Which Ghetto? Curatorial Tactics and Artistic Knowledge-Production in Normality-Driven Societies

by Ine Gevers

To many of her readers, Donna Haraway’s latest book, When Species Meet (2008)(1), must have come as rather a shock. Wasn’t she the feminist biologist who wrote A Cyborg Manifesto back in 1985? Progressive, hip, boldly going where none had gone before? An animated version of Haraway even made it into Mamoru Oshii’s anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Oshii presents Haraway as a chain-smoking forensic scientist for whom cybernetic technology holds no secrets. With this most recent publication, has she had a change of heart? When Species Meet deals with the intimate friendship Haraway shares with her dog, Cayenne, and their mutual love of agility sports. Its autobiographical undertone notwithstanding, When Species Meet offers plenty of the canny meta-analysis we have come to expect from Haraway. Though human-dog interaction is the book’s most obvious point of focus, it also deals with a much broader range of meetings – between people, objects, bacteria, fungi, machines, animals, cybernetic organisms and the other, as-yet-unclassified species with which we share our world. And although she opts for a more personal approach in this text, Haraway remains true to the discourse. How do we – as people, scientists, artists – relate to the world around us? How do we navigate the web of asymmetrical relationships in which we are entangled? What are the conditions that render us ‘of this world’?

It seems to me that the current debate about the ghetto-isolation of disability artists could benefit from Haraway’s relational thinking, along with that of other feminist writing. The question arises whether our current perceptions of power and control can still hold. Redefining human beings and their environment creates possibilities for co-intelligence, respectfully shared information and multiple complexities. Such a non-anthropocentric worldview not only frees ‘others’ on the axes of gender, race, class, sexuality and age but also disadvantaged ‘others’ from an ableist perspective. It liberates them from a modernist discourse that is now believed to be fundamental to all practices of ‘othering’. Many voices of difference have emerged from beyond the former dividing line, contributing to the replacement of the rational knowing and controlling subject and universal mind by multiple minds, subjects and knowledges reflecting various social locations and histories. Feminism, queer studies, critical race studies and disability studies brought the often artificially constructed modern/postmodern debate into lived reality. A Haraway-induced approach – embracing asymmetrical relations between humans, and between human and nonhuman entities, by means of redefining curiosity – may help to escape the last remaining forms of dichotomy: labels, boxes and categories such as ‘sick and well’, ‘able and disabled’, ‘normal and abnormal’.

With the recent cracking of genetic codes creating the possibility of genetic manipulation, a future lies ahead of us in which medical technology and genetic engineering will have advanced to such a point that bodies can be ‘adjusted’ before birth, or treated and cured after birth, so that disability becomes obsolete. This implies, however, that the dualistic medical model will dictate our worldview more than ever before. Even in ‘medically advanced’ futuristic societies, where disability and mental illness as physical conditions may ultimately be eradicated, disability will continue to exist. How can this happen? To explain it, we need to understand how the medical model permeates our value system and how the social model of disability is constructed on top of it. The social constructivist model explains disability or brain difference as more than a physical impairment, more than a curable or treatable medical condition. Rather, it approaches disability as a socially created and culturally perpetuated phenomenon. Science Fiction films like Blade Runner (1982), Gattaca (1997) and The Matrix (1999) present what at first glance seem to be postmodern worlds populated largely by cyborgs or genetically engineered bodies, where disability appears to have been eradicated. Closer consideration, however, shows that disability as a social construct continues to dominate. Even the notion of (medical) ‘cure’ is constructed. Disability or brain difference – in the metaphorical if not physical sense – are still present in the utopias of the future. According to Johnson Cheu, writer and disability activist, social stigmas such as being unfit, subhuman or inferior show the permanency of disability and/or neurological difference as a social construct (2). In Gattaca, the concept of the gene as a commodity points to how the ‘class’ system is created within this version of utopia, and to how the idea of disability as a social stigma persists. Here, the genetically manipulated beings are considered ‘normal’. Naturally conceived humans are stigmatised and belong to a socio-economic underclass. Thus a world is constructed with ‘valids’ (genetically manipulated) and ‘in-valids’ or, as they are referred to in the movie, ‘de-gene-erates’ (naturally conceived).

