In the first chapter of Disability and Contemporary Performance, Petra Kuppers asks her readers to consider a turtle. Citing Walter Benjamin's account of the flâneur who allowed his turtle to set his pace in the Paris arcades of the 1840s, Kuppers locates this strange scene as an intervention into the spaces of modernity, a reconsideration of urban rhythm, pedestrian movement, and walking itself. Like Benjamin's turtle-walker, Kuppers' scholarship similarly troubles categories and questions of public and private, disabled and non-disabled, body and psyche, performer and character. The result is a fascinating study - not of "disability" as a closed category, but of performances of disability that act as interventions of and disruptions to received stereotypes that position disabled people as pitiable, tragic, helpless, or heroic. Kuppers' book negotiates a key question of contemporary theories of identity: the impulse to "fix" the boundaries of a minority cultural group in order to promote political action, and the (not necessarily conflicting) impulse to deconstruct and explode those very same categories. Through performance, Kuppers suggests, both impulses are achievable - the destabilization of disability, as well as the political mobilization of disabled individuals and their allies.
While the field of disability studies is a relatively young and growing one, disabled performers have long been displayed on cultures' stages. One of the strengths of Kuppers' work is her commitment to historicizing the display and performance of disability. From Charcot's "hysteria shows" to the medical visions of early cinema, disability has often been called into the service of establishing "norms," functioning as a freakish Other. Kuppers acknowledges the oppressive display of disabled performers, as well as the contemporary descendants of this model (she cites, for example, the "outsider-as-seer" function of the Augustus Hill character on the U.S. TV series OZ ). She clearly notes that while contemporary disabled performers retain authorship and agency to a greater degree than many of their predecessors, the history of freak show display haunts the performances of contemporary disabled artists, a fact which the artists themselves often address in their works. Mat Fraser, for example, performs his one-man show as "Sealo the Sealboy," a.k.a. Stanley Berent, a mid-twentieth century performer in U.S. freak shows who, like Fraser, was born with phocomelia (very short arms). Fraser's performance and Kuppers' analysis demonstrate the problems encountered and strategies employed when disabled artists must contradict cultural stereotypes regarding the assignation of agency, choice, and control to disabled persons. By complicating the performer/character binary, Fraser asks us to consider ways in which disabled artists perform disability, and the way their disabilities are enframed by others.
In the remaining chapters of the book, Kuppers unpacks several theoretical approaches; these include chapters on Brechtian aesthetics and the de-naturalization of disability, Artaudian and Deleuzian disruptions of Western representational strategies, the use of the language of trauma and paralysis, and questions of embodiment and new technologies. Kuppers deploys each theoretical approach in concert with analyses of artists - disabled and non-disabled alike - who make similar interventions in their own works. Kuppers concludes with a chapter about her own community-based work with The Olimpias Performance Research Projects. This "final chapter" is openly honest and engaging, expressing the challenges Kuppers faced and the strategies she developed in her work with mental health system survivors. How, she asks, can disabled artists use performance to achieve cultural visibility - while at the same time, resist the dominant cultural impulse to position the disabled body as a hypervisible one, one that supposedly contains interior truths beyond exterior symptoms?
Moving easily between theatre, film, new media, photography, and dance, Kuppers successfully gathers various artworks under the rubric of performance, without diminishing or downplaying their differences. While so many critical studies are bounded by disciplinary or national perspectives, Kuppers has succeeded in creating a truly interdisciplinary and internationalist work. She casts her net broadly, and gathers up such fascinating and diverse artists and companies as Contact 17, Celeste Dandeker, Aaron Williamson, Jo Spence, Bilderwerfer, Bill Shannon, Elisabeth Löffler, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio (SRS), Gerda König, Martina Nitz, and many more.
Disability and Contemporary Performance makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of disability studies. Not only that, Kuppers' analysis draws politically critical linkages between contemporary performances of disability, queer activism, feminisms, and critical race theory. Kuppers reminds us that, as scholars, activists, and artists, we are not "finished" with identity politics.Rather, political action emerges and thrives due to artists' disruptive transgressions of the supposed seamlessness of identity and its categories.
Paige McGinley is an artist and scholar living in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where she is pursuing a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at Brown University. Her research investigates the relationship between memory, reenactment, and performance, particularly in U.S. cultural and historical narratives. Other interests include performance and aurality, and road trips/landscapes/tourism.