Vanessa Dion Fletcher – Canada
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
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.
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.
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.
Eliza Chandler & Elwood Jimmy – Canada
A push for a different relationship with time.
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.
Aimi Hamraie & Floyd Morris– USA & Jamaica
A survey of accessibility in Kingston, Jamaica
An interview with Aimi Hamraie and Floyd Morris discussing Jamaica’s resilience against inaccessible infrastructure created by colonialism and the creation of the Morris scale.
Hamraie: Could you tell us about how you became interested in how cities are designed and planned?
Morris: I developed blindness at the age of 20 and I came to the city of Kingston at the age of 21. As a blind person, I couldn’t navigate the system.
Sidewalks were riddled with potholes, uneven, unpredictable, and inaccessible. Power companies installed light poles in the middle of the walkways. Wires were sticking out. A blind person using a white cane would have no knowledge of how and where those wires were. Public facilities were built without ramps for wheelchair users. Elevators did not have any Braille inscription. Shopping plazas did not have any form of support structure for persons who are blind and visually-impaired or persons with other physical disabilities.
I read an article of yours in “Disability Studies Quarterly” where you explain the Morris scale for assessing the accessibility of cities. How did you develop this scale?
These are things that persons with disabilities need to be able to function on a day-to-day basis. When I was preparing the article and conducting research on a city, I had to establish a set of criteria in terms of what would constitute minimum accessibility. This is what I regard as the flooring, and what you saw in the [Disability Studies Quarterly] article constitutes a minimum threshold.
Was there a broad coalition of people with different kinds of disabilities creating this minimal standard? How did you make decisions about it?
I’ve been an advocate for persons with disabilities since 1991. I have listened to conversations since that time, because I served in different capacities as minister of government, as a parliamentarian, and as a researcher. I formulated the minimum threshold after going to the meetings and listening to the concerns of persons with disabilities. The research was also driven by literature on the issues of accessibility in the field.
I also looked at countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. I went to New Zealand a couple of years ago, and I was absolutely impressed by the ease at which you can navigate your way around the city of Wellington. The sidewalks were spacious. When you reach a pedestrian crossing, technology would be telling you when to go, when to stop and when you should move. When you go into the various stores…there are special provisions for those who are blind and visually impaired. That exposure and knowledge of the international arena gave me insights when developing the scale to fit the context of a developing country, especially here in the Caribbean, while recognizing our associates’ historical contexts.
Your article offers a really fascinating discussion of how we have to put accessibility in Jamaica in context and think about colonialism. Could you expand on that?
Caribbean countries have been subject to colonial rule for over 300 years. First, the Spaniards came in the 1490s with Christopher Columbus. They occupied the Caribbean until the British came in 1655. The British came and established their own architectural type. This new architecture lasted for well over 300 years because Jamaica gained its independence in the 1960s. There was a wave of independence among English-speaking countries from 1962 through the 1980s. We received political independence, but there was no subsequent effort to make the infrastructure of the region accessible for persons with disabilities. Following independence, Caribbean public infrastructure like schools, churches, shopping plazas, and workplaces were built without any form of access for persons with disabilities. Since the International Year for the Disabled in 1981, disability was seen in the context of social barriers rather than the traditional welfare model of disability. In the 1990s, there were standard rules established to outline certain criteria for making the world more inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. The standard rules were not observed because they had no legislative grounding. In the 2000s, the United Nations developed a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The issue of accessibility was fundamental, whether for the built environment, schools, or public health. So we have moved away from a welfare medical model that emerged in a colonial context to that of a social, rights-based model in the 21st century.
Could you say more about accessibility in terms of arts and culture in Jamaica?
I wrote a book (currently in press) on cultural inclusion and music. Jamaica has a thriving and vibrant culture. Reggae music is well-known internationally, but what is not well-known is the contribution of persons with disabilities to that music industry. I have sought to chronicle it by looking at some of the major players in the industry. For example, the oldest musical band on the island is a group of blind and visually-impaired persons that has been around for almost 50 years. I documented how they evolved and how they have survived.
I want to see a world where persons with disabilities are integrated and brought into mainstream society. How we are going to do that is by making sure that public infrastructure is accessible. We have to make sure that information technology is accessible. We have to make sure that our literature or language is accessible. These are some of the things that I would be pushing for.
Aimi Hamraie is associate professor of Medicine, Health, and Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, where they also direct the Critical Design Lab. They are the author of “Building Access: Universal Design and the “Politics of Disability” and host of the Contra* podcast.
Senator Dr. Floyd Morris is the Director of the UWI Centre for Disability Studies at UWI Mona. He was recently elected to the powerful United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is the CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disability. He is the author of several international journal articles and the author of two books ‘By Faith, Not By Sight’ and ‘Political Communication Strategies in Post Independence Jamaica 1972-2006’.