiful by Hanan Hazime

 

Hanan Hazime is a multidisciplinary artist, creative writer, community arts educator and writing instructor living in Tkaranto/Toronto. She identifies as a Lebanese-Canadian Muslimah Feminist and Mad Pride Activist. When not writing or creating art, Hanan enjoys reading fantasy novels, over-analyzing things, photo-blogging, dancing with faeries in the woods and drinking copious amounts of tea.

Les Visages me Manquent by Edon Descollines

 

Edon Descollines is a visual artist, poet, dancer and actor known for the expressive quality of his performances and for his creativity and commitment. Joe, Jack et John is a theatre company of actors with intellectual disabilities or from diverse cultural backgrounds that produces original, bilingual, multidisciplinary shows combining video, dance and the spoken word.

HARBOURFRONT CENTRE, on Toronto’s waterfront, is an innovative non-profit cultural organization which creates events and activities of excellence that enliven, educate and entertain a diverse public. Our Mission is to nurture the growth of new cultural expression, stimulate Canadian and international interchange and provide a dynamic, accessible environment for the public to experience the marvels of the creative imagination. Our vision is to be a vibrant home for the culture of our time, inspiring people through the magic of the creative spirit. Harbourfront Centre is the producer and presenter of CoMotion Festival 2022, a new multi-disciplinary International Festival of Deaf and Disability Arts, curated by Alex Bulmer.

 

With 30 professional years across theatre, television, film, radio and education, Alex Bulmer is dedicated to intersectional collaborative art practice, fueled by a curiosity of the improbable and deeply informed by her experience of becoming blind.

She is activated by obstacles, well exposed to the absurd, and embraces generosity, listening, time and uncertainty within her artistic and personal life.

Named one of the most influential disabled artists by UK’s Power Magazine, Bulmer is an award-winning writer, director, actor and dramaturge. She is Artistic Director of Common Boots Theatre, co-founder of Cripping the Stage with British Council Canada, in Toronto, and the Lead Curator of CoMotion 2022, an international Deaf and Disability Arts festival produced by Harbourfront Centre.

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Deaf Interiors – Canada

Deaf Interiors

The theme of Deaf joy flows through the culmination of a three-month digital artist incubator, presenting the multi-disciplinary works of six Deaf Canadian artists in an online exhibition called “Deaf Interiors.”

Deaf Joy, by Syra Hassan. Courtesy of the artist, Deaf Interiors (2021)

Co-led by Sage Lovell and Peter Owusu Ansah

In response to the world health crisis and to social distancing measures that exacerbate feelings of isolation, artists gathered online with facilitators Peter Owusu-Ansah and Sage Lovell to share stories, generate ideas, and create work that demonstrates the interior world of Deaf culture, activism, and human connection.

“Deaf Interiors” is a digital adaptation of Crip Interiors, a site-specific installation of grid-like arrangement of life-sized artwork containers that individually and collectively highlight the ways that Deaf and disabled artists negotiate accessibility in the cityscape.

Presented by Creative Users Projects, Tangled Art + Disability, Cultural Toronto Hotspot, Bodies in Translation and Canada Council for the Arts Digital Originals.

Organizations

 

Creative Users Projects (CUP) is a not-for-profit disability-led arts organization driven and informed by the legacy of Deaf and Disability Arts, a movement that for 50 years has changed the way we think about disability and inclusion. CUP is dedicated to highlighting disability in the arts in generating audiences, cultivating new talent, diversifying Canada’s arts and culture sector and building more accessible arts spaces in Canada. One such program is Accessing the Arts, an online listing of disability and accessible arts events across Canada.

Tangled Art + Disability is a charitable organization actively working towards creating a more inclusive and accessible arts and culture sector. Our mandate is to support Deaf, Mad and disability-identified artists, to cultivate Deaf, Mad and disability arts in Canada, and to enhance access to the arts for artists and audiences of all abilities. In 2016, Tangled launched a permanent gallery space. Tangled Art Gallery is Canada’s first gallery dedicated to Disability arts, presenting year-round programming focusing on accessible curation and a pillar for the development of Disability aesthetics. 

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British Council – Canada

Relaxed Performances in Canada

Exploring accessibility in the Canadian theatre landscape through the implementation of the Relaxed Performances framework.

In this video, arts practitioners from the UK and Canada explore the question, “What is a Relaxed Performance?”.

