Thanks to the achievement of political and cultural activism, the term “disability” has gained more and more attention in society over the last decades. Nevertheless, the definition of disability as a social and cultural construct remains problematic. The human body represents a constant subject of artistic representation across all epochs and cultures as well as the fundamental medium of art production and reception. The arousing debates around the politics and the social condition of the body with functional diversity underscore the importance of rethinking the body and its historically constructed unity also inside the art historical research.
How can disability studies help us to rethink the body across art history? What kind of social challenges do bodies with functional diversity put on artistic institutions, such as galleries and museums? How does the depiction of functional diversity stimulate artistic creativity and question normative definitions of art?
Hendrick Goltzius, Goltzius’s Right Hand, 1588, pen and brown ink on paper, 23 x 32.2 cm, Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Image Description: An ink drawing of a hand made to look like an engraving. Some of the fingers are curved inward, whereas the middle finger is stretched out stiff. The artist’s signature is prominently placed below.
The first aspect of the project focuses on the “visibility” of functional diversity as well as of disability as a social condition. The research examines means and forms through which functional diversity visually manifests itself, for instance how artists have made the diversity of their body into the subject of their work or what kind of traces this diversity leaves in their works. By concentrating on its representation across different times and cultures, the project also asks about the visibility of disability as a cultural construct. It explores the rise and circulation of stereotypes and measures the impact that the visual representation of functional diversity has had on its historical and social perception. The goal is to develop adequate methodologies, concepts, and vocabulary that can help to thematize disability within the art of historical research.
Functional Diversity as a Challenge to the Understanding of Art
Traditional art historical narratives tend to underscore the celebration of the artist’s mental and physical skills as the conceptual basis of historical definitions of art. In the early modern artistic vocabulary, the ability to perform the act of creation finds a reflection in categories such as Kunst-Können, destrezza, bravura etc. intended as expressions of the uninterrupted unity of the idealized body. And yet many premodern artists seem to have engaged with the depiction of functional diversity as a means to question not only aesthetic ideals, genre conventions, or the normative construction of the pictorial space, but also to rethink the work of the artists themselves. The project aims to examine visual means, techniques, and materials used by artists to represent bodies with functional diversities and their epistemological and aesthetic access to the world as a powerful means to test both the possibilities and the limits of art.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: Lorenza Böttner and Johannes Koch: Without Tile (ca. 1983). This photograph in black and white shows the artist, Lorenza Böttner, a white disabled woman with a black dress. Her medium-tone hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She stares at a paintbrush that she picks up with her right toes bringing it close to her eyes. In the centre, a work from the "Contact" series, 2015–16 by Park McArthur. It shows a sculpture made of a thin metal tray nearly overflowing with single-use items in colorful packaging. It is displayed on a white plinth. The third picture on the right is the Self-portrait as a Deaf Man, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1775. It shows the artist himself from the waist up wearing a dark brown jacket with white ruffled shirt beneath. Set against a black background, the viewer's eye is drawn to the light shining on his face and gray hair. His left hand is raised and cupping his left ear making it appear as if he is struggling to hear something.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: A portrait by Panteha Abareshi. It shows a woman with white and black hair and blue eyes. On her upper arms are attached two adhesive bandages. She is wearing a black oxygen mask and is holding with her left arm a yellow, green and red oxygen tank. On its right bottom, a tag reads "help". Two syringes' needles pierce her ears. In the centre, Shannon Finnegan, Do you want us here or not (MMK), 2018. It shows a cushioned bench that says, "It was hard to get here. Rest here if you agree." The text is white on blue with the wooden parts of the bench painted blue too. The cushion painting has a texture that makes it look almost velvety. The third picture on the right is Collapsed Cane, 2018, in steel, aluminium, rubber and lacquer, by Jesse Darling. It shows an extended curved cane. The base stands upright and the hand grip rests on the ground.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: a white hand grabbed by another white, is touching a marble wall; in the centre the Portrait of Nano Morgante by Agnolo Bronzino, 1552. It shows a naked white little man before the hunt. He is holding aloft a brown owl to be used as a bait to capture a jay that is flying in the air on his right. A duo of swallowtail butterflies cover his genitals; the third picture is a view of Park McArthur's Ramps, 2014, Essex Street, New York, from above of temporary ramps of different sizes and materials in a loose grid on a black concrete floor. One small weather-worn wooden ramp leans against the room's white wall.
