IntegrART 2017: the relationship between art, politics and disabled bodies

By David on May 2, 2017

IntegrART is a biennial symposium hosted in Zurich which explores the integration of disabled people as artists and audiences within the arts. This year explored the relationship between art, politics and disabled bodies through series of panel debates, talks and performances. British arts journalist, Bella Todd reflects on the issues raised by both the discussions and the nature of the symposium itself.


Noëmi Lakmaier ThreeDoubleFourTwo
Noëmi Lakmaier performs ThreeDoubleFourTwo © Isabella Spirig

In April, an international group of artists, directors, programmers and academics came together in Zurich for IntegrART, a biennial symposium that examines and theorises current issues for disability arts. Funded as part of the cultural activities of a major Swiss retailer, project IntegrART also links four integrative local art festivals (OrmeWildwuchsOut of the Box and BewegGrund: Das Festival) and tours international productions. Its founding principle was inclusion. But the symposium, held at two of Zurich’s leading arts venues, increasingly tries to concern itself with aesthetics first. This year’s topic was the relationship between art, politics and disabled bodies, with work by UK-based Austrian performance artist Noëmi Lakmaier and Swiss-based Italian dancer Alessandro Schiattarella acting as springboards for discussion.

Stopgap and Candoco dance companies, and actor Mat Fraser, have all previously presented at IntegrART from the UK. This year’s delegates travelled from as far away as South Korea, where a mixed-ability festival started last year. But the symposium retains a distinctive Germanic flavour. In the UK, we have a sector that originated out of a political movement, and mainstream arts funders who encourage diversity from the top down. This is not the case in Switzerland and Germany, where diverse work is instead validated via an academic stamp of approval, and artists themselves are not regularly invited into discussion. Even more so than in recent years, the sixth edition of IntergrART prioritised hefty academic theses delivered by non-disabled intellectuals.

If this was a concerted strategy, it certainly succeeded in getting many of the German sector’s leading arts professionals in the room – perhaps a higher percentage than many UK symposia manage. But it was also a wrench in perspective for a visitor from the UK, where we are at present very engaged with the issue of agency and autonomy within disability arts – and with how to tease out and be steered by the voices of learning-disabled artists in particular. IntegrART’s conversations gave UK companies a useful insight into a key European market for their work. They were also a reminder of how much of the international debate about disability art remains inaccessible – to the disabled artists themselves, and simply to anyone not fluent in academese.


When IntegART launched ten years ago, it identified two key challenges: access and training. Disabled performers were locked out of the arts world threefold: front of house, backstage, and through the absence of training routes. A decade on, project leader Isabella Spirig introduced the 2017 symposium with a reflection on how far things have come. Pro Infirmis, a Swiss charity for disabled people now “keeps its eye” on access. DisAbility on Stage, a three-year research project hosted by Zurich University for the Arts, is working on professional training. At last, Spirig feels, “we are discussing art – not community art or therapy, but the creative benefits of diversity”. In this spirit, symposium manager Ketty Ghnassia explained that we would be addressed throughout the three days not just as artists or curators, “but as spectators”.


DisAbility on Stage: Stage Lab 2
DisAbility on Stage: Stage Lab 2 © Sarah Marinucci

So we settled in for a dynamic and candid discussion rooted in contemporary work  – only to be derailed by a panel debate in which discussion of funding and infrastructures was allowed to dominate over the politics of the body on stage. Austrian choreographer Michael Turinsky wanted to speak, understandably, about the difficulty of “lifting the artistic curtain” without first “transforming or destroying existing structures”. He seemed spurred on by the presence on the panel of former (non-disabled) dancer Roger Merguin, executive director of one of the symposium’s host venues, Gessnerallee Zurich. “We get a problem when all high-paid positions are only occupied by old white men,” said Turinsky. Merguin commented that Gessnerallee Zurich’s “architecture is wrong” for the accommodation of a significant disabled staff. When it comes to politics, he described his programming strategy as “not to pursue any strategy” – though he did express a personal preference for seeing “no hierarchies on stage”. 

