If there was a country called disabled,
I would be from there.
live disabled culture, eat disabled food,
make disabled love, cry disabled tears,
climb disabled mountains and tell disabled stories…
from "Disabled Country," Neil Marcus, performance artist
Artists with disabilities, propelled by a powerful history rooted in the struggle for civil rights, have been creating a vibrant arts culture which embodies the individual and collective experience of disability and contributes to the artistic landscape of our nation. In June of 2004, the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, launched the Artists with Disabilities oral history project, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project grew out of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement [DRILM] collection, which explores the social and political history of the disability rights movement from the 1960s to the present and includes two interviews with artists.
Our primary goal was to document the lives and work of seminal artists in performance art and dance, providing a rich resource of interviews and documents for scholarly research, education, and general use. We planned to examine issues of relevance to the artistic community, including the ways in which artists with disabilities are expanding themes of identity and the body, central concerns in the performing arts. We also hoped to contribute to an understanding of the impact that the mainstream art scene has on those who, historically, have not been welcomed into it, as well as the role that artists with disabilities have had on artistic trends in the broader arts world.
In developing the project, we consulted with scholars and administrators in the arts, scholars in disability studies, artists, and members of the disability community. Our funding supported interviews with five artists, whom we chose in consultation with our advisors. All of the narrators are professional dancers or performance artists who draw on material from their own lives and whose work has made a significant contribution toward defining disability arts culture.
The interviews were videotaped. They took place in the narrators’ homes, except for the interview with Neil Marcus which was recorded at the Regional Oral History Office and was unique in that it utilized instant messaging technology to accommodate his disability. In addition to the standard oral history format, these interviews also include impromptu moments of the artists sharing their creative work, tours of the spaces where they make that work happen and, in the case of Lynn Manning, a visit to the judo class he teaches for blind and visually-impaired adults.
All of the interviews probe the artists’ formative influences, education/training, career trajectory, and creative process. They address a range of themes, including:
--the intersection of identities, specifically identities rooted in the body, in a particular place and time. What does it mean to be gay and disabled? African-American and blind? And how does being “seen,” living in the public eye as a performer, impact these identities?
--networks of artistic access and achievement. Who helps whom gain entry into the art world and why? How do these informal networks work?
--ideas of normality. What is a “normal” body? What is “normal” art?
--the formation of a disability arts culture. How is the work of professional artists with disabilities creating a disability arts culture? How does their work relate to the more mainstream art world?
Several of the artists in this project are currently making arrangements to have their historically significant materials, including personal papers, writings, photographs, and recordings of performances, archived in the Bancroft Library.
I’d like to thank Ann Lage and the DRILM team for their belief in this project and their tremendous support. I also want to offer my deep appreciation to the artists who so generously shared their stories.
The Regional Oral History Office was established in 1954 to augment through tape-recorded memoirs the Library's materials on the history of California and the West. The office is under the direction of Richard Cándida Smith and the administrative direction of Charles B. Faulhaber, James D. Hart Director of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. The catalogues of the Regional Oral History Office and many oral histories on line can be accessed at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/.
Esther Ehrlich, Project Manager/Interviewer
Artists with Disabilities Oral History Project
Regional Oral History Office
University of California, Berkeley