Care Sharing: Body Tools in Motion, an Interview with Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers – Magdalena Olszanowski

When NMP contacted me about doing an interview with Danielle Peers and Lindsay Eales for the PERFORM issue, I was elated to explore the performative and theoretical layers of their Crippin the Crutch: Body Tools in Motion performance that debuted in its current form at the Differential Mobilities Conference in Spring 2013 in Montreal.

Photo by: Magdalena Olszanowski

Using theories of Foucault and Deleuze, whom Eales and Peers firmly state are disability scholars, as well as Robert McRuer, author of Crip Theory (2006), Crippin the Crutch is a choreographed articulation of the complex relations between tools, our own subjectivities, our bodies, and those of others. Those relations constitute the way mobility is enacted personally, politically, and socially. Eales and Peers question how tools of mobility are read, and foreground the insidious ideology that marks these tools as objects to “achieve independence,” which they read as “enacting a passable performance of compulsory able-bodiedness.” Eales and Peers’s theorization of tools posits that anything can be a tool – a wheelchair, a person or a community. The tools must strive, however, to be in an ethical relation with each other, the environment and the people in that relation. I learn that this is part of a larger ethics that Lindsay calls “care sharing. Care sharing is a state of being that not only acknowledges a constant symbiotic interdependence between all beings but also honors the sharing of care.

On a sunny Sunday morning, I Skype’d with the couple at length about Crippin’ the Crutch, performance, performativity and the potential of exploding the reductive and oppressive ideologies of compulsory able-bodiedness, and how they strive to do that in their quotidian, artistic, activist, and scholarly collaborations. Any ideological framing wants to preclude play and that’s exactly what Eales and Peers do, they play and crip these signifiers towards a more ethical, radical, and explosive understanding of disability.

Photo by: Magdalena Olszanowski

Magdalena Olszanowski: Can you tell me about the title of the work?

Danielle Peers: The title is a strategic entry point, the slim end of a wedge – it’s how you get people in the door. Often for me, having something catchy and readable and understandable in the title is to have people go “whuttt?” and having it be playful and performative in itself. The crutch is theorized very differently in our piece – it’s a tool of able-bodiedness. The crutch is usually a negative metaphor of dependence, something that should only be temporary to get you through a hard time. People often say: “You need to kick the crutch.” We’re trying to crip this.

MO: Crippin’ is kind of like ‘queering’?

Lindsay Eales: Exactly.

MO: Crippin’ can also read as an action, like grabbing the crutch, taking hold of it in a non-normative way…

DP: The body-tool is the crip and the crutch!

MO: It’s a collaboration, like your interwoven use of theory and acting in the performance. Can you tell me about that process?

LE: With our performance and theory, one doesn’t necessarily come before the other, they build off of each other.

DP: To use the metaphor of the bicycle: you can only push so far on one pedal before you can’t go any further and you need to push on the other. I find I can only bring an idea so far on paper and pen, and then artistic, performative,  filmic, even activist stuff needs to take it to the next step and then it can go back to writing – an elliptical process.

Crippin the Crutch is the beginning of Lindsay and I working together. It’s bringing our own theories and experiences up against each others’ in a way that has sparked interesting ways of thinking about the world and ourselves – such as thinking about the movement of breath. In Crippin the Crutch there is a moment when I’m supposed to be talking and I lose my breath and that’s a moment of failure for me, in terms of performing the academic. But then Lindsay takes over where I leave off and it’s precisely what the piece is about – about the sense of the connection. There’s another point at which I’m speaking and Lindsay’s giving me respiratory therapy simultaneously. We can imagine relationships as tools, and so we worked respiratory therapy into the talk. We said, let’s stop trying to do this performance of hyper-ability and compulsory able-bodiedness.

MO: It’s fascinating that part of your performance is the relation between you two and as tools. For example, on stage during Crippin the Crutch, Danielle shows us that she needs the breath and Lindsay becomes a tool of support. I’m fascinated by partnership collaborations, specifically, what happens when you add that type of love and care? Perhaps it doesn’t render tools as merely objects.

Photo by: Magdalena Olszanowski

LE: We talk a lot about moving through space together. For example, when I’m pushing Danielle’s chair there’s a way of us negotiating space together that’s similar to being a single being, in the sense that I have an awareness of her body and don’t run her into things!

DP: It’s proprioceptive – I feel Lindsay in terms of the space that she will need as well.

LE: I think our life layers our work in a way that has a lot of intimacy and I’m not sure, without that kind of intimacy, how you would get the same kind of nuance and the same kind of theory and performance out of the mundane. It’s exciting! It also brings up the idea of ethics.

I think with Foucauldian ideas that power exists in and as a relation. This informs the way I act in a dance space in terms of my position of leadership, but I also try to acknowledge the power relations in which people can act in relation to me just as I act in relation to them. From this I self-examine how the choreography I’m creating limits the possible actions, and allows for expansion of the dancers in the piece. The ways I choreograph are based on limit and expansion…

DP: Doing things so that people can increase their capacities without necessarily demanding or creating a level of docility like power often does. What I’ve learned from Lindsay’s choreography is the idea of porousness. Such that, even within a choreographic space there’s a massive amount of room for people to bring a different embodiment to that space.