Emma Gladstone, the Artistic Director of flagship London festival Dance Umbrella, was anxious for us not to frame the debate as a battle between artists and administrators. “I like it when artists are self-organising”, she said, flagging up the Wild Card scheme she set up at London’s Sadler’s Wells, which empowers artists to curate work. Paraphrasing Jean Luc Godard, Gladstone argued, “the problem is not to make political work, but to make work politically”. For Dance Umbrella, this means eschewing overt politics at the level of individual pieces, but thinking politically when putting work together to make a festival. For Gladstone, it’s all about widening our perceptions of what choreography is, whether that involves disabled dancers or a headphone piece in a car park. She also spoke about the political importance of publicity images, which reach far more people than attend shows. “Every year I have disabled people in images,” she said. “Is it political to have disabled bodies on stage? At present I think it is, still. But I hope for change.”


This left panellist Lisi Estaras, a Belgium-based Argentinian choreographer and member of les ballet C de la B, to speak about how disabled dancers are pushing choreography forward. In 2016, Estaras worked with three dancers with Down’s syndrome for Ghent’s Platform K. “Dance is not decoration – not to make beautiful,” she said. “Dance can go beyond this to express deeper feelings”. Yes, there were challenges involved in working with learning-disabled dancers. In particular, “abstract concepts were harder to communicate”. But the key is to “work with what each person is”. Mentioning no names, Estaras referred to UK work in which the choreographer tried to “make them move in the same way as other people”. It’s not about simply having disabled bodies on stage, she insisted. “It’s about what we do with these bodies”.


But who is doing what with whom? Turinsky observed that instrumentalisation is becoming “somewhat of a teeny weeny little trend” in disability arts. “Our big challenge lies in being placed in specific contexts, catering to specific interests, and articulating specific points,” he said. “Sometimes, disabled artists are instrumentalised to carve out a position for themselves by demonstrating this stigmatisation.” Speaking the following day, Dr Yvonne Schmidt of Zurich University of Arts, head of the DisAbility on Stage research project, seemed to be coming to this point (via a longwinded and rather disjointed lecture that took in ‘crip time’, Ancient Greek statues without arms, and Rimini Protokol’s Quality Control). In post-dramatic theatre, Dr Schmidt said, “the fact of performing seems more important than the performance itself”. In this climate, disabled artists are “instrumentalised” by an insistence that “disability should be the motor for their performance, the red thread of their narrative”.


This seemed particularly pertinent to the work of Noëmi Lakmaier – and not just because she was performing at the symposium in a red dress with a train so long that it guided delegates from the theatre’s foyer to the top of the spiral stair. The costume was made for an earlier piece, at a venue with no lift, where Lakmaier (who uses a wheelchair) was forced to “drag myself up to the third floor on my behind for the entire residency”. The train of the dress measures the exact length of this distance. “Stairs and steps are important to me,” she said, in an audience Q&A with dancer Alessandro Schiattarella. But she also reminded us that, “all disabled people have multiple identities: I’m lesbian, half Jewish, living as a migrant, I’m a woman… So don’t assume I’m primarily expressing a disability issue”.

Schiattarella, who had just performed his solo dance piece Tell Me Where It Is, was asked whether he is an ‘activist artist’. “If demonstrating your very own vulnerability is a form of activism, then yes,” he replied. “I always ask myself what kind of impact I might have on the public. For me, to get ownership of my body is political.” Schiattarella has Hirayama disease, a neuromuscular condition that he concealed while working for some of Europe’s top ballet companies. Tell Me Where It Ismarks his ‘coming out’ as a disabled dancer and, perhaps, as an agent for change. His new goal is “to see disabled dancers in the corps de ballet of major companies. We need to train dancers differently and modify aesthetic perception in order to do that.” Yet Schiattarella showed a natural artist’s resistance to attempts to pin a disability-based mono-narrative on his piece. Quite right, too, felt at least one audience member: “Art should be liberating, not colonialising. It’s about sensitising audiences, triggering emotions. We should not implant an artist and say they must commit to this or do that – that’s idiotic. It might be politics, but it’s not art!”


