The funky-elegant woman with the two-tone hair wears a purple plastic brace over her left foot and lower leg. I wonder, is it a sign of a temporary injury, a more lasting condition or even an ironic fashion statement?
At the opening night of the "Borg Again: reframing cyborg culture" art show, it's difficult to say. In the lobby of the HSBC building in downtown Vancouver, a permanently installed massive steel pendulum three stories high swings back and forth over the gallery display below. Artists, guests and media mill around the displays and installations, munching on brushcetta and vegetable sticks.
At first, the boundary between those who are disabled and those who aren't seems perfectly clear: one group uses wheelchairs or crutches, the other isn't. However, one of the show's two curators, Persimmon Blackbridge, soon disabuses me of that idea. She has a learning disability that makes her thinking too scattershot for writing longhand or using a typewriter, but she uses modern word processors to string together ideas into writing. In the opening addresses, Blackbridge thanks her co-curator Elisabeth Shifrin for helping her communicate with people who aren't used to her manner of speaking.
Family and other technology
As Blackbridge and Shifrin's partnership demonstrates, the original assistive technology was your friends and family. Emma Kivisild's Cyborganics is a series of mock ads from a fictitious company, advertising people helping disabled people with everyday tasks. The idea of a person as an autonomous, self-sufficient unit breaks down as your sense of self comes to incorporate people or devices.
"Cyborg", a fusing of human and machine, is a concept familiar to most people from science fiction television. In the arts world, cyborg has a more abstract meaning, a being that is not inherently pure, that does not strive for original innocence.
A few years ago, the arts world was abuzz with cyborgs. However, the people who actually rely on technology to get through the day were barely represented. Blackbridge attributes this to lack of money and energy for people with disabilities, and also that the arts world tends to be cliquey. Curators and gallery owners may not have known any disabled artists, or at least those who weren't passing as normal.
Passing and camping
Passing seems to be the operative word at this show. One of Shaira Holman's photographs shows a row of gender cyborgs lined up at urinals, bookended by a "bio-boy" and herself, described as "genderstupid." Teachers and doctors once mistook her difficulty with reading and writing for low intelligence, raising the question of how many other people out there have been written off as "stupid." Like her brain, her gender identity doesn't fit in any established category either.
Holman's artist statement says, "Spellcheck is my robodick and no one has to know how long it takes me to write. I can even read Big Books. Slowly. But when I say, 'I have a disability', I'm still passing. I can say the words, enter the art shows, but I know I don't belong, just like when I put on a dress."
Another response to being different is to exaggerate it. Buz Onezed suffered a spinal injury years ago. His installation shows videos of himself in staged situations of helplessness, like trying to carry ski equipment across the busy street and dropping them, and observes how people react to him.
Onezed's interventions are the inverse of passing. "Disabled camp" is one way to describe what he does: presenting himself as an exaggerated version of how others see him, and mocking them for their preconceptions and prejudices.
Passing and camping are ideas borrowed from queer thinking. It wasn't that long ago that homosexuality was medicalized when it wasn't criminalized. Queerness used to be considered a flaw that could be corrected with drugs, incarceration and other tender mercies.
Normal at what cost?
Likewise, there's an undertone of violence in some of the attempts to bestow normality on people. Cleo Pawson's backless dress shows an X-ray of her curved spine, and the steel Harrington rods that were embedded in her body for years to correct this, at the cost of considerable pain. Is being "normal" worth this?
At the far end of the gallery, two electric blankets rest on a patch of astroturf under two see-through plastic tents, with energy bars and antidepressants embedded in the sheets. In this comfortless setting, artists Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa and Irene Loughlin lackadaisically go through the motions of sleeping and exercise, as if the effort to maintain normality has become tiring and tiresome.
Of all the lines we draw to separate ourselves from what we are not black or white, straight or queer, middle class or blue collar the line between abled and disabled is the most blurred and porous. Every day, one accident or random virus could change our status, and even if you luck out of that, there's still the inexorable truth of aging. Who among us won't come to rely on technology some day?
Vancouver-based journalist Peter Tupper is a regular contributor to The Tyee.