El Alto: Bringing together disability arts from across the Americas

El Alto is the British Council’s review of arts and culture in the Americas. For its second edition, the focus was on the d/Deaf and disability arts movement and ‘crip’ culture. El Alto was edited in partnership with Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) and 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos (Mexico). Joe Turnbull spoke to Sean Lee, Director of Programming at Tangled Art + Disability about this landmark publication.  

A still image from Hamlet. A performer stands on a stage in front of a teal armchair wearing a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans, with a heavy looking crown perched atop their head. They are facing the audience with their mouth open, as if caught in the middle of a passionate yell. Behind them is a large screen filled with multiple depictions of Shakespearian actors from movies and theatre.
Images from Hamlet, produced by Teatro de la Plaza, Peru. Courtesy of Teatro La Plaza.

El Alto is a digital publication available in both English and Spanish which is truly impressive in its size, scope and diversity of material gathered from artists and organisations across the Americas. It encompasses more than 30 contributions, spanning profiles of individual artists and companies, case studies of organisations and programmes which have improved access for disabled artists and audiences, thought leadership pieces and a podcast. The publication marks roughly 10 years since the start of the British Council’s partnership with UK commissioning programme for disability arts, Unlimited. In that time, British Council has placed concerted emphasis on its arts and disability programme, which has included a range of initiatives across the Americas. Whilst this edition of El Alto, isn’t focussed on British Council-related activities, its influence on disability arts in the region over the last decade is clear from its pages.  

The publication is anchored in UK artist, Yinka Shonibare’s declaration that ‘disability arts is the last remaining Avant-Garde arts movement,’ and prefaced by a conversation between Shonibare and co-editor, Sean Lee. The latter explains why:

“It has been a guiding point for how we approach the nebulous network of disability arts and accessible curatorial practices that exist.  This bold assertion has allowed us to explore nuanced intersections of disability and consider new meanings of disability through art. We wanted this point to be an invitational launching point for the many artists featured in our publication to present themselves fully and wholly in their bodyminds and their generative art practices. As Canadian disability studies professor and activist Catherine Frazee says, disability art ‘springs from disability experience, and to be fully appreciated, must be seen and heard with all of its historic and biographical resonances.’”

This conversation between Sean Lee and Yinka Shonibare CBE prefaces the publication.

The radical tone of Shonibare’s statement is reflected throughout the publication which speaks to the common concerns of its contributors despite the very different contexts in which they operate. Often such collections will use an overarching theme to guide the process, but the editors of El Alto chose a different approach.

“It brings me great joy, as a queer disabled artist of colour, that this issue of El Alto is not only disability-led, but is dedicated to bridging our disparate movements throughout the Americas. Indeed, the emerging through-line of this publication seems to be that we, disabled artists, makers, curators, and cultural leaders, all agitate towards a more just and equitable future. Many of the artists we have worked with in this edition are agents of building less ableist worlds, tackling these issues using a myriad of crip sensibilities. While we’ve tried to pull together a sample of the disability arts sector and its emerging identity as a movement in this issue, there have not been attempts to create a singular coherent theme; rather, in the spirit of the last Avant-grade, we have let the art and the artists dictate the publication. We feel the strength of this publication lies in difference: the geographical distance, the numerous language differences, multiple understandings of disability, artistic landscapes and intersections of identity that all build towards a through-line of embodied difference as the connecting point.”

This of course, didn’t come without challenges, not least making sense of the language and cultural differences. Lee expands:

“El Alto was a site of discovery for us and a place for gathering. It was a joy to learn about the parallel movements, language and experiences that crip artists had, and simultaneously we had challenges capturing the many nuanced differences that we encountered. Take for instance the very word ‘crip’ which is reclaimed language used in many English-speaking contexts. In our work, we came across many instances of similar but not equivalent words and concepts, so translation was difficult. This was why we included an expanded glossary of terms, in an effort to provide access in multiple ways to the concepts in this publication.”

Photo of the side of a tall, brick apartment building in a mid-sized city. On the side of the building is painted a colourful mural, broad strokes of yellow, blue, green, red and black
“Tajo/Costura”, Tandil, Argentina. Acrylic paint on brick wall. 35×20 meters. 2020. Courtesy of Elian Chali.

The PDF version of the publication is divided into ‘essays,’ which consist of provocations, opinion pieces and thought leadership; and ‘profiles,’ which are more about showcasing the work of both artists and initiatives. It’s weighted towards the latter with a strong focus on individual practitioners. But even in the work of individuals, a clear relationship between art and activism is often present. Columbian contemporary dance instructor and activist Bubulina shares her concept of ‘Art-ivism’ in one such profile, while Argentinian artist Elian Chali brings ‘crip’ sensibilities to concepts of urban design and architecture.

Collaborative projects are also featured prominently, including ‘Deaf Interiors’ a digital exhibition presenting the multi-disciplinary works of six Deaf Canadian artists; and Discreantes, a collective of Mexican disabled artists that produced a documentary film exposing the precarious situations faced by disabled artists on a daily basis. Creative work initiated by institutions isn’t left out, such as Peruvian theatre, Teatro la Plaza, whose Artistic Director tells the story of their production of Hamlet which cast eight learning-disabled actors in the titular role. 

Photograph of Syra Hassan in the middle of a jump in a wooded area. In her right hand, she holds a camera remote control and in her left hand, a cardboard-sized sign decorated with a single hand that reads "Deaf joy is not cancelled"
Deaf Joy, by Syra Hassan. Courtesy of the artist, Deaf Interiors (2021)

Lee reflects on the selections:

“This publication gives a sense of how creators of disability art across the world are embracing their political power and potential as disabled artists, and asserting the vitality and necessity of disability culture. We are doing this through the art we create, the access practices we live and the joy we hold for one another that plays a distinct role in establishing new ways of configuring the social world we live in; one that desires disability differently.” 

Unsurprisingly, there are several case studies of different programmes which open up access for disabled audiences. British Council Canada’s Relaxed Performances network took place between 2015-2020 encompassing research into relaxed performances, training and sharing resources and involved several high-profile arts and higher education organisations. Meanwhile, academic Alejandrina D’Elia’s piece looks at past and present accessibility initiatives by theatres and cultural centres across Argentina, Chile and Peru, offering policy recommendations to embed change. Bridging the gap between audience and artist access, USA-based curator and critic, Amanda Cachia argues persuasively for curatorial practices which embody creative access, within art, the exhibition space and the artist/curator relationship.

For Lee, the publication was a chance not just to reflect on some of the brilliant work by both artists and organisations from across the region, but also a chance to look forward to a more equitable future.

“Though we come into the world of disability art from different contexts and lived experiences, all of us tap into the radical potential of art to dismantle and re-build worlds that make room for care, difference and equity – a crip utopia that we might never reach but constantly strive towards. This issue is just the beginning of what we hope is a deepened relationship between artists who have encountered one another’s works in this context and have been spurred to build upon this momentum.”

PDF version of El Alto [Contains both English and Spanish versions].

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