Disabled Otherworlds

Commissioned essay for the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, on Sam Petersen’s installation I’m still feeling it, exhibited in Overlapping Magisteria, 2020. Published in the exhibition catalogue.

Disabled otherworlds

For many of us, it is also a way of ‘being in the world’, a world that in many ways was not made for us and actively resists our participation. Through poetry, we are able to remake and reinvent that world.

– Jennifer Bartlett, ‘Poetry is a Way of Being in the World That Wasn’t Made for Us’[1]

Sam Petersen’s contribution to Overlapping Magisteria is a rebellion, a reclamation, a collision of worlds, and a vision of possible futures. It is also an exploration of body language, physicality, and of communication through touch. Like poetry, art is a language; a form of expression that transcends normative speech and speaks directly to the heart.

Petersen’s installation is sensual and fierce, evoking intimacy, yearning, rejection and resistance. In ACCA’s slick steel-walled foyer, tender pink plasticine enters through cracks and faults, filling the gaps and changing the nature of the space. The imposing urban architecture has its edges forcibly softened and made strange. Technology turns biomorphic, organic. The building, like the disabled body, becomes a cyborg amalgamation, its meanings altered and repurposed. As Jillian Weise notes, the metaphor of the cyborg has become so far removed from its literal manifestations that it has become a figure of science fiction rather than disability.[2] Petersen retains a sense of both.

The conflict between the organic and inorganic is one of many conscious ambiguities. Androgynous forms move through liminal territories and subvert binary entry points, destroying and recreating the site – or as Petersen puts it, quite literally ‘fucking the building’. The plasticine marked with fingerprints is simultaneously alien and intensely personal. Petersen is absent but present in all the spaces beneath and between, invisible and hypervisible. Plasticine, Petersen says, is ‘a great recorder of touch, and then that touch could be put on other things’.

Touch and physicality are central to this work, conveying passion and anathema, otherworldly visions infused with weird and beautiful eroticism. There are many tensions here, between the interior and exterior, between the self and the other. Petersen interrupts and disrupts the industrial geometry of the location, and substitutes features of an alluring, unearthly, but oddly anthropomorphic landscape. In a building characterised by its industrial aesthetic, Petersen reiterates that industry is not impersonal but the product of human labour, and reasserts the presence of disabled workers within a structure we are rarely considered to belong to.

The alterations are irreverent, even brazen, but not without seriousness; a sense of encroaching inevitability remains surging beneath the surface. Disabled art pours through the crevices of the Corten steel cladding with a kind of gentle inexorability. The fluidity of the shapes gives them the appearance of movement, a patient slowness. Petersen pulls the space into crip time, which Alison Kafer calls a ‘reorientation’; it is ‘flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires re-imagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognising how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies … rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds’.[3]

The dissonant speeds and structures of crip time have perhaps never been more apparent than in the current moment. In a world reshaped by the global pandemic, disabled experiences of social isolation and exclusion are bizarrely universal; for once almost everyone is living on crip time. Petersen’s installation provides a return to abnormalcy, a reminder that the pre-COVID world was already in crisis. There are answers, but not exactly resolutions: Petersen’s response is one of mutation, adaptation, persistence and continuation in the face of obstacles.

Plasticine is an appropriate medium for a piece grappling with the malleability and multiplicity of space. The plasticine’s presence is both an embrace and an invasion. The urban city is a site of exclusion for disabled people, but it is also a site of rapid metamorphosis and expansion, and importantly a site of possibility. As a wheelchair user I often feel that I live in a different world to my bipedal peers. The map of the city I can navigate has different features: every staircase is a dead end, and every tall threshold becomes a wall. Like Sontag’s kingdom of the sick, the world of wheelchair users has porous borders, overlapping with the bipedal world but occupying different space.[4] I long for that other world as much as I resent – and resist – our exclusion from it. (In reply to Sontag, Sinéad Gleeson offers a sobering reminder: ‘the kingdom of the sick is not a democracy’[5]). Petersen’s work offers a possible alternative, intertwining love and longing with rage and defiance. In the world not made for us, Petersen suggests transforming the shape of the world itself.

[1] Jennifer Bartlett, ‘Poetry is a Way of Being in the World That Wasn’t Made for Us’, New York Times, 15 August 2018. nytimes.com/2018/08/15/opinion/10-poets-with-disabilities.html.

2 Jillian Weise, ‘Common Cyborg’, Granta online, 24 September 2018, granta.com/common-cyborg/.

3 Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2013, p. 27.

4 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1978.

5 Sinéad Gleeson, ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’, Granta, vol. 135, May 2016, granta.com/blue-hills-chalk-bone/.

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