Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape

By Amanda Cachia

Installation photograph for Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape. Photograph taken by Frank Piccolo, GXZ Design Inc.

Read on to learn more about the exhibition Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape, as written by exhibition curator Amanda Cachia.
Interested in getting more involved with this exhibition? Join us on April 12 for the first event in our Art + Disability mini-symposium: Entwining Social Justice with Social Policy: Empathy in our Pandemic Environment.

This exhibition explores contemporary art practices by chronically ill, disabled and immunocompromised artists from the US, Canada, and the UK. Collectively, their works illustrate our complex relationships with medical systems and procedures and are informed by aesthetics of pain and care. This work shines a light on how both our built and natural environment sheds toxic matter that disproportionately affects the lives of vulnerable disabled people. The artists, therefore, advocate for a “crip-ecology” that calls for a greater degree of interdependence and reliance on one another, and a greater sense of responsibility and care towards our landscape. The nine artists included in this exhibition are Ezra Benus, Hayley Cranberry-Small, Alex Dolores Salerno, Sharona Franklin, Yo-Yo Lin, Logan Macdonald, Carly Mandel, Sunaura Taylor, and Romily Alice Walden. Each of the artists’ works are informed by an aesthetics of care, where they explore the “labor of embodiment under capitalism to disrupt the idea of self as singular, legible, linear, and normatively human.” (1) As the artists navigate the politics of visibility and standards of productivity, perhaps now, in the age of coronavirus, where the entire world has been seemingly “cripped,” society will place less emphasis on the ideal of a self-reliant individual, but embrace the idea of crip-ecology, and realize we are all in fact interdependent and reliant on care of each other and our landscape.

I was drawn to including these artists because they are part of a new and younger generation of disabled artists who are quite forthright and unafraid to express their assertions about complex relationships between the medical industrial complex and capitalism, and their bodies. Like many of their artist peers, they frequently turn to social media platforms, particularly Instagram, to share their experiences in hospitals, with medications and other prosthetic supports both human-made and natural, and with pain. While their interdependent experiences within institutional settings are diverse, emotional and political, the through-line is a robust activism which I argue is powerfully shaping generative conversations around disability and its relationality to toxic environments and all our lives post-coronavirus.

The exhibition importantly explores the intersection of disability studies and environmental studies. It seems natural that disability studies should turn to environmental studies given the emphasis within both fields on how the essential practice of radical care for one another, our animals and the resources on our planet is an act of solidarity, cooperation and co-responsibility. The body-minds of disabled folks and the environment are inherently interdependent, as resources are sustained amongst each other as biological humans within the Earth’s natural life cycle in order to breathe, grow and be nurtured. The eco-crip theory put forward by scholars Sarah Jacquette Ray and Jay Sibara in their book, Disability studies and the environmental humanities: toward an eco-crip theory, published in 2017, is critical for this exhibition. Their book was published in the wake of a new wave of scholarship bridging environmental studies and disability studies. Other prominent places where I noted early indications of the topic were taking place were at a number of conferences and panels, including George Washington University’s biennial Composing Disability conference in 2016 entitled “Crip Ecologies” organized by the Department of English under disability studies and english professor Robert McRuer, and the panel “Crip Ecologies, Reimagined,” chaired by Louise Hickman and Lisa Johnson for the American Studies Association annual conference in 2019. Topics explored in each of these iterations included queering the relationship between toxicity and health, debility and capacity, and navigating an unwelcoming and invalidating environment rife with ableism, sexism, and racism. (2) Critical within these conference conversations, and within the essays in Ray and Sibara’s book, is the very real vulnerability of disabled bodies when held up against toxicities in our environment, simply because disabled bodies have greater proximity and exposure to unsafe and poor living conditions and laborious working climates, amongst other issues. There is great tension between organic and inorganic relationships, and knowable and unknowable intimacies when disabled bodies and the toxic landscape collide. In their introduction to the book, Ray and Sibara note that, actually, disability studies has always taken the contingency between the environment and bodies as its starting point. (3) After all, environments — both built and natural — are disabling to disabled people. Their eco-crip theory is intersectional, incorporating race, class, gender and nation, and attempts to focus on the “specific ways toxic environments engender chronic illness and disability, especially for marginalized populations, or the ways environmental illnesses, often chronic and invisible, disrupt dominant paradigms for recognizing and representing “disability.” (4)

