Aesthetics of Horizontal Access – An Ode to Lying Down in Art Spaces
(listen to the selection, read by the author)
In 2018, I visited Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, a dance performance on disability and religion. In each city, the show takes place in a different community space. That evening’s performance space was a classroom. Upon entering, I caught sight of a round of chairs with pillows placed on the floor in front of them. Other audience members sat down in the chairs and I followed their lead, even though I was well aware that my disabled body, in chronic pain, was horrified by the prospect of spending more than a few minutes in one of these chairs, even after I placed a cushion on it. Thirty minutes into the performance, my pain levels became so high I could either lie down on the cushions on the floor – or leave.
Visiting art spaces can pose many barriers for people who do not conform to physical, neurological, and psychological norms. Even our understanding of access – in the disability arts sector and beyond – is still highly influenced by ableist norms. Those art forms imagining the spectator as an active part of the work can often create additional barriers. But even in a traditional Western theater setting, the most common and unquestioned requirement for attending a performance is the capability to sit quietly for at least one hour without a break. The vertical positions of sitting, walking, or standing seem to pervade all kinds of attending artistic work – from visiting an installation in a gallery to watching a well-made play in a 200-year old theater building to attending a concert or an audio walk in urban space. Verticality seems to imply being open, public, and creative.
In contrast, horizontality is assigned to the night time of sleep or to private spaces. For example, being horizontal in public is strictly prohibited by social norms. Public horizontality is linked to being drunk, homeless, or both. The only positive image that exists for horizontality seems to be sunbathing, which is associated with having a holiday or some leisure time after a hard workday. It’s depicted as the opposite of being productive. Of course, productivity in times of neoliberalism is a deeply problematic term. Let me rephrase this: Horizontality is depicted as the opposite of being attentive.
This might be the reason why I’m routinely facing a lack of understanding from artists and academics alike when asking for a place to lie down while attending a performance or a conference. Even other disabled organizers often react with bewilderment when I state my access needs to them. Lying down seems to violate the rules of what it’s like to be a “good” audience member. Alternative options for sitting or lying down are rarely part of any concept of accessibility. Living with a so-called invisible disability, your access needs might not be taken seriously. Symptoms like chronic pain and fatigue, which are common in a variety of chronic illnesses, often have a greater impact on your daily life than most are willing to recognize.
Looking back, I realize that lying down in art spaces is far more than accommodating my body. Being horizontal is the gateway to a whole new world of aesthetic experiences. In Guide Gods, Cunningham is dancing barefoot with her crutches, balancing on upside down teacups placed on the floor. With my head resting on one of the pillows, my eyes were perfectly in line with her feet, the teacups, and the movement of the crutches. While the other audience members watched her movements from a vertical perspective, only seeing the action on the floor from above, I had the privilege of an intimate horizontal aesthetic. Not only was my body allowed to experience the performance at ease, with the pain lingering in the background, which is already an oddity when you’re used to watching, hearing, and smelling through the pain. My unique perspective on the elements – the teacups, the crutches, and the dancing body – was topped off with the orchestration of the often barely audible sounds of the feet landing on the teacups and the crutches navigating the floor.
Today, I consider lying down while making or experiencing art, to use the words of the poet and disability activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a “time-honored crip creative practice”. In her book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Piepzna-Samarasinha reflects publicly on writing from her bed as writing from a disabled space, just as I continue to experience art from a horizontal, disabled perspective.
Moreover, I have discovered there is a time-honored dimension of lying down in art spaces. Often access and the ways disabled people relate to time and space are framed as new or exceptional ways of doing things. But the need to be horizontal is neither exceptional nor new: Think of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who is known for having been in pain most of her life and creating a lot of her paintings while lying in bed. Another story, that is not often told, is her being declared by her doctors “too sick” to attend her own exhibition opening in 1953. In an act of resistance, she visited her opening resting in a bed. She was not “too sick” to visit her own opening. In fact, she was only too sick to fulfill the ableist expectations on how an artist should behave at an exhibition opening: standing, sitting, being vertical.
Clearly, Frida Kahlo’s legacy tells us is a different story: Resting can be an act of resistance, autonomy, and pride. This is our history. The history that is often withheld from us by ableist expectations. Although Kahlo was known for continuing her artistic practice while bedridden, which is one of the major subjects of her self-portraits, bringing a bed to the exhibition was not as part of a performance but was an access tool that violated the social distinctions between private and public, between making art and presenting it.
All in all, lying down in art spaces is challenging ableist norms of what it means to be an attentive or, respectively, a well-behaved audience and – on a larger scale – a respected member of society. Raquel Meseguer’s long-term project A Crash Course in Cloudspotting is speaking to this reality. Collecting resting stories, the lived experiences of people in chronic pain and/or fatigue, her installation and performance investigate the disruption of societal norms by the simple act of needing to lie down in public space. Moreover, the setting creates an aesthetic experience of horizontal access as the work is designed exclusively for a lying-down audience. While the artist herself acts as a storykeeper, the absence of the storytellers is an integral part of the aesthetics as well: 50 lamps in the space are connected in realtime to an app, allowing the absent participants to turn on their lamp in the installation remotely whenever they are resting. All elements of this artistic work value the perspectives of horizontality.
Last but not least, choosing to create work around rest is a phenomenon not exclusive to disabled and chronically-ill artists. It’s rather a link between the experiences of different marginalized communities. For example, The Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey, creates performances and site-specific installations that call for rest as a form of resistance against white supremacy, capitalism, and grind culture. By offering immersive writing workshops and curating collective napping experiences in communal spaces such as public parks, museums, or churches, Hersey’s artistic practice is deeply intertwined with community organizing.
Similar to Hersey and in direct response to the Sleep Gap between white and BIPoC populations, Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa developed Black Power Naps, a performative installation that invites BIPoCs to slow down and interact with soft, comfortable surfaces. Their work is focused on rest as a form of reparations for BIPoCs by reclaiming idleness and play as sources of power and strength. Therefore, in linking different experiences of structurally discriminated communities, investing in the aesthetics of horizontal access is an anti-ableist practice that is aiming to make space for all people who have historically been marginalized in art spaces.
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
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About the Author
Noa Winter is a curator and dramaturg with a focus on disability arts and anti-ableism. They are currently working as a coordinator for the Berlin-based project Making a Difference, which supports disabled and deaf dance professionals, and are undertaking the Unlimited International Producer Placement. Their main interests are the self-determined working methods of disabled, queer and chronically ill artists, aesthetics of access and questions of anti-ableist curating. Most recently they co-curated the symposia Making Theatre Accessible – Be prepared to make mistakes and Exploded Times, Mad Spaces – Disability Arts & Crip Spacetime.