‘Help the Normals’: Speaking up + being heard at Power: The Politics of Disability

, 2 February 2017

We cannot talk about the politics of disability without also talking about the politics of ‘normal’ and the direct relationship between the two. How do we define disabled without normalizing the abled and how can we break down what feels like an unbridgeable gap between those who are struggling and those who aren’t. The annual Shape Open 2017 Power: The Politics of Disability at London’s Ecology Pavilion, running from January 19 until February 2, moves fluidly between activism and art, urgency and reflection; the group exhibition features work by over 40 artists, both disabled and non-disabled, engaging in a conversation often sidelined, and one that disability-led arts organization Shape Arts has been fighting back against since it began four decades ago.

Beth Davis-Hofbauer, ‘Power: The Politics of Disability’ (2017). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + Shape Arts, London.

When you first walk into the building, Dolly Sen‘s little red collection tin sits atop a plinth with a sticker that reads ‘Help the Normals’ (2014). A simple yet poignant comment on the charity model, it brings our attention to the power imbalance between the giver and the receiver; a relationship that could look entirely different if our society had a broader understanding of support. Highly disabling, society’s relationship with the less-advantaged is woven into a fabric of hierarchy, where we cater towards the advantaged, and create a system of dependance rather than rights.

It’s within this framework of help that a very narrow and normative language shapes our understanding of difference. This difference is so Other-ed that it ends up in a trashcan of difficult topics and uncomfortable subject matter brushed under a rug of awkwardness. Embracing humour as a tool to breakdown these taboos, Lizzy Rose challenges this invisibility in ‘Chronic Illness Zine’ (2015). The A5 artists book is a collection of popular memes from the hashtag #chronicillness on Tumblr, accumulated over a two-year period of illness that left her home-bound. A mix of honest, raw, and what Rose describes as “difficult, funny and ungrateful” content, the project is also an insight into the growing relationship between disability and the internet.

Lizzy Rose, ‘Chronic Illness Zine’ in ‘Power: The Politics of Disability’ (2017). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + Shape Arts, London.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of online communities carving out spaces for marginalized voices, and providing access to conversation and friendship beyond a clinical realm: finding a place to speak, connect and be heard is a basic human desire, which no one should be denied. Feelings of alienation from ‘normal’ social circles, as well as constant encounters with doctors and healthcare professionals is lonely and emotionally damaging, accruing into a state of silent anxiety, as portrayed in Sophie Hoyle‘s HD digital installation ‘Permastress’ (2016). Over two monitors, close up shots of hands tremble and mouths move with no sound. An iMac sits between, with a heartbeat scrolling across. Frozen in stasis without relief, the videos play on loop, stuck in the industry of treatment between damage and cure.

Sophie Hoyle, ‘Permastress’ (2016) in ‘Power: The Politics of Disability’. Installation view. Courtesy the artist + Shape Arts, London.

Among the quiet introspections and playful ironies, there were also works that decided to bypass the often ambiguous language of art, like Justin Piccirilli’s ‘Fuck the DWP’ (2016), where he framed one of his protest signs that read “Work Sets You Free Fuck The DWP.” It’s part of a multi-media installation that is so robust in numbers and diverse in content, the room both whispers and screams. However, it never feels divided in its varied perspectives and approaches, but rather united in a complex architecture of support against the power of socially-constructed barriers.**

The Shape Open 2017 Power: The Politics of Disability group exhibition is on at London’s Ecology Pavilion, running January 19 to February 2, 2016.