Disability Arts — Expanding Ecosystems, Protecting Foundations

Disability arts researcher Yeongmin Mun reflects on ecosystems, access and platforms in response to the online panel discussion, Ground Up: Building Effective Ecosystems for Disability Arts. The full video is also available to watch, with Singapore Sign Language and Korean Sign Language interpretation, and captions in Korean and English.

Art has no borders — that’s the saying, isn’t it? Listening to artists Alecia Neo, Kim Won-young, and Peter Sau give their presentations, I was struck by another field that seems to be borderless: the efforts and challenges of creators working in disability arts. While Singapore and Korea have different foundations, both in terms of creative environs and public support available to artists with disabilities, there was a great deal of shared valence between the ideas that each of these three artists proposed toward building a freer and more open disability arts ecosystem. There is a shared goal at play here: to use the disabled body and disability language to challenge aesthetic norms and, in so doing, assert the (omni)presence of disability in both the physical world and the aesthetic world, respectively. American disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers writes that disability arts provides a framework for interrogating the preconditions of the modern aesthetic, formed as it was within the context of art history. In the same vein, despite variation across their forms of work and modes of expression, these artists are connected to one another in their mutual orientation toward questioning art and society through the creative process itself. In this text, we will explore the cases presented by these three artists within the framework of effectively building a disability arts ecosystem, as well as several case studies of work by Korean disabled artists and public efforts to revitalise the disability arts scene. And finally, I would like to devote some space to considering alternative means of supporting the unique talents and complex identities of artists with disabilities even as we actively pursue expansion on a(n eco)systemic level.

Ecosystem Expansion: The Bridge of Accessibility

Arguably the most important issue among creators today in the Korean disability arts scene is that of “barrier-free” performances — namely, the question of how to work barrier-free devices into creative works, as well as constructing and providing a kind of aesthetic accessibility beyond the realm of the physical. Works by the Unseen Art Initiative in Singapore (an organisation that has always centred accessibility as the primary motif of its creative process and conceptual approach) and the performance accessibility pieces by Zit in Korea serve as case studies for what reaching beyond physical accessibility toward true aesthetic accessibility can look like. And indeed, given that the work of the Unseen Art Initiative has created a wave of sustainable change in the disability arts ecosystem, it seems clear that concerning ourselves with accessibility expands not just accessibility for people with disabilities, but also a range of collaboration, partnership, and interdependence of all kinds between artists.

In Korea, even after the work of Zit first began, the accessibility of actual performances saw no real improvement over the short term. This goes without saying for those with visual, hearing, and developmental disabilities seeking to access the language of a given performance, but even the physical accessibility of actual performance venues largely remained as challenging as ever. After all, most small, independent theatre spaces in Korea are in basements and/or buildings without elevators. Keenly aware of this ongoing issue, project-based theatre company 0set (of which I myself am a member) conducted an accessibility survey in 2018 of some 120 performance spaces across Daehangno, Seoul’s main theatre district, in order to identify which theatres were wheelchair accessible. The survey was carried out with the cooperation of audiences and artists alike. Of 120 total venues, we found that twelve were accessible to audience members who use wheelchairs, while only three (all of them public venues) were accessible to artists who use wheelchairs. We announced these survey results as part of a performance called “Flying Human/I Am Human.” The implication of this title was intended to be two-fold. First, it alluded to the fact that the five performers, some with disabilities and some without, none of whom could fly, were all using their bodies to express the action of “flight.” Second, it highlighted the fact that despite all this, they were all human beings, and thus able to “approach” or “access” one another via that commonality. Ultimately, the “Flying Human/I Am Human” project not only used the medium of performance to bring attention to the sorry state of disability access in Korean society, it provided aesthetic insight — to audiences and fellow contemporary artists alike — into the countless ways that different relationships function as metaphors for “accessibility.”

The director of this project, Shin Jae, argues that these projects are less about being “barrier-free” (as in, being without any and all barriers), and more about being “barrier-conscious”1This term is borrowed from “Social Art — Changing Society Through Art…” from Tanpopo-No-Ye (Dandelion House). (as in, being “aware” that barriers do exist). To be barrier-free is to remove all visible obstacles, or barriers. But even if every single visible barrier was, in fact, removed in a given venue, in a society where discrimination and stigma against people with disabilities continue to exist, barriers of perception are bound to remain. So instead of insisting that there are no barriers, we must acknowledge the barriers that do exist and think together about how to respond to them. Over the course of conducting their accessibility survey, members of 0set carried measuring tape into venues to determine chin heights and literally checked the sight lines from the accessible seating with their own eyes — a process that really brought home just how many barriers really are in place at these venues. Indeed, artists who participated in the survey at the time are still considering now, in 2022, how to produce works that are barrier-conscious, as well as actively collaborating with disabled artists. When artists and audiences across multiple different genres connect to a work with a disabled person that deals with accessibility, it not only raises awareness and understanding of accessibility issues, it deepens general understanding of disability, art, and the body — as well as expanding the disability arts ecosystem writ large. Works of art, research, or criticism about disability and accessibility can become platforms for these interactions.