Ray and Sibara’s book then is a watershed for disability studies as it has allowed the field itself and individual scholars to simultaneously grow in their thinking, and help carve a new and urgently needed space in which to work through these issues. This scholarship is even more urgent now that we find ourselves in the mix of a world-wide pandemic. Other leading scholars developing literature in this area include Sunaura Taylor, Aurora Levins Morales, Mel Y. Chen, Alison Kafer, Eli Care, Jos Boys, and other important thinkers who contributed to Ray and Sibara’s book. Disabled artist, scholar and activist Sunaura Taylor wrote an article entitled “What Would Health Security Look Like?” published in Boston Review on May 28, 2020. She begins the paper by stating what is now understood as the obvious: “If there is one thing this [coronavirus] pandemic is making abundantly clear it is that our individual health is interconnected — to each other, to our political and economic systems, to the broader ecology, and the other species we share the planet with.” (5) Shortly after this powerful opening line, she talks about how the pandemic, as portrayed through the media, has provided us with various visualizations that prove how leaky and porous our bodies truly are in response to our immediate environments. (6) Never have we been more aware of how the fluid that emanates from our bodies on a daily basis can easily and unpleasantly be shared with those around us, giving birth to the now ubiquitous six-foot rule of social distancing. Taylor talks of how popular illustrations and graphics depicting cough droplets, sneezes and breath have become, which float within a six-feet radius of our mouths, so that any other person who comes into contact within this zone will plough unceremoniously through the murk, unbeknownst to them. (7)

The visual culture of the pandemic as depicted through the media is a great segue into discussing the work of the artists in this essay. While the nine artists here do not talk of potentially deadly coronavirus droplets affecting the globe on a mass scale, they do none-the-less illustrate toxic residue left behind after their encounters with health challenges. They meticulously and creatively document artefacts from their medicalized rituals, giving viewers an opportunity to look at them as material forms on their own merit — even aesthetic forms, devoid of needy bodies or anxious minds. Viewers might imagine how their own bodies might engage with these props and tools of the medical industry in their own lifetimes. One senses that the artists’ engagements with the tool-kits that sustain their bodies through their creative practice is a meditation of sorts, where they embrace their own individualized crip-ecologies and interdependent networks of care that is a necessary part of their lives.

Disabled artists have, in fact, taken the pandemic moment of 2020–2021 as an opportunity to speak of how the world is starting to walk in their shoes, so to speak, learning to cope with barriers and other disruptions and challenges to their daily lives and their environments — physically, mentally, financially, socially, medically — that disabled folks always already experienced well before a pandemic came along. It is as if the pandemic has highlighted or underscored the challenges of disabled folks. (8) As chronically ill artist Ezra Benus states, “Suddenly, people are realizing that better hygiene and access to remote work and learning are societal obligations. Until something like the coronavirus affected the general population, these things were presented to disabled people as impossibilities.” (9) During a conversation I had with Benus, I asked him if he felt that the changes caused by the pandemic could actually serve the needs of disabled people. Now that the world was forced to, for example, work from home during quarantine, and communicate virtually through internet platforms such as Zoom, perhaps employers, businesses and other capitalist infrastructures would give the green light to these conditions full-time for those who need it for health reasons. Benus said that while it would be nice to think that the able-bodied world could recognize the benefits and merits of some of these new postcoronavirus conditions, he wasn’t overly optimistic that employers would grant these measures permanently to chronically ill, disabled and immunocompromised folks. It will therefore be interesting to see how temporary pandemonium over a world health crisis may have contradictory, chronic and generative applications for marginalized artists.