The Access to Art and the Politics of Inclusivity
Ensuring equal access to art represents a fundamental goal for most artistic institutions. The project addresses the rethinking of space policies and communicative practices through the inclusion of different notions of body in museums and other artistic institutions. It examines the reception of the most recent discourses around disability, accessibility, and their function as a stimulus for creativity in design and architecture as well as in the shaping of exhibition spaces. A further important aspect is represented by the role of mechanical and digital technology is opening new dimensions and possibilities for engaging with art. This inquiry should underline the importance of accessibility as a form of political and social inclusion, with a particular focus on the art system and its mechanisms.
THE POLITICS OF (SELF) CARE
A Symposium on Disability Justice and Collective Action as Self-Care
18 November 2023 15:00 – 21:00
Caring Space at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Mae Howard, (Im)Mobility Appendage, performed in collaboration with Mistrix Sunmi on April 10, 2022.
[Polaroid image of Mae wearing all white, kneeling at a prayer bench. Their hands are clasped together and their head is bowed down. Mistrix Sunmi, wearing all black, can be seen from behind, piercing a needle through Mae’s back.]
The symposium “The Politics of (Self) Care” takes place on the occasion of the exhibition Interdependencies: Perspectives on Care and Resilience at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. It addresses how social injustice and problems that exist in most of our societies can be made visible through art.
A great awareness in the politics of care has emerged against the backdrop of the global pandemic, but also in the wake of global protest movements that have drawn attention to structural forms of oppression in social systems and called for intersectional perspectives. The increasing recognition of disability and chronic illness in the arts has led to a long-overdue response to ableism in the art world and to the exploration of concepts of accessibility and disability justice. There is also cause for concern that these issues will quickly fade from the spotlight as the neoliberal machinery turns its attention to new topics once the pandemic becomes less of a priority for those privileged to ignore it.
While self-care is sometimes criticized as part of the capitalist wellness industry, disability justice thinkers remind us that it has a very different meaning from that perspective. The act of caring can thus become a critique of systems of domination and exploitation. The symposium points to the structural problems of health care in various societies that contribute more to the exclusion of those affected than to their inclusion. Similar effects also occur at the social level and in coexistence, as people can be excluded by ethical actions. In contrast, the symposium presents approaches that create connections between affected people, such as “care webs” that build their structures of care for themselves and their community. These are activist structures and communities that advocate for their rights. Based on these considerations, the symposium explores how established narratives can be addressed and rewritten through acts of care.
Welcome and introduction
Michael Birchall and Claudia Heim (Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst), Virginia Marano, Charlotte Matter and Laura Valterio (Research group “Rethinking Art History through Disability” at the Institute of Art History, University of Zurich)
Alice Hattrick [online], “Our Fallow State”
Alice will read from their essay on crip time, sewing and care ecologies, commissioned by Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst for the exhibition Interdependencies.
Alice Hattrick is a writer and lecturer based in London, UK. They are the author of the non-fiction book Ill Feelings, exploring illness, intimacy and family ties, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Feminist Press.
Cat Dawson [in person] and Mae Howard [online], “F/Ailing Forms: Re-Visioning Trans and Disabled Bodies beyond the Medical Industrial Complex”
As the academic fields of disability studies, trans studies, and queer/feminist science and technology studies have coalesced over recent decades, a number of artists have developed practices that activate intersections of disability, desire, and care in ways that refuse extant binary logics of illness vs health, disability and desire, and all that follows on. Those working in this space have attended with particular frequency to the resonances and opacities among non-normative forms of embodiment that exceed, but never lose sight of, how the medicalization of non-normative bodies has perpetuated the marginalization of those bodies. This talk explores how a number of artists working transversely across pain and pleasure, crip bodies and care work--including Bob Flanagan, Gregg Bordowitz, Mae Howard--challenge knowledge formations both within and adjacent to the field of medicine that continue to regulate trans, disabled, and desiring bodies.