In fact, films like Gattaca and The Matrix are not so far removed from our high-tech, cyborgian and computer-interfaced society, which is already fully informed by an extraordinary symbiosis between humans and machines. Haraway introduced the term ‘cyber’ in A Cyborg Manifesto, and the word since seems to have come to define the style of both science fiction and theoretical essays, not to mention the many manifestos and declarations that have emerged since the mid-1980s. If we characterise a cyborg as a self-regulating organism that combines the natural and artificial in a single system, most of us could live up to that definition today. If you have been technologically modified in any significant way – from having a pacemaker implanted to receiving a vaccination that reprogrammed your immune system – then you are unquestionably a cyborg. Genetic engineering is just another step in our biotechnological development that cannot be stopped. Depending on their geographical and economic circumstances, persons with disabilities and/or neurological differences have the choice to impact upon their lives by willingly accepting implants or prostheses or even by being injected with genetically manipulated cells. One of the first and most famous advocates of intimate cyborgisations was the actor Christopher Reeve, who became quadriplegic after falling off his horse but who refused to accept his new body identity. Reeve catalysed the unification of most of the patient groups in the United States who focus on paraplegia and other spinal-cord injuries. They have become a unified front of ‘invalid cyborgs’, predicting that science will master the reconstruction of the spinal cord within 30 years. Many such medical modifications are already part of mainstream surgical interventions: the artificial heart, natural transplants of ‘solid organs’, xenotransplants (transplants between animals and humans), but also cyborgian interventions on the foetus during pregnancy, labour and delivery, or programming of the immune systems of newborns, which are often not without risks.

Some human-computer interfaces have even come close to the virtual world envisioned in The Matrix: medical devices connect directly to the human brain, spinal cord or nerves. Sensory and motor prostheses, but also neurological prostheses to disrupt unwanted brain activity within different neurological diseases – for instance the vagus-nerve stimulator preventing epileptic seizures – are ready to be used. ‘Microelectric arrays’ are being developed, devices that ‘interact’ independently with a large number of nerve cells, and even microchips that use chemicals to stimulate neurons in combination with electric pulses, are soon to be released on the market. New types of neuroprosthetics are on their way: vision prostheses for the blind, cochlear implants, brain-computer interfaces for the paralysed, enabling them to use their brains instead of their muscles to communicate directly with a computer, thus controlling their environment. In fact, if governmental regulations placed less effective barriers, and device-reimbursement policies actually accounted better for long-term economic benefits than is the case today, William Gibson’s cyberspace of vast computer networks accessible through direct human-computer interfaces as described in Neuromancer (1984) could perhaps become reality even more rapidly (3).

For many people, being cyborged is empowering. While choosing a cyborg existence makes them more dependent on machines and on advancing technology, it nonetheless gives them in return more independence in everyday life. This dynamic of independence through dependence is a key factor behind the growing disability rights movement and disability studies in general. Especially as it is also possible to rethink the concept of dependence versus independence notonly in relation to machines, but also in relation to the subjects themselves. A postmodern, high-tech and cyborgian society thus brings about its own paradigm: rather than maintaining the independence–dependence dichotomy, where independence remains an individualised quality, with related essentialist views of the subject, the possibility of self-hood is reinterpreted in the light of expanded identity. Instead of modernity’s emphasis on the individual, poststructuralist critiques indicate a turn to the public, and to signifying activities of collectivities of subjects. Within disability studies, the subject is considered no longer ‘the solipsistic subject that constitutes through its faculty of reason, transcendental apprehension, self-consciousness and independence’ but a ‘situated, enlarged subject – the subject as a social movement – where interdependence is crucial to the formation of notions of autonomy evident in self-actualisation and self-advocacy, to name but two areas of disabling and enabling social life’.(4)

In the late 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault devised the concept of ‘biopolitics’, using it to refer to the whole complex of agreements, narratives and modes of conduct by which we ‘govern’ ourselves, with life itself as the central object of concern. Developments in biotechnology have meant that this life has become commodified down to its tiniest molecule, with implications that even Foucault couldn’t have foreseen. Although recent research in the field of genetics has shown that variety is the norm as far as our genes are concerned, it would seem that the collective pursuit of ‘normality’ has become more stubborn than ever. Is it possible for people who cannot or will not conform to the requirements of the current cult of ‘perfection = normal’ to escape this trend? Suppose we are no longer willing to sacrifice our lives to targets and utility. How do norm and difference operate in everyday life – at work or in relationships? And with what dual agenda is technology developed to obtain these goals? Are we still capable of thinking outside the box, beyond the labels that reduce others to brand names, complete with price tag and shelf-life? What effect does all this have on us?