LE: For instance, there is a moment when Danielle hands off speaking in Crippin the Crutch because it’s not working at that point. There is space built into the piece for that kind of exchange.

MO: What do you imagine that objects potentially do to those spaces in constituting the expansion/limit? How they can also open that up or question it?

LE: There are a thousand more ways that Danielle and I can move because she uses a particular set of tools: crutches, a chair, day chair or ball chair.[1] What’s so interesting is how these tools provide qualities of movement in dance. There are so many more possibilities for the kinds of movements we can create with all of these different bodies and tools put together.

DP: The key is that these tools don’t move that way. The tool-people-assemblage moves that way. You can put someone who has spent their whole life on their feet in a chair, and it does not move with grace. It’s precisely in the ways these tools become embodied and these movements become stylized, like my swagger when I use my crutches.

Photo by: Magdalena Olszanowski

LE: I often struggle with how the audience reads tools in very particular ways that come with social and personal baggage around what disability means and how it might be either tragic or inspirational. That’s some of what we are trying to question and disrupt in our work.

MO: The materiality of performing able-bodiedness undergirds your entire performance. In your lucid book chapter, “People, tools and this thing called disability,”[2] I love the part when you explain that tools of/for disability can often be seen as tools of/for enacting able-bodiedness. This ontological shift has so much potential!

LE: And the way structures of our society demand able-bodiedness and therefore to negotiate those structures; there are tools to approximate that…

DP: But tools for the reproduction of able-bodiedness can also be read as a containment for disability. There are certain kinds of embodiments that can’t be contained or managed within the logic of compulsory able-bodiedness. I think of the body we often see as disabled, or particularly around mental illness. Those are moments that are hard to contain. I think this is where shifting the ways that we think about tools can help us explode the possibilities of our performances in light of such reproductions and containments

MO: How do you then perform or think through this invisibility in the larger scheme of the aesthetic of disability? The “stuff” to help maneuver the world with an able-body is already overdetermined and people have perceptions of what that “stuff” does, i.e., what the wheelchair does, what crutches do, having a certain style of dress, hearing aids, etc. This becomes complicated with hidden disability where you don’t have necessarily the same markers that can be seen.

LE: For sure! Even the way psych meds have shifted my experience and the way I read movement, i.e., what my movement qualities look like and feel like based on what psych meds I’m on, or whether I’m trying new ones at the time.

DP: It’s the intention of that relation. You have to ask yourself: is it a normative trajectory of compulsory able-bodiedness, or is it trying to actually shift spaces in order to explode the potentials of how one could learn?

MO: This seems to set up the complicated dynamic between the supercrip and the revolting gimp which Danielle brings up in “From inhalation to inspiration: A genealogical auto-ethnography of a supercrip.”[3] Danielle, you embody both and one relies on the other. Your use of the word revolting is conceptually productive. Revolting can mean revolting as abject or causing disgust, or revolting as an act of rebellion.

DP: Within critical disability studies, you have the supercrip trope – the inspirational subject. They’re celebrated regardless if they climbed Mount Everest or picked their own nose. As long as it’s done independently, the act is irrelevant. It all focuses on independence and the importance is often placed towards a normative end. My critique is that the idea of the supercrip is ubiquitous within disability studies. It’s like saying “it’s racist” and then not analyzing it any further.

Photo by: Magdalena Olszanowski

There’s a particular performance of disability you need to do just to get basic access. These choices and the ways that other people read you, hail you, and recognize you in different kinds of ways turn you into a particular kind of subject, which is the supercrip. This locks you into a narrow way of understanding yourself. On the other hand, I would argue that anyone writing in critical disability studies is a supercrip because they’re working in the university and there’s a degree of normalization that has to happen to be in that space. These ideas are the beginning of something I call “inspirationalization.” I’m trying to show that this thing we see as so natural – inspiration – is very specifically politically produced and has a dangerous history of obfuscation.

If you don’t perform these inspirational subjectivities, there’s a strong affective response from people around you –  that’s where the revolting gimp comes in – because if you can navigate the space as that and survive, you will upset people, but you can also start to challenge normative expectations. It can be revolutionary. As I shift between tools of mobility (defying static and binary expectations of dis/ability), or depend on care and support, I become more revolting, I may not have access to the same privileges in society, but a whole other set of chances to engage with others opens up.

MO: This becomes clear when I think back to what we were saying about the simultaneous limitation and explosion. In western society there is an incessant celebration of independence, but from what exactly and from whom? The collaboration-relation between you two as a symbiosis seems to be an independence from those power structures. In contrast to reading the wheelchair solely as a tool of independence from the oppressive architecture, it might be more productive to see the ways in which you both negotiate the wheelchair and the assemblage-relation as a tool of independence.