American novelist, editor, and journalist Dodie Bellamy’s interestingly titled-book, When the Sick Rule the World instantly comes to mind within this context, given right now the world is ironically being ruled by the sick, or at least the idea of getting sick and those who are actually getting sick to varying degrees by COVID-19. (10) Bellamy’s book, which oscillates with witty stories between the sick social and individual body, has been topic of a number of group-curated exhibitions in Europe and North America that includes the work of disabled artists and their explorations of illness and care. (11) Another nonfiction book that has recently gleaned attention for its reflections on personal illness is that of British disabled artist and author Abi Palmer and her novel, Sanatorium. (12) The author shares her experiences spending time healing in the thermal baths of a famous rehabilitation facility in Budapest. Palmer’s book provides some respite, given that her body is healing within an environment that is the antithesis of toxic. Overall, I would argue that contemporary art work which delves into these topics is proliferating at astonishing speed, alongside groups of artists who have formed collectives under this umbrella. Apart from the artists who are the subject of this paper, a sampling of others include Park McArthur, Carolyn Lazard, Constantina Zavitsanos, Jesse Darling, Annie Sprinkle, Emily Barker, Johanna Hedva, the We Are Canaries collective in New York, and the Feminist Health Care Research Group (FHCRG) based in Berlin. The Canaries Collective and the FHCRG developed to provide a more self-empowering network of support amongst artists and cultural workers when confronting an ableist medical system consumed by concepts of productivity and rivalry as opposed to concepts of collective care and self-care. Within this circle of allies, artists are able to share stories of fragility, sickness, crisis and exhaustion. (13)

Complex engagements with illness have been taken up by a plethora of important artists over the decades, most notably through the profound work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Bob Flanagan, Mike Parr, Jo Spence, and Hannah Wilke, amongst others. These artists have provided an important template and pathway for this younger generation of contemporary artists, where they clearly feel uninhibited enough to share their intimacies, their struggles and their fraught relationships with healthcare that they may have otherwise been unable to do. Absent from the work, however, of previous generations of artists and their narratives on health struggles is the idea of collective crip-ecology. The new generation of disabled artists todays are not only contributing to an artistic or aesthetic crip-ecology, but they are also participating in a powerful disability arts movement that is evolving with great momentum. It is particularly pertinent, pressing even, owing to the world’s twenty-first century response on the politics of health under capitalism: COVID-19 reveals astonishing numbers of inequities that are hard to digest. I hope the work of the artists in this exhibition aid in providing a moment to pause, reflect, energize and activate during these trying times.

The powerful work of the artists in this exhibition contribute to a new visual language and culture of crip-ecology that documents, questions, and critiques medical industrial systems of care within a capitalist regime. Their practices are firmly ensconced within contemporary scholarship and rhetoric around the importance of collective care, interdependency, and how disabled life can contribute to new understandings of access within our environment both with and without a global pandemic. Their work encompasses highly sensorial engagement given the tactile knowledges suggested by both looking and touching. I continue to be fascinated by this 20’s-generation of artists who fold their disabled identities seamlessly into their art practice, and where the medical model versus the social model of disability provides a conceptual framework alongside age-old philosophical iterations on the ethics of care. Their work suggests that the activism of the disability rights movement has come a long way to opening up a dialogue about capitalist and neoliberal ideological systems and procedures that continue to hinder, not help. Given that ecology is the study of the relationships between all living organisms within the physical environment, it is notable that the disability community, including its artists, found it necessary to “crip” the word; necessary because disabled bodies are not automatically assumed when thinking of “vital” connections between each other, our animals, and our plants, and because the world needs to pay more attention to our universal vulnerability to toxins and toxic waste. Brilliant leaders within our disability community, particularly the artists in this exhibition, bring all these compelling ideas to the fore through ground-breaking theory and praxis.

