Disability Studies student reviews Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape

Installation image of Crip Ecologies, featuring several works created by artists with disabilities.

Written by Caitlyn Andrea Rose

Art Windsor-Essex brings together the stunning work of 10 contemporary artists in their current exhibition, Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape, which will feature at the gallery through May 22, 2022. Curated by Amanda Cachia, the exhibition features the work of Panteha Abareshi, Sunaura Taylor, Carly Mandel, Yo-Yo Lin, Ezra Benus, Logan MacDonald (Mi’kmaq), Hayley Cranberry Small, Sharona Franklin, RA Walden, and Alex Dolores Salerno. The artists draw from the realities of living as a disabled, chronically ill, and/or immunocompromised person in the present moment, when both natural and human-made environments are becoming ever more toxic (Cachia 2022).

The artists’ work explores the important connections between (disabled) people and our environment, which, as capitalism drives environmental devastation, creates disability and illness in many ways, from waterway contamination to the climate crisis. Artist Sunaura Taylor encourages us to think more deeply about the connection between disability and the environment, by naming “harmed aquifers as impaired bodies that are fundamentally entangled with other impaired bodies (human and non)” (Cachia 2022). The artists also point to the ways that the Medical Industrial Complex, with its misguided, often violent attempts to ‘cure’ and ‘care’, creates another toxic environment for disabled people. Panteha Abareshi’s work Unlearn the Body speaks to the “oppressive ideal body that calls for us to adhere to specific medical protocols that ultimately break down and limit the body’s ability to function” (Cachia, 2022). An ethic of care pulses at the center of all the works, encouraging viewers to reflect on how, during this time of isolation and upheaval, we might embrace interdependence and learn to care: for ourselves, our communities, and the world that sustains us.

In disability studies, we think a lot about care — who gives it, who receives it, what it looks like. For chronically ill and disabled people, care has often been synonymous with violence and control. Disabled people today, as we have for decades, experience abuse and neglect in state-run institutions. Although the last of the large hospital-style residential institutions in Ontario closed in 2009, the legacy of institutional care continues to inform the way our society approaches the care needs of disabled people today, and the threat of control and abuse within care relationships has not gone away. Many disabled people continue to live in — and are made vulnerable in — hospitals and long-term care homes due to the lack of access to affordable home care and/or accessible housing. The institutional model of care also persists outside of residential care through the medicalization of disability, which views disability and disabled people as medical problems to be treated and cured, or, when this is not possible, controlled. The treatment and ‘cure’ offered by the medical system is often painful or violent. Disability activist and scholar Eli Clare writes of the “violence of cure” in his book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Clare gives an example of how this violence has been justified within institutional settings, writing that “[diagnosis] justified why people needed long-­term care and authorized many kinds of abuse. Using head cages and straitjackets, drugging with psychotropic meds, locking people into isolation cages became means of keeping residents ‘safe,’ practices of ‘care’ rather than forms of violence.” (Clare 2017, p.47)

Carly Mandel speaks to the medicalization of disability under late capitalism through her Medical ID sculpture series. Mandel’s curatorial statement includes the impactful observation that “as our society supposedly advances, our bodies weaken, and we see more of a struggle to succeed, or even live, without intervention.” (Cachia, 2022). Her pieces uncover how dependency is created through medicalization. This manufactured dependency gives rise to a persuasive false binary that works to maintain the power of the Medical Industrial Complex: a construction of the dependent disabled person and their independent, benevolent caregiver. Under this framework, we imagine disabled people as dependent and everyone else as independent. This makes it easier to justify the inequities we experience as disabled people: the care that disabled people receive is now an act of service, a generosity, rather than just one aspect of the care that all humans constantly give and receive from one another.

Disability activists and scholars, much like the artists in this exhibition, are challenging individualized, institutional models of care, and ultimately reimagining what care looks like and what it means. One of the most important ways that people are distancing themselves from medicalized models of disability and care is by explicitly embracing and espousing interdependence and highlighting the myriad ways that we all already care for each other. Disabled people have always found ways to meet each other’s care needs, even in the face of systems that portray our needs as uniquely burdensome. Disability justice activist Mia Mingus has been particularly influential in shaping my understanding of interdependence and interdependent care. In a post on her blog Leaving Evidence, Mingus (2011) discusses the pervasiveness of what she terms the “myth of independence,” writing, “someone made the clothes you’re wearing now, your shoes, your car or the mass transit system you use; we don’t grow all our own food and spices. We can’t pretend that what happens in this country doesn’t affect others, or that things like clean air and water don’t bound us all together. We are dependent on each other, period” (Mingus 2017, pp 32) Mingus’s words remind us of the truth that we are all interdependent, existing in relation to each other and the world around us. With this in mind, we can see the importance of embracing interdependence and questioning the value that we place on concepts of dependence and independence. In keeping with the themes of the exhibition, I urge readers to extend the concept of interdependence beyond that which exists among people to appreciate the interdependence between us and the earth. Despite decades of warnings from Indigenous activists, the current climate crisis, and the damage it has been for some a wake-up call that we are not separate from the Earth, and that how we interact with our environment matters — She is as dependent on us as we are on Her. Sunaura Taylor speaks to the need to appreciate this interconnectedness in her work with aquifers. Her piece Speculative Aquifers Archive includes the wisdom that “critical disability perspectives show that with access to healthcare, social supports, and community, disabled life can be not just livable but flourishing. They insist that while damage is real, it is also a source of insight, of value, of creativity. If our landscape is disabled, then our need to learn these ethics is urgent” (2022).

When we embrace interdependence, the binary, dependent care relationship that exists in institutional care is disrupted. Care becomes a collective practice, a reciprocal exchange in which each person is free to give what they can and get what they need. Here, too, what ‘counts’ as care evolves, and we begin to see care all around us. The art in this exhibition exists as a powerful display of care: for oneself, as in Yo-Yo Lin’s Resilience Journal which graphically represents her illness; and for the community, as in Ezra Benus’ You Shall Rejoice, which invites viewers to engage in self-care in the public space of the gallery. Taken together, the artists’ works embody a spirit of collectivity and interconnection that urges us to do better at caring for each other and the world.

About the Writer

A photo of Caitlyn Andrea Rose, a person with shoulder-length curly brown hair and dark eyes. Caitlyn is wearing a light denim jacket and giving a closed-mouth smile to the camera.

Caitlyn Andrea Rose is a disabled undergraduate student and research assistant in the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto, Ontario. Her research interests include disability arts, access, and care. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time outdoors.

References:

Cachia, A. (2022). Exhibition Essay. Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape.

Cachia, A. (2022). Curatorial Statements. Crip Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies in a Toxic Landscape.

Clare, E. (2017). Brilliant imperfection: Grappling with cure. Duke University Press.

Mingus, M. (2017). Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice. Leaving Evidence. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/access-intimacy-interdependence-and-disability-justice/

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Art Windsor-Essex

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Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas. Change happens here.