Perceptions of bodies, physical pain, prejudice, religious art and representation. Those are a few of the topics that Claire Cunningham explores in her performances. Coming from a background as a trained classical singer she took up dancing after realizing she didn’t really know how to get a job as a musician. Meeting choreographer Jess Curtis made her realize that the way she navigates the world with her crutches had helped her form her own way of moving and a unique physical language. Based in Glasgow, she now works and tours internationally with her own pieces, as well as collaborations. Lisa Carlsson met Cunningham for a talk about crip theory, the beauty of awkwardness and taking responsability for an entire community as a disabled artist.
After your last performance in Stockholm, ”Give me a reason to live”, you talked about crip theory, let’s talk a bit about that.
I haven’t read crip theory in itself but I’ve been introduced to it. I started becoming more aware of different ways of looking at disabilities other than the medical model. The social model became an eye opener for me. Taking the blame away from the body. Seeing that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the person, that it is society and environment that disables a person. I gained an understanding at least, of what that is. And it lines up with things that I’ve become more interested in in my art anyway. The eliptical experience of disability and an interest of cripping things. How you can shift your view on things and a cripping of things out of necessity and a statement as well. I met Carrie Sandahl, an academic in crip theory from Chicago, who studies theatre practises. She talks about crip time, and it was one of those moments of understanding something that I was aware of and was looking at in my work. But I had never heard of the concept before. I’ve been explaining it to people around me my whole life, the fact that disability also creates a different relationship with time. It was wonderful to hear somebody articulate that and understand that there are manifestations of it outside you in everydays life. My own understanding of crip time is for example how long it takes me to walk somewhere. That’s a thing that comes up a lot. People say ”It’s a five minute walk” and that’s not actually useful for me. Your five minutes are not my five minutes and even people who aren’t gonna identify as disabled have different five minute walks. The element of terrain affects that and so people that know me know how to explain distance differently. If you visually show me, it’s from here to there times two.
It’s really interesting that it came from you or that it’s things that you’ve already been thinking about in your own ways. I think that’s why I became a feminist, there were things there that I’ve felt since I was child but never had any words for.
It’s part of building yourself together and straighten things out.
You talked earlier about feeling that your body not beeing feminine before, has that changed and why?
It changed and it keeps changing. It’s not a word that I have a great deal of kinship with. I’ll always struggle with notions of femininity and I think I share that with a lot of people. I’ve always blamed the struggle on my disablility and I think it’s a large part of it. There are things that have been quite damaged by my relationship with disability and questions about gender and feminitiy are smuthered by it. I chose to sort of push the feelings about feminity away to be able to reconcile my identity with disablility. Of course that keep changing as well and it’s never really resolved. I think it’s something that just now is surfaceing and the two can sort of extract from each other.
As a child and a teenager, being viewed from the lense of disability and particularly being viewed in a medical context most of my childhood suppressed any notions of gender. I felt neutralized by that. And we’re all inundated with the media representations of femininity and having this extreme upper body strenght doesn’t combine with that image at all. But I’ve always had this fascination with awkwardness and elegance. These seemingly opposing qualities.
I’ve worked with Bill Shannon, a disabled artist in the States, and those are things that he looks at in his work. Awkwardness and elegance. That stayed with me and I kind of recognize it in my work. When I first began to work in theatre, I was interviewed by a theatre director and I read a text, a monologue, that says ”I can never be elegant, I can never move elegantly but I can sing. So don’t look at me, just listen” And it was very much that thing that I couldn’t connect the idea that my body could associate with beauty, but I could sing. That was my way of attaining that. I began to work in movement, without realizing that it’s the core in my work. The fascination between awkwardness of elegance and the elegance of awkwardness. Something that came up recently, that I became to question a bit, is that I don’t experience the abuse that women get daily. I rarely get that. Sometimes, obviously since I am a woman and have a pulse therefore I’ve experienced harrassment from men. But part of that made me question my experience as a woman since I don’t get that. It’s a horrific thing to put out there and voice, because does it sound like I want that? Part of identifying as a woman is to be objectified as a woman and since I don’t get objectified in that way, is that part of what makes me not feel like a woman? Historically I’ve been identifying as a neutral being but how much of that is me and how much of it is me responding to how I was being treated by others? Or maybe it’s been there for a while but I haven’t been voicing that because it’s such a horrible thing to say because I don’t want that.