Ecosystem Foundations: Public Support and the Role of the Mediator

Alecia Neo spoke to the importance of establishing “platforms” through which artists who have different concerns are able to form partnerships that promote exchange and foster growth. I believe that the Unseen Art Initiative, which served as just such a platform, was an excellent example of just how expansive mutual experiments through collaboration can be. Until disabled artists can be independent from the community framework, we need more public funding for platforms that enable conversation and exchanges that provide more opportunities for mutual support of all kinds. After all, ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunities for aesthetic expression and artistic activity is the role of the public sector. Here, I will briefly introduce “Jamsil Creative Studio,” a creative space platform for disabled artists in Korea, and “Webzine Ieum,” an online platform.

The “Jamsil Creative Studio” is a publicly funded creative residency for artists with disabilities: each year, a disabled artist selected via an open call is provided with a workspace and matched with a curator or expert to promote the growth of their creative practice. The programme that most clearly illustrates the essence of the “Jamsil Creative Studio” is the “Joint Creative Workshop for Disabled and Non-Disabled Artists,” in which artists with and without disabilities bring their different concerns and projects to the same platform to combine ideas into joint pieces, and then expand that piece further in their existing practice. This is an example of public support providing a “space” for artistic exchange, creating “relationships” and thereby expanding the ecosystem.

As much as we need platforms that serve as spaces for collaboration, we also need platforms for sharing discourse. As Harmon, et al (2018) notes, the lack of accessible art spaces and training/methodologies is not the only problem; in the absence of discourse, the dearth of language for the body of the disabled artist is no surprise at all. In the face of such paucity of language, it is easy for disabled artists’ efforts to break the ideology of the “normal body” to lose steam and falter. Korea’s “Webzine Ieum” is a publicly funded online platform through which artists with disabilities can share critiques and build discourse. On it, disabled artists can promote their work, exchange critiques and information about barrier-free projects, and share information about disability arts-related discourse taking place both at home and abroad. Critiques of works by artists with disabilities in “Webzine Ieum’ are written not just by professional critics, but also from the perspective of audience members with disabilities. As panelist Kim Wonyoung pointed out, the body of the disabled artist is sometimes treated by mainstream critics as just another element among many. By providing critical engagement with disability arts projects from a range of varying perspectives, “Webzine Ieum” not only elevates disability arts criticism beyond just another branch of aesthetic criticism, it serves to accumulate the language of disabled artists and strengthen the mutual connections between artists and audiences. Because disability arts requires all different kinds of cooperation, not just on-site but in the realm of aesthetics, as well, the space that enables the cooperation in question is key — and information platforms are essentially playing this role. It is important to note, too, that they are not merely collecting critiques. There is appreciation and evaluation of every step along the way: what concerns are felt by disabled artists and their collaborators; whether it’s hard to find a performance venue; whether there are obstacles to communicating in different languages; and what kinds of products actually follow this kind of process. The simultaneity of all these inquiries is part of what is significant, here. This platform does not stop at providing information and criticism; it is a source of inspiration to many artists, while also making them aware of one another’s existence and helping to create connections.

Of course, the mere existence of public support is not enough on its own. As revealed in the example offered by Peter Sau, the role of the “mediator” or “facilitator” — someone who can play go-between and set up the connection — can be crucial to a disabled artist plugging into available public support. In the recent discourse of the Korean disability arts scene, there has been much lively discussion about the role of the “mediator.” After all, mediators are not limited to “educating” people with disabilities in the service of connecting them with the arts, or simply fulfilling their professional and somewhat mechanical function of connecting disabled artists to the public. They are present for the countless worries and dilemmas encountered in the field of disability arts, as well as an active part of the trouble-shooting and problem-solving that follows. Mediators are not people who teach or help the disabled; rather, they have an active role to play as one who actually “mediates.” And in this light, as Alecia Neo pointed out, they are full collaborators who can claim a strong sense of ownership about their contribution — which, in turn, leads to greater sustainability of the partnership as a whole.

