art & disability: new geographies of the body

Sonia Teuben, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

Sonia Teuben, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

Sonia Teuben, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

[This introduction was written in November 2011. New links will continue to be added to the list below. Eds.]

Since 1997, RealTime has displayed a strong commitment to the work of artists with disabilities, providing perspectives on disability offered by art. This archive highlight offers a snapshot of the landscape of disability arts in Australia from the RealTime archive, drawing attention to two central issues that become apparent when canvassing the body of work the magazine has produced about disability and art. First, disability arts practices consistently redefine and expand sensory catalogues of what it is to be human—offering new ways in which the experience of humanity can be felt. Second, writers face unique challenges when articulating these new geographies of humanity produced by artists working in the field.

the disability arts landscape

If we were to read disability arts in Australia as a body, the backbone would clearly be the work of Back to Back Theatre and Restless Dance Theatre, companies whose work demonstrates enduring excellence and global impact. Formed in 1987, Geelong-based Back to Back is Australia’s first professional performing arts company for people with disabilities. Their acclaimed work has toured nationally and internationally making the most significant global impact of the disability arts companies in Australia. Experiments with staging (Food Court), sound (Small Metal Objects), explorations of the audience-performer relationship (Small Metal Objects again) and a remarkable intellectual curiosity (Soft) are some of the hallmarks of Back to Back productions. Thematically, their catalogue features explorations of the body, love, sex, self-perception and space.

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

Adelaide-based Restless Dance Theatre is a slightly younger company with a central performance ensemble of young disabled and non-disabled dancers aged 15 to 26. Restless also has a touring company, with dancers and collaborators engaged on a professional basis to make works for touring nationally and internationally. Since 1991 Restless has explored issues of independence (Safe From Harm, Rebel Rebel), and intimacy (Bedroom Dancing, The Heart of Another Is a Dark Forest) while consistently expanding dance theatre (Unspoken Outloud) as a form.

Other notable contributions to disability arts in Australia include the work of Melbourne’s Rawcus and Adelaide-based No Strings Attached, along with the significant presentation of works by other artists and companies at festivals such as Wataboshi, High Beam and Art of Difference, which bring disabled artists together as a community.

finding the words

Disability arts practices often act as a compass that maps radical articulations of humanity. These mappings offer ways of rethinking and feeling cultural spaces of culture typically outside of the mainstream. While these sensory explorations are the work of the largely very accomplished artists, their practices demand other kinds of work for writers and audiences. This is the labour of adequately expressing new sensations in relation to cultural forms and professional practices. Reading the back catalogue of writing about disability and art in RealTime, there are moments where new philosophies of arts practice are articulated in synergistic journalism (RT22; RT53) and inspired intellectual offerings are made in response to live art (RT82). At other points, disability acts as a fault line on which writers stumble and which they conceptually struggle to cross.

In this way, disability and art come together to pose two challenges. The first of these is the call for audiences to feel anew and, in so doing, to brave unique sensations. Dominant tropes of disability representation continue to haunt the work of artists with disabilities, writers and the experiences of disabled people—namely, the freak show (RT62) and disability as other. But these well-worn notions are challenged by the work of many artists (RT22) and writers (RT69) who are able to offer new ways of putting disability politics into print.

The second challenge posed by the union of disability and art is exactly this call for journalists and industry professionals to journey into thought in order to offer words that do some kind of justice to the material cartographies created through enmeshments of disability and art. In his book S/Z, French semiologist and cultural theorist Roland Barthes famously characterised a “writerly text” as one which “is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages” (Paris: Seuil, 1970). For Barthes, reading such work should not be “a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing,” but rather a “form of work.” In rising to understand the moments in which writers adequately express sensations of disability art in words, it is exactly this form of work in which we, as readers, must learn to engage.
Anna Hickey-Moody

back to back theatre

bodies, flocks and crowds
john bailey: melbourne international arts festival

the genesis: ganesh versus the third reich
john bailey: interview, back to back theatre members

you will live forever: back to back theatre, the democratic set
tim x atack

the image that pierces: back to back & the necks, food court
caroline wake

more than a walk in the park: back to back theatre’s tour guide
alexandra crosby

small metal objects: beautiful logic
andrew templeton

small metal objects: the invisible revealed
eleanor hadley kershaw

returning the audience’s gaze: back to back theatre’s food court
carl nilsson-polias

small metal objects: deals and dependencies
bec tudor

small metal objects: ordinary guise
lucy hawthorne

small metal objects: an intimate conversation and the perfect front
judith abel

small metal objects: magic micro culture clash
alex ferguson

theatre of speed: back to back theatre’s inside the angel house
keith gallasch

enabling art: back to back theatre’s soft
lalita mchenry

a fish out of water: back to back theatre, fishman
maryanne robinson

restless dance theatre

transported: between memory & desire: restless dance theatre, take me there
jonathan bollen

comeout 09: artful reciprocity: restless dance theatre, unreasonable adults
jonathan bollen

character issues: the heart of another is a dark forest, rawcus theatre and restless dance theatre
john bailey

safe risks: restless dance company, safe from harm
jonathan bollen

autonomy and the emerging artist: restless dance company, rebel rebel
jonathan bollen

the dance of words: restless dance company and australian dance theatre, inspace
helen omand

restless men: restless dance company, laminex man and starry eyed
helen omand

inner utopias: restless dance company, starry eyed
helen omand

dancing with time’s arrow: restless dance company, in the blood
anne thompson

rawcus theatre

character issues: the heart of another is a dark forest, rawcus theatre and restless dance theatre
john bailey

telling silences: rawcus theatre company, hunger
john bailey

the rewards of risk: born in a taxi and rawcus theatre company, not dead yet
john bailey

next wave: the circus deep inside: rawcus theatre company, sideshow
mary-ann robinson

potential versus perfection: rawcus theatre, designer child
keith gallasch


the body in the shadow of the past
benjamin brooker: vitalstatistix, take up thy bed & walk

ironies of the inevitable: no strings attached theatre of disability’s tom the loneliest
jonathan bollen

not about disability: britain’s candoco dance company
zsuzsanna soboslay


wataboshi: the seeds grow
lalita mchenry

high beam: beyond the performance/therapy axis
lalita mchenry

interviews, forums

the uses of art: regional arts australia meeting place 2004
chloe smethurst

new spaces, other intelligences: interview with bruce gladwin
keith gallasch

shifting perspectives: on art and disability at art of difference
janice florence

in-space: conversations with movement, interview with ingrid voorendt
anne thompson

enabling dance: interview with sally chance
anne thompson

10 May 2011