Cat Dawson is a scholar and critic who works at the intersection of feminist, queer, and trans studies, and the History of Art, and studies the cultural production of minoritized subjects in the global twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Their first book, Monumental: Race, Representation, Culture is forthcoming from MIT Press. Their second book, Trans Form: Imaging Trans Bodies in Science and Society has been solicited from MIT Press for their new series On Seeing. They received their PhD in Visual Studies from the University at Buffalo in 2018 and are currently Guest Faculty in Art History at Sarah Lawrence College.
Mae Howard is a visual artist and ritualist whose interdisciplinary approach extends across research-based, participatory, and collaborative projects ranging from lens-based media, sculpture, installation, and performance. Calling upon lineages of disabled/trans care work, Mae is interested in the embodied, fleshly, and material enmeshment of BDSM, the medical industrial complex, biopolitics, and disability. Their work explores the residue of discard, debilitation, and excess. Mae has performed for Julie Tolentino, Z Tye Richardson, and Wardell Milan. Their work has been exhibited in New York, Berlin, Mexico City, and Philadelphia. They are currently a 2023–2024 fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program.
Sarah Browne [in person] and Elaine Lillian Joseph [in person], “Inside / Outside Joke”
Screening of Buttercup (work in progress, ca. 26 min.), followed by a conversation
Buttercup is a film essay that focuses on one particular photograph of the artist as a child, where she is pictured on her father’s farm with her pet cow. A series of fixed-frame, barely-moving images are used in the film to narrate resonances and discordances that emerge through the photograph—between human and bovine domestication, desire, disability and wildness. The Narrator character in the film, She, follows these enquiries while also providing the functional audio description as part of the embedded soundtrack. Buttercup is made in close collaboration with audio describer Elaine Lillian Joseph and composer David Donohoe, and in consultation with a forum of blind and visually-impaired users. In the conversation following the work-in-progress screening, artist Sarah Browne and audio describer Elaine Lillian Joseph discuss this multi-layered collaboration, on Buttercup and a previous project with autistic young people titled Echo’s Bones (Dublin, 2022). In particular they are interested in the effect of foregrounding the accessibility tool of audio description as an artistic concern. Using the framework of an inside / outside joke, they will discuss how methodologies of “access” can more deeply draw out conceptual and ethical questions for artist and community: of description and self-description; “knowing”, translation and situatedness.
Sarah Browne is an artist concerned with spoken and unspoken, bodily experiences of knowledge, labour and justice. Her practice involves sculpture, film, performance and public projects, and frequent interdisciplinary collaboration. Browne’s recent solo projects include Echo’s Bones (2022: collaborative filmmaking project with autistic young people, responding to works by Samuel Beckett, commissioned by Fingal County Council) and Public Feeling (2019: public art commission in South Dublin leisure centres). Solo exhibitions include Report to an Academy, Marabouparken, Stockholm (2017), Hand to Mouth at CCA Derry~Londonderry & Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and The Invisible Limb, basis, Frankfurt (both 2014). In 2020 she curated TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, Galway, with a project titled The Law is a White Dog. Significant group exhibitions Browne has participated in include Bergen Assembly: Actually, the Dead are Not Dead (2019) and the Liverpool Biennial, with Jesse Jones (2016). She is associate artist with University College Dublin College of Social Sciences and Law.
Elaine Lillian Joseph is an audio describer based in London and Birmingham. She is a founding member of SoundScribe, a global majority collective of audio describers and consultants specialising in access for performance work, arts institutions and moving image. She offers an embodied and creative approach that resists the pressure to create de-personalised audio descriptions, re-centering marginalised voices through consultations with blind and visually impaired audiences. The question that galvanises her practice is how can we honour the labour of access work and create a service that powerfully resonates with users? A selection of recently completed projects include Eve Stainton’s Impact Driver at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, an online screening of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother, a newly commissioned audio described track for Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs and a series of videos for Gucci Equilibrium.
