DisArt Symposium is an international symposium of disability arts which took place in Michigan, USA 6-8 April 2017. Benedict Phillips, is a UK-based artist who explores new ways of looking at the world around us. Disability Arts International commissioned Phillips to take an unconventional look at this international conference.
At the end of 2016 I was invited to speak at the DisArt symposium in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My proposal was to present an introduction to my ongoing and developing lecture/performance 3D Thinkers in a 2D world. This has previously been presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Cheltenham science Festival among many others.
3D Thinkers in a 2D World is a performance lecture developed in response to 14 years of research within dyslexia, which aims to expose the inner workings of what I describe as the dyslexic ‘3D thinking’ experience. Rather than focusing on reading and writing, it explores the unforgiving rigidity of formulae and social structures within the 2D ‘lexic’ world; offering insight into how to invert society’s perception of dyslexia and, through breaking excepted rules, to empower the lexic and dyslexic alike.
It is well over 20 years since the first time I walked into a room full of disabled artists and activists and felt immediately at home. Among the many issues that we discussed in the spaces and moments between presentations was the experience of being in a collective of individuals often with very different disabilities, and feeling more in common with this diverse collective than you might do with a group of people who have the same disability, but a very different political outlook. It seemed that it was the political commonality between those gathered in this place that was their true connection; an acceptance of diversity and of a social model of disability; and a recognition of the need for active, provocative and constructive engagement with the society within which we find ourselves.
Day one of the DisArt symposium; the view from Managing Director of DisArt, Jill Vyn’s house. When you find yourself on the other side of the world it’s always nice to stay with people in their home. At the beginning of the first day of the DisArt Symposium, the view from the kitchen window suggested it might well be a cold, dark week to come…
The symposium is held in a modern, bright converted downtown creative space. A team of friendly and communicative volunteers stand by to offer delegates their name badges. As is revealed through the week, every element of the experience and the space has come from a collaboration with local organisations considering the best possible way to create an inclusive space for all.
The weather and the mood of the day improves with Jill Vyn and Chris Smit welcoming us to the DisArt symposium. It is clear from their presentation that this collaborative team have drawn together a multitude of partners to deliver both the practical and the conceptual in the coming days. The presentations, debates and actions to come in the following three days had been set in motion.
Devva Kasnitz, Performing Disability Self-Portraits or Mute Mime Performs Paper or “How do you get Riva to do your portrait?” (with Susan Fitzmaurice). This performance, though on one level, may appear as a celebration of dance contextualised by description and reflection on the joy of that experience, appears through the lens of a collaboration between two old friends exploring what it means to work together in a personal landscape.
Delegates and presenters Lawrence Carter Long (National Council on Disability) and Debra Keenahan (Western Sidney University). The former took the audience on a journey through the representation of disability in cinema. The latter played with notions of difference and ideas of being seen and unseen. They then discussed themes ignited by the DisArt symposium experience.
Benedict Phillips, Artist and Consultant. Delivering my lecture ‘3D thinkers in a 2D world’ sporting my VAG or vision art goggles designed to change the way the wearer sees the world and the way the world sees the wearer. They were designed for the performance of my first dyslexic manifesto ‘The Agenda of The Aggressive Dyslexic’ presented on Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, London in January 1996 and first published in Disability Arts in London, magazine. Photograph taken by Julie McNamara.
Independent artist and dancer Kris Lenzo, contextualised by his own life story and presentation. Kris turns his wheelchair upside down and into a prop for his performance. The performance communicates a love of this experience, the precision and control of his body and its movement. This is an experience that he feels he would never have had without his accident and the physical impairment that followed.
Keynote speaker, artist and activist Riva Lehrer in conversation in the main auditorium between presentations with Robert Coombs, a delegate at the conference. Riva’s keynote on day one had opened up her studio and her practice to the audience. Click here for a virtual tour of Riva’s exhibition at the symposium.
Terry Galloway’s, You Are My Sunshine, a performance which takes us on a deeply personal tale filled with the strength that is built on fighting against the cultural walls that are put up around a disabled individual, and the irony of the choices that people make to keep themselves independent being revealed as foolhardy. Except, after all the ‘cure’ rejected for so long is in fact a helpful revolution. This is a story that as soon as it appears to be finished we turn another corner and find a new obstacle. A way to respond is through a powerful, funny, insightful and distinctive voice in narrative and in its physical impact as sound.
Julie McNamara (Artistic Director, Vital Xposure) ‘Vital Voices’ is the final keynote. She starts the presentation by having a stool brought on stage and inviting the signer up to join her. Julie explains this is where we communicate and collaborate. This theme of inclusion and collaboration is drawn out and described by a presentation that unpacks McNamara’s five symposium keywords: ‘Arts as Activism’, ‘Peripheral Voices’, ‘Centerstage’, ‘Creative Solutions’ and ‘Solidarity’.
Paul Amenta, Ted Lott, Chris Smit and Alois Kronschlaeger, HYBRID STRUCTURES Presentation (Panel Discussion). Chris Smit talking as part of the panel conversation about an extraordinary site-specific architectural sculptural intervention that allowed disabled and non-disabled individuals alike to travel along a walkway spanning the spaces above and around soon-to-be-demolished buildings. Click here for a virtual tour of the HYBRID STRUCTUTRES project.
Ruth Gould (Artistic Director, DaDaFest) undeterred by her present location in a hospital bed in the UK attends this symposium via video-link, reflecting on the political and ideological shifts of current politics in the US and in the UK. Responding and reflecting the livestream debate and presentation at the DisArt symposium, she calls for action, collaboration and the establishment of a Crip Art Movement…
Local activist and friend to DisArt Clark Goodrich takes a fellow symposium volunteer, Galia Binder on a sightseeing trip of downtown Grand Rapids as the symposium draws towards its official close. Clark signed off the DisArt symposium for many of us in a communal manner by leading several delegates to a busy local downtown bar for food, conversation and farewells.
What is it that I brought with me? And what is it that I take away? I brought with me the DIV – an alter-ego whose name is subverted from “div” which in UK slang means ‘an idiot’, to ‘DIV’ or ‘Dyslexic Intelligent Vision’ − and his agenda that “everyone can be dyslexic you just have to try harder”. I also brought a ‘Benedictionary’; the world’s only dyslexic translation dictionary. But beyond these objects, these performances are informed by experience of over 20 years of combating and reflecting on exclusion, misunderstanding and struggle turned into humour, defiance and art. This is communicated in a way I believe is engaging and inclusive.
And what I am taking with me is the stories, ideas and creative visions of a whole host of new colleagues and friends. To be submerged and engaged in your community in all its diversity is to learn about yourself and others. You can’t choose where you come from, but you can choose where you’re going, how you feel about that and who you take on that journey…