Your performance illustrates your relation, its complexities and all the different tools that are part of it: the wheelchair, the dancing, the floor, the pills, etc. There was a lot of dance in the performance, some was more obvious, like the figure eights in the wheelchair. What is it about dance that can push and explode these ideological assumptions and over-determinations?

LE: Because the body is so central in dance, and in the dance I veer toward, there is space for porosity and space for people to insert themselves. It’s hard to pin someone down if they’re moving.

MO: Do you think there’s a difference between that performance and the performativity of the everyday we talked about earlier?

DP: The issue is not what performance does that not performing doesn’t do, but perhaps it’s more about thinking what’s at stake in the kinds of performances we usually do. Not reproducing the performance of the academic that’s going to be taken seriously has a risk but also a possibility.

I think it’s the same ideas as tools of able-bodiedness, such that most of us don’t see working out as a tool of able-bodiedness or a performance. Certain behaviours become normalized and become unseen as performance. You’re only performing when you’re not performing in normative ways.

MO: This reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology and how in the way we orient our bodies, whether its our desires, or moving this way or that way, we shift from seeing something to seeing something else. It seems simple but has significant consequences.

DP: What side of the desk you’re on or whether you can access the desk at all, right? This can never be flattened because there’s a lot of political work that goes into the way we understand our own and others’ subjectivities.

MO: That links to how you’re going to navigate space, whether it is with crutches or pills or whether you’re going to cry or be dirty or…

DP: That you’re going to take space and that you’re going to connect with people – with vulnerability or the conscious interdependence. Like Lindsay says: care sharing! We think about care giving or care taking, but not care sharing.

LE: Care sharing is about not only a mutual exchange of care between two people, but also an ongoing exchange in and among community members that is dynamic and shifting. A way of being that always already recognizes all beings as radically dependent, and celebrates the sharing of care that makes our lives and communities possible.

MO: Care sharing, that’s a wonderful image. Any final thoughts?

DP: Part of the performance is the scenario. The performance becomes a performance before you even get on stage. It’s the space and the people present that also determine the performance. Out of all our academic talks and performances, the Differential Mobilities Conference had the most connected and invested audience we’ve come across and that has a lot to do with the set up of the conference. I entered CentrePHI, where the performance was held, by the back door and everyone else did too. That choice from the conference to say, “this space is inaccessible except the back door and so every person is going to enter through this back door” had an incredibly profound effect on me, and speaks very much to the things we are theorizing. So going into that performance, I was in a different space not only from the other fantastic work I saw, but from that choice, from that care ethic. There is never a fourth wall in performance, it’s always already an interaction with the audience. The space was created for us to perform in such a way that we could be absorbed and related to and that’s incredibly rare.

[1] Danielle explains the difference:  A day chair has wheels that have no camber, they’re straight up and down, and it is typically used for day-to-day mobility. As a basketball athlete you play in a chair with cambered wheels. Mine also has a 5th wheel on the back. In the day chair, if I were to make a medium effort to move, I would move half a circle. In my ball chair, if I were to make the same amount of effort, I would spin 5-6 times, but it’s horrible for going across spaces that are not flat.

[2] Peers, D & Eales, L. (forthcoming). People, tools and this thing called disability. In M. Strickfaden & P. Devlieger (Eds.) Materiality & Independence: Disability, Ability and the Built Environment.

[3] Peers, D. (in press). From inhalation to inspiration: A genealogical auto-ethnography of a supercrip. In S. Tremain (Ed.), Foucault and the government of disability, 2nd Ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

All photographs by Magdalena Olszanowski

Magdalena Olszanowski is an artist and PhD student in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a senior research assistant at her supervisor Kim Sawchuk’s Mobile Media Lab. Her MA thesis was a Korsakow documentary on women electronic music composers. She writes and creates work on gender, technology, self-imaging, violence and post-memory, perception, and mobile image-based media through a feminist vital materialist lens. Her research-creation dissertation is focused on the feminist online media histories of the 1990s.

Danielle Peers is a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar, and a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta. She builds genealogical and autoethnographic research through academic articles, film, dance, performance, and other activist-oriented practices. Danielle’s doctoral project, Spectacular Tolerance, traces the inspirationalization of disability in Canada, and emerges partially to problematize her own experiences and actions as a Paralympic athlete. Her work seeks to complicate and crip the artistic, activist and athletic worlds we imagine as most natural or benevolent, and collaboratively engages with how we might do and become otherwise.

Lindsay Eales researches through integrated dance with artists who experience disability or other forms of marginalization, and their artistic and political allies. She is a choreographer, dancer, filmmaker, and the co-founder and Artistic Director of CRIPSiE (Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton). Her artistic and research interests emerge from her passion for dance, her embodied and political experiences of mental illness, her training as an occupational therapist, and her involvement in communities of activism, anti-oppression, and social justice. Lindsay is a Vanier scholar and PhD student in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta.