May 21, 2013

By Megan E. Doherty

How do you show what life is like for people with disabilities without slipping into an overly sentimental narrative about “triumph” and “inspiration” – without, as director Niko von Glasow puts it, “looking for violins?”

Von Glasow’s 2008 documentary NoBody’s Perfect aims to give an account of disability with wit and honesty rather than pity. The film, which won the 2009 German Film Award for Best Documentary, follows von Glasow as he searches for 11 people who, like himself, were born with disabilities due to side effects from Thalidomide, a drug given to their mothers as a sedative. Von Glasow’s goal is to convince this accomplished group, which includes a journalist, a gardener, an astrophysicist and an art teacher, to pose nude for a book of photos.

The Logan Center for the Arts will screen the film at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, as part of Chicago’s 2013 Bodies of Work Festival.  The 90-minute film, to be shown in the Logan’s Performance Hall, will be followed by a panel discussion that will address art, disability and sexuality.  The event is free and open to the public.

The 2013 festival will be staged in multiple venues from May 15-25, with a goal of celebrating visual and performing arts that address disability issues. This year’s festival is only the second since its inaugural 2006 year, and will feature the work of professional artists with disabilities, including theater, dance, poetry, film, literature, lectures and discussions.

Riva Lehrer, an artist and the festival's co-chair for programming, said she was concerned with questions about how artists do their work in the context of disabilities. “What kind of accommodation would you need to use an easel, or a darkroom, or a ceramics studio, if, for instance, you also used a wheelchair?" Lehrer said. "What would you need in order to make artwork, and not be injured?”

Lehrer will be a panelist for the discussion following the screening of NoBody’s Perfect, along with Robert Coombs, Kendall College of Art and Design student and photographer; Annie Heffernan, University of Chicago doctoral candidate; and Kate Caldwell, doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who will moderate the talk.

The documentary, chosen with input from both the Provost’s Office and Student Disability Services, provokes a bevy of questions not just about disability and sexuality, but also about “disability art.”

“Art about disability has been seen as just therapy, despite the fact that work that takes on body issues such as gender, sexuality and race, has long been a thriving part of contemporary art,” said Lehrer. “Public programs that promote disabled artists often present us as brave survivors of a variety of diseases. Pity for our disabilities has been the focus, not the quality of our work.”

Heffernan, who holds a master’s in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and is beginning her doctoral studies in Political Science at UChicago this fall, studies the intersection of contemporary political thought, feminist theory and disability theory.

“I was initially a bit skeptical of the premise of NoBody's Perfect. While the display of the naked disabled body can be transformative for both the viewer and the participant, it can also present the opportunity for voyeurism,” Heffernan said. “Whether such practices of ‘visual activism’ are successful, depends to a significant extent on the receptivity of the viewer.”

Panel moderator Kate Caldwell is pursuing her PhD in disability studies at UIC. She is an advocate of bisexuality who studies the intersection of disability with theories of citizenship and sexuality.

“The sexuality of people with disabilities is something that has been neglected, hidden, discouraged, and in many cases actively prevented,” said Caldwell, who hopes that the post-film discussion will help the audience situate the film into the larger context of sexuality in disability culture and scholarship.

“I think that people will leave inspired, for the right reasons. A lot of times the disability community talks about how the language of 'inspiration' has been co-opted to disenfranchise people with disabilities, rather than recognizing the creative potential of artists with disabilities who can and have created such prolific works,” said Caldwell.  

“However, I think one thing people will definitely come away with from this screening and discussion is the desire to see more. Hopefully, they will seek out disability artists, and fortunately the other festival events offer many opportunities to see, learn and experience more."

A full schedule of events for the Bodies of Work Festival can be viewed here.

This story originally appeared May 21, 2013 in UChicago News.