Our collaboration on this exhibition and programme started after an initial invitation by Tallinn Art Hall and the Office of the Chancellor of Justice. The request of these prime institutions to organise a contemporary art exhibition on disability in Tallinn stemmed from a genuine interest in advancing the visibility and awareness of this subject. It notably connected to their more general concern to make Estonian society and culture more inclusive and accessible, a long-term durational process involving structurally changing the ways in which society is organised. Yet, notwithstanding such apparent and respectable intentions, finding an appropriate curatorial approach to disability felt challenging to us. It would have been too easy to simply consider it a subject or theme for a group exhibition, which would have tokenised it in reductive ways.1This is reinforced by the fact that exhibitions addressing disability are often curated by non-disabled people that don’t have a relationship with disability communities. And thus, from the very onset, our most crucial curatorial challenge became the establishing of a critical framework, which would allow us to approach disability in non-topical ways.
One of the most valuable lessons disability studies grants us is stressing the need to always approach disability in relational ways, instead of retiring to the usual patronising or ableist attitudes.2Disability studies is a rapidly expanding academic field examining the meaning and consequences of disability. It examines how disability was created as a category and how it has been institutionalised in social situations, intellectual practices, and political systems. Ableism is all explicit and implicit forms of discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. The adjective ableist describes “words, actions, policies, values, etc. that devalue and discriminate against people with disabilities.” (Ann Millett-Gallant, ART PAPERS 42.02 Winter 2018–2019) According to scholar Alison Kafer, disability awareness comes with the realisation that “the voices and experiences of disabled people are absent”, leading to a constellation in which “disability [gets] depoliticized, presented more as nature than culture.”3Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013) Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, p. 5. Offering an alternative to this reality, we set forth to create a project with and beyond disability, instead of on disability, to vehemently reject this subject’s topicality and to think about it in structural, consequential, and durable ways.
In order to implement this, we decided to work with disabled artists exclusively to make their voices and practices a foundational aspect of the project.4Throughout this project, we have considered the following long- and short-term types of disability: sensory, mobility/physical, cognitive, and mental health disabilities. This might look like a somewhat blunt curatorial decision, but the opportunities for disabled artists remain utterly rare to this day. Even though this situation might have been slightly improving in recent years in a limited number of contexts due to a growing awareness of disabled practices or institutions willing to make their venues and programming more inclusive and accessible, it felt like a necessary curatorial choice. This decision importantly challenged us to look beyond the habitually conceptual ways in which the subject of disability is addressed in contemporary art. More often than not, this involves artworks (by non-disabled artists) in which disability is merely framed as a subject-matter through which we can learn and sympathise with the other, instead of making us familiar with first-hand experiences of difference, which seem truly pivotal and hence worth highlighting.
By exploring the wide-ranging practices of disabled artists, we ended up seeing a common thread of artists and artworks unpacking ideas relating to language and communication. The ways in which language frames disability both positively, as a way to connect and make visible, and negatively, by exclusion and erasure, are manifold. Perhaps its most affirmative articulation can be found in the ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (2006).5https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-15&chapter=4&clang=_en, last accessed 12 November 2019. This pivotal international human rights treaty of the United Nations, which has been signed by 162 countries worldwide and made legally binding by 180, aims to protect and strengthen the rights of people with disabilities through language and law. As with any other document using the righteous language of rights, this document has obviously not succeeded in creating non-ableist discourses and attitudes in the countries involved. Disability’s deviation from the norm remains largely associated with negativity, as “something to be avoided and feared, rather than as a multidimensional, intensely embodied reality.”6Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (200o) New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 11. By recuperating the field of disabled communication in all its complexity and richness, we hope to confront this reality head-on. In this way, our project aims to open up towards other, often ignored or misunderstood, conceptions of the language surrounding disability and that of disabled people. In our view, language and communication, instead of being considered universal systems of knowledge and expression, should be viewed as hyper-specific, ever-evolving fields of experience, which must gain priority over official and legal definitions. In “disarming” the stability of language and communication, we seek to render it problematic as straightforward systems of knowledge and power, and to create a rupture which allows future possibilities for disability awareness to emerge.
This process was greatly informed by our previous collaboration as artist and curator. Within these two habitually strictly delineated roles experiences can become fluid at times, while also bringing different perspectives and understandings of “curation” to the fore. We are therefore grateful to Tallinn Art Hall and the Office of the Chancellor of Justice for allowing us to create this exciting project in an open and collaborative way. We have sought to extend our collaborative approach to our exchanges with the artists featured in the exhibition as well. They have provided personal insights and fierce criticism to our preconceived notions about their practices, which undoubtedly improved and nuanced our curatorial approach. It is our hope that this project will further conversations about artistic approaches to disability and stimulate an increased presence of disabled artists (and other artworkers) within contemporary art contexts.
We would like to thank Sonja Simonyi, whose invaluable editorial input has greatly shaped this text.