IntegrArt: embracing disabled leadership

By Nina Muhlemann on May 22, 2019

On 2 and 3 May 2019, the 7th edition of the IntegrART symposium took place in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Gessnerallee theatre. For the first time, the two-day symposium was curated and organised by two women who identify as disabled, Nina Mühlemann, performance scholar and arts practitioner and Tanja Erhart, a UK-based cultural anthropologist and dancer. Mühlemann writes about her experience as a co-organiser.

IntegrArt panel debate
Panel debate. On stage from left to right: Alex Oberholzer, Nina Muehlemann, Tanja Erhart, Kate Marsh, Isabella Spirig, Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. (c) Wanda Puvogel

The callout to organise the IntegrART Symposium 2019, which Tanja Erhart and I responded to, outlined out that only people who identify as disabled should apply. A drastic measure perhaps, but one desperately needed in a country like Switzerland where disability and cultural leadership are things that are hardly ever discussed together, let alone lived. In the 12-year history of IntegrART, this explicit call for curators who identify as disabled was a first, as Isabella Spirig, who initiated IntegrART, explains: “If you take inclusion seriously – and IntegrART stands for inclusion – the lead eventually needs to go to self-advocates. For the 2017 symposium, I approached some disabled artists directly and asked whether they would want to curate the symposium, but they were unable to do it due to time constraints. The next logical step was to send out a call for the 2019 symposium so that we could find a qualified disabled person. If no one qualified had responded to the call, there would be no symposium.”

For me, as a disabled person, it felt incredible to work on a disability-led project where two disabled women had so much artistic and organisational freedom. This leadership, as experienced by the two of us, thus became an important topic in the programme – how do we understand leadership? How does leadership, as it is currently frequently understood in the cultural sector, uphold normative and ableist structures, and how can we reframe this understanding? More generally we felt that not only the word leadership but also terms such as disability, inclusion or access greatly shift in meaning depending on what perspective they are spoken from. So we decided on ‘It’s a Matter of Perspective’ as the symposium theme. It just so happened that IntegrART was able to partner with Tanzhaus Zurich and bring the production ‘The Way You Look (at me) Tonight’ by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis to Zurich for our symposium, a piece that thoroughly deals with perception and thus fit our theme perfectly.

One way the piece addresses perspectives is by working with different layers of access that are also used as aesthetic tools, and it was important for us to discuss aesthetics informed by access further at the symposium. Tanja and I were aware of different creative access approaches from working in the UK, but in Switzerland signed performances, audio description or a thorough consideration of access requirements in the theatre are still quite rare. We wanted to show that these things can be more than just a tick-box exercise. A performance by Amelia Cavallo and a workshop by Jo Bannon helped to illustrate this alongside Jess and Claire’s piece.

Woman on crutches resting on a man's back
Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight. Photograph: Robbie Sweeny

These performances also addressed some other themes that came up repeatedly during the symposium and that were, so to speak, the matter we dealt with: Crip time, claiming space and lived experience. We had academic inputs from Dr Colette Conroy and Prof. Sandra Umathum, but also wanted to explore those topics on a practical level, as Tanja explains: “I experience this matter for example when due to circumstances like wet and rainy weather I need to clean my crutches and wheelchair before I can start dancing, and this takes time and space. We need space and time to explore our lived experiences of being disabled and develop our skills in the dance space, for example in offering classes on how to work with your assistive tools, how to fall safely to the floor with assistive tools and different bodies etc.” Other practical inputs came for example from Marc Brew, artistic director of AXIS Dance, who discussed the practice of including access riders in technical riders.

Attendance for the symposium is by invitation only, and the event was conceived to increase the awareness by programmers, venues and artists around the work by disabled artists and inclusive companies. While this is still a very important aim 12 years later (but I’m convinced that IntegrART contributed a lot to a perceivable shift), we wanted to increase the number of disabled perspectives at the symposium, not only when it came to the booked speakers, but also when it came to the attendees. And so we invited activists and young disabled people who are interested in art but are not (yet) professional artists. To make sure the attendees’ perspectives were heard we developed a discussion format, the table talks, where discussions on different topics in German/French and English were led by various experts.

Multilingualism was a tricky issue for us: Swiss German, Standard German, French and Italian are all spoken in different parts of Switzerland. Besides local speakers and artists such as Noah Badir of Theater HORAcomedian Edwin Ramirez and Alex Oberholzer we invited several UK or US-based artists and academics. Even with speakers from other countries, for example, Finnish installation artist Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen or Italian choreographer Alessandro Schiattarella, English served as a lingua franca. All panels were translated into German, English and French, but the multilingual nature of the symposium still added access barriers and complexity when it came to providing access to visually or hearing impaired people, as access was required in multiple languages, which was a challenge logistically and financially.

When it came to access in general, Tanja and I used our own experiences as guidance and agreed that it was important to set the tone at the symposium early on: we wanted to highlight that this space had been created to be relaxed and accessible and that assumption making about other people’s disability, gender, history or access requirements should be avoided. We focused our welcome speech on this and joked that it was more of a crash course on being an ally to disabled people than a proper welcome speech.

A packed bar
Stall 6, the bar of Gessnerallee where part of the symposium took place (c) Wanda Puvogel

The symposium itself felt like a blur to me, as we were constantly chairing panels. In hindsight, I would try to pack the schedule less, but we both had so many ideas that reducing them further than we already did seemed impossible. What we both experienced as a success was the balance between discussing practical strategies, lived experience and theory, as Tanja explains: “One thing I enjoyed discussing throughout the symposium is how we can put theory and practice together, for example how we can put a relational model of disability into practice. Our aim to discuss the medical, social and relational model through our personal experiences I think created a great shift where people really thought about how to look at disability in different ways and why it is important. I believe we need more of those spaces in dance where we discuss a relational-cultural model of disability to find practical solutions and create an open and sustainable environment where disability can be performed.”

We have yet to analyse all the feedback we got from attendees but Lisette Reuter, Creative Producer at Un-Label Performing Arts Company, attended the previous edition of IntegrART and very generously commented for this article on her experience: “This year’s symposium inspired and surprised me. The selection of presentations, topics international experts and guests invited me to think beyond what I was already aware of. For me, this was a big leap compared to my previous experience of IntegrART and I’m curious to what the edition in 2021 will bring.”

Martine van Dijk, Artistic Director of DanceAble and artistic lead of Europe Beyond Access for Holland Dance Festival, attended the symposium for the third time. To her, it made a difference that it was disability-led: “Having a disability themselves made it possible for Nina and Tanja to lead us through the conference in a very personal way.”

As an organiser, I focus a lot on the things that could have been improved, but overall it was a dream to be in a position where we could give a platform to many voices and perspectives on art, could bring some of our favourite performances and artworks to my home town and encourage discourse on topics we are passionate about.

IntegrART is a networking project by Migros Culture Percentage that supports the inclusion of disabled artists in art and society. Since 2007, the biennial project connects inclusive festivals in all parts of Switzerland, presents national and international stage productions and organises symposia.

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