 Gessnerallee Zürich, Stall 6
Delegates gather at Gessnerallee Zürich, Stall 6 © Saskia Keel

Where did the idea come from to discuss art, politics and disabled bodies in the first place? The programme posed a set of provocative and occasionally self-defeating questions, including ‘How political is the trend to move away from the usual patterns of representation through the appearance of non-normative bodies?’ and ‘Is the participating of an artist with a disability in a theatre or dance performance intrinsically political?’ In the event, speakers failed to grasp this topic by its considerable horns. Perhaps it would have been helpful if Ghnassia had shared her motivations for proposing the. She worked with Swiss learning-disabled company Theater HORA for five years, including during their controversial collaboration with choreographer Jérôme Bel, 2013’s Disabled Theater. It was “staged as amateur, spontaneous”, she told me in a programme break. “But it was rehearsed, and Bel would not have done this without an established company. He wanted to create authenticity, but didn’t declare that this was the result of a staging strategy.” Ghnassia saw the huge impact that Disabled Theater had on Theater HORA’s profile, attracting international coverage and establishing them as part of the mainstream in Zurich. “But I still have a problem with that piece.”


Present in the symposium’s subtitle, and ringing increasingly disconcerting alarm bells throughout the symposium, was the word ‘trend’. It was floated in the opening address from Christoph Haering, Head of Performing Arts and Literature at funders Migros. And it was noted by Dr Gerald Siegmund, co-author of the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics. Following his lecture on the history of dance and politics dating back to the Italian court of the 15th century, he questioned whether interest in disability art is just a trend. “Consumption society requires constant innovation,” he observed. So what if we’re witnessing, not a genuine and enduring awakening to the creative case for diversity, but merely the old capitalist appetite for novelty of any kind?


At least, I think this is what Dr Siegmund was saying. Much of the symposium felt impenetrably academic, leaving me craving visceral artistic expression, or at least the odd concrete noun. I wasn’t alone. The discussion between Dr Schmidt and Dr Marita Tatari, a philosopher and Theatre Studies researcher, was interrupted by an audience member pleading for clarity and brevity. The prominence given to the academic voice may be typical of the German arts sector. But this model becomes very problematic when we are talking about disabled artists.

“I would have loved to hear these things in a simpler language,” said an audience member when Drs Schmidt and Tatari had finished. “When we speak about disability we become incomprehensible – we live on a linguistic planet that few can travel to.” How can we usefully speak about participation, he concluded, while using a language that excludes? The previous day, Turinsky mentioned how useful he finds it to have a degree in philosophy in addition to being a choreographer. “I can use this in communicating with financers and so on,” he said. “But many disabled artists don’t have that opportunity to look into contemporary discourses and debates. You need the language to enter the discussion.”


As it turns out, this is something IntegrART’s organisers are painfully aware of. Ghnassia explained that Theatre HORA’s open rehearsal had been scheduled to begin at the same time as the academics’ discussion because, “We didn’t want the performers of Theatre HORA to have to listen to the language”. Dr Schmidt also found herself “in full agreement”, recalling a symposium she had arranged in Berlin at which members of the UK’s Mind The Gap company spontaneously got up on the stage to dance. “I had to explain this to the scientist who was due to speak,” she said. “But they said, ‘this is the best thing that could have happened!’”

I put all this to Spirig later in the afternoon. What does it mean to give disabled artists the stage, but not the microphone? “I think this is a good question,” she says. “In 2015, we had many more disabled speakers, so this is partly just how it turned out.” Two disabled artists had also been asked to help devise this year’s symposium and been unavailable. “But often, with symposiums, you have the confrontation between performance and practice, artists and academics. And it’s always a gap, and it’s always a clash. And to make bridges between the two is difficult, though we are trying.”

What if Theatre HORA, rather than being ‘protected’ from elements of the programme, could have helped to bridge them? Spirig was suddenly animated. “It’s interesting you ask this, because at the last edition of the Steps Festival I had the idea to invite Theatre HORA to critique what they saw on stage in simple language. They are professionals, but they also come to the point straight away, and they don’t hold back. It could be very refreshing, because many people don’t understand contemporary dance.” In the end, Spirig was thwarted by logistics: they were on tour. “But there might truly be a possibility – there might be a future solution in the air.”

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