Ontmoet Fingerprints curator: Leni Van Goidsenhoven| 19 May 2022
Disability, neurodiversity and illness in relation to literature and art is something that has always fascinated me. For the last nine years, I have been working on themes such as neurodiversity, inclusive learning environments, representations of non-normative bodies and senses in art, literature and media. At the university, I teach on these themes within both literary studies, philosophy and bioethics. The field in which I mainly operate as an academic is called Disability Studies. Disability Studies is a discipline that works with lived experiences and uses them as a basis for theory. It is often about questioning individualistic approaches to disability, approaches that emphasise the deficiency.
In my own work I understand disability more as a relational phenomenon and as a source of possibilities and knowledge, which takes us to very different places.
In general, I think it is important not to focus only on how to make society more inclusive by focusing more and more on exceptional measures that increase accessibility (think wheelchair ramps and fewer stairs, braille and auditory equivalents of written language, quiet spaces, etc.). This is all necessary and welcome, of course, but I would also urge that disability is collectively imagined differently. Disability is not something that should simply be tolerated alongside the norm of a supposedly able-bodied body.
Difference should be understood as something natural.
So what I am focusing on is thinking differently about diversity of bodyminds. It is about stretching our collective imagination by looking for the desirability of difference. Art — in which one can eagerly experiment with possible worlds and perspectives — is indispensable here. NTGent’s commission to programme several performances in relation to disability in the broadest sense of the word, made me think about what is most urgent in the here and now of the Flemish performing arts landscape. Do I focus on the complexity of the theme? Or do I mainly look at accessibility issues for the audience, for employees in the sector, for artists? Can I, for example, programme a performance that is not about disability and then go deeper into the issue of accessibility, which NTGent is already working on? Do I opt for a performance that uses disability as a lens or a viewpoint within the creative process? Do I focus on the representation and presence on stage of diverse bodyminds so that there are more opportunities for artists, and that audiences can develop more interpretative frames - as they are mostly not used to look at disabled bodyminds on stage? How do I programme a disabled artist under the heading of diversity and inclusion if that is not how the artist wants to be programmed and framed? How do you not step into a pedantic and moralising role?
I decided not to fully explore the broadness and complexity of the theme when thinking about programming, because that would quickly open up yet another theoretical debate and I mainly want to see difference, feel action. Therefore, I understood my assignment as a kind of introduction or impetus to what can be done. Because this will never be finished. In my ideal scenario, NTGent would continue to work on this theme and/or the artists I put forward for a longer period of time, including those who were not part of the programme in the end. I soon had the ideal picture in my head. I wanted completely different performances: one in which a disabled artist works very explicitly on the theme of disability in the performance, another in which audience participation plays a role, and a third performance that is not thematically about disability at all, but in which it is simply present and in which the aesthetic appeals to a very wide audience.
Ideally, it would also be a mix of physical and less visible disabilities, artists of colour and all ages.
To complete this ideal picture, I remarkably enough had to look beyond the national borders. I quickly found creators such as Michael Turinsky, Chiara Bersani, Doris Uhlich, Danskompaniet Spinn, Athina Lange, and so on. This should not come as a surprise, since the most recent reports on disability in the arts show that Flanders does not score very highly in terms of inclusion. For budgetary reasons, it is not possible to choose so many foreign performances — all the flights it would entail would also run counter to Alexia Leysen’s theme of sustainability. And I don’t want that. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Nevertheless, the ideal picture I had drawn up gave me direction and perspective.
The theme of programming to various bodyminds is experimental and can go in many directions. For me, it was in any case a fascinating quest in which I discovered that I did not just want to be activist, but above all wanted to offer nuance, context and openness in how I chose performances.
Being open to other ways of being, without wanting to solve or fix anything, remains the basis for me.
Leni Van Goidsenhoven is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp (Philosophy) and the KU Leuven (Cultural Studies). Her research focuses on the importance of imagination and experience based stories of people with disabilities in research. She is author of the book OnGehoord (EPO, 2021) and of the book Autisme in veelvoud (Garant, 2020).