Niet Normaal · Difference on Display, a visual art exhibition of biennial proportions – which I initially conceptualised and curated for the Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, in 2009–10, and which is currently touring in Europe and due to arrive at Bluecoat, FACT and the Walker Art Centre in Liverpool in the summer of 2012 – touches on all of these issues. It poses the question of what is normal and considers from a variety of angles who determines its definition. The exhibition comprises existing and specially commissioned works by internationally acknowledged contemporary artists and designers and is accompanied by an extensive parallel programme including screenings of documentary and feature films. All of the participating artists have either experienced disability in their own lives or have worked extensively and intelligently around disability-related issues – which, to reiterate the premise of Niet Normaal, are issues of concern to us all as human beings. Artists and academics were invited to reflect on the theme of ‘norm and difference’. How is normality constructed? What effects does striving for perfection as a norm have? Are there alternatives to the way we look at ourselves and at others? What can we learn from people who are marginalised by standardisation and levelling? Can one actually speak of divisions between abled and disabled bodies, of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, as our western tradition would have it? The exhibition deploys three perspectives – perfectibility and perfection, norm and difference as commodity and the relationship between people and technology – to open up these issues to a larger public. A fourth perspective, considering practices of democracy, has been added to the accompanying publication, Difference on Display (5).                      

The works selected or commissioned for Niet Normaal · Difference on Display touch on the most important reason for organising the exhibition – the broadening of horizons and especially those of our own perceptions. It is an aim that also explains the decision to organize an art event over another kind of event: works of art allow for unexpected relations and associations to emerge that add to the meaning to the work as well as to the perception, engagement and agency of the makers and viewers. Artists are often capable of viewing the world in ways that differ from the standard perspective, and of communicating these convincingly in unique forms. Curiosity and a longing for the unknown have precedence over certainty and security. Furthermore, artists take responsibility for whatever might be revealed through their art. In this sense, the work is more than merely a self-enclosed object. Works of art respond; they are informed and have a will of their own. Artists lend their output ‘subject status’; they retreat a step in order to give the work the chance to engage in dialogue with the viewer, facilitating the formation of meanings beyond their own control. An art work is therefore never truly complete until it comes to life through its relationship with the spectator. It is precisely these heterologous and asymmetrical relations that Niet Normaal aims for. Works of art, performative texts such as Haraway’s, and disability discourse in its boldest form are mutually complementary and aim for the same cause: to overcome ghettoisation and to embrace agency through difference.

Here are some quotes, taken from both art professionals and disability activists, regarding Niet Normaal · Difference on Display.

Joseph Grigely, visual artist and disability activist:
Niet Normaal is rich and layered. Rather than answer its own question, Niet Normaal complicates the issue, which is not disability as such, but a continuum of difference that is irreducible to any one individual or work of art. Niet Normaal addresses a general narrowing of bandwidths, aesthetically as well as socially. It has the potential to promote the development of a new, broader aesthetics, one that incorporates many ways of being different. The exhibition generates knowledge then translates that knowledge into a lived reality between people. One of Niet Normaal’s principle strengths, then, is its resistance to reproducing a separation of minds, moving beyond us and them to deal with a we instead.’
Fulya Erdemci, director of SKOR, Netherlands:

‘The way Niet Normaal offers diversity on a range of different platforms and levels is inspiring, and may be summed up in two words: plurality and polyphony. Its central question is thought-provoking, as is the design of the exhibition space itself, with its organic, flowing lines suggesting a non-rational approach to the work. Niet Normaal breaks with established exhibition practices, both in terms of spatial arrangement and in composition.’ 

Okwui Enwezor, former artistic director of Documenta XI:
Niet Normaal cannot be reduced to the sum of its component works. The exhibition speaks a clear and distinctive language of its own, not only focusing on structures of difference and control, but providing visitors with the tools to process the matter. Niet Normaal shows that well-known works of art may sometimes develop blind spots that go unnoticed when viewed in their usual context. Niet Normaal offers useful alternative perspectives, bringing to light dynamics that previously may have been overlooked. The baggage Niet Normaal carries lies in its productive potential. The exhibition should be viewed as a processor of different readings, and of reading differently.’

Footnotes

  1. Donna Haraway, ‘Abled Bodies and Companion Species’, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, 2008
  2. Johnson Cheu, ‘The Threat to Extinction’, Niet Normaal · Difference on Display, ed. Ine Gevers, Nai Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009 
  3. William Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace Books, New York, 1984
  4. Dan Goodley and Griet Roets, ‘Travellers in Uncivilised Society’, Niet Normaal · Difference on Display, ed. Ine Gevers, Nai Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009
  5. Niet Normaal · Difference on Display, ed. Ine Gevers, Nai Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009