That’s what we’ve been taught. But it’s so shameful to talk about it. I’ve just realized that the last year maybe, men don’t look at me the way they used to. And i used to hate it but now i miss it. And I felt so ashamed about that. It’s not something I can say out loud because I don’t agree with it.
It all informs the conversation, you can’t just talk about it from one place. And it’s not condoning it to point it out that it affects your behaviour when it’s there and when it’s not there. It’s almost like you’re a traitor if you talk about it. But it’s ok.
What does your process look like?
Every piece has been different, none of them follow the same process. And it’s alway terrifying because I thought I worked in a different way. There are some things that i can recognize. Most of the time I need space on my own up ’til a point and then I need to work with others and destroy everything that I’ve made. And there are certain things that I always need in terms of time and space. There’s always the question of where I have become comfortable as an artist. I always want to push out of that and see what the discomfort is, then go in to it. That’s why the process always look different. ”Give me a reason to live” was the first time I went to much deeper notions of physically exploring a concept. At first, it was like what does that make me feel about my previous work? But that’s ok it’s just different. This was much more satisfying. Give me a reason to belive was my first peice were I didn’t speak and that forced me to work deeper physically.
Is the difference between representing and embodying, is that something within you or is that something that the audience can see and feel as well?
It’s more within me, I think. Before the moves was representing something and was more gestural then. The choice to go deeper in to the movements made me understand where more abstract movement comes from and the full potential that movement offer. But it’s also the choice to let go of specific meaning and of understanding. People might read things that you don’t want them to read into the piece. It was a real fear when I was making it, because I’m showing physical struggle and pain. There’s a real difficulty, particularly because my work travel a lot and taking that peice to countries were disabililties are still viewed negatively, and I might enforce that. I don’t want make work that doesn’t ever reinforce negative stereotypes. But then I just had to think ”ok this is the right movement for the piece” and I have to accept that some people will read it that way but I have to believe that the concept as a whole is gonna work in a sense that doesn’t do that. It was a risk to do that but I also began to realize that the audience is different people as well and not this anonymus blob. They all arrive with different experiences and different histories and they will see different things in it. It’s hard but i have to trust my choices as an artist.
For me as a writer it’s difficult to trust the reader and it must be the same way with an audience.
Yes, it’s difficult to trust that they won’t take a piece of your writing out of context and you have to trust that you put all the checks and balances around it and control like ”What is the show and what is the media that goes around it? There’s a lot that goes on around disabled artists that has to do with monitoring how you’re being portrayed that artists that aren’t disabled doesn’t have to deal with in the same way. I guess it’s also a sense of responsibility that you end up having to take for a wider community sometimes. It works both ways, the worry of being seen to speak for or represent a whole bunch of people that are completely different from you in every single way but also accepting that responsibility when you can and find it appropriate. There’s a difference between when people designate you to represent a group of people and when you decide to do it.
It’s such a luxury not to have to think about responsibility that seems to be reserved for white straight cis gendered men.
Yes, they rarely have to think about the context in which they work unless somebody points out something that is problematic about their work. Just the act of being on stage is political for me and for some people and in some places. And I always have to think about that. Men don’t have to do that. Being a woman as well that brings another level to it. Also, nobody else has to deal with this shit. We are the ones that are left to cover all of those issues and still doing the work that we do. Some people will be angry at you. Nobody wants to exclude people. The exhaustion of that responsibility is not something that other artists have to consider. It’s usually left to disabled people to solve. That exhaustion eventuelly wear people down. Explaining what you need, why you need things and why you are the way you are. And eventually people stop doing that and become invisible. That’s just the cycle of people being marginalized. You have to meet people were they are. Disabled people are not just gonna turn up. If you suddenly put up a ramp or interperet all your shows in sign language, people aren’t magically gonna show up. Becasue they’ve never been welcome before. It’s about belonging and being welcomed. And the fact that people have been made to feel like they belong in those places. So you have to go where they are and invite them. People say that people can come here if they wanted to but why would they if they’ve never felt safe or welcome before.
Have you ever tried to teach other dancers to dance with crutches?
I’ve only made one piece that included crutches for other dancers, it was a piece called Twelve.
