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Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge

Author: Petra Kuppers
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: June 2008

 REVIEW 1: Adi Kuntsman

Petra Kuppers' book opens with a figure of a turtle walker that navigates the space of the city, a "strange turtle walker [that] carries a range of meanings" (1). This figure comes from Walter Benjamins's (1976) account of Baudelaire's Paris, where a gay flaneur walks a turtle in the arcades. This figure of the "uncertainties of modernity" (1) guides Kuppers through her theoretically rich, empirically complex, and extremely moving book, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. "The turtle traverses an environment not built for short, stubby legs, its agency is in question, and yet it converses with the alien environment with every step it takes -- no other option is open to it. In uneasy alignment, dialogues of being in space develop" (2). So too, the book develops a dialogue between performance and disability, as two theoretical concepts, and as two modes of being, acting and experiencing. The turtle walker, notes Kuppers, is a figure of modernity with its colonial histories, notions of travel, relocation, displacement, and hybridity. So too, examining the relations between disability and performance leads us to spaces where disabled bodies are confined to displacement and otherness (a medical theatre, or a "freak show" in a circus), as well as to spaces where discourses and knowledges about disability can be contested and re-examined (a street performance, photography, or on-line interactive shows, to name just a few).

The two fields examined in Kuppers' book -- disability and performance -- are brought together in creative tension, exposing their complexities, uncertainties, the social discourses surrounding them and the loaded histories they carry, the images that accompany them and the living, in-the-flesh experiences of both. The book describes artwork by disabled artists as well as encounters between disabled and non-disabled people. But the book's scope and contribution is much broader than just an analysis of performance of disability. Following the figure of the turtle walker in modern Paris, Kuppers takes us through complex conceptual terrains of theories of embodiment, materiality, vision, space, and knowledge.

The first two chapters of the book offer historical and theoretical accounts of "disability" that create a ground for contemporary disability performances. But rather than serving more traditional background/history chapters, they explore histories and concepts vis--vis actual performances. For example, chapter 1, "Practices of Reading Differences," explores reading mechanisms and the construction of meaning at the point of encounter between the "real" disability and the art. It does so with the help of artwork by Jo Spence, a British photographer and cancer fighter. Chapter 2, "Freaks, Stage and Medical Theaters," gives historical accounts of disabled people's visibility on two very different yet closely related stages: the freakshow of the circus and the medical theatre. The chapter then turns to two performers who address these complex histories: British Mat Fraser and US-based Greg Walloch.

Chapter 3, "Deconstructing Images: Performing Disability," explores the relations between disability and performance "through the lens of performativity, that is, with an attention to the activities of re-inscriptions and interventions that maintain the cultural and material net of bodies and meanings" (49). Here Kuppers explores performances that occur "off-stage," or outside of traditional spaces of performance -- in the public space of the streets, shopping centres, and pavements as well as that of TV shows. The artists presented here are the Austrian group "Bilderwerfer," a US street performer Bill Shannon, and a British dance company "CandoCo." The discussion of disability as a social category under challenge continues on chapter 4, "Outside Energies," where Kuppers shows "how disabled performers use the strategies of embodying the outsider to challenge social certainties" (71). She evokes the strategies of shock, engagement, and seduction employed by several performance groups from France, Italy, Germany, and the UK.

Chapter 5, "Encountering Paralysis: Disability, Trauma and Narrative," opens up the relations between disability, narrative, and performance. With the concept of trauma at the centre of her discussion, Kuppers reads filmdance created by Darshan Singh Bhuller and Celeste Dandeker. Here she raises the relations between language and sensation, and between the materiality of disabled bodies and literature-dependant narratives (of disability).