Artists With Disabilities: A Unique Skillset & Knowledge Base

Recently in Korea, as different platforms offer new ways of connecting the work of artists with disabilities to different arenas, and as the projects resulting from these connections steadily gain momentum, the boundaries between artists with disabilities and artists without disabilities is blurring. Disabled artists have started speaking about art outside of the context of their disabled identity, while artists with different minority positions have begun speaking onstage about their own experience of the “othered body” — a concept that artists with disabilities have been exploring for a long time. At the same time, however, as artists begin to cross these boundaries more freely across this bridge of the “othered body,” we must be careful that the unique creative skills and knowledge base accumulated over the years by artists with disabilities is not pushed to the periphery of the disability arts scene writ large. In Korea, the creative projects of artists with disabilities have generally been refracted through the lens of a creative organisation or collective, like a theatre company. These were spaces in which disabled artists are able to interact with fellow disabled artists, shaping their identities as disabled artists and accumulating unique skillsets. The lessening emphasis on spaces and opportunities specifically designed for disabled artists is a regrettable side effect of the increasing porosity of the boundaries of disability arts.

The “Research Initiative for Training and Methodologies for Actors with Disabilities” run by disability-centric Korean theatre company Aeen is one example of how artists with disabilities can preserve long standing values and philosophies as the disability arts ecosystem continues to grow in both quantitative and qualitative terms. One of Korea’s oldest theatre companies of its kind, Aeen is made up entirely of actors with disabilities. In 2021, as part of their “Research Initiative for Training and Methodologies for Actors with Disabilities,” Aeen held discussions on specific acting and creative methodologies suited to the physical conditions of artists with disabilities. At a presentation of their work, multiple actors with disabilities shared their experience of feeling themselves to be insufficient when collaborating with actors without disabilities, especially as they struggled to keep in lock step with acting methodologies and training methods designed for non-disabled bodies. In this way, collaborations where the knowledge and skills of artists with disabilities are not respected can actually hinder artists with disabilities from claiming their rightful roles as creative protagonists. The formation of a disability arts discourse and the creation of these ecosystems we have today, especially after so much time relegated to the sidelines of the aesthetic world, was made possible by individual artists with disabilities who have continued to create and take the stage. Even as we pursue the spatial expansion of the disability arts ecosystem, it is vital that we also continue making works that strengthen the foundation of the identity, skills, and wisdom of individual disabled artists. I hope, too, that these forays will serve to further strengthen and connect artists with disabilities.

In his book Esthetique Relationnelle2Bourriaud, Nicolas. Esthetique relationnelle. Seoul: Mijinsa. 2011. (Korean Translation), French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud says that the artist of the new era no longer impacts society by presenting something already constructed; rather, they draw their audience into an “indeterminate space” in which anything can happen. I believe that disability arts is an ever-expanding genre uniquely suited to showcasing relational aesthetics, drawing in audiences and artists alike through explorations of the body, art, and accessibility. Bourriaud argues that any real exploration of relational aesthetics needs to focus on the process of formation rather than the outcome. Let us note here that our three artist-panelists, too, spoke not just to output but to the creative process in their case studies of ecosystem expansion for disability arts — probably because they, too, have discovered the immense potential inherent in the positive interactions that they’ve seen arise as part of the creative process. Though this particular text has dealt with the expansion of relationships via accessibility and public support for the construction and mediation of various platforms, I have every faith that much more specific and creative experiments are being pursued, and support being provided, out in the field. I eagerly await the day that these new projects come together with the unique skillsets of disabled artists who have long been cultivating disability arts discourse. And meanwhile, I am cheering, hard, for the work of artists with disabilities across Singapore and Korea.

Please find the the video of this event below:

 


This article was originally written in Korean here: https://artsequator.com/ground-up-korean

This article was written by Yeongmin Mun in Korean and translated into English by Maya West.

This is a response piece to the panel Ground Up: Building Effective Ecosystems for Disability Arts, which took place on 6 March 2022 as part of the event Disability Arts: Critical Conversations between South Korea and Singapore presented by ArtsEquator, Equal Dreams and Taeyoon Choi Studio.

This content is supported by Art Council Korea, 2020-2021 International Arts Joint Fund (Korea-Singapore International Exchange Program). The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

About the author(s)

Yeongmin Mun is a disability art researcher. She is researching disability art, barrier-free, and disability identity at Social Welfare Institute in Seoul National University. She participated as an actor in Therese Raquin and Freak Show, and as performer in Three Elements of the Play and Inconvenient Entrances. She also conducted the following studies: Manual for Accessibility to Performing Arts for People with Disabilities and Study on the Change of Disability Identity through Performing Arts.

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