I’ve never found a reason that is justifiable to me to put people that don’t need them on crutches. I could give crutches to other dancers and teach them movements but that don’t interest me at all. It wouldn’t have the same integrity of movement because they don’t need them. I would never say never, I might do that in the future but I haven’t found a reason to yet. But in that piece Twelve there were two dancers who did use crutches and I taught them some of my vocabulary. It was a small part in a much bigger context. I would like to make something for other people that do use crutches because it’s a much bigger investment in the object and a different investment in weight and gravity. There’s a different understandning of were your core is. I have so many different ways of relating and using my crutches but I’ve only recently started noticing that other people using their crutches in different ways. Like ”Oh that’s interesting, I would’ve never picked up my crutches like that.”
I’ve been taking this apart recently. It started with me reading a paper written by Julia Watts Belser, who’s a jewish scholar and crip theorist in the States. She’s written an article about queer anomacy. I rembered reading it in a coffee shop and I just started crying because somebody actually wrote down something that I’ve been feeling for a long time. And now that I’m certainly set with queerness which I wasn’t before. The U.K queer scene is strongly related to sexuality and gender and I didn’t really relate to that. But when I read Watts Belser I felt that OMG this is what it is! I have this strange relationship to these objects that is so strong and intimate. I recognize that I’ve begun to talk about my crutches having a liveness. That comes from when I started to dance and I started using contact imporvisation technique. I hade no one to dance with. I was in the studio on my own and I made them in to people. I created a way to work with them through giving and recieving weight. And I look at the way I work with them and a realize that the way I pick them up and handle them in a very different way to other objects. And that is starting to make sense to me. Also, she’s talking about the queerness of physicality. So you develop these queer bodies And the question of not feeling feminine, it began to connect to something as well. Some things are starting to make sense to me. Queer anomacy. It’s really fascinating to think about. I have colleagues that don’t identify as he or she and I’ve always thought you know ”oh that’s fine” but I never actually understood it until I started thinking about how I relate to my crutches. There is a sort of theyness to me as well, if that make sense? I’m always one of three, me and the crutches.
I have a new project. Or I started doing this research, I’m not sure about what it’s going to be yet. I’ve started taking short walks with people. So far I’ve been doing it with people that also identify as disabled. And I’ve been trying different ways to document these walks, like recording them, I don’t know how it will manifest itself. But it’s conversations about how we negotiate space and time. In Stockholm I went for a walk with Christine Bylund who’s a disabled writer and academic. Many things came up while talking to her. Architecthure is one of her things and as a disabled person, she brought up this really fascinating aspect of it.
She noticed that there’s this intersection between were disabled people travel and homeless people live. The ways I have to go to axess places are often places where homeless people sleep. So there’s always traces of these people having been there but never at the same time. The elevators and the flat access to buildings that are often in the back of buildings so there’s this weird intersection of these to communitites that doesn’t generally seem to be connected that are, in fact, unintentionally connect.
I mentioned this to a friend of mine and he was saying that that’s exactly what a friend of his, who’s a disabled person, experience. She walks down the street and talks to every homeless person she meets because she feels a kindered spirit and connection and with them and the way that they are being looked at or not looked at. It’s the same way that people stare at her or try to look away and not aknowledge that she exist because she makes people uncomfortable with the way she moves and looks. Christine also pointed out that quite often the queer communities go to the most inaccessable places, the deepest darkest places, like basements, to create a safe space. That excludes the queerness of disability. For us the most accessible places are the super normative, like Starbucks and chain hotels. So there’s such a weird contrast that you are sort of not welcome in those enviroments but thery’re the most accessible because of capitalism. And the other spaces are the furthest away places you can find.
It’s interesting that you walk and talk since languague and movement is so closely connected. Was that a concsious decision?
We talk differently when we move. It leaves a lot more room for space because you take time to be in your surroundings. You don’t have to fill the space with talk. That thing of just keeping quiet and not having someone waiting for them to talk. So people tend to reach deeper. And also the possibility to recognize different paces and things that you do. And how people are behaving to us as we try to move and navigate. And I’m interested in being in that mood of noticing what we notice. And asking do you know that you did this just now, how come you do that? By putting us in an environment where we have to do this. It brings out fascinating conversations.