Relaxed Performance is breaking down physical, attitudinal, sensory, financial, and other barriers, the theatre space becomes an entirely different experience: it invites bodies to be bodies.

As part of Progress, the international festival of performance and ideas, the Theatre Centre in Toronto hosted a one-day event called the Republic of Inclusion in February 2015. Curated by Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley, the event called for “a rigorous and provocative discussion about the state of inclusion in our theatre community. A conversation for theatre makers, audiences, leaders, funders, all those in the performance world, and those who are being left out.”  

While several interventions were led by Canadian disabled practitioners, British theatre-maker Jess Thom, known for her project Touretteshero, was invited to speak on her confounding experience in a theatre in London. In this anecdote, she recounted specific ways in which theatres were inaccessible because of their attachment to institutional traditions. Frustrated by her continued marginalization as both an artist and audience member, she began advocating for proactive change in mainstream theatre spaces. During her monologue at Progress, she often referred to Relaxed Performance (RP) as a necessary shift in theatre. Relaxed Performance is a practice that aims to rethink theatre conventions and make performances more accessible to both artists and audiences. Thom’s presentation ignited a stimulating conversation amongst participants at the Republic of Inclusion and anchored several relationships that shaped British Council’s commitment to building capacity for cultural workers around access and inclusion in the arts. 

We learned from British Council and Bodies in Translation’s 2019 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape  that “interest in curating accessible experiences is growing among many in the Canadian arts scene. The question of what this means is driving conversations about how this might be accomplished, concretely: What is an accessible arts experience? How does it look different in different segments of the arts landscape? What are the policy implications of accessibility? How does accessibility in the arts relate to larger debates about accessibility in disability studies? What is access, and what is inclusion?” 

“Access is about more than simply installing a removable access ramp; it is about more than checking boxes that guarantee compliance with governmental accessibility requirements; it is about more than stating that you welcome a variety of needs in your space. The question of how to ensure that arts patrons can be themselves in arts spaces—and how to open up arts spaces to those who have never considered themselves “arts patrons”—is a critical question for our time.”

A photo of models celebrating CripFashionShow. In the centre, one model wearing a vibrant orange patterned dress looks directly at the camera, their hands held up in the air in silent applause.

Images from Beauty to be Recognized, organized by Fashion in the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) at Ryerson University, 2020. Photo by Nicole Fonseca. Courtesy of Fashion at FCAD, Ryerson University.

What is Relaxed Performance (RP)?

 

Originating in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s, Relaxed Performance (RP) aims “to open up the theatre space to welcome differences. Rather than needing to stay seated and listen silently, these performances invite attendees to move, speak, leave and return, eat, and more. Other modifications to the theatre environment are also often present in RP spaces: for instance, the house lights are often left partially on and sound levels reduced; strobing lights and flashes are reduced or removed; a “chill out space” for people to visit if they wish to take a moment out of the main theatre audience space is provided; actors come forward at the beginning or back at the end of the performance as themselves rather than their characters; and audience members are told what to expect both through the provision of a “visual story” describing the space and performance and through guidance at the beginning of the show. Ticket prices are also often reduced, to provide financial access. These measures are put in place to build a space where people can feel more at home in a theatre and go above and beyond standardized accessibility practices, such as providing accessible washrooms and ramps. In all, these practices remind those in the theatre field and prospective audiences that access is about much more than physical space modifications.” 

“RP’s have begun to migrate to the Canadian theatre sector over the past five years. Originally, these performances were geared toward those with sensory differences (e.g., Autism) and were often referred to as “sensory-friendly.” They have since been imagined as providing access to anyone who may feel excluded from “typical” theatre contexts, including people with learning disabilities, Tourette’s syndrome, people bringing children to the theatre, people living with chronic conditions, people unfamiliar with the culture of contemporary theatre, and more. With the growth in interest in RP, there has been a push for more training around how to provide RP to diverse audiences.”

 

The Relaxed Performance programme in Canada

 

From 2015 to 2020, British Council developed the Relaxed Performance programme, a multi-year initiative actively advocating for access in the arts through RP research, training, and resource sharing.

The many facets of this programme were inspired by the advancement in policy changes and actions towards disability arts in the UK. British Council and its collaborators in Canada initiated the programme to support and strengthen the arts sector to become more proactive and engage in the global discussion on arts, disability, and human rights.