Chapter 6, "New Technologies of Embodiment: Cyborgs and Websurfers," might be of particular interest to those interested in cybercultures, for here Kuppers discusses the alignments between digital technologies and living presences of disabled and non-disabled people. Kuppers uses Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1962) work on the embodied nature of vision when she describes cyborgian assemblages of (disabled) bodies and technologies -- from simple ones like a cane (the actual figure used by Merleu-Ponty is the blind man with his cane) or a wheelchair to the keyboard and mouse and the flows of cyberspace. Importantly, Kuppers' analysis falls neither into the disembodiment of cyberspace -- an approach popular in early cyberstudies and widely criticised since -- nor into the sheer instrumentality of the medium, which characterises some writings that focus on "users" of the Internet. Rather, Kuppers uses cyberspace to explore the complex relations and gaps between being embodied and being seen. She tells a story of a close engagement between a body and a computer screen, an engagement that explores disability and embodiment through immersion and touch. The epilogue, "Towards the Unknown Body: Stillness, Silence and Space in Mental Health Settings," concludes the discussion of the complex relations between phenomenology, embodiment, and vision, and between performers and spectators, disabled and non-disabled alike.

Disability performances described in the book vary from cancer survivors to those experiencing paralysis, from those using crutches or a wheel chair to those suffering from uncontrolled/uncontrollable bodily movements or those diagnosed as mentally ill. But it's not just and not so much the variety of bodies (conditions?) that are united by the rubric of "disability." What I found most moving and most theoretically rigorous was the author's commitment to the non-fixity of disabilities, in language and in politics; in various forms of knowledge and discourse and in regimes of visibility; in subjective experience and in perception and understanding. Disabilities, their meanings, and fleshiness are always there; they disrupt, question, challenge -- as well as live in and move through -- various social spaces, the "arcade" of contested modernity, broadly understood. And yet they refuse to be fixed into a narrative (whether "oppressive" or "liberating"), not in a sense of post-modern fluidity of everything and everyone, but, as Kuppers notes in her analysis of the filmdance The Fall:
In my reading of The Fall, my narrative of falling, dance becomes just one narrative of bodies in time -- not a "natural" one, not one that is privileged, but a complex form of being in time and space. From the point of view of a disabled woman, the "naturalness" of dance is confining, constricting and oppressive as the "naturalness" of marriage or children. ... Narrativizing the specific other, the woman, and the general other, the disabled community, becomes problematic as the psychic structure of trauma reveals itself as a narrational tool to grasp the others with. It is only in the shared acknowledgement of the disruption of all narratives by the unknowable personal that a communication is achieved -- a communication with narratives as masks which need to be picked up and discarded, used and recycled, if any story is to emerge. These "reading scenes," encounters between embodied texts and spectators on the edges of the public and the private, can work by oscillating us between narratives, rather than forcing us to abandon narratives altogether. (103)
Another, no less important strength of the book is the actual way the performances are used. Reading the book one can clearly understand that it was not written about the performances, but with them. Their art does not become a mute object of analysis or an illustration of an argument, rather, it is woven into the very process of making the argument. Kuppers, who is herself a theorist, an artist, and a disabled person, addresses the performances with an enormous degree of sensitivity and respect. By doing so, she succeeds to hold on to two difficult and almost contradictory tasks: the commitment to discursive and political non-fixity of "disability" and the insistence on "their [the turtle walkers and the disabled performances] fleshiness in a specific space and time, their having been there" (3).

Petra Kuppers' Disability and Contemporary Performance is highly recommended for researchers, lecturers, students, and artists interested in performance and disability studies. It is also a useful resource for those working in cyberstudies, because Kupper's approach to bodies and technologies is not just about the screen and the mouse. Rather, the whole book, following the turtle walker as a metaphor and a material-semiotic figure, is about complex relations between histories, knowledges, experiences, technologies (broadly understood), and materialities of "bodies on edge."

Benjamin, Walter. (1976). Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, London: Verso.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith, London: Routledge.

Adi Kuntsman:
Adi Kuntsman is a lecturer of Internet and Communication in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research interests include violence, war and colonialism, gender and sexuality in the former Soviet Union and the post-Soviet diaspora, and on the Russian-language Internet. Adi is currently working on hatred and diasporic attachments in Post-Soviet blogosphere. Adi reviewed The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship and Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity for RCCS.  <adi_kuntsman@yahoo.com>

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