Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back

This documentary looks at disability as an issue as well as disabled performance artists. If nothing else, it’s a chance to see activists and theorists like Harlan Hahn (who sports a Piss on Pity T-shirt) and Ann Finger, as well as artists and performers like Cheryl Marie Wade, Eli Clare (who was still Elizabeth when this film was made) and Mary Duffy and hear their views and anecdotal stories of discrimination and oppression. The film is available on YouTube in 3 parts (part 1, part 2 & part 3).

The immediate assumption when you’re in a wheelchair is that you’re there as a patient, you’re there to be helped” – Ann Finger

Musing on the making of the documentary, Mitchell and Snyder (1998) wrote the following:

The visual exposé of physical differences in film and television has traditionally stripped the disabled subject of agency and control of his/her body. We wanted to allow each person the ability to determine the degree and manner in which they discussed their disabilities. Part of this strategy involved providing a space for artists and academics to control the terms of the presentation of their own bodies in their performances, writing, and scholarship,” (Mitchell & Snyder 1998, n.p.).

They speak of not wishing to draw attention to physical differences, but at the same time filming people in wheelchairs from a deliberately low angle so they would “tower over the viewer.”

The film is referred to as a kind of coming out for the disabled people interviewed:

Because cultures have historically sought to erase or eradicate the evidence that the body is dynamic and mutable, the conscious “outing” of disabilities in art runs contrary to this social expectation. The performers in our video refuse the dictates of a culturally imposed isolation; instead they reclaim the terms of the body’s portrayal in a visual medium.”

They speak of how disability is generally objectified as physical difference in mainstream media, and cite such examples as “an absent hand stroking the tire of a wheelchair, the tapping of a cane emphasizing a halting gait, or the claustrophobic closeup catching the painful facial grimace of a quadriplegic” which tend to reinforce stereotypes, merely serving to “turn a prosthesis or an aspect of the body into a metonym for villainy, excessive fragility, or benighted humanity” (ibid). These are stereotypes I need to avoid! Although I don’t intend to monumentalize my subjects, I will definitely be shooting them from the same level as their eyes. The closed captions used in the film are rather stark and intrude on the images too much for my liking, so I am sticking to the style and size that I saw used by David Hevey in his short films.

Their rationale behind the film the creators describe in the following way:

Historically, disabilities have been narrated as private and individual concerns to be banished to the closets or attics of houses and institutions. We sought to argue that the danger of this social construction of disability has isolated people with disabilities from public view and inhibited them from political organization.” (ibid)

Thus the film can be seen as a kind of expose, and the filmmakers are allowing their subjects to voice their own opinions, a very empowering project. The interviews deal with issues from medicalisation to oppression and stereotyping, while Harlan Hahn says that to declare a ‘disability culture’ requires having a ‘disability food,’ and that food is fast food!

Mitchell & Snyder also acknowledge the wide interpretation of the term disability:

Because “disability” is at best a loose rubric grouping together a panoply of people with enormously divergent physical and psychological differences, our video sought no representative experience or singularizing perspective” (ibid).

While they admit that the disabled people presented are chiefly those with mobility impairments, this mainly has to do with the fact that they worked with the disabled people who were attending a conference on disability, and as such blind and deaf people are largely absent from the film as they were from the conference proceedings.

Mary Duffy tells of how people often speak about her as if she isn’t there, and also of how she was told not to tackle the issue of disability in her work or else she risked having a nervous breakdown! David Mitchell said that when he was interviewing Duffy he was reminded of his own experience where he felt silenced by medical professionals’ being able to represent him in any way they chose, and this gave rise to the title Talking Back, since by giving these disabled people a voice he is allowing them to talk back to both the medical profession and to society. As Carol Gill says in the film:

I saw people in power—the medical and the allied health professionals—all too often talking about people with disabilities as manipulative, as needing instruction and needing direction and needing to be pushed. That was a big word. They needed to be ‘pushed’ to do what was right for them. And of course what was right for them was being decided by people who were outside of the immediate disability experience.”

Mitchell and Snyder say that their film was designed to recoup this lost agency, and laud films (such as Breathing Lessons and When Billy Broke His Head) that avoid “turning disability into a metaphor for social collapse, individual overcoming or innocent suffering” while traditional depictions of disability have tended to portray disabled people as “isolated and asocial beings.” These are the kinds of principles I need to take note of and avoid.

One of the most interesting artworks featured was by performance artist Carrie Sandahl. She was garbed in medical gear which indicated the location and size of her medical scars, as well as the names of the doctors who had ‘given’ them to her. She also placed questions on the crotch area about sex and the ability to bear children:

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