Footnotes

  1. Alex Dolores Salerno artist statement, shared with author via email, May 10, 2020
  2. Call for Papers, George Washington University’s biennial Composing Disability conference in 2016 entitled “Crip Ecologies” & Call for Papers, “Crip Ecologies, Reimagined,” chaired by Louise Hickman and Lisa Johnson for the American Studies Association annual conference in 2019.
  3. Disability studies and the environmental humanities: toward an eco-crip theory, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, foreword by Stacy Alaimo, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2017
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sunaura Taylor, “What Would Health Security Look Like?” Boston Review, May 28, 2020, http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-science-nature/sunaura-taylor-what-would-health-security-look?fbclid=IwAR0qM38R-6QH-RN7BKYHw5NLWpMFz8gily9Nsnvac2lgmE5FlmFjBJFqyyg#.XuQiUq6wu54.facebook Accessed July 24, 2020
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Joseph Grigely, “Cripping the World” email to his SAIC students in March 2020, shared by Katherine Sherwood with permission on her Facebook wall.
  9. Ezra Benus quoted in Zachary Small’s article, “For Chronically Ill Artists, Coronavirus Is the Worst-Case Scenario,” ARTnews, March 13, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/coronavirus-artists-chronic-illnesses-resources-1202681100/ Accessed July 25, 2020
  10. Dodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World, Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2015.
  11. One iteration of a When the Sick Rule the World exhibition was hosted by Gebert Stiftung für Kultur in Switzerland in 2019, curated by Fanny Hauser and Viktor Neumann. Another relevant exhibition of note is Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying by disabled curator Taraneh Fazeli and held at Redbull Arts Detroit in Michigan.
  12. Abi Palmer, Sanatorium, London, England: Penned in the Margins, 2020
  13. Feminist Health Care Research Group, “Practices of Radical Health Care: Materials of the Health Movement of the seventies and eighties,” self-published by the Feminist Health Care Research Group , Berlin, 2019.

Bibliography

Call for Papers, George Washington University’s biennial Composing Disability conference in 2016 entitled “Crip Ecologies.”

Call for Papers, “Crip Ecologies, Reimagined,” chaired by Louise Hickman and Lisa Johnson for the American Studies Association annual conference in 2019.

Dodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World, Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2015.

Deters, Alexandra. “The Exquisite Elevation and Engagement of Routine Rituals: A conversation with Ezra Benus.” Eazel Magazine, May 2, 2020, https://eazel.net/magazine/97 Accessed July 27, 2020.

Feminist Health Care Research Group. “Practices of Radical Health Care: Materials of the Health Movement of the seventies and eighties.” Self-published by the Feminist Health Care Research Group , Berlin, 2019.

Grigely, Joseph. “Cripping the World.” Email to his SAIC students in March 2020, shared by Katherine Sherwood with permission on her Facebook wall.

Jaquette Ray, Sarah and Jay Sibara (Editors). Disability studies and the environmental humanities: toward an eco-crip theory. Foreword by Stacy Alaimo. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

Palmer, Abi. Sanatorium. London, England: Penned in the Margins, 2020.

Small, Zachary. “For Chronically Ill Artists, Coronavirus Is the Worst-Case Scenario.” ARTnews, March 13, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/coronavirus-artists-chronic-illnesses-resources-1202681100/ Accessed July 25, 2020.

Taylor, Sunaura. “What Would Health Security Look Like?” Boston Review, May 28, 2020, http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-science-nature/sunaura-taylor-what-would-health-security-look?fbclid=IwAR0qM38R-6QH-RN7BKYHw5NLWpMFz8gily9Nsnvac2lgmE5FlmFjBJFqyyg#.XuQiUq6wu54.facebook Accessed July 24, 2020

Visual AIDS April Web Gallery Curator Talk: Ezra and Noah Benus. https://visualaids.org/events/detail/benus-curator-talk. Accessed July 27, 2020.

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