In October 2015, in collaboration with  Harbourfront Centre, British Council invited Include Arts (UK) to Toronto to offer a pilot RP training session to 30 arts professionals. Following this pilot, British Council in partnership with Include Arts and Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) designed an RP “train the trainer” programme for 5 facilitators called Access Activators. Access Activators learned to deliver RP trainings to arts-centres and organizations. With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, Access Activators delivered RP trainings to 25 arts and cultural venues across eight Canadian cities between 2016 and 2018. Designed for cross-organizational appeal, the trainings includes learning for front-of-house staff through to executive and artistic directors. Approximately 200 Canadian arts and culture workers received British Council’s RP training and many of those trained have begun to deliver RPs. In February of 2020, 20 d/Deaf, disabled, and allied arts and cultural workers from across Canada attended a four-day Access Activator training programme at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, expanding the cohort of Access Activators in Canada. We are seeing a wave of engagement with RP principles and practices across the Canadian arts and culture sector through British Council’s RP trainings and the Access Activator programme. 

In 2019, British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life (a disability arts and culture partnership project at Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph), released their report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape.  The Relaxed Performance report summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada and outlines findings from research on British Council’s  2016-2018 RP trainings. The report engages the experiences and impacts of RPs from the perspectives of those working on, attending, and writing about them, and offers recommendations for training, research and theory, community building, and policy. The summary booklet Report Highlights: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape was produced in 2020 to highlight findings from the 2019 report.

Moving into 2020 and at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, British Council, Tangled Art + Disability, Bodies in Translation, and Canada Council for the Arts, came together to create the Access Activator videos series: 3 short, informational videos that engage arts practitioners from the UK and Canada to explore the principles and practices of RP,  its relationship to digital media, and the effects of RP in a broader social context. Each video is available in multiple formats and languages for increased access.

Images from Beauty to be Recognized, organized by Fashion in the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) at Ryerson University, 2020. Photo Nicole Fonseca. Courtesy of Fashion at FCAD, Ryerson University.

A photo of a model smiling, arms open, wearing a black t-shirt and jacket. Models and audience can be seen in the background, applauding.

Relaxed Performance in Universities and the RP Curriculum Pilot

In an effort to extend the reach of RP trainings, the British Council and Bodies in Translation partnered with three universities in Ontario in 2019-2020 to launch the RP Curriculum Pilot. This pilot introduced RP training modules into existing university curriculum in theatre, fashion, and music (choir). Up to 240 students at Ryerson University, York University, and University of Guelph learned to incorporate RP principles into their mid-term and final projects, which were open to the public.

To draw from a more specific example, in a fashion course through the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University, undergraduate students designed and produced an accessible fashion show called Beauty to be Recognized. Grounded in the principles of RP, crip theory, and disability justice, the show underscored the students’ mission to challenge stereotypes about disability and express disability as desirable in both fashion and the world. During the planning and development phases, students learned from experts not only about incorporating RP frameworks into a fashion show, but also how to apply critical disability and crip theory. Through the learning and execution of the show, the students transformed traditional conventions of fashion and created an experience that honoured the embodied differences of all involved.

During the course of the RP Curriculum Pilot, British Council and Bodies in Translation conducted further research and produced the 2021 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring University-based Training Across Fashion, Theatre and Choir, which chronicles findings from the pilot. The 2021 curriculum report has also spurred the Relaxed Performance Pedagogical Tool (scheduled for release in 2021). The RP Pedagogical Tool  is an easy-step-guide that outlines the vital practice of RP implementation in higher education classrooms. The tool pulls highlights from the pilot findings and recommendations, and includes tools around teaching, praxis, and policy that are grounded within a disability justice framework. 

Accessibility in Action 

The Relaxed Performance programme presents a landscape of RP in Canada, one that is rapidly growing and transforming. As a starting point for broader and more nuanced conversations around access and inclusion in the arts, RP remains a vital practice which recognizes the value of context and welcomes evolution. 

The overall success of the RP programme in Canada has motivated the development of RP programmes throughout  the Americas: programmes in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico bring more cultural specificities to this rich model and drive accessibility in the arts and culture into action on an international scale.

Nota

Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape by Andrea LaMarre, Carla Rice, and Kayla Besse summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada. Commissioned by British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life , a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant at the University of Guelph, Relaxed Performance presents findings from research on RP training across Canada.

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