Johanna Hedva [online] "Can I Hit You?"
«Can I Hit You?» is an erotic love letter to consensual violence as a method of healing, community-building, repair, and joy. The piece moves through considerations of different kinds of intimacies and interdependencies that are enacted while consensually inflicting and receiving pain, whether in combat sports (MMA, boxing, Lucha Libre, pro wrestling), or BDSM, kink, and queer social spaces. Nonconsensual violence is always present, but here Hedva grapples with the legacy of violence acted out by the women in their family, from their Korean grandmother to their mother, and, without minimizing the harm and abuse this caused, manages to find admiration and space for how fierce, how extreme, these women could be, and most importantly, why. Instead of the controlling utopia of the safe space, Hedva calls for us to learn how to do pain together, rejecting notions of social safety, security, and harmony that do not acknowledge the fact that often care must be necessitated by damage, which means pain must always be included in how we understand care. Looking closely at the gendered implications of violence, the essay is enlivened by characters such as The Goblin, whom Hedva encounters in a vivid BDSM scene, as well as a very tall and muscular switch who likes to be punched. Moving through scenes that vibrantly illustrate the homoerotics of professional wrestling (which Hedva calls «masculinity drag») and the queer desire at a sex rave in Mexico City, Hedva considers the camaraderie and connection that can be sparked in socialities that are constructed around pain, asking us to imagine a new world that does not suppress or erase the aggression and violence that can be the grounds for pleasure, discovery, and liberation.
Johanna Hedva is a Korean American writer, artist, and musician, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives in LA and Berlin. Hedva’s practice cooks magic, necromancy, and divination together with mystical states of fury and ecstasy, and political states of solidarity and disintegration. They are devoted to deviant forms of knowledge and to doom as a liberatory condition. There is always the body — its radical permeability, dependency, and consociation — but the task is how to eclipse it, how to nebulize it, and how to cope when this inevitably fails. Whether the form is novels, essays, theory, poetry, music, performance, AI, videogames, installation, sculpture, drawings, or trickery, ultimately Hedva’s work is different kinds of writing because it is different kinds of language embodied: it is words on a page, screaming in a room, dragging a hand through water.
The symposium is co-organized by Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and the research group “Rethinking Art History through Disability” at the Institute of Art History, University of Zurich.
– The event will take place in a hybrid format: in the "Caring Space" of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and online.
– Please let us know two weeks in advance if you need translation and/or sign language interpretation.
– The space is wheelchair accessible and there will be various seating options available throughout the event.
– Catering and adequate breaks will also be guaranteed.
– There are both gender-neutral and accessible toilets in the building.
– Further information on the museum's access can be found here: Accessibility
– For any questions and requirements, please contact Claudia Heim: Claudia.firstname.lastname@example.org / +41 58 570 10 62
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Virginia Marano (she/her) has completed her PhD in art history at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History. Her thesis examined the diasporic dimension in the works of Jewish women sculptors in Post-war New York, previously assimilated to feminism but not yet connected to the question of exile. To conduct her doctoral research, she was awarded an ESKAS doctoral scholarship (2018–2021) and a FAN Grant (2021). In 2022, she was a SNSF Doc.Mobility fellow in the Art History Department at Hunter College/CUNY. She currently works as curatorial assistant at MASI, Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano.
Charlotte Matter is postdoc researcher at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History, where she coordinates the specialized Master’s program in Art History in a Global Context. Her doctoral thesis explored the use of plastics in art of the 1960s and 1970s from a feminist perspective. Her current research interests include collectivity in art and intersectional approaches.
Laura Valterio is research and teaching assistant at the University of Zurich and at the Bibliotheca Hertziana Max-Planck Institute for Art History in Rome. Her PhD project explores the history of seventeenth century Italian painting from the point of view of raw materials as well as their role in the dialogue between painting and other media. She was a graduate fellow at the NCCR eikones – Iconic Criticism at the University of Basel.
Max Kohler Stiftung